31 March 2012

A Familiar Face

I think it's safe to say that most people enjoy the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Even my mother, who doesn't watch many movies at all, watches Hitchcock movies. It's not that suprising, really. He was successful for the same reason that writers like Stephen King are successful: their first priority is to entertain. Hitch knew how to hook viewers right away and keep them interested throughout the story.

Holding us Spellbound

For those of us who love his work rather than merely like it, there's a little bonus we get with every film. For some reason--probably egotistic--the Master Director himself appears on screen, for just a moment, in almost every one. In some of his movies you never know where the cameos might pop up; in the later ones, though, he decided to restrict most of those surprise appearances to the first few minutes of the film. Why? Because moviegoers had learned to watch for them. Hitchcock--always the professional--didn't want anyone to be distracted from the story, and if the cameo happened early, alert viewers could get it out of the way and direct their undivided attention to the plot.

I heard or read someplace that one Hitchcock documentary (a DVD bonus feature) mentioned plans for a cameo where Hitch and a deaf woman are walking down the street, and he says something to her using sign language and she slaps him in the face. I've watched most of those "special feature" documentaries on Hitch and his movies, and so far I haven't seen the one that talks about this--but I love the idea.

To Spot a Director

Anyhow, here's a recap of the fifteen most recent Hitchcock cameos. I started with 1954 for a couple of reasons: (1) I don't want to go all the way back to the late twenties, and (2) '54 was the year that two of my favorite Hitchcock films were released (I couldn't ignore those).

See how many of these Hitch "pop-ups" you remember . . .

Rear Window (1954) -- He's winding a clock in the songwriter's apartment, seen of course from Jimmy Stewart's window. The songwriter, who's playing the piano at the time, is real-life composer Ross Bagdasarian, Jr.

Dial M for Murder (1954) -- My favorite of all his cameos. He appears in a framed photo of Ray Milland's class reunion, sitting in a tuxedo at a table with Milland, Anthony Dawson, and others.

To Catch a Thief (1955) -- He's sitting beside and to the left of Cary Grant on the rear seat of a bus. Grant gives him a curious look, but Hitch stares straight ahead and neither of them says a word. On the seat to Grant's right is an old woman and a cage that contains two fluttering birds.

The Trouble With Harry (1955) -- One of the hardest cameos to spot. He's seen through a window, walking in a tan overcoat down a rural lane past a parked limousine. The old man who owns the limo is studying an outdoor exhibition of artwork while his driver waits beside the car.

The Wrong Man (1956) -- He is seen only in silhouette, while narrating the film's prologue. This probably shouldn't be counted as a cameo; according to a biography by Donald Spoto, Hitch chose to make an actual appearance rather than a cameo because this movie, unlike his others, was a true story.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) -- He walks up and joins a crowd watching acrobats in a Moroccan marketplace. He's facing away from the audience and standing several feet away from Doris Day and The Man Who Would Soon Know Too Much.

Vertigo (1958) -- He's walking down a city sidewalk wearing a dark suit and carrying a black trumpet case.

North by Northwest (1959) -- During the opening title sequence, he rushes to a catch a bus but just misses it--it closes its door and leaves him standing at the curb.

Psycho (1960) -- He's seen standing on a Phoenix sidewalk outside Janet Leigh's office window as she opens the door and walks in. He's wearing what looks like a cowboy hat.

The Birds (1963) -- He's leaving a San Francisco pet shop with two white dogs on a leash as Tippi Hedren enters it. Moments later she meets Rod Taylor there in the shop, and the plot is afoot.

Marnie (1964) -- He steps into a hotel hallway after Tippi Hedren and a bellboy walk past. He looks at them a moment, then turns and stares straight into the camera.

Torn Curtain (1966) -- He's sitting in a hotel lobby balancing a baby boy on his right knee, and after several seconds picks the boy up and shifts him over to his left knee.

Topaz (1969) -- My second-favorite cameo. He's in an airport being pushed in a wheelchair by a lady in a nurse's uniform, and suddenly he stands up from the chair, shakes hands with a man in a dark suit, and walks away.

Frenzy (1972) -- He's in the middle of a crowd, wearing a black hat and listening to a speech, and is the only person not applauding. A minute or so later, he's shown in a crowd again, standing next to a man with a gray beard.

Family Plot (1976) -- He's seen in silhouette on the other side of a door, talking with--and gesturing to--another man.

And remember, that was less than half of them. In all, I'm told Hitchcock made 36 cameo appearances--37 if you count the opening of The Wrong Man--in his fifty years of directing.

Dial T for Trivia

For anyone who's interested, here are some useless facts involving Hitchcock cameos:

In many of them--at least ten--he was just walking through the scene, and in several (Spellbound, The Paradine Case, Strangers on a Train, and Vertigo) he was carrying cases for musical instruments.

At least three cameos (Rope, Lifeboat, and Dial M for Murder) are especially interesting because most of the filming for each was limited to a single location, which also limited the opportunity for Hitch to "appear." I've already mentioned Dial M; the cameo in Rope was a through-the-window glimpse of him strolling in the street below and the one in Lifeboat was a newspaper ad showing "before and after" photos for a product called Reduco Obesity Slayer.

He had two cameos each in five of his movies: Suspicion, Rope, The Lodger, Frenzy, and Under Capricorn.

Don't forget TV: In an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents--"A Dip in the Pool"--Hitchcock is shown on the cover of a magazine being read by Philip Bourneuf.

Back from the dead: In Psycho II (1983), when Tony Perkins and Meg Tilly enter "Mother's" bedroom, Hitch's silhouette can be seen in shadow on the wall just before they turn on the lights. (He passed away in 1980.)

The Trouble With Copycats

I think it's fun anytime I see directors appear in cameos in their own movies--Rob Reiner, M. Night Shyamalan, Ron Howard, John Carpenter, Sir Richard Attenborough, Oliver Stone, etc.--but I never see them without thinking of Hitchcock. And I usually enjoy the cameos more when they're very brief. If they're too long, they start calling too much attention to themselves.

One of my favorites is Roman Polanski as a thug with a switchblade in Chinatown--he's the one who causes Jack Nicholson to walk around for half the movie with a bandage on his nose. The cameo isn't short (although Polanski is), but I enjoyed it anyway. It's certainly memorable.

Even so . . . he's no Alfred Hitchcock.

30 March 2012

the Sixth Sense

by R.T. Lawton

Those who have lived on the edge and survived can probably tell you about times when their brain tingled or they had that "certain feeling." All of us are aware of the first five senses we use on a daily basis for everyday living, but what about that sixth sense, the one that tells us something is about to happen? Have you felt it? Was it correct? How did it affect your next actions?

My Mother often had premonitions. Naturally, the ones I heard the most about dealt with me getting into some kind of future trouble. In later years, I came to think the warnings she got from her premonitions had more to do with her neighborhood intelligence system of other mothers who kept track of the local kids, especially those boys most likely to indulge in some type of frowned upon behavior, plus whether or not the "good" kids were mixing with the "others." So no, in that case I don't really believe my Mother was fey, she merely had a good data base from which to project good possibilities. Now her full blood Prussian mother on the other hand was someone not to trifle with when it came to superstitions and premonitions.

But perhaps we should differentiate between "getting a feeling" those times when the brain has other information to input from your surroundings as opposed to the circumstances of "getting that feeling" out of the clear blue nothingness. To use an analogy from modern sci-fi movie culture, let's define the latter as a "disturbance in the Force." I choose this analogy not to trivialize the subject, but rather as the simplest concept for explanation.

Llet's say you are in a squad of armed men patrolling in the mountain jungle several klicks from base camp. Your point man, the troop most experienced in booby traps and the ways of your enemy, leads your squad down into a valley with tall bamboo growth on both sides of the trail. The path is faint with no recent tracks from boots or other footwear, but it is known that other people have used this trail in the past. There are no obvious signs of mismatched dirt where the earth may have been dug up and a mine planted, and there are no patches of fallen vegetation which might conceal a punji pit or other booby trap. No wires found to trip a claymore mine, nor to slide a grenade, with its pin already pulled, out of the open end of a tin can tied to the base of a tree along the trail. Nothing at all to indicate that the enemy is waiting ahead to ambush you in the valley. Yet, your point man suddenly raises one fist and freezes like a statue.

Why? More than likely, his brain has been fed other information. Those living on the edge get spurts of adrenaline that make them super aware of their surroundings. They have also acquired habits of noticing the things that matter to their survival. Their ears become attuned to certain sounds, or the lack thereof. Their eyes tend to recognize patterns that aren't quite the way they should be. Sometimes, their sense of smell becomes more acute. And, their brains compute faster.

It could be that your point man has noted the sudden lack of animal or bird sounds in the landscape ahead. Maybe he smelled the enemy. There were those in Nam who said they could sometimes detect the aroma of rank fish sauce emenating from the enemy's sweat. Of course that can work both ways. In the Cav, we were told which soaps to use so as not to leave a distinctive odor on ourselves for the enemy to smell.

Whatever it was that tingled the brain of your point man, he feels that something is not right in this valley. He backs your squad away. Is this a matter of his sixth sense kicking in? I think so, but I also believe this is one of those situations where the man's super awareness of his surroundings may have fed other barely noticeable, minute information to his brain, and his brain alerted him to a danger ahead. He may not consciously know what that warning information consisted of or where it came from. And then again, he may have sensed a "disturbance."

As for the "disturbance in the Force" type of sixth sense, I don't know that I can explain why it happens. It's like a thought or strong emotion has been pushed through the air and the person on the other end feels a presence is there. Can just anyone pick up on this disturbance if the thought or emotion is directed at him or her? Maybe, if they are in the right state of mind and their brain is not distracted by something else. I do believe that those with their brains amped up from living on the edge are more attuned to detecting these disturbances, or whatever you want to call them. Several times in my working days, I had the distinct feeling of being stared at, turned suddenly and found a person from one of my cases, or a person who had developed an interest in me. Most occured at close range, such as inside a bar or restaurant, or across the street. At least once from a block away. It's an eerie feeling, but better to have it than to walk blindly into something.

In suspense, thriller and horror novels, you sometimes read about hair standing up on the back of the neck of one of the story characters when he feels he is being watched, or he feels something dangerous is about to happen. To me, that can be a real situation, but it has never been the hair standing up, it has always been the slight tingle in my brain.

What about you? Have you experienced the Sixth Sense? Or are you a skeptic? Me? I'm a partial skeptic because of all the frauds out there who use tricks of one kind or another in order to claim they have "special powers." I only believe in the parts I've experienced myself. That's all anecdotal evidence, but if you want a more scientific explanation, then see what modern psychology researchers have discovered recently in controlled tests : http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200007/is-there-sixth-sense

29 March 2012

Your South Dakota Correspondent

by Eve Fisher

Hello, all SleuthSayers!  

I'm Eve Fisher, new contributor and correspondent from South Dakota.  Not that I'm from around here.  Actually,  I've never been from "around here," wherever "here" was - I was adopted at three from Athens, Greece, and I have moved a lot since then.
I've lived on both coasts, spent almost two decades in the South (Kentucky, Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina), and I currently live in small town South Dakota, along with my husband, my cat, and (at last count) five thousand books.  (So many books, so little time...)  And, along the way, I've been to almost every state in America, including every national/state park, monument, giant ball of string and iguana farm west of the Mississippi.  I even stayed (as a child) in the teepee motel on Route 66!

I've had a lot of variety in my working life, too, ranging from an early job as a part-time clerk in a seedy corner market in Atlanta (where I was the only woman to work there who wasn't robbed or shot - more on that another time), to teaching history at the university level in Brookings, SD.   I've worked for ballet companies, lawyers, CPAs, pizza places (I make a great pizza dough), judges, fabric stores, and for quite a while I was the circuit administrator for one of the South Dakota judicial circuits, which enlarged my acquaintance considerably on both sides of the law (more on that another time, too).  

I primarily write mysteries, some fantasy/sci-fi, and primarily short stories.  I’ve been fortunate enough to have had many publications in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine - I'm in the May issue along with Rob Lopresti, R. T. Lawton, and many others.  Honored as always, both to be published and to be in great company!  You can find all of my published stories (or links thereto) at my website at http://evefishermysteries.wikispaces.com/ 

So, having said all of that...  
Almost all of my writing -  no, I'd say all of my writing starts with either a character or a place that takes over my mind.  
For example, I was sitting in a local restaurant, where a (locally) well known and well-respected couple who shall be nameless walked in as the restaurant phone rang.  The man turned to his wife and said, "I'll bet that's for you.  I wish I had my gun, I'd shoot it."  Well, that sparked "The Lagoon".

My story "At the End of the Path", a strange mix of mystery and fantasy, is set in a half a mile long path between ordered rows of pine trees at our local state park, a path set high up on a ridge, planted a very long time ago, by persons unknown, a path somewhere between a refuge and a haunting, and the light draws you on and on until the very end.  
Then there's "Not the Type", which is based - only partly! - on a real incident, decades ago, where a girlfriend and I ran into an old boyfriend of mine and his new wife.  She took one look at me and decided that my girlfriend was the one he'd dated, and acted accordingly.  Not necessarily a good idea. 
And "Drifts", one of my personal favorites, which...  well the cover says it all:  "Winter is a season, a menace, a playground, and a weapon."

Anyway, it's great to be part of SleuthSayers.  Next time I'll share some scenes behind the scenes, or whatever curious incidents come up.  Speaking of incidents, did I mention that a couple of months ago we had a premeditated murder in our nice small town?  All because of an incident in the locker room in high school almost fifty years back:  Resentments really can kill you.  
More later,

28 March 2012

Department of Lost Stories

by Robert Lopresti
Tin Foil Hat Area by sictransitdiesoccident
illustration by sictransitdiesoccident

I am writing this piece for purely selfish reasons but, who knows?  Maybe we can perform a public service here if we get enough participation going.

Have you ever remembered a favorite short story, one you were crazy about, but you realize you can't pull up the author or title?  That drives me nuts.  So this is your chance to help me regain my sanity.  I will describe four stories (no spoilers).  If any of them sound familiar, let me know.  And if YOU are missing any great stories put that in the comments as well (again, no spoilers, please)

If Blogger rejects your comments please send them to me at lopresti AT nas DOT com

Here we go.  The titles below are just place holders; I don't know what the real titles were.

1. Tin Foil Hat.   A paranoid gentleman prepares for his day, wrapping his torso in plastic wrap to avoid germs, putting fresh tinfoil in his hat, etc.  He goes for a stroll and gets into an argument with a security guard in front of an office building, with tragic results.  Then we see the events from the viewpoint of the people in the building, which gives us a different perspective.

I thought this story was by  Lawrence Block.  It certainly feels like his kind of piece. But I recently wrote to him and he agreed that it was a good idea, but it was someone else's.

"My Life Is A Soap Opera" by ddpool
illustration by ddpool

2.  Soap Opera.  An actress is about to be written out of a soap opera.  She saves her job by committing -- well, I don't know a name for the crime she commits.  It is that unique.

I think this was in Ellery Queen in the 1980s.

6-20-07 bird shell in nest by nawtydawg 
illustration by nawtydawg
3.  Bird reincarnation.  A man wakes up and realizes he has been reincarnated as a bird and is literally coming out of his shell.  Yes, it's a crime story.

I think I read this in Alfred Hitchcock around 1970.

Carlsad Inn Beach Resort Pool by ResorTime.comillustration by ResorTime.com
4.  Resort love triangle.  I have to be really vague to keep from giving spoilers.  It is a love triangle that ends in murder.  In the last paragraph you find out what sort of institution the people are living in and that changes your perspective.

Again, Hitchcock around 1970.

Any clues?  Any vague bells tinkling?  Any stories of your own to add?

27 March 2012

Gone South III -- Play Ball!

Space Coast Stadium, Viera Florida -- Spring Training home of the Washington Nationals

     Several weeks back I mentioned the geographic challenge of uploading timely articles every second Tuesday during the winter months.  Pat and I decided years ago that once we retired we were going to spend as much time as possible each winter away from our home in Washington, D.C.  This year that meant that for three weeks in January we were in the Caribbean – two weeks of which were on a sailboat with the spottiest internet imaginable.  We came back from that trip to spend two weeks at home, making certain that our adult sons had not completely trashed the house, and then took off again to Gulf Shores, Alabama for two and a half weeks in February.  We lucked out there with great internet available in the condo we rented.  Then after another two weeks of checking on the house we are off on the last of our winter trips – a week and a half in Florida devoted to watching the Washington Nationals’ Spring training.  I’ll have some internet access there, but to be on the safe side this article will be scheduled before we leave. 
"Smartie" getting off of the Autotrain.  Everyone laughed.

    While we drove to and from Gulf Shores, our Spring Training tradition sends us south on the Autotrain.  This allows us to leave our bigger "road trip" car in D.C. and travel instead with our convertible Smart car, which would never otherwise see Florida.  (I can’t imagine 900 miles of I-95 in Smartie).

    The train is always a blast. --  dining cars, where, as a couple, we invariably sit across from people we have never met, and lounge cars where strangers sip cocktails together while watching the scenery pass.  No wonder  trains  have always been fodder for mysteries.  I can’t ride an overnight train without thinking of The Lady Vanishes,  Hitchcock’s second-to-last British film.  The 1938 movie (based on the largely forgotten book The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White), together with Hitchcock’s 1959 American film North by Northwest and Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express all capture the microcosm that is train travel – a self-contained slice of life, detached from the rest of the world by movement.  No wonder that trains afford a perfect setting for classic golden age mysteries – how better to contain your story and all of your suspects?  While ocean liners are a close second, nothing beats the tightly cabined setting of a train.

    So to and from Spring Training I have little trouble conjuring up SleuthSayer thoughts.  But what about baseball itself? 

    For whatever reason the nation’s pastime hasn’t provided much of a setting for mystery stories.  Perhaps readers will offer up other examples, but the only ones that spring readily to my mind are the Ed Gorgon stories by the great Jon L. Breen.  Jon started the series way back in 1970 and has written that his original inspiration for Ed Gorgon, the baseball umpire who repeatedly is called upon to solve mysteries between calling balls and strikes, was that Frederic Dannay, then editor-in-chief at Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, liked nothing better than baseball and dying messages.  So Jon served up both in Diamond Dick, the first Ed Gorgon story..  That story, and the further installments in the series, spanning thirty years, are collected in Kill the Umpire: The Calls of Ed Gorgon published by Crippen and Landru in 2003. Jon's collection is a fun read and is available at Amazon, Barnes and Nobel, or direct from Crippen and Landru.   (Tell Doug Greene that Dale sent you!)

Shoeless Joe and Ty Cobb, 1913
    If one casts a wider net other non-mystery baseball stories can be reeled in.  Much of the literature that has derived from baseball seems to have its roots in the Black Sox scandal, in which various members of the Chicago White Sox were charged with conspiring to throw the 1919 World Series.  Even though they were acquitted by a Chicago jury, eight players were eventually suspended from baseball for life, including (famously) Shoeless Joe Jackson, who got his name from once running the bases without his shoes on, and who may have been the greatest baseball slugger of all time.  Ring Lardner was a young reporter covering the scandal, and his impressions of Shoeless Joe were said to be the inspiration for his baseball short stories that were later collected in You Know Me Al, a series of letters authored by a vernacularly-challenged ball player.  Lardner uniformly portrays the White Sox players in You Know Me Al as semi-literate and hopelessly avaricious. 

    A real life episode that has repeatedly found its way into baseball lore followed Shoeless Joe Jackson's appearance before a grand jury empaneled to investigate the conspiracy allegations.  On September 29, 1920, The Minneapolis Daily Star, during the course of reporting on the scandal, published the following account:
When Jackson left criminal court building in custody of a sheriff after telling his story to the grand jury, he found several hundred youngsters, aged from 6 to 16, awaiting for a glimpse of their idol. One urchin stepped up to the outfielder, and, grabbing his coat sleeve, said:

"It ain't true, is it, Joe?"

"Yes, kid, I'm afraid it is," Jackson replied. The boys opened a path for the ball player and stood in silence until he passed out of sight.

"Well, I'd never have thought it," sighed the lad
    The line, and the saga of Shoeless Joe, who may or may not have been guilty as charged, reverberated through baseball literature.  In Bernard Malamud’s The Natural the central character, Roy Hobbs, is offered a bribe to throw a game and is then confronted by a child who says “Say it isn’t true, Roy.”  (The line is only in the book, so don’t look for it in the 1984 Robert Redford film!)   The story of Shoeless Joe is also at the heart of the Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams, based on Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella.  And, finally, anyone who has seen the movie or stage production of Damn Yankees (a story close to the heart of any Washington, D.C. baseball fan) will remember the refrain “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal Mo.”  (Hannibal Mo. had nothing to do with Shoeless Joe, but, hey, a song’s gotta rhyme, right?)

    Well I should stop here and start packing.  We are off on one last winter trip to the south.   Hopefully when we head back to Washington D.C. it will be spring, because if winter persists it will be me who you will hear lamenting “it ain’t true, is it, Joe?”

26 March 2012

Lovely Spring Day

Jan Grape
by Jan Grape

Today is a lovely spring day in Central TX. We've finally had a bit of rain and lots of sunshine and the wild flowers are blooming and the Texas Bluebonnets are awesome. They are all over the place and even a few plants in my front and side yard are blooming. I've always wanted bluebonnets in my yard but this is the first time. I didn't plant them, the wind and birds must have seeded my whole neighborhood. Makes me happy to see them. So happy that I even decided to cook this evening. Now that is a rare treat because I don't usually cook a meal. I eat out at least 2 nights a week, going to my favorite restaurant and listening to local singer/songwriters and visiting with the other regular Tuesday and Wednesday night music lovers. Then at least one night a week, if my grandson, Cason, is home, we order pizza from our local pizza place. They use only fresh ingredients and make your pizza to order. The other nights if Cason isn't home, I sorta eat whatever I have on hand. Maybe only a sandwich or a bowl of soup. But today I made meatloaf and mashed potatoes and green peas. I also had the makings for a salad but forgot to do it. (Never said I was a gourmet...lol.) But it was all good and I had a nice glass of wine. Cason seemed to enjoy it all except the peas which he said he really didn't care for too much.

This week-end I've been doing some copy-editing on the anthology that I'm co-editing. R Barri Flowers and I have co-edited our second American Crime Writers League (otherwise known as ACWL) anthology. This one, MURDER HERE, MURDER THERE is due out around May 25th from Twilight Times Books. Our first ACWL anthology was MURDER PAST MURDER PRESENT. All of the stories are by members of ACWL and include such names as Jay Brandon, Kris Neri, Dakota Banks, John Lutz, Taffy Canon, Ed Gorman, Robert Randisi, Bill Crider, Candace Robb. We have as many members who are multiple winners and nominees for all the mystery awards than any organization around. This new book features some of the same authors as in the first anthology, but also Marlys Millhiser, Noreen Ayres, Valerie Malmont, Edward Marston Claire Carmichael, Jim Ingraham & Lauren Haney. Some of the finest short stories I have ever read are soon to be available to everyone.

I love good short stories and although there's not a big demand for them right now, I think they are perfect when you just have a few minutes and want to read a little mystery but don't have the time to devote to a full-length novel. My daughter, Karla, mentioned several years that because she was a busy, working mother that she really didn't have time to read a novel but she could sit down for a few minutes or an hour and really enjoy the suspense and pleasure in a short story. It's also a good way for writers to stretch their writing and play with some new characters rather than always writing about their series characters. However, sometimes a writer will use series characters in short stories but place them in a different time or place and just have a lot of fun with a shorter length.

My writing career actually began with short stories. I published around twenty-five short stories before I ever sold a novel. For this anthology, I wrote a story with my female private-eye characters, Jenny Gordon and C.J. Gunn. The story is titled, "The Confession." I haven't written anything with Jenny and C.J. in several years and enjoyed visiting their lives once again. I never had a novel published with them but wrote around a dozen short stories with the owners of G & G Investigations. In fact, one story with Jenny and C.J., won the Anthony Award at the Bouchercon in Philadelphia in 1998. The story, "A Front-Row Seat," was published in the VENGEANCE IS HERS anthology from Signet.

If you have time, read a short story and enjoy spring, where ever you happen to be today.


A young soldier, PFC Payton Jones, from Marble Falls, TX, age 19, was killed in Afghanistan a few weeks ago and his body was brought home for services and burial. As usual with many small towns there was an out-pouring of respect for the young soldier and his family. Several hundred people, myself included, lined the street as the procession came into town from a nearby airport. The final leg of the soldier's 7,000 mile journey home.The Kiwanis Club always has flags for patriotic days and for something like this showing support and respect. The Patriot Guard of motorcycle riders, all veterans, came first, followed by Firetrucks, EMS vehicles, police and sheriff vehicles all from surrounding communities, then the white hearse carrying our hometown hero, his family and friends to the funeral home. It was a sad moment but also heart-felt as we all stood at attention along both sides of the street, hands over hearts, most of us holding a large flag on a metal pole or waving a little flag. Only a small gesture, but in some small way letting his family know, we were heartbroken with them. RIP Private Jones.

25 March 2012

Failure of The 13th Juror

As I understand the 13th juror doctrine, a judge can overturn a jury verdict if he or she finds the evidence does not support it. In a carjacking and murder case here in Knoxville, a special judge overturned the guilty verdicts of four defendants and granted the three men and one woman new trials on the ground that the judge in the first trials failed in his duty to act as the 13th juror. 

In 2007, the three men carjacked a couple driving an SUV. They tortured and killed the man and burned his body on nearby railroad tracks. After torturing and raping the woman as the female defendant watched, they stuffed her body while she was still alive in a trash bag and threw the bag in a garbage can. 

Two of males were sentenced to life without parole in the first trials in 2009. The third, the ringleader, was sentenced to death. The female was found not guilty of participating in the carjacking and murder but was found guilty of facilitation and was sentenced to 53 years. 

For the sake of simplicity, I’ll call the first judge “P” and the second one “G.” In 2011, After an investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Judge P confessed to being addicted to pain pills and pleaded guilty to official misconduct. He began having sexual relations with a woman in 2009 who also supplied him with pills. She later introduced him to a felon on parole in his court who began providing him with pills. His criminal activities and association with criminals has caused a real legal mess. All of his cases are being examined. One defense attorney on another case argued that the evidence in Judge P’s case was so damning a reversal was automatically required. 

The DA argued that in the case of the three men that no errors were made. He admitted that during the woman’s trial, Judge P’s behavior was erratic. He decided not to ask for the death penalty for two of men and the woman in the new trials but will again ask for death for the ring leader.

My younger daughter was and probably still is on the prosecutor’s witness list. She wasn’t called to testify at the first trial and is hoping not to be called in the second one. She got on the list because about two or three days before they carjacked the couple, the three men were seen walking around her neighborhood in a suspicious manner. Later that night, they tried to break into her house and were scared off when a neighbor across the street fired his gun in their direction. My daughter called the police but they couldn’t get there quickly due to ongoing construction at both ends of the street. She wasn’t happy about being a witness at the trials because she was afraid the defendants' friends would come after her.

One of the male defendants explained during his trial that they wanted a car to use in a bank robbery. My daughter’s one year old SUV was in her driveway when they cased the neighborhood.

The victims’ parents and many Knoxville residents didn’t like Judge G’s decision. One newspaper columnist thought it was the right decision under the circumstances. The court has denied a request from the newspaper to unseal Judge P’s file. 

Judge P’s criminal activities might have had a negative affect on the trials, but should the verdicts be automatically reversed without a clear showing that he was under the influence of drugs and made errors in the cases of the three male defendants?

What do you think?

Postscript: On Saturday, the newspaper reported that the US Attorney is investigating Judge P’s case to determine if he violated any federal laws.

The Tennessee Court of Appeals has not decided whether to grant the state Attorney General’s request for a review of Judge G’s decision or to let the new trials go forward.

24 March 2012

When the Ferry Is a Time Machine

by Elizabeth Zelvin

Have you ever been to Ellis Island? It’s a short ferry ride from the Battery, at the tip of Manhattan, through New York Harbor to Ellis Island, a trip that costs only $13 ($10 if you’re 62 or over) and allows the visitor to travel more than a hundred years into the past.
The gateway to America for 12 million immigrants from all over the world in search of a better life between 1892 and 1954, Ellis Island has been completely restored and is now managed by the National Park Service as a monument to the melting pot that shaped American culture.

My visit, with a French friend in New York on vacation, was no mere museum trip or history lesson for me. Both my parents came to America through Ellis Island: my father from Ekaterinaslav in the Ukraine in 1905 at the age of six, and my mother from Papa in Hungary in 1906 at the age of four. I’ve always regretted that I never visited Ellis Island with them. They went with a cousin shortly after the restoration in the 1980s, and both said that they remembered the Registry Room with its vaulted ceilings and high arched windows.

My mother’s most vivid memory was of her own mother, my grandmother, crying as she said goodbye to her mother, whom she knew she would never see again. My father remembered being given a banana as he waited to board the ship, and how, puzzled by this strange fruit, he bit into it skin and all.

Before you go, prepare for your visit by going online. The site www.ellisisland.com offers information about the Immigration Museum, while www.ellisisland.org allows users to search for passengers on the ships that brought the immigrants past the Statue of Liberty to Ellis Island. At the click of a mouse, I found both my father, on the ship’s manifest of the Caronia out of Liverpool and my mother, listed as a passenger on the Deutschland, departing from Hamburg. I discovered that my Aunt Anna and my Aunt Sophie, younger than my father, were actually named Chane and Schifre. I already knew that my mother, named Judith (and called Judy her whole life, till she died at 96), got an inadvertent name change at Ellis Island, when an immigration official heard the Hungarian pronunciation Yoo-deet and wrote down “Edith”—which is how she was listed on the records I found. (Her official signature was always “Edith Judith” or “Edith J.”—though the only people who called her Edith were telemarketers.)

The cousin who visited the museum with my parents enrolled my mother’s mother, our beloved Gran, on the American Immigrant Wall of Honor outside the Great Hall, overlooking the harbor and the Lower Manhattan skyline. When I emailed him, he reminded me that at the time, none of the cousins wanted to pay the hundred bucks to list our grandfather, who died long before we were born. I was moved to find my grandmother’s name among the 700,000 remembered in this beautiful and historic spot. Since then, I’ve put both my parents’ names and countries of origin on the Wall and am eagerly waiting for my granddaughters to be old enough to enjoy seeing them there.

23 March 2012

Explosives 102

Welcome back to my series on writing about explosives in your stories. I was hoping to make this last only through three installments, however I now think it will take 4 to 5. If you guys get bored and want me to change topic, let me know.

Additionally, while it’s true that I once held a Top Secret clearance and access, I was granted said clearance and access because certain people thought I could reasonably be expected to keep important secrets. I work diligently to avoid disappointing those people. Consequently, you don’t need to worry: nothing here is classified. And, my pics are all from open source material.

My goal in this series is not to make you an explosives expert; it’s to give you enough information that someone reading your work — assuming you write a passage in which a character employs explosives — thinks it sounds as if you know what you’re writing about. In other words, I want you help make your writing technically convincing.

What do you really do to make it go BANG?
A guy slips a metal tube with fuse on it into a block of something that looks like clay and then smooshes that clay into a crevice in a wall. Then he pours a line of gasoline from the fuse along the floor (evidently to give him greater get-away time). Finally, tossing the empty gas can aside, he lights a match, holds it to the gasoline — and runs like a chased rabbit!

Is that the way explosives work?

What about James Bond? He stabs a pencil into a similar clay-like block, twists the end of the pencil and runs down the hall to avoid the explosion. Does this work?

Well . . . maybe.

Time Pencils — ala James Bond — are quite real. As for the first scenario, however: I can’t see myself using gasoline like that unless I was woefully short of fuse. Even then, it would probably necessitate a decision about which was more important: the explosive going off correctly? Or my staying alive?

The answer to that one would probably be: the explosive going off correctly. If you’re using explosives, there isn’t usually a better way to do the job. And, in situations where I’ve employed them, if they didn’t go off many of my friends might have been in serious trouble. That being the case, I’d probably wind up wishing the explosion had taken me out anyway.

Down to Brass Tacks

One thing you need to understand, if you don’t already, is that explosives are set off by a chain of events usually thought of as the “explosive train.” A very small explosion sets off a larger explosive force through what’s known as “sympathetic detonation.”

Most explosives in common use today, are stable enough to require both heat and shock (or compression) to set them off. But, there are some explosives that require only heat, or only shock, or can easily be set off by either one (such as nitroglycerine, for instance—heat or drop it at your peril!)

So, to set off a very stable charge, such as C-4, you need to first set off a relatively unstable charge that’s snuggled up next to your C-4. This initiating charge doesn’t necessarily have to be large. But, it does need to be volatile enough to create enough heat and shock to set off the C-4. Otherwise, your charge fizzles and the bad guys laugh at you. So . . . what can you use to set off a stable charge like this?

Blasting Caps

There are primarily two types of Blasting Caps: Electric and (wait for it … wait for it …) Non-Electric (Surprised you, huh?).

A non-electric blasting cap can mean different things to different people, but there’s no question about what an electric blasting cap is, in most blasters’ minds, so we’ll start with that one first.

An electric blasting cap (similar to the one labeled “Solid Pack Electric Type Blasting Cap” in the picture below) is encased in a small, thin metal tube—closed at one end. You might think of this tube-like container as being sort of similar to a very tiny, extremely thin soda can that has the top cut off.

Most electric caps I’ve dealt with were probably about an 1/8-of-an-inch to 3/8’s-of-an-inch across, and 3 to 7 inches long. This metal tube is filled with an initiator (labeled “primary explosive” in the drawing), a detonator (labeled “output explosive”) and has two wire leads that run in through the top and down into the initiator.

Viewed from the outside, these two wire leads disappear into a plastic-looking (or sometimes sort of clayish-looking) substance in the top of the cap, which acts as an insulator, and as a “lid” for the blasting cap. Sometimes, these wires are completely bare. On other caps, they may be plastic-coated with only a few inches of bare wire at the far end from the cap.

Either way, there will be a “shunt” on the wire. The shunt is often a thin metal ring; it connects the two wires, completing the circuit, helping to ensure that a stray electronic impulse doesn’t excite the initiator inside the cap until the blaster wants it to. Military electric blasting caps often come in a small cardboard tube that has the cap’s firing wire wrapped around it (pic on right). Civilian electric caps often look like the picture below.

Now remember: a blasting cap has an initiator and detonator inside it — and those two wires sticking out of the cap, run down into the initiator. When an electric current is passed through the wires, quite a bit of heat is generated down inside the initiator (primary explosive). The initiator is a relatively unstable explosive that is extremely sensitive to heat. So, when the electric current heats it up, the initiator explodes. This explosion sets off the detonator (output explosive), which is a bit more stable, but creates a larger explosion through its superior size and/or higher RE Factor. When the detonator goes off, this nearly always creates enough heat and shock to set off the larger, more stable charge that’s going to do the real work for you — such as that C-4 we were looking at earlier. [Yes, I wrote “nearly always.” This is the reason that a good blaster always “dual primes” his/her charges, by using two blasting caps. If the first cap fails to do the trick, hopefully the second will get the job done.]

So, now you see the explosive train in action: a small unstable explosion initiates a slightly larger, more powerful explosion — which in turn sets off a whopper! But, what sets off the blasting cap?

The Blast Machine

We’ve all seen cartoons with a plunger, similar to the one on the right. But, would you be likely to run into one? Are they even real — outside of movies and cartoons, that is?

To answer the second question first: Yes. They’re real. The one to the right is an older model 50-cap blast machine. A Blast Machine is just what the name implies: a machine that creates a big blast or explosion when you use it correctly.

To explain in very general terms: a blast machine has a flywheel inside it, attached to a dynamo that generates electricity. In this case, when someone pushes down on that handle, the long vertical rod connected to it is driven into the case and starts that flywheel spinning. The flywheel spins the dynamo, and an electric current is generated. (You’ll hear a high-pitched metallic whirring when this is going on.) If the two loose ends of an electric blasting cap are connected to the metal terminals (the two screws with wing nuts toward the left side of the frame in our photograph), enough electricity is going to pass through there to set off that blasting cap.

Naturally, it’s not usually a good idea to be sitting right on top of your explosives when they go off. Consequently, blasters run “firing wire” — a thin, plastic-coated wire that looks similar to the cord you might find on a cheap table lamp — from the blasting cap wires back to the blast machine. (You don’t run it the other way, because — and, R.T., I think you will like this — you don’t want to hook up the firing wire to the blasting cap just as somebody trips and falls on the plunger of the blast machine you’ve already hooked your firing wire to. KABLOOEY!!)

Firing Wire

Firing wire comes in big spools, often with hundreds of feet of wire so you can be sure you’re far enough from the blast to avoid getting badly hurt. I’m used to spools of about 500 feet of wire — though the more you use the wire, the shorter it gets. Because, of course, the end closest to the explosion keeps getting blown off.

Firing wire has two ends, of course: one that’s attached to the spool, and one that’s on the end of the wire that is wrapped around the spool. The latter end is going to be attached to the blasting cap, so you can unroll your firing wire on the way back to the blast machine. This end, which gets attached to the cap wires, is called the “running end.” The other end — the one attached to the spool, which you’ll later attach to the blast machine — is called the “standing end.” And, please don’t forget, though we call it “Firing Wire” (singular noun), there are actually two separate wires inside it.

To hook the firing wire to the blasting cap wires, and then to the blast machine, the following steps are taken:

1. If the “standing end” wires, on the firing wire, are still covered in plastic, cut the plastic with a knife and peel the plastic back (trimming off any excess plastic) until you have bared at least two inches of both of the wires at this end. If your story character setting the charge is either smart or lucky, s/he will have wire cutters that have a wire stripper on them, and s/he can use this to more easily strip the wire.

2. Twist the two newly-bared wires, on the standing end of the firing wire, together.

3. Be sure you have at least two to three inches of bare wires at the “running end” of the firing wire.

4. Lightly twist the ends of the blasting cap wires together. (This is called “shunting the wires” and serves the same purpose as the factory installed shunt, which you are about to remove.)

5. Remove the shunt from the blasting cap wire.

6. Untwist the cap wire ends and twist-tie one of them to one of the two bared wires at the running end of the firing wire. (Your character, if s/he’s been well-trained will use a “Western Union Pigtail Splice” [WUPTS] to tie each cap wire to its respective firing wire.)

7. Quickly attach the other cap wire to the other firing wire end, again using a WUPTS.

8. Pound a stake into the ground about three feet back from where you’ve tied-in, pay out several feet of firing wire, then tie the firing wire around this stake so that the wire is slack between the stake and the cap wires. This will prevent you from accidentally dragging your charge back to the blast machine with you, when you unroll your firing wire. If you don’t have a stake, tie your firing wire to the trunk of a tree. Or, maybe wrap it around a heavy rock.

9. Pay out the wire by hand, carefully, walking backward so you can watch your charge and be sure nothing comes loose. If you want your explosion to surprise the bad guys, be sure to camouflage the wire as you go. Do this until you reach the blast machine.

10. Now hook the standing end of your firing wire to the metal terminals on your blast machine. If you’re using the plunger-type blast machine, be sure the plunger is in the “down” position before you hook-up. Otherwise, if somebody trips . . .

Common Blast Machine Types
Plunger-type blast machines are fairly rare in the U.S. these days. You’re far more likely to run into something like the 20 or 30-cap machine on the right. (That handle comes off incidentally, so you can carry it in your pocket and nobody can use the machine but you – unless they have another handle.) Or, you may encounter one like the 50-cap machine (below left), which I’m very used to.

And, just as their names imply, a 30-cap machine generates enough electricity to set off 30 electric blasting caps all at once, if they’re hooked in series, while the 50-cap machine generates enough to set off 50 caps at once. Some plunger-style machines are rated for 100 or even 150 caps, and these machines are still widely in use throughout the world, particularly in less-developed countries. I suspect that machine on the right is a 20-cap machine, but I'm going to call it a 30-cap machine because they look nearly identicle.

The 30-cap machine is operated by twisting the handle. It may take more than one twist to generate enough power to do the job, but don’t worry: Just keep twisting until a loud BANG! tells you it’s time to stop.

Though the handle can be removed and pocketed, there is also usually a chain attachment. This permits soldiers who’ve hooked up FUGAS, or some other anti-personnel devices around their perimeter, to keep the firing wires hooked to the blast machine, while providing a “safety” of sorts, by keeping the handle disconnected but attached to the machine by the chain. That way there’s less fumbling around if the bad guys try to overrun your base camp at night. And, you don’t have to worry that the guy guarding the blast machine might sneeze and accidentally knock the blast machine over, thus unintentionally twisting the handle.

The 50-cap machine is operated by rapidly squeezing the handle on the right side 3 to 5 times. This is because it takes a few pumps to get the flywheel up to speed. Along with the high-pitched metallic whirring that’s endemic to most blast machines, this one also tends to go “zing, zing, zing, ZING!” getting louder with each “zing,” until the explosion drowns out the sound.

The D-ring on the bottom right is the safety clip. Prior to hooking your firing wire to the terminals on top, compress the handle up against the machine, then use the D-ring to lock the handle in place. When you’re ready to fire, simply pop the D-ring down, freeing the handle, which will push out on its own.

The terminals have rubber coverings, and a spring-loaded top. To insert your firing wire, simply push down on the top of the terminal. This will open the hole in the terminal side, and you can slide your wire through. Release the terminal top, and the hole will close back up, trapping the firing wire between the metal terminal jaws.

Remember: you have two separate wires in the Firing Wire. You’ve hooked one of those wires to a terminal (doesn’t matter which one), so you now have to repeat this process with the other wire, connecting it to the other terminal. Then you’re all hooked up to fire.

The last blast machine we’ll look at is the one on the left, below. This is a Claymore Clacker, which is used to set off a Claymore Mine.

A Claymore is a very handy anti-personnel mine shaped sort of like a large soap dish. It contains a strip of C-4 inside the back, and a strip of metal that’s perforated into nearly-separated ball bearings inside the front. There is “wadding” between the C-4 and the metal strip. This wadding acts as a sort of shock absorber, preventing the C-4 from completely destroying the metal plate when it detonates.

The plastic casing of the mine has two sets of metal “scissors legs” attached. It is employed by driving the legs into the ground, then aiming the mine at head height at about 50 meters distance. Thus, the Claymore fires sideways.

When the C-4 goes off, the wadding is obliterated (along with the plastic casing of the mine itself) and the metal strip is shattered into a bunch of ball bearings that act as BB’s or shotgun pellets (the wadding helps keep those BB’s from being vaporized). The result is that the enemy is shredded by a sort of GIANT shotgun blast.

The Claymore comes self-contained, in a kit containing: the mine, 50 feet of firing wire (w/ electric cap factory-attached), the clacker (blast machine), and a small tool that may be used to test the clacker and cap-circuit (kit components in photo on right are missing the tester).

The Claymore Clacker, itself (close up on left), is basically a 2-cap blast machine. In the photo, the clacker is standing on it’s hind end. The handle on the right is the lever you depress in order to detonate the blasting cap. That black rubber bump between the handle and body of the clacker is the switch that closes the circuit so the electronic pulse can be sent through the firing wire. That black thing at the top of the clacker, in this photo, is a rubber cover. It protects the male end of what is essentially an electrical socket.

If you look closely, you may see a small notch cut into the clacker handle near the end. Near the bottom, right hand corner of the clacker body in this photo there is a small square-shaped D-ring. To set the clacker on “safe” simply flip the D-ring up, so that it clicks into the notch on the handle. This will keep the handle from being inadvertently depressed. To fire, just pop the D-ring back down, and squeeze the handle against the clacker body. It almost always works with just one pull, but occasionally likes to be pulled a second time before it fires the cap.

The firing wire for the Claymore (photo on right) has a female end with holes for two round (as apposed to rectangular, as you’re probably used to at home) metal prongs be inserted. This female end is also protected by a rubber cover, which doubles as a shunt. To hook the firing wire to the clacker, simply open both rubber covers (the one on the clacker and the one on the end of the firing wire) and plug the male end into the female end. Once that’s done, you can fire the cap by simply squeezing the clacker. In this case, there is no zing, zing — or even a metallic whine. Instead, there’s a just a dull “clunk” or “clack.” Hence the name “clacker.”

Claymore Clackers can be modified by cutting off the male-connector end of the firing wire along with 6 to 18 inches of the attached firing wire, and plugging it into the clacker. Often, this connector is then taped to the clacker body to keep it from easily working loose. Then the wires on the other end of the firing wire are bared, so that they may be attached to normal firing wire and hence the blasting caps.

A clacker isn’t a super-terrific blast machine; it’s just not powerful enough to set off caps at a great distance. However, it is often employed when you want to set off a nearby explosion very quickly and easily, with near-instant effect. If, for instance, your characters are cops using electric blasting caps to set off a charge that will blow open a door, give them a modified Claymore Clacker to do this job. It works very well.

Priming a Block of Explosives

You recall, hopefully, what I wrote above about “snuggling” that small (but relatively unstable) charge up to your larger (more stable) charge in order to set off the big bang.

The way you do this with a blasting cap is pretty simple: you make a hole in your larger charge and shove the blasting cap down inside it. Seems kind of stupidly simple, doesn’t it? The specific method used, however, depends on the explosive you’re trying to set off. And, since we’ll need to take them one-by-one, we’ll have to cover that in a subsequent installment.

In Explosives 103 (in two weeks) I plan to cover Military Non-Electric Blasting Caps, and civilian NON-EL blasting caps. Then we’ll touch lightly on unclassified Time Pencil info, and begin (if there’s time) looking at how to prime different explosive charges — probably beginning with dynamite.

After we examine how to prime a few kinds of common explosives, I’ll provide a short wrap-up and toss in a few extra tips that should lend a little “icing” of extra verisimilitude to any passage you invent about somebody using explosives.

If you guys don’t like this, let me know. I can always drop this subject and write about something else. I thought, however, that you might enjoy having a little “primer” you could refer to when (or if) it comes time for somebody in one of your stories to blow something up.

See you in two weeks,

22 March 2012

Lawyers and Writers, Oh My!

Whether they are prosecutors, defense attorneys, ambulance chasers, or out and out shysters, lawyers have become a major part of the mystery genre. Comedians have made careers from joking about lawyers, but mystery writers with a background as lawyers have been the ones laughing all the way to the bank and to the New York Times bestseller lists.

One of the first American lawyer as sleuth characters was Mr. Ephraim Tutt, created by Arthur Train in 1919. Mr. Tutt, a "wily old lawyer who supported the common man and always had a trick up his sleeve to right the law's injustices", appeared in several volumes of short stories from 1920-1945.

What's the difference between a lawyer and a catfish?
One is a slimy, bottom dwelling scum sucker. The other is a fish..

Erle Stanley Gardner practiced law for two decades before creating the most recognized name of a lawyer in literature, Perry Mason. Mason debuted in 1933 in The Case of the Velvet Claws. More than eighty novels, a series of movies in the 1930's, a radio show and the acclaimed television series, "Perry Mason" starring Raymond Burr which ran from September 1957-May 1966 followed. As the dapper lawyer whose skilled examination of cross address, Mason deduced the real culprit when the police could not and practically compelled the guilty party to confess on the witness stand. Burr became the quintessential Perry Mason and reprised the rolein a series of made-for-TV movies in the 1980's.

If you are stranded on a desert island with Adolph Hitler, Atilla the Hun and a lawyer, and you have a gun with only two bullets, what do you do?
Shoot the lawyer twice.

Scott Turow was a former assistant United States attorney before he became a successful writer. His first legal thriller published in 1987 was Presumed Innocent featuring Rozat "Rusty" Sabich accused of murdering his colleague, prosecutor Carolyn Polhemus.

D. R. Meredith worked as a legal secretary for her lawyer husband. Her first mystery concerned a body discovered beneath a large barbecue pit during a city celebration in The Sheriff and the Panhandle Murders published in 1984. Meredith writes the John Lloyd Branson mystery series from her home in the Texas panhandle, beginning with Murder by Impulse, published in 1988.

How many lawyers does it take to change a light bulb?
How many can you afford?

Linda Fairstein is a former prosecutor specializing in crimes against women and children and served as head of the Sex Crimes Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney's office from 1976-2002. Her mystery series feature Manhattan prosecutor Alexandra Cooper.

Richard North Patterson was a trial lawyer who won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for his first legal thriller, The Lasko Tangent, with his character, U. S. Attorney, Christopher Paget.

What's the difference between a dead dog in the road and a dead lawyer in the road?
There are skid marks in front of the dog.

William Manchee is a Dallas attorney who writes a series about a Dallas attorney, Stan Turner.

William Bernhardt is a Tulsa former attorney who writes the Ben Kincaid legal thrillers.

Southerner John Grisham is a handsome former lawyer who writes tales about (sometimes) Southern lawyers who invariably are portrayed by handsome actors with or without Southern accents. (But the stories are always accented by backgrounds of knowing the laws and how people break them and try to get away with it.)

Whether you are interested in reading about a lawyer who is out to right the injustices of the world or simply one trying to do the best job he can for his client to one who will take any case he can get just to pay the bills, the mystery world has something out there just for you. And often, one of those lawyer-types are the ones writing them. Thank God for lawyers. Without them, comedians would have to find someone else to make fun of and the readers everywhere wouldn't have half as much fun in the bookstores finding a great thriller to curl up with on the couch.

*** Many thanks to comedian Jason Love for authorized use of his great cartoons. Find him at jasonlove.com and doing a terrific standup comedy routine when he isn't writing his own brand of lawyers jokes and cartoons.

21 March 2012


Two weeks ago John Floyd wrote about which authors he had appeared in magazines with.  I said I had been thinking about writing on the same subject, and -- hey presto!  -- I have done so.  My predictive abilities amaze even me.
I was not surprised to find out that the author I have shared the most mags with is Michael Mallory.  We have graced no less than 6 issues together (and he sometimes had more than one story in them, the glutton)..  This is because we used to share a mutual admiration club with Margo Powers, the editor/publisher of Murderous Intent Mystery Magazine, and were found there, it seems, more often than not.  Michael used to write wonderful stories narrated by Dr. Watson's second wife. 

Next, with 5 stories is Toni L.P. Kelner. We have shared pages in MIMM, Alfred Hitchcock's, and Ellery Queen's  -  the latter being surprising, since I have only made it there once. 

I have shared the shelf with Ron Goulart 4 times.  I consider than an honor because I remember his hilarious stories in Twilight Zone Magazine,  where I got some close-but-no-cigars.  I fell in love with a story of his called "Groucho," which was about a Hollywood mover-and-shaker who was reincarnated as a cat.

Dick Stodghill was in three issues with me, including the very first issue I ever appeared in, in the late not-very-lamented Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine.  Some of you may remember Dick as one of our most faithful and interesting commentors. on Criminal Brief.

A few more of my friends and favorites: Gary Alexander, Richard Lupoff (3 stories each), John D. Floyd, Edward D. Hoch, Martin Limon, R.T. Lawton, Leigh Lundin (all 2 stories),  and Jon L. Breen, Herschel Corzine, Brad Crowther, Loren D. Estleman, Ed Gorman,  Steve Hockensmith, Janice Law, Jack Ritchie, and James Lincoln Warren (all 1).

But let me end with my favorite story on the subject.  Not long after I started getting published I attended one of the Edgar Symposiums run by the Mystery Writers of America.  A woman saw my name tag and introduced herself.  It turned out we had shared the pages of an obscure magazine called P.I.

S.J. Rozan and I have been friends ever since.  Of course, not all writers have equally successful careers and I am sorry to report that she has not had quite as many short stories published as I have.  I hope her string of bestselling novels is some comfort to her.

And wishing you the same.

20 March 2012

Jenny's Ghost

Last week, I went to one my editors pleading brain-freeze on the subject of my next post.  Actually, I did this in the figurative sense, in that I called my daughter, Bridgid, and asked for her advice.  It should be noted that Bridgid is intolerant of foolishness and dithering in general, and my lame pleadings and excuses in particular.  She is what is sometimes known as a harsh task-mistress.  She also has a very heavy hand when it comes to editing my stories even though I am her natural father and deserve better.  But, I dither.
"Write about how you write," she demanded.  "That's what people are interested in--they want to know how writers come up with their ideas and how they put them to paper!"

She stopped short of adding, "Duh!"

"Yeah, but..." I began; anxious not to be chastised further, "I've kinda done that in a few previous blogs...you know, talked about animals and nature and things..."

The sigh on the other end of the connection was long and heartfelt.  "You've got some stories coming out this year, right?"


"Well, there you go then--just write about how you came up with the plots, characters, etc...I enjoy reading Neil Gaiman's intros and essays on his stories almost as much as the stories themselves."

"I forbid you to invoke that name in my presence," I commanded.  "You know he's one of my competitors for the Edgar Award in April!  I won't have it!"

"He's terrific," she agreed.  "I wish I could go with you and mom to meet him."

"We're not going there to meet him!  There will be no fraternizing with..."

"Gotta go, dad, Robbie's home and we're going out to dinner.  Love you; love mom."

The connection went dead.  My only question at this point was, 'Why did I have children?'

The following day, however, the blank screen loomed ever more largely.  'Okay,' I muttered.  'Alright then!  If that's what she wants, then that's what she'll get!' 

Jenny's Ghost:  This story is scheduled for the June issue (the next out) of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, both a publication, and editor (the wonderful Janet Hutchings) with whom I have enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship.  It's not a long story, as my stories go, and has all of its action contained within a major American airport modeled after Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International (except for a brief flashback to the main character's college days).  Why there?  Simple answer: I've spent weeks of my life in this place.  When you live in New Jersey, but have family in Georgia, it's where you must go...over...and over...and over....  You get the picture.  I've been to a lot of airports in my life; everywhere from JFK to Amsterdam; Dublin to Frankfurt, and nowhere have I been in a busier airport than Atlanta's.  It's a city unto itself, and not a small one in either size or population.  It even has it's own subway system.  Not a place for ghosts you would think.  But when you spend a lot of time waiting for planes it's easy to get melancholy; especially if both ends of the journey entail leaving people that you love behind, as in my case.  So, as I have sat so many, many times in this teeming, heaving micropolis, thoughts of remorse and sadness have sometimes pervaded my thoughts.  Generally, I am a pretty optimistic and cheerful person...but not always and in all circumstances.  The airport seems to be one of these.

During one of these enforced meditations awaiting a return flight to Philadelphia, I wondered what it might be like to meet the ghost of someone once held dear in such an unlikely place.  The idea would not go away and kept returning to mind for several years after it's inception.  I was getting haunted by it and so had to consider exorcism in the form of a story. 

Haitian Voodoo culture, amongst many others, has always considered crossroads a place to avoid after darkness, as wraiths and apparitions haunt them.  They believe crossroads can form an intersection between the living world and that of the dead.  Well, what is an airport other than a great big crossroad comprised of many dimensions?  So, maybe not such a bad setting after all?

I also had to consider why my protagonist ( I had decided upon a young family man in his early thirties awaiting a plane for home) would experience this unlikely phenomenon...and how?  After all, I didn't think a ghost story, as such, would sell to EQMM.  So, I came up with a different sort of ghost.  I know that sounds like a teaser, but I don't want to give the plot away.

It appears that much of the lore concerning ghosts and hauntings regard suicide and murder as the premier causatives.  Violent death begets unquiet spirits.  I would add that violence in general instills a disquiet in the living, as well.  Remorse and regret play a big role, too.  How many of us wince when we recall something from our past that we wish we could take back, un-do, or conversely, have acted to prevent, but didn't?  I suspect there's no one reading this who hasn't longed for a chance to remedy something that they regret not doing, or repent for having done--sociopaths, perhaps...but they stopped reading several paragraphs ago.

It's no different for me--Catholics have always had the sacrament of confession in order to obtain forgiveness for their sins, but this does not always serve to erase a thing from one's mind.  Knowing that one is forgiven by God, sadly, does not lead to selective amnesia.  The human conscience can be a bleak and frozen landscape, and it is in just such a place that we find my protagonist, Connor, at the opening of the story.  He hears a young woman's laughter ring out above the tumult of the crowded airport concourse...a laughter that he recognizes and loves; but a laughter that cannot possibly be real...and therein lies the tale.

I hope you enjoy it.