30 November 2013

The Chanukah Bush and Other Soothing Lies

by Elizabeth Zelvin

Chanukah, being a holiday based on the Hebrew calendar, which is to some extent based on the lunar cycle, pops up on different dates by American reckoning, sometimes late enough to coincide with Christmas. The 25th of Kislev, 5774, the first day of Chanukah, coincides with Thanksgiving this year--except it doesn't really, because Jewish holidays begin at sundown on the eve of the day that secular calendars usually assign to them. So tonight is the fourth night of Chanukah, which my multicultural family celebrates by lighting four candles in the traditional menorah.

For most people, the winter holidays bring a certain nostalgia—or post-traumatic memories, depending on what kind of childhood you had. I’m lucky to have had wonderful parents, but some of their quirks and crotchets, which appeared perfectly normal to me as a kid, appear in a different light from my adult perspective.

My family was Jewish, so you might imagine we always celebrated Chanukah. Wrong. My mother later denied this, but the way I remember it (the annual event and the later explanation), my parents realized that Christmas was a lot more fun than Chanukah: stockings stuffed with presents, a glittering tree with ornaments, a pile of presents, and, of course, Santa Claus. In fact, I know I was a believer, because one of my earliest memories—at four? five? six?—is not of my father blowing the gaff, but of the moment just afterward: my mother saying, “Oh, Joe, don’t spoil her Santa Claus!” Anyway, we always had a Christmas tree, and I don’t think we started calling it a Chanukah bush until we were old enough to appreciate facetiousness.

In fact, the Chanukah bush was and probably still is a fairly common tradition among secular New York Jews with kids. Our tree was a classic 1950s tabletop aluminum tree, which we decorated with the kind of ornaments you’ll now find in flea markets and yard sales and also making a comeback as modern reproductions. The trees themselves have become collectibles, which you can find on eBay and elsewhere if you google “vintage aluminum trees.”

I believe I was eight or so when my parents decided it was important to pass on their Jewish heritage by having a menorah and lighting the Chanukah candles. The best part for kids, besides the fun of candles themselves, was the fact that it lasted eight nights, on each of which we got a present. Chanukah was a minor holiday in Judaism until the modern American frenzy of Christmas buying and decorated spurred Jewish families to turn it into something that could at least attempt to compete. We had stockings, big woolen ones otherwise used for ice skating, until I went off to college at the age of 16, as well as presents on December 25th in addition to Chanukah.

By the time I married my Irish Catholic husband, my mother was denying that any of this had ever occurred. In her conveniently faulty memory, we had always celebrated Chanukah. My husband’s position was clearly stated from the start: “I don’t care what your mother thinks—we’re having a Christmas tree.” And so we do, along with lighting the candles, eating pot roast and latkes, singing carols (music is another area in which Christmas beats Chanukah hands down), and opening the presents under the tree. And on Christmas Day, we often follow another New York secular Jewish tradition: Chinese food for Christmas.

29 November 2013

Deus Ex Librarica?

On the 16th of November, Elizabeth Zelvin posted an article here, concerning the literary longevity of contemporary writers. Her post inferred the question:

 Will any contemporary authors be remembered one hundred years from now? 

 In the comments section of that post, Eve Fisher mentioned the possibility of a natural or man-made disaster disrupting the national power grid between now and that future time, making the printed word a precious commodity once more.

 Eve’s comment interested me because, as a Special Forces Engineer Sergeant, part of my training included an in-depth examination of Target Analysis.

 Put simply, Target Analysis is the study of national supply networks (electrical distribution systems, transportation systems, fuel distribution systems, etc.) and how to disrupt them at different levels.

 On this post-Thanksgiving day, when we’re all probably still sleepy from the aftermath, I’m not going to explain details about Target Complexes, Target Components, or the decision matrices used to determine which Target Components to destroy in order to disrupt a Target Complex for a desired time period.  (Besides:  It's one thing to post very basic general explosives information, and quite another to explain how and where to plant explosives in order to disrupt national supply networks.)

 Instead, I’d like to present a sort of game, proposing a theoretical scenario and asking you to answer a question.

Reading the post, and the comments by Elizabeth and Eve, I began to consider:  What would happen if I were given the choice of which authors might be read 100 years from now?  Which authors would I choose?  And, if I knew books were about to become a rare commodity, which books would I try to preserve for humanity?

The Scenario: 

 An advanced alien race intercepted one of our Voyager probes and interpreted it in a hostile manner. Now, they are afraid that violent humans might soon begin exploring space.

 After long deliberation, they made a weighty decision. They recently took over all airwaves on our planet, to broadcast a very apologetic message, in which they explained their intentions to bombard Earth with atomic turkey legs, in an attempt to set us back to a time of medieval technological capabilities.

An Atomic Turkey Leg
.005 seconds after explosion
 Immediately following this announcement, the attack began. The atomic turkey leg explosions did great blast damage, leveling all large cities and killing millions, but—due to advanced alien technology—the explosions released virtually no deadly radiation.

 They did, however, wreak havoc through Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) generation, knocking out the world’s electrical systems and turning most contemporary automobiles into little more than oversized paper weights.

Because you are such a kind person, however, you have recently come into custody of a running vehicle.

 You were lucky enough to flee built-up areas of civilization, before the attack commenced, and wound up in a rural zone where you met an old man trying to get to his dying wife’s bedside.

He owned a well-maintained 1974 Ford Pinto hatchback, but couldn’t see well enough to drive. Because you were kind enough to drive him to his wife’s care home, he gave you the car—which is old enough that the EMP didn’t effect it. He also gave you a map and key to a blast/fallout shelter, stocked with years of food and other supplies, which he owns a few miles away.

 While you’re driving to the shelter, an alien ship flies overhead, large loudspeakers blaring: “People of Earth, we remind you that we really feel bad about this. But, we’re doing it because we think you wouldn’t feel bad about doing this to us, so we’re trying to protect ourselves. In the interests of killing as few of you as possible—now that most of you are dead—we’d like to let you know that we will shortly begin Phase II of our plan.

 "In thirty minutes, we will target the remaining centers of knowledge or industry on your planet with laser weapons that will destroy anything within a 100-yard radius. These secondary targets include all still-existing factories, refineries, libraries and research facilities.

 "Please remember: There’s nothing personal in this attack. We just want to bomb you back to a technological base which will keep us safe for a bit longer. Thank you! And have a nice day.”

 As the announcement concludes, you drive over the top of a rise and see that a tiny town on your route has incongruously built a large 4-story library. An alien ship hovers nearby, waiting to destroy the library in thirty minutes.

 The shelter you’re driving toward is about five minutes beyond this town. Brave soul that you are, however, you floor it and drive straight to the library to begin loading books into your car, intent on preserving some of humanity’s hard-won knowledge.

 The Question: 

 You have just under 30 minutes to gather books within a large library, and store them in a ’74 Pinto. The pic on the right should give you some idea how much room you have inside the hatchback.

 Though the power is out, preventing you from using the computer to locate any books, you’re excited to discover that this particular library has maintained their card catalogue for some reason. Thus, there is a way to find the call number of non-fiction books.

 Which books would you take?

 Maybe you’d take particular types of books. Or, perhaps there is a book that you feel has greater importance than any other, so maybe you’d grab that one, then try to find others.

 You’re losing time, if you stand there thinking. You’ve got to act quickly. So, what do you do?

 Maybe, you’d like to list the first five or ten books you’d try to save.

 Perhaps you’ve thought this out before, and would like to share your plan with us.

 Your answer(s) and how you approach your decision is up to you, and you alone. But please let us know, in the comments section, what you would do.

 You’ll find my answer in the comments section, too. 

See you in two weeks,

28 November 2013

Thanks and Gratitude (And How to Tell the Difference...)

by Brian Thornton

It's Thanksgiving Day, and quel suprise, the author tapped to post today is going with that old chestnut: "giving thanks today..."

Well, sort of.

After all, this is me we're talking about, here.

So permit me to go all Andy Rooney on you, for a moment. People talk alot about being "thankful" on Thanksgiving (hence the name). And yet, are they, in fact, giving thanks?

And if so, to whom?

After all, being "thankful" is not the same as being "grateful." Frankly, I think many folks conflate the two words,  and a powerful distinction between them is lost.

That distinction being there need be no object of one's gratitude. Although it's possible to be grateful to someone for something, the object need not be part of the equation. Not so with giving thanks. What are you giving? Thanks. And to whom are you giving it?

Now that is a meaty question. (No pun intended) I suggest we talk turkey about it (okay that time the pun was intended!).

Everyone knows the holiday itself was inaugurated by a sect of religious fundamentalists, so it stands to reason that on this day when they gathered together for a day of "giving thanks," they were directing their "thank yous" to "God." (We can only speculate as to whom the local natives who joined them that first Thanksgiving might have been thanking...)

And yet Thanksgiving these days is about as religious a holiday as New Year's Day. Folks gather together, have a meal, drink toasts and describe what they're thankful for.

For my way of thinking, that formula only gets it half right.

So putting my money where my mouth is (and with the understanding that I will be removing said money very soon to make way for the turkey leg that is currently calling my name!), let me take a moment and thank a few people, in honor of the spirit of this glorious day.

First, to my wife, FOR EVERYTHING!!!

Next, to my son, for the joy he brings me, and the things he's teaching me (daily!).

Next, to my family, for their love, kindness and support.

And to my friends, for liking me and for being such swell people that I like them back.

Second-to-lastly, I thank God for my health, the mistakes he puts in my path and the wisdom that springs from them, and for any small talents he has seen clear to throw my way.

And last, but not least, I thank you for reading.

Now let us all be thankful, or grateful, or both. Whichever suits you best.

Happy Thanksgiving!

27 November 2013


by David Edgerley Gates
There was a Golden Age of travel writing between the world wars, Robert Byron, Freya Stark, and Peter Fleming, among others. (Fleming wrote three terrific books in the 1930's, BRAZILIAN JOURNEY, ONE'S COMPANY, and NEWS FROM TARTARY.)

Given their daring and dash, maybe it's
presumptuous to suggest that the guy who should be given top billing is the astonishing Patrick Leigh Fermor. He may be best known for his WWII adventures with the Special Operations Executive, a Brit spook outfit: he worked with the resistance in Crete for two years, during the German occupation.

Late in 1933, when he was eighteen, he set out on a tramp across Europe, on foot, with a backpack, starting in Holland, and ending up in Constantinople, a year or so later. He kept detailed
journals, but he didn't actually write about it, or publish, at least, until he was well into his sixties. The first book---of three---A TIME OF GIFTS, came out in '77, BETWEEN THE WOODS AND THE WATER appeared in '86, and THE BROKEN ROAD wasn't published until just this year (Paddy Fermor died in 2011, at ninety-six).

The really interesting thing is that although the books were written in recollection, there's no hindsight, no foreshadowing, no historical irony. Fascism was on the rise in '33. Hitler had come to power in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, there was the Iron Guard in Romania, and Fermor takes vivid note of all this, but he maintains his relative innocence. The point of view is not the older man looking back, but the younger man seeking
adventure. He doesn't entirely ignore the events of the years between, but the present intrudes very little. We get Hapsburgs, milkmaids, Gypsies, ostlers and monks, stables, cloisters, minarets, black bread and cheese, with straw for a bed, venison and wine and damask sheets. The sense of an old order fading, at times, or the past manifest and alive, an inhabited reality, in stones, in language and landscape, in gesture, or costume, or habit of mind. Fermor is, above everything else, evocative. Smells, shapes, or sounds. He doesn't simply notice, he inhales.

The best of this generation of writers, Paddy Fermor, or Peter Fleming, convey a sense of 
wonder, not weariness. We know the worlds they describe are lost to us, the Balkan monarchies, the salt-harvesters of the Iraqi marshes, the nomadic 
herdsmen of the steppe, as far removed from our own experience as they themselves were from the Crusades. On the other hand, they give us context and continuity. They may be closer to the Crusades than we are to them---an enormous gap opens in history, in the second half of the 20th century, the mechanics of war and tyranny, mass murder, the atom bomb. Reading somebody like Fermor isn't just a bridge to the past, it's a journey of discovery, to a time, we might say, when our hearts were still open and glad.

26 November 2013

My Hit List Strikes Again

Last June I posted My Hit List, a list of thirty of my favorite mystery/crime films, many of them obscure and forgotten.  (Okay, most of them obscure and forgotten.)  Just to show that I can do this all day long, here are another thirty films for which I'm thankful on this Thanksgiving week.  
I'm once again purposely avoiding mystery series, about which I've also posted and may post again when you least expect it.  And again, I've passed over some better known and undeniably great films, like The Big Sleep and Chinatown, because they don't need a plug from me.  Even without the former title, the films of the 1940s are overrepresented here, as they were in my original list.  What can I say?  The forties were to mysteries what the fifties were to westerns and the sixties to Annette Funicello pictures.  A golden age.

I hope you've had a chance to sample a couple of films from the original list and that you'll also try a few of the following guaranteed gems.


The Phantom of Crestwood (1932)
A real curiosity.  A movie based on a radio serial with an ending voted on by listeners (or so the producers claimed).  The solid cast is headed up by Ricardo Cortez, the movies' first Sam Spade.

Star of Midnight (1935)
William Powell of The Thin Man fame in a Thin Man knockoff, with Ginger Rodgers. 

The Princess Comes Across (1936)
Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray in a comic mystery set aboard an ocean liner.  (What did you think the title meant?)  MacMurray even sings.

Night Must Fall (1937)
Robert Montgomery established his acting chops in this film version of the famous Emlyn Williams play about a brutal killer in rural England.


The Glass Key (1942)
An underappreciated Dashiell Hammett novel becomes the best of the Alan Ladd/ Veronica Lake teamings.  William Bendix is a truly scary bad guy.

Murder, My Sweet (1944)
Former musical star Dick Powell is a believable Philip Marlowe, at least until he takes off his shirt.  The great Claire Trevor is in support in this adaptation of Raymond Chandler's Farewell My Lovely.

The Blue Dahlia (1946)
Many people would pick this as the best of the Ladd/Lake pictures.  I think it's only a close second, in part because the original script, by Raymond Chandler, was watered down during filming.  Another solid supporting turn by William Bendix.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
What long-ago crime binds Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, and Kirk Douglas?  Noir regular Lizabeth Scott would like to know.
Riffraff (1947)
Graying but game Pat O'Brien versus oil field hijackers in Panama with the aid of Anne


The Unsuspected (1947)
Actually, you will suspect the solution before it's revealed, but the cast, which includes Claude Rains and three striking blondes (Constance Bennett, Audrey Totter, and Joan Caufield), makes this worthwhile. 

Force of Evil (1948)
Very short, very intense noir film features John Garfield as a glib mob lawyer.  The always good Thomas Gomez is especially so here.

The Big Clock (1948)
Ray Milland is a magazine editor assigned to head up a murder investigation.  Every clue his staff turns up points to. . . Ray Milland.  Charles Laughton plays his oily boss.

Criss Cross (1949)
More noir with Burt Lancaster running afoul of Yvonne De Carlo and Dan Duryea.



Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)
Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, and director Otto Preminger, all Laura veterans, reunite for a much tougher and darker film.

Man With a Cloak (1951)
Barbara Stanwyck again and Joseph Cotton, as a mystery man out to save Leslie Caron in 19th Century New York.  This time Stanwyck sings.

Detective Story (1951)
Kirk Douglas as the grandfather of all burned out cops.  The film's stage roots show, but a great cast brings it to life.  William Bendix (who is to this list what Herbert Marshall was to my first one) is again outstanding in a serious supporting role.  (This movie was nominated by Herschel Cozine after my original list was posted.) 

Kansas City Confidential (1952)
John Payne out to clear his name.  A interesting mix of fading stars, like Payne and Preston Foster, and up and comers, like Lee Van Cleef and Jack Elam, a characteristic of most B pictures.

The Narrow Margin (1952)
Low-budget cult film of cop Charles McGraw trying to keep star witness Marie Windsor alive during a train trip from Chicago to LA.  McGraw is tougher than Intermediate German.
The Blue Gardenia (1953)
Why should dahlias have all the fun?  When Anne Baxter is accused of murdering Raymond Burr, columnist Richard Conte comes to her aid.

The Big Heat (1953)
Glenn Ford as a cop who loses everything in his pursuit of a crime ring.  Lee Marvin is a particularly slimy mobster. 


A Shot in the Dark (1964)
Comic whodunit was the second Inspector Clouseau film and the only one without any Pink Panther business.  For that reason, and the participation of Elke Sommer, it's also the best.

Mirage (1965)
A Hitchcock thriller made without Hitchcock.  Gregory Peck has lost his memory (as he did in Hitchcock's Spellbound) and he's on the run (and he was in Hitchcock's Spellbound).  P.I. Walter Matthau tries to help.

Point Blank (1967)
A film that's more iconic than obscure.  Lee Marvin wants the mob to pay him his money and shoots his way through the organizational chart to get it.  Why don't they just pay the guy?  Angie Dickinson heads up the supporting cast.

 Cogan's Bluff (1968)
How obscure can it be with Clint Eastwood as its star?  Contemporary Arizona lawman comes to New York to butt heads with Lee J. Cobb and meet Susan Clark.  Betty Fields, a bright young face of the 1940s, makes her sad last film appearance here. 

P.J. (1968)
A 1960s take on film noir, starring George Peppard as a P.I. hired to bodyguard Gale Hunnicut by her millionaire husband Raymond Burr, a veteran of forties noir.


They Only Kill Their Masters (1972)
James Garner is a small-town policeman trying to solve a complex murder.  Katharine Ross is the romantic interest, but the supporting cast is largely made up of names from the forties brought on to give this a forties feel.  They include June Allyson, Peter Lawford, Edmond O'Brien, and Anne Rutherford.  

Charley Varrick (1973)
Thriller detailing the plight of Walter Matthau, a small-time bank robber who accidently knocks over a mob bank.  Joe Don Baker almost steals the film as the hit man sent after him.

Night Moves (1975)
California P.I. Gene Hackman is in over his head in the Florida Keys.  Directed by Arthur Penn. 

The Late Show (1977)
Aging P.I. Art Carney sets out to solve the murder of his old partner Howard Duff. (Duff was old-time radio's Sam Spade, making this an evocative bit of casting).  Lily Tomlin in support.

Murder by Degree (1979)
Peter Finch as Sherlock Holmes and James Mason as Dr. Watson face off against Jack the Ripper, one of whose victims is Susan Clark.  John Gielgud, who once played Holmes on the radio, does a cameo.  

Once again, I didn't make it to the eighties, but last time I didn't get past 1974, so I did break new old ground.  Maybe next time, when My Hit List Strikes Back, I can "finish off" the century.

25 November 2013

A is Forever

A is Forever

by Jan Grape

When first began writing your first novel did you plan on a series or a stand alone?  I absolutely hoped I could do a series with my Private Investigators, Jenny Gordon and C. J. Gunn. This was in 1980 and Marcia Muller and Sue Grafton had both published female private eye books and I wanted to be part of that cadre. I totally hoped for a 3 book contract. I completed my first in the series in 1981. It was titled April Anger. If Grafton could do the alphabet, and John D. MacDonald the colors then perhaps I could do the months.

And in keeping with the genre, Robert Parker had a white PI and tough black friend who always helped with the case. I definitely wanted to explore the relationship between the white woman, Jenny Gordon and the black woman, C.J. Gunn, my wonderful black girlfriend, the late Choicie Greene named the character in the book, C.J. Gunn. The initials stood for Cinnamon Jemima Gunn. I wanted to show this relationship could be as close as sisters which Choicie and I were.

I completed the novel, sent out query letters to editors I had met at mystery conferences. I got some good feed-back and then an editor wanted to publish it. The editor was ready to present to the editorial board and then the editor left that house and went to another house, taking my property along to the new house. But that house wasn't interested.

The next editor was very interested but just as they were presenting found out that another editor had just purchased a female private eye book and they couldn't purchase a second one. Of course, other houses purchased and published more than one MALE PI novel I thought, but sent the mss out once again.

The final time, once again an editor wanted to publish then the company went out of business. In the meantime, I had started the second in the series, May Madness and I began writing short stories that featured these two female private eye characters.

It was a couple years later that an editor wanted to see the first novel as she really liked the characters in the short stories. But once again it was rejected, The editor said she really liked the characters. However, she thought they had grown-up and past the mss in the short stories and didn't think this mss worked anymore. So I put that mss away in the closet.

I don't think many authors think of doing a series book, they just like the first really well and if it gets published they hope the editor wants a second or a third.

After Austin City Blue, came out the publisher did want the second.  Dark Blue Death came out.  In the meantime, I wrote, What Doesn't Kill You a non-series stand alone. I still have not finished the third in the Zoe Barrow series. There were personal upheavals and publishing upheavals and one thing led to another.

I still think I should do the third and I've had ideas a couple of stand-alones. But have only done short stories and co-edited anthologies.

I would like to hear from my fellow writers about series or no series.

24 November 2013

Entering the Mainstream

In the many years I’ve been collecting them, I’ve come across only three anthologies of crime short stories by black writers. The first two are Spooks, Spies, and Private Eyes: Black Mystery, Crime, and Suspense Fiction of the 20th Century edited by Paula L. Woods in 1995, and Shades of Black: Crime and Mystery Stories by African-American Writers edited by Eleanor Taylor Bland 2004. 

Black Noir: Mystery, Crime, and Suspense Fiction by African American Writers, edited by renowned editor Otto Penzler in 2009, is the third and probably the most important because Mr. Penzler’s recognition brings African American writers of crime fiction solidly into the mainstream. 

In the introduction Mr. Penzler observes that as society changed in the 20th century “modest numbers of blacks entered such mainstream elements of the culture as academia, law, medicine, science, and the arts.” However, “very few…detective novels” were written by African American writers, and it was not until “the past twenty years or so that there has been a regular flow of detective stories by black writers.” He concludes that their “stories... transcend race and genre to fulfill their primary purpose—to inform and entertain” (emphasis added). 

One author in the late 1800s and one in the early 1990s used the crime genre to tell stories about the relationship between white fathers and their mulatto children. 

The subject of Charles W. Chesnutt’s “The Sheriff’s Children,” published in 1889 in the New York Independent, is the relationship between white masters and their black female slaves and the harmful psychological effects on the children of such relationships. After the Civil War in the village of Troy, NC a mulatto stranger is arrest and accused of murdering Old Captain Walker. To protect his prisoner from a mob, Sheriff Campbell unlocks the cell door so he can escape if the mob breaks in. When Campbell turns from the window after encouraging the mob to disperse, the mulatto is pointing a pistol at him. He says he didn’t kill Walker and that he came to town to kill the Sheriff. He is Tom, the son whom the Sheriff sold before the war along with his mother, Cicely, to pay his debts. Sorry for the spoiler.  

Published in 1900 in the Colored American Magazine, Pauline E. Hopkins’s “Talma Gordon,” a locked room mystery, is “one of the first ’impossible crime stories’...by an American and the very first…by an African American.” Talma and her sister Jeannette are the daughters of Jonathan Gordon by his first wife. After Jonathan, his second wife, and their son are pulled from the fire that burned down their house, and it’s discovered that their throats were cut, Talma is accused of murdering them because her father was going to leave everything to his son while leaving her and Jeanette only $600.00 each because they are half Negro. The ending is disappointing because it smacks too much of a deus ex machina.

In the years before 1980, black writers, if they used the crime fiction genre, did so to deal with the problem of racial prejudice. The change in social conditions due to laws passed in 1950s and 1960s caused the flowering of crime stories by black writers in the 1980s. To enter the mainstream, the writers had to create characters of different ethnic groups, and the stories did not and do not always deal with the “problem.”

However, before the 1980s, Chester Himes and Hugh Allison each wrote a story featuring black and white characters that were published in two mainstream magazines, indicating some editors recognized their talent and took a chance that their readers would also.

In February 1942, Esquire published Himes’s “Strictly Business,” about a hitman nicknamed “Sure” who works on salary for a mobster. Aside from Himes’s storytelling talent, what is interesting about the story is the main character is white. I wonder if Esquire would have published the story if he had been black?

In July 1948, after Hugh Allison challenged the claim of EQMM’S editor that no subject matter was taboo, the magazine published his story “Corollary” in which black detective Joe Hill, while questioning a black chauffeur about his part in a series of robberies and the murder of five people by his white partners, realizes something the chauffeur says might help solve an unrelated kidnapping case that began with a finger a small black girl delivered to Joe. EQMM to me was more courageous than Esquire, taking a chance on readers accepting a black main character. (no photo available)

The two stories above show gradual acceptance before 1980s of black writers by mainstream magazines. As white readers began to read them in the 1980s, boatloads of novels and short stories by black writers of crime and mystery fiction flooded into the mainstream.

23 November 2013

From A to Z

by John M. Floyd

A Is for AlibiB Is for BurglarC Is for Corpse, and so on. Sound familiar? Sue Grafton was onto a good thing from the beginning, with those titles. I think she's worked her way down to W Is for Wasted, although I can't imagine where the series will go after the next three books. ($ is for $uspect@ Is for @ the End of Your Rope?)

Gimmicks in naming novels have worked for other authors, too: Evanovich's numbers, Patterson's nursery rhymes, Michener's place names, Sandford's "prey" series, Ludlum's three-word titles, MacDonald's colors, Grimes's English pub names. Sounds pretty smart to me. When your titles become a kind of signature, a flag that alerts readers right away that you have a new offering, that can't be a bad thing.

It was an alphabet gimmick that enticed me, several years ago, to do something that I almost never do: enter a contest.

As I have said before, I'm not fond of contests for writers. For one thing, the odds are terrible. You have a far better chance of publishing a story in a respectable market than of winning first place in a major contest. Second, they often charge entry fees, and I don't like paying fees of any kind to anyone, ever, to consider my work. Third, they usually take a long time to respond. I don't like to tie up otherwise marketable stories for an extended period. Fourth, they always require manuscripts that haven't been previously published. That's understandable, but I'd rather send my original stories to the bigger magazines and anthologies since they usually prefer first rights.

A is for Against my better judgment . . .

The point is, I saw a call for entries to a contest while on my Internet surfboard a few years ago, a writing contest for--get this--26-word stories. Why only twenty-six words? Well, the idea was that each word in the story had to begin with a different letter of the alphabet, in order. The first word had to start with A, the second word with B, and so on. There was only one exception: X could be used to indicate "ex" if you wanted it to, as in Xception.

I was hooked. Whether I liked contests didn't matter much, anymore; this sounded like fun. This was of course not a contest for "real" stories--you can't write a real story in 26 words--but I thought it was good practice for writing real stories. A great exercise in how to do the kind of thing that authors, especially short-story authors, must do. They have to choose and use exactly the right words, for the simple reason that there's not enough room to use the wrong ones.

Alphabet Souperman

After some searching, I dug up the notes that I took while working on that project, and if you have some headache pills and antacid nearby, I invite you to sample the possible contest entries I came up with. Please be aware that I myself am aware that my following six "stories" are not only bad--they're even worse than the one I finally decided to send in, which wasn't all that great either. But here are the results of my alphabetized brainstorming:

A baboon cage, discovered empty. Facility gurus hired investigator JoNell Kendrix. "Lost monkeys," Nell observed. "Probable quick reasons: smuggling, theft, utter villainy. Who, Xactly? You, zookeeper!"

Alakazam Books Corporation. Dear Editor: Findings gathered here include Jack Kerouac's lost manuscript. Numerous other publishers queried. Respectfully submitting this unique volume, waiting Xpectantly. Yvonne Zimmerman.

All Balkan country doctors exhibit frequent generosity, high intelligence, jovial kindness, likable manner. Numerous other physicians quite regularly seem to undertake video work--Xample: Yuri Zhivago.

Alphabetically blessed children don't ever feel glum. However, insecure jaded kids like me (named Oliver Prattlebloom) quite rarely say things. Unless: "Very well, Xavier," "Yes, Zachary."

Argentine bomber commander DeKarlo Evito felt gratitude. Huddled in jail, Karlo (listed Murderer Number One)--pardoned--quickly renounced sabotage, terrorism, undue violence: "When Xecuted, you're Zero."

A British conservationist detected evidence featuring green horses, indigo jackasses, khaki-like mules, nags often painted quirky red shades--therefore, unbiased veterinarians will Xamine yellow zebras.

And the Oscar goes to . . .

Again, those were the stories that I decided not to send in. (Feeling a little nauseated? Don't say I didn't warn you.) The masterpiece that I finally submitted was appropriately mystery/suspense-themed--I called it "Mission Ambushable":

Assassin Bob Carter deftly eased forward, gun hidden in jacket, keeping low, making not one peep. Quietly Robert said, to unaware victim: "Welcome. Xpected You." ZAP.

That one actually won second place in the contest. I was awarded a thirty-dollar gift certificate to Amazon, which I happily used within ten seconds of receiving it, in case they decided to change their minds. (By the way, the story that won first place was just as goofy as mine. Seriously.)

What did we learn today, Johnny?

All this taught me three things. (1) Never say never, on the subject of contests or anything else, (2) tasks that challenge the old noggin's ability to play with words are never a complete waste of time, and (3) nothing in the writing world--no matter how improbable--is impossible. Who says you can't write a 26-word story?

Have any of you ever entered a contest like this one, or tried an exercise like this? If so, did you find it interesting? Enjoyable? Profitable? What are your views on writing contests in general?

I haven't changed my views, by the way--I still think it's better to send your fiction manuscripts to paying publications. I justified my participation in the alphabet contest because a 26-word story, no matter how quirky, is not a marketable story.

As easy as ABC

With regard to yesterday's anniversary of an American tragedy, I couldn't resist rewriting one of my above contest entries:

American Broadcasting Company, Department Executives: Footage gathered here includes John Kennedy's last moments. No other producers quickly responded, so this unedited video will Xcite you. Zapruder.

My final thought:

Alas, Boring Columns Do Eventually Finish.

22 November 2013

Playing With Titles

by R.T. Lawton

Writing can be fun when you play with the words, especially when you put layers of different meanings into those words. Take for instance, the title for a story. Those few words give the reader a certain expectation as to what the story is about, and maybe what type of situation the protagonist will find himself or herself in. That title may even lead the reader to expect a certain ending.

But, it can be like when a comedian tells a clever joke. In this case, he frequently leads the audience down an expected path, and just when the audience is leaning a certain direction to go with the flow, the joke-teller reverses course and provides an unexpected punch line. The words of the punch line still fit the body of the joke, however the audience gets a surprise and ends up laughing at how they were fooled.

In my Holiday Burglars series in AHMM, I like to play with the wording in some of my titles. The first story in this particular series was "Click, Click, Click." It's about two burglars, Yarnell and Beaumont, who are in the process of breaking into the house of an ex-con. This ex-con hides his money and drugs inside wrapped Christmas packages placed under a decorated Christmas tree. Naturally, the title words are lifted from a song that goes something like this: "Up on the roof top, click, click, click, down through the chimney comes old Saint Nick..."

Yarnell and Beaumont however, cut the glass on a back door to make their entry instead of coming down the chimney. And, since they counted the number of houses from the rear instead of from the front of the block, they inadvertently break into a house belonging to an upstanding member of the National Rifle Association. The awakened home owner then steps into the living room unbeknownst to them with a loaded revolver in his hand. Now, the CLICK becomes the sound of a large hand gun being cocked as well as the song's sound of reindeer hooves up on the roof.

In "Grave Trouble," the definition of the word grave is assumed by the reader to mean serious. For this story, Yarnell and Beaumont are wearing Halloween masks to hide their identity from any security cameras while breaking into the basement of a jewelry store. But, because they left their tape measure behind, they are slightly off in their calculations conducted inside the storm drain and therefore end up in the basement of the funeral home next door, thus leading to the other meaning for grave.

For "Independence Day," which makes Americans think of the Fourth of July, Beaumont finds himself selected for jury duty. The case for trial is on a fellow burglar, one who owes money to Beaumont. Should Beaumont work to find the defendant guilty because of a prior double cross he committed, or should he try to set the burglar free so said burglar can pay the debt he owes?

And, my favorite, "Labor Day." By now, you have probably figured out where this one is going. Yarnell and Beaumont have burgled a top floor condo during the Labor Day weekend. As they descend, with their loot, in a rickety old elevator, people get on and off at various floors. After everyone else has gotten off, the last passenger still on, with our two burglars and their protege (The Thin Guy), is a pregnant lady. As they are about to have a safe getaway, the elevator manages to jam between floors and sure enough, the pregnant woman goes into labor. Someone has to deliver the baby while police and firemen are trying to open the elevator door. Oh yeah, a news crew is on scene waiting to interview the rescued occupants.

Anyway, I get a kick out of putting double meanings into some of these titles. Guess if I'm lucky, the reader will get some laughs out of these stories. And, if they go back and think about the wording in these titles, maybe they'll get a kick out of them, too.

21 November 2013

Speaking of the Other: China

(NOTE:  Using my emergency blog because I have just emerged from computer hell, and a weekend at the pen, and I have literally not had time to work on anything but that.  Will update you on the boys next time.)
What's the deal with China? Are they really out to take over the world? (Maybe)
Are they going to invade? (No)
What do they want? (Life, food, clothing, shelter, a little fun...)
Why don't they understand human rights? (Define your terms.)
How can they call themselves Communist if they practice capitalism? (see below)
Don't they know that's wrong? Don't they know what's wrong? Don't they practice Zen Buddhism? Is that where the samurai came from? (Sigh.) Yes, I've heard all of these and more back in my teaching days.

Jade Emperor
First of all, China has been in existence since the Shang Dynasty (around 1600 BCE) and ever since has considered itself to be the center of the world: that's why China's name for itself is Zhongguo, the Middle Kingdom. And China has been the dominant powerhouse of Asia for almost all of those millennia. To grasp this, consider that America has been a superpower for less than 80 years, and we're pretty possessive about our status. Every week - probably every day - some pundit/politician is screaming about America losing its dominance in the world sphere as if that is going to bring about the end of the world.

Meanwhile, China laughs. Being the dominant cultural, economic, and military presence in Asia for over 3000 years has meant that the Chinese pretty much see everyone else as culturally inferior barbarians. Yes, they're willing to adopt the technological advancements or cultural quirks those crazy barbarians come up with that might be helpful or fun, like KFC or cars–  but that doesn't mean they're going to adopt Western ideology. Why should they?

The truth is, China and the West share almost nothing in background, history, religion, or social values. China never experienced Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, or Napoleon. The West never experienced Qin Shihuangdi (the emperor of the Qin Dynasty, from which we get the name China), Cao Cao, Empress Wu, or Kublai Khan.  And most Westerners have never even heard of them.

Empress Wu
China knew absolutely nothing of the Roman empire, the Renaissance, the Reformation, or the discovery of the New World. On the other hand, the West knew absolutely nothing about the Zhou, Qin, Sui, Tang (a Golden Age), or Song Dynasties. Chinese and Western history only merge in the 1840's. And even then, the West never bothered to learn Chinese history.  (For the most part, we still don't.) They just wanted the porcelain, silk and silver.

NOTE: Porcelain is French for pigs in wool: the first imports to the West (post-Roman empire) were to the French court, which was the only one that could afford them, and the merchants brought lots of pigs (porc), a symbol of good luck and fortune in China, wrapped in wool (laine) to keep them from breaking.

SECOND NOTE: The West got gunpowder, paper, pasta, and various navigation equipment from China, but, since (once imported) all of these could be made at home, the Chinese did not get credit for them for a very long time.

Back to differences: in the West, the religious background is primarily Judeo/Christian/ Islamic; in China, it's Confucian/Daoist/Buddhist.

Lao Tze, Confucius, and Buddha frolicking in a glade

The great Western religious are monotheistic, exclusive (you can only believe in one at a time) and have a strong belief in the afterlife; the Eastern religions aren't and don't. You can be a Daoist Confucian Buddhist, no problem.  On the other hand, in the West, science has practically become a religion, in which nature is a group of objects that we can use, shape, predict, control. In Asia, animism– the idea that every stick and stone has a living spirit in it– was (and still to some extent is) the norm.

The Western philosophical background is Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; theirs is Confucius and his followers. Our philosophical tradition is one of logic and reason, and it's bred in our bones. We believe, naturally, innately, that when a thing is proved, it's proved, and you cannot hold two opposite beliefs at the same time without something serious being wrong with you. The Eastern way of thought is based on harmony and synthesis. Just because you prove one thing doesn't automatically mean that its opposite is wrong. In the Eastern mind, two opposites can - and should - balance each other very well, because that's what life is all about: yin/yang, male/female, good/evil, etc. Instead of creating equality by erasing differences, equality comes through fulfilling separate spheres that balance each other.

Our social background, especially in America, emphasizes individualism, freedom, and equality. The Chinese social background emphasizes community (especially the family), loyalty, filial piety, and hierarchy. Harmony is the primary goal on all levels of life, which can lead to a lot of sublimated emotions in the search for exterior peace. It also means that, if there's a choice between order and freedom, guess which wins? Order, every time.  For thousands of years, the watchword of every government has been "Stability above all."
Qin Shihuangdi

A lot of this is thanks to Qin Shihuangdi, the most ruthless emperor of Chinese history. In less than 20 years, the Qin Emperor set up a system of unified weights and measures, laws, money, and written language, all of which are still pretty much in place. He built roads, bridges, and much of the Great Wall of China using slave labor. He also came up with all sorts of ways to control the people, including thought control.

Legend has it that he burned all books except for "useful" ones like medical or agricultural works; that he tried to wipe out Confucianism and its teachers; and set in place the still-useful idea of collective responsibility. Basically, under collective responsibility, if one person committed a crime, or was just suspected of it, his entire family, perhaps his entire clan, would be arrested, tortured, perhaps killed. This encouraged people to police their own family, even to the point of turning them in, in order to save the clan. Harmony, order, above all.

Mao Zedong liked the Qin Emperor's style, and claimed to be his reincarnation. Certainly the Cultural Revolution appeared to be a Qin repeat, in which entire families were wiped out or sent to the country for reeducation because someone was a teacher, doctor, or otherwise educated.  (NOTE:  Mao was crazy, but not a fool - during the Cultural Revolution, Chinese nuclear scientists were kept carefully protected from any harassment.)  Today all of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution are blamed on Mao's 4th wife, Jiang Qing, former actress and leader of the "Gang of Four".  Mao is still officially revered, even worshipped as a (minor) deity among some.  But the cult of Mao is why any current Chinese leader who appears to be rising up above the norm (i.e., have a personality) is quickly chopped down (see Bo Xilai, soon to be tried by the Supreme People's Court for everything from corruption to murder; he may be guilty of some of it, but his primary crime was being interesting).

But what about Communism?  Well, I could go into all the philosophical/political differences between Chinese Communism and Russian Communism - for one thing Chinese Communism basically threw out the thought of Karl Marx and Lenin because they had to.  But the real way to look at it is quite simple:  The Chinese Communist Party is basically the latest Chinese Dynasty.  Mao Zedong led a cult of personality, just as the founder of almost every dynasty has (especially the Qin Emperor - maybe Mao was the reincarnation).  But really, the style of government barely changed:  the Chinese government always had tight control of almost every aspect of Chinese life, laws have always been strict, the peasants have always been screwed, and everyone has always been scrambling to get wealthy.  As Deng Xiaoping said (after Mao's death):  "Poverty is not socialism:  to get rich is glorious."  They're still practicing that, too.

20 November 2013

Dream a Little Theme of Me

by Robert Lopresti

First, I owe an apology to Dale, and to anyone who commented on the blog early on Tuesday.  Here's what happened.

I polished thIs piece over the weekend and scheduled it - I thought - for November 20.  I checked it Monday evening and it had disappeared.  Imagine my joy.  I quickly found that I had somehow "scheduled" it for October 20, so it was up, but hidden by weeks of newer blogs.  So I changed the date to November 20.  What I didn't realize was that doing that somehow convinced Blogger to put it up at the top of our blog, even though it clearly said it was not scheduled until the next day. 

When I found out this happened I copied it to a new file - this one - and deleted the old one.  Unfortunately that erases any comments people might have left.  

So again, my apologies.  And if you didn't read Dale's column, you will find it below mine (on purpose this time.)

Bob Daniher  is a mystery fan and budding mystery writer who lives a stone's throw (almost literally) from my sister in New Jersey.  We have chatted about things criminous from time to time and he recently asked me what I thought of literary theme.

Well, it's a good question, was my first reaction.  Because I feel about theme like  Justice Potter Stewart said about obscenity: "I know it when I see it."

Fumbling around, I suggested that theme is what the story is about other  than the plot.  My wife said "It's the structure the plot hangs on."  Or you could say it is the world view the story is decribing.  Or what the reader is supposed to feel.

Novelist John Gardner wrote: "By theme here we mean not a message -- a word no good writer likes applied to his work -- but the general subject, as the theme of an evening of debates may be World Wide Inflation."

I decided to look at the five stories of mine that have been published this year and see if I can spot any themes.  I start with the Least Visibible Theme and move down to the Theme Heaviest of the tales.  Don't worry, I won't give away the endings.

"Shanks' Ride"
The Plot: A tipsy mystery writer, heading home from a bar, solves the puzzle that has bugged a taxi driver for a decade.
Theme:  Damned if I know, unless it is what JIm Thompson called the only plot:   "Things are not what they seem."

"The Red Envelope."
The Plot: In 1958 Greenwich Village a Beat poet solves the murder of an artist.
Theme: Maybe something like: the danger of misunderstanding.  One character's entire life is changed because someone misunderstands an acronym.  My narrator, new to New York misinterprets many things, including the pronunciation of Greenwich Village.  The murderer is caught because the detective does not misinterpret  the signficiance of the titular envelope. But i admit I am reaching here.

"Two Men, One Gun."
The Plot: A man breaks into a wirter's office and, at gun point, tells him a story about three friends who became enemies.
Theme:  This time I am on solid ground.  I even went back during the edited process and looked for ways to make the theme stand out.  See the first line:  "Here's the story," said the man whose name was probably not Richard.  "Once upon a time there were three men who hated each other."  This is a story about the power of storytelling.

"Crow's Lesson."
The Plot: A private detective blunders onto a parental kidnapping and has to keep the culprit from killing him.
Theme:  At the end of the story Marty Crow tells his client "I learned my lesson" and proceeds to tell him what it is.  This may seem like the message John Gardner warns against, but I prefer to think iof it as the theme.

"The Present." 
The Plot: A woman goes to the mall to find a birthday gift for her son, and believes she sees a kidnapped child.
Theme:I went theme-crazy on this one.  the theme relates to  the protagonist's problems with time (no, this is not science fiction), and  a dozen details are supposed to tickle the reader's subconcious mind on that point.  (All the characters' names relate to time, as does the title of the story, and the birthday present itself is a telescope, suitable for looking millions of years into the past.)

But here's the thing about that last story that makes me wonder: the theme serves the plot more than the plot serves the theme.  You see, the story has a twist ending, and all the references to time are foreshadowing.  It is as if I am setting up little pictures in your peripheral vision, preparing some part of your brain so that when the twist comes you will say, of course, not what the hell?

So does that mean those references are not illustrations of a theme, but merely a plot device?  Have an answer on my desk in triplicate by tomorrow morning.  And in the mean time, tell me what you think of literary theme?  Does it belong in mystery fiction?  Or is it always there whether intended or not?