31 March 2015

Does Your City Cut It?

by Jim Winter

In the before time, in the long, long ago, I decided I would never write a story set in Los Angeles or New York. (I've since broken that rule with New York City.) No, I was going to be different. I was going to be unique. I was going to set my crime fiction in Cleveland.

OK, so Les Roberts had been doing it for about twelve years at that point. So his series was going to run out of steam soon. Right?

Er... No. He's still writing about Cleveland-based PI Milan Jackovich. But that's one series set on the North Coast. How many does New York have? Cleveland? Boston is lousy with crime fiction. Even Detroit, Cleveland's fellow declining Rust Belt city, has Loren Estleman and Elmore Leonard, and those are just the most notable Motor City authors.

Cleveland proved to be good fodder. My Cleveland is not Les's Cleveland is not Michael Koryta's. Cleveland. And that's pretty cool. Some have asked me why I haven't written in Cincinnati.


The city never really grabbed me the way Cleveland did. Ditto for Ohio's other big C, Columbus. I'm sure I could go nuts with Cincinnati, particularly with the West Side's well-defined culture that even they make fun of. I've taken stabs at it, but Cincinnati was always a place to live for me, not a place to tell stories. And I know that's not fair. Jonathan Valin spent the eighties writing about Harry Stoner's adventures in the Queen City.

So what is it that draws us to write about certain cities? LA and New York get a large share of stories simply because they are the two largest cities in the US. But what about the smaller cities? Why Cleveland for me and Les and Michael? What makes Stuart MacBride have his cops prowl the streets of Aberdeen, one of Scotland's lesser known cities, instead of, say, London or across the sea in Dublin?

A lot of it has to do with where the author is from. When we travel and pass through a city, we see a collection of tall buildings in the middle of urban sprawl. Every town has a McDonald's and carpet stores and the same gas station chains. I remember when one author came to Cincinnati for a signing, I suggested a place to eat simply because I liked eating there.

"Naw, that's a bit too chainy."

So it was. We hit the neighborhood bar across the parking lot from the bookstore. But these are the things that make cities interesting. Nick Kepler's favorite deli really exists on St. Clair. And while Milan Jackovich's Vuk's doesn't exist, it wasn't that long ago you could find two or three bars in Slavic Village similar to it.

As with fictional cities, it's that lived-in feel that makes even real-life cities come alive for the readers.


30 March 2015

My Father and Cousin Clyde

At the end of this article, you'll find a poem written by Bonnie Parker. Someone posted this poem on Facebook and it reminded me of my father, Thomas Lee Barrow.  My father often told of how we were probably related to Clyde Barrow. I'm done a little bit of genealogy but never attempted to prove our connection to the notorious Mr, Clyde Barrow. It seemed more fun to just "say" we are related and leave it at that. But is it possible the criminal gene is what prompted me to write fictional crime stories? Who knows?

My father had a wonderful but, perhaps a bit strange, sense of humor and told stories of how he exploited the connection to Clyde Barrow. Let me explain, my father was born in Beaumont, TX in 1911 and was in his early twenties when Clyde and Bonnie were running around North Texas. Dad actually lived in Fort Worth, Texas then. A young man twenty-two or twenty-three in the early 1930s was like most young men of the day, prone to practical jokes.

Dad thought it was funny to walk into the First National Bank and write a counter check for ten or twenty dollars, sign his name, T. L, Barrow, walk over and hand the check to the teller. I know most of you would have trouble understanding but in those years, people didn't  have scads of personal checks like we have nowadays. You mostly went to your bank, pick up a printed check form located at the bank's signature island table, wrote out the amount you wanted, gave it to a teller and got the amount you had asked for on the counter check.

Quite often the teller would look either scared or extra hard at my dad, sometimes nod to the bank manager, or ask for identification from my dad. They'd go ahead and give dad his ten or twenty dollars and breathe a sigh of relief that someone with the name of Barrow did nothing more than cash a check. The Fort Worth and Dallas newspapers had almost daily stories of the bad mob known as the Barrow gang. That name was familiar to everyone in the banking business.

A little more involved act of fun happened when two young men got together and took advantage of the Barrow name. Dad and his best friend, Ken Owens, used to go into bars and play their joke. Once inside the bar, my dad would walk down to the far end of the bar and sit on a stool there. His friend, Ken would park himself on a stool near the front door and get the bartender's attention. When the bar man walked up to him, Ken would say, "You see that man down there?" he'd nod towards my father, Tom Barrow. The barman would say "Yes."

Ken would then say, "That's Clyde Barrow's brother and he expects a free drink." The barman would nod and give a free drink to both my dad and Ken Owens. The two young men would drink their free drink and soon they'd leave, leaving the bartender wiping sweat off his brow, thankful that Clyde Barrow's brother had left his establishment. The two pranksters would then head down the street and around the corner to another bar and work it for another free drink.

Like I said earlier, I'm not totally sure of our connection to Clyde Barrow. I do know however, that my father, Thomas Lee Barrow, had a strong influence on my life. My love of mysteries because he gave me my first mystery paperbacks to read, Mike Hammer, Private Eye books written by Mickey Spillane, and Private Eye Shell Scott written by Richard Prather. I think, my mother and father were both quick with funny quips and they passed that gene along. I have a grandson, Riley Fox who lives in Portland, OR who is a stand-up comic. I don't have any bank robbing family members like Cousin Clyde and that's a good thing. I'd much rather write about mysteries and crime that to worry about a sheriff's posse  or the FBI coming after me.

And although, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow never had any children she definitely had a gift for writing poetry, and maybe that writing gene was passed to me through osmosis. Besides the poem listed here she wrote several poems which were published in the Dallas newspapers and there was a little notebook of her poems written while she was in jail.

I'll admit that I've always had a strong desire to claim a connection to Mr. Clyde Barrow. Wonder if I can get a free drink or two out of that?

You've read the story of Jesse James
of how he lived and died.
If you're still in need;
of something to read,
here's the story of Bonnie and Clyde.

Now Bonnie and Clyde are the Barrow gang
I'm sure you all have read.
how they rob and steal;
and those who squeal,
are usually found dying or dead.

There's lots of untruths to these write-ups;
they're not as ruthless as that.
their nature is raw;
they hate all the law,
the stool pigeons, spotters and rats.

They call them cold-blooded killers
they say they are heartless and mean.
But I say this with pride
that I once knew Clyde,
when he was honest and upright and clean.

But the law fooled around;
kept taking him down,
and locking him up in a cell.
Till he said to me;
"I'll never be free,
so I'll meet a few of them in hell"

The road was so dimly lighted
there were no highway signs to guide.
But they made up their minds;
if all roads were blind,
they wouldn't give up till they died.

If a policeman is killed in Dallas
and they have no clue or guide.
If they can't find a fiend,
they just wipe their slate clean
and hang it on Bonnie and Clyde.

There's two crimes committed in America
not accredited to the Barrow mob.
They had no hand;
in the kidnap demand,
nor the Kansas City Depot job.

If they try to act like citizens
and rent them a nice little flat.
About the third night;
they're invited to fight,
by a sub-gun's rat-tat-tat.

They don't think they're too smart or desperate
they know that the law always wins.
They've been shot at before;
but they do not ignore,
that death is the wages of sin.

Some day they'll go down together
they'll bury them side by side.
To few it'll be grief,
to the law a relief
but it's death for Bonnie and Clyde.

29 March 2015


       For the first half of his college career our younger son Colin majored in Theatre. My wife and I had some misgivings over this, but we are pretty well trained, so we kept quiet. Then one Friday Colin called us to say that he had decided to change his major to pre-law. He explained that he had gotten rather used to eating well, and to having some assurance as to how his life would progress, all of which (he feared) would be lacking if he pursued an acting career. What Colin had realized was that his first-chosen career would have been one rife with the likelihood of repeated rejections.
       Writers know that feeling. While all of us here at SleuthSayers love to write, and while each of us is published, very few of us have managed to carve out a profession from it. Certainly the days of O. Henry, when short stories alone could bring in enough to live on, are behind us. The market dwindles, the competition increases, and even a story lucky enough to get published only garners a few hundred dollars. Although writers of novels can still strike it rich, like actors a lot of them simply strike out. And continuing to swim against the current of repeated rejections can prove pretty tough.

           How true is all of this?  Let’s take a selective look at the record. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was rejected 20 times before it was published. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind collected 38 rejection letters. Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl was rejected 15 times. Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie -- 30. Frank Herbert’s Dune -- 23. J.K. Rowling’s first work Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone -- 12 (initial printing was 500 copies).  And Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, collected an incredible 121 pre-publication rejections. When John le Carre submitted The Spy who Came in from the Cold he was advised that “it hasn't got any future.” Sanctuary by William Faulkner was deemed “unpublishable.” In response to his submission of Jungle Book Rudyard Kipling was advised to give up any writing ambitions since he clearly did not have the requisite command of the English language. And Agatha Christie, cherished in these environs and one of the best selling authors of all times, suffered four years of repeated rejections before her first mystery, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, found a willing publisher. 

        All of the foregoing examples are, of course, “success stories.” Perseverance won out.  And the process, however grueling and depressing, in each case ended well with the publication of a well-received work; an “ahh-ha” to those earlier rejections. 

        But appreciate what the process is like not at the end, but in the middle, when the matter is still in doubt.  Before each new submission the author invariably asks himself or herself, is my work really bad? Is it the publishing house that has missed the point, or is it me? And it is hard to answer those questions objectively, evaluating what one has subjectively created. Certainly editors and publishers are the keepers of the gate, the arbiters charged with the objective task of sorting wheat from chaff. But chaff still gets through, and sometimes wheat does not.  Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, John Grisham’s A Time to Kill and Beatrix Potter’s The Tales of Peter Rabbit, to name but three, first reached the reading public only as a result of the authors’ exasperated decisions to self-publish. 
       So, how long should a writer persist in his or her advocacy in the face of the negative views of others? There can be no universal answer to that question since there is no prototypical rejected manuscript. But while the above examples are heartening, sometimes even ultimate success can be marred tragically by the disheartening submission process. There is probably no better example of this than the publication history of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. 

      Toole, by all accounts, was a brilliant professor of English at Hunter College in New York and at various Louisiana colleges. He completed A Confederacy of Dunces in 1963 after his discharge from the army. Dunces tells a picaresque tale of the travails of its hero Ignatius J. Reilly, an obese, self-styled intellectual who pursues employment while disdaining actual labor, lives with his mother, and constantly bemoans a horrific bus trip he once was forced to make to Baton Rouge. Toole submitted the manuscript to various publishing house, gaining some middling interest but absolutely no success. As an example, Simon and Schuster's rejection was premised on the articulated conclusion that Dunces was “essentially pointless.” Eventually, in the face of rejection, Toole gave up and basically withdrew from life, embracing a paranoiac view that the world was aligned against him. He lost his teaching positions and eventually, on March 26, 1969, at the age of thirty-one in Biloxi, Mississippi he inserted a hose through the window of his car, turned the vehicle on, settled comfortably into the front seat and waited peacefully until carbon monoxide took its course. 
       Toole had left the manuscript of Dunces on the top or the armoire in his bedroom in his mother’s house. Some years after his death his mother re-read the manuscript and decided that she would begin, again, the attempt to market it. Like Toole, she suffered through numerous rejections. Finally, with little left to lose, she undertook a crusade to persuade author Walker Percy, then a visiting professor at Tulane University, to review the manuscript. Her persistence led Percy initially to complain to family and friends about the apparently deranged woman who was stalking him peddling a manuscript. Eventually, in an act of desperation, Percy agreed to take a look. This is what he said in what eventually became his introduction to A Confederacy of Dunces:
       [T]he lady was persistent, and it somehow came to pass that she stood in my office handing me the hefty manuscript. There was no getting out of it; only one hope remained—that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther. Usually I can do just that. Indeed the first paragraph often suffices. My only fear was that this one might not be bad enough, or might be just good enough, so that I would have to keep reading.
       In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good.
With the backing of Walker Percy A Confederacy of Dunces was finally published by LSU Press in 1980. In 1981 it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. 

       So this ending is a happy one only in the most limited way. A Confederacy of Dunces found its publisher, its audience, and its accolades.  But the rejection process that preceded all of this contributed to the untimely death of John Kennedy Toole. And as grim as this may be, well, at least Dunces eventually reached the reading public. Not so for many works that, good or bad, never find their own Walker Percy. 
       The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, edited by C.D. Rose, is a compilation of 52 would-be writers whose work never saw the light of day nor the white of page. None of the authors ever got beyond rejection, but some “lost” works had even stranger back stories. Stanhope Barnes travels to London to discuss his novel Here Are the Young Men only to leave the only copy, never seen again, on an adjacent seat of the train. Veronica Vass, a cryptologist in England during World War II, wrote five novels in a devilish code, which she died without revealing, and which was never cracked. And perhaps saddest -- since it is a lesson on the folly, at times, of trying to overcome repeated rejections by relying too much upon the advice of others, is the case of Wendy Wedding, a budding minimalist who worked diligently editing what those who reviewed it described as a “huge” first draft of her novel The Empty Chair. Like many of us she was counseled to cut words. What happened? Here’s what C.D. Rose reports: 
She removed every adjective from her book. Once that task was completed, she turned back to the beginning and started again. Relative clauses went next, then the passive voice. Metaphor, simile, symbol. All felt the knife. None were spared. 
 In an ending befitting of O.Henry, Wendy Wedding was ultimately left with one blank page. 

       Lessons to be learned?  The Washington Post’s Michael Dirda, in his review of The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure (Washington Post, November 5, 2014), points us to Chekhov for guidance.  Chekhov concluded that in judging the merits of literary works "[o]ne must be a god to be able to tell successes from failures without making a mistake."  

28 March 2015

Never Marry a Crime Writer

(they let me off my leash again...)

Everybody knows they shouldn’t marry a writer.  Mothers the world over have made that obvious: “For Gawd Sake, never marry a marauding barbarian, a sex pervert, or a writer.” (Or a politician, but that is my own personal bias.  Ignore me.)

But for some reason, lots of innocent, unsuspecting people marry writers every year.  Obviously, they don’t know about the (gasp!) “Zone.”  (More obviously, they didn’t have the right mothers.)

Never mind: I’m here to help.

I think it pays to understand that writers aren’t normal humans: they write about people who don’t exist and things that never happened.  Their brains work differently.  They have different needs.  And in some cases, they live on different planets (at least, my characters do, which is kind of the same thing.)

Thing is, writers are sensitive creatures.  This can be attractive to some humans who think that they can ‘help’ poor writer-beings (in the way that one might rescue a stray dog.)  True, we are easy to feed and grateful for attention.  We respond well to praise.  And we can be adorable.  So there are many reasons you might wish to marry a writer, but here are 10 reasons why you shouldn’t:

The basics: 

1.  Writers are hoarders.  Your house will be filled with books.  And more books.  It will be a shrine to books.  The lost library of Alexandria will pale in comparison.

2.  Writers are addicts.  We mainline coffee.  We’ve also been known to drink other beverages in copious quantities, especially when together with other writers in places called ‘bars.’ 

3.  Writers are weird.  Crime Writers are particularly weird (as weird as horror writers.) You will hear all sorts of gruesome research details at the dinner table.  When your parents are there.  Maybe even with your parents in mind.

4.  Writers are deaf.  We can’t hear you when we are in our offices, pounding away at keyboards. Even if you come in the room.  Even if you yell in our ears.

5.  Writers are single-minded.  We think that spending perfectly good vacation money to go to crime writing conferences like Bouchercon is a really good idea.  Especially if there are other writers there with whom to drink beverages.

The bad ones:

6.  It may occasionally seem that we’d rather spend time with our characters than our family or friends.  (See 9 below.)

7.  We rarely sleep through the night.  (It’s hard to sleep when you’re typing.  Also, all that coffee...)

8.  Our Google Search history is a thing of nightmares.  (Don’t look.  No really – don’t.  And I’m not just talking about ways to avoid taxes… although if anyone knows a really fool-proof scheme, please email me.)

And the really bad ones:

9.  If we could have affairs with our beloved protagonists, we probably would. (No!  Did I say that out loud?)

10.  We know at least twenty ways to kill you and not get caught.

RE that last one:  If you are married to a writer, don’t worry over-much.  Usually writers do not kill the hand that feeds them.  Mostly, we are way too focused on figuring out ways to kill our agents, editors, and particularly, reviewers.

Melodie Campbell writes funny books, like The Artful Goddaughter, book 3 in the award-winning series about a reluctant mob goddaughter.  Please don't be reluctant to check them out.

27 March 2015

You Asked For It (or: Changing Men's Minds Redux)

By Dixon Hill

Not long ago, I posted an article linked to a story discussing the difficulties encountered by female police officers in Afghanistan.  At that time, I told you about one of my experiences concerning the education of foreign officers where females soldiers were concerned.

I also mentioned that I'd had a second experience educating foreign troops to change their view of women, and some readers asked me to post this experience, so that's what you'll be reading below.

I think I should point out that there are different ways of helping chauvinistic men see "the weaker
sex" in a stronger light.  Some of you may not approve of my particular methods in this case, but I hope you'll realize that my objective was to help soldiers in an army that was preparing to send troops into trouble spots for the United Nations, as well as other peace keeping organizations, avoid potential problems.

And, the biggest problem here was that we didn't want some unit subordinate to the UN, for instance, to commit war crimes.

Our concern was, because of these troops' cultural views on the roles played by men and women during armed conflict, they might ignorantly be led to shooting innocent people during a fire fight.

I'm not talking about "collateral damage" here: I'm talking about troops intentionally shooting innocent people, because they might hold the view that the gender of these folks made them legal targets on the battlefield.

The following is what happened:

My A-Team was working in a foreign country, running a leadership school for them, and the Host Nation held a demonstration of their military prowess (as is common when an A-Team visits). During this demo, they showed us the method they used to determine if a person was an enemy combatant or not.

During the demo, they conducted a live-fire exercise against targets with full-color illustrated paper figures taped on the front, which were somewhat similar to the targets in the montage on the left.

In the montage left, above,
this woman is a victim.
In another target version,
she is carrying groceries.
Here, she is clearly
pointing a gun at you.
In other versions, this guy
is carrying a movie camera.
Some of these target figures were men or boys. Some were women or girls.  And many held fire arms or knives, while others carried groceries, a camera or some other innocuous item.

I was quite used to these targets, having used them myself when in various schools, or other training, to learn selective shooting techniques.  And, I knew that the trick to succeeding against an array of these targets -- erected by someone who was trying to trick you into shooting "innocent" targets, in order to train you NOT to do so in the future -- was to concentrate on the target's hands.

If the target holds a weapon, you shoot it.  If not, you can't, because that person (unless identified by uniform or in some other manner) is a non-combatant; so hold your fire.

The soldiers in this Host Nation, however, had a different practice.

Their procedure?

"If it's male -- KILL IT!  If it's female, let it live."

They didn't care that they shot men holding little boy's hands.  They shot the little boys too!

(I was stupefied.)

If the man was holding a little girl's hand, however, the girl was not to be shot.  Just the man beside her.

So, too, did the female wielding a shotgun go without injury.  But, the man holding groceries (his target standing beside the shotgun-wielding female) was filled with holes.

It was unbelievable.  But it happened.

That evening, in our team hooch, my Team Leader (a captain rather new to SF) looked at me and said, "Sergeant Hill, you're scheduled to teach the class about the Law of Land Warfare.  Your class has to address this issue!  These guys are in an army that's getting ready to do a lot of work for the U.N., and other international peace keeping organizations, and they're going to get into firefights going where they're going.  You've got to make it clear that they can't kill innocent civilians: they're going to wind up committing war crimes if you don't."

So, this is how I wound up teaching a class, in which I used a rather oddly chosen movie to carefully outline what made a person a "combatant" under the Law of Land Warfare.  And, I carefully explained that women could be combatants.  And that NOT ALL men were combatants.  And that they'd better be sure they weren't shooting innocent civilians, or they could be hung for committing a war crime.

Problem was:  These guys weren't paying any more attention than those Middle-Eastern officers had paid to that female Spec-4 I mentioned in that previous post.  Their culture told them that all men were legal targets, and all women were innocent.  They didn't know why I was confused about this, but clearly I was.

I hated to spoil their dream of all women being innocent, but . . .

Well, I'd prepared for this moment.

And now I decided it was time for a little shock treatment.  About a half-hour before class, I had put a TV set in the class room (which was outdoors; I had to run two 100-foot extension cords), along with a VCR.  I had the tape of Apocalypse Now all loaded, and had run it up to the point where the Air Cavalry attacks the Viet Cong village in a helicopter assault.  It was dark out, being night time.

So, I shut off the lights, and hit PLAY.

I had pre-set the tape so that we started right in the middle of the battle: VC anti-aircraft batteries firing at the choppers, choppers machine-gunning rifle-wielding VC and firing rockets into the anti-aircraft sites.  The students leaned forward, excited.

I stood back and used a pointer, tapping it on the TV screen, pointing to the weapons certain VC characters carried, saying: "Weapon!  Combatant! -- LEGAL TARGET!" each time.  Or, I might point out "Uniform!  Combatant! LEGAL TARGET!"

My pointer tapped the anti-aircraft crew gathered around their weapon: "Combatants, or not?" I bellowed above the movie soundtrack.

"Combatants, sir!" came the mass reply.  This went on for some time.

Then . . .
                 we came to the scene where the Viet Cong female throws a conical hat into the helicopter parked on the ground.  The chopper explodes, because her hat hid a grenade.  The students cried out, shocked.

A second or two later, I tapped the end of my pointer against the woman's running figure as she scrambled across the screen, away from the carnage.

"Combatant, or not?" I called.

They stared at me, silent, blinking, heads swiveling between me, my pointer and the figure on the screen.

"COMBATANT  OR  NOT?" I demanded.

Before I could get an answer, she was gunned down from a helicopter above.

My students gasped.  They clasped their hands over their mouths.  Some of them rocked back and forth in horror and confusion, where they sat on the split-log benches.  Their horror was nearly palpable.

So was their confusion.

And, frankly, this was the moment I'd been waiting for.

I froze the picture on the image of the man who had used the machine gun to shoot down that woman.  (I think it was Robert Duvall, as LTC Kilgore, but I can't find a copy of this particular scene online for some reason.)  Slapping my pointer on his image, I snapped, "Is this man going to be tried and hung by an international court of law for war crimes?  Or is he safe from such charges?  Was that woman he killed a combatant, or not?  If she was a combatant, he's safe.  If she wasn't --- He . . . will . . . be . . . HANGED!"

Not an eye in that classroom wandered for the next two hours, until my class was over.  For many days afterward, students would quietly approach other members of my A-Team, suggesting scenarios and asking if so-and-so would be a combatant or not.  From what I heard, many of these questions centered around actions performed by women during combat.  As one of my team members said to me: "What the hell did you tell these guys?  They're all scared s--tless of being hung for war crimes, or else being shot by some chick!"

I nodded and smiled.  "Good!"

See you in two weeks,

26 March 2015

A Little Religious Conspiracy Theory

As you hopefully know by now, I love a good conspiracy theory.  And some events generate lots of them.  A very early event that has not yet stopped generating conspiracy theories is, of course, the death of Jesus, and since Palm Sunday is the 29th and Easter comes next, I thought it would be a good time to review some of most interesting conspiracy theories.  If nothing else, just to prove that it's not just politics that brings out the crazy...
First of all, there were at least three real conspiracies that surrounded Jesus:
  • The first one in (among other places) Matthew 26:14-16, where the chief priests paid Judas to betray Jesus so they could have him executed, quickly and relatively quietly, before the Passover.  
  • The second, of course, was the show trial before first Caiaphas and then Pilate, complete with manufactured witnesses and a lot of fake weeping, wailing and tearing of clothes in horror.
  • The third in Matthew 28:11-15, after the finding of the empty tomb:  "Now while they [the disciples] were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened.  After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.”  So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day."  
    • BTW that "keep you out of trouble" part was VERY important, because Roman guards who lost prisoners were killed in their stead.  
But enough of reality, let's get on with the crazy:
"When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage & Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent 2 of his disciples & said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, & immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it & bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away & found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; & they allowed them to take it. Mark l1:1-6
Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover meal for us that we may eat it.” They asked him, “Where do you want us to make preparations for it?” “Listen,” he said to them, “when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house he enters and say to the owner of the house, ‘The teacher asks you, “Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”’ He will show you a large room upstairs, already furnished. Make preparations for us there.” So they went and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal. Luke 22:7-13
The above  two passages have been used repeatedly to prove that there was a plot, a conspiracy, and Jesus was in on it and/or was the mastermind. But what kind of plot?  What kind of conspiracy? Folks, there are a lot of them:

(1) That Jesus would be replaced by his twin, or doppelganger, who would die on the cross for him so that he could appear to be resurrected and, thus, start a whole new religion. Or get out of town later. Both ideas have been used. The most likely candidate?  Thomas, who was known as "the Twin" (Didymas), which certainly puts a whole new spin on Doubting Thomas, doesn't it?

(2) Another theory says that these 2 messages - the colt and the guy with the pitcher of water - were coded messages, letting the conspirators know that the time was at hand for a major magic act to take place.  This conspiracy theory breaks down a couple of ways:
  • One version says that the plan was for Jesus to be arrested, tried, convicted, crucified and drugged with that vinegar on a stick (John 19:28).  He was then taken down - comatose but still alive - nursed back to health, appeared to the disciples, who spread the story of his resurrection while he went off to Tibet to become a monk in the Himalayas. 
  • Another version was given in the 1960's book "The Passover Plot", where they said that everything was going according to the above plan BUT then came some stupid soldier with a spear.  For some reason, he hadn't been bribed, and he killed a living Jesus on the cross by mistake.  And then the disciples had to make up a story and stick to it.  Hence, John 19 & 20, Luke 23 & 24, etc.  
  • Dorothy Sayers in her "The Man Born to be King" says that it was a code, a conspiracy, but it was set up by the Zealots:  they offered Jesus a choice between a horse and a colt, and if he took the horse, they'd follow him in an uprising against Rome.  If he took the colt, he was on his own.  They'd find another leader.  He took the colt, and death was the result.  BUT Judas didn't know the details, and he thought that by taking the colt, Jesus had turned political, and so Judas turned him in for being less holy than Judas wanted/needed him to be.  Actually, I kind of like this one - at least it makes sense in the political climate of the time, and it gives Judas a reason to betray Jesus.
(3)  Jesus was a myth.  Variations:
  • D. M. Murdock, in her book "The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold," says that Christianity was invented by a variety of secret societies and mystery religions to unify the Roman Empire under one state religion.  Without, of course, bothering to figure out WHY the Roman Empire needed one state religion and ignoring the fact that it already had a form of it in Rome's ready worship of any new god that came along, not to mention the Emperor Cultus...  Let's just say that this is the kind of book that makes historians like me go bang their head against a wall over and over again...
  • Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and the Holy Grail - ad infinitum, ad nauseum
  • My personal favorite of all conspiracy theories is in an obscure book from the 1970's, "The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross" by John Marco Allegro.  According to Allegro, Jesus was actually a psychedelic mushroom. Or hallucinations resulting from taking psychedelic mushrooms.  And, in case you're wondering, yes, I absolutely do believe that psychedelic mushrooms were indeed consumed in the conception and writing of that book…
Why do people come up with these things?  Or believe them?  Well, there's a lot of reasons.  But I think the main reason is simple:  conspiracy theorists feel like members of an elite club or cult, in which they are in on the "real" truth.  People love to be in on a secret - it makes us feel like we belong, like we're knowledgeable, like we're superior.  Nobody can fool us. We're in control, because we're in the know, whether it's about 9/11 or Roswell or Bigfoot or a death in Judea 2000 years ago.

Coming soon — who killed Chaucer?

25 March 2015

Dead Zero

I came to Steve Hunter somewhere in mid-career - I mean his - when I read HOT SPRINGS, which came out in 2000. The next book I read was DIRTY WHITE BOYS, which had been released in 1994. Then, like a lot of us do, I went back and started at the beginning, with THE MASTER SNIPER, from 1980, and read the rest of his novels in order. Although some of them are stand-alones, most of them focus on a Marine sniper, Bob Lee Swagger, who saw combat in Viet Nam, and his dad, Earl, a Medal of Honor winner in the Pacific war. And the books cross-pollinate, in the sense that some members of the cast have running cameos.

My own personal favorite in BLACK LIGHT, and when I suggested to Hunter in an e-mail exchange that I guessed his own favorite was TIME TO HUNT, he admitted it was true. My reasons for liking BLACK LIGHT are its nimbleness and canny plotting, and I think Steve's reasons for liking TIME TO HUNT are about emotional resonance.

I have to say that a couple of the recent Bob Lee books left me somewhat lukewarm. DEAD ZERO and SOFT TARGET let a little too much of Hunter's politics leak in. I could say the same of John LeCarre, in all fairness. Hunter's somewhere off to my Right, and LeCarre more to my Left. (I found ABSOLUTE FRIENDS enormously irritating.) Samuel Goldwyn is supposed to have once said, "If you want to send a message, use Western Union."

Mind you, I love the gun stuff in Hunter's books. I got no issue with it. But everybody doesn't feel the same way. He tells a story where somebody said to him, Gee, they liked the books, but they got bogged down in the guncraft, and couldn't there be less of it? Which reminds me of a Tony Hillerman anecdote. When he pitched the first of his Navajo mysteries, THE BLESSING WAY, one agent came back and told him, This is pretty good, but can you get rid of all that Indian crap? I guess you have to take the bitter with the sweet.

Which brings us to SNIPER'S HONOR, out this past year.

Two linked plot lines. The first is the Ostfront in 1944, a Russian sharpshooter, Mili Petrova, and the second is Bob Lee in present day, trying to figure out how come her story had been erased from the historical record. And of course the stories collide. I happen to really like the device of shifting POV, with the past impinging on the present, not least because I've used it myself. (The bounty hunter novella DOUBTFUL CANYON has two interdependent narratives, told fifty years apart.) In the case of SNIPER'S HONOR, the game's afoot in Ukraine, and Mili and Bob Lee traverse the same terrain, with both similar and competing obstacles in their path. Mili setting up a thousand-yard cold-bore shot on a particularly loathsome Obergruppenfuhrer-SS - think Reinhard Heydrich - and Bob Lee tracking her from a distance in time, but seeing her boots on the ground in his mind's eye.

This is some trick, too, and what you might call a lap dissolve, in movie terms, where you see the landscape mapped out, with a sniper's eye (or rather, two sets of snipers' eyes), and how their parallel approach to the target intersects. The suspense is killing me. Does she make the shot? You know better than to ask. You'll find out on p. 327, point of aim, range, trajectory, bullet weight, deflection - let's just say a few variables.

What you really want to know is, though, is the Master Sniper back on game? I'm here to bear witness. There's a boatload of gun stuff, sure. I ate it up. There's one hell of a good story, too, at both ends. And there's just deserts. (I checked the spelling on that.) Is there anything more you need? Well, the next book, I, RIPPER, is out this coming May. Knife work, I'm thinking. Gaslight. Cobblestoned streets, greasy with damp. Arterial spray. I can't hardly wait.

24 March 2015

The Battle Of A Thousand Slain

I would venture to guess that one of the least known periods in American history lies between the years of the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.  Many of us are pretty well versed in the events leading to the creation of the United States, and that later titanic struggle to keep them united, but what lies between them is often murky, if not completely unknown.  For instance, how many folks do you know who can tell you anything coherent about the War of 1812 or the Mexican-American War?  Not many, I bet.  It seems to be a rather obscure period to most people, almost as if we, as a nation, had yet to gel, to come completely into focus.  And maybe there's some truth in that.  If you are wondering to what literary purpose this line of thought could possibly lead, I can only offer this historical terra incognita as potentially fertile ground for the writer's imagination.  The following is a brief account of one event during this period with which you may not be acquainted.  If you are, I salute you, if not, read on.

In the year 1791, the brand new nation of the United States, still recovering from years of protracted warfare with England, faced one of its greatest challenges--the Northwest Frontier.  Not the northwest that now encompasses Idaho, Oregon and Rob Lopresti's beloved Washington State, but a great swath of territory bounded by the Ohio River to the east and south, the Mississippi to the west, with Canada as its northern border.  An area that now includes the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kentucky, West Virginia, and part of Pennsylvania.  This was Indian Country.  Of course, it had always been Indian country, but in the years leading up to 1791, it had become more so due to the pressure of westward expansion by the new Americans.  Many tribes that had once lived in New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas had coalesced in the Ohio River Valley, and there was a growing sentiment among them that they had been pushed far enough. 
Portrait of Daniel Boone

At this time the Ohio Valley and its environs were a vast and abundant wilderness, teeming with game.  Bison still roamed its verdant terrain, as did bear, wolves, cougar, beaver, otter, and elk.  Most European-Americans had never been beyond the boundary of the Allegheny Mountains and the Ohio River was the demarcation line between two vastly different worlds.  Based on the explorations and hunting tales of the legendary Daniel Boone and others, it was rumored to be a paradise on earth, and in many ways it was.  However, this was a paradise that demanded blood from interlopers.  Daniel Boone  himself had narrowly escaped death there on several occasions, and had lost both his eldest son and youngest brother to Indian warriors.  And their deaths had not been easy ones.  Torture and terror were familiar tactics in wilderness warfare, and Boone's loved ones had suffered terribly before their deaths.  He had enjoyed some protection in his travels as the adopted son of the Shawnee Chief Black Fish, but it was no guarantee of a long life in this part of the world, as inter-tribal rivalries and conflict were a part of the fabric there too. As a literary aside, James Fennimore Cooper's "Last Of The Mohicans" was based largely on Boone's actual exploits and adventures. 

Warfare between the Native Americans and the Europeans was nothing new in this region.  In fact, by 1791, it had been on-going, with only brief interludes of true peace, since 1754.  Literally thousands had died beginning with the French and Indian War, followed by Pontiac's Uprising, Lord Dunmore's War, and most lately, the Revolutionary War.  The largely Algonquian-speaking tribes of the region had sided with the British in the War of Independence, and with the French in the first war.  The two wars in between had been on their own initiative.  None of these choices had  endeared them to the New Americans.  In 1783, the Treaty of Paris settled the peace between Britain and its former colony, resulting in His Majesty's government ceding all of its territory as far west as the Mississippi River to the new American government.  And therein lay the rub--the Indians considered these lands as their own to use and live upon and they had not signed any treaty nor been invited to Paris to do so.  They did not intend to abide by it.

Romanticized Painting of Pontiac
The idea of a separate Pan-Indian Nation had been growing amongst the various tribes since Chief Pontiac's doomed coalition of tribal nations, and many felt the Ohio River should be their new national border.  But, to complicate matters for the intransigent tribes , the Six Nations (a confederacy of Iroquoian tribes consisting of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora) claimed the Ohio Valley as their own, though they did not reside there, and that the largely Algonquian tribes in the region had been subjugated by them and dwelled there under their sufferance.  Though there was some truth to the claim of having subdued these neighbors at one time or another, there was little to support their declaration of territorial ownership, a concept largely foreign to Native American society.  Nonetheless, the new American government negotiated with them, gaining the Six Nations' blessing for settling the area, while guaranteeing them the inviolability of their own homeland in upstate New York.   

Little Turtle
Though there were dozens of Ohioan tribes affected by these events, some indigenous to the valley, as well as a number newly arrived there, three stood out in their stiff resistance to the new regime: the Miami, the Shawnee, and the Delaware; each of these led by particularly gifted warriors: Little Turtle, Blue Jacket, and Buckongahelas, respectively.  They intended to enforce the line of demarcation and waged a particularly vicious campaign against the whites that crossed the river.  By the time President Washington determined to take action, the death toll of westward traveling pioneers had risen to some 1,500 slain.

The first attempt by the fledgling American government to force the issue in what became known as Little Turtle's War, was in 1790.  After the War of Independence, the army had largely been disbanded, and what was left was under-funded and woefully equipped.  Under the leadership of General Josiah Harmar, a force of approximately 1,100 poorly-trained militia, stiffened by some 320 regular soldiers of the First (and only) Regiment of the U.S. Army, headed west into Ohio country.  There, on Oct. 22, near present day Ft. Wayne, Indiana they were met by 1,100 Indian warriors primed for a fight.  For reasons known only to the general (some say that he was drunk at the time) he only committed 400 of his men to the attack.  This was not sufficient to carry the day, but when he was informed that things were going badly for the vanguard, he refused to send reinforcements, setting the remainder of the regiment into a defensive posture.  In the end, he managed a retreat, losing a 129 soldiers killed, 94 wounded before the day was done.  Estimates of Native American casualties (wounded and killed) was 120 to 150.  Though their losses were similar, the Northwestern Tribal Coalition had unquestionably triumphed...and they were just getting warmed up.

Having been thoroughly chastised for their encroachment, Harmar's army fell back across the river.  Their Commander-In-Chief, President Washington, no stranger to military set-backs and defeats himself, re-evaluated the situation.  Deciding that the faults exhibited by Harmar could be addressed through an experienced and competent commander, Washington appointed his old friend and comrade-in-arms, General Arthur St. Clair to take the fight to the enemy.  A veteran of the Revolution, and current governor (at least in name) of the newly acquired Northwest Territory, he appeared to be a sound choice and a steady, combat-proven, leader.  Perhaps his only obvious drawbacks were his age and declining health; of his resolve and courage, there was no question.  These he would need.

Gen. Arthur St. Clair
Instructed to mount his campaign during the summer months, St. Clair set about his task.  Congress agreed to raise a second regiment for his use and to augment the sadly demoralized First Regiment.  In the end, they were only able to recruit about half of the numbers required, and the First had become reduced to a mere 299 soldiers.  St. Clair was forced to recruit militia from Kentucky, as well as two regiments of six-month levies.  It was not the army he would have wished for.

St. Clair's target was the Miami capital of Kekionga, where he hoped to strike a decisive and winning blow.  However, plagued by supply and logistics problems, his army was delayed in their departure until October.  Setting out from Fort Washington (present-day Cincinnati), he led a force of around 2,000 men, of which only 600 were regulars.  They also had about 200 camp followers attach themselves to the expedition--mostly wives, children, prostitutes, and laundresses.  Desertions had begun even before they left the fort and within a short while, as they made exceedingly slow progress, their numbers fell to about 1,500 ill-trained and equipped fighting men.  Undoubtedly, it was not how St. Clair had envisioned things.

To make matters worse, the commander made a decision to build a series of forts along their route of march.  Whether these were intended to function as future garrisons, or as potential fallback positions, is not clear, perhaps he was thinking of both.  In any event, the effort involved in these undertakings was considerable and further slowed their march into the wilderness.  This, and the unusually cold autumn, may also have encouraged further desertions, which continued unabated throughout their westward movement.  As if these difficulties were not enough, the expedition was shadowed daily by hostile forces who reported their progress (and lack thereof) as well as their troop strengths and dispositions to their leaders.  No doubt Little Turtle, Blue Jacket, and Buckongahelas were  encouraged at the continued bleed-off of manpower.  These same skirmishers made numerous deadly forays into the Americans' columns, as well, howling out of the shadow of the forest in a fast-moving terror of whirling tomahawks and war clubs.  Almost before the soldiers could react, the Indians would vanish back into the woods spattered with the blood of their enemies and lofting their scalps in triumph.  Troubled by both gout and a personal feud with his second-in command, St. Clair forced his troops deeper into the heart of darkness.  By November 2, All-Souls Day, he commanded only 920 soldiers and the ever-dogged camp followers. 

The following day, St. Clair ordered his men to set up an encampment at the headwaters of the Wabash River.  They were within reach of their goal.  Inexplicably, and against the advice of President Washington, he failed to order the fortification of the camp before nightfall, seeming to forget that his forces were also within easy reach of their enemies' main body of warriors.  The three chiefs decided that this would be the spot that they would fight.

Watching unseen from the wood line the following dawn, over 1,100 Native American warriors waited for their opponents to stack their arms in preparation for morning chow--a ritual they had witnessed many times.  They were not disappointed, and reacted by swooping down upon the unarmed militia first.  The unseasoned civilian/soldiers fled before the onslaught without their weapons, and were chased down and killed almost before the others could react.
The Demise Of Maj. Gen Butler (St. Clair's Second-In-Command)
The regulars, under St. Clair's direction grabbed their muskets and formed a battle line, discharging their weapons into the attackers, breaking their charge and causing them to fall back.  On a slight rise above the camp, artillerymen rallied to prepare their small cannon and place fire on the screaming, killing horde.  But they had been anticipated by the cunning chiefs.  Indian sharp-shooters cut them down, driving the survivors off the hillock and into the arms of their enemies.  Meanwhile, Little Turtle and his co-commanders directed a flanking movement to pour fire into the American troops.  Desperate, St. Clair ordered a bayonet charge to break up the enemy's attack.  The Indians fell back into the woods where the Americans followed, only to be surrounded and cut down.

Leading additional bayonet charges time and again, St. Clair met with the same results, his army was being cut to pieces.  While attempting to rally his men, he had several horses shot out from under him, and was seen dragging men out from hiding beneath wagons, calling them cowards, and ordering them to take up the fight once more.  It was all for naught.  After several hours of blood and chaos, he formed up what was left of his force and led yet another charge--this one to open a path to the direction from which they had come.  Leaving the dead and dying behind, the remnant was dogged for three hours more as they desperately made their way eastward.  Then, the triumphant Confederation warriors, distracted by the opportunity for scalps and booty, broke off the pursuit and returned to the battlefield.  Those that lay dead there were the lucky ones.  The rest were tortured and burned alive.  It was said that the field of human torches lit the night sky.

At the end of the day, 832 whites had been killed (including nearly all of the camp followers) and 264 wounded, a casualty rate of 97.4 percent.  Only 21 Indian warriors had been slain; another 40 wounded.  It remains the worst single defeat ever suffered by the U.S. Army, and amounted to three times the number of Custer's troops slain at Little Big Horn.  The contest would enter the history books as the Battle of the Wabash, a rather innocuous title.  The Indian Nations would call it the Battle of a Thousand Slain, a somewhat more accurate description.

Several "firsts" emerged from the disaster: Congress issued its first-ever demand for White House records regarding the conflict, and the president, in his turn, exercised the first recorded instance of executive privilege.  He denied the demand until the records could be copied, as he felt it unwise to hand over the only originals extant.  Gen. St. Clair demanded a court-martial, feeling it would clear his name, but his boss denied him.  The congressional investigation largely exonerated him nonetheless, accepting his explanation that the expedition had been doomed from the start by a Department of War that refused to furnish sufficient, and properly trained, troops and barely supplied them enough shot, powder, and food to survive the undertaking. 

Of course this was not the end of the matter.  Washington appointed, yet another, hero-veteran of the Revolution, "Mad" Anthony Wayne, to head up a third military expedition.  On this occasion, however, Wayne was granted his demands for enough time in which to train his troops, and that they be properly equipped and supplied throughout.  In return, he promised both success and an army worthy of the name.  His new American "Legion" was not ready until 1794, but when they went into action at the Battle of Fallen Timbers they broke the back of the Northwestern Confederacy.  Scattered and defeated, the Native Americans were forced to withdraw further west, many crossing the Mississippi to escape the steady encroachment of the settlers.  But the dream of a Native American Nation was not dead, and a young Shawnee named Tecumseh would revive it in less than a generation.  But that's another story.

Romanticized Portrait of Tecumseh

23 March 2015

The Detective Doctor

"You see, doctors are detectives, are they not, Rra? You look for clues. I do too.”
--Mma Ramotswe, proprietrix of the No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. "Doctors, detectives, and common sense," by Alexander McCall Smith

Mystery readers are clever, so you may have deduced that your newest SleuthSayer (moi) is also an emergency physician. I consider this great training for my detective alter ego, Dr. Hope Sze, because medicine trains you to…

1. Talk to people.

On a vacation in Hawaii, I met a 29-year-old who’d been retired for a year. Who does that? I set about quizzing him. How did he do it? Why was he so eager to make bank? I could tell he wasn’t crazy about answering me, so I explained, “I’m an emergency doctor! My job is to extract the most amount of information in the least amount of time.”

Granted, a detective may be more tactful than me. But we both have to learn how to ask intelligent questions, listen to the answers, and throw out the B.S.

Ancient Hawaiian justice system: if you broke a kapu (sacred law),
your only hope was to swim to a sacred place of refuge
like this one at Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park.

2. Learn patience.

You know how long doctors slog in school? I spent 25 years of my life from kindergarten until my emergency fellowship. And I’m not, say, a vascular surgeon with seven years of residency under my belt. Plus they estimate that doctors spend 50 percent of their time doing paperwork. You never see ER, Nurse Jackie,and Grey’s Anatomy spending half their waking hours on forms.

As for detectives, the New York Times recently published the provocatively-titiled essay, The Boring Life of a Private Investigator.

For both of us, TV cuts out the dull bits and maximizes the drama. Wise move.

3. Use your powers of observation as well as technology.

Once my senior resident told me, “The more I practice, the more I realize that the history and physical exam don’t matter. It’s all the tests you order, like the ultrasound or CT.”

Within the hour, the attending staff asked me, “Did you see bed 4?”


“Did you notice anything unusual on the physical exam?”

“I noticed a systolic murmur.”

“That senior resident [a year above you] missed a grade III aortic stenosis murmur. You could feel the delayed upstroke during systole.”

Which may sound like jibber-jabber to people outside the trade, but what it means is, even in the age of technology, you should use your brain at all times. The imaging and other technology will help you, so you may end up doing the right thing, but you can look like an idiot.

Or, to quote Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles, “The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes."

At the moment, I’m enjoying both medicine and writing. As Dorothy L. Sayers’ detective said in Whose Body?: “It is full of variety and it forces one to keep up to the mark and not get slack. And there's a future to it. Yes, I like it. Why?"

So if you’d like to follow how my fictional medical resident became a detective in her spare time, take a gander at Dr. Hope Sze.

Or if you can take medical stories straight up, for the next week, I’ll also post a free excerpt from my book, Fifty Shades of Grey’s Anatomy.

What do you think? Does medicine train you for detective work? Or is another profession better? Let me know in the comments.

And tune in on April 6th, when I plan to talk about book trailers.

22 March 2015

Keeping It Real

Shimmer by David Morrell
SleuthSayers has entertained open-ended discussions by readers and writers about when (and whether) to use actual place names. This decision ultimately comes down to the rĂ´le location plays in a story and the inclinations of the author. Recently, I came across an example where I wondered why a popular author chose not only to fabricate (or ‘re-imagine’) a real place, but real people.

A friend gave me a tattered copied of Shimmer by thriller author David Morrell, a writer admired by our own David Edgerley Gates. Suffused with a Dean Koontz-like inexplicable supernatural presence, its genre is difficult to classify– not exactly science fiction, not paranormal, not quite a crime novel.

The premise draws a reader in: without explanation, wife leaves cop husband, stops en route to her mother to visit a ‘lights in the sky’ phenomena, and subsequently all hell breaks loose. Although this mysterious phenomenon exerts an amorally moral force over people and events, it remains unexplained, which happens to work in this case.

Morrell would probably agree Shimmer isn’t his best novel, but it’s worthwhile. Initially the novel’s speech tags disconcerted me. Although I’m not overly religious about them, I’m with the group that tries to avoid speech ‘assists’. For the first few chapters, my eye stopped every time I encountered one until the plot eventually captured my attention and moved on. And that’s the hallmark: capturing a reader’s attention.

People, Places, and Things

The West Texas town of Rostov had a genuine feeling that made it seem it was based upon a real community. At times authors base locales on real settings but, because of minor liberties with details, change the names. Rostov felt like that.

The story referred to a movie ‘Birthright’, filmed in that area. By the second mention of its actor James Deacon, I began to wonder if the author was making an oblique reference to James Dean, if Birthright was actually the 1956 film Giant, and if ‘Rostov’ was Marfa, Texas. Each subsequent revelation convinced me ‘Deacon’ was a stand-in for Dean, finally confirmed in the afterword. Indeed, most of the details (except the age of Rock Hudson) appeared to be accurate.

Bear in mind these were passing mentions, not actual characters. So why invent James ‘Deacon’ when we could have learned details about James Dean himself? Why indeed?

Compare and Contrast

Guns of Navarone by Alistair MacLean
When I was a kid, I read Alistair MacLean’s novel, The Guns of Navarone, inspired by the actual Battle of Leros following the fall of Rhodes in the Dodecanese Campaign. One of the central characters was a New Zealand adventurer in his early 20s, a WW-II soldier and world-class mountaineer, chosen to scale the impassible south cliff and sabotage an impregnable Nazi fortress.

Not long after, I read about the conquering of Everest by Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary, a New Zealand adventurer in his early 20s, a WW-II veteran and world-class mountaineer… Wait, Navarone… Was that character’s name the same?

I went back to The Guns of Navarone and realized MacLean had named his hero Mallory, not Hillary, but it became clear Mallory was patterned upon the gentleman from New Zealand.

Interesting, especially since I thought this ‘semi-verisimilitude’ worked better in The Guns of Navarone than it did it did in Shimmer. Why?

Unfair Comparison

At the time of MacLean's writing, Sir Edmund Hillary was still alive. While one can legitimately refer to a living public person, casting them as a full-fledged character would be a highly dubious undertaking. Alistair MacLean simply used Hillary as a prototype.

In Shimmer, David Morrell mostly alluded to Deacon in bits of semi-historical trivia. Since references to the real James Dean would have served equally well– no, better since the audience might have learned something– why didn’t the author simply name the actual person?

Writers Bloc

I can’t answer for the author, but beginning writers might find the choice confusing. A Facebook self-publishing group is convinced HUGE LEGAL BARRIERS don’t allow mention of any real person at all, not Albert Einstein nor Martin Luther King or a not-so-real Ronald McDonald, without invoking lawsuits and huge fees, and God help them if they whisper the name Elvis™ or Marilyn™, intellectual properties owned by The National Enquirer. They know this because a cousin of an aunt whose friend worked in a cocktail lounge and wrote about JFK suffered CIA reprisals and, ratted out by ‘traditional publishers’, had to pull her book off Amazon. Okay, I exaggerate… slightly.

Writers are pretty safe referring to public figures as long as they stop short of outright libel. But I also suggest keeping one’s biases in check. I recall a novel that depicted Jimmy Carter improbably abusing White House servants, a political prejudice where an author’s distaste became authorial bad taste.

So what’s your take? If an author wants to refer to historical events and persons, should they fabricate pseudonyms for real people? And if so, why?

21 March 2015

East Texas Tales

NOTE: Many thanks to Leigh Lundin for pinch-hitting for me two weeks ago, and posting one of my Criminal Brief columns in this space. My computer had put all four feet in the air, and I'm afraid my iPad and iPhone weren't up to the task of creating a new SleuthSayers column. I'm now back in the saddle, so to speak, with a repaired iMac and poorer by several hundred bucks, and I do appreciate the help, Leigh. (As promised, the answers to the fifty movie quotes that appeared in my post two weeks ago are included at the end of today's column.) — JF

Years ago, not long after I had begun this whole writing-and-submitting-stories thing, I joined a mystery readers' group in nearby Jackson, Mississippi. During my second or third meeting I sat beside a local news reporter named Bill Minor, an avid reader and author who even in his retirement from journalism still writes an occasional column for the state newspaper. Bill always gave me good writing advice, and on that particular day in 2001 he gave me a book and told me to take it home. "Don't just read it, study it," he said to me. "It's one of the best mysteries I ever read, by one of the best writers around." The novel was Joe R. Lansdale's The Bottoms, which won the Edgar Award for Best Novel and a slew of other awards as well. Bill was right, by the way, about how good it is. To this day it remains one of my favorite books.

And Lansdale, although not exactly a household word, is no one-hit wonder. He was writing and publishing stories and novels long before The Bottoms, and is still turning out great fiction in several different genres--mainly mystery, horror, and fantasy. I like his work for the same reason I like Stephen King's: his writing is always, above all else, entertaining. Sometimes it's profound and meaningful and even beautiful, none of which is a bad thing. But it's always entertaining.

Odd can be good

Lansdale is probably best known for--what's the word?--quirky fiction. His plots are complex, twisty, and violent; his characters are unique and at times outrageous (the legendary and terrifying Goat Man in The Bottoms, a gunslinging midget in The Thicket, a backwoods killer-for-hire named Skunk in Edge of Dark Water); and his settings are usually east Texas, which in landscape and attitudes is more like the Deep South than Texas. And much of his fiction seems to involve dysfunctional families, racial tension, coming-of-age plots, and a Great-Depression-era timeframe. (Another similarity to King is that Lansdale often uses children as his protagonists.)

I haven't read all of his many novels and story collections, but I've read most of them, and even though it's hard to pick favorites when you can think of a lot of things you like about each one, these are the six novels I've enjoyed the most:

The Thicket (2013)
Edge of Dark Water (2012)
The Bottoms (2000)
A Fine Dark Line (2002)
Sunset and Sawdust (2004)
Freezer Burn (1999)

Hap, Leonard, and friends

The books I've mentioned are standalone tales, but Lansdale has also written a number of series novels featuring Hap Collins and Leonard Pine, one of the most delightful partnerships in fiction. Their adventures include Savage Season, Mucho Mojo, Captains Outrageous, Bad Chili, Devil Red, and Dead Aim. And thankfully, we'll soon be seeing them as well as reading about them: I'm told a TV series is under development for the Sundance Channel, which will feature Michael Kenneth Williams (from The Wire and Boardwalk Empire) as Leonard. Hap is yet to be cast.

A movie version of The Bottoms is also in the works, to be directed by actor Bill Paxton, and other film adaptations include Cold in July and Jonah Hex.

Whether you see his characters onscreen or on the page, I hope you'll give Joe Lansdale's work a try.

You'll like it.


Answers to my March 7 "movie quotes" quiz:

1. I love the smell of napalm in the morning.
Apocalypse Now (Robert Duvall to troops after an attack)

2. Where's that Joe Buck?
Midnight Cowboy (restaurant owner to his staff, concerning employee Jon Voight)

3. Be careful, out there among them English.
Witness (old Amish farmer to Harrison Ford, as Ford leaves for the city)

4. In the end you wind up dying all alone on some dusty street. And for what? A tin star?
High Noon (Lon Chaney, offering advice to Gary Cooper)

5. Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passing.
To Kill a Mockingbird (old man to Scout--Mary Badham--after the trial)

6. You design TOY airplanes?
The Flight of the Phoenix (Jimmy Stewart to engineer Hardy Kruger)

7. Fat man, you shoot a great game of pool.
The Hustler (Paul Newman to Jackie Gleason)

8. I'm George, George McFly. I am your density. I mean . . . your destiny.
Back to the Future (Crispin Glover to Lea Thompson, in the diner)

9. He did it! He missed the barn!
Cat Ballou (Michael Callan, when a drunk Lee Marvin tries to prove his marksmanship)

10. Remember me? I came in here yesterday and you wouldn't wait on me. Big mistake.
Pretty Woman (the new and improved Julia Roberts, to salesclerk)

11. We in the FBI don't have a sense of humor that I'm aware of.
Men in Black (Tommy Lee Jones to housewife, when she asks if he's making fun of her)

12. I saw it. It was a run-by fruiting.
Mrs. Doubtfire (Robin Williams to Pierce Brosnan)

13. Any man don't wanna get killed, better clear on out the back.
Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood to the group in the saloon)

14. Throw me the idol, I throw you the whip.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (Alfred Molina to a desperate Harrison Ford)

15. That's a negative, Ghostrider, the pattern is full.
Top Gun (control tower to Tom Cruise, when he requests a flyby)

16. You can't fight in here--this is the War Room.
Dr. Strangelove (President Peter Sellers, during the crisis)

17. I've got the motive, which is money, and the body, which is dead.
In the Heat of the Night (Rod Steiger to Sidney Poitier)

18. They say they're going to repeal Prohibition. What will you do then? / I think I'll have another drink.
The Untouchables (reporter to Kevin Costner and Costner's reply, at the end)

19. All these things I can do, all these powers . . . and I couldn't even save him.
Superman (Christopher Reeve to his mother, referring to his late father)

20. The next time I see Blue Duck, I'll kill him for you.
Lonesome Dove (Robert Duvall to Chris Cooper)

21. He can't go down with three barrels on him. Not with three, he can't.
Jaws (Robert Shaw to Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss, on the ill-fated boat)

22. A wed wose. How womantic.
Blazing Saddles (Madeline Kahn to Cleavon Little)

23. How will you die, Joan Wilder? Slow like a snail? Or fast, like a shooting star?
Romancing the Stone (soldier to Kathleen Turner, before their fight)

24. Oh, my. I hope that wasn't a hostage.
Die Hard (cop Paul Gleason to himself as he watches a body fall from the skyscraper)

25. I'll take these Huggies and whatever you got in the register.
Raising Arizona (Nicholas Cage to convenience store clerk)

26. He saved my life, and yours, and Arliss's. You can't just kill him, like he was nothin'!
Old Yeller (Tommy Kirk to his mother Dorothy Maguire)

27. Stay on or get off? STAY ON OR GET OFF?
Speed (Sandra Bullock to Keanu Reeves, as they approach freeway exit ramp)

28. Snake Plissken? I heard you were dead.
Escape From New York (cab driver Ernest Borgnine to Kurt Russell)

29. And for a brief moment, Gordo Cooper became the greatest pilot anyone had ever seen.
The Right Stuff (narrator, at the end)

30. He kissed you? What happened next? / Then he had to go invade Libya.
The American President (Annette Bening's sister to Bening, and reply)

31. Nobody ever won a war by dying for his country. You win a war by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.
Patton (George C. Scott, during the opening speech)

32. I wish they wouldn't land those things here while we're playing golf.
M*A*S*H (Elliott Gould to Donald Sutherland, referring to incoming chopper)

33. Oh Captain, my Captain.
Dead Poets Society (Ethan Hawke and other students, to fired teacher Robin Williams)

34. I don't reckon I got no reason to kill nobody.
Sling Blade (Billy Bob Thornton, in answer to reporter's question)

35. Goodnight, you princes of Maine, you knights of New England.
Cider House Rules (Michael Caine, and later Tobey Maguire, to the orphans)

36. Sometimes nothin' can be a mighty cool hand.
Cool Hand Luke (Paul Newman to the other poker players, after bluffing)

37. Today I saw a slave become more powerful than the Emperor of Rome
Gladiator (Connie Nielsen, referring to Russell Crowe)

38. Talk to her, Dad. She's a doctor. / Of what? Her first name could be Doctor.
Sleepless in Seattle (Tom Hanks' son, and Hanks' reply, while they're on hold)

39. Come on, Hobbs, knock the cover off the ball.
The Natural (Coach Wilford Brimley to Robert Redford)

40. Way to go, Paula! Way to go.
An Officer and a Gentleman (Lisa Blount to Debra Winger, at the end)

41. I see you've been missing a lot of work. / Well, I wouldn't say I've been missing it.
Office Space (downsizing team to employee Ron Livingston, and reply)

42. I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man.
True Grit (Robert Duvall to John Wayne, before the shootout)

43. Docta Jones, Docta Jones! No more parachutes!
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Jonathan Ke Quan to Harrison Ford, in their pilotless plane)

44. Now you run on home to your mother, and tell her everything's all right. And there aren't any more guns in the valley.
Shane (Alan Ladd to Brandon de Wilde, after the shootout)

45. I'm thinking your head would make a real good toilet brush.
Heaven's Prisoners (Alec Baldwin to thug, in a New Orleans dive)

46. Left early. Please come with the money . . . or you keep the car. Love, Tommy.
The Thomas Crown Affair (Steve McQueen's note to Faye Dunaway, at the end)

47. Active is pinging back something really big.
The Abyss (sonar operator Chris Elliott, to commander)

48. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers.
Pulp Fiction (Samuel L. Jackson to a doomed Frank Whaley)

49. I need a ride in your el trucko to the next towno.
The Mexican (Brad Pitt, thumbing a ride from the locals)

50. This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off.
Alien (Sigourney Weaver, after a really hard day)