31 October 2016

At Last

Today is October 31, 2016--Halloween.  Also known as Allhalloween, All Hallows Eve, and All Saints Eve, Halloween begins the three-day observance of Allhallowtide, the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembrance of the dead.
To most of us, Halloween is a holiday characterized by the dispensing of candy to costumed young people who threaten, "Trick or treat."  Other traditions include costume contests and parades.  When I taught elementary school, teachers and parents worked together to hold Halloween carnivals for students.  Before my retirement, these changed to Fall Festivals, and scary costumes (such as vampires, werewolves, skeletons, zombies, and this year--clowns) were forbidden because some people felt that Halloween was a celebration of witchcraft.

The traditions of Halloween include decorations such as black cats and pumpkins carved into jack-o-lanterns as well as activities like apple bobbing, pranks,  bonfires, and divination games.  In some parts of the world, Christian observances include church services and lighting candles on graves.

What accounts for the popularity of the non-religious aspects of Halloween? I believe it's because humans like to be scared--so long as what frightens us isn't real.  We might think that fall and Halloween would amplify the appeal of spookiness, but horror is a genre that transcends season.

How does the title "At Last" relate to Halloween and the horror genre?  Recently I've been doing a lot of writers' workshops in South Carolina libraries.  One of my most popular is entitled "A Late Start." The topic is writing as a second career after my retirement including disadvantages of waiting so long to begin writing fiction as well as the obvious advantages of greater maturity and vaster experiences. The workshops include tips on speeding up the process of successful writing and publishing.  The story of my first horror book proves that I don't always follow my own advice when it comes to fast writing and quick publication.

"At Last" would work as well if this blog referred to my first novel in 2007 as it does now to my tenth book released this month, but Leigh Lundin didn't invite me to return to SleuthSayers to summarize the workshop.  I'm here to tell you about my newest book and why "At Last" is a perfect title for this column.

The HORROR of JULIE BATES began several years ago as A Midnight Dreary and morphed into Something to Fear.  Both David Dean and Dixon Hill critiqued the manuscript during one of those phases, and I incorporated several of their suggestions. After numerous rewrites, my agent accepted it, but held back a year before pitching it.  Berkley was interested and made two suggestions.  Pardon my unladylike expression, but I busted my butt to work out the changes and dashed it off back to my agent in two weeks.  I didn't hear anything.

Sure, I wanted to push for a response, but we all know that it's not a good idea to put pressure on agents or editors.  After months and months, I asked the agent to touch base with the interested editor at Berkley.  I almost had another heart attack when I received an apology from my agent because he had forgotten to send her the manuscript revised to her requests.

Meanwhile, there had been major changes in the publishing world. To make a long story short (literally in this case), it was too late.

I began querying new agents and received some requests for the complete manuscript, but when Darren Foster at Odyssey South Publishing said, "Let us have it," I jumped at the chance.  And so, ladies and gentlemen, at last, my first horror novel is now available.  Here's the back copy:

                                 Who knew Columbia, South Carolina, could be so scary?

Julie Bates discovers a corpse in front of the Assembly Street post office.  Arson destroys her home the same day, but Julie's story is not a mystery.  It's horror--southern style.  Police officer Nate Adams thinks the killer who raped and murdered Julie's mother the year before is stalking Julie, but Julie's tormentor is not human.  The well-known ghosts of South Carolina barely skim the surface of the evil that awaits Julie Bates.  Move over, Amityville.  Columbia, South Carolina, is right there with you on the scale of terror.

How does a writer transition from cozyesque to horror? The preface explains:

When a red-haired woman approached me at a book-signing, I expected her to ask me to autograph one of my own cozy mysteries.  Instead, she asked me to write a book for her.  I went into my usual spiel that she could do a better job of putting her story on paper than I, but we agreed to meet in the coffee shop after the signing.  Writers are frequently approached to write or co-write someone else's story. Most of the time, we decline politely, but there was something about this mysterious stranger that made me hesitate to dismiss her so quickly,

The HORROR of JULIE BATES is that woman's story.  I spent many, many hours recording Julie Bates' tale and many more days and nights scaring myself as I wrote her story from her point of view, changing only names. The occasional third-person chapters were added after I was fortunate enough to obtain Richard Arthur's journal.

I have already received several emails questioning, "Did you make up this story or did a red-haired woman really tell it to you?"  I can honestly say the story came from a red-haired woman.

Long-time SleuthSayer readers know that I've jumped genre from cozies in the past when I wrote the thriller KUDZU RIVER.  I have no idea where I'll land next, but in the meantime,

Until we meet again, take care of … you!

30 October 2016

What's in a Name?

For most people, their name and their reputation go hand in hand. Someone mentions a person by name and another person in that conversation automatically recalls whatever information they know or have heard about that name. If it is something honest or good about the name then fine. However, if the receiver in that conversation has negative information about that name, or receives derogatory information, then he or she will feel wary about that particular individual. And, therein lies a true story. True as in it actually happened, but...let's just say some of the details were changed, like names, for instance.
We had a federal warrant for a guy named Jerry Goldsmith. Jerry was alleged to be a young up and comer as a Jewish associate to the Kansas City mafia. He supposedly had a legit job working for a local insurance agency, but it was also rumored that he didn't have to show up and do actual work in order to receive a paycheck. In any case, Jerry turned to dealing drugs in order to supplement whatever income he did have. And, that's how the guy came to our attention. Seems one of our agents made a case on Jerry for distribution of several thousand amphetamine tablets, also known on the street as white crosses in the old days. With arrest warrant in hand, my partner and I were sent out to fit the young gentleman with a set of shiny metal bracelets.

Big Jim and I checked out the usual hangouts, but Jerry was nowhere to be found. Last on our list of addresses was an apartment for Jerry's ex-girlfriend over on the Missouri side of the river. Her residence was in a two-story, red brick, four-plex. We knocked on the front door at ground level. A young woman came to the door. "Yes, that's me," she said, "but Jerry isn't here."

While we were talking with her, a four year old boy appeared at his mother's side. "Daddy?" he inquired. "Yeah, he's upstairs."

Jerry, who must have been listening to our conversation while he stayed just out of sight at the head of the stairs, now descended to the front door. At this point, Big Jim and I took Jerry into custody and read him his Miranda Rights. As the cuffs went on, Jerry did not take his new circumstances well, nor did he choose to employ his right to silence. Since it looked like it was not going to be a quiet ride to the holding cell anyway, I took this opportunity to remind Jerry that his immediate situation was his own fault. I'm sure he expected a lecture about the long term consequences of dealing drugs, however, what he got was something closer to home. "Jerry," I said, "you really should have married the little guy's mother and made him legitimate. Cuz it was your own son who gave you up to the law."

Jerry was quiet for a few heartbeats while he digested that thought, but then he started up again with his loud tirade. Seems I'd touched on a new sore spot.

The man was so disagreeable that a few months later, I started using a close variation of his name whenever I went undercover to buy drugs and make cases on dealers and their distribution organizations. For the next several years, even though Jerry was sitting in a federal pen staring out through iron bars, his name got used a lot. By the time Jerry got out on parole, his name was mud. Nobody trusted him as far as doing business with him in the criminal world. For years after, I often wondered if I'd helped Jerry keep to the straight and narrow path in his later life when he'd returned to the civilian world.

One of the main goals of U.S. Parole and Probation for its many clients is to guide each of those clients towards leading an honest life. One of their requirements is for said client to remove himself from his old ways and distance himself from his previous criminal companions. To accomplish this goal, the parole/probation agent tries to accentuate the positive aspects of doing so. I, on the other hand, I guess you could say, was on the other end of the balance, letting Jerry know in my own fashion that there were some negative repercussions waiting for him if he tried to return to his old environment, repercussions that had nothing to do with the threat of him going back to prison. It's a known factor on the streets that some hard core criminals don't take kindly to those low lifes who have allegedly made cases for the feds, whether they actually did or not.

After all, a rep and a name go hand in hand.

So yeah, I've wondered how Jerry's future went.  Was he smart enough to see the handwriting on the wall and therefore change his ways? Or did he take that long slide back down, the slide that would put him into the high percentage of recidivists where so many other convicts end up? And of course, there's always the cemetery or a car trunk if the bad guys can't take a joke.

Sometimes, it's all in a name.

So now, put on a costume and mask, go out in the world and pretend to be someone else.


29 October 2016

Things That Go Bump in the Night

by John M. Floyd

Even though it's not yet October 31, I'm told that some folks will be celebrating Halloween tonight instead (since it's Saturday, I guess). To me, that's goofy reasoning, but if trick-or-treaters can bend the rules, why can't I? I am hereby posting a Halloween-related column two days early.

I got the idea last week, when I was in Walmart looking for a roll of packing tape and happened to wander through the electronics section of the store. (I always wander through the electronics section of the store, but that's another matter.) Gravitating as usual to the DVD shelves, I noticed a huge display of Halloween movies--or at least scary movies. Or at least what the Walmart geniuses (genii?) think are scary movies. The point is, it got me to thinking about my favorite horror films.

Strangely enough, I don't consider zombie movies and teenage-summer-camp-slasher movies scary. They're just too unbelievable. What creeps me out the most are the two extremes: (1) insane people who seem all too real, and (2) otherworldly horror involving science fiction and/or fantasy elements. (I know, I know: that second item isn't believable either--but I love it.) Anyhow, that's just me. To each his own source of goosebumps.

Having said that, I offer the following list of my ten picks for scariest feature films:

1. Psycho. We'd probably agree that this is more mystery/suspense than horror, but tell me your sphincter didn't do some serious tightening when Norman popped into the root cellar wearing Mom's dress and a gray wig. I mean, what's scarier than a crazy guy with a butcher knife? (Honorable mentions, in the needs-to-be-fitted-for-a-straitjacket category: Misery, The Silence of the Lambs, and The Shining.)

2. Alien. I thought its sequel, Aliens, was a far better film, but it was better because of the action, not the creepiness. In the first movie, the steady buildup of suspense to the final standoff with the monster was wonderful.

3. Poltergeist. I first saw this in a theater in Dallas in the early 80s, and I loved it. I fact I love most Spielberg movies, whether they involve evil trucks or the Holocaust or a parkful of dinosaurs--but I thought he outdid himself, here.

4. Halloween. Many of the chills in this film came from John Carpenter's soundtrack. If you don't believe me, listen to it again sometime.

5. The Sixth Sense. I think TSS is at its spookiest when the kid is seeing the dead people and nobody else can. I also had to include this one to prove I didn't choose only movies with one-word titles.

6. Candyman. This weird film, based on a Clive Barker short story called "The Forbidden," is a little different in that I didn't particularly enjoy it. But boy is it scary.

7. The Others. Okay, here I go with two-word titles. I promise, there is a moment in this movie--I won't tell you which one--that's absolutely leap-out-of-your-seat terrifying. Don't watch it alone.

8. Cat People. I admit, I mostly liked Nastassja Kinski (is she really Klaus's daughter??), but I think this is a truly spooky film, beginning with a spinetingling opening-credits scene.

9. The Exorcist. I saw this in L.A. in 1974 with a bunch of fellow IBM trainees, and found myself thinking about it nonstop for weeks afterward. The final scenes between Father Merrin and the demon are especially nightmarish.

10. The Thing. John Carpenter again. In this one, like Alien (which wasn't Carpenter), the buildup is as good as the payoff. Everyone always talks about the original (The Thing From Another World, with James Arness as the creature), but I consider this a better film.

I'm thinking I'd better stop right here, and publish this before my list changes. (It's already changed a dozen times--at various points I included Silver BulletThe OmenTrollhunterThe MistThe Blair Witch Project, The Village, The Mothman Prophecies, Cloverfield, and many others.) As always, please chime in with your own personal favorites. My Netflix queue awaits your recommendations.

And on whatever night you choose to trick-or-treat this year . . . don't stop at the house on the hill above the Bates Motel. Nobody's home anyway.

BREAKING NEWS -- Tune in next week in this time slot for a great guest post by my friend Michael Bracken. (Unless you're watching one of the ten movies I suggested. Michael will understand.)

28 October 2016

We are what we write?

C.L. Pirkis's Loveday Brooke
My "Women of Mystery" class at George Mason University has been examining the ways in which 19th- and early 20th-century women mystery writers have challenged contemporary attitudes about gender roles and gender relations. In a Victorian Era when men and women were assigned to "separate spheres" based on their "natural" characteristics (to quote a brief essay by Kathryn Hughes at the British Library), it was likely refreshing to see fictional female detectives taking the lead on investigations and besting men in the process. And even in our class's short sampling of work from the era, it's been fun to watch how the implied quickly gave way to the explicit. In C.L. Pirkis's "Drawn Daggers" (1894), for example, Loveday Brooke holds her own in conversations with her employer, Mr. Dyer—not backing down in disagreements about how to approach a case or where the truth might be found, and eventually proved right about her plans. Two decades later, Baroness Orczy could be much more direct in the first of her Lady Molly tales, "The Ninescore Mystery" (1912), where the narrator—a member of Scotland Yard's "Female Department"—states from the start: "We of the Female Department are dreadfully snubbed by the men, though don't tell me that women have not ten times as much intuition as the blundering and sterner sex; my firm belief is that we should haven't half so many undetected crimes if some of the so-called mysteries were put to the test of feminine investigation."

Even in 1912: You've come a long way, baby—right? Toss us a pack of Virginia Slims—from 1968.

Pauline Hopkins
With most texts, we've been zeroing in on the progressive elements—the ways in which these writers have conceived of their protagonists both within and then in opposition to prevailing feminine ideals, the ways in which the texts have commented on and subtly (or not) criticized the values of their eras. In the case of Pauline Hopkins' "Talma Gordon" (1900), generally considered the first mystery story by an African American writer, we've looked at how a writer can address racial issues as well as gender issues—two perhaps not unrelated parts of a more progressive agenda—both through the story that's told (the plot that unfolds, the racial themes within the story) and through a strategic awareness of the publication venue, its specific audience, and that audience's values and concerns.

What's interesting about Hopkins, however, is that even as she explores racial attitudes and gender issues with a progressive's eye, her story is more conservative on other issues, somewhere at the intersection of class, intellect, and morality—and Hopkins herself seemed to be so as well, advocating elsewhere the "amalgamation" of the races as a way to bring down racial barriers, but also stressing that it was the "worthy" blacks and white intermingling which would improve civilization, while those unworthy ones... well, as critic Sigrid Anderson Cordell explained it in a fascinating 2006 essay on Hopkins' work, those unworthy ones would be "'civilized' or removed from the gene pool."

Even in texts without the racial elements, my student saw that attention to gender equality often parted ways quickly with concerns about class inequality. Lady Molly and her companion in the Female Department were quick to dismiss men's attitudes and achievements, but the story was equally quick to villainize women of the lower-classes for greed and for sexual promiscuity—"slut shaming" them, as one of my students put it.

Much of this discussion came to a head this week as we discussed Nancy Drew—everyone's favorite girl sleuth (or nearly everyone's; see SleuthSayer B.K. Stevens' terrific dissent here).

As an icon perhaps even more than as a character, Nancy can—and certainly has—been celebrated from a number of feminist perspectives, from her first appearance still in the shadow of the 19th Amendment's ratification (just a decade before) and right up til today. As Priya Jain writes in her 2005 Salon essay "The Mystery of a Feminist Icon," Nancy was "a model citizen with a perfect balance of toughness and femininity, an icon of independence and poise. As such, she has provided a connective thread between the six generations of girls she has ushered into adulthood." And Jain links Nancy's "smarts, pluck and independence" to the passions of the first Carolyn Keene, ghost-writer Mildred Wirt, "a young college graduate filled with the ideals of suffrage and the women’s movement."

As a class discussing The Mystery at Lilac Inn, we worked through the ways in which Nancy could be considered a valuable role model (and, Bonnie, you'll be pleased to know that one student did ask, "But isn't that a lot of pressure to put on the girls reading this?"), and we circled again around that word "progressive" in terms of the images and messages in the text. But at the same time, we couldn't help but be aware of the hints of conservatism lurking at the book's core—those parallel messages about upper-middle-class values, nostalgia for the past (look what's being done to the Lilac Inn!), about respectability and social grace and unerring etiquette.

We read the 1961 edition of the book, but I also brought in the original 1930 text—almost completely different. (In case readers here don't know, the original books were rewritten beginning in 1959, so for most of us, the Nancy Drew books we grew up on were not the original Nancy Drews.) In that 1930 version, not only are class issues more evident but—perhaps hand in hand—so are some unpalatable references to race and ethnicity. When Nancy is tasked with hiring a new housekeeper to temporarily replace Hannah Gruen (called away by a sister's illness), Nancy first interviews a "colored woman" ("dirty and slovenly in appearance and [with] an unpleasant way of shuffling her feet"), then the next morning an Irish woman ("even worse than the one that came yesterday") and a "Scotch lassie" ("she hadn't a particle of experience and knew little about cooking"). Later in that edition, the villains are revealed to be working class, uneducated, and mostly dark-complexioned; one is distinguished by a "hooked nose."

What's most interesting here isn't necessarily the racial/ethnic prejudices—signs of those times, one might argue—or the fact that these were revised away in the 1961 edition, there already in the midst of the Civil Rights Era (and the Cold War too, my students pointed out, noting that Nancy in 1961 also keeps criminals from selling secrets to enemy agents). Instead, what's possibly most interesting is that Wirt in 1994, in an introduction to a reprint of the original Mystery at Lilac Inn, stressed that "judging from reader letters, [Nancy] never was offensive" in the same paragraph where she talks—without explanation—about the books being rewritten beginning in the late 1950s.

...all of which brought us back to our earlier discussions of C.L. Pirkis and Baroness Orczy and Pauline Hopkins and to the assumptions underlying those discussions that the authors were intentionally or strategically challenging gender stereotypes. But were they always? And even where statements about gender issues seemed explicit—as with Lady Molly and the assertions about the Female Department's superiority—was the author aware of the negative attitudes toward lower classes crying out from elsewhere in the text? Were those latter messages explicitly intended as commentary on class, or was the author simply blind to how her views (and prejudices) had snuck into the writing?

In short, I guess, how can you tell when a writer is commenting on the values of her era—and when she's simply reflecting them?

And to flip this around, how many of us writing today are explicitly championing certain values in our work—and how many of us are unaware of the values we're revealing in those same works?

A good discussion in class on these topics—and I hope maybe a good discussion ahead here.

27 October 2016

A Celtic Halloween

When you say folk music in America, the first thing that comes to most people's mind is Peter, Paul, and Mary, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and music that's a mixture of politics and sweet ballads. Folk music in Britain? Try some of the dark stuff. You want to know how to cheat the Fairy Queen? Kill a monster or two? Go crazy? Be killed by a werefox? Try old British folk songs.

Back in 1969, a British group called Fairport Convention issued their fourth album, called "Liege and Lief". It's been credited as the beginning of the "British folk rock" movement, and in 2006 it was voted "Most Influential Folk Album of All Time". I love this album, because it's chock full of traditional British and Celtic folk material, done with an edge and a steel guitar. And the amazing vocals of Sandy Denny.   Let's just say it makes for a good, alternative Halloween sound track.

My personal favorite on Liege & Lief is Reynardine. Listen to it here:

A Scarfolk Council-issued card to remind you you're always being followed."Your beauty so enticed me
I could not pass it by
So it's with my gun I'll guard you
All on the mountains high."
"And if by chance you should look for me
Perhaps you'll not me find
For I'll be in my castle
Inquire for Reynardine."
Sun and dark, she followed him
His teeth did brightly shine
And he led her above mountains
Did that sly old Reynardine

And, to prove that fairy tales can come true, they can happen to you, try this (fairly obscure) movie by Neil Jordan, "In the Company of Wolves", starring Angela Lansbury as Granny, who tells her granddaughter Rosaleen stories about werewolves, wolves, innocent girls, dangerous strangers, and full moons... (See the trailer below:)

Back to Fairport Convention and the eerie "Crazy Man Michael":

Pair that with Francis Ford Coppola's "Dementia 13", set in an Irish castle, and you'll probably check under the bed at night.  And lock all the doors.  Maybe burn a little sage...

Of course, sometimes they aren't crazy.  In "Grabbers", directed by Jon Wright, a small rural Irish village is taken over by monstrous sea creatures who love the typical Irish day:  constant rain and drizzle.  The creatures are killing off as many people as they possibly can, as gruesomely as possible. But they have one weakness – alcohol. If you're drunk, they can't kill you.  So, the whole village takes to steady drinking...  Laughs, gore, and terror, what more can you ask for?

The remainder of the instructional booklet, complete with a helpful quiz.A poster from a Scarfolk Council anti-people campaign.
BTW, all the photos above are from "Scarfolk, England's creepiest fake town,".  A big shout out to AtlasObscura.com for a great article.  Check out, also:
Carmilla, the first vampire story by Sheridan LeFanu
The Essential Guide to Living Lovecraft
Traveling Thru Transylvania with Dracula
Satan's Subliminal Rock Music Messages

Finally, two things:  first of all from Pink Floyd, a wonderful song that is, perhaps, the Addams Family lullaby, "Careful with that Axe, Eugene":

And for a last video, check out Michael Mann's 1983 movie, "The Keep".  It is World War II in German-occupied Romania. Nazi soldiers have been sent to garrison a mysterious fortress, but a nightmarish discovery is soon made. The Keep was not built to keep anything out. The massive structure was, in fact built to keep something in...

Happy Halloween!

26 October 2016

Beam Me Up, Scotty

We had a lot of sailors in town earlier this month. It was Fleet Week, here in Baltimore. Saturday and Sunday, events were capped off with an air show featuring the Blue Angels. I don't know about you, but F-18's doing 600 knots, right down on the deck? There's something purely atavistic going on, the warrior gene, maybe, all that brute hardware, so disciplined and graceful.

The really big deal, though, at least from the Navy's point of view, was the commissioning of the USS Zumwalt. It's a stealth warship, the first of a new destroyer class. There have been some issueswhich leave room for discussion.

First, some background. People of a certain age might remember Elmo Zumwalt, who was Chief of Naval Operations in the early 1970's. Zumwalt did his best to drag the US Navy, kicking and screaming, into the 19th century - with mixed results. He wasn't universally admired at the time. You have to realize the Navy has always been the most traditional, not to say hidebound, of the services. The admirals resist systemic change. They've probably waxed nostalgic on occasion for press gangs, rum, and flogging. Bud Zumwalt seriously tried to alter course, and combat the Navy's institutional racism and dogged resistance to women serving in billets previously restricted to men. His other major legacy is the Perry-class guided missile frigate.
Back to the destroyer Zumwalt. These are larger ships than the conventional destroyer, displacing half again the tonnage - sorry for the techspeak - but designed to have a very low radar profile. You can see how different the hull shape is, looking at pictures, and the inverted bow. The superstructure's unconventional, no visible bridge or even antenna array. It's built to be frictionless in the electronic sense, with no recognizable signature. They say its footprint on a scope is the size of a torpedo boat.
As you can imagine, the R&D wasn't without problems. Much of the modern battlefield is digitally rendered, and we have the example of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, whose development has been characterized as "acquisition malpractice." USS Zumwalt followed a path originally charted back in 1994, for a new class of surface combatant ships. The goalposts moved, budgets were cut, different war-fighting doctrines found or lost favor - in other words, there was twenty years of whose ox is gored. Given the necessary compromises, it's some kind of miracle that the Zumwalt was built (although there will only be three of them, in the end), and launched, and went through sea trials, and is actually entering service. It is, everybody admits, a real Space Age vessel.
It's a nice irony, I was taking pains to point out, that Elmo Zumwalt, a CNO who was so vigorously opposed on so many levels inside the Navy (not too many old salts pissed off Hyman Rickover and lived to tell the tale), gets the ship of the near future named after him. It's appropriate, though. He would have gotten a kick out of it.

Also appropriate. USS Zumwalt, the ship of the future, is skippered by a Navy captain named James Kirk. I kid you not. The guy has a sense of humor. At the Zumwalt's commissioning ceremony, Capt. Kirk said to the crowd, "Live Long and Prosper."

That's him.

25 October 2016

How to Kick @ss: Janet Evanovich

by Melissa Yi

Who debuts at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, handles up to 3000 fans at her signings, and sustains three million hits on her website per month?
Yep. The one, the only Janet Evanovich.
Here are six tips from her singular career:

1. You can be a late bloomer.

Janet’s first book was published in her early forties. In a BookPage interview, she said, "In that respect, I think I'm a great role model for my children. I have shown them that you are never to old to try something new.”
Isn’t that terrific? Usually, you hear about how you’re over the hill if you haven’t started creating masterpieces by age six, like Mozart.

2. But figure out your weaknesses, and improve on them.

In an interview with Island Packet, Janet said that because she was trained as an artist instead of a writer, her dialogue “was very stiff and boring. But I had a friend who was doing acting classes, so I joined one of the improv classes that she was doing. What we do as writers is very similar to what actors do.”

3. Learn the writing business

In Mystery Scene, Janet recommends
a) Romance Writers of America. Even if you don’t write a romance, she says RWA is “a very nurturing organization for establishing peers, for learning skills, for getting market information.”
b) Sisters in Crime
c) Publishers Weekly “to see what’s going on. You want to look at the bestseller lists and see what people are reading and enjoying, and see if you can stay in front of the curve.”
She says that learning the business helped her figure out that her timing was perfect. “I came in on top of the wave…right behind the crest of the wave—Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky—and I rode that in. And I think that’s important when you’re starting out to understand where the market is going and see if you can look to the future, see if you’re riding a wave—if a wave exists.”

4. Work hard.

She told BookPage, “I’m just a boring workaholic. I motivate myself to write by spending the money I make before it comes in.”
In Janet’s book, How I write, she describes this schedule:

 Weekdays: 05:15-14:00 Write
14:00: Business (phone calls, mail, publicity, website work with daughter etc.)
1-2 hours of exercise “in the middle of the day”

Write in the morning only
Afternoon/evening: fun

On a book deadline: writing 24/7

Mystery Scene

5. Love your fans.

As she told Mystery Scene, “I didn’t want to be an author in an ivory tower. Maybe it’s the mother in me, but I think of my readers as an extended family.”
Her website has contests and polls every month, and readers can submit photos of their pets.
Because so many people come to her signings, they can get bracelets so they don’t have to wait in line for hours, and she makes the signings an event, “because if somebody is going to be driving for four or five hours to come see me, we should have something interesting for them to see. For a couple of cities, we brought in a live band, and this year in New York, I dragged a friend of mine, Lance Storm the wrestler, onstage with me to take his shirt off and read Joe Morelli, and because you can’t have a WWE wrestler without a slut, my daughter volunteered to be the slut of the night.”

6. Team up to make the best work possible.

Janet involves her whole family in her business. She told the Island Packet,“My son (Peter) is my agent. He's very detail oriented. My daughter (Alex) interfaces with my publisher and handles all the online stuff and social media. My husband, Pete, manages all aspects of the business and tries to keep me on time. It's great.”
Janet talked to Forbes about pairing up with popular authors like Lee Goldberg, Charlotte Hughes, Dorien Kelly, and Leanne Banks, so she can offer more books for her readers. “I like being able to provide consistent and frequent literary choices for my fans. Since I can barely write two books a year the best solution seems to be co-author projects. My goal isn’t to get another writer to clone me …it’s more to produce a book that shares my vision of positive, fun entertainment.”

24 October 2016

In Memoriam

by Jan Grape

Two special mentors of mine have transitioned to another plane of existence, Clark Howard and Ed Gorman.

Years ago, before I was published, I saw a little notice in a Houston newspaper for people interested in forming a Southwest Chapter of Mystery Writers of America.  I lived in Houston then and definitely was interested and so I went. It probably was 1982. Not exactly sure about that. I honestly don't remember where this meeting was held, or even who all attended. This was the second meeting for the group and I know I missed the first meeting. I do remember four people who were there besides myself. Joan Lowery Nixon and Mary Blount Christian who both wrote Children's and or young adult mysteries and both women were very involved in MWA. There was a guy named John (don't remember his last name) who actually became our first Vice-President. Back then, that was the title used for MWA chapters. Not President although that's who was really in charge of taking care of business. I do remember one other gentleman who attended and that was Clark Howard. Clark had written a number of True Crime (or fact crime) books and had several short stories published. Mostly in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Somehow before I knew it, I was elected Treasure of the Chapter. I know when I got back home, my husband, Elmer Grape cracked up at the idea, I was never known to have a mathematical mind. In fact, my greatest strength was giving very accurate, very concise and very brief treasurer's reports.

"We had a little money, we spent a little money and we still have a little money." Everyone almost fell off their chairs that first time but, they were quite pleased each month instead of one of those dry reports such as..."we had 10 new members join at $25 each, $15 per person was sent to MWA-NY. I spent $25 on newsletter stamps...blah, blah, blah. Of course, I always gave our VP and the board members a written report with all the dry facts.

Now I must tell you a bit about my friend, Clark Howard (excerpted from EQMM on Facebook). As a boy, Clark grew up without parents and was homeless for a time. He would conceal himself in a bowling alley before they closed at night so he would have someplace to sleep. He told me personally that his mother was a junkie and he found her dead. I'm not sure if his father was ever even in the picture. He joined the Marines when he was 17 and served in Korea. I imagine that coming from such a tough background gave him the grittiness he needed to write such realistic stories. His painful
autobiography, Hard City  was published by Dutton in 1990.

One of the first things I learned about writing from Clark was his opinion about creative writing classes. He was not fond of them for good reason. After he was honorably discharged from the service, he enrolled in classes at Northwestern University in Chicago where he had spent some of those early days. One class he was taking was in Creative Writing. The professor in that class wanted the students to write a story and turn it in. The prof made copies of every one's stories and passed them to the students to critique. Clark said, everyone in the class including the professor tore his story apart saying it was terrible, they didn't like the characters, they didn't like the scenes, etc. Clark said he walked out and never came back. Said he had just sold that story and another on for five hundred dollars. I asked him later if he ever told the professor. He said, "No. I decided it wouldn't do me any good and it wasn't going to get me a good grade in that class. That maybe I knew as much about story writing as he did."  At any rate his advice to me was not to worry about taking creative writing classes. Learn your craft by writing and keep writing and hope you find a good editor who will buy your stories.

I have a feeling Clark Howard was right, he won a Edgar award from MWA for one of his short stories and was nominated for an Edgar five times in that category. He also won EQMM's Reader's Choice Award five times and was the recipient of the Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer for Lifetime Achievement from the Short Mystery Fiction Society.

One other major thing I leaned from Clark was something that is useful perhaps more in life than in writing and it was something he learned in his own terrible upbringing and in interviews with many killers on death row in prisons all around the country. No matter how bad your childhood is or how many bad thing happened to you, at some point as you reach adulthood, you have to be responsible for your own behaviour. You can't continue to blame your parents or your teachers or your sad neglect. There is just you yourself to blame when you do wrong. And when you do wrong as an adult, whether it'd 18 or 19 or 20 years old you have to accept the consequences.

Ed Gorman bought many of my short stories and was very much a part of the publishing of my first novel. I had moved to Austin from Houston in the late eighties, 1987 as I recall. I had been elected Vice-President of the Southwest Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. I agreed to continue to serve as VP and would travel to Houston each month for the meetings. It was 150 miles one way but it was an easy drive, less than three hours and I could return back home on the same day. We actually met on Sunday and the traffic was not too bad until you got to Houston.

One day I got a telephone call from a man who identified himself as Ed Gorman. I knew of Ed mostly because I was also a member of the Private Eye Writers of America, a group started by Ed and Robert J. Randisi. Ed asked if I would be willing to write a column for Mystery Scene Magazine. I think I had a subscription and had seen three or four issues. The magazine came out quarterly. He and I talked for a while and I got a sense of what he wanted my column to be about. I was to report the news about writers in the Southwest Area. Texas, Arkansas, New Mexico and Louisiana. He said he'd pay me two cents a word, a carton of cigarettes and a box of condoms. I said I did smoke and could use the cigarettes but since I was married and had taken care of any accidental problems I wouldn't need the condoms.

We decided on the name, "Southwest Scenes" and he wanted a photograph. I enjoyed emailing, faxing or even calling mystery writers in the Southwest area and getting their news. When they had a book or story coming out or when they were appearing at a bookstore for a signing. Or even generally if they were getting married or having a baby or whatever was going on in their life. We had not decided to open a bookstore yet and I was writing a couple of short stories and sending my first novel out to see if I could get a publisher interested. I had sold a non-mystery story to a city magazine and had a couple of stories published in little subscription magazines. My first novel was never published but the two female Private Eye characters, Jenny Gordon and C.J. Gunn had been in both of the short stories that were published.

I discovered Ed didn't like to go to mystery meetings like the Edgars or Bouchercon but he enjoyed talking on the telephone. We talked every week and sometime more. We enjoyed our conversations and my husband Elmer almost always knew when Ed and I were talking because I'd be laughing like crazy as we talked.

We opened the bookstore in 1990 and I was pretty busy but Ed and I still talked often and I was writing some non-fiction articles, one for Writers Digest and reviewing books for the Houston Chronicle. One day, Ed asked if I'd write a story for an anthology he was editing. Invitation To Murder. Of course, I said yes. Along about that same time, Bob Randisi asked me to write a story for a PWA anthology he was editing, called Lethal Ladies. Both books and stories came out about the same time and I actually don't know which came first but I think, INVITATION was first.

The rest as they say is history. A short time later Ed asked if I would co-edit a book called Deadly Women. My co-editor was to be Ellen Nehr. Ellen passed away before we were ready and we asked Dean James to take over in her spot. Dean and Ellen both had deep knowledge of the history of women in mystery. This book is by, about and informs you about women in mystery. We finished it and did a beautiful job, it was nominated for an Edgar, an Agatha and a Mccavity in the non-fiction category. Dean and I won the Mccavity but were so excited to be nominated for the Edgar and the Agatha.

It's been difficult for me to write about both of these mystery friends. Ed Gorman passed away on Oct. 14 and it was only after that I found out about Clark Howard who had passed on October 1st.
I had no idea it was going to be this hard but I can testify that it's not easy to type or even to think when you have tears. I'll have to finish my memories of Ed Gorman for the next time.

I'm one of the few writers who met Ed in person. When Elmer and I started traveling in our RV we made a point to go to Cedar Rapids, IA to meet Ed and had dinner with him. I met his lovely wife Carol a few years before at at mystery con in Nebraska. I loved both men as brothers and as mentors and I miss them both. May they RIP.

23 October 2016

Sting Like a Butterfly

James M Cain wrote a controversial novel on a touchy topic made into an even more contentious movie of the same name.

It’s less than fair to suggest the film ended the career of Orson Welles, but some critics noted it capped the actor’s substantial body of work on a low note. Further, the production virtually finished the profession of its actress, turning her name into fodder for barbed late-night television jokes.

The Film

The actress was Pia Zadora and the movie was Butterfly based on Cain’s The Butterfly.

I overlooked the original in theatres, but a third of a century after its release, I decided to take a critical look at it. To my surprise, it’s not an awful film.
  1. Stacy Keach, known to private eye fans as Mike Hammer, put in an earnest and solid low-key performance as Jess Tyler. He provided the backbone of the story, but more than that, he played a nuanced there-but-for-the-grace-of-God character who made mistake after mistake even as the audience begged him not to.
  2. Orson Welles is claimed to have been drunk on the set. Whether or not that’s true, I hazard he turned in a sly performance, one he fully intended to. Suggesting substantial improvements would be difficult.
  3. Any actress bordering on age 30 who can convincingly portray a 16-year-old (19 in the novel) is doing something right. To be sure, Pia Zadora’s baby-fat cheeks helped, but more than that took place. She’d started as a child actress at age eight on Broadway and developed a singing career, but Hollywood hated her for reasons that had nothing to do with the film.
Pia Zadora
© Pia Zadora
So what went wrong?

The Butterfly Effect

Born to parents in the theatre (father a violinist, mother a Broadway costume supervisor), Pia adapted part of her mother’s maiden name, Zadorowski, as her stage name. She sang and acted in a number of child rôles. At age 19, she met a man 32 years older than she, Meshulam Riklis, an investor and businessman. They married five years later. She became the Dubonnet Girl in commercials for the apéritif in which Riklis had a financial interest.

Riklis encouraged his wife’s career, perhaps a bit too much. When Pia Zadora starred in Butterfly, he bought billboards promoting her.

The movie industry didn’t like that. In fact, they resented it. When the Golden Globes presented her with Best New Star of the Year, Hollywood turned on her and where Hollywood went, the public followed. Awards of a Golden Raspberry for Worst Actress, Worst New Star and Worst New Star of the Decade were only the tip of the freeze-out iceberg. Late-night television comics relentlessly mocked her, celebrity magazines ridiculed her. While the New York Times actually liked the film, they said the petite Miss Zadora looked “stunted, like a Brigitte Bardot who's been recycled through a kitchen compactor,” an unnecessarily hurtful allegation both unfair and untrue. She appeared in a few more B-movies, but her film career was over.

But not all was lost. In a perverse way, her haters had given her name recognition, and she would eventually receive a sort of vindication. Movie-goers who didn’t stay for the credits roll didn’t realize she’d sung the sultry title song in Butterfly, “It’s Wrong For Me To Love You”. Her next-to-last film was Voyage of the Rock Aliens– ‘rock’ in this case meant rock-n-roll. In it, she sang many of the songs from her follow-up album, Let's Dance Tonight.

That’s when people learned Pia Zadora could sing!

And sing well. She rebooted her career singing in Europe and established a number of international hits. This was no aberration. In 1985, she barely missed the Grammy Award for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance with the song ‘Rock It Out’, losing to Tina Turner's ‘Better Be Good to Me’.

Sinatra © Zadora
She became friends with Frank Sinatra when she headlined in Las Vegas. He persuaded her to turn to standards. Her subsequent album Pia & Phil referred to her backup group, none other than the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Late-night talk hosts invited her back and Johnny Carson apologized for Tonight Show punchlines at her expense. Pia had made her comeback.

The Book

The Butterfly’s title might sound like a cosy, but Cain dismisses mean-streets-of-the-city noir to show us the truly dark, forbidden love and death in the depths of a West Virginia coal mine. While the book is a crime story with a mystery, it’s also a thinly disguised melodrama and a thin volume at that.

Cain said he intended an entirely different effects-of-the-Depression novel. When Steinbeck published Grapes of Wrath, Cain aborted his plans, eventually plucking The Butterfly out of the scraps of his writings and research.

Oedipus Wrecks

Many consider the subject matter creepy– incest. We tend to associate the practice with opposite extremes of society. On the one hand, royalty intermarried, not merely European kings, queens, and offspring, but Asian and Egyptian rulers too. In a dizzying myriad of ways, Norse, Greek and Roman gods bounded in and out of beds in an assortment of peculiar combinations.

The Judeo-Christian Bible is loaded with examples of incest, where theological theorists argue that God suspended the laws of incest. A few examples include Cain and Abraham and their sister/wives, not to mention Lot and his determined daughters. Presumably the descendants of Noah suffered a shallow dating pool as well. Lest you think Americans are above it all, celebrities– our own sordid royalty– have occasionally been said to engage in incest as well.

At the other extreme, we look down on poor folk in the hills 'n' hollers of Appalachia, the Ozarks, and places not yet despoiled by 7-11s, strip malls, and WalMarts. Deliverance has become a code word where mountain dew drinkin’ types marry relatives, just as in Carbon City, West Virginia, the setting of The Butterfly.

And yet…


Cain toys with us by recognizing a phenomenon called ‘Genetic Sexual Attraction’. GSA is a serious matter studied by psychologists and biologists. Apparently GSA is biologically programmed into us.

Opposing GSA is a debated factor called the Westermarck effect. According to its proponents, this psychological proximation factor blocks, sometimes imperfectly, sexual appeal between close relatives. The effect can and does break down, particularly in cases of at least one absent or absentee parent, and traditional rôles within a family change. When families split apart resulting in divorce and adoption, the Westermarck effect can’t occur.

The percentage of adults who engage in incestuous relationships is unknown, but estimated at fifteen per cent on average and up to 50% among long-separated, reunited relatives. A sizable proportion don’t want to be ‘fixed’. It’s substantial enough to have pro- and con support groups, lawyers and lobbyists, forums, books and blogs, and web sites. After Britain was criticized for punishing sibling couples who remained stubbornly in love, the European Union is trying to figure out how better to handle these situations and possibly decriminalize most adult couplings.

The mainstream public’s introduction came from the columns of Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren in the 1960s and the first support groups were born. These days, if we hear about the topic at all, it’s usually the result of long-lost relatives, separated at childhood, who find each other… and unexpectedly find each other attractive.

Praising Cain

James M Cain isn’t the only author since Anaïs Nin to dabble with incest, although his 1946 story cleverly works in the recognized psychological stress factors. Novelist Gillian Flynn hinted at ‘twincest’ in her book and film, Gone Girl.

Although Cain played upon reader’s suppositions, he cleverly adopted and adapted this phenomenon for his own purposes, juxtaposing a long-lost Lolita with… Well, you have to read the novel or see the film and choose which ending you prefer.

22 October 2016

Passport to Murder! Announcing...the Bouchercon 2017 Anthology Competition

First, a bit about Destination:TORONTO

Toronto the Good
The Big Smoke

Toronto has had a lot of nicknames, but I like this description best:
Toronto is “New York run by the Swiss.”  (Peter Ustinov, 1987)

He meant that in a good way, of course!  Toronto is a big city - the Greater Toronto Area is more than 6 million.  Our restaurant scene is second to none.  We may be the most diverse city in the world.  How great is our diversity?  When I worked in health care, our government agency had 105 dialects spoken by staff! 

It's my great pleasure to be part of the Bouchercon 2017 Committee.  Many of you know my friends Helen Nelson and Janet Costello, who are the conference co-chairs.  With these gals in charge, you know it will be an unforgettable conference.  Come to our town, for a great Crime Time!

You can check all the details here:  www.bouchercon2017.com

 DRUM ROLL......  announcing PASSPORT TO MURDER,
the Bouchercon 2017 Anthology

Even if you aren't registered for Bouchercon 2017, you can still enter the anthology competition!

Our theme is the convention theme—Passport to Murder—so include a travel theme with actual travel or the desire to travel with or without passports. And it must include at least a strong suggestion of murder or a plan to commit murder…. All crime sub-genres welcome.

Publication date: October 12, 2017.
Editor: John McFetridge
Publisher: Down & Out Books

All stories, by all authors, will be donated to the anthology as part of the overall donation to our literacy charity fundraising efforts. All profits on the anthology (including those of the publisher) will be donated to our charity.

Guests of Honour for Bouchercon 2017 will be invited to contribute to the anthology. For open submissions, preliminary selection for publication will be blind, by a panel of three judges, with final, blind selection by the editor.

The details:
  • The story must include travel and at least a strong suggestion of murder or a plot to commit murder.
  • Story length: a maximum of 5000 words
  • Electronic submissions only.
  • RTF format, preferably double-spaced
  • Times New Roman or similar font (12 point)
  • Paragraph indent .5 inch (or 1.25 cm). Please do not use tabs or space bar.
  • Include story title and page number in document header.
  • Maximum of one entry per author
  • Open to both writers who have been previously published, in any format, and those who have never been published.
  • The story must be previously unpublished in ANY format, electronic or print.
  • Please remove your name or any identifying marks from your story. Any story that can be associated with the author will either be returned for correction (if there is time) or disqualified.
  • Please include a brief bio in your submission form (max 150 words) and NOT in the body of your story.
  • After Bouchercon 2017 and Down & Out Books expenses have been recovered, all proceeds will be donated to Bouchercon 2017’s literacy charity of choice.
  • Copyright will remain with the authors.
  • Authors must be prepared to sign a contract with Down & Out Books.
  • Submissions must be e-mailed no later than 11:59 P.M (EST) January 31, 2017. Check the website (www.bouchercon2017.com) for full details and entry form.

21 October 2016

Reflections on Bouchercon New Orleans

by O'Neil De Noux

I've been listening to audiobooks during my commute to work. On a recent morning, I had so strong an emotional response to a story, I almost had to pull over on the interstate. I felt my throat tighten and my eyes beginning to water because a young woman died in the story. Nothing sinister. A fever. There I was, getting choked up about a woman who never existed. Such is the power of good fiction. For years I've been saying the reason we write fiction is to get that kind of reaction. It certainly isn't for money. I've never made much money as a writer. It isn't for the awards, although being awarded by my peers and by readers has sustained me during the dark times when I doubted myself and my writing. American writers are saddled by 'success'. Only the successful writer is important.

How much money did you make? When are they going to make a movie out of one of your books? Why have I never heard of you? (OK, that last one's funny).

Photo of Katrina destruction © 2005 John Datri (used by permission)

Around the time of Hurricane Katrina, when I was at the nadir of my career (before I became an Indie writer and broke away from traditonal publishers who printed my books, opened their back doors and tossed them into the wind to see if they'd fly off bookshelves, then let the books go out of print) I remember looking at my books and the magazines I had stories in and telling myself - at least I wrote "The Heart Has Reasons," which won the SHAMUS Award for Best Private Eye Short Story. At least I wrote that story. It gave me strength.

On the morning I got choked up, I turned off the audiobook as the traffic became heavy and began to reflect on Boucherson. It was my first Bouchercon and the first writer's convention I'd been to since 1992. I don't like to travel. I thought of the highlights of the convention for me - meeting writers I've long admired, meeting the wives and husbands of writers who are the coolest people, meeting editors who have given me guidance and have published my stories, the honor of speaking about New Orleans at the opening ceremony, presenting the DERRINGER AWARDS and attending my first PWA SHAMUS Award ceremony.

Yet, one moment stood out. A brief conversation with Linda Landrigan, editor of ALFRED HITCHCOCK MYSTERY MAGAZINE. She reflected on a story of mine she's published in 2011. She told me she still thinks about "The Gorilla Murders" because of the emotional response she had to the story. That is the highest compliment given to me by an editor, that quiet remark.

Why? Because we write to elicit a response in the reader - emotional or intellectual (even anger). Robert Frost was correct when he said, "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader."

So, to my fellow writers, I say there is so much more out there. More stories. More characters. More fevers. We just have to bear down and write the stories. Hopefully, they'll get read. But if they don't - they don't. It's worth every tear.

The audiobook I was listened to is the novel NEW YORK by Edward Rutherford ©2009


20 October 2016

Plus Ça Change Plus C'est la Même Chose....

by Brian Thornton

Full disclosure: this post discusses politics, and might cause some of our dear readers to either clutch their pearls and bemoan the loss of civility, or seek out a Safe Space in which they can curl into the fetal position. If this describes you, feel free to skip it.
Not THIS kind of horse race

Quick show of hands: how many of you have ever heard an election referred to as a "horse race"?

Me too.

Now, how many of you have heard it coming either from a political correspondent or a political columnist, or worse yet, from the lips of one of those paid political "consultants" who litter the landscape of such politics-driven "news" channels as Fox News/MSNBC/CNN?
Not THIS kind of theater

Okay, stay with me, here.

Now, how many of you have heard the term, "political theater"? And this also spoken or written by someone who makes their living shilling for a "political product"?

Yep, yep, me too.

Now for the pay-off.

How many of you are beyond fed-up with hearing nonsense like the above, or suggestions that we "get out the popcorn" for one of a seemingly never-ending string of political debates, during this, the seemingly never-ending campaign season? Or hearing/reading political correspondents talking about how much "fun" it was to cover this or that political candidate?

And then there are the screaming matches-ermmmm-I mean, "political roundtables" all over the above-mentioned channels. The ones where people paid by both sides of any given political issue talk over each other with all the grace and dignity of a middle school food fight (for more of my thoughts on this variety of political animal, click here.).


I mean, I am all for loving what you do, but when political correspondents/pundits begin to talk about how entertaining it is to watch as a democratic republic goes through the laborious task of selecting its next round of leaders, I get nauseous.

Because guess what? This is not a "horse race."

It is not "theater."

It is the admittedly flawed process by which we choose the leadership of the most powerful nation on the planet. And in one particular case, it is how we select the person who will wield the most power any human being has ever wielded. Nukes do that.

If nothing else, the current *UGLY* election season has beaten the notion that this is somehow supposed to be "entertainment" right out of the heads of most sensible people. And go figure, all it took was the nomination of an "entertainer," a reality TV star, by one of the country's two major political parties to forcefully drive this point home to the nation's chattering class.

Nice to get that out of the way.

On the other hand, for those of you bemoaning how terrible this election season is, how unprecedented the coarseness of the candidates, the viciousness of the campaigns, etc., I have one word.


Does Donald Trump, by both deed and word, horrify me? The word ain't strong enough. If he actually had a chance of winning, I'd be truly frightened for our country. I find him despicable, low-brow, class-conscious, image-obsessed, misogynistic, racist, elitist, and even more of an incurious cretin than George W. Bush (Sorry Dubya. Think you're a nice guy and all, but come on...).

But this is America. We don't do anything by half-measures.

And not only has our country nominated candidates equal to Trump's low example in the past, they've been elected and held office!

Don't believe me? Fine. Although examples of campaign dirty tricks and outright fraud (Chicago's Daley machine stealing the 1960 election from Richard Nixon, anyone?) are rife, in American history ("Ma! Ma! Where's my pa? Gone to Washington, Ha! Ha! Ha!" – campaign slogan coined by opponents of Grover Cleveland, referencing his previous acknowledgement of siring a child out of wedlock.). And America has had its share of just plain gross office holders (Another quick example: Cleveland, once in office, married the much younger daughter of his deceased law partner. Said partner named Cleveland himself as her guardian in his will! Yuck.), still, we've managed to transcend them and wind up a better, stronger, more enlightened nation in spite of them.

President Warren G. Harding and the daughter he never knew.
Take Warren G. Harding, who carried on an affair with one of his secretaries, meeting for heated trysts in the White House telephone room, right under the nose of his very jealous, domineering wife. This, when he wasn't busy losing the White House china in back-room poker games!

And when the inevitable happened, and Harding knocked his secretary up, his political handlers bribed her with $100,000 dollars stolen from Harding's campaign fund and sent her on a year-long cruise around the world.

There are other examples, like Thomas Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemmings, and Andrew Jackson's dueling (to say nothing of the running gun-fight he had through the streets of Saint Louis with future Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton, the Trail of Tears fiasco, and so much more. Glad they're finally rethinking having King Andrew–as his opponents dubbed him because of his perceived autocratic tendencies–on the twenty dollar bill. And let's not get started on Mt. Rushmore.). Or how about then congressman Dan Sickels' murder of his wife's lover in broad daylight across the street from the White House, use of the "temporary insanity" defense (the first successful one ever) to beat a murder charge in his subsequent jury trial, only to go on to lose a leg in battle at Gettysburg, and steal the money raised to fund a monument to him on the spot where he lost it?

I could go on and on. But there's one guy in particular who comes to mind as an even more despicable, low-life creep than The Donald, and our country survived his coming and going.

After all, this is the country that once nominated for the office of vice-president a slave-owner who took as his common-law wife one of the slaves willed to him in his father's estate. When she died he took another of his slaves as his "slave mistress" (as if the poor woman had a choice) and when that slave tried to run away, he had her sold at auction and took her sister in her place.

I'm speaking, of course, of Richard Johnson.

Not THIS Richard Johnson-he was a British actor who turned down the role of James Bond that later went to Sean Connery.
THIS Richard Johnson. Vice-President of the United States, 1837-1841
Johnson was so louche, such a nut and such a wild-card, that when his boss, President Martin Van Buren ran for reelection in 1840, he dropped Johnson from the ticket and ran without a running mate.

Bet Mike Pence wishes he could pull that off.

In closing, whichever candidate(s) you support, please DO vote. At times like these, we need to make our voices heard.

If History teaches us nothing else, it ought to teach us that.

And if you actually made it to the end of this post without throwing your hands up in despair and would like to learn more about the quality and scope of previous American adventures in political villainy, feel free to click here and check out my collection of these types of stories, The Book of Bastards: 101 Worst Scoundrels and Scandals from the World of Politics and Power.