14 November 2018

Telemark

David Edgerley Gates

I've always had a soft spot for the 1965 war thriller Heroes of Telemark. Directed by Anthony Mann, first off, not to mention I'm a longtime Kirk Douglas fan, it's one of those outnumbered-commandoes-attack-Nazi-stronghold yarns, better than Where Eagles Dare, not quite in the same league as Guns of Navarone.

Telemark is based on a true story, and although they take more than a few liberties, it's reasonably accurate. I was in fact reading The Saboteur, an Andrew Gross novel about the Norsk Hydro raid, exact in its details, when news came that the last surviving Norwegian veteran of the attack had just died. Joachim Rønneberg lived to be 99.

The thing about the Norsk Hydro raid, the real story, is that the fictions actually fall a little short. There's a lack of contrivance, and you have to dramatize a story that's more about endurance and less about blowing shit up. You might even play down how high the stakes were.

In late 1942, there were two trains running. In the U.S., the Manhattan Project, and in the UK, what was known as the Tube Alloys program. What nobody on the Allied teams knew was how far along the Germans were, specifically Werner Heisenberg at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. Absent hard intelligence, it was thought better safe than sorry, and senior Brit spooks at the Special Operations Executive began mapping out sabotage missions to damage the Uranverein, Nazi atomic weapons research.

In the occupied territories of the Reich, the Norsk Hydro generating plant at Vemork, in Telemark, was the most reliable producer of deuterium oxide, also called 'heavy water,' an essential component in nuclear fission. German experiments relied on heavy water, and Norsk Hydro became a primary target for SOE.

Access was the main issue. The plant was in a gorge, and a night bombing raid was discussed. If the Lancasters could navigate accurately in the dark, could they pinpoint the ordnance and destroy the target? Odds against. The only thing they could be sure of was heavy collateral casualties among Norwegian civilians.

It had to be boots on the ground. SOE mounted Operation Grouse in October 1942. They parachuted in an advance party, local Norwegians, to scout the terrain and set up the approach. A month later, they sent in a combat group to rendezvous with Grouse. Everything went wrong. The two gliders crashed, the men who weren't killed were captured by the Germans, and then executed. The four-man Grouse team hid out on the Hardanger plateau, scrubbing lichen off the rocks to eat. They were holed up for three months.

The follow-up mission was launched in February, 1943. Six more Norwegian commandoes dropped onto the Hardanger and made contact with Grouse. Because of the failed attack the previous November, the Germans knew Vemork was a target. But the garrison was small. It was the geography that protected Norsk Hydro. The river valley narrowed at the Rjukan Falls, and the slopes were near-vertical. The mountains are high enough to block out the sunlight from September to March. The plant was built on a rocky shelf 1,000 feet above the river. Security checkpoints had been established further up, overlooking the plant, and on the bridge across the gorge. The commando team made their assault from below, climbing out of the steep ravine in the icy darkness.

They got inside, they wired the explosives, they blew the containment vessels to smithereens. Then they got out. Amazingly, they all escaped, with upwards of 3,000 troops out beating the bushes for them. A couple made it to Oslo, a couple stayed behind. Rønneberg and four others skiied to Sweden. Skiied. 400 kilometers. The wartime German commander, von Falkenhorst, later called it the "best coup" he'd ever seen.

There's a postscript, in that the Germans reestablished heavy water production not long after, but after daylight bombing raids, decided to ship the inventory they had by ferry and rail back to Germany. Norwegian saboteurs sank the ferry as it crossed Lake Tinn, and German atom research sank with it.

Did the Telemark raid change the outcome of the war? In all honesty, no. There was nothing remotely analogous to the Manhattan Project in the German war effort. Albert Speer, the armaments minister, was never convinced it was a workable goal. There's a whole other story, of course, about Heisenberg in Berlin, but we'll save that for another time.

Meanwhile, let's raise a glass to Joachim Rønneberg, and the memory of men and women like him. We honor the debt we owe them. We hope we deserve the world they gave us.  

13 November 2018

To Read or Not to Read: the Reviews of Your Books

by Paul D. Marks 

From the truth in advertising department: I did this piece a few years ago at a different blog. I think it’s worth repeating. But the main reason I’m doing that is because I’m having major computer issues and it’s hard to work on my computer. I hope we have these issues worked out over the next few days. Believe me, I’m ready to CENSORED.

And I want to say that I hope everyone had a good Veterans Day and that we actually stopped to remember what it was for.

So, how do I react to negative reviews? 

I call up my friends in the Mossad and tell them to seek out and destroy all negative reviewers in the shank of a dark and stormy night. Oh wait, no, that’s what a producer said he was going to do to me when we got in an argument about a script.

Take 2:

Some people say never to read reviews and that’s probably good advice, and probably what one should do. But it’s hard not to. Why? Because, I’m sure, we all want to have our egos stroked. And we’re looking for the positive reinforcement that says we haven’t wasted our lives working on something that nobody likes. So our expectation—our hope—is to get good reviews for that and other reasons. When we don’t our egos are shattered. And those who say it doesn’t affect them, well, let’s just say I think they’re most likely doing that stiff upper lip thing.

I’ve been gratified by most reviews, whether by professional reviewers or consumers on Amazon and the like. But every once in a while...

Even big stars like to check their reviews. I was on the Warner Brothers lot (though it may have been called The Burbank Studios at the time, now it’s back to Warner Brothers [long story]) one day and saw Bill Murray leaning against a car reading a review of his version of “The Razor’s Edge” (1984) that had just come out (and based on my tied for favorite book along with The Count of Monte Cristo). It wasn’t getting rave reviews to say the least, but as I say above, we all want to be validated and maybe also get some constructive criticism as to what went wrong. And I remember thinking even Bill Murray, with all his popularity from “Ghostbusters,” etc. still must feel the sting of a bad review like everyone else.

Hell, even Bob Dylan doesn’t like the sting of being booed, as when he first went electric and rock from strictly acoustic folk music. Check out this YouTube clip. It’s less than a minute long:



So let’s focus on Amazon reviews because they’re there, for good or ill. I don’t like reading negative reviews, but how I react depends on the review. Not everybody can like everything. I get that. Of course, one is tempted to remind some reviewers what their mommies told them, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” But that isn’t the real world, is it? So for me, it depends on what the reviewer says. Does it seem like they actually read the book? Do they have an axe to grind? Are they offering constructive comments about what worked or didn’t for them or are they just off on some kind of tangent? Did they get what I was trying to say and, if not, is that my fault or theirs?

I got a couple of one star reviews for my short story collection “LA Late @ Night”. And they did piss me off. I had gotten some lukewarm reviews on “White Heat” and lived with them. But these two reviews for “LA Late @ Night” just didn’t make sense to me. These two reviewers, who seemed cut from the same cloth (literally), both hated the book and the stories in it. But their comments made little sense.

One said: “Uninteresting, choppy writing. No plots. I wouldn't waste my time reading this series of books as they are rambling writings.”

Where do I start? With the fact that it’s not a series. Uninteresting, well, that’s your opinion. Choppy, well that’s my style on some things. But each story had previously been published in a magazine or anthology, so somebody found them interesting. No plots, see previous response. Bottom line, I wonder if they even knew what book they were reviewing—But Wait: There’s More. The Kicker is yet to come. But First:

The other crappy review:

“Not that great of stories and the writing is stilted...I didn't even finish them all!”

Oh, where to begin: How ’bout them criticizing my writing as being stilted when their sentence is grammatically incorrect? So maybe someone who doesn’t know proper grammar criticizing my grammar is actually a compliment.

Okay, here it comes. Hold your breath. The Kicker:

Being a glutton for punishment, I of course had to check each person’s profile to see why they hated my book so much. What I saw were reviews for muffin pans, muck boots, kitchen gadgets, children’s books, religious/inspirational books and very few mystery books, and no noir or hardboiled books. So I wondered why they even bought my book…if they really did? Judging from their other reviews I could have told them they wouldn’t like it and would have saved them the time, aggravation and money.

It made no sense to me why they would even read a book like mine. So I had to assume there was an agenda going on. I called this to Amazon’s attention, asking them to remove these reviews, which they wouldn’t. I still think there was some kind of agenda happening here, though I couldn’t say exactly what the motivation is and these are the kind of reviews, totally baseless, that really piss me off. And I know authors are not supposed to say that, we’re not supposed have emotions or respond, but hey, we do.

And here are some other One Star Amazon reviews for your entertainment pleasure, only the names have been removed to protect the guilty.

Reviews from Amazon – yellow highlights and purple comments have been added by me.

Reviews of The Big Sleep: 

One Star, boring 
By XXX/Reviewer’s Name Removed
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase

"The book is a big sleep." (Paul’s comment: Well, some of us who liked this book must just be insomniacs.) 

One Star 
By XXX/Reviewer’s Name Removed
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase

"Dated."

Reviews of Crime and Punishment: 

One Star 
By Amazon Customer
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase

"Very slow & plodding." (Paul’s comment: That damn Raskolnikov, why didn’t he just get it over and confess? On “Law & Order” Briscoe and Curtis would have had him spilling all in 2 minutes flat.)

Too long 
By XXX/Reviewer’s Name Removed
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase

"Long and pretty boring I don't like the old timely language they use in this book I know it's translated from German or Russian maybe but I was bored to tears and there was never any payoff really just goes on and on."

Reviews of 1984: 

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
I love a good dystopian but this was just such a ... 
By XXX/Reviewer’s Name Removed
Format: Mass Market Paperback Verified Purchase

"I have always heard about 1984 being the father of all dystopian novels... I love a good dystopian but this was just such a hard book to read because in the entire story, there is no room for hope." (Paul’s comment: Maybe Katniss from “Hunger Games” should show up and rescue Winston and Julia from O’Brien.) 

0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
...must be a book only an English teacher would like. I classify this a worse than "Catcher and ... 
By XXX/Reviewer’s Name Removed
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase

"This must be a book only an English teacher would like. I classify this a worse than 'Catcher and the Rye'" (Paul’s comment: Is that a new book, Catcher and the Rye, or is that something you get at Canter’s Deli (or Katniss’ Deli) – or maybe Canter’s and the Rye, or maybe Ham on Rye – h/t Chinaski.) 


~.~.~.

Damn! I’m hungry now. So, overall, you have to take both the good and the bad with a grain of seasoned salt, a quesadilla and some damn good and spicy hot sauce.

***



And now for the usual BSP:


I’m honored and thrilled – more than I can say – that my story Windward appears in The Best American Mystery Stories of 2018, edited by Louise Penny and Otto Penzler, which just came out this week. I wrote a blog on that on SleuthSayers if you want to check it out: https://www.sleuthsayers.org/2018/10/the-impossible-dream.html .

I’m doubly thrilled to say that Windward won the Macavity Award at Bouchercon a few weeks ago. Wow! And thank you to everyone who voted for it.



And I’m even more thrilled by the great reviews that Broken Windows has been receiving. Here’s a small sampling:

Betty Webb, Mystery Scene Magazine:  "Broken Windows is extraordinary."

Kristin Centorcelli, Criminal Element"Although it’s set in 1994, it’s eerie how timely this story is. There’s an undeniable feeling of unease that threads through the narrative, which virtually oozes with the grit, glitz, and attitude of L.A. in the ‘90s. I’m an ecstatic new fan of Duke’s."

"Duke and company practically beg for their own TV show."

John Dwaine McKenna, Mysterious Book Report:  "This electrifying novel will jolt your sensibilities, stir your conscience and give every reader plenty of ammunition for the next mixed group where the I [immigration] -word is spoken!"



Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website www.PaulDMarks.com


12 November 2018

Oh, Yeah!!!

by Steve Hockensmith

I would be a terrible pundit. There's one thing you need to be a popular one, and I don't have it: self-confidence bordering on megalomania. Instead of capping every diatribe the way pundits do – you know, with "And that's what the lamestream media won't tell you!" or "This president must be stopped!" or (if you're Alex Jones) "They're turning the friggin' frogs gay!!!" – I have a different mantra.

What the hell do I know?

I can't resist the urge to add it every time I state even the simplest opinion. Here. Watch.

Hawaiian pizza is delicious… but then again, what the hell do I know?

I think Christmas really is the most wonderful time of the year... but then again, what the hell do I know?

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has a self-indulgent, sloppy-ass script, and it pisses me off that it got good reviews and Oscar nominations… but then again, what the hell do I know?

Everyone needs to stop paying attention to Kanye West… immediately.

O.K, so there are exceptions. But generally, the rule holds. Here. I'll demonstrate it again.

It seems to me that self-publishing isn't just a viable option for writers today. If you're creating certain kinds of fiction – romance, say, or gay Amish bondage porn starring cowboys – it's probably the smart way to go. But then again, what the hell do I know?

See? It kicked in again. But I can tell you where to find people stating the same opinion – that self-publishing is sometimes a writer's best choice – without any "what the hell do I know?" about it. A few years ago, I went there every day. It's a website, by the way, not the local Hardee's. I don't want to link to it lest these extremely self-confident publishing pundits follow the trail back here to cyber-yell at me. I will say this, though: It's a blog-ish site with a strong emphasis on (A) self-publishing, (B) owning the libs and (C) the belief that agents and publishers sacrifice virgins, eat babies and turn the friggin' frogs gay. 

It was (A) that hooked me back when I was a full-time writer watching his numbers (sales, advances, days left before bankruptcy) steadily dropping. So the idea that I could carpe me some diem, cut out the middle man (and his baby eating) and save my financial ass while writing whatever I wanted was really appealing. I won't say I totally drank the self-publishing Kool-Aid. I'm too instinctively timid and full of doubt to guzzle anyone's Kool-Aid, even when it's my favorite flavor. (Tropical Punch.) But eventually I did decide to give it a try.

That was over two years ago. After that, I got back the rights to five of my novels, republished four of them on my own and wrote one new one, which goes on sale next month. Goody for me. But I've also accepted that I'm probably not cut out for self-publishing. I mean, geez – it took me two years to finish a new book! Self-publishing success is often built on momentum (or so I used to read), and I've got all the unstoppable propulsive power of a runaway freight train...after it's gone off the rails.

I've also noticed that some of the loudest proselytizers for self-publishing have gone silent over the past couple years. Even on The Website That Shall Not Be Named, things have gotten a lot more quiet. It's still an "indie"/libertarian echo chamber, but with fewer voices shouting about the evils of New York publishers and the glories of the unfettered free market and the danger posed by insidious liberals luring unsuspecting amphibians into alternative lifestyles.

Does that mean anything? That the Kool-Aid party's over, and it's time to switch to SunnyD? Nope. I ain't saying that. But I am very, very curious to see how my new novel does. If it sells 3,000 copies in its first year, I'll be thrilled. If it sells three dozen copies, it'll feel like someone came bursting through the wall with a big, icy pitcher of Gut Punch.

But even then… what the hell will I know?

Kool-Aid pitcher

11 November 2018

Part 1: Physician Burn Out and Suicide
– The Road they Travel.

by Mary Fernando

When the fall meets winter, before the snow is thick enough to obscure the road, the black tarmac can beguile you into driving on it. For those of us who have watched as winter makes it’s entrance, we know that the most dangerous driving is on those clear roads, topped with black ice, that can send your car careening off course.

Research shows us that one out of every two doctors are burnt-out and that doctors have the highest rate of suicide of any profession. Beware of suggestions that the problem will go away when doctors develop more resilience, take personal time or do yoga: these are just putting a coating of black ice on the problem- it looks safe but can send us careening dangerously off course.

To show you the road on which one doctor travels, let me introduce you to Dr. Johns, a Canadian family physician. Before we look at the road he is now traveling, let’s take a peek at the road he took to get to where he is. In his late teens and twenties, he worked hard, often around a hundred hours per week, with his nose in a book and caring for patients. Car accidents, severed arms, the agony of multiple illnesses coupled with old age, cancer in children – all the most devastating human conditions, sent him to study more, work harder, learn what he needed to to care for these patients. Many say medicine is a calling but it is built on a foundation of tenacity to help patients, coupled with the grit and determination to do so. Dr. Johns accumulated debt while others were earning, spent his nights by bedsides of the ailing while others were out having a drink with friends and eventually became a doctor. Resilience? He had that in spades.

Let’s zoom forward to the road Dr. Johns walks on today. Fifteen years after his training, he now has well over a thousand patients in his care.

“I carry these patients with me. The ones that are suffering, worry me. We are the ultimate patient advocate. We are responsible for their care, their well-being and ultimately their lives. Their care is my responsibility.”

Is he burnt out?

“I see it as a cumulative moral injury that I carry.”

Moral injury? Let’s break that down by looking at some of his patients, like the ones with knee or back injuries. The first problem is getting the tests needed for diagnosis - sometimes with wait times of one to two years. When the tests are finished and surgery is needed, add another year or two of waiting, at least. During that time, Dr. Johns explains, his patients are less mobile, maybe unable to work or adequately care for their children or aging parents. They are plagued with chronic pain, with each step eventually bringing agony. Dr. Johns works longer hours seeing these patients and calling hospitals and surgeons to try to get them better care.

“I work harder than ever before but I have so much more guilt about the patients I can’t help. It is enforced mediocracy.”

So what can Dr. Johns do? He worries about treating the pain with painkillers and risking drug dependence. He worries about their financial precariousness and their loss of independence and dignity. He worries about the patients who have multiple illnesses and are increasingly isolated form their community by their lack of mobility. He worries about the development, often inevitable, of depression secondary to chronic pain and the loss of the ability to work and care for those who need them, because mental healthcare is simply another wait of years.

Many of these factors Dr. Johns cannot change, because “the decisions about the availability of diagnostic tests, access to surgery or mental health services are decided by administrators who manage the system but are not accountable: they never sit with the patient and hear their stories. They never feel responsible for their care.”

In Canada, these administrators decide what services are available and in the United States, they decide access in different ways. But all administrators forge the care patients receive, without having any responsibility for each patient impacted.

So, moral injury? Dr. Johns argues that the care that he trained so diligently to provide is not the care his patients get and he is powerless to change that. It is, for him, a deep moral injury. This is the evisceration of doctors.

Dr. Phillips, who works as a hospitalist, points out another serious gutting of doctors: doctors in hospitals are discouraged from bringing to the attention of the media the lack of beds, equipment and access to operating room times. Many are threatened with loss of privileges or loss of their jobs if they speak to reporters directly. So, how do you fix a problem that is out of your control when you cannot speak about it?

Recently, the NRA told doctors to stay out of the gun control debate, by asking them to stay in their lane. Responses from doctors on twitter told stories of gun violence with the sassy hashtag #ThisIsOurLane. However, despite speaking out, patients with gunshot wounds are still flooding into hospitals because doctors have no control over policy, but are responsible for saving the lives impacted by policy.

This is just a small glimpse into the road that doctors travel. If we let administrators and policy makers have control over patients’ lives but never have even one patient under their care, if we muzzle doctors from speaking out or ignore them when they do speak for patients, then we have the conditions for burnout. If you coat that road with thin ice of words like ‘resilience’ and suggestions like ‘lunchtime yoga’, there is a good chance that you are creating black ice that will drive any change dangerously off course. Worse, much worse, it is patients who drive that road with their doctors and often careen off into the ditch of increased disability, pain and suffering.

Doctors suffer in a system they cannot change for the better — they burnout and they die — because when they are crushed by the moral injury caused by the weight of the thousands of patients who they cannot help.

10 November 2018

The Journalist Detective

by Libby Cudmore

Libby Cudmore
Maybe I should have known something was waiting for me when I was inspired to wear a button-down shirt and suspenders into my office. I was having writer’s block on my novel and a bad feeling when I took a pass over to the state police website in search of a story. Kassirer’s car had been found abandoned in the parking lot next to the Troop-C police barracks in the West End of Oneonta, five days after he was last seen by his family as he left his father’s funeral in Irondequoit, three days after he’d been reported missing by his employer, a drug rehab center in Brattleboro, Vermont, four days after he’d texted them to let them know he would be in the next day.

A bad feeling, sure, but I had to know where it was going to lead. I went into full detective mode. I called the Irondquoit police, who told me that he had last been seen checking out of a Binghamton hotel on the morning of Oct. 23, and that the last cell phone ping came from Oneonta, not far from where his car was located, at just before 4:30 a.m.

Meaning he checked out of his hotel at 3:30 a.m. The mystery deepened.
*
Out of curiosity, I did a Google Maps search of the area where the cell phone ping had been picked up. I saw a small path that lead into the ravine, near where his car was found. My heart sank. That’s where they’ll find him, I thought. I tried to ignore the feeling. Friends and family pleaded on Facebook for him to come home. That night, Ian and I drove out to Binghamton to buy Halloween supplies. I wondered if he’d gone into the nearby river or wandered into the woods. He wouldn’t be the first one. I lamented his disappearance and hoped he was okay.
*
The next day, a loose-lipped policeman in Massachusetts told me that a friend had picked up a ping from his cell phone in Rochester later that evening, meaning he got nearly 200 miles away from where his car was found, back towards where he had been. The police had searched his apartment and all they found in his room was a pile of blankets where a bed should be. His roommate was out of town, but someone was feeding the cat.

We went to press that night with no sign of him. I went to bed that night hoping that he would turn up in a hospital or rehab center, a man who just needed to get away from it all for a few days. But I’ve been at this business long enough to know that it’s so rarely the case.
*
My boss jokes, darkly, about my uncanny ability to read between the lines of press releases, an understanding of crime and human behavior honed from an adulthood of reading and writing mysteries.  On Wednesday, as I was getting ready for the Halloween parade, I got a call from Aga that his body had been located in “heavy brush” down the hill behind where he had parked.

Just as I had suspected.

But how did he get there? And why? I’ve written here before that being a journalist has all the questions of a private detective, with none of the release that come with the solving of a case. I can make the calls, but in the end, I have to just wait for the phone to ring and write down what is said on the other end of the line.

The autopsy proved inconclusive, but that the death was not being ruled “suspicious.” That means they don’t think he was murdered and there were no indications of suicide. Toxicology reports and additional testing take time.

Maybe I’ll have an answer for you next month.

Or maybe another case.

09 November 2018

The Power of Prepositions

by Leigh Lundin

Far away and four times a thousand and one nights ago, this tale appeared in Criminal Brief. Dial in a little Rimsky-Korsakov and read on.


The Power of Prepositions
by Leigh Lundin

Aladdin was getting along in years and found that he was unable to pitch a tent as he had done in his youth. Smart as well as lucky, Aladdin still had his magic lamp and, frugal with his wishes, he had one wish left.
He rubbed his lamp and the génie appeared. Aladdin begged him, “My camel can no longer thread the needle. Can you cure my erectile impotence?”
Genie said, “I can whisk away your problem.” With that, he rubbed his hands, evoking a puff of billowing blue smoke. Genie said, “I’ve dealt you a powerful spell, but at your age, you’ll be able to invoke it only once a year.”
“How do I use it?” asked Aladdin.
“All you have to do is say ‘one, two, three,’ and it shall rise for as long as you wish, but only once a year.”
Aladdin asked, “What happens when I’m exhausted and I no longer want to continue?”
Genie replied, “All you or your lady has to say is ‘one, two, three, four,’ and it will fade like a Sahara sunset. But be warned: the spell will not work again for another year.”
Aladdin galloped home, eager to try out his new powers of the flesh. That evening, Aladdin bathed away the dust of the desert and scented himself with oil of exotic myrrh. He climbed into bed where his resigned wife lay turned away, about to slip into Scheherazadic dreams.
Aladdin took a deep breath and said, “One, two, three.” Instantly, he became more aroused than he ever had in youth, a magnificent happenstance of tree-trunk proportions.
His wife, hearing Aladdin’s words, rolled back toward him and said, “What did you say ‘one, two, three,’ for?”
And that, dear readers, is why you should not end a sentence with a preposition.

08 November 2018

California Dreaming

by Eve Fisher
"All the leaves are brown, and the sky is grey.
I've been for a walk on a winter's day.
I'd be safe and warm if I lived in L.A.
California dreamin' on such a winter's day..."
     The Mamas and the Papas  
Case Study House No. 22.JPGWell, maybe not safe, and maybe not warm:  a rainy California winter day can soak you to the bone, and as for safety, well, everyone has their own definition.  Some of the scariest moments of my life happened in California, and a few of the best.  But safety isn't always what you really want.  And sometimes I do wax nostalgic for the California of my youth.  The weather, the beaches, the surfers, the food (avocados everywhere), and the mix.  Every kind of music, architecture, food, neighborhood, ethnic / religious / racial / sexual type.  Juicy.  But cool with it.  You can blend in, you can hang out, you can just watch.

And there's a lot to watch in California.  From a woman grocery shopping in a bathing suit and high heels - in 1960 - to Julius Caesar XII in full toga, from the guy who used to drive around in a military tank to the DeLorean contingent, to people riding around in stretch limos, picking up hitchhikers to ask if they've heard their latest song on the radio.  (Which literally happened to me.)  Or meet up with some random person and end up in a three-day poker game in the Hills.  (Which literally happened to me.  One of the participants gave me a guitar.)  Or live on the cheap in a broken-down brick hotel, with hallways from hell, and - (but more on the Blackburn later).  California, a place of empty afternoons, sun-kissed dread, a sense of a past and future being lost... (but more from Jim Gavin later)

This fall, I watched Lodge 49 on AMC, my new favorite show. If you missed it, go to On Demand and catch up.  From the first episode, when ex-surfer Dud (played by a pitch-perfect Wyatt Russell), limping (a snake bit his foot) around Long Beach, finds the magic ring that leads him to Lodge 49 of the Ancient and Benevolent Order of the Lynx, I was in.

Lodge 49
From left, Ernie, sitting, Blaise standing, Dud, sitting,
and, of course, the corpse.
For one thing, the characters are great:

Liz (Sonya Cassidy), Dud's sister and polar opposite, works as Hooters-style waitress even thought she's much smarter than that.  By a quirk and a jerk, she gets into one of those boot-camp-style executive try-outs that you hear about but never get in.  And ends up making the final cut, to her own (and everyone else's) amazement.  Even better, when she finally gets a chance to talk to Chief Executive Janet, who really likes her, Liz throws herself off the executive yacht.  I like people who know a cage when they see one, and run like hell.  (Don't worry - she makes it to shore.)

Blaise (David Pasquesi), resident philosopher and alchemist, bartender, pot-seller, and apothecary dreams of finding the One True Lodge.

Ernie (Brent Jennings), Knight to Dud's Squire, a perpetually exasperated plumbing supplies salesman working for the perpetually exasperating Brian Doyle-Murray.  Ernie is looking for the really big score via the Captain (Bruce Campbell of Bubba Ho-Tep) who, when finally found, frolicking in a blow-up wading pool, is a con being conned while conning other cons - so California.

Image result for lodge 49
Liz, Dud, and Ernie
And Dud, who glues all of these and more together.  He's a lot more than an ex-surfer with a crippled foot.  He's game for anything.  He is, according to Blaise, someone who knows what's going on.  He is, according to Larry, the Leader of the Lodge, "part of the True Lodge.  He's very special."  Of course, Larry (Kenneth Welsh) appears to be crazy as a loon, and it soon turns out that he has pretty much ruined the Lodge's finances by living off the Lodge and spending a vast sum on the True Scrolls which have since been lost.  But what's a little embezzlement when you're trying to save the Sacred Scrolls?  Meanwhile, Dud might be saving Ernie's exasperated, tired, worn-out-with-hoping soul.  And be turning him into a true Knight again.  And vice versa.

  • Meanwhile, there's a live seal that shows up every time something strange is about to happen.
  • The occasional hallucination (?) of dragons on the part of almost everyone.
  • The sanctum sanctorum turns out to have an even more sanctum sanctorum with a resident reliquam corpus


Plus Jim Gavin, its creator, truly captures the feeling of California:  “Years and years of reading, combined with years and years of working dead end jobs. I wanted to capture the SoCal landscape that I know and love — freeways, strip malls, burger joints — and infuse it with a sense of grandeur and mystery.”  (LALoyolan)

It works because California is all extremes - it's a state where Pat Brown, Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown have all been governors.  There are (or were) cults, communes, branches, insurance salesmen and con men everywhere.  There are just as many bogus land developers in California as Florida, it's just that they're better surfers.  Sometimes.  With better music in the background.  Southern California and Northern California have almost nothing in common, and San Francisco is the equivalent of an Italian city state.

And there's the entertainment industry, which looms over everything like the Catholic Church in Italy.  It's why all the beauty pageant / talent show / body builder contest winners go to California, because they know they've got a shot.  And then they run into each other and every other beauty pageant / talent show / body builder contest winner from the last 40 years, and they have to figure out how to stand out.  And make a living.  Porn, physical trainers, child minders, pool boys, escort services, waitstaff, and clerks, are mostly made up of former winners, terrified of becoming losers, willing to do anything to crack into show business and become a winner again.  Often beginning - and, sadly, ending - with plastic surgery.  Since everyone tries to go to the best plastic surgeons, the same best plastic surgeons, sooner or later everyone gets The Look:  whether perky blond(e)s, sharp brunettes, feisty redheads, strong-jawed military, girl/boy next door, Number 12 Looks Just Like You.

Photo by Bengt Nyman
Flickr IMG_3770
Which is why the most interesting people in L.A. are all the other residents:  from the somewhat normal people which keep everything going to the downright crazy people, who all came out because, well, anything can happen, and while you're waiting, there's surfing.

Which brings us to the old Blackburn Hotel, which probably got torn down years ago, but was LA's version of the Chelsea Hotel in NYC, one of the few cheap, cheap, cheap places in a major city.  Because Los Angeles, like New York City, is a Third World country, where the rich and famous hang out cheek by jowl with the street people.  Where you can go from homeless to famous in two degrees of separation.  Or less.  Where anyone can end up as a star, or at least in a movie.  Hell, I woke up one morning at the Blackburn, and came downstairs to find people actually shooting a scene in the lobby.  Cables everywhere, and me with a hangover.

Anyway, I fell in love Lodge 49:  Thankfully it's been renewed for Season 2, so go binge-watch it on AMC On Demand, and wait, with great anticipation, for what happens as Ernie heads to Mexico with "El Confidente" (Cheech Marin)  to find the Sacred Scrolls.  And maybe find out how the reliquiam corpus got dead.  And how can you get from Long Beach Lodge 49 to London Central Lodge so quickly?

Meanwhile, enjoy Season 1.  Like California, like life, it's episodic and irrational, but with an underlying rhythm.  Full of hints and glimpses of a deeper meaning, and very strong on the universal need for a quest.  There are Arthurian legends and old mythology (is Dud a young Achilles, a young Fisher King, or simply Adam?  Or are he and his sister really Apollo and Artemis?).  There's alchemy, magic, hope and dragons.  And a lot of quietly wonderful dialog.


"We both have a background in residential hydronics."
“What’s the use of living forever if you’re all alone on a Sunday?”
“It’s a basic feature of capitalism: You can’t get loose, even on weekends.”
“It was perfect, but I didn’t realize it was perfect until later.”
“People always go looking for unicorns when we’ve got rhinos.”

"Signs and symbols, Ernie."



07 November 2018

Snow Job

by Robert Lopresti

In September I mentioned one of the rare snowstorms my city receives.  Today I am going to talk about a different, more recent, one.

The storm was harsh enough to give both my wife and I the day off and so we decided to walk the half-mile to our closest grocery store for a look around and some lunch.

My back yard
As we trudged off through the beautiful whiteness I had a sudden thought: With our ski masks and scarves and gloves we were dressed exactly the way banks tell us not to.  You've seen the signs: "For your safety and ours remove hats, glasses, and scarves before entering." Or words to that effect.

Because I suffer from CWB (Crime Writer's Brain) an idea immediately appeared in my skull.  What if some bank robbers decided to take advantage of a blizzard to stroll into a bank unnoticed? 

Hmm.  How would they make their getaway?  Obviously they would have to steal some snowmobiles!

When you get right down to it, that was a pretty stupid idea.  But the great thing about writing fiction is that even a stupid idea can make a smart story.

And speaking of stupid, I realized instantly that this was a case for Officer Kite.  This peace officer has appeared in two of my previous stories, "A Bad Day for Pink and Yellow Shirts," and "A Bad Day for Bargain Hunters."

Kite is not a very competent cop.  In his first appearance he got run over by his own police car..  That made him seem like the perfect foil for my snowmobiling bandits.

All the "Bad Day" stories are set in fictional Brune County, and involve strangers getting involved in a tangled mess of bad intentions and worse planning.  So far each story is longer and more convoluted than the last.

If you pick up the current (November/December 2018) issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine you will discover "A Bad Day for Algebra Tests."  I hope you enjoy it.  And bundle up.

06 November 2018

Everybody Hurts

by Michael Bracken

There have been times in my life when all I wanted to do was turn off the lights and put R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” on repeat play at a high volume.

So, I did.

Carolyn and John M. Floyd with Michael Bracken
at A Bridge to Publication, Lake Charles, LA.
The emotional impact of the song—and, to a lesser but similar extent, Adele’s “Someone Like You” and Sinéad O’Connor’s version of “Nothing Compares 2 U”—resonates with me in a way that other music does not. Perhaps this is because my life is defined more by what I’ve lost than by what I’ve gained.

But everybody hurts, in one way or another, and there’s nothing unique about my pain.

Except.

Except, as a writer, that pain infuses my writing.

Whether my stories have ostensibly happy endings, or they clearly do not, a great many are stories of loss or the threat of loss. In “Chase Your Dreams” (AHMM, June 2016) Cody loses his lover; in “The Mourning Man” (AHMM, March/April 2018), Johnny loses his wife; in “Going-Away Money” (AHMM, November/December 2018), Sean loses his innocence; and in “Smoked” (Noir at the Salad Bar, 2017), Beau fears losing everything.

If I’ve done my job properly, readers feel the loss or the threat of loss.

And I want them to.

I admire writers who have the ability to embed esoteric clues into deftly plotted stories, but I often feel nothing when I finish reading their stories.

And I want to feel something.

IF YOU FEEL LIKE YOU’RE ALONE

When I write my stories—the stories I write first and foremost for me, rather than for a particular market or by invitation—I follow the old dictum, attributed in various forms to a great many writers, to sit in front of a keyboard and open a vein.

But, as clever as it is to say such a thing, the reality of it is much different. Most of us only scratch the surface with our writing, not bleeding any more than can be staunched with a metaphorical Band-Aid.

We imagine what others will think of us if we let loose all the pain that courses through our veins. So, we let out a drip here and a drip there, never enough to make us woozy from blood loss.

And our stories suffer because we hold back.

YOU ARE NOT ALONE

While all of us hurt in one way or another, not all of us define our lives by what we’ve lost. Our pain is only temporary. We see the light at the end of the tunnel and know it is not a train barreling down upon us.

So, make readers feel that, as well.

When your characters overcome adversity, survive a harrowing experience, or meet the love of their life, it isn’t sufficient for your story to have a happy ending if your reader doesn’t feel the joy.

I wish there were a magic formula I could share, one that would allow you to write an emotion-filled story each time you sit at the keyboard. If there were, I would share it. But I’ve found no magic plot, no specific scenes, and no particular combination of words that infuse a story with emotion. What I have found is that the writers who most infuse their stories with emotion are those who are not afraid to reveal themselves through their writing.

So, sit at the keyboard and open a vein. If you bleed sweat and tears, write sad stories. If you bleed rainbows and unicorns, write joyous stories.

Just don’t be afraid.

You are not alone.



“Going-Away Money” appears in the November/December issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Also in the issue are stories by fellow SleuthSayers R. T. Lawton and Robert Lopresti. Pulp Modern Vol. 2 No. 3, in which my story “Good Girls Don’t” appears, has been available for Kindle for a few months now. The print edition has just been released.

05 November 2018

Present Tense Tension

by Steve Liskow

One of my beta readers returned a manuscript yesterday and commented that she liked the way present tense carried the story along.

I grew up listening to baseball games on the radio, and the play-by-play was always in present tense. All the announcers were great story-tellers, putting you on the mound, in the batter's box, racing for the fence after that fly ball. You became part of the game. That's why so many of us grew up wanting to be Willie Mays, Yogi Berra or Al Kaline.




But today, many editors loathe present tense. At least one publisher I know says "Absolutely no present tense" on their website guidelines, and I've seen the same warning on a few magazine sites. I've never understood why.

Present tense is nothing new. Charles Dickens used it for portions of Bleak House, one of my favorite novels. Other writers have used it off and on, just as some people experiment with point of view or stream of consciousness or some other technique.

If we're telling a story, we can assume that it's over so past tense is natural and logical. Past tense adds distance if you're discussing a particularly disturbing event because it implies that the narrator survived to tell about it. Everything is over and it's safe again.

But present tense became more common after World War II. Salinger opens The Catcher in the Rye with Holden Caulfield talking to us (his therapist) before he moves into past to tell his story. Kesey's first words in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are "They're out there." Both Salinger and Kesey trace their literary lineage straight back to Huckleberry Finn, which starts by addressing the reader in present tense: "You don't know me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain..." Twain even manages BSP right out of the gate.

By the 1970s, the style choice was fairly common. Pynchon opens Gravity's Rainbow with "A screaming comes across the sky."

All my early unpublished work was in past tense. Then I read Don Winslow's California Fire and Life, still one of my favorite crime novels--in present tense. Winslow consistently uses present tense, and while you may or may not like his characters or plots, the tense is never a problem. He made me consider that choice seriously for the first time.

My first published novel, Who Wrote the Book of Death? is in present tense. I started writing The Whammer Jammers in past tense and it bogged down after about 50 pages. Then I realized it was sports, like those baseball games when I was a kid. As soon as I changed to present tense, the story took off and I finished a 300-page first draft in five weeks.

Regardless of editorial bias, the present tense has advantages. First, it's more immediate. Not only does the action happen before the reader's eyes, it makes him participate. I generally use what used to be called third person detached POV, and it helps me share the character's reactions and responses, too. It's easy to add sensory detail without calling attention to it, which helps deepen character, too.

Three different readers (all good writers, all female) tell me that the most disturbing scene I've ever written is in The Whammer Jammers. The scene involves Annie Rogers being raped by the abusive boyfriend against whom she has a restraining order, and it got the book rejected by at least one agent (She told me her reader stopped at that scene). The scene had to be horrible to change the trajectory of the plot, and present tense accomplishes that. It means that since the event isn't "over" yet, it could get even worse. I only remember one other scene nearly that bad, and it's in past tense (Shoobie confronting the killer in Dark Gonna Catch Me Here), which seems to soften it a little.

I write the Connecticut novels (Zach Barnes, Trash & Byrne) in present tense because that's how and where I started them. The early drafts of the Detroit books used past tense, and I decided to keep them that way to help me separate them from the Barnes stories. That helped when I was writing or revising two or even three books at once. Now it's not an issue, but I find that I'm used to plotting the Guthrie books in past tense except for Megan Traine's scenes. Meg lives in the moment, so sometimes her scenes work better in present tense.

I'm currently plotting the next Woody Guthrie book, which doesn't even have a title yet. The list of characters grows and shrinks daily, too. I know one pivotal scene that will occur around the middle of the book, though, and it's ugly and brutal. It's also necessary. It will take the book into darker places than I usually go, but it already feels right. The good news is that the Detroit books are in past tense, and that adds a little buffer zone.

Hold that thought…

04 November 2018

Pardons

by Leigh Lundin

An article recently caught my notice, ‘A History of Pardons in South Carolina’. Not just the Palmetto State acts progressive, but Alabama too. Take that, Northerners. Your Southern neighbors sometimes can be enlightened and compassionate, too, although to be fair, Connecticut is right up there amongst forgiving states. Then we have Florida… one of four states that won’t restore voting rights or the right to freely travel without the governor’s unlikely approval. So much for paying one’s debt to society.

Crime and Over-Punishment

For those of us who keep track of crime and punishment, pardoning is promising news. Consider two statistics that should rock us back on our heels.
Why in the Land of the Free, are so many not? Is such a large percentage of our citizens truly that much worse than criminals in, say Yemen or Iran? In Cuba or North Korea?

Two parts of the problem are over-charging and over-sentencing. However, those may be symptoms rather than causes. I suggest the real causes are politics, power, and profit. As prison corporations have learned, keeping lots of prisoners locked up means major money and stockholder dividends. They pay the political piper and call the tune. The rest of us foot the bill.
The Music Man
Mothers of River City!
Heed the warning
Before it's too late!
Ya got trouble
Right here in River City!
With a capital ‘T’
That rhymes with ‘P’
And that stands for Pool,
We’ve surely got trouble!
Right here in River City.

American politicians find it more fruitful to embrace law-n-order than honesty and integrity, than care and concern. Lobbyists, the pimps of politics, and legions of state and federal legislators have honed to a fine art whipping up public fear.


Political operatives use simplistic grade school terror phrases like ‘three strikes’ and ‘stand your ground’, with a similar simple lack of thought to unintended consequences. Three-strike lawmakers tied the hands of judges and juries, forcing them to send a thief to prison for life… for stealing his third bicycle. Consequences that get people killed.

A Little Christian (or Muslim or Jewish or…) Forgiveness

Naturally, politicians abound who want to dismantle the pardon system despite their well-documented value and success. They point to number 243 out of 400 and say, “See? Less than two years after we pardoned him, he’s being investigated for domestic violence or drunk driving.” The answer is those pardoned are simultaneously well-behaved and mistake-prone as the rest of lawful society, which reaps benefits from the pardon programs.

Pardons help former offenders reintegrate into the social structure, integrate into the work force, integrate back into their own families. Pardons with public expungement shields make it possible for returning prisoners to land jobs, meaning they’ll less likely steal to feed and house themselves. They will be less likely to apply for unemployment and welfare.

At least that’s one opinion. Who’s to say I’m right? What do you think?

03 November 2018

How B Is Your SP?


by John M. Floyd



This past Tuesday night I attended the "launch" of The Barrens, my seventh collection of short mystery fiction, hosted by Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi. It was a fun evening, with a (thankfully) good crowd and a lot of old friends and fellow writers; I signed at five o'clock and then did a reading and Q&A. My publisher always considers the date of the Lemuria launch event to be the release date of the book, so he waited until afterward to get copies to the distributors for other area bookstores. (I did cheat a little, though: a few weeks ago Michael Bracken and I participated in the Bayou Writers Group conference in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and since this was out-of-state I was allowed to take copies of the as-yet-unreleased book along to sell at the conference. Maybe not as exciting as the early release of a new iPhone, but still . . .)

Anyhow, we had a good time at the book launch, and the whole experience reminded me how we writers not only have to write--we have to promote as well. And I'm not good at promoting. I have nine or ten more signings scheduled between now and Christmas (most of them at Books-A-Millions on weekends), and I always enjoy those because it's a chance to see old acquaintances and make new ones, as well as sell books. But arranging all this and publicizing it isn't fun, for me. On this particular occasion earlier this week, it was especially hard because my mother had passed away a little more than a week earlier, and my heart just wasn't in it. I wound up not having the time to mail out any written invitations--I sometimes do, because I have a few friends who don't like computers or social media--and ended up sending out only a few emails and Facebook messages and posting the event on my FB page a couple of days beforehand.

Spreading the word

I'm fortunate in that my great publisher handles most of the publicity and advertising, produces and furnishes my bookmarks, brochures, posters, press releases, etc., and sets up my interviews and events. He not only enjoys doing that, he has the contacts and he's extremely good at it. He's the main reason my book launch was successful. Don't get me wrong--I have the utmost admiration for fellow writers who self-publish and thus pretty much do everything themselves. But doing everything would be hard for me. I'm afraid I just don't like the "business" side (the non-writing side) of writing.


                        An unexpected sketch by my friend Bill Wilson, at my "launch" signing.



Back to the subject: My signing event the other night, and all the preparation and commotion involved, made me wonder--not for the first time--how much promotion is too much promotion? On the one hand, I owe it to my publisher, and to myself, to help make sure the word gets out and to try to make the new book as successful as possible. That's common sense, and good business. I certainly want it to be successful. On the other hand, I don't want to be a nuisance. In a world where we're bombarded daily with phone calls from telemarketers, endless commercials on TV, and newspapers so packed with advertisements it's hard to lug them into the house from the driveway--well, folks who sell things need to tread softly. And I think we probably agree that there's a fine line between being informative and being a pain in the ass.

The B word

We all joke about BSP. Everybody knows, by now, that we're not talking about the Bulgarian Socialist Party or Business Systems Providers. We use the abbreviation often, and playfully admit that our self-promotion is blatant in order to somehow lessen its aggravation--but it can still be aggravating. At best, the reader/listener welcomes the news, sometimes he sighs and endures it, and at worst he flees from the room and runs screaming down the street.

Remember, BSP is a slippery little devil. If you watch closely you can catch it sneaking its way into regular conversations and otherwise unbiased pieces of writing. Example: the first paragraph of this column, which I wrote as a sort of an introduction to today's topic, is thinly disguised BSP. So is the sketch I included, above. Look at me, everybody--I've got a new book!

But let's face it, self-promotion is necessary, at least to some degree. Not many people are fond of blowing their own horn, but even in the midst of the groaning and eye-rolling from your audience, one fact remains: if you don't blow your horn, who will? My publisher, as effective as he is, can only do so much. The rest is up to me.


Aggressive or excessive?

So here are the big questions. How much promotion do you feel comfortable doing? How far are you willing to go to ensure that your name and your product are recognized and will be successful? What part of it makes you uncomfortable? What's the right mix?

They're tough questions to answer. A lot of it depends on your personality. A shy, amateur writer will have a harder time crowing his message from the rooftops than, say, a writer who's a former salesman or politician. And on the receiving end of that, some of us have lower annoyance thresholds than others. Personally, I really want to know when new books are coming out by Stephen King and Lee Child and Joe Lansdale, etc., and from most of my writer friends. Books by other folks . . . well, I don't much care. And hearing about it too often is irritating.

Where do you set the limits, if you set them at all? When and where is self-promotion most effective? Least effective? Most and least maddening?

I'd like to find out before my next book release.








02 November 2018

The Complexity • Plausibility Intersection

by Janice Law

How about that title? In another life I spent time in academia and learned that a fancy title is better than an intelligible essay. However, pretension aside, the tension between complexity and plausibility remains one of the troubling features of our favorite genre.

It does seem unfortunate that the red herrings, misdirections, and deceptions of one sort or another so dear to the hearts of mystery writers and readers are usually the least plausible story features. Indeed, the more ingenious the puzzles the less realistic the plot. I may have been the only reader disenchanted with The DaVinci Code but I’ll bet I was not the only one who had to jettison all expectation of reality.

Worse, the more intricate the plot – and as someone who has always struggled with plotting I have the greatest admiration for the well-wrought narrative – the less memorable the story. Think about it: the great crime and punishment plots are the simple ones, in some cases, with the denoument foretold. In contrast, how many of us can remember more than the briefest impression of even the best crime novels? The reason, of course, is that in the service of mystification and suspense, the story inevitably loses simplicity in twists and surprises.
Don't listen to witches

This makes a good mystery fun to read but hard to remember, compared to say, Macbeth, which can be summarized in a phrase: witches’ prophesy drives noble Scot to regicide, tyranny and disaster. Try to summarize the life trajectory of the characters in Gone Girl, as compared to the biography of the ill fated Oedipus Rex: Abandoned king’s son returns to unknowingly kill father, marry mother; plague ensues. Simpler yet is the tale of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment: Student kills pawnbroker and has regrets.

Oedipus
There is no suspense in any of these, except the uneasy anticipation of the worst, and red herrings and clever plot are superfluous. The narrative line goes straight to the jugular, and once the action gets underway, the narrative is not just plausible but inevitable.

Few modern mystery writers will be so fortunate as to construct a plot as simple, powerful, and memorable as the classic crime tragedies, although John Steinbeck contributed a great novella of crime and sorrow with Of Mice and Men. Instead, rather surprisingly in a genre so reliant on action and plotting, the lasting memories of our favorites really rely on atmosphere and character.

With the possible exception of Who Killed Roger Ackroyd, the clever twists of Agatha Christie plots are lost to oblivion. Fortunately she created two iconic detectives in Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple. They are what one remembers along with those toxic country houses, vengeful small towns, and dangerous resorts.

Ditto for Raymond Chandler whose plots were never very watertight but whose Philip Marlowe, stylized diction, and lush California settings remain indelible. Dorothy Sayers, like Agatha Christie, was fortunate to create two great protagonists with Lord Peter and Harriet Vane. Their plots are forgotten but not her characters, nor her snobbish delight in top nation venues and the heyday of the class system.

More recently, we have had detectives like Kurt Wallander, Bernie Gunther, Thomas Lynley, Barbara Havers, Commissaire Adamsberg, and Adam Dalgleish, all enjoyable to read with delightfully complex – but ultimately forgettable plots. Instead, we remember Gunther’s ghastly WW2 East front setting, Adamsberg’s dreamy eccentricities, Wallander’s decline into dementia, Lynley’s romantic tragedy, Havers’ dogged persistence, Dalgleish’s poetry.

Clever devices and complex narratives propel novels to the best seller list. But what lingers in the reader’s mind are character and atmosphere. And what gives writers long careers are memorable protagonists. The plots can be – and maybe must be, given market trends – exaggerated, the characters must still be plausible if the work is to linger in the mind.

Getting the balance right is difficult. I suspect that the tension between exciting (and surprising) action and the plausibly human is the reason why, despite excellent, sometimes brilliant, writing even the best crime fiction is set a step below contemporary or literary novels.

01 November 2018

What It Means To Be A Veteran

by Brian Thornton

With Halloween in the rear-view mirror, and the centennial of the agreement which ended the "War to End All Wars" a scant ten days away, I've decided my blog entry this time in the rotation will be an adaptation of a speech I recently gave at a local high school, on the topic of "What It Means To Be A Veteran."

My name is Brian Thornton, and I am a veteran.

I am fifty-three years old, happily married and the father of a six year-old son. I am a writer and teacher: the author of nine books (with two more on the way) and it has been my privilege to teach Ancient & Medieval World History here in the Seattle area, for the past sixteen years.

But before I became a writer, before I began my career as a teacher, before my time in college training to be a teacher, before I moved to the Seattle area, before I got married and started a family, I lived a very different life, in very different locales, doing a very different job.

But more on that in a moment.

Now, I’m an historian, so I’d like to start off with a few words about the date on which we celebrate Veterans’ Day. It was only after my time in the military that I understood the significance of November 11th as the date we choose to honor our veterans. Far from being some random date on the calendar, November 11th was chosen for a very specific reason. Originally called “Armistice Day,” it marks the anniversary of the signing of the cease-fire agreement that effectively ended the First World War. Dubbed by turns “The Great War,” and “The War to End All Wars,”- this conflict resulted in the deaths of over 16 million people- only 9 million of them combatants- during its four years (1914-1918).

Nearly 20,000 men died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916: the single bloodiest day in British history.
The First World War redrew national boundaries, toppled empires, wrecked a continent, and wiped an entire generation from the earth as surely as the swipe of an eraser removes ink from a whiteboard. By 1918 society had been so thoroughly rocked by the havoc this conflict wrought, that many people began to believe that they were witnessing the death throes of society itself- that civilization would literally cease to exist.

United States marines engage German troops at the battle of Belleau Wood in 1918.

So the men who negotiated and signed this armistice (and they were all men. Human beings had yet to awaken to the importance of having the wisdom and experience of women at the table during negotiations like these), believed that with their actions, they were literally saving human civilization from eventual collapse and humanity itself from likely extinction.

Allied peace commissioners in November 1918
And so they arranged for the cease-fire to go into effect on a symbolic date: literally at 11 o’clock in the morning, on the 11th day of the 11th month of the year- hence the phrase “at the 11th hour”- a phrase that we use to this very day, in describing disaster being averted at the “last minute.”

I cannot help but find it fitting that we choose such a date to pause and take note of the contributions made to this country by our veterans. After all, it is the most American of traditions to take a painful memory and to substitute a hopeful one for it.

And to speak of the contributions, the sacrifices, of our veterans, is to speak of hope. Hope is an aspirational emotion, born of a desire for something greater, something better. People motivated by hope can achieve incredible things. America itself was founded on hope. Countless millions have flocked to this country from every corner of the planet, motivated by hope- hope for something bigger, greater, deeper. And they hope to find what they’re seeking in America, a place that the great poet Bruce Springsteen has dubbed “The Land of Hope and Dreams.”

Over the past two-plus centuries our citizen soldiers have answered their country’s call time and again out of a sense of dedication to that country, and to that hope. Such loyalty, such patriotism makes of mere countries the greatest of nations.

As the service of veterans has helped to transform America, so, too has it had a transformational effect on those who served, as well.

With my maternal grandparents in 1987
I served as a quartermaster in the United States Navy from 1985 to 1989. A quartermaster’s job is to serve as principal navigator onboard ship, and as an expert cartographer (a “map maker”) on land.

During my time in the navy I visited every continent on the planet, with the exception of Antarctica.

I lived and worked with thousands of different people, from a wide variety of ethnic, economic, and geographic backgrounds. I experienced places and cultures and sights and smells and tastes that I never knew existed. It was a far cry from my childhood growing up in Eastern Washington.

I cannot overstate the effect that serving my country during those four years had on me. My worldview was radically changed as a result of that experience, and while it was not an easy journey, I cannot stress enough how important my military service has been to me in the years since my discharge in 1989.

My brother Paul–Christmas, Mid-1990s
The military taught me so much. Patience, mostly. And more patience. And then….still more. Those of you with a veteran in your family, ask them about the phrase “Hurry up, and wait.” See what reaction you get.

In the navy I learned to get along with people with whom I had nothing in common, other than the shared experience of serving our country. The navy brought me into close contact with people I might never otherwise have gotten to know. One of the life skills I value most is the ability to work well with people you may not like very much. Another is the ability to get past initial differences and find things to admire in others, things you might not have noticed on first acquaintance. The navy taught me how to do both of these things, and so much more.

My Dad graduating from flight school, 1969
None of this should have come as much of a surprise to me. You see, when it came to the military, I had a reservoir of previously acquired knowledge to rely upon at home while I was growing up. My father flew Huey gunships in Vietnam. Two uncles served in the navy. One retired from the Coast Guard. My grandfather was a tail-gunner in both B-17s and B-29s, flying bombing sorties over both Germany and Japan during World War II. Much of my childhood was spent listening to stories, not only of battle, but of boredom, “unintelligent” leadership, pranks played, and fast friendships formed.

Once I had served my own hitch, I had my own stories to tell. Tales of bad food, long work days, freezing cold watches stood on piers in faraway places with hard-to-pronounce names. And the exploits of “my buddies,” guys I served with. Guys I’ll never forget, like them, love them, or hate them. My younger brother did his own hitch in the army, serving as a crew chief onboard Chinook helicopters. And he in turn brought home his own stories.

My grandfather & great-uncle during World War II
I have a lot of veterans in my family, including ones like my cousin, Ronald Quigley, who never lived to tell their stories. You see, my cousin Ronnie died while serving as an artilleryman in Vietnam. You can find his name inscribed with those of the other honored dead from that war on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

I was three years old when he died. All I have left of him are some jumbled memories from his going-away party when he left for Vietnam.

And yet, my cousin, and those others whose lights were snuffed out too early, who never lived to tell their stories, the ones who, in the words of President Abraham Lincoln, gave “the last, full measure of devotion” to this country, they deserve to be remembered. To be celebrated. To be honored.

And we, as a nation, have an obligation to keep their memory alive, to keep them from becoming just another name on just another war memorial. To help the citizens of this great nation remember the terrible cost incurred every time young people answer their country’s call to arms. To serve with honor, and to be transformed utterly by the experience.

And that leads me to the crux of this speech. Because, once you’ve lived it, once you’ve taken the oath, once you’ve stood the watches, and fought to stay awake, and been afraid, and laughed, and argued, and sweated, and ached, and bled, and loved and cried, all in the service of your country, like it or not, you’ve become a part of something larger than yourself.

A fraternity.

A family.

A group of women and men who have sworn to protect this nation. Who have made its continued existence their personal responsibility.

And it doesn’t change much once your hitch is up. Once you’ve done your bit, you’re a member for life. And for ever afterward.

That’s what being a veteran is.