31 August 2018

The Most Poetical Topic

by Janice Law

A recent spell of hot weather has sent me to air conditioning and the tube, particularly to an older series of DCI Banks and the first installments of this season’s Endeavour. The episodes are nicely done, but as the body count of attractive young women piled up, I couldn’t help thinking of our macabre poet and theorist, Edgar Alan Poe.

Poet, author, theorist,
Edgar Alan Poe
Poe presented his work as highly calculated, rational, and premeditated. All those psychopathic killers, ghastly diseases, mouldering castles, and subterranean vaults were not the inspiration of an all-too-accessible subconscious. Oh, no, according to the poet. They were selected rationally and carefully calibrated to produce the required effect on the reader.

Which brings us to his very much pre-Me Too Movement quote: “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” Stated so baldly, it’s an idea that should properly give us pause, but transferred to a big – or little - screen it appears to be money in the bank.

Even as more and more women appear on screen as detectives and police administrators, and female killers prove to be very nearly as deadly as the male, popular crime flicks are still littered with dead girls. Abandoned on the moors, shut up in basements, found dead in alleys, they are sometimes wild, indulging in drink, drugs, sex, and that perennial moralist obsession, unsuitable clothing. Other times they are innocents, popular, intelligent, genuine sweethearts, but all wind up on the mortuary table.

In the bad old days of pulp fiction, girls (they were always girls) were either good (virginal) or bad (experienced). Our enlightened generation congratulated ourselves when that dichotomy began to break down, when young women could have a sex life without depravity.

Young Inspector Morse & Constable Trewlove
But recently it has struck me that, at least on the crime shows, we have exchanged one set of boxes for women for another: the savvy, highly competent, emotionally complex investigator versus the pretty, possibly capable, but still inevitably doomed, victim.

Consider that a recent episode of  DCI Banks that featured not one, not two, but five nubile young things who came to terrible ends plus a much-abused female accomplice, also had two prominent women officers. Even Endeavour, realistic for the 1950’s and 60’s, with an almost entirely male police force, features the smart Constable Trewlove, who is pretty and pretty tough, too. But murder happens often in Oxford and attractive young – or youngish – women remain a prime target.

Many years ago, I went to a mystery writers program featuring Mary Higgins Clark, who remarked that the reading public loves “women in jeopardy,” a sub genre that became one of her specialities. It’s an old favorite, going back in modern times to the Perils of Pauline that my mom remembered in the silents and before that, to Richardson’s famous Clarissa, whose eponymous heroine would have had plenty to contribute at #MeToo.

DCI Banks & DS Annie Cabot
So was Poe right? Are females in danger and the deaths of especially pretty ones just the modern version of the ancients’ dramas provoking pity and terror?

I’m not so sure. Pity and terror, yes, but given the omnipresence of dead teenage beauties in our popular entertainment and the often graphic depictions of their demise, I cannot help thinking about another strain in our culture, a deep and seemingly irradicable dislike of feminine independence. The gaudy feminine body count suggests a more complex function: to provide at once the emotional kick start for the investigators and, on another level, perhaps to court the darkness that all too commonly underlies interaction between the sexes.

For every action, Newton said, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Detective fiction illustrates this on a psychological level very nicely. Modern female detectives, pathologists, even police superintendents are balanced by a plethora of sadistic crimes against women, and often to be young and pretty is to be one step from being a victim.

30 August 2018

Safety: A Woman's Perspective

by Eve Fisher

You'd have to be under a rock for the last month to not know/hear about the tragic story of Mollie Tibbetts, the Iowa college student who went missing a few weeks ago, and whose body was found in an Iowa cornfield, stabbed to death.  Her killer turned out to be an illegal immigrant from Mexico.  President Trump, Senators Chuck Grassley, Joni Ernst, Tucker Carlson and most of Fox News wasted no time weighing in about how the "broken immigration system" led to the tragic murder of an innocent young girl, and that we need to build a wall NOW.
NOTE that all of these ignored the fact that her killer had been living and working at a local Iowa dairy farm for years (which farm later admitted they hadn't used the E-verify system), and before that had gone to high school in the same town.  
And the pundits didn't even bother to hide the fact that they're going to use Mollie's death as a major campaign talking point:
"Personally, I don't believe that the Cohen and Manafort story really moves the meter in one direction," said Fox News contributor, former GOP congressman Jason Chaffetz. "But what will touch the hearts, what does touch people's emotion, is what happened to Mollie Tibbetts because they can relate to her and she was murdered. All the polls are showing that the No. 1 issue is immigration." (quote)
This despite the fact that the Mollie Tibbetts case is a murder investigation, not an immigration issue.  And nothing they do to him, or to "secure our borders" by walls or anything else, will make women any safer in America.  Because here's the deal:  Women are kidnapped, raped, beaten, murdered all the time in America.  90+% of the time by Americans.  Most of the time it doesn't even make the news.  And the silence around that is overwhelming.

Image result for men are afraid that women will laugh at them. women are afraid that men will kill them

The same week that Mollie Tibbetts' killer and body were found was the week that Chris Watts was arrested in Colorado for killing his pregnant wife Shanann and their two preschool daughters Bella and Celeste.  But once someone said "illegal immigrant," Chris Watts - who premeditatedly killed his entire family - was off the news.  (NYT

The Watts Family
And in the Watts case, the pundits certainly weren't being very hysterical about the perpetrator.  Before the Watts family murders was drowned in the dark hole of racial hysteria, a motive appeared:  Apparently Shanann found out that her husband was having an affair with a co-worker.  And so a psychologist on Fox News made it seem (almost) perfectly logical that he killed her and the children:  “Most [murders] were done — 60 percent were done — by rage, the other 10 percent they don’t know the cause, and the other 30 percent were spousal revenge. I’m pretty surprised he didn’t kill himself, too. Oftentimes, it goes in a pattern,” said Mowder, who said in this case, there could be another reason for the murders. “I think he had a vision of another life with this other woman — carefree, no responsibilities,” she said. “Two children and another on the way, that’s a big responsibility.”  (Fox)

So, the husband was overburdened and couldn't cope, so of course he killed them all?

It could be worse:  I was in a church, once, where the pastor said from the pulpit that Nicole Simpson deserved what she got because she was an adulterous woman.  I got up and walked out, but a lot of people were nodding their heads.  (In case you've forgotten, the Simpsons were divorced when Nicole was murdered, and even if they weren't - adultery is an unacceptable reason to slash someone's throat.)
Nia Wilson

And I doubt that many of you heard about Nia Wilson, an 18 year old black woman who was stabbed to death by a white man on July 24, 2018, as she stood waiting on the platform of a Bay Area Rapid Transit train.  Her sister, Lahtifa, was also badly wounded.  The attacker was John Cowell, an ex-felon, transient, perhaps schizophrenic, an Aryan Brotherhood member, who apparently laid in wait for the "right" people to attack.  Nia was a student, too, who planned to become a paramedic - or maybe a music producer.  Like Mollie, she had her whole life ahead of her.  (NYT2)

And then there's Tyler Tessier, currently on trial for killing his pregnant girlfriend, Laura Wallen, back in September of 2017.  He took her out to a rural, grassy hill in Maryland - supposedly to show her where they'd build their dream home - and then shot her in the back of the head and buried her.  (Washington Post)  Because, as Ms. Mowder said above, a child on the way, "that's a big responsibility."

Tell you what, if you want to do a really depressing Google Search, google "man killed pregnant girlfriend" or "man killed entire family" and see how many hits come up.

Here in South Dakota, we had Scott Westerhuis, who (after being informed that his embezzlement was going to catch up with him) in 2015 shot his wife and four children, torched his house, and then shot himself.  But nobody ever says we've got to have strict background checks or psychological testing on potential and current domestic partners.

And when Robert Leroy Anderson was tried and convicted for kidnapping, raping, torturing, and killing women in South Dakota back in the 90s, nobody ever even mentioned psychological testing or regular searches of pudgy white men who work at meat-packing plants, and nobody brought up deportation.
NOTE:  in that case, the only person's immigration status that was ever brought up was that of one of his victims.  Yes, I'm serious - Larisa Dumansky was a Ukrainian immigrant, and when she first disappeared, a rumor went around that she'd either gone back home or dumped her husband because they had a green card marriage.  It took a while for people to accept that she'd been kidnapped and murdered.
Elizabeth Smart Speaks About Overcoming Trauma.jpg
Elizabeth Smart
And when Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped at 14 by a man who claimed to be purifying and restoring the true Mormon church - who kidnapped her and raped her daily for nine months - there was an almost unbreakable silence about the various Mormon (and other) polygamist compounds in America whose leaders routinely marry child brides, i.e., rape children, live off of government welfare, and drive off their male kids so they won't be their fathers' rivals for all the child brides.  There was no crackdown, and most of those compounds are still in existence, including in South Dakota.

Then there's Caroline Nosal, 24, shot and killed by a co-worker after he was suspended after she complained he was sexually harassing her. 

And Lakeeya Walker was 22 and pregnant, whose attacker choked and kicked her because she hadn’t thanked him after he held open the door.  


And let us never forget Jaelynn Willey, the 16 year old who was shot in the head by her ex-boyfriend.  Her killer was called by many news outlets "a lovesick teen" and a "heartbroken homecoming prince".

Look, there's a reason for women to be afraid in this country, but it sure as hell isn't because of undocumented immigrants.
  • It's because half of all female homicide victims are killed by intimate partners, and more than 98% of those partners are men.  (CDC Data
  • It's because 82% of women who have been raped were raped by someone they knew; only 18% by a stranger.  (See Rape Statistics here)  
  • It's because 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have been victims of [some form of] physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime.
  • It's because 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men have been victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
  • It's because 1 in 7 women and 1 in 18 men have been stalked by an intimate partner during their lifetime to the point in which they felt very fearful or believed that they or someone close to them would be harmed or killed.  
And then there's the fact that women always, always, always have to be on their guard in public spaces, because way too many men have an unbelievable sense of entitlement about what they can say and do to women.  Mollie Tibbetts' murder unleashed a wave of reminscences:
A woman I know was 53 years old the last time she rejected a stranger’s advances, and it went badly. A man on the New York subway kept asking her out, complimenting her breasts and butt, though he used more vulgar terms. When she told him she wasn’t interested, he pivoted to yelling, “I’m going to f--- you up, you fat bitch,” until she asked the other passengers to take out their cellphones and document what was happening. This was just a few days ago.  (The Perils of Being a Woman Who's Just Asking to Be Left Alone
Alanna Vagianos wrote a series of tweets about the perils of running while female in America:
"I found out a few years after that first break in that my sister was almost abducted by a few guys in a van while she was on a run in college. Thankfully, she was able to fight them off. I've never seen her go on a run since."
"Yesterday, my friend told me her mom stopped running after dark & bought an elliptical machine after her best friend was kidnapped & murdered while she was on a run."
“The lengths that women have to go to protect themselves from being alone in public spaces is restrictive, exhausting, f***ing terrifying.” (Twitter)
Women hear these stories ― from our friends, from our mothers, from the news. We internalize the threat and act accordingly, going places in groups, or holding our car keys between our fingers when we walk through a dark parking lot, or looking down an alley before running past it to make sure no one is going to jump out at us, or wearing headphones without actually playing anything through them, or avoiding streets and places and activities altogether ― even activities that, as Vagianos put it, are “so integral to [our] well-being.”  (Emma Gray, HuffPost)
I understand.  I take long walks alone, and have for years.  But I'm older, I have my keys, a cell phone, and I, too, watch where I go.  And I haven't always been lucky.

I can guarantee you that every woman you know has a story.  Every woman you know has been afraid for her safety, her life at one point or another.

Incel movementBecause you can't avoid them.  The self-entitled assholes are out there.  "Why don't you smile?"  "What's the matter, you don't like me?"  "Quit being such a bitch."  "So, you're not going to talk to me?"  "Hey, I got something for you."  "You trying to ignore me?"  "Who the hell do you think you are?"

And now, of course, we're also dealing with the incel movement, which believes that women do not ever have the right to say no, and which has already provided the world with a number of mass murderers (see Wikipedia, The Guardian, The New Yorker).  Because life as a woman has never been dangerous enough.

What do women want?
We want to walk, move, sit, run, play frisbee, etc., in public and be left alone.
We want to get on with our day without having to pander to someone else's ego.
We don't want to have to smile, talk, laugh, or otherwise respond because of someone else's demand.
We want to live our lives with the freedom from even the thought of harassment, assault, rape, and murder that men consider normal.

BTW, I found very interesting is that on all the above posts I've cited, and quite a few more, there is always someone - yes, some guy - who commented, essentially, well, whatcha gonna do?  Round up all the white males and get rid of them?  A few reactions:
(1) Thanks, "some guy", for proving that we're touching a nerve.
(2) Thanks, "some guy", for letting us know that changing male behavior isn't a viable option in your world.
(3) Thanks, "some guy", for blindness to irony, considering that our President, Fox News, and most GOP politicians are calling for, basically, rounding up all the Hispanics and getting rid of them to solve the problem.
(4) Thanks, "some guy", for proving that the enemy is us.








29 August 2018

Coming Down With Something

by Robert Lopresti

I have to apologize.  This is not going to be the long masterpiece you have every right to expect, based on my past performance.  I seem to be coming down with something.

You know how it is.  You stroll blithely along, minding your own business, looking both ways before crossing the street, washing your hands regularly, buttoning up when you feel a chill.  Then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, it hits you like a tsunami and leaves you wondering what the hell happened.

Lawrence Block said that he wrote even when he wasn't feeling well and afterwards he could never tell the sick-day pages from the healthy ones.  But we aren't all Larry Block or there would be a lot more Matt Scudder novels. would there not?

Too bad, because I was prepared to write something brilliant for you today.  I had the theme for my essay worked out, had done some research, come up with a couple of bon mots.  The mots were bon by my standard, anyway.

And what I had written, well, I don't like to brag, but Charlie, my writing partner, was mightily impressed.  And he is a tough customer, I'll tell you.  Just look at him.

But all that is gone now, put aside for another day.  There's no way I can concentrate on that now. I've definitely got a bug.

I'm showing all the symptoms: plot outlines, character sketches, a few experimental snatches of dialog.

Damn it.  It looks like I'm coming down with a novel.

28 August 2018

Rounding Things Out

by Barb Goffman

A few nights ago as I was brushing my teeth, I glanced at the calendar hanging on my bathroom door. It was about eleven p.m. As I focused on the date, a memory flashed through my mind, and I realized to my horror that I had one hour left of being young.

You see, when the clock struck midnight, I was to turn forty-nine-and-a-half years old, which meant I would be entering ... my rounding years. You've never heard of rounding years? Well, allow me to enlighten you.

It was December 1978. I was nine years old and had been working on a family newspaper all that autumn. It was filled with juicy stories including:

  • Was there some sort of connection between my father and maternal grandfather besides marriage? After all, they both had a growth on their nose in the exact same spot. I know--it's spooky right? Or was it nefarious?
  • One of my brothers had been banned from Idaho after being caught speeding there. In a response to the editor, the subject of the story claimed he had been misunderstood, but this reporter stands by her story. His exact quote: "I can't go back there."
  • My mother was always rushing around. She would always know if she had somewhere to go and could get there without stress if she left early enough. But she always left late so everything was a big rush. This was more a feature piece, since it certainly wasn't news to anyone in the family. Everyone knew.

I typed the newspaper on a typewriter just like this one.
 And then there was the story that sparked this trip down Memory Lane. The article about my dad entering his rounding years. You see, when I was young I was a black-or-white kind of girl. You either lived in the city or the country.  You either were rich or poor. And you either were young or old. I clung to this worldview despite that we lived in the suburbs, were (upper) middle-class, and my parents were middle-aged. As Dad was approaching age fifty, I knew that old age was coming for him. But it felt odd to me that one second you could be young and the next second you could be old. Since I didn't grasp the concept of middle-age, I came up with my own idea: rounding years.

Here's how it works: Up to age forty-nine and a day less than six months, you are young. (Woo-hoo!) Then bam! You hit forty-nine-and-a-half and you've entered this period where your body starts wearing out. (I was nine and didn't really think this through, but let's say that during this time your hair turns gray, your bones start to creak, and you start saying "oof" when you sit down.) You get two full years to slowly turn old. Then when you reach the ripe age of fifty-one-and-a-half, bam again! You are old. It's all down hill from there.

Why did I choose a two-year period from forty-nine-and-a-half to fifty-one-and-a-half? Beats me. I was nine years old and clearly had way too much time on my hands. Plus an active imagination.

So you'll have to bear with me from here on out if I start getting nostalgic for an earlier time or begin doing things that are quirky. (Okay, fine. Quirkier.) I'm no longer young, you see. I'm rounding things out.

But I stand by that Idaho story. It was spot on.

*******

And now, for a little BSP:

Next week I'll be heading to the Bouchercon mystery convention in St. Petersburg, Florida, along with several other SleuthSayers. If you too will be there, I'd love to see you. Here's my schedule:
  • I'll be participating in a mass panel/signing for the new Bouchercon anthology, Florida
    Pot roast, anyone?
    Happens
    , on Thursday, Sept. 6th at 1 p.m. The book is scheduled to be released next Tuesday, the 4th. It includes stories by fellow SleuthSayers John Floyd and Paul D. Marks, as well as my newest story, "The Case of the Missing Post Roast." The reviews coming in have been excellent. Publisher's Weekly said in part, "These 21 tales are testimony to the wealth of notable crime fiction rooted in the Sunshine State." The amazing Hank Phillippi Ryan called the book, "As crazy-unpredictable as a Florida vacation! These short-story gems are quirky, surprising, original and irresistible. It's a collaboration of mystery rock stars that's absolutely terrific." You can pre-order a copy now by clicking here. Or if you'll be at Bouchercon, you can buy a copy there and come to the signing. 
  • At six p.m. on Thursday, I'll be at opening ceremonies, where (among other things) the winners for this year's Macavity Award will be announced. My story "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?" is a finalist in the short-story category, along with stories by fellow SleuthSayers Paul D. Marks and Art Taylor, as well as stories by Craig Faustus Buck, Matt Coyle, and Terence Faherty.
  • On Friday the 7th at 1 p.m. I'll be on a panel with my fellow nominees for this year's Anthony Award in the short-story category. I'm honored to share finalist honors this year with Susanna Calkins, Jen Conley, Hilary Davidson, Debra H. Goldstein, and fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor. If you haven't read the six nominated stories, it's not too late. They're all online. Click here and you'll find links to reach them all. Read before you vote!
  • On Saturday the 8th at 7 p.m. I'll be at the presentation for the Anthony Award.
Fingers crossed on multiple fronts! I hope to see you there.

27 August 2018

Crime in Translation

Introducing special guest Ken Wishnia…
Part of the Bcon panel:
Wishnia, Lopresti, and Jason Starr,
photographed by Peter Rozovsky
We have a special guest today. I first met Ken Wishnia at a Prohibition-themed nightclub in Chicago named Tommy Gunn's. It was Bouchercon weekend and the Private Eye Writers of America was having its annual Shamus banquet. Years later Ken edited Jewish Noir for PM Press and found a place in it for one of my stories. This led to me being on a panel about the book, one of my favorite Bouchercon experiences.

His novels include 23 Shades of Black, an Edgar Allan Poe Award and Anthony Award finalist; Soft Money, a Library Journal Best Mystery of the Year; Red House, a Washington Post Book World “Rave” Book of the Year; and The Fifth Servant, an Indy Notable selection, winner of a Premio Letterario ADEI-WIZO, and a finalist for the Sue Feder Memorial Historical Mystery Award.

His short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock, Queens Noir, and elsewhere. He teaches writing, literature and other deviant forms of thought at Suffolk Community College on Long Island. He appeared briefly at SleuthSayers once before, but this is his first guest star appearance.

— Robert Lopresti

CRIME IN TRANSLATION
by Kenneth Wishnia

I was thrilled when my publisher announced their plan to bring out Blood Lake, the last novel in my series featuring Ecuadorian-American female investigator, Filomena Buscarsela, in Spanish translation. Latin American readers would finally get to read this novel based on my experiences living in Ecuador for three years, during which time so much crazy crap happened to me that I couldn’t even fit it all into one book. And I would actually get to work closely with the translator.

Good thing, too. Aside from some simple misreadings--a “flaming sword” somehow became a “famous sword,” and a beat-up old car described as a “rattletrap” was translated as un ratonero, a “mousetrap,” which is definitely not the same thing--you might never realize just how many culturally-bound idioms you use in a story, much less a full-length novel, and just how hard they might be for a native of another culture to understand. Let’s just say that most native Ecuadorians have no idea what “Super Bowl Sunday” is. We also had quite a bit of trouble finding the Spanish equivalent of “thick-bladed front-opening lock-back stilettos with good balance and throw weight.”

Can’t imagine why.

I learned some fun stuff, too, like the fact that a police APB (All Points Bulletin) is called a “descubrir y aprehender” in Spanish. Remember that: Someday it may save your life.

I learned the Spanish for “freaking” is freaking.

And you’ll be happy to learn that the Spanish title of the classic 1950s sci-fi movie, It Conquered the World is El conquistador del espacio. You’re welcome.

I also had fun working in some of my own experiences with language during the writing of this novel. For several months, I was a civilian employee teaching English to members of the Ecuadorian Army, and at one point during classroom conversation, I used the word “fear,” and they gave me nothing but blank looks. When I pressed them on it, none of them knew what the word meant. I praised them for their bravery, citing this as proof that “The Ecuadorian army does not know the meaning of the word ‘fear.’”

But it wasn’t all fun and games, alas. Ecuador is a beautiful country continually wracked by natural and man-made disasters—landslides, floods, food shortages, protests, crackdowns—and one corrupt government after another. Although these circumstances are not as life-threatening as the dangerous and destabilizing conditions that have led to so much migration by Central American refugees to the United States, such distinctions don’t matter much when these desperate people reach Long Island, where I live and work.

Several years ago, Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero was murdered by some “nice” kids from stable, middle-class suburban homes who hopped into an SUV one night and drove to the town of Patchogue looking for a “Mexican” to jump. Another Ecuadorian immigrant in the news recently is Pablo Villavicencio, an immigrant who came to the US illegally in 2008, but who never committed a crime, who is married to a US citizen, has two children who are US citizens, and who applied for a green card in February: he’s the guy who was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and held for deportation after delivering a pizza to Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn.

That’s one of the things that attracts me to crime literature in the first place: it puts us in someone else’s shoes, so we can experience the shared humanity of the “strangers” among us. It poses basic questions about crime and punishment, about justice and injustice, about who gets caught and who gets away with murder. Studies have shown that reading any kind of well-written fiction, no matter what genre, increases the reader’s empathy toward others.

And we all need a little empathy now and then, don’t we?

26 August 2018

A Parable?

by R.T. Lawton

Fables, parables and allegories are all similar. Roughly, a fable is a short story where animals or objects tell a story by speaking in order to teach a moral or religious lesson; a parable is a story designed to teach a moral or religious lesson with people doing the speaking; and an allegory is a story where ideas are symbolized as people. Sometimes a short story may be considered as more than one of these at the same time and sometimes in general conversation, people will interchange the three words.

When you think of fables, the first ones to your mind are probably the ancient Greek stories such as the dog in the manger and the fox and the grapes. Those types of old stories. Many old civilizations have used fables, parables and allegories as a method of teaching about life. One parable believed to be derived from early Taoism is the farmer whose horse ran away and all his neighbors lamented his bad fortune. The farmer's response was, "We'll see." The next day, his runaway horse returned to the farm with another horse and the neighbors rejoiced at the farmer's good fortune of obtaining a free horse. Again, the farmer said, "We'll see." The next day, the farmer's son fell off the new horse and broke his leg. The neighbors lamented the farmer's ill luck of his son having broken a leg. Again, the farmer said, "We'll see." On the following morning, the army came through the village and pressed all the healthy young men into service, but they left the farmer's son alone because he had a broken leg. The moral being, as the farmer had learned, was that life is unpredictable and you never know how a situation will turn out.

From old Hinduism came the parable of six blind men describing an elephant, but each blind man only felt one part of this elephant. One felt the trunk, another the tail, another a leg, another a tusk, another the body and another the head. Therefore, each man's description varied from the others, depending upon the part he touched. In the end, each blind man was partially correct, but none of them saw, or rather knew, the full picture. These days, you can easily apply this parable to various people in politics.

This issue also has a story by SS member
Janice Law, while James Lincoln Warren's
story gets the cover.
This topic of teaching lessons through various story methods brings us to my short story, "The Chinese Box," in the September/October 2018 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. (The same issue that DELL Publishing is giving out at the 2018 Bouchercon in St. Petersberg, FL) This is the 5th story in my Shan Army series concerning the two sons of an opium warlord vying to inherit their father's empire in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia.

The story involves a wooden puzzle box with movable parts, probably much like ones you've seen and handled yourself. It also involves another inanimate object, however all the speaking and storytelling is done by humans, so the story is not a fable. Whether or not the story itself can be considered a parable, the younger half-brother sees the end result of the trek that he and his elder half-brother are on through mountain jungles to deliver their father's opium to dragon powder factories in northern Thailand to be a lesson in life being taught to them by their father. At the end of the journey, the younger son tells his old Mon scout the moral of what he's learned.

Several of my stories in the Shan Army series and in my Twin Brothers Bail Bond series involve Chinese proverbs in the former and the sayings of Ghandi in the latter as key elements in the story line, but I don't know that I've involved or written any parables before this.

How about you guys? Have you written or used any parables in your own works?

25 August 2018

It Gets Harder (Praise and Imposter Syndrome)

by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl...in which we admit that praise comes with a nasty side dish)

"the Canadian literary heir to Donald Westlake" EQMM, Sept-Oct 2018 issue
How the HELL will I ever live up to this?



A while back, I was on a panel where the moderator asked the question,
"Does it get harder or easier, with each successive book?"

"Easier," said one cozy writer, a woman I respect and know well.  "Because I know what I'm doing now."

I stared at her in surprise.

"Harder.  Definitely harder," said my pal Linwood Barclay, sitting beside me.

I sat back with relief.  The why was easy.  I answered that.

"Harder for two reasons," I said.  "First, you've already used up a lot of good ideas.  I've written 40 short stories and 18 novels.  That's nearly 60 plot ideas.  It gets harder to be original."

Linwood nodded along with me.

"Second, you've already established a reputation with your previous books.  If they were funny, people expect the next one to be even funnier.  It gets harder and harder to meet people's expectations."

"The bar is higher with each book," said Linwood.

This conversation came back to me this week, when I got a very nice surprise (thanks, Barb Goffman, for pointing me to it!)  Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine reviewed my latest book, and called me "the Canadian literary heir to Donald Westlake."

At first, I was ecstatic, and so very very grateful.  Donald Westlake was a huge influence on me.  I still think his book where everyone on the heist team spoke a different language to be one of the zaniest plots of all time.  To be considered in his class is a wonderful thing.

And then, the doubts started.  I'm now looking at my work in progress with different eyes.  Is this plot fresh?  Is it as clever as I thought it was?  Am I still writing funny?

Would Donald Westlake fans like it?

Or am I the world's worst imposter?

So many authors on Sleuthsayers are award-winning.  All of you will, I'm sure, relate to this a little bit.  Was that award win a one-off?  Okay, so you have more than one award.  Were those stories exceptions?  You haven't won an award in two years.  Have you lost it?

Will I ever write anything as good as that last book?

I'm dealing hugely with imposter syndrome right now.  It's a blasted roller coaster.  I know I should be spreading that EQMM quote far and wide, on Facebook, Twitter, blog posts, etc.  Possibly, I should be buying ads.  And at the same time, I'm stalling in my WIP, with the feeling of 'never good enough.'

Luckily, the publisher deadline will keep me honest.  I work pretty well under pressure.  Next week, for sure, I'll get back to the book.

This week, I'll smile in public and suffer a little in silence.

What about you, authors?  Do you find imposter syndrome creeps into your life at times when you should be celebrating?  Tell us below. 



The book causing all this grief:  on Amazon

24 August 2018

Pachinko Breaks the Rules, and Don't Be a Citrullo

by Thomas Pluck

I love when a book breaks "cardinal rules" (many of which are worth as much as what a cardinal might deposit on your car's freshly washed paint) and becomes a smashing success. The latest is Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, author of Free Food for Millionaires--a great title--and resident of my current hometown in New Jersey. I haven't met her, but she was at our literary festival, and I missed her panel because I was volunteering. How did I learn about her book, despite her living in my town, signing at my local bookstore, her getting her own panel at the festival, and a big promo push from her publisher?

Word of mouth. Well, word of write. Roxane Gay named Pachinko one of her favorites of 2017, and I follow Roxane on Twitter. We've met, I anthologized her story "Things I Learned From Fairy Tales" in Protectors, and I haven't seen her since a Sackett Street Writers reading in a biergarten basement in Brooklyn, but she wrote a list of her favorite books for a magazine, and I read it because she has exquisite taste. And there was Pachinko, one of the few new books on the list, and she didn't bother with blurb-talk or using her usual literary critic voice, she gushed. So I picked it up, even though a Korean family drama spanning generations, 600 pages thick, isn't my go-to read.

But I could not put the book down. Lee writes with the urgent prose of a thriller, and dances from character to character, using the third person omniscient point of view.

GASP!

I have heard many writers, agents, and self-professed writing advisers state that this is death. (Okay, one writer shared a set of rules that said it was "death" and I immediately knew I could ignore the rest.) Some of the great novels have been written in this POV, but it lost favor, and it takes chops to do it right and keep clarity in the narrative. But that doesn't mean it is "death." The second person POV is much harder to do properly, it turns many readers off--including myself--but every year there's one or two that amaze people and do well. For example, this year's Hugo winner for best short story, "Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™", by Rebecca Roanhorse, is a stunning read and makes great use of the POV, forcing you to empathize with the protagonist and setting up the reversal that makes it so powerful, opening a window of understanding. I don't want to spoil it, it's 5800 words that fly by. Read it today.

I would say the third person omniscient is much easier to pull off. It is used in other genres more often. Science fiction, historical narratives, and so on. Crime leans toward narrower perspectives. First person, limited third, with "thriller-jumps" that mimic cuts in movies, where we follow many characters in a race against time.



In a mystery, you might think using the omniscient would deflate all tension from a story. After all, the narrator knows who dun it! And yet, we read many thrillers and stories where the point of view comes from the killer. Sometimes they hide their identity, other times they don't. Omniscient isn't the best choice for all crime stories, but it has a place, especially when you are dealing with many characters and their motivations are important. You can spend a lot of time trying to come up with a scene where the narrator can spy on someone to see their secret agenda, which can be a lot of fun, or you can reveal the sinister agenda openly, and let the tension flow from the reader knowing that one character is waiting to poison the other's jelly donut or shove them out a window.

But back to Pachinko. This is a crime novel. It gets its title from a pinball-like game of chance that is very popular in Japan, their version of slot machines, but are much more fun to watch:


And the parlors have been associated with organized crime, the Yakuza, much like casinos here in the States are with the Mafia. So in a way, this is The Godfather for Koreans living in Japan, an origin story that shows how colonization and wars drove many Koreans to Japan, where they are still lower than second class citizens, even if born there. They needed Korean passports to travel and could be expelled at any time, were refused "normal" jobs and found ways to survive. (This is why any politician in the USA who talks about eradicating Birth Citizenship should terrify you). Some survived by going into the distasteful career of running Pachinko parlors, and the stain of crime is on them even if they are legitimate. The story takes a long time to get to the guts of the business, but one of the major characters is a gangster who wants a poor young girl as his mistress, and she wields her power over him to help her family. Not without tragic consequences for some.

The book isn't sold as a crime story, but it will appeal to fans of the genre, especially if you enjoy historical fiction. I wasn't a fan of that either until I read Holly West's Mistress of Fortune and David Liss's The Whiskey Rebels, but the best of the bunch manage to write compelling tales even when you know the outcome of history. And you get to learn tidbits they don't teach you in school, which is always a joy.

Another great novel I missed was Gravesend by William Boyle, which is getting republished now that his novel The Lonely Witness is out in hardback. His first novel was with Broken River, with a lowing blurb from Megan Abbott, but didn't get much reach. Set in that neighborhood of Brooklyn, it weaves a story of three Italian-Americans: Conway, whose brother Duncan was gay-bashed by a local thug sixteen years ago, arming himself to deal with the killer as he is released from prison; Alessandra, who left for Hollywood and has come crawling back as her star fizzled, and Eugene, the killer's nephew, who worships him. The story doesn't go where you think, and for a short book it is as broad and thrilling as a season of The Wire.




Not many writers get Italian-Americans right, but everyone thinks they can write them because they watched Goodfellas and The Sopranos. Boyle--like me, a paisan with an Irish surname--knows the life personally, and writes the best Italian-American crime story I've read since ever. There's no glorification, he can slam us because he loves us, he is us. Too many crime novels use the Italian Goon Named Bruno as the go-to dumb thug who the P.I. can disarm with ease. I personally find these as offensive as the inarticulate thug of color that was used as the racist bugaboo in an earlier era, but I'm not going to say it's the same. Italians are considered white now, and we have the privilege that comes with it.
A bar that features in Gravesend

I worked with people involved with organized crime when I was at the port, and I knew Little Sammy Corsaro, who was accused of many things--including a plot to firebomb the offices of an organized crime taskforce--and they are nothing like the loud, brutish cartoons. They are usually quiet and polite. They do not want attention. I love Scorsese as much as the next guido, but he focuses on outliers who are taken down by their hubris, not the everyday mob guy. The loud ones are usually wannabes. Boyle of course involves a local mob boss, and he is perfect. He has the confidence of an emperor in the Colosseum, but no bluster. You don't need bluster when you have power. (See also Frank Lucas, the Harlem kingpin from American Gangster, who can shoot a man in the street and walk away, knowing no one will rat).

The reissue comes out in September, and is worth your time. And if you want to write Italian mobsters, use it as a reference instead of the Dapper Don and Joe Pesci.



23 August 2018

Expectations

by Brian Thornton

As I have mentioned a time or two, I am working on the collection and editing of an anthology (Second fiction anthology, third overall). I've been hard at it all summer.

It's funny, with this being my third bite at this apple, you'd think I'd know what to expect: after all, I'm an old hand at this by now. Right?

Yeah, about that...

Expectations:

I expected I'd have to chase down multiple authors to get them to turn their stuff in.

I did. But not nearly so many as I'd expected. And what's more, even the authors I did have to chase down didn't take much chasing. It's weird not needing to ride herd.

Don't get me wrong: it's a good weird, but weird, nonetheless. (More on the whole subject of "weird" below.)

Another thing I expected: I invited some fresh-faced writers and some outright rookies to submit. So I expected their stuff would need a fair amount of work.

I was pleasantly surprised at the product I received on all counts. Every story can be improved (said every editor ever.), but man, these kids have chops.

The anthology is intended as a literary homage to the music of 70s jazz-rock stalwarts Steely Dan, who, although relatively well-known, are hardly household words, especially in light of the way the two men at the center of their music, keyboardist/vocalist Donald Fagen and guitarist/bassist Walter Becker, put on a master's class at how to shun the limelight.

In part because of this, I expected to be turned down by a goodly number of the authors I approached for inclusion in this project.

I was delighted to be wrong on this front. Of the authors I approached, only two turned me down.

TWO!

And both of those who did pass on the project had excellent reasons for so doing. No excuses, they just didn't know anything about the band, weren't familiar with the music, and didn't want to waste either their own time or mine trying to work something up for the project.

Hard to argue with that.

Now, since the source material is Steely Dan, and these guys frequently name-checked William S. Burroughs of Naked Lunch fame as one of their heroes, I figured on a certain amount of "creative" in the submissions I got.

In this my expectations were more than exceeded.

Just a few riffs:

Death by clown car.

A talking cat whose favorite language is Yiddish.

A couple of crooks juggling a severed head in a hospital morgue.

A close (too close?) first person narrative from the point of view of an alpha predator who has "evolved" into something resembling homo superior.

And that's just skimming the surface.

It's been a delightful potpourri of weird, and all of it superb crime fiction.

Honestly I expected no less. The folks I approached I approached with good reason. I'm familiar with their work, and have found something unique in every voice recruited.

And I am beyond thrilled that this pack of geniuses has taken this expectation and far exceeded it. That, folks, is talent.

And on my end, I am working my tail off to be worthy of their hard work and of their faith.

See you in two weeks!

22 August 2018

Losing It

David Edgerley Gates


Trump's recent revocation of former DCI John Brennan's security clearance has generated a lot of heat and not much light. Let's see if we can read the entrails.

To begin with, access to confidential information is authorized on a Need-to-Know basis. You need to know this stuff to do your job. Moving into the upper atmosphere, information gets classified at higher levels, Sensitive and Compartmentalized. In my own case, as an analyst working with intercepted military communications, my clearance level was Top Secret/Crypto [CODEWORD Material] Handle Via COMINT Channels Only. The primary purpose, here, was to protect sources and methods. As the intelligence was passed on to consumers, those specific sources and methods were edited out, and only referenced to indicate provenance and reliability - even then, in sanitized euphemisms.

At policy level, the upper reaches of the chain of command, the National Security Council, say, the inner circle, CIA and NSA, State, the Pentagon, these people are breathing thinner air. Compartmentalization isn't an issue, access is across the board. Still, the habit of secrecy, the gnostic power, that Special Knowledge, held in trust by the initiate, is a drug. It's the crystal meth of statecraft. Losing the privilege, going cold turkey, is being cast into the outer darkness, with weeping and gnashing of teeth.

I remember being processed out of Berlin. They terminated my clearance, and red-badged me. I was redundant. It was both exhilarating and depressing. Release is second cousin to exile. But at the same time, it was clearly explained that I was to take their secrets to the grave with me, and the alternative was Leavenworth. There was also a two-year travel restriction. I was prohibited from going to Eastern Europe, for example - which made perfect sense, since our resources targeted Group Soviet Forces and the Warsaw Pact. They might have liked to pick my brain.

More to the point, if you spend a significant period in your life locked into a mission, you can't shift gears as easily as you change your socks. We were on the edge of the Cold War. It's not an exaggeration to suggest we played some small part in preventing it from turning hot. And almost everybody I know from back then kept their hand in. How not? You read between the lines, you hear an echo where other people hear empty air. You miss the high.

It's long-standing convention, going back to Eisenhower, that senior figures keep their secure access through successive administrations. The tradition of the Wise Men, somehow above the fray. Think of Dean Acheson, or Clark Clifford, or James Baker. You can call on these guys in a crisis. And they, of course, are all too ready. What, you think Henry Kissinger's shy?

In the case of Brennan, specifically, I'm hearing that a fair number of people in the intelligence community, both former and currently serving, don't care for the guy. They regard him as self-serving, and his version of his own bio leaves out the unwary he's thrown under the bus. Be that as it may. It's all the more interesting, then, that seven former DCI's and six former Deputy Directors, along with two former Directors of National Intelligence, have put their names to a letter supporting Brennan and challenging Trump. Not challenging Trump's authority to refuse Brennan access to secure materials, but the grounds for it.

Brennan is clearly being punished for shooting his mouth off. He's made no secret of his disdain for Trump, and Trump has seemingly conflated Brennan's animosity with the Mueller investigation. (This is just one of those odd distortions that appear at random in the Trump alternate ecosystem.) What the signatories to the protest letter take issue with is the chilling effect. It's probably safe to say they don't all agree with Brennan, and if they do, they think it's better to keep it to themselves. Gen. Michael Hayden has not, he's been extremely critical of Trump, but Hayden has an honorable track record, in my opinion - a lot better than Brennan's. Bob Gates, Porter Goss, and Leon Panetta. They've kept their own counsel, and I think they must feel duty-bound to speak up. Tenet and Petraeus, on the other hand? Tenet went in the bag for WMD's. Petraeus, damn it, put Little Elvis at the wheel. 

It's naive, or willful ignorance, to think intelligence isn't politicized. We have only to go back as far as the late 1960's, when it was pretty widely known in certain closed circles that the field reporting out of Viet Nam was being massaged as it went up the food chain, to present an acceptable wisdom. But by and large, intelligence professionals try to present a realistic approximation of a shifting and ambiguous world. The run-up to Iraq is in fact a pretty good example. Feith and Wolfowitz tried to use their weasel shop at the Pentagon to discredit the CIA reporting, and Nigerian yellowcake made it into the State of the Union, but the Agency kept pushing the least dishonest assessments they could, even though Tenet was afraid he'd lose both the argument and the confidence of the only client who mattered. This is of course the actual bottom line. You want the president's ear, and his trust. If he stops listening, you've lost the fight. You still do your best to give good weight.

What we're seeing here isn't disloyalty, or a mutiny by the palace eunuchs. It's not the Deep State, either, although you might call it the deep bench. I don't imagine these guys have any hope of changing Trump. Maybe this is no more than a symbolic gesture, a decent respect. I have to wonder if they're not looking past public opinion, which seems pretty rigid, either way, and the bluster and cowardice of Congress, and speaking to their still-serving peers. It's not about the man, whether Brennan or Trump. That's small potatoes. It's about the mission. It's about something larger than parochial self-interest.

Trump already has an adversarial relationship with his national security staff. He's got the attention span of a fruit-fly, for one, which means his briefers have learned to use block lettering and bright colors. Secondly, he refuses to admit Russian disinformation efforts in the election, and the possible benefit to him. And of course third, he uses every opportunity to malign the integrity of his own agencies, particularly CIA and the Feebs.

You have to wonder how this plays as a team-building effort and management message. Obviously, the personnel still in place aren't sharing. But in the 48 hours after the big guns went public, another sixty former CIA senior staff added their names, and now an additional seventy-five have signed on. That's a fair amount of disgruntlement, and we're not talking about a bunch of starry-eyed innocents, either. These are career intelligence officers. They know where the bodies are buried. They've buried a few.

I can only hazard a guess, but this appears to be an engaged support group. Professional courtesy. Commitment. I think it's a show of hands.  


21 August 2018

Casting Call

by Paul D. Marks

When I write a story or novel, I picture it as a movie in my head, as I’m sure many of you do. In fact, I don’t outline per se but I often write the first draft as a screenplay—more on this in a future blog. But today I want to talk about casting my stories. And since Broken Windows, the sequel to my Shamus-winning White Heat is coming out on 9/10, I’ll start with that.

Jack Nicholson
I’m an “old movie” guy, so I often think of classic movie stars for parts. But since Humphrey Bogart is at that great café in the sky I don’t think he’s the ideal actor for the lead right now. But there was a time when I would often either picture Bogart or Jack Nicholson for many of my leading male characters. When I’d write the characters I’d hear their voices in my head. Once, while working on a script with a producer he suggested Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer for the leads and who was I to argue with that, especially since he’d worked with them and it was a real possibility. Ultimately, that didn’t get made. But it was nice while it lasted.

So in my mind I might visualize Jack Nicholson or Humphrey Bogart delivering a line of dialog but I can't write that in my novel. I have to convey that feeling, the essence of that character without writing "now imagine Jack Nicholson saying this line." But it does help to have that visual image in my mind as I write dialogue  and description and describe the actions.

Now to my perfect casting:

Broken Windows is set mostly in Los Angeles in 1994, during the fight over California’s notorious anti-illegal alien Proposition 187—a precursor to the immigration fights going on in the country today. While the storm rages over Prop 187, a young woman climbs to the top of the famous Hollywood sign—and jumps to her death. An undocumented day laborer is murdered. And a disbarred and desperate lawyer in Venice Beach places an ad in a local paper that says: “Will Do Anything For Money.”—Private Investigator Duke Rogers, and his very unPC partner, Jack, must figure out what ties together these seemingly unrelated incidents.

Ryan Gosling
So, who would I cast in the main parts? Of course this changes as time slips by. My ideal casting for Jack would have been Nick Nolte in his prime. But these days, I’m thinking John Cena or maybe Michael Fassbinder or Christian Bale. And for Duke, Mark Wahlberg or Ryan Gosling. Maybe Jeremy Renner, as Duke’s not a big dude. For Eric, the disbarred lawyer, Amy suggested Robert Downey, Jr., and he would be perfect. Maybe a little older than the character, but those things often change from book to movie. Eric’s girlfriend, Lindsay, AnnaSophia Robb.

AnnaSophia Robb
For the mysterious Miguel, who responds to the lawyer’s ad to do anything for money, maybe Antonio Banderas. Possibly Edward James Olmos or Andy Garcia. And for Marisol, who sets the plot in motion when she asks Duke to investigate the murder of her brother, Catalina Sandino Moreno. For Myra Chandler (guess who that’s an homage to), an LAPD detective that Duke and Jack run into in both Broken Windows and White Heat, and who’s a bit more sympathetic to them than her partner, Haskell, I’m thinking Jennifer Aniston. Why not? It’s my fantasy. And for Susan Karubian, the woman who jumps from the Hollywood sign, I picture Mila Kunis, although I would hate to kill her off so early in the film….

Catalina Sandino Moreno

Jennifer Aniston

Jesse L. Martin
Ghosts of Bunker Hill series: A series of short stories that have appeared in Ellery Queen. Howard Hamm is the lead detective in this series of stories that take place in the Bunker Hill and Angelino Heights areas (as well as other neighborhoods) of L.A. Howard “inherits” a lovingly restored Bunker Hill Victorian that’s been moved to Angelino Heights when its owner and his best friend is murdered. He’s a modern, high tech guy who, initially lives in a high rise condo on Bunker Hill. In fact, maybe where his current house formerly lived before being moved. There’s only one person I ever thought of when writing this part: Jesse L. Martin of Law & Order fame. When I’m writing Howard, I’m thinking Jesse. There’s a female cop that Howard comes across on cases—and off—Detective Erin Bowen. I think Natalie Portman, with darker hair, would be perfect for her.




***

Casting is a strange thing and truly an art. If you’ve ever seen different actors in the same part you know what I mean. One person brings something that the other doesn’t. Sometimes it’s better and sometimes not. And sometimes it’s just that we’re used to someone in a part, so if someone else takes it over it’s not that they’re better or worse, just different. At the same time, a good or bad—or just the right—actor in a part can make all the difference for a character.

Who would you cast for your tales, and why?

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

Broken Windows releases on September 10th and is available for pre-order now at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Down & Out Books.


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

20 August 2018

Blues and Clues

by Steve Liskow

In 1963, folklorists took a closer look at the lyrics to an obscure 1928 Okeh recording called "Avalon Blues" and used them to track down long-forgotten guitarist Mississippi John Hurt, still alive and well in the town he described in the song. Hurt came out of retirement to become a headliner at folk festivals and coffee houses. His lyrical finger-picking became an inspiration for such upcoming musicians as John Sebastian, Happy Traum, Stefan Grossman and Chris Smither.  All because of an old record.

We talk about clues in mysteries all the time, but other genres use them, too. They may call them "plot points" or "turning points" or something else, but a clue is simply something that moves the character closer to his goal: solving the mystery, finding true love, uncovering the cure for that lethal virus. OR it may send the character or the entire story off in a new direction.

Thanks to TV, we're attuned to discussing fingerprints, ballistics and blood spatter. We know about documentary evidence, too (Like the Hurt lyrics), and those are in our sights even more now because of the Mueller investigation. Both Conan Doyle ("The Adventure of the Dancing Men") and Edgar Allan Poe ("The Gold Bug") have stories that resolve because a character could decipher a coded message, and even the Hardy Boys carried on the tradition in The Mystery of Cabin Island.
Sometimes, though, a clue is less concrete, which gives us a chance to play a little and maybe sneak one past our readers. My favorite NON-clue is in the Sherlock Holmes story "Silver Blaze," which Holmes solved by paying attention to the dog that did NOT bark. A similar idea shows up in my current WIP.

Stephen King turns forensic evidence on its head in The Outsider, his recent novel which Rob discussed a few days ago. We have a man accused of murdering a child, and the DNA samples are undoubtedly his. That's fairly standard. But witness and photographs place him hundreds of miles away when the crime was committed. When the forensics and documentary evidence collide, the cops find themselves in Plan B and the book shifts from a typical police procedural into King's more familiar domain, the Twilight Zone. He does the what's-wrong-with-this-picture stuff as well as anyone else in the business.

Anyone here old enough to remember the TV show Hong Kong? It only ran for one season, starting in September 1960. Rod Taylor played a journalist, and in one episode, he narrowly escaped being run down by a taxi. Soon after that, a man he was talking to was shot. Everyone believed Taylor was the real target and the shooter had bad aim, but later in the show, Taylor tracked down the taxi driver, who told him that he had been paid to MISS Taylor with his cab. That showed that the dead man was the intended victim after all and the fake attempt on Taylor was to conceal the real motive.

My own Blood on the Tracks has Woody Guthrie trying to find a stolen tape of a forgotten rock band, and nobody can understand why anyone cares about the tape. Eventually, Guthrie learns that something may have been recorded OVER some of the tape and that the bad guys are after something besides the musical performance. Which means a different set of people might want it...

In Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie spends most of the book thinking Mr. Darcy is an insufferable snot and dislikes him for how he has treated her older sister Jane. Eventually, she discovers that he is trying to help her younger sister Lydia, who has run off with a wastrel and is in danger of ruining her own reputation (not to mention her life) and that of her entire family. When Lizzie finds that Darcy is buying the blackguard off, it makes her see him more clearly...and paves the way to their own happy ending.

Some of my favorite plot reversals (call them clues, too) appear in science fiction. Damon Knight's "To Serve Man" offers a manuscript from another planet that those beings give to earthlings as a sign of good faith. It's also a clue. When someone translates the entire text, they discover it's a cookbook and the double meaning of the word "serve" becomes important. The story became an episode of The Twilight Zone in 1962, and many people cite it as one of their favorites.

Pierre Boulle's novel became the basis for the first Planet of the Apes film, and who can forget that closing shot of Charleton Heston looking at the mostly buried Statue of Liberty and understanding for the first time that he's not on a distant planet? The primates have become the dominant species on earth after a nuclear war destroyed civilization. Oops.

How about you? How do you give your readers the clue that moves the story off the tracks?


19 August 2018

Nazi Ladybug meets die Valkyrie

by Leigh Lundin

ladybird nazi
Not sure what’s in the air, but friends and I have had to deal with a variety of insurance adjusters. Must be those uninsured caribou, but that’s not today’s topic. One estimator stood out from the rest, this one in Holyshiteitshot, Arizona.

Like some big men, he walked with a back-leaning Sidney Greenstreet tilt. He firmly planted one foot in front of the other, rather how I imagine Nero Wolfe walked. Round, he was very round, rotund. He’d dressed head to toe in blinding red– crimson cap, carmine knit shirt, vermillion belt, scarlet shorts, sanguine socks, cerise shoes. As for underwear, I would have bet on blood-red briefs, exactly the same shade as the rest of his costume.

The Arizona sun went into eclipse as he bore down upon me. He looked like an oversized ladybug.

No, not quite. Because he sported curly dark hair and beard, it’s fairer to say he looked like a slightly-crazed Santa’s workshop helper dressed as a ladybug.

Melayna plays the horns
“Melayna Walküre seizes the helm in Wagner’s
Das Rheingold.”
— Jean Poole, Opera Revue
“But Leigh!” you say. “That’s not like you to comment on other people’s looks. That’s… that’s… unkind. And besides, his costume didn’t feature ladybug polka-dots.”

Hold on, this is justified, I promise.

Enter Melayna. See, the adjuster hadn’t come to visit me; I simply happened to spot him plodding through heat thermals rising from the parking lot. Melayna was his client.

And she outshone the sun. He was… thunderstruck. Melayna’s pretty, very pretty. She’s also… how the Germans say… kräftig, robuste, widerstandsfähig. Loaded with tattoos, she gobsmacked him like an operatic Valkyrie.

Hormones sizzled in the heat. Birds began twittering highlights from The Sound of Music.

Trying to introduce himself, his voice squeaked like a hyper-ventilating soprano. Kind Melayna helped him reel in his tongue. I strolled off to let young love blossom like Boraginaceae along the Rhine. That’s when ladybug-dude made a fatal mistake.

Lady Bug Superheroes
Botanical and zoological gardens buy cartons of ladybugs by the thousands. Why? Ladybugs, aka ladybirds, devour aphids. Destructive little aphids devour plants, literally sucking the life out of flora.
    We’ve upset the balance of nature, which can no longer naturally produce sufficient ladybugs to munch down on aphid evildoers. Thus botanists and farmers depend on ladybug growers.
Desperate to impress his dazzling darling, he boasted about the only thing in his life he thought worth bragging about, his penchant for white supremacy, his passion for the Aryan nation, his regard for the red, white, and black. Ladybug-boy, he wanted her to know, was a secret Nazi.

Alarmed in the middle of cheeping ‘Edelweiss’, songbirds choked. They scratched to a halt like a needle dragged across a record. Boraginaceae withered on the vine. Ladybug-boy’s overtures sank into the molten tar of an Arizona parking lot.

It gradually dawned on our horrified heroine that the ladybug costume exactly matched the red in Nazi bunting. Melayna, see, one of approximately four Democrats left in Arizona, happened to be the least likely fan of neo-Nazis. This girl hadn’t forgotten America and its Allies fought a war to rid the world of Nazis.

Walkürenritt
“Fräulein Layna shows
Der Ring des Nibelungen
fans how the Valkyries ride.”
— Percy Flage, The Village Vocal
Besotted ladybug-dude not only failed to grasp he’d lost the attention of his süßen Liebling, but he botched the simple insurance estimate. Melayna wondered how die Schwarzen and Hispanics fared at the whims of this Aryan Red Avenger.

Departing into the red-rimmed sunset, she left the smitten Storm Front wannabe pining. Not that day or the next, but sometime she vowed she’d share a quiet word with his insurance overlords.

Don’t ƒ with the fräulein, don’t mess around the Melayna.

Shortly, a cleansing shower refreshed her. As rushing water sluiced away the slime, she even hummed a little Wagner tune. Nothing’s like Ride of the Valkyries to lift a girl’s spirits.

♪♬ Dum de-de-de dee dah… ♩♫