30 September 2018

Just Another Day at the Office

by R.T. Lawton

Okay, I was going to write something about Bouchercon for this Sunday's blog, but not too long after I got back from St. Petersburg, there was a curious letter in my stack of mail. The letter was addressed to me at my home and had a return address from the Colorado Springs Police Department. First off, they never write to me about anything, and second, if it's not a request for help of some kind or a speaking engagement, then it can't be something good.

My wife opened the letter and told me I might be in trouble. I grabbed the letter and started reading. It seemed that I was hereby being notified that in accordance with the Revised Municipal Code of the City of Colorado Springs and the Colorado Motor Vehicle Laws that the following vehicle has been impounded:

     Vehicle:    1990 WHI JEEP WRANGLER          Lic. Plate:   CO960YCR
     VIN:         2J4FY29T7LJ516354                         Impound #  3259-18
     Reason:    RECOVERED STOLEN               
     Date:         09/17/2018          J Strachan  1778

The storage fee was $30 a day and if the vehicle was not claimed, then it would be sold at auction on 01/14/2019. Also, I could not claim the car after 4 PM because they close the office at that time.

WOW!

This was a lot to think about, mainly because I had never owned a Jeep Wrangler of any year or color, much less an old 1990 white one. And, to my knowledge, I had never owned or licensed any vehicle which had been subsequently stolen. Was this a scam letter? If so, how were they hoping to get the money? Had I missed something? Or was this a new type of sting operation run by the police to see if someone would try to get a vehicle on the cheap by making a false claim and bonding out the car? And most importantly, why was my name and address tied to a stolen vehicle?

Time to do some sleuthing.

I called the telephone number for the police impound lot. Not the number on the letter. I knew better than to do that, thus I called the number on their internet website. Turned out to be the same number. So much for being cautious. After a long taped recitation of my choices as to which button to push in order to speak with the party I needed, I finally got put on hold until a real person came on the line. I explained the situation and that I had never owned this Jeep, nor did I know anything about it.

The impound lot employee was polite and sounded helpful. He plugged the impound number into his computer and started checking.

HIM: "So when you took the license plates off..."
ME:   "No, no, I never owned the vehicle. I don't have anything to do with it."
HIM: "Okay. Well, the new owner picked it up today."
ME:  "That's good, but how did my name and address get associated with the stolen Jeep?"
HIM: "Just a minute, I'll check the file."  LONG PAUSE  "The DMV said that's who the VIN came back to."
HE & I in CHORUS:  "Have a good day."

Next step, drive to the DMV and wait in line. Twenty-four people in the vehicle registration line ahead of me. My ticket number in the queue is 654. Drivers license people and other problems get different group numbers than the 600 series. I settle in. Just before I fall out of the chair asleep, the loud speaker announces my number.

At Desk #3 (there are well over twenty numbered desks surrounding our cattle pen), I hand my letter from the impound lot to the nice lady and explain my problem. She also takes my driver's license for proper identification and then consults her computer. After much careful looking, she assures me the VIN on the stolen Jeep in my letter is not registered to me.

"Then how," I inquire, "did the police department get my name?"

"Well," she says, "the name on the VIN is very close to your name."

It appears that I got caught in the scatter gun approach to legal notification. And that was all the information I could gather. I never did find out the owner's name, nor whether he was the new owner or the old owner, nor the complete circumstances of the stolen Jeep. You know, like who stole it to begin with and how was it recovered?

It's tough not being in law enforcement anymore, a position where people would give you the rest of the story.

Now, it's just another day at the writing office.

What next?

29 September 2018

Where's a Grammar Cop When You Need One?


by John M. Floyd



I doubt the Grammar Police are always pleased with me. I make a lot of mistakes, stylewise, in my fiction writing. Some of them are intentional, though--I love to splice commas, split infinitives, fragment sentences, etc.--and most of the others I try to catch and correct during the rewriting/editing phase, so overall I hope the final product wouldn't have made my late great high-school English teacher too unhappy. I also try to be lenient in forgiving some of the errors I see in the speech and writing of others.

But let's face it, there are some things about grammar, word usage, punctuation, etc., that we as educated adults really ought to know, and that we as writers are expected to know. (Newscasters are a whole different story. They should know the rules, too, but usually don't.)

After a lot of thought, a short nap, and three cinnamon rolls, I have put together a list of grammar issues that a lot of folks seem to find difficult. Some of the items that involve word choices are easy, and have a definite right-or-wrong answer. If you violate those, you probably deserve a visit by the Grammar Squad ("Hands up, bud, and step away from that keyboard!"). Other items are sort of iffy; you say tomayto and I say tomotto. On several of them I'm sure we'll disagree.

Even so . . . here's my list:



nauseated/nauseous -- They don't mean the same thing. If you're sick, you're nauseated. If you're making me sick, you're nauseous.

feeling badly about something -- It's impossible. You might feel bad about it, but feeling badly is no more correct than feeling goodly.

everyday/every day -- Everyday is a one-word adjective, and shouldn't be used any other way. "These are my everyday shoes--the ones I wear every day."

into/in to -- You get into your car and drive in to your office. Unless maybe you crash into your office. I still remember the news article I read about someone turning himself into police. A shapeshifter, maybe?

prostrate/prostate -- One's a position and one's a gland. "He's prostrate because he's having trouble with his prostate."

irregardless -- It's a useless word. It means regardless. Same goes for inflammable (which means flammable), utilize (which means use), and preplanning (which means planning).

alright/all right -- It's not all right to write alright. If there is such a word, there shouldn't be. Same thing goes for alot.

blond/blonde -- There's a lot of disagreement about this one. Yes, blond is masculine and blonde is feminine, but I prefer to use blonde as a noun and blond as an adjective. "The blonde had blond hair."

continuous/continual -- They're not the same. Continuous means uninterrupted and never stopping. Continual means often repeated, or frequently.

momentarily -- This means for a moment, as in "I was momentarily speechless." It does not mean soon. If your pilot announces, during takeoff, "We'll be in the air momentarily" . . . that's not good.

hone in -- You can't hone in on something. You home in on it, like a homing beacon.

principle/principal -- Educational principles are upheld by the principal (your "pal"). NOTE: As the person assigned to change the weekly motivational message on our high-school bulletin board, I once posted "It's not school we hate, it's the principal of the thing." I thought it was clever. The administration did not. (An unfortunately true story.)

with baited breath -- It's bated breath. Unless you've eaten a can of worms.

loath/loathe -- I'm loath to tell you how much I loathe seeing this misused.

peaked my interest -- Should be piqued.

slight of hand -- Should be sleight of hand.

If worse comes to worse -- Should be if worse comes to worst.

to all intensive purposes -- Should be to all intents and purposes.

wringer/ringer -- Why do half the writers I read say "He looked like he'd been through the ringer"? Those of us who remember old-timey washing machines prefer wringer.

wrack/rack -- Personally, it's nerve-wracking to see this written nerve-racking. But apparently either spelling is acceptable. Oh well.

comprise/compose -- Comprise means to include. Compose means to make up. According to The Elements of Style, "A zoo comprises animals, but animals compose a zoo."

convince/persuade -- Convince involves thought. Persuade involves action. "He convinced her she was wrong; he persuaded her to go home."

literally -- This means actually, not figuratively. If you say, "I literally jumped from the frying pan into the fire, " I wish you a speedy recovery.

restauranteur -- No such word. It should be restaurateur.

expresso -- Should be espresso.

1980's -- Should be 1980s.

less/fewer -- Yes, I know, we learned this as children. Even so, people get it wrong all the time. Fewer refers to units. Less refers to things that can't be counted. "I've been reading less fiction and buying fewer novels."

first come, first serve -- Should be first come, first served.

give them free reign -- Should be give them free rein.

I could care less -- I have no idea where this got started, and I couldn't care less.

compliment/complement -- To compliment is to praise. To complement is to enhance or add to. "He complimented her on the way her scarf complemented her outfit."

insure/ensure -- If money or a policy is not involved, use ensure.

affect/effect -- Affect is a verb. Effect is a noun.

data and media -- Since the form is plural, these nouns supposedly need verbs like are or were. BUT . . . when I worked for IBM, we burst into hysterical laughter anytime we heard someone say "The data are correct." I think collective nouns like this should be treated as singular, and use verbs like is or was. (And it's dayta, not datta.)


Gone With the Wind -- In a title, capitalize all words (even prepositions) that are longer than three letters.

a two bit operation -- This makes for slow, tedious reading. Hyphenating multi-word adjectives like two-bit (or multi-word) can increase the pace: one-horse town, easy-to-read book, three-alarm fire, elementary-school teacher, high-risk operation, holier-than-thou smirk. It can also prevent misunderstandings: I'm a short-story writer, not a short story writer. My five-year-old grandson is a short story writer.

a/an -- Pronunciation, not spelling, should determine which one is used: a uniform, a European vacation, an SASE, a historical site, an hour and a half.

the Internet -- Some capitalize it, some don't (especially when it's used as an adjective). I usually capitalize it.

From Noon Till Three -- The use of till (instead of until or 'til) is perfectly acceptable.

Texas/TX -- Unless you're addressing an envelope, don't use two-letter postal abbreviations for state names. Spell them out.

imply/infer -- A writer or speaker implies. A reader or listener infers.

hopefully -- This is an adverb describing hope. "The survivors listened hopefully for the sound of a search plane." It's incorrect to say "Hopefully, I'll finish this column by Saturday." (But I still say it. This is one of those rules that I happily ignore.)

i.e./e.g. -- I.e. means "that is" or "in other words." E.g. means "for example."

ironic -- A hurricane during your wedding reception isn't ironic. Getting run over by a Budweiser truck on your way to an AA meeting is ironic.

T-shirt/tee shirt -- The correct term is T-shirt. Hint: the shirt looks like a T when it's on a coat hanger.

writing time -- I prefer using a.m. and p.m., rather than AM and PM.

dialogue and fellowship -- These are nouns, not verbs. Don't say, unless you're a Baptist minister, "Come fellowship with us."

invite -- This is a verb, not a noun. Don't say, "I just received my invite to the party."

y'all/ya'll -- It's y'all. The apostrophe stands in for the missing ou in you all.

Miss Jane/Ms. Jane -- It's Miss Jane, and has nothing to do with whether she's married. The Miss along with the first name is a polite expression of familiarity, especially in the South, and is used when Ms. Doe or Mrs. Doe might sound too stiff and formal. Think "Miss Ellie" on Dallas.

italics/quotes -- Use italics for the names of novels, novellas, plays, books, movies, TV series, ships, aircraft, albums, court cases, works of art, newspapers, comic strips, and magazines. Use quotation marks for the names of poems, short stories, articles, chapters, TV episodes, and songs.

short-lived -- This deals more with speaking than writing, but short-lived should be pronounced with a long "i" as in "life," not with a short "i" as in "give." (I think James Lincoln Warren is the only person who's ever agreed with me on this, but he's a good ally to have.)

Seamus -- Another pronunciation thing. Everyone knows Sean is pronounced "Shawn," but only Irish private eyes seem to know that Seamus is pronounced "Shamus."

may/might -- May implies permission. Might implies choice. "Johnny may go to the movies" usually means his mom says it's okay. "Johnny might go to the movies" means he hasn't made up his mind.

historic/historical -- Historic means something that's famous or important. Historical just means something that happened in the past.


What's irritating is to carelessly misspeak or miswrite something even though you really know the right way to say or write it. Long ago, an English teacher (another true story) asked a question of one of my classmates, and got what she considered to be a not-specific-enough response. She looked at the offending student and said, too quickly, "I want a pacific answer." The guy replied, "Hawaii."

With regard to written mistakes, a magazine editor once told me she doesn't mind seeing an extra apostrophe in "its" or an apostrophe missing from "it's" in a manuscript--she just assumes the writer happened to type it wrong. But if she sees that same error two or three times in the same manuscript, that's a different matter. Suddenly the writer isn't careless--he's dumb. And the manuscript gets rejected.



Okay. Had enough of this? Me too. My interest may have been momentarily peaked, but I would literally be loathe to hone in on it everyday.

Irregardless, what are some of your pet peeves, about misuse of the written/spoken word? Does it make you feel badly? Continually nauseous?

Or could you care less?





28 September 2018

Social Issues in Crime Fiction, and a Farewell

I honestly believe—that the crime novel is where the social novel went. If you want to write about the underbelly of America, if you want to write about the second America that nobody wants to look at, you turn to the crime novel. That's the place to go. --Dennis Lehane, from an interview at Powells.com

 I agree with Mr Lehane and it is one of the reasons I chose crime fiction as the method to tell my stories. That and realizing that I wasn't finding stories about my family or the people I knew in "literary" fiction, except on rare occasions. I don't think you can write about crime without staking your position on many social issues. Even if you don't comment on them directly, you are affirming the status quo in one way or another--stating that "all is well" or "what ya gonna do, that's the way things are." Even the definition of crime is a social issue statement. At Bouchercon, I attended the criminals in fiction panel, and during the Q&A I asked, "How do you define a criminal?"

I asked the question because first of all, actual questions are rare at any writer panel. Most of the time they are manifestos or statements twisted into the form of a question, such as "the unpublished novel about my pet squirrel's ghost solving crimes would be bigger than The DaVinci Code, don't you agree?" So I wanted to give the writers something to chew on, but unfortunately I didn't get any good answers.

One writer used the legal definition, which means anyone never charged with a crime--either because they eluded police or their status and privilege acted as a Get Out of Jail Free card--isn't a "criminal." Which makes no sense at all. Jack the Ripper isn't a criminal, he was never caught. Is someone who is pardoned a criminal? Are you a criminal for life if you've done your time, but an upstanding citizen if you've been acquitted because your victims signed NDAs or disappeared? Our heroic protagonists often break dozens of laws, but they're okay. The most popular genre today, superheroes, act as vigilantes, above the law either by government sanction or their own moral code, and we cheer them on. They are criminals.



As for Get Out of Jail Free cards, police unions give out paper or gold cards to their members to give to friends and family for preferential treatment, and badges to put on windshields to avoid traffic stops, so I guess anyone who's good friends with an American police officer is unlikely to be a criminal by the legal definition, "just don't kill anybody," one recipient was told. We permit this and think it won't lead to abuse. I'm sure the strict moral codes of all involved come into play.

People from the "underbelly of society" as Lehane calls it don't get these too often, they are the hidden tax base that American municipalities leech for revenue, keeping them in a cycle of probation to give jobs to our bloated drug-war-fueled criminal injustice system, but whenever I read about corruption it's about a few "bad apples" like the guys in Don Winslow's The Force. We always forget the other half of that adage: they spoil the whole bunch. I know that's sacrilege these days, saying that our warrior caste of Heroes are complicit in a corrupt system and anyone who says "I hate bad cops! They make my job harder!" but can't produce a list of cops they got jailed for corruption is helping rot the barrel, but yes, that's what I'm saying. And when we write stories about police that ignore that unarmed black men are shot in their homes and turned into criminals, that prosecutors withhold evidence to make their cases, that judges take kickbacks to send kids to private prisons, we are the bad apples, too. Oh, that's unpleasant? That can't be entertainment? The fantasy section is over there.

Am I without sin? Hardly. I've been that cowardly guy who chuckled nervously when a man with power over me said something terrible about women and confessed to mistreating them. It's the same thing. We perpetuate it. It's our problem, not women's. I've tried to do better. I've helped train police to constrain violent people without having to shoot them, tase them, or choke them to death for selling cigarettes. I've tried to write that whether you wear blue uniforms or prison sweatpants, that you are human and have your reasons for what you do, whether those reasons are for the greater good or for personal gain, and make it entertaining in the process. They are not mutually exclusive. If you think they are, take it up with Lehane, Hammett, Hughes, Himes, Chandler, Paretsky, Mosley, and Block--who gave us openly corrupt cops in both Scudder and his cozy Burglar series.

The young bloods in crime fiction are not shoving "social issues" down your throat. It has been the crux since Hammett "took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley," as Chandler said. Even cozies today take on social issues. It is in crime fiction's DNA. Maybe we don't quote scripture, maybe we prefer Lil Wayne. He's sold 100 million albums, do you know who he is? Big as George Harrison (RIP, my favorite of the fab four). If you think "kids today" are stupid when they are the most active young generation in politics since the late '60s because you saw some edited crap on the Jay Leno show, my suggestion is to get out more. Take your head out of the Venetian vase and put it on the streets.

Thanks for listening to this rant. It will be my last for SleuthSayers. Thank you to Robert and Leigh for letting me speak here, and for all of you for reading and commenting. Fare well.

27 September 2018

Nostalgia Bites

by Eve Fisher

BalthazarNovel.jpgAs a bookaholic from my early childhood, I can assure you that I have read my way through shelves, yards, perhaps miles of books.  (That is not a complaint.)  And I have no problem with that.  I've also gorged on music, movies, television shows, and every other entertainment that is made available to me.  Some of this is because I'm greedy, and some of this is because reading is so much easier than writing:
"Will you be writing a novel?" "If denied every other form of physical gratification." - Pursewarden, in Balthazar by Lawrence Durrell
Good old Lineaments of Desire.  Seriously, if you've never read The Alexandria Quartet, check it out.  It rivals Roshomon as far as technique, complications, and amazing reveals.  And it definitely has atmosphere.  I'm not sure that Durrell's Alexandria still exists, but I'd love to see if it does.

BTW, Alexandria, Egypt is also the hometown of the poet C. P. Cavafy.  He's best known for Ithaka, and Waiting for the Barbarians.  (The latter has spawned eponymous novels, songs, paintings, an opera, and an upcoming movie.  Seriously good.  And timely.)  My personal favorite Cavafy poem is The God Abandons Antony:
When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.
Anyway, along the line I have noticed that my tastes have changed.  Thank God.  For one thing, when I get totally bored by a novel, or it's really, really bad, instead of plowing through I quit reading it. (With non-fiction, I apply my grad school skills and gut the boring ones because knowledge / information doesn't always come in a nice candy coating.)  Even when I was reading novels for the Edgars, there were two books that I just gave up on.  One I called "Fifty Shades of Green" because all the sex took place out in the wilderness.  (Presumably a statement of some kind, but I started laughing about page 15 - for all the wrong reasons - and didn't stop until I tossed it onto the pile and reached for the next book.)  And another book that was absolute torture porn.  The first 10 pages gave me nightmares, so I stopped.

Plan 9 Alternative poster.jpgThis is not to say that there's no place for trash.  I still think that an evening of Plan 9 From Outer Space can be very fulfilling, as well as almost any Joan Crawford movie.  And if you've got Bette Davis fighting with Mary Astor or Miriam Hopkins, I'm front row seating.

And there are some things that are like a train wreck.  You just can't take your eyes off of them:  Ancient Aliens.  Immanuel Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision (did you know that Venus is actually a comet?  Ha!).  Pink Flamingos.  Richard Wallace's Jack the Ripper, Light Hearted Friend (did you know that Lewis Carroll was actually Jack the Ripper?  Ha!)

And I would not have survived grad school without a stack of really cheesy romance novels for mental popcorn.

A couple of summers back I went through a fit of nostalgia and re-read a bunch of books from my tween/teen years.  Some held up.  Marjorie Morningstar is pretty damn good; so are The Once and Future King (which I still know almost by heart), Ship of FoolsThe Spy Who Came In from the Cold, etc.  

But a lot didn't hold up, mostly the books I'd read for the sex, like Frank Yerby novels, because, in the 60s, it was him, Harold Robbins, or Ian Fleming for an educational experience.  (Harlequin romances barely went beyond a kiss in those days.)  Besides, my mother read Yerby, my father read Fleming, and I simply snuck off with their copies when they weren't looking.  (Even as a teenager I couldn't stand Harold Robbins.) 

The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress coverBTW, teenaged Eve was so glad to find Robert Heinlein.  Tunnel in the SkyHave Spacesuit, Will TravelStranger in a Strange LandThe Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and many more.  It was my first exposure to strong, intelligent women, and got me ready for Emma Peel.

My two favorite Heinlein quotes are both from The Moon is a  Harsh Mistress:
TANSTAAFL  and  "Is no rape on Luna.  Men won't permit." 

And not, I might add, by curtailing women's freedom to dress, work, walk, jog, speak, behave, and live any way she damn well pleased.

Still, be careful giving in to nostalgia:  sometimes it bites.

Back when Netflix first came out I watched a bunch of 1960s movies that I loved when I first saw them, and while there were a lot of great, great, great movies made back then, there were also some that made my jaw drop.  I liked this crap?

Billy Jack:  I'm embarrassed to say how much I enjoyed it back in 1971, even though even then I knew that the dialog was really bad.  And that they'd all have ended up shot to death in real life.  I mean, this is after Kent State, folks.  Idealism was long gone.

And Blow Up turned out to be a big wad of nothing.  I still think it's main reason for success was that it was the first time that a major actress - Vanessa Redgrave - showed her bare breasts on screen.  But then, I've found I can't stand any of Antonioni's films.  If I'm going to do slow-burning moody atmospherics, give me Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock any day, or Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris or Andrei Rublev.  

Five easy pieces.jpgFive Easy Pieces.  Jack Nicholson in youthful full form.  I loved the scene with him playing the piano on the back of a pick-up truck, and the restaurant, searching for toast, both then and now.  But you know something?  The rest of the movie sucked swamp water.  The women were all basically sexual fungibles, with no intelligence or purpose other than to cling to a man like a limpet.  And Nicholson's character was about as much fun as a razor blade.  In fact, Bobby Dupea was the exact [male] embodiment of the description Jack Nicholson's character gives of Michelle Pfeiffer's character in Wolf twenty-four years later:
"You know, I think I understand what you're like now. You're very beautiful and you think men are only interested in you because you're beautiful, but you want them to be interested in you because you're you. The problem is, aside from all that beauty, you're not very interesting. You're rude, you're hostile, you're sullen, you're withdrawn. I know you want someone to look past all that at the real person underneath but the only reason anyone would bother to look past all that is because you're beautiful. Ironic, isn't it? In an odd way you're your own problem."
(There's a lot of it about.)

But back to books.  I reread a couple of Yerby novels, and, while I still can't help but like The Devil's Laughter (we all have our guilty pleasures), I nominate An Odor of Sanctity as one of the Top Ten Worst Books of all time.  Set in the time of the Crusader Kingdoms of Outremer, every single scrap of dialog is thees and thous, until certes, when I didst reach XXIV, I didst no longer giveth the rear end of a yon black rat.  Not only that, but the hero, the girlishly fair but apparently extremely well-endowed Alaric, like James Bond, suffers from the Dick of Death:  he can't keep it in his pants, any woman he marries dies, and half the women he has sex with die as well.  And plot?  What plot?  From Goodreads, Jackson Burnett writes:
"At one point, Alaric gets on his horse to ride to Cordoba to rescue his one-of-many true loves. Along the way, his horse stops, refuses to go forward, and turns to take Alaric off on a side story to fix an unresolved plot problem. When the hero's horse makes the calls on a novel's narrative arc, you know you are in trouble."
But I will give it credit:  it's still [marginally] better than:
  • The Playboy Sheikh's Virgin Stable-Girl - no, I haven't read it, but, thanks to Smart Bitches/Trashy Books, I don't have to, and you don't either - what a hilarious review!  
  • The Lair of the White Worm - author, Bram Stoker.  BTW, Ken Russell made a movie of it in 1988 starring Hugh Grant.  I wonder if he's managed to buy up all the prints of it yet? 
  • The entire Left Behind series. 
  • Anything by Ayn Rand. 

26 September 2018

Sharky

David Edgerley Gates


Burt Reynolds made his share of dogs, which he'd be the first to admit, but in 1981 he released Sharky's Machine, a rock-solid cop noir about dirty money and easy virtue.

John Boorman was originally signed. It had been nine years since Deliverance, the first picture anybody took Reynolds seriously in. But post-production on Excalibur ran long, and Boorman stepped away, telling Reynolds he should direct Sharky himself.

Burt Reynolds in mid-career, the early 1970's to the early 1980's, was Top Ten box office. He leveraged this into directing his first feature, Gator, in 1976. His second picture, The End, came out in 1978. Reynolds had optioned Sharky's Machine when it was published. He knew he had the chops. Now it was time to ante up.


This is a movie that begins with the first frame of the opening credits. Actually, it begins before the opening credits, because there's an eerie musical echo behind the Orion studio logo, then a fade to black, and then the first fade-in. A freeze frame, the color desaturated. An urban skyline, a tall glass-high-rise. The aerial shot tilts and opens up. Solo saxophone, bluesy, a little wistful. The string section, in a low register. Randy Crawford, her voice smoky, comes in slow, with the opening lyrics of 'Street Life:' "I still hang around/Neither lost nor found - " The single long shot keeps going, dipping closer to the ground, the camera in tighter, traveling left to right, picking up detail. Railroad tracks, a guy with a long, purposeful stride. Jump edit, with a simultaneous music cue, blam! the rhythm section kicking in, the horns. Cut to a sudden reverse, looking back up from a low angle, the camera now moving right to left, keeping pace with the guy's motion, his silhouette against the sky, the glass high-rise on the horizon behind him, distant, a world apart from his. And yes, the opening introduces Burt Reynolds.

First off, it's a virtuoso shot, done in the day before CGI. Secondly, it sets up - formally - a repeated visual effect, from high to low, from low to high. You're not at first aware of it. Then you begin to notice. Early on, there's a wonderful tracking shot, inside a stairwell. Sharky's been taken off Narcotics, and reassigned to Vice, below the salt. In fact, Vice is literally in the basement of the building. The camera backs down the stairs, below Sharky and his partner. A couple of flights down, his buddy tells him, This is as far as I go, people don't come back, and Sharky goes on alone, but the camera turns behind him, so it's hanging back, looking over his shoulder.

Sharky's Machine has very conscious echoes of Laura, and Rear Window, but its deeper influence is the legend of Orpheus, themes of descent and ascending. The journey into Hades, the rescue of the beloved, once lost. The whore Dominoe is an innocent, and the tarnished Sharky the one in need of redemption.


Not that the movie's perfect, by any means. There's one near-fatal mistake, when Dominoe finds Sharky carving a rose into the wood trim of a window seat in the old house he's renovating, and Reynolds has one of those patented Aw, shucks moments that just makes you want to vomit. It almost breaks the spell entirely. Another incident, when Sharky confronts Hotchkins, the crooked candidate whose run for governor can be compromised by Dominoe, loses most its effectiveness because it's played in long-shot, and you don't hear what they say to each other.

Let's look at the strengths. Music supervision by Snuff Garrett. The score's orchestrated by Doc Severinsen, who goes uncredited. But we have both Chet Baker and Julie London doing 'My Funny Valentine,' not to mention incidental tracks by Sarah Vaughan and Joe Williams. The cinematography. William Fraker. Rosemary's Baby, Bullitt, Tombstone. The entire cast. Charles Durning. Brian Keith. Bernie Casey. Richard Libertini. Earl Holliman. Vittorio Gassman. Henry Silva. Not to forget Rachel Ward, either.

What characterizes the picture, in a curious way, is restraint. Considering how much of it is over the top, and how repellent the material could easily be, Reynolds gives it a genuinely human dimension. When he does dial up the shock, it's all the more chilling for not seeming forced or calculated so much as necessary and immediate.

Sharky's Machine was Burt Reynolds' high-water mark. He tried again with Stick, and the movie tanked. It was his last major picture as a director. He later admitted he thought he could always come back to it - he directed a number of episodes for his series, Evening Shade - but time had passed him by.

In one of his last interviews, he said he didn't have any regrets left. I think he meant, not that he had none, but that he'd used them all up. He didn't need to spare any over Sharky's Machine. You could take that guy to the bank and get change back.


25 September 2018

Not a Dry Eye in the House

by Michael Bracken

I cried.

I screamed loud enough to be heard on the far side of the house. Then I cried.

My reaction to the email from Otto Penzler notifying me that my story “Smoked” had been selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2018 was not the reaction I would have anticipated had I ever thought inclusion was a real possibility. I screamed across the house for my wife, and, by the time she arrived in my office, I was crying. All I could do was point at the computer screen and let Temple read the email herself.

I’ve had many reactions to acceptances and publications, but crying has never been one of them.

DREAM

Having a story selected for The Best American Mystery Stories is a dream that began when I read The Best American Mystery Stories 1998, the second edition of the now long-running series, and I own and have read every edition since.

As an editor, two stories I first published made the 2002 “Other Distinguished Mystery Stories” list (“The Horrible, Senseless Murders of Two Elderly Women” by Michael Collins and “Teed Off” by Mark Troy, Fedora), and one of my stories made the 2005 list of “Other Distinguished Mystery Stories” (“Dreams Unborn,” Small Crimes).

But actual publication in the anthology? I never thought it was a possibility.

DREAM COME TRUE

Each time my wife and I visit her family, we spend much of the three-hour drive brainstorming story ideas while Temple notes them on a legal pad. Shortly before one such trip, I read the submission call for Level Best Books’ Noir at the Salad Bar, which sought stories that featured “food or drink, restaurants, bars or the culinary arts,” and during that trip my wife filled two handwritten pages with every food-related story idea we could imagine.

Then she suggested barbecue.

By the time we arrived at her family’s home, I knew the story’s setting and primary characters. While Temple visited with family, I filled several more pages of the legal pad with notes, and I created a rough outline. But after inspiration comes perspiration, and the story required several drafts before becoming “Smoked,” the story of an ex-biker in the Witness Security Program after turning state’s evidence against his former gang members. Relocated to a small Texas town, Beau James has opened Quarryville Smokehouse. Then his cover is blown when a magazine food critic names his smokehouse the “best-kept secret in West Texas” and his photo accompanies the review.

Shortly after publication, Robert Lopresti reviewed “Smoked” at Little Big Crimes, and he described the story better than I ever have: “The story takes place in modern Texas, but it has the feeling of an old-fashioned Western, with the bad guys getting closer and the townsfolk having to decide where they stand.”

LIVING THE DREAM

My wife insists “Smoked” is one of my best stories (and believes it would make an excellent movie for Amazon or Netflix!), but she’s obviously biased, and I learned long ago never to trust my own judgment.

So, I had no reason to think “Smoked” had any more of a chance to be selected than any of the many other stories I’ve sent Penzler over the years.

That I was emotionally overwhelmed when Penzler’s email popped up in my inbox is an understatement. Perhaps I should be embarrassed to admit it, but I’m not: I cried with joy.

In addition to “Smoked” in The Best American Mystery Stories 2018, my story “Texas Hot Flash” appears in the first print edition of Tough and my story “Mr. Sugarman Visits the Bookmobile appears in Shhh...Murder!

24 September 2018

Are Super Men Bad for Your Health?

by Janice Law

I came across a quote from Oscar Wilde the other day, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” I am not sure I agree but it is certainly a thought that gave me pause, especially when coupled with a more contemporary quote out of Colorado.

As part of its coverage of the political primaries, The New York Times interviewed a pastor out in the Centennial State who was distressed by recent limitations on the size of gun magazines. The reason, beyond the fact that 15-round magazines were readily available in neighboring Utah, was that the citizenry need to be able to resist the government and that this was supposedly why the founders included the second amendment.

Now, I grew up in a rural area, where most families had a rifle or a shotgun, including my non-hunting father, who, to the horror of visiting Scottish relatives, kept a rifle leaning against the wall near the back door. The clip was kept separately, and the weapon was strictly for rats in the barn, woodchucks in the garden, and the occasional rabid or distempered raccoon or fox.

Other neighbors hunted rabbits, squirrels, pheasants – or the greatly-prized and in those days, rare, deer. No one, to the best of my ability, yearned for handguns, submachine guns, high tech sniper rifles or any other military grade weapons that now obsess a vocal portion of the populace. I  suspect that the men of my father’s generation ( WW1) and younger neighbors (WW2) had seen quite enough of military firepower.

Putting ancient history, modern opinion and Oscar Wilde together, I began wondering if it was true not only that “you are what you eat” as the hippies liked to say, but that “you are what you consume of all sorts of media.” For, while over the last 50 or so years, a smaller and smaller portion of the population has actually had to handle military weapons for real, the society has become more and more militarized and more and more fond of military gear, clothing and armaments.

Does this represent a realistic response to threats? Or is this in part the result of that popular fantasy, the super smart, super technically astute super guy who saves whatever needs saving, including the world. Or perhaps of the equally ubiquitous fantasies of current military thrillers, complete with all the latest death-dealing tech?

Sure, these are just amusements, along with the madly popular video games involving fantasy weaponry producing fantasy deaths. Yet attitudes have clearly changed, along with the entertainments, as reasonably realistic thrillers like Eric Ambler’s or clearly comic romps like the James Bond franchise have given way to super competent heroes, soaring body counts, and heavy weaponry in immensely elaborate and exceedingly well-promoted books, games, and films.

I suspect that these militaristic fantasies lie behind the Colorado pastor’s conviction that weapons – the heavier the better – can keep the citizenry safe from government encroachment as well as dangerous neighbors. That notion led me to the familiar lawyer’s question so popular with our genre: Cui bono?

The obvious answer is the gun manufacturers and the producers of ammo and gear, but I don’t think one has to be a paranoid conspiracy theorist to see that there are others who profit nicely as well. Ironically, the favorite villain of the gun fanciers –  corrupt, indifferent or incompetent governments at any level– stands to profit from the romance of the gun toting super man, along with the overly powerful corporate figures, home grown oligarchs, and corporations that sway so many of our political decisions.

They profit because fantasies of vigilante action, armed patriots, and military tech-savvy super men ( and women)  turn citizens away from real activity that can influence democracies: civic engagement, research into issues, political activity, unionization.

So was Oscar right, does “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life?” I don’t know but I suspect that the overwhelming power of the profit motive is giving Life a good kick in that direction, and that super men, particularly with guns, have not been the most wholesome entertainment.

23 September 2018

Truth in Advertising 2

by Leigh Lundin

The 300
My friend Steve has a thing about penguins, but here his girl­­­­friend Sharon might draw the line. A self-aware, almost-23-year-old girl struggled to offer up her collection of three-hundred penguins. 300. God love her:
    “I’m going through a pretty weird time in my life right now– having just gone through a break-up and grad­­uated college and temporarily living in my parents’ house… Sifting through my room (which has become a strange amalgam of my adoles­­cence and burg­­eoning adult­hood), it’s been brought to my attention that I probably won’t ‘catch a man’ or have any­­one believe I’m about to turn 23 with 300 penguins and a bunch of purple furniture around, that looking at my current room one might think some sort of 13-year-old with develop­­­­mental issues is living here.”
As mentioned last week, I ended up with a couple of vehicles I didn’t need and decided to sell them through Craig’s List. They were flawed and I made that as clear as possible. It occurred to me both had a criminal element behind them, hence today’s article.

In case anyone wondered, there really is a Craig, Craig Newmark. He and CEO Jim Buckmaster (known for his haiku error messages) run the company in San Francisco. Craig’s List solved the problem of intense antipathy between sales and technical staff by employing no salesmen, which caused revenues to soar. At one point, eBay bought a 25% stake in the company, but after an exchange of lawsuits over eBay’s misuse of proprietary information, Craig’s List bought out eBay’s interest.

Craig’s List as Entertainment

Once Craig’s List converted from simply carrying local events to job listings to want ads for goods and services, peculiar items began to surface. Adverts appeared for positive pregnancy tests and ‘clean’ urine, apparently prized by drug users.

One person wanted to hire a full-time texting assistant at $10 an hour. A bride-to-be suffering a shortage of bridesmaids advertised for young women, “hot, but not hotter then me.”

Another girl worried about her sanity wanted to solve a mystery– The Case of the Clueless Chick. I have a possible solution, too. Many chickens can fly, so she might have spotted a Bantam on the fire escape.

A purse-snatcher became smitten with his victim. That’s not actually the creepiest part– you have to read it.

Amusing ads began to show up. My favorite offered an autographed first edition of Plato's Republic. Socrates would have been proud.

Then we glance at the pets section. “This kitty … will fiercely defend your house, even against you. Has a very soft and furry belly like a teddy bear – however he will bite your face if you try to touch it. For the love of God, someone please take this thing out of my house.”

That’s how I felt about the following Ford Explorer in this second part about cars and petty crimes.

2. Ford Explorer

A pleasant lady with an unpleasant adult son happened to owe me for services rendered. The debt, the lady, the obnoxious son… The advertisement below explains it. (No, that's not the son, but a generic police photo.) Within the past few days, someone flagged the ad, thinking it promoted drugs rather than opposed them. Sheesh, some people can’t read. Oh well… I’ve already sold it.

CL Orlando > for sale > cars & trucks > by owner…

1999 Ford Explorer

generic prison inmate (face blurred) make:
model:
year:
VIN:
condition:
cylinders:
drive:
fuel:
odometer:
paint:
size:
title:
trans:
type:
Ford
Explorer
1999
1FMZU3…
fair
6
4WD
gasoline
155 500
white
full-size
clean
auto
SUV

I ended up with this white 1999 Ford Explorer in the weirdest way. A woman decided to get her son a new car as a reward for staying off drugs. Days later, police arrested him for dealing. Mom was furious. To pay his legal and rehab fees, she got rid of her son’s old car and I ended up with it. It’s not beautiful, but it’s tough.

Comes with a hi-end radio. Rear seats fold to make a bed or extend the storage. Features cast alloy wheels, police push bar, and no cocaine. Promise.

Transmission rebuilt by AAMCO. I need to rebuild the guts of the driver’s door- replace the power lock and probably the window mechanism. Buy it before I finish, you save money. Catch yourself a deal- I’m looking for best offer, dime bags and kilos not accepted.






22 September 2018

Do Authors Expect Too Much? (wait a minute...this is a serious post. Has Bad Girl lost her mind?!)

by Melodie Campbell

I'm guilty of this one. I'll say it right up front.

Janice Law and O'Neil De Noux got me thinking serious thoughts, which is always risky for a comedy writer.

I make a living as an author.  But not a particularly good one.  Probably, I could make the same working full time at Starbucks.  As authors in these times, we don't expect to make a good living from our fiction.  It's a noble goal, but not a realistic one for the average well-publisher author with a large traditional publisher.

This isn't a new observation.  F. Scott Fitzgerald said something similar about his time:  The book publishing industry makes horse racing seem like a sure thing.

So if we can't expect big bucks from all this angst of writing fiction, what do we expect?

When The Goddaughter came out, there was quite a fanfare.  I was with a large publisher that agreed to pay for refreshments.  Eighty-five people overflowed the place for the launch.  Local newspaper and television brought cameras.  This doesn't happen in mega-city Toronto.  But in Hamilton, a city of 500,000 where my book was set, I got some splashy coverage.

Those eighty-five people included some of my closest friends and cousins.  I was delighted to see them support me.  We sold out of books quickly.

I've had another twelve books published since then. I've won ten awards.  I am still fortunate to get people to my launches.  But the mix has changed.  The people who come to my launches now are fans, not relatives and friends.  With a few exceptions (and those are friends I treasure.)

Back when I first started writing - when big shoulders were a really cool thing - I expected my friends and extended family to be my biggest supporters.  I've been fortunate.  My immediate family has been terrific.

But expecting your friends and extended family to celebrate your success in continual ways is a road to disappointment.

I've come to realize this: if you work, say,  in a bank and get a massive, very difficult project done, there are no parades.  Your friends and family don't have a party for you.  They don't insist on reading the report.  Your paycheck is your award.

Yet as an author, I have expected that sort of response from my non-writer friends.  I expect them to buy my books.  (First mistake: all your friends will expect to be given your books for free.  For them, it's a test of friendship.)  I expect them to show up to support me at my big events if I am in their town.  Maybe not every time.  Is once a year too much?

It's been a lesson.  I have people in my circle who have never been to a single one of my author readings or launches.  I've given my books to relatives who are absolutely delighted to receive a signed copy - but they never actually read the book.

Worse - I've done the most masochistic thing an author can do.  I've casually searched friends' bookshelves for my books.  Not there.  (Note to new authors: NEVER ask someone if they have read your book.  You are bound to be disappointed.  This is because, if they read it and liked it, they will tell you without prompting.  If they read it and didn't like it, you don't want to know.  If they didn't read it...ditto.)

Yet along this perilous, exhilarating and sometimes heartbreaking journey, I've made a discovery.  Your closest friends may let you down. I no longer see my closest friend from ten years ago.  I write crime and fantasy.  She let me know that she thought that unworthy.

People like her will find excuses not to go to your events.  I don't know why.  It could be a form of envy.

But the best thing?  Some people you least suspect will be become your best supporters.  This came as a complete surprise to me.  A few friends - maybe not the ones you were closest to - will rise to the occasion and support you in every way they can.  I treasure them.

To wrap:  Most authors need approval.  We're doing creative work that involves a lot of risk to the ego.  There is no greater gift you can give an author-friend than full support for their books.  Be with us at our events.  Talk enthusiastically about our books to other people.  We will never forget it, and you.

Do we expect too much from those around us?  Is it because we don't usually get a constant paycheck? What do you think?


On Amazon





21 September 2018

My Father Died Today

by Mary Fernando

My father died today and I am left here, with my keyboard and memories. 


My father was born in Ceylon in the 1930s, but he had no sense of the place or time he landed on this planet. He was always immersed in books -philosophy, the classics and his beloved biology- and he had little regard for the social norms that were simply invisible to him.

My father got his PhD in Biology at Oxford University, at Christ Church College, in the 1950s. When my son asked him about Oxford, my father - one of the few non-whites there - did not comment on the prestige of Oxford, or the lack of diversity. That was not my father’s style. He was unfailing honest, so he talked about what mattered to him: how, as a poor student, he was able to buy so many of his beloved books at second hand stores and how he had his first sexual relationship there. Yes. That is what he said. That sealed the deal for my son - he was going to university.

My father was born into a wealthy family, one of a long line of doctors and scientists. Growing up in Ceylon, a country with a rigid social stratification, he had a servant whom he chatted with and respected. My father took him on collecting trips and was amazed at his fine mind. We knew him only as ‘Dr. Johnson’ because that is what my father called him. Whenever we returned to Ceylon, Dr Johnson would accompany my father on his collecting trips and lectures.  It was not until I was older that I realized that Dr Johnson was not a professor and he was different than the famous scientists that I often met. Dr. Johnson had no qualifications - not even a high school diploma - and as an adult I found out that my father had given him some family land, helped him build a house and sent him money every month to allow him to educate his children and live a life of ideas. ‘Social justice’ wasn't in my father’s vocabulary - he just did what he felt was right. Whether he was sitting with Maasai in the plains of Africa, or world famous scientists in the halls of a university, he was the same - it was people that he loved and he remained blind to the differences that others saw.

He fell in love with my mother, and stayed in love with her for 62 years. In my mother he found someone as oblivious of norms as he was: she was an MD/PhD with a passion for Parasitology. My father - with his eyes on science -  missed the chauvinistic memos of the 1950s. In my mother he saw a mind that he thought was finer than his. He supported her through her career. He also felt he was a better cook, so he cooked for her all his life, leaving her free to do her work. He supported and fought for many women in science in his lifetime - it was their minds, not their sex, that he focused on and championed.



He took our family around the world, through Africa, South East Asia, the Americas and Europe. He felt at home wherever he was, as long as he could talk bugs and fish, eat good food and share stories and laughter.

Deeply moved by democracy and fairness, my father had no tolerance for political despots. I know this not from what he said but from what he did. He took our family - often at young ages - through dangerous countries in search of fish and bugs. He faced men with machine guns and machetes with equal calm. He had a job to do and we simply went with him. Nothing speaks of his boldness as well as when he was in Singapore, on his way to the Philippines. We were not with him but called to tell him that the Philippines was in the middle of a coup. He said: If I stopped my work for every coup, I would never get anything done. My father felt strongly that political despots, dictators, and even civil war, were transient. Science, that careful, meticulous work of men and women around the world, that is what would endure and he would do his small part to contribute. Looking back - he was right. The despots are now dead or overthrown. The work of the men and women of science has lived on.

My father’s sense of fairness, and his support of my mother, occasionally made his life miserable. We were traveling during his sabbatical year, were in Malaysia, and my mother asked my father to bring some samples from chickens when he visited Burma (now Myanmar). In my father’s mind, if you took anything you paid. So, he offered to pay to collect chicken feces - chicken shit -in an isolated village.  As he was depositing samples into carefully labeled bottles of formaldehyde, he looked up to see many villagers, all carry bags, some of them in various states of degeneration, all filled to the brim with various animal feces. The word must have gone around the village that there was an odd man paying for shit. My father could see how poor these people were and so he did what few people would do - he left with his biological van filled with shit and his wallet empty. He told us this story over a meal, coupled with laughter.

Oddly, for a man of science, one thing my father would never accept is the death of people he cared about. He refused to go to any funeral. Ever. He simply could not bear it.

My father taught me to eat a good meal with people I care about and find a good book to read - every day of my life. He taught me to find every person, in every country, as comfortable as home. He understood - ahead of his time - that the world is a very small place. He taught me that chauvinism and racism are to be ignored in the face of larger, more important pursuits.

Unlike my father, I do go to funerals and I will go to my father’s funeral - my second this year. Why? Because my father - literally - gave me the world.

20 September 2018

Fun & Games With Victorian English Slang

by Brian Thornton

My friend Michael recently had a birthday. He chose to celebrate it by hosting an open house, insisting on no gifts; he just wanted our good company.

So, of course I brought him a gift.

And I ought to have known that his "no gifts" dictum only ran one way, because he had two in hand to give to us: a novel for my wife and a book of Victorian English slang for me, the guy who writes stuff set during the Victorian era (mid-to-late 19th century, for those of you playing at home.).

And I'm here to share the wealth: or at least some highlights! Today's entry will mine the listings for A, B, and C.

All of the phrases and their definitions below are taken from Passing English of the Victorian Era: A Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang and Phrase, by British mystery writer (and creator of one the first female detectives) James Redding Ware (1832–1909, wrote under the pseudonym Andrew Forrester). As nearly as I can tell, this compendium was compiled over many years. It was first published shortly after his death in 1909. Many of the passages contained herein would be a natural fit in such contemporary satirical works as Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary (1911).

Warning: STRANGE (and off-color, inappropriate, and, and, and...) STUFF AHEAD. Some of this makes the entries at urbandictionary.com seem straightforward!

Acknowledge the Corn: Adroit confession of minor offence to intensify the denial of the major offence: e.g., 'Sir, I believe you are after my wife–and you certainly pocketed my meerschaum last Sunday evening at 10.30.' To which the answer might be: 'Well, I acknowledge the corn–I took the pipe by incident, so to speak; but as to Mrs. H., I'm as innocent as the skipping lamb.' Said to arise from an ordinary horse-lifting case in the West of the U.S.A. The victim was accused of stealing four horses from one point and four feeds of corn from another for the said four horses. 'I acknowledge the corn,' said the sufferer–but legend says he was lynched in spite of the admission.

Adam and Eve's togs: Nakedness.

Afternoonified: Smart.

Agreeable Rattle: (ab. 1840) A chattering young man.

Alderman hung in Chains: A fat turkey decked with garlands of sausages.

Alls: Waste pot at public houses.

Blue Pig: (Maine, U.S.A.). Whisky. Maine is a temperance state, therefore liquor has to be asked under various strange names, which have generally been satirically distinguished by a strange contradiction in their component parts, as in this instance. The phrase common in Liverpool.

Bob, Harry and Dick: (Rhyming, 1868) Sick–disguised way of admitting a crushed condition, the morn following a heavy drink. (See Micky.)

Bohemian Bungery: (Strand District) Public-house patronized by struggling authors. Bohemian having been introduced by Murger for a fighting author, artist, or musician, and the tea-pot brigade having dubbed a licensed victualler a bung, from that adjunct of a beer barrel–this phrase became one of the results of time. The Nell Gwynne was once a Bohemian Bungery.

Boiled Owl: (People's) Drunk–as a boiled owl. Here there is no common sense whatever, nor fun, wit, nor anything but absurdity. Probably another instance of a common name being changed to common or even uncommon word. May be drunk as Abel Doyle–which would suggest an Irish origin like many incomprehensible proverbs too completely Anglicized.
    It is a well-known fact in natural history that a parrot is the only bird which can sing after partaking of wines, spirits or beer; for it is now universally agreed by all scientific men who have investigated the subject that the expression, 'Drunk as a boiled owl' is a gross libel upon a highly respectable teetotal bird which, even in its unboiled state, drinks nothing stronger than rain-water. –D.T. 12th December, 1892.

Boko: (Common) A huge nose. Corruption of 'beaucoup', the 'o' being national and preferred to the French 'ou'.

Boko-smasher: (Street) For elucidation of this elegant occupation see Boko.

Bone: (London, 1882) A thin man. Hence–'The bone has made a remark.' (Surrey Pantomime, London, 1882)

Bone-shaker: (Youths, 1870 on) The earliest bicycle–which tried to break bones incessantly.

Cart: (Peoples' 18th cent.) A metaphor for the gallows–to which terminal its victims were jolted in a cart. Still heard in provincial places–'You be on'y fit for the cart'–doubtless now used without the least idea of its original meaning. In London the cart tavelled, only too often, several miles from Newgate to Tyburn Tree, whose site was that of the Marble Arch in Hyde Park. Used by all the dramatists in the last century.

Castor: (Street) A hat. Of course from the first hats being made from the fur of the castor, or beaver; passed down to the streets, where any hat is called a castor. Superseded by Gossamer.

Casualty: (Peoples') A black eye. From the first Soudan War, when slight injuries were cabled under this head.

Cat: (Thieves') Woman in general, and a bad one in particular. Suggested probably by her smoothness, the uncertainty of her temper, and the certainty of her claws.

Chamber of Horrors: (Soc) The name of the corridor or repository in which Messrs Christie (King Street, St James's) locate the valueless pictures that are sent to them from all parts of the world as supposed genuine old masters; sent, as a rule, with directions to sell at certain prices most preposterously fixed very high. Phrase borrowed from Madame Tussaud's wax-work, where this chamber is coloured black, and filled with effigies of murderers.

Chapper: (L. London) To drink.

Chestnut: (Amer. Eng.) An old joke offered as new. Brought to England officially in 1886 by A. Daly's Company at the Strand Theatre in 'A Night Off', where the heroine tells the hero the  play was found in an 'old chest'–to which he replies, 'Very old–chestnut!'

More 'chestnuts' in two weeks!

19 September 2018

Lost in the Stacks for 41 Years, Part 2

My published works.  Photo by Tamara Belts
by Robert Lopresti

This is my second column celebrating my retirement by reviewing high and lowlights of my career as a librarian.

My third professional job was at a university.  I was still a government documents librarian.  One day an older community member wandered into my department.

"So you get federal documents here."

"That's right."

"Do you have classified publications?"

I laughed.  "I can barely get them to send us tax forms."
                                                         


But let's talk about something they did send us.  One day David, my assistant,  placed one newly-arrived publication on my desk, as opposed to the usual location.

I figured out why pretty quickly.  A the bottom of the cover it said: FOR LAW ENFORCEMENT USE ONLY.  There are certain kind of publications that are not supposed to be sent to depositories, and that is one of them.

What's disturbing is that we are thousands of miles from the GPO.  Many libraries must have received that publication before we did, but David was the first to spot the problem.  Hmm.

The publication was about an organization that does not approve of certain activities and allegedly had a habit of blowing up buildings in which those activities took place.  This publication explained to law enforcement officials the methods these people had allegedly been using.

This was before email so I called the GPO.  "You didn't mean to send us that publication."

"Why not?"

"Because it's full of diagrams of explosive devices.  It's basically a manual for bombmakers."

"We'll get back to you."

Later that day they did.  "You're right.  Destroy it."  Now, I should explain that any publication the federal government sends for free to a depository library remains federal property.  They can demand it back or tell us to shred it if they want.  (What they can't do, minus a court order, is ask who has read it. Librarians are fussy about that.)

So  I destroyed the publication.

A few days later I got a letter from GPO, addressed to all depository libraries.  It said that the publication was sent by mistake and we should return it immediately.

Back to the phone.  "You told me to destroy it.  How am I supposed to return it?"

"We'll get back to you."

They did.  "Send us a letter explaining how you destroyed it."

I was sorely tempted to say "I used the method shown on page seven."  But who needs that kind of trouble?

               

I have lost track of how many offices I had in this library.  At least eight.  At one point my desk was in an open area.  A fellow employee told me that as a supervisor I needed an enclosed office.  "In case you need to yell at someone."

The view from my last office.

And speaking of moving, I supervised the shifting of the 200,000 government publications at least five times.  On the day we finished one move we had the windows open and a squirrel hopped in.  He went straight to the A 13's: the publications of the Forest Service.  "Boy," I thought, "if only the students could find their way as easily as you!"



I wish like hell I could tell you the exact day this happened.  It was one of the most significant dates in my career.  I was at the reference desk and a man asked "Do you have the German railroad timetables?"

"Wow," I said.  "No.  The best I can do is give you the phone number for the German consulate in Seattle.  But wait!  There's something brand new called the World Wide Web and we can access it from this computer."

Google didn't exist yet.  I think I went to Altavista.  He typed in the words German railroad timetables, in German.

And boom, there they were, your choice of English and German.  Up-to-date and free.

"Okay," I said.  "Right now, this moment, my job just changed completely."

And it had.  For example, my library no longer has a reference desk because people don't come with easy questions anymore, the kind Google can answer.  Now we specialize in helping with longer research projects.  But students still need help.



A student had been asked to find out everything she could about someone - anyone - who lived in our county in 1880.  I took her to the microfilm reels for the 1880 census, showed her how to use them and went back to my desk.

Soon she reappeared with a question: "What's a demimonde?"

I knew the answer but, following the old rule,  I took her to a dictionary to check that it indeed meant prostitute.

She had found an entire building full of demimondes: a brothel.  She was thrilled.

I told this to another librarian who nodded gravely.  "In Seattle they called them seamstresses."


Most of the librarians served as liaisons for academic departments.  Among other things, that meant teaching sessions on library resources.  I had recently taken that role for a new subject when I was strolling across campus and a professor saw me.  His eyes lit up.  "Rob!  Looking forward to your teaching my class tomorrow!"

"Me too!" I assured him.  Then I rushed back to my office and checked my calendar.  No mention of a class.  Had I reserved a classroom?  No.

So who was this professor who was expecting me?  I knew some of the profs in that department by sight, but not all.  This was before the time when you could find a picture of everyone in the world by going to the Web.  (I especially like LudditeHermitGallery.com)  I narrowed it down to about four.

I called the department secretary (if department secretaries ever went on strike at any university, the place would collapse within a day).  "You gotta help me," I begged.

Between us we figured out it had to be Professor X.  I sent him a grovelling apology.  Which class was I supposed to be teaching, and what did he want me to cover?

He wrote back with his own apology.  He had gotten me confused with a different Rob.

Whew.





In my city we only get measurable snow in about half the winters.  1996 was one of them.  Woke up one December morning to well over a foot of white stuff. My city didn't own a snowplow.

I normally bike to work; that wasn't going to happen. Driving was out and the buses weren't running.  So I walked the three miles.

All the way I had my headphones on and the disk jockey kept listing an ever longer list of closures.  I should explain that back then the university seemed to take a perverse pleasure in staying open whatever the conditions were.  They always sent out po-faced statements urging personnel to decide for themselves if it was safe to come to work, but they wouldn't close (so workers who didn't show up wouldn't get paid).

So I am almost finished with my two-hour trudge and am starting up the hill to the campus proper when the DJ says: "Here are the closings."  Dramatic pause.  "The university is open.  That's it.  Everything else in town is closed.  When the world ends the school paper will be the only place that reports it because the university will refuse to close."

The boss bought pizza for everyone who showed up.  (And someone actually drove out to pick it up.)  The next day the university closed and the DJ bragged that he shamed them into it.


                                                     

One day a young woman told me she was having trouble finding sources for a paper.  I had developed a quick technique for finding out how far a researcher had gotten and I applied it.

"Have you tried Database X?"

"No."

"Have you tried Database Y?"

"No."

"Have you tried Database Z?"

She burst into tears and ran out of the room.  I couldn't coax her back.

I never used that technique again.

                                          

One of our regular patrons was a Vietnam vet who was having trouble with the VA.  As he told the story he wanted to receive disability payments because his time over there drove him crazy.  The VA's defense was - again, according to him -- that he was already crazy when the army drafted him.  Not a great argument.

A member of the public is welcome to use our collection and anyone could borrow our federal publications, if they showed ID.  This veteran wanted to borrow some but he refused to show his ID because he thought the VA might be tracking what books he read.

I told him that didn't match my experience of reality but I respected his right to his own.  Nonetheless, he couldn't borrow the documents.

He used them, over several years.  I don't know how his case turned out but he started taking better care of himself and bringing in fellow vets whom he helped use the docs.  I counted that as a win.

                          

The worst and the best: someone stole more than 600 pages out of our old Congressional Serial Set volumes.  After more than a year and a half of sleuthing by various people at our university we got the evidence that led to the thief's conviction.  You can read all about it here and here.



One day I picked up the book on Occupations from the 1920 Census and read about "Peculiar occupations for women."  The introduction explained that census takers had reported women in a lot of occupations that women obviously could not have been working in, like masons and plasterers.  And so, the census bosses explained solemnly,  the records were carefully examined and if they could figure out what the mistake was they corrected it.  Or should I say if they figured out what the "mistake" was they "corrected" it.  And how many female pioneers in their fields were erased from history?

Years later, that led to my first nonfiction book.



One night I took my family to the best ice cream parlor in town.  The young man behind the counter said: "Last year you helped me with a research paper.  Not only did I get an A but the teacher kept it to use as an example.  Your ice cream is on me."

The super chocolate tasted particularly sweet that night.


 Back in January I taught a workshop on library resources and, as usual, handed out a quick feedback form.  One student wrote: "You introduced me to subjects I didn't even know to ask about."

My pleasure, friend. 


I would like to end by saying something I have not said in forty-one years on the job: Shhhhh!