19 November 2019

Collateral Damage


At the Private Eye Writers of America’s November 1, 2019, Shamus Awards Banquet in Dallas, Texas, Max Allan Collins said something during his presentation that has been the talk of the mystery community ever since.

In explaining why he said what he said, which you can read here, Collins wrote about the other presenters working under the same trying conditions: “Speakers preceding the awards proper began abandoning the mic, and just talking loud — one made a joke of it and yelled his entire fifteen minute presentation (that got very old). A stand-up comedy routine that went flat had been prepared with visual aids that would have been difficult to see even under better circumstances. A lovely speech written by the absent recipient of the Eye (PWA Grand Master, Les Roberts) proved too lengthy.”

I was one of those presenters.

Unlike Collins’s presentation, the entirety of my seven-minute presentation was captured on video. Here it is:




18 November 2019

Local Color


When my late mother-in-law was very old, she developed a passion for Harlequin Romances. A booksellers dream, she ordered up what she called her “little books” by the case, and consumed them at the hair dresser, in the evening, waiting for a train or an appointment. They replaced her now arthritis-denied needlepoint for staving off tedium. She claimed that what she really liked about them was the local color. Her tastes ran to UK settings with local customs like afternoon tea (she had a sweet tooth) and a fair degree of pre-war quaintness.

Recently a couple of new mystery series have gotten me thinking, like my mother-in-law, about the charms of other societies, not just the geographic settings but the cultural ones as well. Sujata Massey has followed up her impressive debut, The Widows of Malabar Hill, about an ambitious young Parsi woman in 1920’s Bombay, with The Satapur Moonstone, set this time in a forested princely state outside the city. In both, the restrictions faced by middle and upper class women combine with carefully observed venues to add believable complications and challenges for her pioneering female lawyer and detective.

Perveen Mistry, apparently based on one of the author’s own female ancestors, has found a niche in the otherwise much-restricted legal system by catering to the legal needs of women in purdah. She, herself, moves relatively freely in her society, although possible pitfalls and dangers were vividly illustrated by her experiences in the initial novel.

In The Satapur Moonstone, Perveen is off in the hinterland, back when the term really had meaning. Parts of Satapur are cut off during the rainy season, with tracks only passable by palaquin – Massey gives a vivid account of the discomforts of this conveyance for both the passenger and the bearers – or on horseback. She also has to conduct delicate negotiations – neither too forward nor too deferential – with the males she encounters, including the Agent of the Raj, whose all-male station, she discovers to her dismay, is her only possible shelter.

The underlying mystery is neatly constructed, but I must confess that it is the curious customs, Perveen’s nicely-calibrated courtesy, and the picture of princely India with imperious royals, impoverished locals, and spectacularly crumbling royal estates that really bring enjoyment.

 If Massey’s Perveen Mistry is distinguished by her iron self control and her sensitivity to the different customs and values of Bombay’s heterogeneous community, Auntie Poldi of Mario Giordano’s Sicilian mysteries is off the charts in the opposite direction, a truly operatic character, or perhaps we should say, a Wagnerian character, because, though Auntie Poldi’s lamented husband was Sicilian, she is Bavarian. And larger than life.

In Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions, she decamped to Sicily intending to commit suicide. Her plan involved large amounts of alcohol and seemed easy to accomplish given her weakness for drink. But Auntie’s suicide required a house with a sea view. Renovating this property, along with the beneficent interference of the Sicilian relatives, not to mention the salutary influence of a local murder mystery, keeps putting Poldi’s termination on hold. With her fabulous black wig, her caftans, her hobby of photographing handsome Italian policemen, and her appetites for food, drink, and romance, Poldi is an over-the-top character. And kind of nice to see, given that she is in her sixties.

 My own preference would be for Giordano to scale her back just a tad, but as described by her would-be-novelist nephew, she comes across as a genuine force of nature. Forces of nature being best enjoyed in smallish doses, it is fortunate that the Aunti Poldi stories have a great deal of Sicily as well as a great deal of the Bavarian diva. Sicilian food– abundant, apparently delicious and the pleasing obsession of half the characters – is a big player, as is Sicilian agriculture.

The novels are full of lovely groves of olives and oranges, flowers, ornamental palms and horticultural specimens, and vineyards thriving in the volcanic soil. In Giordano’s books, the island is a paradise, marred only by those so useful snakes, Mafioso and greedy multinationals, both of whom covet the island’s water supply in the newest, Aunti Poldi and the Vineyards of Etna. The plot is silly but the scenery is top flight. As my mother-in-law knew years ago, local color and a touch of the exotic have their place.

17 November 2019

Plussed (or Non)


Belie – An Ambidextrous Word

Last week I found myself using ‘belie’ in a story. A check for nuances compelled to look it up. Alice tumbled into the rabbit hole.

In the following, let’s use common English sentence structure:
    subject verb object

A sentence might read,
    A belies B.
    Her eyes belied her motives.

I had assumed belie implied (A) put the lie to (B), the subject is true and the object is false. Surely the verb exhibited a grammatical positive and negative polarity.

Not that simple, said my New Oxford American Dictionary. It offered examples both ways. In other words, sometimes (A) was true and sometimes it wasn’t. Polarity wasn’t constant.

Example 1   A ⇉ B
Example 2   B ⇉ A
Her cruelty belies her kind words.
His smile belies his viciousness.
    B is false (the object).
    A is false (the subject).

Logic (to me) says the subject (A) gives lie to or proves false (B). My beloved 3-volume OED long ago became landfill, so I turned to half a dozen internet dictionaries. A search turned up similar conflicting results. They all agreed about disagreement: Sometimes the subject made a liar of the object and sometimes the object made a liar of the subject.

At that point, I needed to deploy the big guns.

James Lincoln Warren
The legendary
James Lincoln Warren
James Lincoln Warren.

James’ house, a full-scale reproduction of the HMS Hotspur, contains a brass spyglass and a sixteenth century oak podium with the complete Oxford English Dictionary. At least that’s how I imagine it because I’m envious.

James kindly looked up belie for me and lo, it was as lesser dictionaries indicated. Belie cuts both ways. It doesn’t observe polarity. Sometimes the subject is true, sometimes the object.

James said no context beyond the contrast between the subject and object is necessary for them to be easily understood. Which is capable of deception?

Such amorphism disturbs me a bit. Offhand, I can’t think of another word in which, say, the subject sometimes trumps the object and other times the opposite can happen.

Nonplussed – or Not

Once upon a time in the New Oxford American Dictionary, I stumbled upon the following note:
In standard use, ‘nonplussed’ means ‘surprised and confused’: The hostility of the new neighbor's refusal left Mrs. Walker nonplussed.

In North American English, a new use has developed in recent years, meaning ‘unperturbed’— more or less the opposite of its traditional meaning: Hoping to disguise his confusion, he tried to appear nonplussed.

This new use probably arose on the assumption that non- is the normal negative prefix and must therefore have a negative meaning. Although commonly encountered, this modern use of nonplussed is not considered part of standard English, and is better replaced by unperturbed, unruffled, unfazed, or composed.
Never, ever had I heard the second ‘American’ meaning. I conducted a local poll of four dozen or so people. Out of nearly fifty responses, only one thought the second might be valid, but self-admittedly from a verbal standpoint, the word nonplussed was ‘not in his wheelhouse’.

I would have argued the point with Oxford, but I wondered if they had fallen victim to what I think of as the Wikipedia Effect or the Google Effect. If you watch Wikipedia, sometimes public content and wording depends on the loudest, most intimidating bully in the room. Higher level editors can often work these issues out, but when the bully is a higher level editor, the point becomes moot– or deleted along with embarrassing history.

If you haven’t experienced the Google Effect, imagine your long-time neighborhood suddenly called a name you never heard of. You enquire: whence did this come into existence? A van driver might hold the key.

Google Street View Mapping Vehicle + Dalek
Google Street View Mapping Vehicle
The Google Effect refers to Google mapping. You may have seen their vehicles driving the streets. Early versions featured cameras on roof-mounted tripods like Disney World used for its old Circle-Vision theatre in TomorrowLand. The latest cars recently spotted in Winter Park are driven by Daleks.

It turns out Google occasionally didn’t know how to name an area. If they couldn’t find a listing, worker bees exercised various options. Sometimes they asked a random resident, “What do you call this place?” Reportedly one label emerged from an erroneous realtor’s sign. It appears the new name for my old neighborhood came from an obscure street a few feet long called Fairview Shores.

In my selective sampling, all of my victims understood the standard meaning of ‘nonplussed’, except for the unsure guy who didn’t use the word at all. I’d like to ask Oxford how they came up with such a notice? What region in this vast country stands accused of this heresy?

An image sticks in my head, one of Oxford University sending a bored post-grad student to New York to document language abominations. He spends his research time in bars and picking up dates on West End Avenue.

Then on 42nd street, he invites for a romantic rendezvous a certain lady, called ‘Bam-Bam’ by her friends and another name entirely by the NYPD. When she sharply turns him down, he says, “You don’t have to act so negative.”

“I’m not negative, I’m non-plussed,” she replies, whereupon he pulls out his 80p Marks & Spencer notebook and starts jotting a new entry.

That’s how it happened. I’m sure of it.



Curious note: During the impeachment hearings, Fox or one of the righter outlets flashed a headline: Dems Seek Heresy Evidence. I’m nonplussed.

16 November 2019

Boucherconnections, 2019




Two weeks ago I attended my sixth Bouchercon mystery convention, in Dallas. My wife Carolyn and I drove over from our home in Mississippi, partly because I don't fit well in airplane seats and partly because I just don't seem to have the patience anymore for all the mumbojumbo at the airport. (I really need to try to trade all those frequent-flyer miles left over from my IBM career for something more useful, like frequent-moviegoer tickets.) Anyhow, our mode of travel for this trip was private automobile instead of commercial aircraft, and except for running into a rainy cold front halfway there, we had a pleasant and enjoyable drive.


I also enjoyed the conference. I've heard some writers say they prefer smaller gatherings, but one reason I like Bouchercon is that it IS big, and therefore attracts a lot of writers, some of whom I know from earlier meetings and some from a computerful of emails and blog posts. I also like the fact that it includes readers as well as writers. I'm not saying I have a lot of groupies--my fans are mostly my publisher and my wife, and I'm not always sure about my wife--but it's impossible to write a lot for mystery magazines and not occasionally run into folks at a mystery conference who tell you they like your creations (whether they really mean it or not). And where else can you spot literary heroes like James Patterson, Sandra Brown, Lawrence Block, Elizabeth George, Laura Lippman, Robert Crais, and so on, in the wild? Or sit down and meet face-to-face with your editors? Very few of mine live in the sunny South.

Let me say one thing, up front. I don't go to Bouchercons for the panels and other events. I do attend them, and I always enjoy them and learn something, but that's not my primary reason. I go to Bouchercons to reconnect with old friends and meet new ones. I did a lot of both, this time.


Highlights of this year's conference, for me:



- Short-story panel. I was on only one panel this year, and I had fun there--probably because it was made up mostly of longtime friends. It was called "Short and Sweet--and Sometimes Dark," and featured me, James Lincoln Warren, R.T. Lawton, Mysti Berry, Michael Bracken, and (moderator) Barb Goffman. Four of us are current inmates at the SleuthSayers asylum and one (JLW) was my master and commander at SS's predecessor, Criminal Brief, for four years. NOTE: If there are better panel moderators anywhere than Barb Goffman, I have yet to meet them. She's wonderful.


- Catching up a bit with old friends. I won't try to list them here for fear I might leave someone out, but you know who you are. In this sense, Bouchercon always feels a little like coming back to school after summer vacation and seeing all your pals again.

- Meeting for the first time (in person) several longtime email or Facebook buddies: Kevin Tipple, Travis Richardson, Frank Zafiro, Kaye George, Alan Orloff, Rick Ollerman, Dixon Hill, William Dylan Powell, Sandra Murphy, etc.

- Signing of the 2019 Bouchercon anthology. I knew only the editor and two of the other contributors, one of whom was unable to attend B'con this year, but we had a good time at the "release party" and a big crowd in the signing line. Those of you who have done this in the past know it's a fun session, and this was also the first time I'd seen the new book, which is always a thrill. Several folks even brought copies of previous Bouchercon anthologies to be signed--I've been fortunate enough to be featured in the most recent four (this one, Florida Happens, Passport to Murder, and Blood on the Bayou).

- The book room. This is always a place to run into people you've been trying to catch, and I love browsing the shelves even though I already own far too many mysteries. I especially enjoyed visiting with Don and Jen Longmuir, who this time oversaw the bookroom but didn't represent their own store (Scene of the Crime Books in Ontario) and who have always been SO good to me in selling the books I bring to Bouchercons. I also had a great time talking with Joe R. Lansdale and his daughter Kasey, who are both wonderful writers, at their book tables--I thought I owned all of Joe's novels and story collections, but I found and bought a few more from him this trip. (Another reason I like Joe Lansdale: He's from East Texas, so I can understand him when he speaks.)

- Signing at the MWA tables. Those who participated were given a half-hour to sit and sign anything anyone brought to us--books, anthologies, magazines, programs, etc. This turned out to be (as expected) more of a visiting session than a signing, but I think it worked. I was seated beside Charles Salzberg and thoroughly enjoyed our time together. That's the great thing about this kind of event--I probably wouldn't have even met Charles otherwise. Thanks, Margery Flax, for assigning me a table.

- An informal get-together of the contributors to Michael Bracken's new P.I. anthology, The Eyes of Texas (which takes the prize, I think, for the best title I've ever seen for an anthology, along with Barb's upcoming Crime Travel antho). About half the authors in Eyes of TX were there, and it was great seeing the ones I knew and meeting the ones I didn't. I admire them all. Some of us even had dinner together the first night and lunch the next day.


Overall, I thought this was one of the best Bouchercons I've been to. The hotel, the events, the guests of honor, the location, the food, everything--except maybe the weather, the first couple days--was excellent. I've heard some horror stories about some of the B'cons I missed, over the years, and I'm glad this one worked so well.

As for regrets, I have only two. One is that I missed seeing several people I had really hoped to meet or reconnect with: Jan Grape, Jim Wilsky, Cathy Pickens, Paul Marks, Jane Lee, Earl Staggs, Greg Herren, Marcia Preston, Dennis Palumbo, a few others, Maybe next time. My other regret is that the Bouchercon anthology signing happened to be scheduled in the same time slot as several other sessions I would have enjoyed attending: the presentation of the Derringer Awards, a Bill Crider tribute, and an Elizabeth George interview. I missed all three, but (as I mentioned) I had a good time at the signing.


So, those are my observations. Did you attend this year? If so, what did you think? Have you also attended Bourchercons in the past? How many? Which of those do you think were the best? Do you plan to make Sacramento next year?

As for this year's conference, I thought it was a great four or five days, spent in the company of friends and acquaintances and my wife and 1800 writers and readers who love mysteries. What could be better than that?




15 November 2019

Don't Shoot the DJ: Moby's Then it Fell Apart



Moby
Reader's of crime fiction are used to grappling with unlikeable lead characters.  The badder the lead, the better the read. Jim Thompson's Nick Corey, Donald Westlake's Parker, and Larson's Lisbeth Salander are just three of the countless  characters enjoyed from a safe distance. I really do like them, but if they called, I probably wouldn't pick up.

For obvious reasons, autobiographies do the opposite. Even when the authors are famous for being less than savory, a character emerges in their books we eventually cozy up to. This seems especially true for show-biz memoirs. The Errol Flynn offered up in My Wicked Wicked Ways commits his swashbuckling with a wink and a smile. Few readers would turn down an invite to Flynn's Zaca, the ultimate party boat. I recently finished all three of Artie Lange's books, including his latest, Wanna Bet? He's a stand-up comedian who's also a hopeless addict, and he turns his self destruction into comedy routines. He's cleaned up (again), and I'm rooting for him.  Julia Phillips made a lot of powerful tinsel-town enemies with her tell-all You'll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again.  She was a film producer who duked it out in 1970's Hollywood , a boy's club where few women producers were invited. I was in awe of her by her book's end.

I just finished Moby's Then it Fell Apart (2019). I'm not necessarily a fan, but his book promised a particular look at the 2000s that interested me. By particular look, I mean raves, nightclubs, parties, sex, drugs, and a mega-star rave-king's access to such. It's over three hundred pages long, and I gobbled it up in a few days. Much like My Wicked Wicked Ways or You'll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again, I couldn't put it down. It didn't seem to matter that by the book's end, I was dubious of Moby. I wasn't sure I liked him, or if I was even rooting for him.

In case you've never heard of Moby and you've never been been to a rave, you're not alone.

I haven't been to a rave either, but I'm not ruling it out.

House, trance, techno, all the dance music you'd hear at raves (ecstasy-fueled DJ-driven dance parties), seemed to me (at first) like disco with the soul hoovered out. This music often used loops and samples, bits and pieces, from others songs. I didn't immediately embrace musicians who used parts of other songs to create their own songs. Where's the musicianship in that? It seemed like cheating at best, stealing at worst.

Moby DJ'ing in 2004
I've lightened up. Some techno broke through the noise. Movie scores have been adopting techno elements for years now. Daft Punk scored the 2010 Disney reboot of Tron to positive results. Sampling is everywhere in pop music too, and it's here to stay. Some of it really works. I like "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in my Hand" by Primitive Radio Gods, which samples a B.B. King song from 1964. When it's B.B.'s turn in the song, it's like a lovely lost memory from the the distant past, remembered again.

Moby came out of this world of raves and sampling, and for awhile he owned it. His album Play blended all of these modern mix master elements into a huge commercial and critical hit. With Play Moby busted out of the bounds of electronic dance music and he became one of the biggest stars on the planet.
Moby's breakthrough .

Then it Fell Apart is a kind of fall and rise and fall again story. It alternates between Moby's troubled youth and his life as a star. It begins in the late 90s, the period right before Play came out, when Moby had alienated his dance music audience with his last album Animal Rights. He was playing sparsely attended gigs, and he had to use pre-recorded vocals because he couldn't afford to hire a real live singer. During this period, he was unabashedly desperate for fame, recognition, and all the women that stardom could bring. He roamed nightclubs and bars, looking to hook-up, hoping to be recognized, only to end up going home alone.

Moby, hanging with Lou Reed and Steve Buscemi
Play wasn't a success when first released, but eventually the album rocketed into the stratosphere and changed everything for Moby. Moby hit the waterslide of success head first, mouth open. His heroes, like David Bowie, Lou Reed, and Joe Strummer of The Clash, become his pals. He partied non-stop, all night long, day-after-day. Everything Moby had ever wanted in his wildest star-struck dreams was his. His claims of bedding women are Wilt Chamberlain-esque.  One-nighters were every night. Yet emotional troubles were bubbling up into Moby's pulsing nightlife like a sampled voice from a troubled past.

If he met women he really liked, Moby suffered untold mental anxieties that prevented him from establishing relationships. The few times he was able to forge a lasting bond, he was unable to stay monogamous and the relationship fell to pieces. And there was no way Moby was able to stay monogamous.

Moby said "no" to cocaine, until he didn't.
 A big part of the problem was Moby's vast intake of alcohol and drugs. Pretty much anything went, except cocaine. Moby feared it, and it's the only drug on the platter that he consistently turned down. While reading Then it Fell Apart, I knew his aversion to booger sugar wouldn't last, and once he started using it his life would spiral and the book would get better and better. I wasn't disappointed.

By the mid-2000s, Moby's star was on the wane. Again. His follow up to Play was moderately successful, but he wasn't able to recapture the magic. As he grew desperate to hang onto stardom, Moby turned into a creature of the night. His dream was to buy a bar with a basement, so he could sleep underground like a vampire during the day, then go topside at night and consume.  When he finally succumbed to Lady Caine's siren call, things got scuzzy. In one story, he woke up in a van covered in poop. The party escalated beyond Moby's control, but now Moby felt numb to the non-stop action. His self-hatred grew, and he considered suicide numerous times.

Like a line of coke cut with baby powder, Moby balances his tales of electronic dance-music glory with a recounting of his wretched childhood. Moby serves his book well by alternating his childhood traumas with his adult excesses. You forgive adult-Moby's debaucheries because of child-Moby's destitution. Moby writes that his parents were unstable beatniks. His dad committed suicide by driving into a bridge when Moby was two. Afterwards, Moby and his mom survived on food stamps and the occasional secretarial job she could get. His mom dated bikers and participated in orgies and drug use. Moby was witness to both. Moby's mom often left him to fend for himself, and he was molested at a young age. His maternal grandparents were wealthy (his grandfather was a banker), and they were the only hint of stability in his young life.

Moby's great love was music, especially punk and New Wave. This new music, abhorred by the popular and affluent kids in his neighborhood, saved Moby and gave him an identity.  He joined bands, played real instruments, and wrote real music with lyrics. DJ'ing was right around the corner. Moby's ability to so spectacularly rise above the bad hand he'd been dealt is his most endearing quality.

Mick jagger in 1965, the year
Moby was born.
A couple incidents in the book, beyond the party stories, sharpened the image of Moby for me. One is when Moby is introduced to Mick Jagger at a party Moby is throwing for the Black Crowes. Richard Branson asks Mick if he'd heard Moby's new album. Mick replied "Oh, I've heard it." Mick doesn't follow up with Moby, and you can feel the silence. Before Moby can say "Nice meeting you," Mick has moved on to talk with a beautiful woman. I wonder if Mick sized Moby up (can you believe this DJ who uses other people's music) and found him wanting. For decades Mick has seen them come, and he's seen them go. He knows talent, and he's witnessed colossal flame-outs. I wonder why Mick didn't curry favor with this new star as other older rock stars, like the late-great Bowie, did.

Natalie Portman
Moby describes an incident where he beats up a banker at a bar he owns. This story gave me pause. For all his talents and success, for all his fame, Moby will never be viewed as a physically intimidating person. Perhaps he's aware of this, and that's why the story is in the book. Moby says he was able to throw a good punch because he'd been taking kickboxing lessons. Through all the sex and drugs and music making, Moby had left out the kickboxing lessons. It made me wonder if there were other, even more mundane things like kickboxing lessons, that had been left out. Was it really all drugs and women and parties? How much of this is Moby's Rock 'N' Roll Fantasy?

Moby, 2009. Sobriety.
Moby is a student of fame. He loves the famous. He makes no secret of it. It makes sense that his book is cultivating his own brand first, his own new chapter of being famous, facts be damned.  Moby details in the book a time when he briefly dated Natalie Portman. She denies it (boy does she deny it), and it sparked a twitter feud. She remembers Moby as being "a much older man being creepy with me when I had just graduated high school." Moby eventually backed down and apologized. He even cancelled his book tour, which I think was a mistake.

I really enjoyed this book, and I'm not part of Moby's fan base. I was wired in from the beginning. I'm not sure I believe all of it, but I have no doubt that Moby created himself from nothing, and is still creating himself in some fashion today. I went along for the ride, like the narrator in his song "Southside." I went on Moby's crime spree, as if I was reading Westlake's Parker. If you've loved any kind of popular music over the last sixty years, if you like crash-and-burns, rise and falls, modern-day myth-making, pick it up.


I'm Lawrence Maddox. 

My novel Fast Bang Booze is available at DownAndOutBooks.Com. 

You can reach me at MadxBooks@Gmail.com. 

Party on.


14 November 2019

Midway


So, I'm a veteran. Specifically, a "squid" – a sailor, for you lubbers. I served in the U.S. Navy from 1985 to 1989. During that time I met a lot of people I would not have otherwise met, went a lot places I would not have otherwise gone (Lookin' at YOU, Diego Garcia, and Mombasa, Kenya), and had a lot of experiences I would not have otherwise had.

Many of those people, places and experiences – or any number of funhouse versions of them – have made appearances in my subsequent fiction since I started writing back in the late 1990s. Just this year I did the previously unthinkable (at least to me): I actually wrote crime fiction based in large part on my experiences in the Navy. So large, in fact, that it was set on a naval base, with an unnamed quartermaster (navy quartermasters are expert navigators, not, as I had to explain to my Army veteran father, supply department personnel.) as the point-of-view character.

I say "unthinkable" because during the lion's share of the thirty years since my honorable discharge in 1989, I've had a "complicated" relationship with my four years in the Navy. I won't go into the details, but for the longest time I looked back on my years on active duty through a pretty dark lens.

It was only with the wisdom which (hopefully) comes with age that I've been able to make a sort of peace with the memory of those years. I made great friends. I am a different person for having done what I did. I made mistakes which, in retrospect, can only be described as both life-changing and educational.

And, most importantly, I am a vastly better person for having served. And that helps give me balance, and fills me with pride.

But that's just background. It's not really what this post is about. If anything it's intended to establish my bonafides for why my readers (BOTH of you!*rimshot*) ought to give credence to my thoughts about the new Roland Emmerich war epic, Midway.

So, while I didn't serve during World War II (my grandfather did), I did serve in the Navy. What's more, when I was a kid, I was obsessed with the war in the Pacific theater. Specifically, campaigns like Guadalcanal, Saipan, Tarawa.

And, of course, the Battle of Midway, the turning point of the war, where the outnumbered, outclassed U.S. Navy laid a trap for the vaunted Imperial Japanese Fleet, and over a couple of days cut its carrier force in half. Four aircraft carriers, the Hiryu, Soryu, Kaga, and Akagi formed the backbone of the Japanese task force intended to take the island so that it could be used as a staging point for a proposed conquest of the Hawaiian Islands.

The dive bombers and torpedo planes of the U.S. Navy sank all four of them in this single engagement. American losses totaled a single carrier (U.S.S. Yorktown) and a cruiser (U.S.S. Hammann).  This hammer blow from which the Imperial Japanese Fleet never recovered was the first significant American naval victory in the Pacific Theater, and, as I said, the turning point of the war there.

There have been other film treatments of the battle, most famously Midway (1976), which featured both actual archival footage from the battle, and an all-star (and all aging) cast, headed by Charlton Heston. It's worth a look, especially for Heston (who is great as usual), for the combat footage, and for Henry Fonda as Chester Nimitz.

So how does Emmerich's take on this landmark moment in 20th century history hold up? For my money, the result is mixed. Emmerich, who has made his name most famously for helming the sci-fi "Aliens-Are-Not-Our-Friends" epic Independence Day and a string of natural disaster movies, plays to his strengths here.

Emmerich's Midway is thinly-plotted and frequently visually arresting. Screenwriter Wes Tooke's flat script gives the terrific cast nothing much to do other than give long "as you know..." speeches intended to convey contextual backstory, while also serving as the sorts of square-jawed archetypes so often found in patriotic war movies.

Emmerich's take on Pearl Harbor
The great strength of the film is unsurprisingly the combat scenes. It's not just Midway which gets the Emmerich treatment here. The Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor, and Lt. Col. James Doolittle's famous bombing raid on Tokyo also get some screen time as part of the set-up of for the titanic struggle at Midway.

These moments are by and large faithfully executed, with a refreshing amount of attention to detail paid by the film (the Japanese planes strafing "Battleship Row" in Pearl Harbor is just a single example). The CGI for the most part holds up pretty well, although there are a few places where it breaks down. A funeral scene set in a cemetery overlooking Pearl Habor comes to mind. The rows of white crosses serving as background for the beginning of said scene looked fake, almost like they were silent film era painted background scenery pulled from a basement somewhere and dusted off for this movie. It's a distraction.
Woody Harrelson looking authentic as Nimitz

The equipment, locations, costumes, etc., are also pretty impressive. And Emmerich is to be commended for this. Because these are the sorts of things that the "Hollywood Treatment" usually gets wrong. Especially ships, planes and uniforms.

The things this film gets wrong about Navy life are both unsurprising and small. I served aboard a number of ships, and visited friends on countless others. I've seen my share of shipboard berthings both in the modern Navy and doing archival period research. I have never seen actual berthings which were as spacious and easy to get through as the ones onboard the U.S.S. Enterprise in this film.

You don't "lay around" a flight deck like this. You "roll around" like a tumbleweed!
I've also been on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier when it was underway. Even with the ship moving at a slow speed, the wind is ever-present, noisy, and frequently capable of sweeping an unsuspecting fully-grown man across the deck like a tumbleweed across a street in a John Wayne film.

So the sorts of full, back-and-forth conversations which crop up on the Enterprise's flight deck over the course of  this movie are, to be charitable, implausible. Also, note to Mr. Emmerich: wind tends to ruffle hair and blow loosely-worn hats (called "covers" in the Navy) right off the wearer's head.

And speaking of wind, there is NO WAY some of the conversations taking place between several of the dive-bomber pilots and their machine-gunners while in flight could have happened. These guys aren't talking via radio. They're shouting at each other across a space of several feet, around the frames of their open cockpits, and while seated just a few feet behind their plane's single engine/propellor.
No way Dick Best (Ed Skrein) shouts all the way back to his gunner from that cockpit

Anyone who has ever flown in a prop job knows these sorts of conversations were physically impossible. The wind, the engine, the propellor? WAY TOO LOUD.

Where Emmerich gets it right are in the bombing runs and dog fight scenes. After watching this movie I think I have a vague notion of what it must have felt like to fly high above the clouds, heel over and point your plane's nose straight down at the deck of a Japanese carrier far below, gaining speed the closer I got to the deck, flying through the teeth of a hail of steel intended to shred both myself and my plane, only pulling up just short of my target, and after having delivered my payload.





Holy. Hell.
"Courage" doesn't begin to describe what these heroes demonstrated.

And to his credit, Emmerich seems bent on celebrating them.

Good. Names like Dick Best, Wade McCluskey, and Clarence Dickinson ought to be household words in the United States. Right up there alongside those of admirals such as Nimitz, Halsey and Spruance. Hopefully this film will help, in some small way, to make that happen. If so, better late, than never.

So in conclusion: Midway – a mixed bag. I'm glad I saw it in the theater, and while it has its short-comings, it plays pretty straight with the facts (For what it's worth, Midway gives a more than fair airing of the Japanese side of the conflict), the performances are solid, and the combat scenes alone, conveying as they do the awful eye-catching, horrific, kaleidoscopic, terrible magnificence of war, are worth the price of admission.

And that's it for me. As always, Your Mileage May Vary.

See you in two weeks!

13 November 2019

Our Discontents


Edward Snowden has a book out, called Permanent Record, wherein he explains himself, and his betrayal of his country's secrets. Jonathan Lethem gives it a very sympathetic and thoughtful reading in The New York Review of Books:
I've never pretended to have much sympathy for Snowden, myself. He's a defector in all but name, and did make love to this employment. Esli igrat' ovsta, vstretit' volk blizko, Russian folk wisdom has it. "If you act the sheep, you'll meet a wolf nearby."


I    SNOWDEN

Snowden's storyline is different from, say, Daniel Ellsberg's. Ellsberg knowingly put himself in jeopardy. After the NY Times and Washington POST began publication of the Pentagon Papers, he was indicted for the theft and unauthorized release of classified documents. The judge in the case dismissed all charges and declared a mistrial on the grounds of government misfeasance - the Plumbers are one part of the picture, while Nixon's people offered the judge himself an appointment as FBI Director - and Ellsberg walked.

Snowden never showed this kind of willingness to take responsibility for his actions. He shopped the information around, and he was canny with his tradecraft. When he jumped ship, he took care to reformat all the hard drives on his old computers, and he took four new laptops with him on his way to Hong Kong, one for secure comms, one for normal comms, one as a decoy, and the last with what's called an air gap, meaning physically isolated from insecure networks and in fact never connected to any network at all. Let's accept that this is a sensible precaution - for somebody going over to the enemy. Snowden's explanations ring hollow. I'm sorry. You can embrace paranoia, you can say, look what happened to Ellsberg. (You can of course go further. Gordon Liddy, one of the Plumbers, famously said he'd willingly stand on a street corner, and they could whack him. One way not to be subpoenaed by a grand jury.) Snowden is taking steps to protect himself, but at the same time, he's playing to the cheap seats.

He sees himself as some kind of James Bond. Do we really imagine he's concerned with the privacy of American citizens, or NSA's abuse of civil rights? Gimme a break. This is a guy with an over-inflated sense of his own importance. He imagines himself in the lead part, but in truth he's nothing more than a cameo. He moves some of the furniture around, and exits.


II   PHILBY

Spy memoirs are a subset of the political or campaign biography, and the defector memoir is even narrower and more specific, being in practice targeted disinformation, self-serving and untrustworthy. Kim Philby's My Silent War is a canny business model.

Philby was the foremost of the Cambridge Five, arguably the most successful KGB penetration of Western intelligence during the Cold War. He was recruited in the 1930's, and maintained his cover for almost thirty years, before escaping to Moscow. He betrayed sources and methods, and compromised an uncounted number of assets. There's no way of knowing how many of them were tortured and executed. Not least, he poisoned the relationship between the UK and US security services for years afterwards - the Americans thought the British spy world was riddled with poofs and Pinkoes - and led to a fury of counterintelligence investigations and an abiding institutional mistrust.

Philby's memoir, published five years after his defection, is a fascinating study in misdirection, not to mention settling old scores. Massaged by his Russian handlers,  if not entirely ghostwritten under KGB discipline, My Silent War captures something of Philby's own voice, preening and petulant, completely self-absorbed. His justifications are without irony, maintaining a Stalinist fiction. He's impervious to his own contradictions, to his personal history, let alone the historical confusions of his own time. The point of the exercise seems to be embarrassing as many of his professional contemporaries as he can, Angleton at CIA, his MI5 interrogators, who never managed to catch him in a lie. More importantly, from the point of view of an analyst or debriefer, Philby's account leads even a more careful reader away from certain observable evidence, plants false flags, creates suspicion, upsets the commonly accepted, and afflicts the comfortable. It's intentional mischief.


III  UN-AMERICAN

When he heard from MI6 that Philby was a proven traitor, J. Edgar Hoover is supposed to have said, "Jesus Christ only had twelve, and one of them was a double." There have been serious spy-hunters, and there have always been fools. Hoover may have seen Reds under the bed, and he inflated the FBI's successes, but he wasn't the hysteric many people take him for. We've got other contenders for that office.

Joe McCarthy stands in for a lot of the excesses of the Red Scare, and he bullied plenty of people, both in and out of government, until he made the mistake of going after the U.S. Army, and Eisenhower quit tip-toeing around him. Not that Ike disagreed with McCarthy on principle, most like, and Nixon owed his vice-presidency to Republican leadership brokering a deal with the party's Right, but Ike wouldn't countenance an attack on the military, his family, and the architect of his own wartime victories. McCarthy's day was done.

McCarthyism, though, casts a long shadow. It was the kiss of death for many a Democratic candidate to be labeled soft on Communism. David Halberstam makes a good case that it kept Jack Kennedy from pulling the plug on American support for South Viet Nam. And in a very real sense, Nixon's engagement with China was only possible in light of Nixon's track record as an anti-Communist.

On the other hand, we have the enormous damage done by smear campaigns, gossip, fear-mongering, and the blacklist. Public shaming, livelihoods destroyed, suicides, families broken apart. It was a cover, too, for Jew-baiting and union-busting, the fluoridation scare, the polio "monkey" serum, the mongrelization of white people. It was all them godless Commies behind it.


IV   THE RUSSIANS

Given that McCarthy was a blowhard and an opportunist, it's easy to forget that the Soviet Union mounted a determined espionage effort against the U.S., aimed specifically at the atom program, but more generally at targets of opportunity, whether they were Communist sympathizers or just somebody in a position of compromise. Both the Rosenbergs and the Alger Hiss case drew enormous attention, protests that they were being railroaded, on the one hand, and people wanting their scalps, on the other. With the declassification and release of the VENONA intercepts, two things show in bold relief: first, that Hiss and the Rosenbergs were in fact guilty of spying for the Russians, and secondly, that much of the agitation in their favor was orchestrated by the Kremlin.

This is not a settled argument, by the by. You can still get a lot of grief and ridicule from the uninformed or conspiracy-minded, who'll label it deviant history, and accuse you of being a provocateur or a CIA stooge. It's an orthodoxy practiced by both sides, Left and Right, that only the pure of heart deserve a hearing. It's essentially Stalinist revisionism.

Of course there was a climate of hysteria. There was also a genuine Russian spy presence. Or more than one. KGB, state security, and GRU, military intelligence, ran compartmentalized operations. Historically, they've been rivals. KGB is generally acknowledged to have better tradecraft, GRU has been know to trip over its own feet, but whether they've worked in harness or at cross-purposes, we're talking about their cumulative score.

They've made their mistakes, they've had their successes. From penetrations (Ames and Hansen), to Wet Work (the Skripal poisonings, Litvinenko), disinformation campaigns, false flag attacks - the techniques vary, over time, as the technical resources develop. The constant, or throughline, is disruption.


V    TRUMP
  
Which brings us to the present day. The conflicting narratives about Russian interference in the 2016 election are about whose ox is being gored, but a lot of the vocabulary sounds familiar. Witch hunt, whistleblower. and so forth. I'm not going to try and sort it out.

Whether you believe there's a Deep State conspiracy (or slow-motion coup), or if you've decided the guy's a dangerous moron, is completely irrelevant. The point is that the Russians have succeeded beyond any and all expectations. Nobody could possibly imagine this would bear such poisoned fruit. I have friends on the Right who are utterly convinced that the Trump opposition is an attempted coup, and these people aren't knuckle-draggers, they're by and large intelligent, articulate people. In equal measure, I'm not alone in entertaining the idea Trump could be in the pocket of the Russian mob, or the Mexican cartels, or whoever - or that the chaos alone is reason to shit-can him. But nobody in the Kremlin is enough of a Satanic genius to have come up with this scenario. The end result is happy accident. They can't believe their luck.

I have one last comment, though. Looking at the historical record, we might call Ellsberg a hero and Snowden a dupe, even a traitor. Or it could be the other way around. The question is, what do you do? If you're trapped in this situation, if you begin to wonder whether you're the Good German, or an enabler, where do you go? Nixon demanded Cox be fired. Richardson, his AG, resigned. Where do you draw the line, and quit, when do you fall on your sword? It's no easy or obvious choice. We like to think we'd do the right thing, that we'd choose the moral high ground. Which is where, exactly? 

"You'll die on the gallows, or of the pox," Lord Sandwich once remarked to John Wilkes, and Wilkes answered, "That depends on whether I embrace your lordship's principles, or your mistress."

12 November 2019

Crime Travel -- How Did We Get Here?


It seems odd yet also right that the publication date for a time-travel crime anthology seems to be sneaking up on me. It feels like ages ago when I put out the call for stories for Crime Travel. (It was about a year and a half ago.) And it feels like I've been waiting for years for the publication date to approach (maybe I have ... because, you know, time travel). But now, suddenly, the launch date is less than a month away--how did that happen?--and I'm scrambling to write this blog.

If only I could go back and write this at a more leisurely pace ...

It's August 2013. I let my beloved dog Scout go a month ago, and now I'm writing a time-travel story involving a dog. I can't bring Scout back but maybe with this fictional dog ... My friend and former critique group partner C. Ellett Logan reads the story after it's done and tells me I don't need to join a bereavement support group. I've clearly worked it all out on the page.
Scout

Later that year: The story, now named "Alex's Choice," is rejected for the first time.

2014 - 2016: I keep fiddling with the story, keep sending it out, keep getting rejections. Time travel stories can be a tough sell.

July 2016: I send the story to Linda Landrigan of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. I expect she too will pass because the story doesn't feel right for the magazine, but I figure it can't hurt to try. Linda ultimately does turn the story down, but says she liked a lot about it and it made her cry. Yes! I made Linda cry. (I know. That shouldn't make me happy. (Sorry, Linda.) But getting that reaction from her is good.)

September 2017: I gripe with my friend Donna Andrews about this story that I can't sell, and she says, "Why don't you put together your own anthology?" She has the perfect name for it, too: Crime Travel. I think about this a lot. I have experience putting together anthologies. I've done a bunch with Donna and Marcia Talley (the Chesapeake Crimes series), as well as editing one of the Malice Domestic anthologies. But this would be the first one I'd do all on my own, including choosing the stories. I'm intrigued but worried about the time commitment. Ultimately, intrigue wins out ...

Thanks for the
support, Carla!

November 2017: I talk with Carla Coupe, the then number two person at Wildside Press (who is now blissfully retired) about this anthology idea, and she likes it. We spend the next few months ironing out details.

June 2018: I put out the call for stories. Scared I'll be overrun with submissions, I only share the story announcement with the Short Mystery Fiction Society, the Chesapeake Chapter of Sister in Crime (my home chapter), the Guppies Chapter of SinC, and with my fellow bloggers here at SleuthSayers. I mention in the call for stories that the royalties will be donated to a literacy charity yet to be chosen.

November 2018: The deadline has come, and I have 53 stories to choose from. I wonder what in the world I was smoking earlier that fall when I decided to not read the submissions as they came in and instead to wait until I had them all to start my review. I had pictured myself somehow reading them all in one blissful snowy weekend. Maybe that could happen if I were a speed reader or could actually time travel. Otherwise ...

December 31, 2018: I had hoped to have the acceptance decisions made by this date. Nope.

January 31, 2019: I had hoped to have the acceptance decisions made by this date. Nope. Instead I find myself struggling to read all the stories while getting my paid work done too.

February 19, 2019: Finally, the decisions have been made. Fourteen stories have been chosen for the anthology, and I'm including my own "Alex's Choice" too. (Hey, I didn't start this process for nothing.) I'm so excited for the authors whose stories were chosen because they're all really good. I'm sad for the authors whose stories I had to turn down. And I'm exhausted because it sounds like the hard part is done but I know the hard part is really just beginning.

Spring and summer 2019: Editing, editing, editing. Proofreading too.

Also spring 2019: Our charity is chosen. All royalties will be donated to 826DC, a Washington, DC, nonprofit designed to help children and teens improve their creative and expository writing skills, as well as help teachers inspire children to write.

Late August 2019: The publisher, John Betancourt, sends me the cover. I love it so much, it is ridiculously hard not to share it with the world immediately.

September 6, 2019: Kristopher Zgorksi hosts our cover reveal on his BOLO Books blog. Thank you, Kristopher!

Fall 2019: ARCs go out. I hear back from some of the recipients quickly, and they all have good things to say. Whew!

November 2019: Contributor Eleanor Cawood Jones arranges our launch party. Thank you, Ellie! It will be on ...

Sunday, December 8, 2019: This is our official publication date, our launch party date, and it's Pretend To Be A Time Traveler Day. The trifecta! (Pretend To Be A Time Traveler Day is a real holiday. You can look it up!)

The launch party will run from 1 - 3 p.m. at Barnes and Noble in Fairfax, Virginia (12193 Fair Lakes Promenade Dr, Fairfax, VA 22033). The following authors are scheduled to be at the launch event (and some of them might even dress up in the time period of their story): James Blakey, me (Barb Goffman), Eleanor Cawood Jones, Adam Meyer, Art Taylor, and Cathy Wiley.

Maybe with the help of time travel
the rest of the authors will make the launch
The rest of the authors with stories in the book, who alas can't make it to the launch, are: Melissa H. Blaine, Michael Bracken, Anna Castle, David Dean, Brendan DuBois, John M. Floyd, Heidi Hunter, Barbara Monajem, and Korina Moss. So pleased to have four fellow SleuthSayers involved.

And now, with only two hours until this blog is to be posted at midnight November 12th, I feel grateful for all the people who have had a hand in making the dream of this book come true, as well as for the people who will buy this book and enjoy these stories.

If you like time travel and if you like crime stories, I truly think you will love this anthology. It is already available for pre-order directly from the publisher in hardcover, trade paperback, and ebook. It's been a long time coming for "Alex's Choice," the story I wrote six years ago in Scout's honor. I hope when you read it you'll agree that it has been worth the wait.

11 November 2019

Novellas, the New Frontier


by Steve Liskow

Ten years ago, I won the Black Orchid Novella Award, sponsored by the Wolfe Pack, AKA the Rex Stout Appreciation Society. Stout, who passed away in 1975, was a master of the novella and often produced a combination of novellas and short stories to fill out a Nero Wolfe book. The form is rare now, partly because it's too long for most magazines and too short to publish as a stand-alone book. There are few markets for them. Black Cat Mystery Magazine will look at a 15K-word MS, but reluctantly. The few other markets I know skew very literary.

Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine co-sponsors the Black Orchid Award (Nero Wolfe supposedly raised orchids, a trait he picked up from his creator) and publishes the winning entry every year. The contest rules define a novella as between 15 and 20 thousand words. Other sources give different counts, but the point is that it's enough longer than a short story to need more meat or the bones will show through.

I never considered writing a novella until 2009. By then I had accumulated scores of rejections for several novels and a handful of short stories. I had sold three or four stories, too. But "Stranglehold" clocked in at almost 7000 words, longer than most markets would even look at. I ran out of places to send it. One of my writing friends commented that many characters showed up quickly and it was hard to keep everyone straight. I tried cutting characters, but discovered I really needed all of them. I tried cutting words and made the story unintelligible. It sat on a floppy disc (Remember those?) for about three years, out of sight, and pretty much out of mind.

Then I saw a post about the Black Orchid Novella Award. Could I expand that short story and introduce those many characters more gradually?

Over the next three days (That's not a typo), I added 9000 words. I added one short transition scene, but nothing felt like padding. I sent it out and guess what? I'd written a novella that needed four years for me to recognize it.

Several years later, I won the contest again with only the second novella I've ever written. That novella had the opposite problem, though. About two years after "Stranglehold," I wanted to use the same characters in a novel, but it wasn't going anywhere.

My novels usually have two or three subplots that are variations on the main theme, and here everything except one minor variation felt forced and artificial. I struggled off and on for several years, then decided to lean on that subplot and try to cut the mess down to another novella. "Look What They've Done to my Song, Ma" won in 2016.

With that wealth of experience, I think I know how a novella works now. That's probably the kiss of death, isn't it?

Don't think of a novella as either a short story or a novel. Treat it as a distinct little creature. My ideal short story uses four or five named characters and no more than the same number of scenes, preferably in few, maybe even ONE, location. Novels are at least fifty scenes with more people or places, and several subplots.

A novella has one subplot and more scenes, a few of which might even be backstory, and more characters than a short story. Without going back to actually count, I'm going to guess that both the novellas above have about a dozen scenes and about the same number of characters. I try to keep the cast as small as possible, but let myself write big and messy because it's easy to cut scenes later. It's also easy to spot characters who serve the same function and combine two or three of them...if you even need them at all.

My current WIP, an early plan for another novella, has one subplot and a cast of 12. I'll probably eliminate some of those characters, either by cutting them or killing them, but I don't know which yet because we're still in the first date stage. I never kill someone until the second date.

That's another difference. When I begin outlining a novel, I think I know the ending (Sometimes that changes) and my main worry is how the PI will figure it out. I discover that by writing the scenes, and I often go back to change or add something so it all works at the end.

When I write a short story, I usually know the conflict, gut the rest of the story grows and develops while I write and rewrite as I go along. More often than not, the "real" ending shows up on the third or fourth draft.

I knew the ending of "Stranglehold" because it was a finished short story. According to my spread sheet, it was only the seventh short story I submitted anywhere, and I first sent it out in January, 2005, only about 18 months after I returned to writing after a long hiatus. Four years later, I expanded it into the novella.

"Song" didn't exist except as several pages of incoherent notes and a partial outline that made no effing sense. When I finally figured out the main plot, the subplot grew out of the characters and I pounded out a first draft in a week or so. I had a general idea of the ending, but didn't know how Woody Guthrie would solve the mess until I actually wrote that scene for the first time. It was like driving down a dark road at night and seeing a hitch hiker appear in your headlights.

That seems to happen to me more and more now. My WIP doesn't even have headlights yet. I don't even see the double line down the middle of the pavement. I have a general idea and I think I know the characters, but I don't quite know where I'm going. It's more interesting than worrisome.

I now allow myself to write quickly and worry about nothing except getting words on paper. A few years ago, I couldn't have worked this way, but now I know that if I write absolute junk on Monday, by Tuesday, something better will show up. Maybe I'll figure it out during the night or on a cardio machine at the health club, but something better will appear.

The way to solve a writing problem is by writing. You can fix anything you can put on paper. You can't do anything until then. Well, maybe if you're Mozart...

I'm beginning to look at novellas and short stories more closely because I've written myself into a dead end in both my series. That perception may change, but my mind is beginning to work in smaller units now. I suspect that in the next year or so I will move to publishing more short stories in digital formats, and a novella or two would flesh out collections. Rex Stout did it, and maybe what's old is new again.

We'll see.

10 November 2019

Phyllis


Stories from Canada and the United States are mirroring each other. In the United States, many patients have no access to doctors because they are either uninsured or underinsured. In Canada, our growing doctor shortage is leaving patients without access.

Please note that I didn’t say anything about the healthcare system, because talk like that is too impersonal; when it comes to patients, not having a doctor when you need one is very personal.

Let me introduce you to Phyllis Smallman, a feisty and funny writer, mother, grandmother and wife of over 50 years to her best friend and high school sweetheart. Phyllis was the first recipient of the Crime Writers of Canada Unhanged Arthur Ellis award and wrote, among other books, the Sheri Travis mystery series. She won multiple awards for her writing. She grew up in Southern Ontario but, at an age when most people retire, she and her husband moved to Salt Spring Island, B.C. to be closer to her children and embark on a new adventure.

In October 2017, 72-year-old Phyllis found blood in her urine. Her family doctor was concerned but couldn’t get an appointment with a specialist to do a cystoscopy before the spring of 2018. Phyllis trusted that the system would keep her safe, but her family began to worry as she developed other symptoms. Phyllis, a self-described foodie with the personality of a small energetic terrier, was too nauseous to eat and was experiencing extreme fatigue.

My point of contact to this story was through her daughter, Elle Wild, another Arthur Ellis Award-winning writer. Elle was worried and wanted her mother to be seen sooner. Elle, her brother and father spent a great deal of time trying to get Phyllis into a specialist. They called everywhere and finally found a specialist who could see her before Christmas. When the cystoscopy was done there was too much blood for a definitive diagnosis, but an infection secondary to a previously-inserted mesh was thought to be the problem. Phyllis was put on a six-week-long course of antibiotics and then put in the queue for a second cystoscopy and a CT of the kidney.  The antibiotics did not improve Phyllis’s health. Her nausea became more severe, she lost weight and became so weak that she couldn’t even walk across the room. She slept most of the day.

Through conversations with Elle, the growing anxiety of the family was palpable as Phyllis, their lively matriarch, began to disappear into long sleeps and uncharacteristic exhaustion. Phyllis’s deterioration continued day by painful day, and by February, the family had had enough. Despite Phyllis’s objections, partly because she continued to trust that she would get taken care of in our system and partly because she was too exhausted to go to appointments, the family paid for a private CT and she was diagnosed with a kidney tumour.

However, there was another queue for a specialist to do the biopsy and yet another one to see an oncologist. It was only on April 16, 2018 that Phyllis finally received a definitive oncologist report: an advanced and aggressive form of cancer that had started in her bladder and had spread to her kidneys. She was given six months to live and offered palliative chemotherapy. Her daughter, Elle, moved with her family to Salt Spring Island to spend time with Phyllis and to provide emotional support to her distraught father.

Phyllis did her best to complete the course of chemotherapy, but was only able to do half of the treatment because of fatigue, nausea and her emaciated state. Phyllis Smallman died on October 1st, 2018.

In her obituary, her family wrote: “Those who spent time with Phyllis knew her as a caring person who loved fiercely, laughed loudly, and was always a friend to anyone in need. In keeping with her dark sense of humour, her last book was ironically titled Last Call, the final Sherri Travis mystery. The night Phyllis died, Last Call won a Reader’s Favourite Book Award. Our Phyllis knew how to make a grand exit.”
Tragedy is defined as a story involving a great person destined to experience downfall or utter destruction through a conflict with some overpowering force, such as fate or an unyielding society.

The story of how Phyllis spent her final year is a tragedy. The unyielding social truth she faced was that Phyllis simply could not get access to the doctors she needed: this reality met her faith in our healthcare system and made a mockery of it. The lack of physicians left her family alone in their growing worry for Phyllis and isolated as they watched her die, without a doctor to tell them what was happening and perhaps even intervene to help.

When people say that healthcare is a human right, I agree. There is nothing as inhumane as a patient unable to get the care they need.

09 November 2019

My Rules of Mystery


Many writers have drafted up a set of "rules" for how to write and, specifically, how to write mysteries. I thought now would be a nice time to toss in my five cents on the matter. And the following list can equally apply to short stories or novels.


1.   First rule of mystery writing: There MUST be a mystery.

Readers KEEP reading, page after page, because they want to know the answer/solution/explanation of that mystery.

2.   Does a mystery always need a dead body?

No. But the "crime" needs to be significant, e.g., a serious physical assault, the robbery of a valuable jewel, a threat to kill.

An empty chocolate wrapper (and Who ate the candy?) is a children's mystery. A severed head is an adult mystery.

3.   The mystery must be solved at the END of the story.

Ask a question very near the beginning, e.g., Who murdered Roger Ackroyd? Answer this question very near the end.

If you don't answer the question, and the mystery remains a mystery, the reader will throw your book at the wall.

You could answer the question in the middle, but you better have another good question to ask at that point to lead the reader through to the end; and there needs to be a good, justifiable reason for doing this.

4.   There is a difference between mystery and suspense.

A bomb that brings down an aircraft is a mystery. A passenger on a plane thinking the guy two rows ahead may have a bomb in his overhead luggage is suspense.

5.   Be aware that “Mystery” is a broad church.

There are many sub categories (or genres) to mysteries, e.g., noir, cozy, police procedural, private eye, locked room. And feel free to mix these up.

6.   Genres have rules.

If you’re writing in one of the genres (99% likely), be aware there are conventions and reader expectations for each.

Unless you truly are one of the masters of literature, mess with reader expectations at your peril.

7.   You are unlikely to be one of the masters of literature.


8.   Write what you know. If you don’t know, find out.

Don’t write a story about a private eye, or a kindergarten teacher, if you have no idea at all what is involved in those professions. Don't set a story in Latvia if you don't, at least, know the country's capitol or what language the people speak (Riga, Latvian/Russian). Don't write about Euclidean geometry, if you haven't any idea what that is. Don’t guess; research (libraries, Google, talk to people).

A good writer is a good researcher.

9.   Clichés

Avoid these like the plague.

There are countless websites that list clichés and common and overused tropes.

10.  Conflict is your friend.

Conflict, at its simplest, is the "disagreement" between a person and another (person, external force/creature). It's between protagonist and antagonist; or to put it another way:

Main Character vs. ________________

Every work of fiction (mystery, or other) that’s ever been sold to a publisher has had conflict in it (literary fiction excluded). Conflict invites drama; it is the fuel of a story. If your story has no conflict, there will be little to engage the reader.

A scene where a married couple eats dinner and discuss what color to paint their bathroom is not drama. If one of the diners suspects the other of sleeping around, you have conflict (and they can still be discussing what color to paint the bathroom (see next)).

11.  Subtext is your friend.

Subtext is not written, it is implied. It is the underneath; the feelings and intuition, the unspoken meaning.

Even a shopping list can have subtext.
  • Milk
  • Bread
  • Eggs
  • Hammer
  • Shovel
  • Bag of quicklime
  • Bottle of champagne 
Subtext is one of the writer's tools of magic.

12.  Plants are your friends.

Don’t have the hero pull out a gun and shoot the bad guy on the last page, if there’s been no mention (or any kind of reasonable expectation) that the hero is carrying a gun. Plant it. Remember your Chekhov: Gun on wall in first act. Gun fired in third act.

And plants apply to everything, not just guns. Bad guy's sneeze gives away his position in the shadows; plant his allergy earlier. Hero must rescue cat from tree, but he can't; plant his fear of heights earlier.

Without planting, events and actions will appear implausible, and your book will meet the wall.

A good writer is a good gardener.

Note: Yes, I know I'm retooling Chekhov's meaning (he was more concerned with the relevance of things in a story, i.e., don't include something, if it isn't needed later).

13.  Red herrings vs. Playing fair

Feel free to mislead and misdirect your readers (let them reel in many red herrings), but always play fair. Give your readers some real "clues" as to what is going on; so, at the end of the story, they'll slap their heads and sigh, "Oh, but of course!" Give them enough clues so that they "almost" might be able to work out what is going on, before you yank the curtain back and startle the snot out of them.

Never try to "trick" your reader; your book will be thrown at the wall.

And if you end your story with: it was all just a dream, you'll hit the wall before your book does.

14.  MacGuffins are a thing.

Many mysteries make use of a MacGuffin. A microfilm that everyone wants, and will kill for, is a MacGuffin. The Maltese Falcon is a MacGuffin. The object of a quest: a diamond mine, an unknown Beethoven Symphony, the Holy Grail, can all be MacGuffins. MacGuffins give the characters something to do.

Wikipedia sums it up best: "In fiction, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin) is an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself."

The shark in Jaws IS NOT a MacGuffin.

15.  Impose a deadline

Deadlines work well in suspense (We have to find the bomb, it explodes at midnight!!!), and they also work in mystery. A deadline focuses a story on its end/outcome and creates urgency. Think of a story as a tunnel. The deadline is the light at the end.

The detective on board the train must identify the killer before the train arrives at its destination and all the passengers disembark. An unknown man who smokes Gauloises has threatened to hijack a school bus, and it's two hours until school's out.

16.  Twists are good. (there be spoilers here)

A TWIST ENDING is not a prerequisite for a mystery, but if you can write an unexpected and satisfying twist into your story's end, it will certainly make it more memorable; it will add another layer of icing to the cake. A twist ending completely upends and rearranges the facts and events of what's come before it.

The Sixth Sense: The child psychologist IS one of the dead people the kid is seeing. Psycho: Norman Bates IS his mother.

Pro tip: Twist endings are never arbitrarily dreamed up at the end of writing a story. They are written in right from the very beginning. Robert Bloch knew on page one of Psycho that Norman Bates' mother was dead and that Norman was the killer, and Bloch carefully hid this in the fabric of the storytelling. He didn't let the reader in on the truth until the end.

PLOT TWISTS can appear anywhere in a story and are different to the "twist ending." Plot twists change something significant about the story and/or the characters, but don't rewrite the whole thing.

Star Wars: Luke, I am your father. The Shining: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

An excellent, legendary plot twist appears in Psycho, about one third of the way in. Mary Crane, the book's main character (the one we've been following and who we care about), is murdered. She's gone for good. Never comes back. Bloch was one of the masters of literature; he could get away with that kind of thing.

17.  Last rule of mystery writing: Ignore all the rules at your pleasure. Except for the first one.


So, do you have any "rules of mystery" that you live and write by?



stephenross.live/
Twitter: @_StephenRoss/