28 February 2019

Why There Always Has to be a Virgin

by Eve Fisher

A quick rundown by yours truly of the oldest characters in storydom comes up with the following:

  • The Hero
  • The Villain/Villainess
  • The Virgin

You've got those three, you've got a story.  Oh, sure there are variations out the wazoo, and there are always extra characters:  The Hero can always use a Sidekick (from Dr. Watson to Mary Lou) or a Wise Counselor (Gandalf to Jimminy Crickets), and Villains generally have to helpers (from Orcs to gang members).  Virgins - well, somebody has to give birth to them, but that's all.  In fairy tales the mothers usually die off pretty quick.  Snow White, Cinderella, almost every Gothic Romance heroine - they're all orphans.  And even if Daddy survived, he gets hitched up to the Evil Witch, and there you go, Cindy might as well be an orphan.

So you really, really, really need a virgin.  And a virgin is always female.


“[N]o language has ever had a word for a virgin man.” 
― Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage


(1) How else are you going to get a unicorn?  They're only attracted to virgins.

DomenichinounicornPalFarnese.jpg
Wikipedia fresco
by Domenichino, c. 1604–05 (Palazzo Farnese, Rome)
(2a) The marriageable hero has to have someone to rescue, and in olden days this was always someone young, beautiful, pure and (when in serious trouble) often naked (it's okay because she's a virgin).  (See Perseus and Andromeda)

(2b) The older hero has to have someone to rescue, with whom it's no struggle to stay paternal and platonic.  Think Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross; Ripley and Newt (Aliens); also almost every Shirley Temple movie ever made.

(3a) The villain has to have someone to threaten, someone pure and (when in serious trouble) damn near naked (again, it's okay because she's pure).  (King Kong and Fay Wray, and every single horror movie made until today, and beyond, which leads to:

(3b) The Horror Movie - only the virgin survives.  Read the excellent Death by Sex article on how the best way for a girl to get killed in a horror movie is to have sex.)  So when you hear weird things in the night, make sure you're a virgin, and everything (might) be okay.

Kong33promo.jpg
Wikipedia;  (WP:NFCC#4)
(4) The hero has to have someone to marry, and he certainly can't marry any of the stepsisters, etc.  Indeed, sometimes the hero gets two virgins to choose from, like in Ivanhoe, where Rebecca and Rowena waited, breathlessly, for him to make his choice, but you know from the get-go it's going to be Rowena, because, well Rebecca was dark-haired and Jewish, while Rowena was blonde Anglo-Saxon, and that's the way things rolled in Sir Walter Scott's shire.
NOTE:  I remember the only fairy tale where the hero didn't choose little Miss Goldilocks was The Twelve Dancing Princesses:  instead, when they asked him which princess he wanted to marry he said, "I am no longer young; give me the eldest."  
(5) The hero has to have someone to moon over - and with that, we get to noir.


“I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.” 
― Mae West


(6) NOIR.  One thing that runs through all noir is the theme that "Love Hurts".  I mean, that's pretty much what makes noir.

There's the noir hero, who's always getting punched, kicked, shot, tortured, and generally mutilated in the course the novel/film.  But he gets back up, and after some cold water and whiskey (the noir all-purpose medication and disinfectant), he's back for the next brutality in his search for truth, justice, and his client.

All that's missing is the virgin...
Women often fare worse.  From the memorable scene in the beginning of one of Mickey Spillane's novels (I just can't remember which one it is) where Mike Hammer punches the girl and then has sex with her to the "Rip it!" scene in The Postman Always Rings Twice, it's tough being a woman in a noir novel.  Even if the guy's nuts about you, willing to kill for you, chances are you're going to get slapped, punched, raped, shot and you've got a damn good chance of getting killed or going to jail.  But at least you do get to have sex.  Often with the hero.


"Every Harlot was a Virgin once."
-- WILLIAM BLAKE, For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise


The virgins don't.  In noir, virgins are the muse of our (more or less) alcoholic detective - the victim's daughter (Lola Dietrichson, in Double Indemnity), the hero's secretary (Effie Perrine in The Maltese Falcon), the kid next door, all of whom the hero wants to keep pure, even from himself.  (I think the longest running obsession with unsullied virginity was Mike Hammer's with his secretary Velda, who had to wait a few decades for them to get together.)  They're the contrast to the slutty Gloria Grahames who give a guy what he wants when he wants it.  Just like in horror movies, one of the best ways for a noir woman to get jailed or killed is to have sex, especially with the hero.

Virgins are for marriage - or used to be.  Perseus and Andromeda had seven sons and two daughters, thereby founding the royal house of Mycenae, and (eventually) Persia.  Nick and Nora Charles.  Inspector and Mrs. Maigret.  Tommy and Tuppence Beresford.  Roderick Alleyn and Agatha Troy.  Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane (who might as well have been a virgin - by all accounts her one lover was lousy at it.)  Fruitful, happy marriages that didn't interfere in any way with the investigation of crime.

But, things are different on TV.  From soap operas to westerns, to detectives to cops, the basic theory is that marriage is boring, and while you can have a wedding it's got to end so that the hero can get on with rescuing more virgins.  Or mooning over more noir women.  (I can't help but wonder if this theory is part of the reason why Elizabeth George killed off Inspector Lynley's wife.)

This goes back a long way:   how many times did one of the Cartwrights on Bonanza get married, and she died almost immediately?  Pa Cartwright alone went through at least 3 wives, because there's the boys, and not a mother among them.   Getting engaged on that show - and many others - was the absolute kiss of death. 


“Good girls go to heaven and bad girls go everywhere” 
― Helen Gurley Brown


(7)  Climate change.  You've got to have a virgin because, as the climate changes, and there are more disasters, you're going to have to have someone to sacrifice, and the last I heard volcanoes didn't accept old politicians or middle-aged billionaires.  (Otherwise, do I have a list for them...)  Virgins it has been, virgins it shall be.





27 February 2019

Ian Rankin's IN A HOUSE OF LIES

David Edgerley Gates

I came to Rebus late, The Falls or Resurrection Men (with its evocative Burke and Hare title), and then went both backwards and forwards. Not my usual, I might add, which is when I find somebody I like, start at the beginning and read the books in chronological order. Nor did I gobble 'em all up in a binge, either, I was wise enough to realize I needed to pace myself.

Then, in 2009, Rankin gave us a change-up pitch, The Complaints, not a Rebus, but a book about Internal Affairs. If you think about it, there's a certain inevitability to it, and if we surmise that Rankin is playing the long game, a further inevitability that our old pal John Rebus would attract the attention of the minders. Malcolm Fox and Rebus collide in Standing in Another Man's Grave, and both of them show up in the next four books - along with Siobhan Clarke and (you knew it was coming) Big Ger Cafferty.

In a House of Lies is really more Rebus and Clarke's book, Fox in secondary. Big Ger has a dog in the fight, as he all too often does, but this time around he doesn't actually put his thumb on the scale. We know early on who the real slimebags are, and we get enormous satisfaction watching the noose tighten. In fact, the book's real tension comes from wondering if these rotters are going to escape the snare. Very often, Rankin's stories are about people wondering if they're doing the right thing, or wondering what the right thing is. In this case, there isn't a lot of second-guessing or hand-wringing. Necks are the only things getting wrung.

Writing about The Complaints and The Impossible Dead, a couple of years ago, I said their main concern was a collision of competing integrities. "Loyalties and betrayals, absent virtues, malign intentions, misspent human capital, leaky alibis, blood feuds and blood debts." In a House of Lies is unambiguous. Moral relativism doesn't get a lot of airplay. When it comes time to settle the score, play for keeps.


26 February 2019

Fracture

by Paul D. Marks


A while back I did a post here about neo-noir films that I liked. One of them was Fracture, with Ryan Gosling and Anthony Hopkins.


Today I’m going to go into more depth about that film, which also stars David Strathairn, Rosamund Pike and Billy Burke:


No, not that Billie Burke, this Billy Burke:


And, you know I did that just to show pix of both and (hopefully get a laugh)…
Written by Daniel Pyne and Glenn Gers and, and directed by Gregory Hoblit, it’s one of those movies that I find myself watching over and over – I’ve seen it a few times now. And want to watch even more, but talk myself out of doing so so I can see something new or that I haven’t seen in a long time.
The movie’s opening credits roll over a sort of super hi-tech Rube Goldberg contraption which sets the tone for the twists and turns that will be delivered later. And the story revolves around Ted Crawford (Hopkins), a hotshot millionaire aerospace guy, and Willy Beachum (Gosling), a hotshot Deputy District Attorney in L.A., who wants to move into the big bucks world of corporate law. Crawford knows – we’re not sure how but he knows from before the movie starts – that his wife is having an affair with a man, who’s also an LAPD detective. He wants revenge. He wants to get away with it. And he has very ingenious plan to try to do so.


It’s hard to talk about a movie like this and not give away plot twists or spoilers, so I feel like I’m being a little vague. But the movie is a clever cat and mouse game between the very shrewd and brilliant Crawford and the equally good DDA. Two matched equals gunning for each other and isn’t that one of the things we’re told do in writing – the villain and the hero must be equal to each other. And, boy, are these two. It’s like Sleuth or Death Trap on a bigger canvas.
One of the underlying themes (and where I believe the title comes from) is finding the flaws or cracks in a person. Crawford tells Beachum the story of how he grew up working on his grandfather’s farm. His job was to candle eggs – check the eggs and look for hairline fractures and flaws and remove any bad eggs. Well Crawford did the job so well that none of the eggs made the cut. It’s a brilliant piece of writing – a clever way to have the audience see what a sharp and ruthless man Crawford is and how he can’t tolerate weakness in his unfaithful wife or the hapless police department or anywhere else. And how Crawford, like the predator he is, is able to find the flaws in the cops, the system and the DA – to find Beachum’s hairline fracture – and take advantage of his/their weaknesses:

Ted Crawford (Hopkins): You know, my grandfather was an egg farmer.

Willy Beachum (Gosling): This isn't going to be about your, uh, "rough childhood," is it?

Ted Crawford : No, I used to candle eggs at his farm. Do you know what that is? You hold an egg up to the light of a candle and you look for imperfections. The first time I did it he told me to put all the eggs that were cracked or flawed into a bucket for the bakery. And he came back an hour later, and there were 300 eggs in the bakery bucket. He asked me what the hell I was doing. I found a flaw in every single one of them - you know, thin places in the shell; fine, hairline cracks. You look closely enough, you'll find that everything has a weak spot where it can break, sooner or later.

Willy Beachum : You looking for mine?

Ted Crawford : I've already found yours.

Willy Beachum : What is it?

Ted Crawford : You're a winner, Willy.

Willy Beachum : Yeah. I guess the joke's on me then, isn't it?

Ted Crawford : [grinning]  You bet your ass, old sport.


Hopkins is of course magnificent in this role. And Gosling is likeable and earnest and believable. The casting of these two is a great move.
As with all movies, there’re some things in the movie that defy belief. But what movie doesn’t if you really look at it. If I was an attorney I could probably tear apart the courtroom scenes, but again, you have to suspend disbelief and go for the ride. So, as with all movies, you have to suspend your disbelief and enjoy the ride. And Fracture, for my money, gives a hell of a fun ride as these two antagonists jockey back and forth with one having the advantage and then the other.
I never get tired of watching them play the game and I always see something new each time I watch it that I didn’t notice before, even though I know the outcome. I rate it five out of five .50 cal BMG rounds straight up.


If you’ve seen the movie, I’d be curious to hear what you think – just don’t give away any spoilers. And if you haven’t and decide to check it out, I hope you’ll enjoy it even half as much as I do.

~.~.~
And now for the usual BSP:

The third story in my Ghosts of Bunker Hill series, Fade Out on Bunker Hill, appears in the March/April 2019 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. If you like the movie Sunset Boulevard, I think you'll enjoy this story. In bookstores and on newstands now:



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

25 February 2019

The Uses of Mystery

by Janice Law

Some time ago, Thomas Pluck devoted his last SleuthSayers blog to the proposition that the novel of social realism is alive and well in certain gritty segments of the mystery genre. By coincidence, I had just finished reading Jim Gauer’s wildly ambitious, overly long but brilliantly written Novel Explosives.  

Gauer uses mystery and thriller conventions to depict the unholy nexus of crime, finance, corporate exploitation and weaponry that have devastated Mexico, especially Ciudad Juarez and the unfortunate young women who labor in its maquiladoras.

He presents familiar elements – though often with a surreal twist. Thus we have the cold and cynical Shakespeare quoting crime boss. Plus his two minions, Ray and Eugene, who are on a mission to kill the man we know first as The Poet and later as Douchebag, the erstwhile unsuspecting financial manipulator for the drug ring.

We have a possibly helpful, possibly complicit beauty in Guanajuato, Mexico, and her opposite number, who may or may not be on the side of the angels, up in El Paso. We have enough heavy weaponry to outfit any number of military thrillers and a vet with very serious PTS – but only on odd numbered days. We have police overkill and atrocities on every side and more than this reader could understand about financial chicanery.

The Poet's map was less helpful 
All this is immensely plausible, since Gauer, who is a poet, also worked for the military before making his fortune as a hedge fund executive and a venture capitalist. He is also clearly a man with a big interest in modern philosophy, human physiology, Aztec poetry and many other more abstruse topics. Your enjoyment of the novel probably depends on your own similar tastes.

But from the point of view of mystery/ thriller writers, Novel Explosives – and I should mention the ‘novel’ of the title refers to innovative weapons – is a striking example of the uses of our favorite conventions and an illustration of the fact that every generation only has so many stories.

The 18th century loved tales of female virtue imperiled but defended. The 19th enjoyed the pursuit of love and marriage then switched to the dangers of want and misery. Our side of the Atlantic loved Horatio Alger stories and then the still-popular immigrant experience. In mysteries, we, like Mr. Gauer, are fond of flawed heroes struggling to do right in a corrupt world.  Ray, his hitman, is the most morally alert of his characters, and it will not spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the book to reveal that he has nearly superhuman endurance as well as  exceptional military skills.

The creepy Mr. Big, a staple of popular fiction in print and on screen, also makes an appearance in the predatory drug lord Mr. Gomez, who represents the criminal component of  what the author sees as a corrupting and disastrous web. Drug use (and the War it) on feed profits to the violent Mexican cartels, which in turn corrupt the Mexican police and military. Criminal financiers launder drug profits and outright criminals funnel south the military grade weapons both cops and crooks need.

Exploited on every side are the unfortunate workers of the maquiladoras, often peasants forced off their land by the changes wrought by NAFTA. The workers are heavily female, very young, low paid, exploited, and at risk of rape, torture and murder. Their male counterparts, less desirable to the corporate types running the factories, opt for risky but lucrative work in the drug trade. Altogether crime, corruption and violence make Ciudad Juarez one of the anterooms of Hell.

Over all looms Saint Death 
Where Gauer departs from the mystery/thriller format is in his treatment. The pages’ long paragraphs, the dissertations on everything from Native American medical techniques to 20th century Portuguese poetry, and enough digressions to rival Tristram Shandy take Novel Explosives into more literary territory. Add a strong strain of surreal fantasy and you are in Thomas Pynchon’s neighborhood not Michael Connolly’s.

But despite the literary fireworks, the bones of the thing will be familiar to Sleuthsayers fans: a amnesiac hero pursued by professional hitmen, both of whom have a conscience. A brutal crime lord who never dirties his hands, corrupt financial men behaving like Masters of the Universe, police and military overkill, and the deaths of innocents.

The treatment in Novel Explosives is surreal, fanciful and philosophical, but the structure owes much to popular, even pulp, fiction, illustrating once again the almost endless flexibility of the genre.

For an interesting interview with Jim Gauer – and details of doing research in Juarez –listen in to Eye 94 out of Chicago at Jim Gauer on Eye 94 .

24 February 2019

Remembering Miami 1980

by R.T. Lawton

The Chinese have a saying that runs along the lines of "May you live in exciting times." For a guy who was 12 years out of Vietnam and had joined federal law enforcement, for the adrenaline, 2-1/2 years after the SE Asian tour, Miami became a very exciting time.

It was late summer of 1980 and Miami was pretty much an open city. Castro had emptied his prisons and mental hospitals of those who could get someone to pick them up in boats at the Port of Mariel. Other Cuban citizens bribed their way out to join the flotilla headed to Florida. These people soon became known as the Marielitos. Some of the ones who made it to Miami ended up being held in the Orange Bowl stadium, but with the beginning of football season, they were moved to Liberty City, a tent city under an I-95 overpass inside Miami. (Think Scarface with Al Pacino as a rising drug lord in Miami.) The noise under the overpass from constant traffic was relentless and overwhelming. Plus, tent city residents had trouble finding a sponsor to get them out of the place, and those that did had trouble getting jobs because they didn't speak English. Faced with depression and a bleak future, some of them would do almost anything to survive. Like the song says, it's the lure of easy money.

Meanwhile, the go-fast boats were coming in with their loads from the Bahama banks, the Cocaine Cowboys were in full swing moving their product, mother ships were coming up from Colombia, airplanes were dropping their loads in the Florida swamps where drug crews waited to retrieve the illicit cargo, and dealers were taking grocery sacks of U.S. currency to local banks after their sales. In the beginning, dealers merely weighed their money until they got their own counting machines. If a van carrying a couple hundred pounds of marijuana got in a wreck on the Interstate, the driver and shotgun rider simply walked away and disappeared into the populace. Drug dealers were shot by rival organizations who left the drugs and cash behind to show it was just business, a territory thing, not a drug rip-off. After a while, all that left-behind money with no one to claim it became a temptation to some of the responding homicide cops. Some of that money got split up and disappeared. Later, some of the left-behind drugs also got split up and sold instead of going into evidence. Nobody was going to claim ownership of the drugs anyway was the theory. When the time came there wasn't enough drug homicides to respond to, some of the dirty cops created their own. Honest cops weren't sure who to trust. One of the honest cops came over to us and later testified to what he knew.

With all that drug money to spend, Miami underwent a building boom. Money talked and some got richer. Others got dead.

The Miami Regional Director sent one of his agent groups south on an interdiction program to the Caribbean. To replace his lost manpower, he drew from other offices for a "special." I went down to Miami on a "special" op, along with agents from Minneapolis, the Arizona border, the Texas border, New Orleans, and other offices. We took over the duties of those guys gone off to the Caribbean program. Our new group worked with the U.S. Coast Guard on the northbound mother ships laden with tons of pot. Some nights, we found ourselves off the Miami coast with Customs, hunting in wolf packs to catch the go-fast boats coming in from the Bahama banks. We ran our own go-fast boats seized from previous smugglers. We conducted surveillance on clandestine landing strips in the Keys. We escorted tons of seized pot up to the incinerators in Orlando just to get rid of the massive inventory in evidence. It's a heady time, just keep your automatic handy. Bullet proof vests weren't in vogue yet.

We ate our suppers in Cuban restaurants and did our laundry down in Miami's Calle Ocho, the Cuban district, hoping no one recognized us from some of our excursions in the city or out on the water. There's a Latin rhythm on the streets and Mambo clubs at night, with Cuban beauties escorted by macho males in high Cuban-heeled shoes. It's a style, a culture, a living on the edge. Easy money and quickly spent. Miami Vice isn't far off.

Eventually, someone in the main office got the bright idea to "sell" some of the massive pot inventory in a sting operation. A few hundred pounds (after the court case is done) was transferred to a rental truck parked inside a rented storage unit. Marijuana brokers who are unaware they are dealing with undercover agents, go out and solicited buyers for our product. The broker and the buyer show up at the storage unit, money changed hands, the pot load was taken and they leave. The broker goes his own way. He isn't bothered yet because we need him to bring in more buyers, but a few miles from the site, the latest buyers are stopped and arrested. Samples are taken from each pot bale for evidence in court and the remainder is driven back to the storage unit to be "sold" again. Naturally, the buying money is seized for court and forfeiture. The recent buyers? They're going away for a long vacation in the grey bar hotel.

Then comes the alleged time when an unmarked police car pulls up to the storage unit and two men get out. One shows a badge, identifies himself as a plain clothes cop to the undercover agents and then draws his gun. The other guy checks out the rental truck and prepares to drive away with the pot. The cop with the badge is getting ready to kill the undercover agents until they identify themselves. Then it becomes chaos and paranoia. Badge guy beats feet for his unmarked cop car, but is quickly surrounded. The other guy tries to drive off in the rental truck. Surveillance agents descend on the scene en masse. One agent allegedly steps up on the rental truck's foot board on the passenger side and empties his .45 into the rental truck driver. He then steps down and the truck crashes into a tree. That's the end of the "sale" program.

Like the Chinese said, "May you live in exciting times." Yeah, I think I did. Hard to imagine all that was almost four decades ago, and yet some scenes and faces are as vivid as if they were just last week.

So raise your glasses to those who were there in a time gone by.

A toast to the old days now faded into history.

Exciting times.

23 February 2019

ENDINGS: You Must Satisfy the Reader!

By Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)

“Your first page sells the book.  Your last page sells the next book.”  Mickey Spillane

In all my classes and workshops, we talk about satisfying the reader.  As authors we make a ‘promise to the reader’.  We establish this promise in the first few pages and chapters.  Who will this story be about?  What genre?  Is it romance, mystery, thriller, western or one of the others?  Readers are attached to different genres, whether we authors like it or not.  We have to be aware that when we promise something, we need to fulfill it.

As an example: a thing that drives me crazy is when books are promoted as mysteries, and they are really thrillers.  I like murder mysteries; my favourite book is an intelligent whodunit, with diabolically clever plotting.  In a thriller, the plot usually centres on a character in jeopardy.  Not the same. 

As authors, we want to satisfy the reader, and that is exactly what Mickey Spillane was getting at in the quote above.  To do this, we need to know what the reader expects.  Here’s the handout I use in class to explain the different expectations in the main genres of fiction.  (Note: there are always exceptions.)

ENDING EXPECTATIONS IN THE GENRES:

ROMANCE:  The man and woman will come together to have a HEA (happy ever after) after surmounting great obstacles. 

MYSTERY/Suspense:  In a whodunit, the ending will reveal the killer.  In a thriller, the protagonist will escape the danger.  All loose ends will be tied up.  Justice will be seen to be done in some manner.  (This does not mean that the law will be satisfied.  We’re all about justice here, and the most interesting stories often have characters acting outside the law to achieve justice.  In mystery/suspense books you probably have the most opportunity for gray.)

FANTASY/Sci-Fi:  The battle will be won for now, but the war may continue in future books.  You should give your characters a HFN (happy for now) – at least a short amount of time to enjoy their
victory.

WESTERN:  The good guy will win.  Simple as that.

ACTION-ADVENTURE:  The Bond-clone will survive and triumph.  Sometimes the bad guy will get away to allow for a future story.

HORROR:  Usually, the protagonist will survive.  If not, he will usually die heroically saving others. Hope is key.  If readers have lost hope, they will stop reading.

LITERARY:  Again, the reader must be satisfied by the end of the story.  The protagonist will grow from the challenge.  He/she will probably be faced with difficult choices, and by the end of the story, the choice will be made.  In other stories, it may be that by the end of the story the protagonist discovers something she has been seeking: i.e. The Progress of Love by Alice Munro

ENDINGS – The argument against using real life for your plot. (Why things that really happened to you don’t make good novels.)

       “I am always telling my writing students that the anecdotes that make up their own lives, no matter how heart-wrenching they may have been for their subjects, are not in themselves stories.  Stories have endings.  Endings are contrived.  In order to come up with a great ending, you’re probably going to have to make something up, something that didn’t actually happen.  Autobiographical fiction can never do these things, because our lives contain few endings or even resolutions of any kind.”   Russell Smith

Remember what we do: Fiction authors write about things that never happened and people who don’t exist.  Remember what fiction writers must provide:  The ending must satisfy the reader.

So:  Don’t tell a publisher that your book/short story is based on real life.  The publisher doesn’t care. They are only looking for a good story.

Melodie Campbell is the author of the multi-award-winning Goddaughter series.  Book 6, The Goddaughter Does Vegas, is now available at all the usual suspects.


On AMAZON



22 February 2019

Crime Scene Comix Case 2019-02-001, Subway Robbery

by Velma

We visit the Future Thought channel of YouTube. Check it out. Meanwhile, take a two-minute bite out of crime.

Remember Shifty, the none-too-bright crook who looks like a Minion in zebra stripes? He returns, trying his hand at purse-snatching. As before, Shifty’s half-a-quart low and a stripped cog from success.


That’s crime cinema. Hope you enjoyed the show.

21 February 2019

Interview: Crime Fiction Writer and Retired Police Officer Frank Zafiro

by Brian Thornton

I first met Frank Zafiro way back in 2007 at the Left Coast Crime Convention here in Seattle. Although we're both Spokane boys, our paths never did cross during our time in the Lilac City. We've stayed in contact over the years and I've watched from afar as he's worked his butt off to build what's shaping up to be an impressive writing career. I recently caught up with him via email preparatory to doing some "hanging" (as I'm given to understand the young people are calling it these days) at this year's Left Coast Crime Convention, taking place next month up in Vancouver.

First, a bit about Frank:

Frank Zafiro was a police officer in Spokane, Washington from 1993 to 2013. He retired as a captain. He is the author of numerous crime novels, including the River City novels and the Stefan Kopriva series. Many of his novels have been collaborations with other authors. He lives in Redmond, Oregon, with his wife Kristi, dogs Richie and Wiley, and a very self-assured cat named Pasta. He is an avid hockey fan and a tortured guitarist. You can keep up with Frank at FrankZafiro.com.

And now to the interview:

Your background is in law enforcement, right? 

Yes. I served twenty years (and a day) with the Spokane Police Department. My career included working patrol, being a detective, working with volunteers, before I set onto a leadership path. As a leader, I worked in patrol, investigations, commanded the K9 unit and the SWAT team, before getting to the executive level. As a captain, I was in charge of all of patrol, and later all of investigations and specialty units. I'm not bragging here, just pointing out that my experience on the job really helps when it comes to my books, because I've had a taste of a lot of different facets of police work, from rolling in an alley with a bad guy while on patrol to battling through budget issues in the executive meeting room or down at city hall (the alley was easier and more honest, in my experience).

When did you start writing? Has crime fiction always been your fiction focus? 

Like a lot of writers, I started early. I can remember wanting to be a writer at ten, and by the time I was thirteen, I was writing stories. They were derivative and terrible, of course, but that's how you start. Most were either fantasy (I read a lot of Tolkien and Piers Anthony in those days) or other action vignettes. I stumbled onto a lot of "great ideas" that every writer thinks s/he invented. For example, a gem I wrote at thirteen or so that I eloquently titled, "Nooooooooooo!" in which an American soldier and his squad are sent on a mission disguised as North Vietnamese (I probably originally wrote it as Viet Cong, but whatever). Of course, he gets separated from his unit, and of course, he runs into a squad of NVA that he mows down.... only to find it is his own squad. "Noooooooooo!"

Like I said, most of us suck in the beginning, in one way or another.

I wrote a lot throughout my early twenties and even after I came on the job, but the first true crime fiction I wrote was when I started my first novel, Under a Raging Moon, in 1995. I got a bare bones draft finished, but then it sat in a drawer (literally, it was on paper) from 1996 to 2004. During that time, I went back to college full time while working full time. In addition to the school work over the two and half years it took me to finish my degree, my job changed every couple of years from '99 forward -- officer to corporal to detective to sergeant, all in the span of 1999 to 2003. As a result, I had a lot of learning to do. So while I did a ton of writing on the job and at Eastern Washington University (I was a history major, and we read and write a ton), I didn't write any fiction. In 2004, I became friends with Colin Conway, another cop and a budding writer himself, and I was finally in a place where I could look outside the job and embrace writing again. I started doing just that, and the stories that came out were mostly crime fiction.  Which makes sense, right? I'd been surrounded by that insular world for a decade by that time.

In addition to writing short stories (I was a Derringer finalist three times, but never won), I dug back into Under a Raging Moon, which became the first book in my River City series. River City is a barely fictional Spokane, and the focus of the series is the men and women of the RCPD. While I strive for heavy realism, my view of police officers is decidely positive, and so readers will see that the cops, while far from perfect, are the good guys in this series. It is an ensemble cast with narrative viewpoints from six or eight recurring characters. Think Southland, or if you're older, Hill Street Blues.

This is no paean to police, though. The mantra I always remember as I approach each new book is that the good guys usually win...but not always....and never without a price. This is clearly exemplified in the character who has emerged as the core of the series, Officer Katie MacLeod, or in an officer who fell from grace early in the series, Stefan Kopriva (the Stefan Kopriva mystery series is a spin off from River City). Both officers go through hell, and how they respond and endure it is a big part of what interests me. Ultimately, I want to show police in an honest, realistic, positive light in this series.

Tell us about your work with Eric Beetner. How did that come about?

Eric is one of five authors I've collaborated with (including the aforementioned Colin Conway). By the time we met (he did some cover designs for me is how I think we got introduced), I'd already written several books with a couple of other authors, and I saw that he'd collaborated once before, too. I read his THE DEVIL DOESN'T WANT ME, which totally rocked, and I said, "Hey, if you ever want to work on something together, that'd be awesome."

He kinda gave me the "yeah, yeah, sure" brush off, not out of any malice but just because he'd had a good experience in his first collaboration and didn't imagine the odds were good it would happen again. I kept at him every so often (I think in one interview on my podcast, he described it as 'stalking', which is almost certainly embellishment. Maybe) for a couple of years. Finally, I mentioned it a-GAIN, and he was about to say, "Yeah, yeah, sure" a-GAIN, when he hesitated. He had an idea brewing that actually might work better as two viewpoint presentation, in which a pair of hitmen are given separate lists of targets to take care of by their mafia employer in order to see who keeps their job as the mafia downsizes. All of my joint efforts to that point had been formatted in a dual first person narrative with alternating chapters, each writer handling one of the two main characters, and Eric thought this new idea of his would work like that.

So he pitched it. Now, I loved the idea, but honestly, what am I gonna do at this point? Say no? I mean, he could've pitched a nursery rhymes re-boot, and I think I'd have said yes. Luckily, he went with The Backlist, which was the first of our Bricks and Cam Job series. Eric wrote the hapless Cam, who is not quite a bumbler, but sorta is, and I wrote the sharp-tongued Bricks, who is the consummate professional and takes no shit from anyone. It went great. Eric is easy to work with, and writes the cleanest first draft I've ever seen. We played off each other well, which was important, because although the two characters are on their own for the first part of the book, they eventually meet. So we both had to write scenes including the other's character, which I think is something you have to be respectful about.

Anyway, spoiler alert, but Cam and Bricks both survive and go on to have two more adventures in The Short List and The Getaway list. In all three books, Eric wins the prize for biggest gross-out moment, hands-down.

What’s coming out next from you?


 I'm editing a novella anthology series I created called A Grifter's Song, so a new episode of that drops the first of each month from January to June. My own entry, The Concrete Smile, started things off in January. My first collaboration, Some Degree of Murder, with Colin Conway is being re-issued by Down and Out Books in March, so that's cool. They are also publishing another Conway collaboration in June called Charlie-316, the first of a four-book arc that I'm incredibly stoked about. And I'll be releasing the sixth River City novel, Place of Wrath and Tears, sometime in late Spring 2019.

Nice reference to Henley's poem Invictus with that title! What are you working on now? 


 Finishing up the edits on two novels. One is a stand alone called In the Cut, which is set against the backdrop of an outlaw motorcycle gang. It's scheduled for a Jan 2020 release. The other is the second in the four-book arc with Colin Conway (we're still debating the title), which is slated for June 2020. I'm writing the bonus subscriber-only story for inclusion in A Grifter's Song. It is essentially episode 6.5, set between the two seasons, and will only be released to those who subscribe to the series.

Thanks a lot for taking the time to talk with us here at Sleuthsayers, Frank! And for those of you heading to Vancouver for Left Coast Crime next month, look this guy up!






20 February 2019

Dominating the Submissions

by Robert Lopresti

This piece may not be of use to most readers.  It's a niche thing, I guess.  I am writing it for two reasons.

First, recently someone wrote an email to a list for mystery fans that went vaguely like this:

I just wrote a parody of a well-known crime novel.  It's not a REAL mystery so I don't want to send it to mystery magazines.  Where do you recommend I submit it?

I immediately thought of a few things I wanted to say.  But I felt that if I did it would sound like I was piling on, trying to discourage the newbie.  Not at all my goal.  So I decided to expand my thoughts, and write some advice today for people thinking about submitting a story for publication for the first time.

The second reason I'm writing this will become obvious in two weeks when my next blog appears.  Suspenseful, huh?  Tune in, same bat-time, same bat-channel...

Okay.  Five  thoughts for the newbies out there.

1. If all you have is a hammer, all your problems look like nails.  If you go to a list of mystery fans/writers  and ask about markets, they are likely to tell you about mystery markets.  If that isn't what you want you should probably ask somewhere else.

2. Don't try to read tea leaves when the ingredients are listed right on the box.  You want to know what a magazine editor is looking for?  They show you detailed examples in every issue.  Before you submit to a magazine, read it.  If you peruse a few issues of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, for example, you will probably determine that they are not averse to parodies.

3. There are times to think outside the box,  and times not to.  Creativity and originality are wonderful things in your story.  They do not belong in your text-formatting.  If you use an unusual font, strange margins, or other gimmicks you are basically offering the editor a written invitation  to drop your story in favor of something more professional.  If the editor hasn't made specific recommendations (you did check their website, right?) then go with William Shunn's Proper Manuscript Format, which is considered an industry standard.

4.  Even if you're paranoid there is probably no one out to get you.  If you are determined to convince the editor that you are 1) an amateur, and 2) way too much trouble to bother with, you can't do much better than filling your cover letter and manuscript with copyright notices and dire warnings to anyone who might dare to steal your idea.  Trust me; they see hundreds of ideas every year; they aren't going to risk career suicide and personal disgrace by swiping yours.

5. There is a time for patience and a time for the other thing.   What do you do if you submit a story and never hear back?  Again, you have checked the publication's website, right?  It will tell you how long they expect to hold onto a story before they get back to you.  Alas, they tend to be optimists. You might want to try Duotrope a site with records which come from actual submissions.  If your story is long past its expected return date, send the editor a polite query.  By the way, some publishers say flat out that they won't bother to notify you that they have rejected your story, which I think is disgraceful, but people submit there anyway.  Keep in mind that if you haven't heard back from a market and you decide to send a story somewhere else  it is good policy to send an email  saying "I am withdrawing the story." 

And that is everything I know about submitting a story to a magazine or other market.  Read the comments for advice that will likely pour in from wiser heads than mine.  And good luck!

19 February 2019

Baby You Can Drive My Car

by Michael Bracken

Until recently, Temple’s parents lived in Tyler, Texas, about a three-hour drive from our home near Waco. We visited her parents a handful of times each year, and during the long drive to and from we often discussed story ideas. This, inevitably, led to discussions of plots, characters, and settings, and by the time we returned home from each trip, we had generated and fleshed out one or more story ideas that I ultimately turned into finished manuscripts, including “Smoked,” which was reprinted in The Best American Mystery Stories 2018.

My mobile workstation.
Often, we started the discussion with me describing an invitation to submit that I had received, or a call for submissions that interested me, or, when I was writing confessions, a discussion of what holiday or other event might occur in the publication month I was targeting. (This would include, for example, generating Christmas stories for the December issues.)

There is something about being behind the wheel of a car on a long trip that liberates my mind to free associate in a way that I do not often do when sitting at a keyboard. Other than the attention I must pay to the traffic around me, there are no distractions. The cats aren’t walking on my keyboard. The dog doesn’t need to go out. Email doesn’t ding with incoming messages. I can’t get sucked into a rabbit hole of increasing internet research of decreasing value. And online word games don’t lure me from the task at hand.

It helps, of course, that Temple sits beside me with notepad and pen in hand. We bounce ideas back and forth, and she makes note of the best ones. The notes might include a rough plot outline or might be little more than a title or character name or inciting incident.

Upon arriving at her parents’ home, while Temple visited with her family, I would sometimes disappear into the sunroom to turn the notes into something more by thumb typing or dictating into my phone. Upon returning home, I would spend the next few days turning the more detailed notes, rough plots, and partially completed scenes into finished manuscripts.

That, unfortunately, is about to end. Temple’s mother passed away last September, and her father recently purchased a home half a dozen blocks from us. When he completes the move from Tyler, our long drives will be a thing of the past.

We are likely to visit her father more often, but there will barely be enough time during the drive (or the walk, in good weather) to his new home to discuss extremely short stories. The end result could be a rash of flash fiction.

Or it could mean we must find a new destination for our drives, someplace about three hours away that offers a good meal, great company, and sufficient incentive to break our daily routine, get in the car, and go.

There’s a disturbance in the force. I’ve had nothing published since my previous SleuthSayers post, so here’s a throwback to 2001: All White Girls, one of my first novels, was published and is still available in various formats from Wildside Press. With ten reviews, it ranks 4.5 stars at Amazon, and reviewers at the time of publication said:

“...violent surprises...fast-paced and very hard-boiled.” A 4-Star Review—Detroit Free Press

“All White Girls is a one-sitting, in-your-face, hard-boiled mystery; and it’s damn good.”—I Love A Mystery

“...a gritty novel where almost everyone has an interest in the dark side of human nature.”—Blue Iris Journal

“...a driving pace that keeps the reader engaged from cover to cover.”—Judas

Order from Amazon.

18 February 2019

Surviving the Byte of the Cobra, part 2

by Leigh Lundin

The exemPlum doesn’t fall far from the tree…

Yesterday, we discussed password problems. Today, we look at those subversively risky personal questions used to zero in on you and perhaps your wallet.

A fair lot of crap programming comes out of Bangalore, so it’s befitting software designers call this particular law of unintended consequences ‘the cobra effect’.
The Cobra Effect
During British Crown Rule of India, legend says administrators grew concerned about the numbers of vipers infesting Delhi. The colonial governor offered a bounty for every dead cobra brought in. However, the plan’s short-term success was undermined by enterprising locals breeding cobras to collect bounties. The British governor terminated the program. Disappointed cobra farmers subsequently released their breeding serpents into the wild, far worsening the problem… or so the parable goes.
Character Reference

Last week, I needed to register on-line with a county agency. (No, my readers, NOT the Department of Corrections as the snarky amongst you might suspect.)

The first hint of difficulty lay in the most restricted character set to date, merely letters and numbers, no punctuation whatsoever. This thoughtfully provides bad guys huge hints: “Psst. Save time, fellas. Don’t bother testing the lock with those difficult oddball characters.”

The next clue… You know those personal identifying questions in case you forget your password? Questions like naming your favorite cheese or your first juvenile parole officer? These questions mask some of the greatest risks in computerdom. Anyone who knows the least bit about you can guess the answers.

Worse, I’ve encountered sites that provide convenient drop-down menu answers, a selection of eight or so choices. One of the most popular questions with a handy menu is, “What’s your favorite color?”

Presumably this helps the spelling-challenged, but what a gift to bad guys. Immediately black-hat hackers rule out black and white, rarely anyone’s favorites. That leaves six or eight choices, hardly a burden for the least capable password cracker. They need not guess if they notice the blue shirts and blue cell phone cover ordered on Amazon and now appearing in your latest Facebook pose.

Moral: Never answer a question with a menu choice.

Orange County registration questions
Orange County Registration Questions
 Your Government at Work

At left, notice the personally identifiable questions from the aforementioned county agency. Anyone with the slightest knowledge about you can guess the answers. Anyone who doesn’t know you, can easily google your name, learning where you attended high school, your favorite team, your pets, and your mother’s maiden name.

What can you do about it?

Don’t play the game.

First, of course, avoid Q&A with drop-down menus. That’s a given.

If the web page doesn’t feature drop-down menus, you can answer your favorite color of yellow, orange, or red with “sweet cream banana pie yellow”, “fancy freckle-farm fulvous fantasy,” or “notorious red dye number 2”.

If you know French, Spanish, or Romanian, you might utilize that knowledge, perhaps in combination with the verbose suggestion above. Answer your favorite color as ‘rouge’, ‘rojo’, or ‘roșu’. If you don’t know a foreign language, try Pig Latin, e.g, ‘edray’ or ‘ellowyay’.

But I never could abide by the rules. There’s an easier way than such hard-to-remember replies.

You can boost security if you make your answers– every answer– a non sequitur, a nonsense phrase. Remembering will be easier if you use the same response, such as “None of your damn business.” For example:
© BBB
Favorite author?
None of your damn business.
Favorite color?
None of your damn business.
Favorite team?
None of your damn business.
Web sites like Apple’s recognize and object when an answer is repeated while populating a questionnaire. One solution is to exactly echo the question with leading or trailing words. For example, “Favorite author?” can be answered with, “My favorite author is none of your damn business,” or more simply, “Stuff my favorite author,” and “Stuff my favorite team,” etc.

Most importantly, choose a method that fits your style, then keep that information to yourself. Not playing by their dictates helps keep your data safer.

Don’t play the game.

Make up your own rules.

Password Security Question

Q. What’s your favorite security question?

A. ______________________________

17 February 2019

Surviving the Byte of the Cobra, part 1

by Leigh Lundin

Shibboleths and Shinola

As you may know, I spent years computer consulting for major corporations. I developed low regard for the so-called security found in many businesses, banks and brokerage houses, and lesser government agencies. Many so-called safety ‘features’ introduce unintended vulnerabilities.

Stick with me today and tomorrow. I’ll show you a method or so to help plug one or two security holes and help protect yourself.

Just Say No

Recently, I found myself unable to create an on-line account with my insurance company. The business published no  password restrictions, so I started with something like §103NádražníBeržųStraße – I’m not kidding – I take the security of my most critical sites seriously. The system didn’t accept that, a big clue that password and privacy isn’t a high priority with them. I whittled away diacriticals and then the leading special character §, but still nothing. After reduction to a plain vanilla password, and still no access I contacted customer service, asking how to solve the problem.

Naturally the customer service lady wouldn’t put me in direct touch with IT, the people who should know. She spent roughly 15 minutes piecing together the requirements: no more than ten characters from a measly set of the 62 alphanumeric characters plus underscore and hyphen.
“You’re kidding,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“Those are the weakest password requirements I’ve come across in a long time.”

“Oh no, sir. We’ve never been hacked, so we’re very pleased.”

“You mean you haven’t drawn the attention of hackers.” The more restrictions placed on passwords, the easier for miscreants to breach the walls.

I could feel her bristle through the phone line. “Our staff understands our needs very well, I’m sure.”

Uh-huh. I thought dryly. They could withstand a concerted attack for, well, hundreds of seconds.
The only safe solution was not to use their on-line ‘service’ at all. In the future, what little information I might need will come by telephone and US mail.

It’s 1980, No Pasting Allowed

Ever encounter a web site that won’t allow you to paste in your password? Sure you have, and it’s frustrating as hell. Worse, it adds vulnerabilities rather than resolves them.

Years ago, some misguided ‘expert’ decided password paste prevention sounded pretty cool, and lo, he advised others about his really cool hypothesis. It turned out wrong, dead wrong.

Preventing pasting discourages visitors from using long, complex passwords, prevents utilizing password managers, and makes it easy for cracking hardware and software ‘keyloggers’– to monitor what you type in. Even the task group within NIST, the US National Institute of Standards and Technology, advises against disabling password pasting.

Clearly a number of corporations didn’t get the memo. What can a trapped user do? A few suggestions come to mind.

The web page may disable pasting keyboard shortcut but not disable the menu paste entry. This occurs often enough, it’s worth trying first.

A second possibility is to temporarily disable JavaScript. After doing it a couple of times, it doesn’t take long, certainly less time than blindly typing in a long string. Simply bring up the web page. When you reach the field that won’t let you paste, disable JavaScript by invoking Preferences, click Disable JavaScript in the Security or Privacy tabs, paste your password, and immediately re-engage JavaScript. (Note: This doesn’t work with Firefox, which won’t let users disable JavaScript.)

If that fails, try to resist using a short and simple password, one reason why this disagreeable ‘feature’ is so dangerous.

When It’s All About Length

I came across a bug in a popular web site. The registration web page happily accepted my lengthy password, but would not allow me to sign on.

I learned the site used an unadvertised maximum limit of 20 characters. Further investigation concluded it didn’t limit or validate the length of the password string. The registration page stored a function of the first 20 characters, no matter how many were entered. The sign-on page also didn’t check the limit of characters, but simply compared its value with the stored value, resulting in a mismatch.

In other words, I tried to register AbCdEfGhIjKlMnOpQrStUvWxYz, but the program stored AbCdEfGhIjKlMnOpQrSt. When I tried to sign on, the page compared the stored AbCdEfGhIjKlMnOpQrSt with the sign-on value of AbCdEfGhIjKlMnOpQrStUvWxYz and failed, a stupid programming error. (Engineers will note I’m grossly simplifying a hash encryption function.) Bad, bad program design.

© BBB
Mine’s Smaller Than Yours

A web site’s failure to validate the length of a password allowed me to pull off a silly little trick of questionable value. In the early days of the Web before it came under attack by Russian crackers and North Korean ransomware, I’d registered at a particular web site with a short password.

Years later, alarmed at attacks occurring worldwide, the site instituted stricter registration policies, including using lengthy password minimums double the length mine. They validated new password lengths at registration, but not during sign-on.

The site wasn’t critical for me, which led to an idiosyncratic decision to keep my old, deprecated password. A brute-force attacker would likely note  updated site rules that passwords must run at least twelve characters in length. If so, my dinky little password ought to sail under their radar. (And if not, I could live without the site.)

Tomorrow… Cobras and those pesky and perilous personal mystery questions.

16 February 2019

Pop the Clutch: Back to the Fifties


by John M. Floyd


Like many of you, I occasionally have a story published in an anthology. Sometimes I see a "call for submissions" and send off a story in the hope that an editor will like it, sometimes I'm invited to contribute a story, sometimes I'm fortunate enough to have one selected for a best-of-the-year anthology. However it happens, the story usually fits a "theme." Recent anthologies I've been involved with had themes that range all over the place: the military, food and drink, visions, Joni Mitchell songs, sanctuaries, Donald Trump, the full moon, Florida, New England, Texas, the South, horror, mystery, romance, and time travel.

Last month I was lucky enough to have a story published in a book that's turned out to be one of the most interesting anthologies I've seen in a while. This was one of those "write it from scratch" stories that would never have been created if not for this specific project. The book's title will explain that--it's Pop the Clutch: Thrilling Tales of Rockabilly, Monsters, and Hot Rod Horror. And yes, all those elements appear regularly in the 18 stories included. The publisher is Dark Moon Books and the editor is L.A. author Eric Guignard, who won a Bram Stoker Award in 2013 for his anthology After Death. (I was in that one too, although I suspect that my story didn't singlehandedly earn the win.)

I also suspect that one reason I found the Pop the Clutch project fascinating was its unique theme. There's just something compelling about the 1950s, whether you lived in that time period or not: jukeboxes, roller skates, film noir, Elvis, motor courts, cigarettes, sock hops, TV westerns, sideburns, coonskin caps, Hula Hoops, croquet, wheelies, flat-tops, ducktails, and so on. And when you add a dose of fantasy and horror to that already magical era . . . how could a reader not enjoy that? It's Daddy-o and the Mummy, all at once. You can be on another planet without leaving Earth.

What made me especially grateful to be included in this book is the fact that three of my literary heroes--Joe Lansdale, Bill Pronzini, and Max Allan Collins--were also invited to participate. Anytime my name winds up beside the names of folks like that in a ToC, well, my head grows by a couple of hat sizes and I dream that maybe I'm finally making something of myself, Mom. And even though I wound up enjoying, as expected, the stories those three authors produced for the book, I liked the others also.

If I had to pick half a dozen favorites, they were probably "Dr. Morrismo's InsaniTERRORium Horror Show," by Lisa Morton; "Tremble," by Kasey Lansdale and Joe R. Lansdale; "I'm With the Band," by Steve Perry, "The Prom Tree," by Yvonne Navarro; "The She-Creature," by Amelia Beamer; and "Universal Monster," by Duane Swierczynski.

My own story in the book (he announced, modestly) is "The Starlite Drive-In," a mystery/horror tale set in present-day Mississippi that winds up tied to the 1950s in a weird and otherworldly way: real creatures from old movies like Mothra and The Blob and I Was a Teenage Werewolf start turning up (and gobbling up the citizens) in the rural area near an abandoned drive-in movie theater that once screened those masterpieces--and a worn-out sheriff and his female deputy find themselves in a life-or-death battle with this army of creepy and bloodsucking critters. (If you think I didn't have a great time writing this one, well, you weren't a teenage werewolf.)
Even if you aren't old enough to have experienced the Fifties firsthand, this book will make you feel like you're there. Worst case, you'll want to put on a poodle skirt or grease your hair (hopefully not at the same time)--and best case, so help me Godzilla, you'll be inspired to re-watch some of those deliciously stupid monster movies from that era.


I must include, here, a word of thanks. First to Eric Guignard: if you happen to read this post, Eric, I'm indebted to you for bringing me aboard for yet another of your anthologies. And thanks also to those of you who buy and read this wild bunch of stories. If you like 'em half as much as I did, your time and money will have been well spent.

Let me close with some questions for my fellow short-story writers: How do you feel about anthologies? Do you send stories to anthos as often as you do to magazines? When you do, do you prefer creating a story first and then looking for a market, or trying to write to a pre-determined theme? Are most of your antho stories mysteries, or have you tried other genres (or combined genres, as I did with this one)? Are they usually submitted as a result of an invitation, or as an audition? Are most of these publications paying gigs, or for-the-love-of-it projects?

Okay, back to the dragstrip. Start your engines and hit the gas.

Where'd I put that Brylcreem . . . ?




15 February 2019

The Manual of Mindfulness: Thinking Like Sherlock Holmes

by Lawrence Maddox

Sherlock Ommmms
The modern concept of mindfulness seems as far from Victorian England as Optimus Prime does from Robbie the Robot, yet maybe it's most ardent fictional practitioner shot out of that era like a bullet from a Webley Bulldog Revolver.  Roughly 2300 years before the Victorian Age's namesake took the throne (and about 2420 years before The Kinks sang her praises in "Victoria"), the seeds of what we now call  "mindfulness" started with Buddha himself, passing into the west largely through meditation, yoga, and for me as a kid, the TV show Kung Fu.

The western medical community began picking up on these stress-reducing practices as an alternative to the drugs, booze, and all the other fun stuff we westerners use to to chill out. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn was one of the first to do so and call it "mindfulness." "Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally," said Kabat-Zinn. "And then I sometimes add, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom."

Basil Rathbone being iconic
Jeremy Brett being brilliant
So who is this Victorian-era Buddha I mentioned earlier? His black shag tobacco is still sprinkled all over pop culture, one hundred and twenty-two years after he first appeared in print. We just can't seem to get enough Sherlock Holmes, be it in print, radio, theater, TV or movies. Holmes has been played by actors as varied as Basil Rathbone (my childhood favorite), Jeremy Brett (my all-time fav), Hammer Horror heroes Peter Cushing AND Christopher Lee, Robert Downey Jr, and Benedict Cumberbatch.  Mr. Spock and Dr. House certainly share much of the Holmes DNA, as does last year's animated hit Sherlock Gnomes. I bet if you looked long enough, you'd find Holmes porn floating around the internet. Please don't forward any links.

What is it about Holmes that still fascinates us? The knowledge, the reasoning, the braininess of Holmes is what most consider Holmes' primary traits. Fans of the detective know there's so much more. Holmes' imagination, his ability to be present and live utterly in the moment, his awareness of his own thought processes, his mindfulness, are perhaps his greatest and most impressive gifts.

If Doyle meant the Holmes stories to be idle entertainment only, he was wildly successful. What if Doyle was also showing us a better way to live? Maria Konnikova thinks that's exactly what Doyle was doing, and she teaches us how to think like Sherlock Holmes in her fascinating manual-of-mindfulness Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (2013)

Maria Konnikova first caught the Holmes bug when her father read Holmes stories to her when she was little. She eventually earned her Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia and has published extensively about science, yet she owns up to the role that reading fiction has played in her life:  "I think the best psychologists are actually fiction writers. Their understanding of the human mind is so far beyond where we've been able to get with psychology as a science."

Mastermind presents the two different ways in which people use their brains. There is the Watson system, which is our default system. The Watson system makes all the mental errors that Watson, Lestrade, and the rest of the bumblers make in the Holmes stories. The Watson system jumps to incorrect conclusions, is influenced by appearances, and isn't really paying attention, either to the outside world or to it's own mental workings.

The Holmes system will have none of that. By dent of effort, it takes the Watson system offline and installs a new operating system in our consciousness. "Checklists, formulas, structured procedures: those are your best bet," Mastermind explains.  Through practice, habit, and the pursuit of mindfulness, Mastermind claims that the Holmes system opens up a new world of thought: it forces us to be neutral in our observations; it cajoles us to be doubtful of first impressions and of our own minds; it commands us to be superior observers; it directs us to engage the world with all of our senses; it frees up our imaginations; it forbids multi-tasking and it demands focus on the job at hand.  Be present, it shouts, like a teacher to a student drifting off in class.

Mastermind backs up its precepts with science, and it can be a little dry. Having said that, I think Doyle (and Holmes) wouldn't have had it any other way. Konnikova digs into the science, but there is never any doubt that her inspiration for Mastermind is the fiction of Doyle. I really enjoyed Mastermind when it uses the Holmes stories to illustrate a point.

In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Watson and Holmes take turns deducing the biographical details of Dr. James Mortimer by examining the absent doctor's walking stick. Watson makes his usual mistakes, and Holmes "embarks on his own logical tour de force." Holmes goes on to deduce much about Dr. Mortimer's background, age, habits, ambitions, and pet ownership.

According to Mastermind, this scene "brings together all of the elements of the scientific approach to thought that we've spent this book exploring and serves as a near-ideal jumping-off point for discussing how to bring the thought process together as whole." Some of the thought-practices Konnikova garners from this episode are: being aware of our environment; the value of thoughtful observation; and allowing the imagination, maybe the most powerful tool in our mental arsenal, to tangle with life's problems.

It wouldn't be fair to boil Mastermind down to only one mental habit, but if forced to the edge of the Reichenbach Falls, I'd say it's the same exercise that's at the heart of mindfulness. "Holmes' mental journeying goes by many names, but most commonly it is called meditation," Konnikova writes. "Holmes is neither monk nor yoga practitioner," Konnikova adds, "but he understands what meditation, in its essence, actually is–– a simple mental exercise to clear your mind."

Konnikova argues that meditation trains our brains to be more Holmes-like. She discusses studies that show that meditation boosts concentration, learning,  memory, and even brain density. Meditation "can help you create the right frame of mind to attain the distance necessary for mindful, imaginative thought."

I expect some eye rolls at this connection of Holmes and meditation, mindfulness, and anything that smacks of New Age mysticism. First I'd say that meditation has been moved out of the realms of eastern tradition and into medical practice by western science. Don't be put off if your MD prescribes a shot of meditation for what ills you, with a tai chi chaser.

The biggest complaint about Mastermind could be that it's taking Sherlock Holmes too seriously. Doyle conjured the stories while his medical practice was slow, and surely he meant them only as idle entertainment. An argument could be made otherwise. Holmes is, after all, largely based on Dr. Joseph Bell, a professor at The University of Edinburgh Medical School who Doyle assisted. Bell was a doctor, a scientist, a teacher, and Doyle's mentor.

Like Holmes, Dr. Bell is purported to have had the skill of being able to tell a person's job just by looking at him. Bell once said "...we teachers find it useful to show the student how much a trained use of the observation can discover in ordinary matters such as the previous history, nationality and occupation of a patient." Perhaps Doyle is using Bell, a brilliant teacher, to create his own fictional teacher. After all, in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes did write a magazine article on his methods for the public edification. He even gave it the rather self-important title "The Book of Life."

Maria Konnikova calls your bluff

After Mastermind, Konnikova wrote The Confidence Game (2016). In it she discusses the history of con artists and the reasons why people can be so easily duped. It's a great resource for crime writers, and a kind of sequel to Mastermind and its mindfulness techniques. Though continuing to write, Konnikova is now a professional poker player. Considering her interests in Holmes, that should scare anyone with a handful of cards and secrets to hide.

Lawrence Maddox and Samuel Gailey
waiting to read at LA's Noir at the Bar
Thanks to everyone who not only blew off one of the lamest Super Bowls ever, but also braved a stormy night to hit LA's Noir at the Bar at Mandrake. It was a great evening with myself, Gray Basnight, Eric Beetner, Samuel Gailey, Nadine Nettman and Wendall Thomas taking turns at the mic, and Eric Beetner and Steve Lauden  hosting. Afterwards I somehow ended up clear across town at the Altadena Ale & Wine House discussing all things lit. See ya at the next one!