18 July 2019

Miscellany

by Eve Fisher

If you're looking for a logical sequence of events, this is not the blog for you.  The title means what it says.

So, to begin with,

My Masterpiece PosterThe other night we streamed Mi Obra Maestra (a/k/a My Masterpiece) on Netflix.  You gotta love a movie that opens up with a guy saying, "I'm a murderer".  And then - what a delight! - every time I thought I knew where it was going to go... it didn't!  Dead pan, very black humor, slapstick, a maniac artist, plus the fun of seeing Buenos Aires and the World Heritage site of Quebrada de  Humahuaca.  (And yes, I had to look that up all for myself.)  You can't ask for much more than that.

Quebrada de  Humahuaca
Those are real, folks!!!!

I've also been thinking about mysteries / thrillers / etc. written by non-mystery writers.  Most of these are short stories.

There is, of course, also the classic The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.  Who really did what, and was/were there ghost(s), and if not, was the governess mad, or is it all one big fantasy, have been argued up one side and down the other for decades. (BTW, it's available on Project Gutenberg HERE.)  Personally, I've never cared for The Turn of the Screw.  If you want horror - albeit of a different kind - I recommend James' The Beast in the Jungle (HERE).

But Henry James is a bit literary for a lot of people, so try Haircut by Ring Lardner.   (Read it HERE)   I keep re-reading it, and each time, new questions:  How funny did Lardner's contemporaries think it was?  Was the scene in the movie Pleasantville, where the mayor comes in and takes the barber's chair away from someone else, taken from Haircut?  I do know that Grant Tripp's brother, Barry, is kind of based on Paul.  I also know that there are still a lot of Jim Kendalls around, especially in small towns.

The Meyerowitz Stories.pngMeanwhile, I'm a big Maeve Binchy fan.  Most people know her from her Irish novels, but she wrote a number of short stories.  I just reread "Queensway", an absolute gem from the anthology London Transports:
When Pat saw something like "Third Girl wanted for quiet flat.  Own room, with central heating" she had dark fears that it might be a witches' coven looking for new recruits.
But sometimes a coven would be better.  And "Queensway" provides a wonderfully subtle, terribly accurate depiction of a manipulative sociopath.  Check it out.  (No e-text available.)
"It's like their apartment is full of everything we once threw out, but it looks so good the way they have it." - Cornelia in While We're Young.
Speaking of manipulative sociopaths, I've been working my way through the films of Noah Baumbach ever since seeing The Meyerowitz Stories, and Dustin Hoffman certainly nailed the manipulative narcissistic sociopath in that movie.   Goodbye, Tootsie, goodbye...  As did Adam Driver in While We're Young.  Both are available for streaming on Netflix.

Meanwhile, looking forward to the Lodge 49 season 2 premiere on AMC, Aug. 12, 10 p.m.!  Watch the Season 2 Trailer HERE.


Finally, thank you, David Edgerley Gates, for mentioning John Crowley's Little, Big in your blogpost The Art of Memory.  I had never read that book, and I did, because I'm always fascinated by memory houses.  I have one, mostly for books, because I figured out early in the day that if I really was going to read all the books I wanted, then by God, I was going to have to set up some sort of mental filing system.  And I did, although I'm not sure how, but it works.  It supplies me the title, author, plot, major characters, most minor ones, and specific scenes of almost every book I've ever read.  (Which is a lot.)

Anyway, Little, Big stunned me.  Among the notes I wrote in my journal were "A fever dream of immanence."  You see, I've always been and still am the person - girl and woman - who walks looking for the path through the forest, the door in the tree, the cottage under the stones, the opening in the sky, knowing that some day it will be there, and I'll get to go through.  (Yes, I'm a huge fan of the movie Picnic at Hanging Rock.)  This will definitely go on the shelf of those books I reread, breathlessly.

BTW, a few others that have provided me similar fever dreams:  The Once and Future King (T. H. White); Centuries of Meditation (Thomas Traherne); La Morte d'Arthur (Thomas Mallory; the oldest translation you can stand); all fairy tales (believe it or not, the Hans Christian Andersen ones get better as you get older); Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass; Piers Plowman; The Old Ways (Robert MacFarlane) and Meeting the Other Crowd:  The Fairy Stories of Hidden Ireland (Eddie Lenihan)

And FINALLY finally, next blog post - the mystery and challenge of Little Shrimp Factory on the Prairie - because if you thought everything was going to go swimmingly <groan> to bring shrimp farming to the high prairies, you really have a lot to learn.

and FINALLY FINALLY FINALLY, just for the information soundbite, from the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission:

What you should know about National Origin Discrimination under Title VII

The law protects people against employment discrimination on the basis of their national origin. Following are some examples of employment discrimination based on national origin.

Harassment Based on National Origin

  • Ethnic slurs and other verbal or physical conduct because of nationality are illegal if they are severe or pervasive and create an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment, interfere with work performance, or negatively affect job opportunities. Examples of potentially unlawful conduct include insults, taunting, or ethnic epithets, such as making fun of a person's foreign accent or comments like, "Go back to where you came from, " whether made by supervisors or by co-workers.
Read more HERE.

Granted, this is probably another government agency that will soon be gutted, renamed, rehelmed, and/or dismantled, but there you are.  For right now, that's the law of the land.


















17 July 2019

Because It Isn't There

by Robert Lopresti

I'm going to give in to peer pressure and follow Steve Liskow, Michael Bracken, R.T. Lawton, and O'Neil De Noux in addressing the question: Why write?

* When I was in second grade I brought a pencil and notebook to school determined that I would write a new Winnie-the-Pooh story.  I remember my shock in realizing that I had no idea how to do that.  Why did I want to write?  Because there were only two Pooh books and that clearly wasn't enough.

* In sixth grade our English teacher encouraged us to write short stories.  I wrote a few spy stories (in slavish devotion to The Man From Uncle)  and Mrs. Sonin, bless her heart, would let me read them to her after school while she graded papers.  I hope to heaven she didn't listen because they were uniformly awful.  Why did I write?  Because I loved to read and wanted to add more stories to the world.

* While living in a dorm at graduate school I found time to write a novel, which I had the good sense not to submit anywhere.  I still have the handwritten draft but, as Robert Benchley said about his diary, no one will see it as long as I have a bullet in my rifle. Why did I write? Because I wanted to be a writer and I needed something to do other than study cataloging.

* At the same time I started submitting terrible short stories to magazines.  Why?  Because I thought I might have a career as a writer.

* After three years of trying I sold a story to Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine. The rush I got from seeing my name in print gave me a reason to write for many years.

And other stuff happened, but that's enough.

Let's sum things up, shall we.  Why do I write?

As Thomas Berger said: "Because it isn't there."

16 July 2019

Community Standards

By Michael Bracken

This year’s Malice Domestic in North Bethesda, Maryland, provided ample opportunity to spend time with several writers I count among my friends and with many more who became friends during the convention, and I realized how different life is when a large group of like-minded writers live in close proximity.

With Josh Pachter and Art Taylor at Malice Domestic 2019.
At some point during the convention, Josh Pachter and I discussed how the mystery-writing community in and around Washington, D.C., contrasts with the mystery-writing community in and around Waco, Texas. Many of the writers attending Malice see each other several times a year—at readings, book signings, Noir at the Bar events, library presentations, and the like—and they see each other so often that they rarely have reason to email one another. The mystery-writing community in and around Waco consists of, well, me.

Several romance writers live in the area, as do a few literary writers and poets of one type or another, but the only mystery writer living near me isn’t producing much new work these days. Because I don’t comprehend poetry or poets, and because literary writers don’t tend to hang with us genre types, I feel as if I live in a writing desert.

So, I’ve little opportunity to spend time with genre writers (of any genre) other than at conventions, and only in the past few years have I had the financial resources to travel more than a few hours from home to attend Bouchercon and Malice Domestic. Prior to that I attended some regional science fiction conventions (ArmadilloCon and the now-defunct ApolloCon), Bouchercon when it came to Austin many years ago and Left Coast Crime when it came to Santa Fe several years ago.

A gaggle of wordsmiths at Malice Domestic 2019.
Yet, I always remembered what life was like when I lived in Southern Illinois, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri. I was a young, barely published writer, and several times my then-wife and I had dinner with John Lutz and/or Francis M. Nevins, Jr., and their wives. And at least twice I attended the Nevinses’ Christmas party, where I met, among others, Elaine Viets when she was still a newspaper columnist.

I wondered if such a thing were possible in Waco, in a state where writers may live hundreds of miles apart, and Temple and I had several conversations about how we might duplicate those Christmas parties. Rather than a holiday event, when everyone is juggling family and work obligations, and rather than an evening event, which would cause guests to drive home in the wee hours of the morning, we decided to try a Saturday afternoon event in the spring.

Texas writers crowd the Bracken/Walker living room
during the 2019 Spring Writer Gathering.
We hosted our first Spring Writer Gathering the Saturday after Mother’s Day 2016, and we’ve hosted it the same weekend each year since. Though the event is open to all writers and their significant others, and most genres are represented in one fashion or another, we tend to draw a significant number of mystery writers from all across Texas. A few of our guests have joined us every year, a few only once, and many have attended two or three times.

This isn’t a critique group, and there’s no agenda. It’s just writers hanging out, talking about whatever strikes their fancies. Sometimes it’s writing, but the conversation is just as likely to cover dozens of other subjects. Sometimes we sit in a large group in the living room; sometimes we break into smaller groups that drift into the kitchen or the dining room.

Some of our guests are writers I’ve known for at least two decades, while others are recent acquaintances, and some I’m meeting in person for the first time when they arrive at our doorstep.

In doing this, my writing community is growing. Though it may never reach the size of the writing community in and around Washington, D.C., and even though our gathering may never draw the number and diversity of attendees as the Nevinses’ Christmas parties, I am quite pleased with the event’s success.

So, if you’re a writer living within driving distance of Waco, Texas, or think you might be traveling through our area the Saturday after Mother’s Day, drop me a line. Temple and I would love to have you join us next year for our annual Spring Writer Gathering.

My story “Oystermen” appears in the July/August issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and “Three Brisket Tacos and a Sig Sauer,” the second story of season one of the Guns + Tacos serial novella anthology series, releases August 1. Subscribe to season one here and receive six novellas—one each month beginning with July—and receive a special bonus story at the end of the season.

15 July 2019

Man of Many Names and Faces

by Fran Rizer

A person who is two-faced and has used an alias many times sounds sketchy. Why would I want to interview him and introduce him to SleuthSayer readers?

Let's call this fellow "Lenny." Born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, he left home at eighteen, spent some time in Miami, and then joined the U.S. Army. After completing his service, Lenny attended Michigan State University and earned a degree in Social Science. He wound up in a place he still loves--New York City.

Nineteen-year-old Lenny in Miami.

In 1970, Lenny began working as a press agent for Solters and Sabinson, a show biz publicity agency near Times Square. Solters and Sabinson's clients included big-time names such as Frank Sinatra and The Beatles. At age thirty-five, Lenny made a giant leap by quitting his PR job and becoming a full-time writer without a "day job." During the following years, Lenny had eighty-three (you read that right--eighty-three!) novels released by major publishers--all under pen names.

Photo by Ray Block in his photography
studio. The hat, gun, and unlit cigarette are
all props, creating an image indicative of
what Lenny was writing at the time.
Some of Lenny's books include:  The Apache War Series, six as Frank Burleson; The Pecos Kid Series, six as Frank Bodine; The Rat Bastards Series, sixteen as John Mackie; The Sergeant Series, nine as Gordon Davis, as well as other series and standalones -- all published under pen names.

Now in his eighties, the man of many names and faces refers to himself as "the crazy old dude."  In the past twelve months, this dude's published novels have increased to eighty-six, and many previous works are now available as e-books.

Throughout his career, Lenny was acclaimed under twenty-two pseudonyms as an excellent writer who takes his readers through adventures with such characters as cops, cowboys and soldiers. What's different about these three new books?

They're released under Lenny's real name.



The three new books released recently are: Cobra Woman, Web of Doom, and Grip of Death.  I reviewed Cobra Woman and Web of Doom on Amazon.  When I told Levinson I planned to read the re-release of The Last Buffoon next, he said that I might not like it because it's "raunchy, really raunchy." I replied that a review I'd found said, "The Last Buffoon" is the funniest thing I've ever read." Guess what Len Levinson book I'm now reading.

Levinson says, "That's me during my
younger days, standing in a trash barrel in
Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village, New York City."
Photo by S. H. Linden, around 1971.


Photo of Len Levinson standing beside a portrait of himself
 by Ari Roussimoff. Yes, Roussimoff  painted Levinson with
two sets of eyes. Levinson and Roussimoff were neighbors
in the Hell's Kitchen section of New York. To see more of
Roussimoff's work, check him out at roussimoff.com.

Researching Len Levinson, I learned a lot about him even before I began asking him questions.Some of the things he loves are evident.  In addition to people (he has grandchildren), it's obvious that Len Levinson loves New York City, art museums, beautiful women, and music. He's a familiar figure at blues festivals in the Chicago area--probably the only bopping dude in his eighties.


Levinson's FaceBook pages feature pictures of
him "bopping" at numerous festivals.

A real Man of Many Names and Faces -- the real face of my friend
 Lenny, AKA Len Levinson in 2019.

Until we meet again, please take care of … YOU!

14 July 2019

Undercover: Covert Work of Consular Officials



by Mary Fernando

If you’re on vacation and get arrested and thrown into a foreign jail, how do you get word out about your situation and how do you get released?

There are stories in the news about attempts by governments to get their nationals back home - with more or less success. We usually hear Prime Ministers or Presidents discussing the progress of these cases. 


The names you will never hear in the news are the names of the people who will be informed of your arrest, arrange visits to ensure you are well treated and, often, will broker you release. These people are consular officials.

I had the privilege of interviewing one of these individuals – an experienced consular official who has worked internationally. Since her name is unknown to most people except those who work with her, I’ll call her Undercover. Many of Undercover’s stories – told over a leisurely dinner – can’t be shared. The details can be recognized and many are secret.

Undercover pointed me to a document, The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, that is a multilateral treaty that codifies consular rights and obligations and is the cornerstone of consular relations. “The treaty makes it possible for [your country] to assist its nationals abroad while respecting the sovereignty of other countries”

Undercover points out that “You are subjected to the local laws in foreign countries.” This is a statement that one should not take lightly. The laws in foreign countries may be quite unexpected.

Take Singapore for example:

“Tourists that visit Singapore are allowed to bring chewing gum with them, but only a maximum of two packs per person. Any more than that and they will be susceptible to be charged with "gum smuggling" which carries the penalty of one year in jail and $5,500 fine. People that are caught with leaving chewing gum remains in the public space can be charged with the monetary fine, community work, or often - public beating with the bamboo stick.”

So, what happens when someone is arrested in a foreign country, when they may not even be aware of the local laws? “When a foreign national is arrested in a country, the country that detains them has to inform the embassy and request consular access. If there is no embassy, they have to inform an accredited embassy in the region.”

“Someone in the region has to start the process of consular access.” This is to verify the nationality of person and to determine whether the person is being treated properly and it is no small matter. We have heard of detainees in foreign countries who have been tortured and raped, so, consular access - and the knowledge that these people will be visited and watched over, is important protection for them. This access can be daily, weekly or monthly.

How is someone’s release negotiated? This is negotiated by consular officials, often based on relationships, with police and the officials of the host country. Many times the consular official will point out how this will cause bad publicity and it would be preferable to have the person released into their custody.

“Sometimes it is just saying ‘This is not a bad kid, let’s get this person out of your country’,” says Undercover. “Sometimes, there is another dimension to the crimes committed and the authorities are angry. In some countries, someone may be arrested for the human rights work they are doing but they are held onto because they are angry the person is gay.”

“A country can also take someone into custody on spurious charges like espionage, but they are using this person to achieve some political end. This could even be to get their companies considered for contracts.” Or to make a political point.

Lack of consular access and consular negotiations can be extremely dangerous. Take the case of Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old student who was arrested in 2016 in North Korea for taking a poster from his hotel room and sentenced to 15 years of hard labour. After 17 months, he was medically evacuated from North Korea and returned home “in a state of unresponsive wakefulness” and died within a week.

So, when we travel, what keeps us safe, what saves us at the worst of times, is so often laws – in this case international laws. But it is the also personal relationships and contacts consular officials have in the host countries that are crucial. Without these personal connections on the ground, more travellers would spend more time in difficult situations. The people who find us and keep us safe and often negotiate our release are people whose names the public will never know.

After our long dinner hearing Undercover’s stories, I was left pondering how these consular officials and their often covert work has the making of a great novel. I was also left wishing that I could share some of the stories I heard. I hope one day these stories are written.

13 July 2019

A Morning in Conan Doyle Land

by Stephen Ross

I woke up on Saturday morning not feeling well (this was a month ago, I'm all better). I was resting on the sofa and doing the swipe through Netflix's recently added and currently trending lists, looking for something new and interesting to amuse, entertain, maybe even enlighten. Finding nothing that "grabbed" me, I moved over to Amazon Prime. Flicking down through the rows, I passed the children's section, and a title in that row reached out and took hold.

A Study in Scarlet. 

An animated telling of a Sherlock Holmes tale? For kids!? Seriously?!? I selected the program and let it start playing, the cynic in me chortling, this will be good for a laugh. I went in with zero expectations; in fact, minus expectations. I expected Dr. Watson to be played by Scooby Doo.


The opening shot is a moonlit set of rooftops; a dark and stormy night in Victorian London. A police constable is on the street, patrolling with a lamp. He winds up on the Brixton Road. He's joined by another bobby. There's a light on in an empty house. They enter. In a dilapidated drawing room, there's a dead body of an elderly gentleman on the floor.

Two and a half minutes in, and I'm thinking, this ain't too bad. The animation isn't going to win any awards, but the storytelling seems to be faithful to the source, and it has mood and atmosphere.
The opening credits started, and I was about to turn the thing off, when the following credit appeared: "With Peter O'Toole as Sherlock Holmes." That got my undivided attention. Naturally, I let the program keep playing. I could happily listen to Peter O'Toole read aloud from the phone directory, or recite the Periodic Table (have I mentioned My Favorite Year is one of my favorite movies?). I had no idea he had ever played Holmes. 

For the next 50 minutes, I was away (once again, happily) in Conan Doyle land. The program did indeed prove to be a reasonably faithful telling of the story, Watson was not played by an exuberant Great Dane, and nothing in the story's telling was "watered down" or "rendered appropriate" in any way for children; my biggest fear while watching.

And it's funny, when you think about it: an adult tale of murder, forced marriage (i.e., rape), revenge, and justice filed away for children's viewing pleasure alongside the likes of Anne of Green Gables, the Cat in the Hat, and Spongebob. I presume this was because it was animated. There persists (in some minds) that quaint notion that if something is animated, it must be for kids, that all animations are simply "cartoons" and should be dropped into the "Kids and family TV" box. (I gleefully await the addition of Fritz the Cat.) Had the exact same script of A Study in Scarlet been filmed as a live action drama, then it would have gone straight into the adult drama box. No questions asked.

But I'm glad it did, one way or another, wind up in front of kids. They seem to get so much rubbish in their TV diet. Let them find this quiet little doorway into the world of grownup mystery fiction.

Peter O'Toole did four Holmes animated stories. They were all made in 1983, they're all 50 minutes long (with the exception of Baskerville, 70 minutes), and they're all on Amazon Prime (here in NZ, at least).
  • A Study in Scarlet 
  • The Baskerville Curse 
  • The Sign of Four
  • Valley of Fear
I've watched all of them. And as I said, there's nothing overtly special about the animation. The specialness of the telling lies in the stories themselves, and in this instance, the actor playing Sherlock Holmes (not that the films' imagery bears any resemblance to the man). If it's a wet Saturday morning, and you're unwell, I can recommend this medication.






stephenross.live/
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instagram.com/__stephenross/

12 July 2019

Weed Meets Greed in Matt Phillips' Countdown + Interview

by Lawrence Maddox

Prop 64 Noir?
In 2016 many saw the passing of Proposition 64, which finally legalized the recreational use of marijuana, as the dawning of a new day in California. It seems like ancient history when Robert Mitchum saw jail time for toking a little Mary Jane in Laurel Canyon, but consider this: in 2003 Tommy Chong was sentenced to nine months in jail for selling bongs through his California company Nice Dreams. Prop 64 reflected how the Golden State had, at long last, mellowed out about getting high.

The full force of the new law didn't happen until last year, when legal sales for non-medical use were allowed. Licenses for dispensaries were granted. Everything was supposed to be chill for those in the bud business.

All that went up in smoke when the harsh reality of local, state and federal taxes hit legal dispensaries. According to a McClatchy article, between state and local taxes, weed could be taxed up to 45 percent. The IRS has gone after state-legal dispensaries for a tax rate of up to 70 percent.

The result hasn't been the well-regulated pot industry Californians voted for. Instead, illegal underground marijuana dispensaries are everywhere in California.  According to the Los Angeles Times, more than 200 illegal marijuana businesses operate in Los Angeles alone. Illegal dispensaries are attractive because their untaxed kush is up to 50 percent cheaper than what you'd buy from a licensed dealer. What becomes of all that untaxed ill-gotten revenue?

Matt Phillips' Countdown (All Due Respect), a timely, gritty tale of weed and greed, is the first novel (Please correct me with other titles if I'm wrong!) of what I'll call Prop 64 Noir. It takes the plight of underground dispensaries with a lot of illegal cash-on-hand and chases it to a bloody and riveting conclusion.

Donny Zeus Echo and Abbicus Glanson are two ex-soldiers, tweaked by their violent combat experience in "Eye-Rack," trying to make their way in a seedy San Diego that has literally gone to pot. Jessie Jessup is a transplanted Texan who uses aquaponics –"that's right, fucking fish"–to grow some righteous weed. LaDon Charles is her unlicensed dispensary's muscle, providing street smarts and neighborhood connections.

With dispensary robberies on the rise and forced to keep their black market money from the prying eyes of the I.R.S. Jessie and LaDon turn to Abel Sendich, another vet. Abel runs a one-man security operation that stashes illegal cash under lock-and-key, safe from the I.R.S. and armed robbers. When Sendich and Glanson bond over their military background after a chance encounter, Sendich recruits Glanson to help him in his faux Fort Knox operation. Glanson has other plans, and his former "battle buddy" Echo is only too glad to help. When LaDon suspects that Glanson and Echo are targeting Jessie's shop, a suspenseful countdown to mayhem begins.

Though Countdown marches to its inexorably violent end, Phillips takes time with his characters. Jessie pursues a crush. LaDon plays a cat-and-mouse game with a pimp. Glanson agonizes over a physical trait that dooms his chances at romance. Echo, suffering from PTSD, unravels. You get to know Phillips' characters so well, you almost feel sorry for them when the bad things start to happen.

Phillip's San Diego isn't the sunny, upscale enclave it's often portrayed as. It's not the San Diego of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. It's a pit filled with mini-malls, dive bars, and shabby apartment complexes.  Iraq vets at loose ends roam strip joints, pimps run hookers. Marijuana is the drug of the moment, but heavy drinking is the order of the day. Like the weed and booze, the money is a means to one end: escape. Countdown is a sunny SoCal postcard in negative; an invitation to get out of the Golden State before the good times turn deadly.

Author Matt Phillips
Lawrence Maddox: Countdown is the first crime novel I've read that tackles the failure of Prop 64 to fully regulate California's marijuana dispensaries, which were licensed last year. I'm officially naming it Prop 64 Noir, and you may have invented it! How did you jump on this in such a timely way?

Matt Phillips: Prop 64 Noir-I freaking love it! It's about time somebody created a new genre. I agree with you that Prop 64 has failed in some ways. There's no doubt this legislation has failed when it comes to fair "regulation." Lot's of small growers are losing out to corporate folks.  And, yeah, that means growers and sellers are forced to stay in or resort to the black market. Another paradox is that now I can stroll into a dispensary and buy whatever I want.  Tell the truth: I kind of miss the mystery of texting a guy I slightly know to get in touch with a hookup he slightly knows for a dime bag of weed. I think they call that nostalgia.

Anyhow, I was interested in the money behind the herb. If these growers, sellers, etc, can't put it in a bank, what do they do with it? After speaking with some law enforcement folks I know, I had a pretty solid idea for a great story. That's how Countdown began for me.

Beyond that, right near where I live in San Diego–a pretty hip neighborhood–an illegal dispensary was raided and shuttered. That pretty much solidified the idea for me. I just ran with it.

Speaking of Prop 64 noir, check out the novel 101 by Tom Pitts. He did Prop 64 Noir before I did.

LM: I highly recommend Pitts' 101 too. 101 depicts the weed biz before Prop 64, though.  Your book deals with the aftermath of 64. Countdown is about the illegal dispensaries, the need to hide the money, the tax burden that forces the sellers underground. 







A crime novelist in the making. Matt Phillips training to be a journalist at
North Carolina Central University.
How much does your journalism background influence your crime fiction?

MP: The biggest way journalism has impacted my fiction is through dialog. There is no substitute for listening to people speak and trying to write it down as they say it. That helps a writer learn the shape of a person's speech. It means getting into rhythm and cadences and the musicality of speech. Dialog, to me, is about capturing language.

From a weed-perspective (Been waiting for that one!), I wrote a story for the food section in The Denver Post a few years back. I interviewed a chef who makes cannabis edibles. The whole idea was to treat cannabis like any other ingredient. We published a recipe and everything. Gave it the regular food writing treatment. The story got a lot of pushback from readers, but the editors defended it heartily and it got me interested in marijuana as something natural that–and I'm being blunt here–has a major impact on the power dynamics in our society.

Make no mistake, what we're seeing with marijuana now is still about power. Who will own this "thing" that everybody wants (and some people need)? Who gets the profits? Who calls the shots? And even worse:If we can't put a bunch of people in jail for using it, how the hell can we make money off it? That's pretty much the way things are, though I've purposely avoided the nuances here.

LM: San Diego used to be considered LA's sunnier, better-behaved sibling. You vividly depict it as a pit. What's going on with San Diego?
"No awesome surfing to be seen here."
San Diego's Pacific Beach

MP: Ha! Maybe I'm just trying to lower housing prices, right?  "San Diego is the absolute worst! Close your eyes if you see our tourism commercials on your TV! Stay in the midwest! DO NOT VISIT! Stand-up paddle boarding sucks. So does surfing. You do not want to catch a giant tuna! We do not have as many palm trees as you think! The beer is not great!"

Okay, fine. Truth be told, San Diego is exactly what you describe. More sun. More chill. More fun, for chrissakes. We've even got more beer. But like any American city, we've got our gutter punks and our hookers and our pimps and our drug addictions.

I'm writing noir, not a tourist commercial or a convention proposal. I need to find what's really out there...And pass it along to thee.

Important note: I love that I can "vividly depict" my home city as a pit. I'm sure those fine scholars who make selections for the National Book Awards are well-aware of my excessive accomplishments as a prose stylist.  I await their accolades!

LM: Do you think California will ever be able to regulate marijuana sales? There are around 200 illegal dispensaries in LA alone. I drive by many of them daily.
I like to take pictures of dispensaries that have the same names as
people I know. Grace got a kick out of this one.
Grace Marijuana Pharmacy, totally legit, located in
Santa Monica.

MP: Simple Answer–no. This is something I could grow in my house. And I could do it well. Marijuana is more than a product.  It's a cultural object that carries with it lore beyond what can be bottled by some shit-ass corporation. I remember a drifter I met while working at TGIFriday's. He worked with me about a week. Crappy busboy. But he had a tiny cedar box wrapped in a purple ribbon. He kept his weed inside with a small pipe. He talked about how it wasn't the high that drew him into weed, but the pleasure of its secrecy and subculture and "funny little conversations." Not exactly sure what he meant, but how do you regulate that?

Talking about those illegal dispensaries: The first thing that needs to happen is the federal government needs to remove its tweed sweater vest and put on a freaking t-shirt. Legalize it. It'll be like the craft beer industry. People flying to cities and taking weed tours.  It'll solve some money problems and it'll make life more simple. After that, I think cities and towns need to make sensical regulations about where and how a dispensary can operate.  The fees need to be akin to any other upstart business fees. Make sure every operation is up to health and quality standards and tax them based on revenue. I'm not an economist, but it seems like common sense is part of the answer here.

LM: What's next for Matt Philips?

I have a new noir novel slated with Fahrenheit 13, the rebels who published my noir novel Know Me from Smoke. The new one is called You Must Have a Death Wish and follows one of the characters I introduce in Countdown. No solid news on a publication date, but that's on the horizon. I've got a brutal PI novel written and I need to put on the finishing touches. That'll be a series (I think) and I have the second novel underway to about 20,000 words.

What else? A small town noir novella nearly finished for a super-secret project plus I'm banging away at a short story collection. And the day job, right? My production has slowed over the last year with some day job stuff, but I keep plugging away at my stories. Fingers crossed that people like them...

Matt Phillips is the author of numerous crime novels, including Accidental Outlaws and Know Me From Smoke.  I highly recommend Chris Rhatigan's interview of Matt Phillips at ADR Interview w/ Matt Phillips . For more Matt Phillips, check out MattPhillipsWriter.com.



As for me, I'm currently writing my sequel to Fast Bang Booze. On a related note, know of anyone in the LA area good at recovering lost data from busted hard drives? More to follow.

If you have any cool photos of dispensaries with funny names that you'd like to share, tweet em my way at LawrenceMaddox@Madxbooks. 










11 July 2019

The Long Overdue Revenge of the Customer Service Representative

by Brian Thornton

Aloha from Maui!

Every time I've driven past the signs for Kihei in the past week, I've thought of old pal and fellow Sleuthsayer R.T. Lawton, and his better half, Kiti. (And they know why!).

As I sail toward the end of the first real vacation my family has taken in years, my thoughts have been on an amazing and amusing thing that happened to me during the final week of the school year a couple of weeks back.

One of my students (hard-working, charismatic, a real leader, just a fine young lady) informed me that her mother works for the credit union where I and my family do most of our banking. "Oh," I think to myself, "Small world."

Turns out there was more.

"My mom finally remembered where she recognized your name from," this amazing kid went on.

"From the credit union?" I said, still not quite getting it.

"Yep. She sees your name quite a bit there."

These are vacation pics and having nothing to do with this post: that's the island of Kaho'olawe across the bay.
Casting back in my memory to try to recall whether I had any recent NSF fees (Hey–no judgement. Most of us have been there at one time or another, after all.), I asked, "What does your mom do at XXXX Credit Union (Not its real name)?"

"She's Quality Control for Customer Service."

This information sends my thoughts in a new direction. Have I complained about the service I've received lately? Nope. Does that mean someone's complained about me? Is that even a thing customer service folks even do?

I asked myself this last question because a few decades back, I was one of those people working in a variety of entry-level customer service jobs. It was some of the hardest and least rewarding work I've ever done. I worked in food, in hospitality, in transportation, all while working my way through college so that I could embark on a different–yet–not–all–that–different type of customer service: teaching.


Back in those days (and we're talking the early '90s here) one customer complaint could mean the end of your employment (I didn't have a union job until I started teaching, everywhere I worked was a one-counseling session and you're fired kind of place.). I know this because at least once I got fired because of a customer complaint.

Well, that and the fact that the guy who fired me (someone who really put the "ass" in "assistant manager.") was a real piece of work.

But that's another story.

These and other memories were washing over me during my conversation with that awesome student of mine. So I said: "Quality Control, huh? She fields complaints, things like that?"

"Yep," Awesome Kid (not her real name, but it might as well be) said.

"Does she like her job?"

"She does. And she likes you."

I cudgel my brain trying to recall whether I've ever met Awesome Kid's mom. Nope. I'm pretty sure I'd remember. She didn't come to conferences, and I didn't see her at Open House. So that surprises me.

"She likes me?" I ask, all intelligence and awareness, now.

"Yes. You're one of the highest-rated customers they have."

I blink at her, not comprehending. "They rate customers?"

She nods. "And the customer service reps all really love you. You get high marks all the time and you're near the top of their list."

And just like that, with this small kindness, Awesome Kid made my year.

The island of Lana'i (left) and the West Maui Mountains (right) framing a spectacular sunset

My early experiences with the downside of customer service (being the one to catch the irate call, or get someone's order wrong, or commit one of thousand small errors) have informed my interactions with the people who work in those positions ever since my own days in customer service, lo those many moons ago.

In the years since I've striven to be patient, to be polite. To be courteous and respectful, even when I'm pretty pissed off about something.

Because, nine times out of ten, it's not the fault of the person I'm talking to. They're there because they picked up the phone, took the chat request, what-have- you.

I've never forgotten what it's like to be on the other end of that call, and I hope I never do.

So it did my heart good to know that customer service reps are getting a chance to rate their interactions with clients: getting a voice in how that back-and-forth went. Because, hey, it's a hard job. And it usually doesn't pay all that well.

Plus, I gotta admit, I like that someone on the other end of that phone call notices how I try to treat them well.

After all, Couldn't we, each and every one of us, use a little more humanity in our daily interactions?

This is why I've been tipping people left, right and center (something I do religiously anyway) over the last week, and will until we head for home.

Like I said before, it's a tough job, and people don't get paid a whole lot to do it.

And that's all I've got for this go-round. I hope you're all having a wonderful and productive July.

Mahalo, and see you in two weeks!




10 July 2019

Countdown

David Edgerley Gates


So, about this Jeffrey Epstein thing, am I the only one who thinks we're looking at a hand grenade dropped into an overloaded Port-a-Potty? The guy's a child predator, and he bought off a federal prosecution. The explosion of toxic effluent threatens to be enormous. He palled around with Trump, he palled around with Bill Clinton, we've got him in bed with the freakin' House of Windsor. It's a real stinkeroo.

If you don't know the story, it has a familiar flavor. People talked about it for years, guys smiling behind their hands. Common knowledge. The local cops in Palm Beach began pursuing the case in 2005, and turned it over to the FBI a year later. The year after that, the U.S. Attorney for Miami worked up an indictment, but the Feds got cold feet, and decided against taking it to trial. They let the guy plead down.

This is where it begins to unravel. The deal the U.S. Attorney made with Epstein's lawyers was to allow him to plead to lesser charges in Florida state court, but the non-prosecution agreement required victim notification - in other words, give the victims an opportunity to air their grievances - and that didn't happen until after the deal was already signed, sealed, and delivered. Just this year, a federal judge ruled Epstein's NPA violated the law.

The case now unfolding is being brought by the Southern District of New York, specifically by the Public Corruption Unit, which may signal a willingness to investigate the plea deal as well as the underlying crimes. If they max Epstein out, he could draw forty-five years. He's 66. You do the math.

The obvious question here is whether Epstein will make a bid for leniency by pretending contrition, and ratting out the list of names he pimped underage girls to. Leaving aside the fact that he's almost certainly a sociopath, and without remorse, I'm guessing it's long odds he'd live long enough to name names. He'll do the time.

The other side of the same question is of course Epstein's protection. Who was it, and how long did they cover for him? Let's face it, this is something we're never going to find out. It's in plain view, over on the Grassy Knoll.

09 July 2019

Plot, Not Snot!

by Barb Goffman

Realism. It's something authors strive for and readers look for. If I see something in a book that seems completely unrealistic, it may make me stop reading. And while readers will often suspend their disbelief for a good story, it behooves authors not to push readers too far.

So when I see an author striving to get the details right, I'm pleased. But allow me to let you in on a little secret ... it's possible to go too far.

Yep. There are certain things I don't want to read about, especially in detail. Here are some:

  • Snot. Yes, in crime fiction, you may have characters who cry. And yes, in real life, there may be snot associated with that crying. But I don't want to read about it. It's gross. So if it's not necessary to the plot (and really, when was the last time snot was necessary to the plot?), cut it. Please! 
    Showing tissues, good. Snot, bad.
  •  Vomit. Sure, sometimes the contents of a character's stomach may rise. Saying that bile entered someone's throat can be a good way to show a character's reaction to a disgusting situation. Even saying a person threw up can be okay. But showing the vomit leaving the body in graphic detail, nope, nope, nope. Don't do it. Please!
  • Farting. Another thing that happens in real life that I don't want to read about unless you can make it germane to the plot. Good luck with that one.
  • Using the toilet. Yes, we all do it. And sure, if you want to mention someone went to the restroom, go for it. People can talk privately in restrooms. They can wash their faces while contemplating the horrible thing they just witnessed. And they can go in there to take care of bodily functions. All fine. But when that stall door closes, the reader in me begs you to fade to black. I don't need to know the details about what goes on in there. Please, please, please.
  •  Phlegm. Similar to vomit. Yes, it happens. Nope, don't want to see it.
I'm told that these rules don't apply to fiction aimed at children. That kids love books that talk in detail about bodily functions. Not having been a child in a long time, I will have to accept that premise as true. But I'm interested in hearing from readers with kids on this matter. Do your kids like reading about all this disgusting stuff? Is there an age at which it ceases to be something fun and turns into something gross? And is there a difference between boys and girls on this matter?

Okay, readers, weigh in please. Have I missed anything? What do you not want to read about in graphic detail on the page? Tell me what is snot necessary for you. 

08 July 2019

Why I Write

by Steve Liskow

Today, I'm following a trend started by Michael Bracken, R.T., and O'Neil.

Writing is something I've done for so long that I can't imagine not doing it. Restructuring my life without it would be like a dancer having to reinvent himself after losing both legs.

The previous generation of my family included several teachers and two journalists, then called "reporters." My sister and I are the two youngest of eleven first cousins, seven of whom taught at one time or another (One was a principal and another was a superintendent), three of whom were involved in theater, and two of whom became attorneys.

Adults read to us constantly from the time we could sit upright in their laps. My sister and I both read at a fourth-or-fifth-grade level when we entered kindergarten, and I assume our cousins did, too.

When I was ten, the Mickey Mouse Club presented their first serialization of The Hardy Boys, and over the next year, I read every existing book in the series. Naturally, I tried to copy them myself, both sides of a wide-ruled notebook page per chapter, ending with the hero getting hit over the head or a flaming car soaring over the cliff. My mother, who worked as a secretary for the Red Cross during World War II, typed a couple of my stories out, and seeing my word in print gave me a thrill that never went away.

I slowed down in high school and college, but I never really stopped writing. In grad school, I took an American short story class that brought back the urge. Between 1972 and 1981, I taught high school English, earned my Masters and C.A.S (sixth-year) from Wesleyan, worked part-time as a photographer...and wrote five unpublished novels. Then I drifted into theater, where I acted, directed, produced, designed lights and/or sound and helped build sets for over 100 productions between 1982 and 2010. My third grad degree is in theater.
Upper Right, me as the crazy father

 I retired from teaching in 2003, and the theater where I did most of my work lost its performance space a week later. I wanted to revise one of the books I'd never been able to sell, and now I had time to learn to do it right. I read books on craft, attended workshops, and asked questions. Three years and 350 rejections later, I sold my first short story. Four more years and 250 more rejections, and I sold my first novel. Since then five short stories (including that first one) have short-listed for the Al Blanchard Award. I've won Honorable Mention three times, but never won. Two other stories won the Black Orchid Novella Award (Rob Lopresti has also won), and one story, the ONLY story that was accepted the first place I sent it, was nominated for an Edgar.

Linda Landrigan on the left, Jane Cleland on the right. Second Black Orchid

As I write this, most of the other bloggers on this site sell more short stories in a slow year than I have even written in my life. My acceptance rate hovers around seven percent and I have eight stories still floating from market to market looking for a home. My fifteen novel (All self-published since the first one became a terrible experience) will appear late this year or early next year.

Since 2007, when my first story appeared in print, my writing enterprises have been in the black three times, and the largest amount was about a hundred dollars. If I stopped writing today, it wouldn't affect my income or my standard of living.

My quality of life, though, well, that's a different issue.

I was a shy kid. Even though I could play baseball and football and basketball fairly well and had a bike like the other kids, I always felt a little bit outside the group. The writing gave me a retreat that was safe. So did music. I studied violin in firth grade (I really wanted to play piano) and picked up a guitar when the Beatles invaded. I played bass in a fortunately forgotten band in college. I recently started teaching myself piano all these years later, and music appears in many of my stories. Theater shows up occasionally.
One of my last directing gigs

The book I finally got right. 
I don't write for the money or for the recognition. I write because I still like the furniture in my little interior retreat. I love how it feels to send out a story when I know it's the best I can make it. That doesn't mean it will sell. A story I think is one of my very best has 19 rejections and no other appropriate market on the horizon. Another one I love has 15.

So what?

Would I like to make more money writing? Sure. I'd also like to play piano and guitar better, be twenty years younger knowing what I know now, and lose 15 pounds.

But I'll settle for this.

07 July 2019

Murder Mystery – Spare Me

by Leigh Lundin

Thanks to a couple of friends, I’ve been indulging in one of John Floyd’s favorite passions– NetFlix. How could I resist a movie called Murder Mystery? How could I not document it for SleuthSayers?

Murder Mystery: Jennifer Aniston, Adam Sandler
Murder Mystery: Jennifer Aniston, Adam Sandler
The Premise

A marriage-worn New York couple finds their relationship  declining and disintegrating if not quite out. Thus starts the film on a squirmingly uncomfortable note. He’s an NYPD street cop who keeps failing the detective exam and lies about it to his wife. She’s a beautician who casually derides her husband. Then in a whiplash moment, he abruptly takes her on a long-promised trip to Europe.

Part of the ersatz humor comes from the stereotypical bumbling of uncouth Americans staggering around foreign countries. He’s the Cleveland jacket type, the working man who only dresses up for temple or church or mosque with his favorite colorful plaid or checked sports coat. Naturally they wear their Sunday best to Europe. Except those moments when Sandler chooses to wear sloppy clothes to dinner.

They bump into the fabulously wealthy set, whereupon death, destruction, and tired hilarity ensue. Solving the crime and saving their own asses bring them closer together, whereupon kissy-face romance re-ignites. More scripted hilarity ensues.

Emergency! Emergency! Kissing Coach to the set!

For a film rife with yachts, planes, trains, and automobiles, it’s awfully pedestrian. The real mystery is why a catatonic Adam Sandler murdered the movie. My least favorite SNL comic, he seemed to come into his own in movies, often silly, but he proved he could seriously act in Spanglish.

Unfortunately, he brought none of the warmth he’s capable of to Murder Mystery. His chemistry with his costar registered at the low end of the Kelvin scale. Dude, if you’re going to be kissing Jennifer Aniston, put some damn effort in it. Sheesh. Act like you might possibly maybe under the right circumstances kinda sorta enjoy it.

Wait. Back up a moment.

This movie is so sloppy, anyone with a passing familiarity of Europe’s cities and airports will quickly realize the movie is riddled with impossible geographic errors. Málaga is not in Italy; Milano is not in Monaco, and… How did they get to Montreal? In all these places, people drive on the right in left-hand-drive cars, same as North America. The embarrassing question enquiring minds want to know:
  • Were the filmmakers too stupid to notice?
  • Did they think Americans too stupid to notice?
The Abbott and Costello School of Motoring

Speaking of cars, we’re asked to leap a huge chasm of disbelief– that New Yorkers who’ve spent a lifetime not driving and have never seen a clutch or stick shift can suddenly pilot a Ferrari Testarossa left manual 7-speed gear shift at high speeds. R-i-i-i-i-ght, as Bill Cosby might intone.

Author’s Saturday shopping car, disbelief suspension

If You Can’t Say Anything Nice…

That said, two jots of humor bear mention. Sandler’s character is a terrible pistol marksman but, channeling Goldfinger’s Oddjob, he unleashes his deadly accurate frisbee arm. Viewers brace for timid, tentative tee-hee.

The Tourist: Angelina Jolie
The Tourist: Angelina Jolie
The single funny moment in this one-hundred crawlingly long minute ‘comedy’ brings the chase scene to a close, a visual joke. Actual chuckles ensue.

The final scene brings us back to the nearly forgotten title in a faint nod to Agatha Christie. Promoters are talking about a sequel, Murder Mystery II. Is this final scene where it starts?

Start to finish, the movie plays like a Pink Panther episode on valium. If you want to see how an American on the run in Europe film should be made, visit The Tourist (2010). It combines a Hitchcock flair with a stunning Angelina Jolie who seems to grow more beautiful with the years.

Murder Mystery 👎👎
Rating: ★★☆☆☆ ‘meh’

06 July 2019

Apocalypse Soon


by John M. Floyd



One of the first things I learned as a beginning writer was that good stories must have conflict. In fact, the more conflict, the better. Maybe that's the reason I prefer writing mystery/crime stories. When the characters in a story have broken--or are breaking, or are planning to break--the law, one level of conflict is already there. It's built-in. And I need all the help I can get.

The same could be said of stories whose plot involves a countdown of some kind. In that case, the built-in ingredient is suspense. It could take many forms: the timer on a bomb, a deadline set by a killer or kidnapper, a runaway train, an upcoming trial date, a clock ticking down to high noon, etc. Or the relentless approach of something final and terrible--an asteroid, a missile strike, a plague, an alien attack--that will put an end to all of us.

This line of thinking of course led me to all those end-of-the-world movies I've seen, and forced me to--how could I resist?--pick out what I thought were the best and worst. So in case anyone besides me likes this kind of thing (doubtful, I know), I've put together a list of my twelve favorite global-disaster-is-coming films. Sometimes doomsday is averted, sometimes it happens as scheduled. You'll have to watch them to find out; no spoilers in this report.

NOTE: I did not include movies set mostly after an apocalypse--and there are plenty of those: The Road, The Day After, Night of the Comet, War of the Worlds, The Book of Eli, 28 Days Later, Children of Men, The Day After Tomorrow, Zombieland, Waterworld, 2012, Dawn of the Dead, Daybreakers, and so on. Even the Mad Max and Hunger Games-style movies could fit into that post-cataclysm group. Unlike those, the movies in my list are set in the time leading up to the event, and therefore populated with characters in the normal world who must somehow deal with the knowledge of impending doom. They aren't the walking dead, at least not yet. They're just regular folks who are fully functional but soon to be in deep bandini.

Anyway, here's my list of the dozen ultimate-catastrophe movies that I enjoyed most, from silly to serious, from action-packed to slow and thoughtful. I liked them all, but the first ones are my
favorites.



1. Melancholia (2011) -- Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland. Definitely a slow-paced, navel-gazing story. Two sisters try to work out their problems with each other as a newly-discovered planet heads toward a collision with Earth.

2. Deep Impact (1998) -- Morgan Freeman, Tea Leoni, Elijah Wood. This time it's an asteroid on its way to do us in. The President tries to save a select few; the rest are on their own.

3. Fail-Safe (1964) -- Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau. American bombers are en route to Moscow and the Russians are set to retaliate, but the attack was a mistake--and now it can't be stopped.

4. Dr. Strangelove (1964) -- Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden. Sellers plays three different roles, and once again the threat is nuclear holocaust. The only comedy, if you can call it that, in the list.

5. Take Shelter (2011) -- Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain. A young father who has visions of a coming apocalypse takes steps to try to protect his family.

6. The Mist (2007) -- Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden. A group of shoppers huddle inside a supermarket after a botched government experiment unleashes a spreading mist that contains bloodthirsty creatures. One of the better Stephen King adaptations.

7. On the Beach (1959) -- Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire. Most of the world has blown itself up, and the so-far unaffected Australians are now in the path of a deadly and slow-moving (like the plot) cloud of radiation.

8. Miracle Mile (1988) -- Anthony Edwards, Mare Winningham. A young man accidentally hears a phone call telling him nuclear missiles will strike his city in seventy minutes.

9. Seeking a Friend at the End of the World (2012). Steve Carell, Keira Knightley. As another asteroid nears Earth (screenwriters are fond of asteroids), a lonely man goes on a road trip to find his high-school sweetheart.

10. These Final Hours (2013) -- Jessica De Gouw, Nathan Phillips. On the Last Day, an Australian man makes his way across a chaotic town to help a little girl reunite with her father.

11. Last Night (1998) -- Sandra Oh, Don McKellar. With the end of the world six hours away, several unusual people decide to face their fate together.

12. Armageddon (1998) -- Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Billy Bob Thornton. As yet another asteroid (?!?) makes its fiery way toward Earth, NASA recruits a team of misfits to try to save the world.

Runners-up: Independence Day (1996) and The Rapture (1991).




What do you think? Have you seen all, or any, of these? If so, do you agree? Disagree? Do you have any movies to add to the list? (I intentionally left out a few: The Day the Earth Caught Fire, When Worlds Collide, etc.) Do you even like this kind of movie?

If you don't, no worries. It's not the end of the world.