31 July 2019

Today in Mystery History: July 31


by Robert Lopresti

This is the third installment in my occasional stroll through the calendar.  Enjoy.

July 31, 1904.  David Dresser was born on this date.  You probably remember him as Brett Halliday, the creator of Miami private eye Mike Shayne.  His first novel was rejected more than 20 times, but he went on to write 30 books, which were adapted for radio, TV, and a series of movies.  He stopped writing in 1958 but authors labelled "Brett Halliday" went on to write many more books about Shayne.  Until I was researching this I had no idea that the excellent movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was inspired by one of his books.

July 31, 1930.  The Detective Story Magazine Hour began broadcasting on radio today. This is mainly significant because of the show's announcer, a sinister presence played by an actor whose identity was kept firmly hidden.  He was known only as The Shadow and proved so popular that he spawned his own show, a magazine, and tons of novels written by Walter B. Gibson.  Bwaa ha ha!

July 31, 1940.  The British magazine The Sketch published "The Case of the Drunken Socrates" on this date.  It was part of a series of stories about a Czech refugee detective which Eric Ambler wrote while waiting to be drafted into the army. (Notice the title of the book that collected the tales.)  Of course, Ambler was much better known for his espionage thrillers.

July 31, 1948.  The issue of Saturday Evening Post with this date featured the first installment of The D.A. Takes A Chance, the next to last novel Erle Stanley Gardner wrote about district attorney Doug Selby.  Alas, the prosecutor was never as popular as that other lawyer Gardner created, the defense attorney whose clients always turned out to be innocent.

July 31, 1951.  On this date Mr. and Mrs. Rackell came to Nero Wolfe to seek the murderer of their nephew.  "Home to Roost" is probably the high point of Rex Stout's literary attacks on American Communists.  You can find it in his collection Triple Jeopardy.


July 31, 1975.  On this date the movie Bank Shot was released.  It starred George C. Scott in the unlikely role of Donald E. Westlake's hapless burglar John Dortmunder.  (Okay, his name was changed to protect the guilty.)    

 July 31, 1986.  Stanley Ellin died on this date.  He was one of the greatest author's of mystery short stories ever.  If you don't believe me, try "The Specialty of the House," "The Payoff," or "You Can't be a Little Girl All Your Life."

July 31, 2001. This date saw the publication of Nightmare in Shining Armor, part of Tamar Myers' series about a shop called the Den of Antiquity.  I haven't read it, but I'm guessing it's a cozy.

30 July 2019

Living in a Writing Rain Forest


by Barb Goffman

Recently Michael Bracken wrote here on SleuthSayers about living in a writing desert. He doesn't have a lot of authors who live near him in Texas. So he doesn't have author friends he can easily meet up with for lunch or a drink or a plotting session. In response to my comment that a friend once said that here in the Washington, DC, area, you couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting a mystery author, Michael said:

"I often wonder, Barb, how much being part of a thriving writing community or being in a writing desert impacts how our writing and our writing career develops. I sometimes think that if I moved somewhere where one can't swing a dead cat without hitting a mystery writer I might get too excited. I'd have too much fun being a writer and not enough time actually writing."

Well, I'm here today to say that I know with certainty that if I were living in a writing desert instead of the opposite (which I'm guessing is a writing rain forest--all that water, right?) I would not be writing these words on this blog, and I wouldn't be writing fiction at all.
A real rain forest

I remember when I first got the hankering to try to write crime fiction. It was in my first or second year of law school, and I had an idea for a book. I thought I would start writing it in my spare time (ha!), perhaps over the summer. But summer came and went, as did the rest of law school and my first year of practice as an attorney. And guess what? I didn't write that book. Not even one page. 

One day I was thinking about the book. I wanted to write it, but three years (or so) had passed. Why hadn't I started writing? And I realized it was because I didn't know how to write a book. Legal briefs and memoranda, yes, those I knew how to write. Newspaper articles, yes, I could write those too. (I was a reporter before I went to law school.) But I wasn't trained in writing fiction. It was a mystery to me. (Ha again.) I knew there were rules I didn't know. I couldn't imagine how to start. Looking back, I realize I could have bought any number of how-to books, but I didn't. Instead, I decided that I didn't know how to write fiction, so I should just give up that dream.

But the dream wouldn't give up on me. Perhaps a week later, I saw an ad for an eight-week course starting in just a few weeks at a place called The Writers Center in Bethesda, Maryland. They were offering an introductory course on writing a mystery novel. The class would be on Saturday mornings, which fit into my schedule. The Writers Center was just a mile from my apartment. And I could afford the course. It was like fate was calling to me, "Don't give up!" 

So I signed up for the course, and here I am, nearly two decades later, with 32 crime short stories published, four more accepted and awaiting publication, wins for the Agatha, Macavity, and Silver Falchion awards under my belt, as well as 27 nominations for national crime-writing awards. As for that first book, the one that prompted all of this ... I stopped writing it after chapter 12 or so. But I wrote another novel after it, and that one I finished. It sits in a drawer, awaiting one last polish. I may get to it someday ... or not because I've realized I love short stories, and when I get time to write, that's what I want to work on. So I do.

I never would have learned all of that and done all of that and accomplished all of that if I had been living in a writing desert. Without that first class at The Writers Center, I wouldn't have started writing fiction. I also wouldn't have been introduced to Sisters in Crime, specifically to members of the Chesapeake Chapter. I wouldn't have heard about mystery fan conventions Malice Domestic and Bouchercon. I wouldn't have started writing short stories. (I started down my short-story path because the Chessie Chapter had a call for stories for its anthology Chesapeake Crimes II.) Boiling it all down, if I were living in a writing desert, I wouldn't be me, not the me I've become. I'd probably still be working as an attorney instead of working full-time as a freelance crime fiction editor. (The pay is worse but the work suits me so much more.)

Living in this rain forest also has affected my life in other ways. My closest friends these days are all writers. When I lived in the Reston area, four other mystery authors lived within two miles of me. Other close friends lived less than a half hour away. We would go to lunches and dinners, talk about writing and plotting and life. Now that I live a little farther away, those meals happen a little less frequently, but they still happen. And thanks to Facebook, I'm never far from my writing tribe. It is the modern-day water cooler. I also talk to my pals on the phone regularly. (Yes, I'm a throwback!)

So I am utterly grateful I don't live in a writing desert. I can't imagine who I'd be if I did. And while I hope no one ever actually swings a dead cat my way, if that were the price I'd have to pay, I'd pay it. But who would swing a dead cat anyway? Mystery lovers are animal lovers, and we like our cats--and dogs--alive and slobbery. But that's a blog for another day.
***

And now for a little BSP: I'm delighted to share that a few days ago my story "Bug Appétit" was named a finalist for the Macavity Award for best mystery/crime short story of 2018. And I'm doubly happy to share this Macavity honor with my friend and fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor, along with four other talented writers, Craig Faustus Buck, Leslie Budewitz, Barry Lancet, and Gigi Pandian. The winner will be announced on October 31st during Bouchercon. If you'd like to read "Bug Appétit" it's available on my website here. Or if you'd like to hear me read it to you, you can listen to it here. Once you reach the podcast page, click on my story title (Episode 114). Enjoy!

29 July 2019

From The Seeds of a Writer



by Travis Richardson

Listening to the Mueller hearings a few days ago, I have to wonder how our current world of reality is absolutely crazy and how can fiction match the nuttiness that keeps happening by the hour? I imagine it must be a difficult time to write a current-day political thriller that can keep up with the chaos. In David Edgerly Gates’s piece about Phillip Kerr’s Metropolis, he wrote the line:

“The future of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, as frightening as it is, can't begin to conjure up the waiting chaos, and the terror.”

Which is to say how could Fritz Lang (or anybody) have envisioned the atrocities that lay around the corner by Nazi Germany. We now know with history in hindsight what happened, but how much do we know about what is happening today and the future consequences?

I’m currently writing a story with the premise that Al Gore became the US president in 2000. How much of our world would be the different and how much would be the same today if had occupied the office? We'll never know. My focus is about the 9/11 terrorist attack. While I don’t know if it still would have happened, I’m fairly certain Gore would not have ignored the memo titled "Bin Laden determined to attack inside the U.S.” Doing research (which is an infinite rabbit hole) I see a naïve United States at the turn of the century, fresh from a victory in the Cold War and an Iraqi butt-kicking. Americans (including me) felt invulnerable to anybody and believed that everybody loved their concept of democracy, capitalism, and non-secular government.

Simultaneously radical religious fanatics from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere looked at the state of affairs of their own countries (and perhaps their own personal weaknesses) and blamed the largest, richest country on earth for spreading misery via the above-mentioned qualities that American’s cherish. While one of Osama bin Laden’s biggest beefs against the US was that the non-Muslim infidels kept bases in Saudi Arabia after the first Iraq war, the reality is that America had been a target of hatred by radical sects since the 1950s. 

A large part of this hatred directed at the US started way back in the 1940s when Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian intellectual and future Muslim Brotherhood lead theorist, came to America on a teaching scholarship from his home country. He was appalled at what he saw in America including individualism, women with the power to divorce, mix-sex dancing, and prosperous Jewish Americans. Some of his critiques like institutional racism and a national obsession with materialism have merit, but overall Qutb came to this country with strong prejudices and then he doubled down on his beliefs upon returning to Egypt. He wrote volumes of work, many while in prison awaiting execution for trying to overthrow the Egyptian government. Although he hung in 1966 his writings became the cornerstone of jihadi terrorism for groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS about thirty years later and all the bloodshed that followed.  

All of this is a setup to ask, is there anything currently being planted in our current national discord that will have deadly consequences later? I can’t help but think that the “Deep State” allegations being hustled around by certain media personalities of a certain political persuasion are seeds for future violence. Will these seeds of political gamesmanship lead to a militia-like assault on a government agency and their defenseless employees? Perhaps another Murray building bombing? Maybe this will happen in a year or maybe twenty-plus years from now (or hopefully never).  I can see people believing the lie after being repeated enough to become “truth” compounded with a feeling of victimization that leads to an awful reaction.

Since facts and well-reasoned arguments no longer mtter as each side no longer listens to the other (or so it seems), is there a way to reach out with fiction to change our sideways direction and possibly prevent tragedy? I would hope so, but as Paul Marks mentioned a few days ago, there seem to be fewer readers in the world as a handheld digital obsession of temporal moments has taken hold.  Yet, I hold hope that there may be something that can reverse this trajectory. Something that nobody has figured it out yet. (Perhaps reading will be required by doctors for future mental health purposes.) I also hope for a unifying, zeitgeisty story(ies) that can penetrate through the noise and make a resonating, cross-generational impact on the world. Works like Les Miserables, 1984, To Kill A Mockingbird, On The Road, or “The Lottery” made an impact at their time and are still inspiring readers today. 

Unfortunately, I can't think of any books in the past few decades that are used as cultural reference points. History seems to work in cycles, but not sure how it works with reading. I'm hoping there will be another wave of reading fiction and those stories can net positive outcomes, unlike Qutb's bloody vision theocratic rule. 

What do you think?


(I want to give source credit to The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright as well as Wikipedia, The Guardian and other digital platforms of endless amounts of information.)  


Travis Richardson is originally from Oklahoma and lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter. He has been a finalist and nominee for the Macavity, Anthony, and Derringer short story awards. He has two novellas and his short story collection, BLOODSHOT AND BRUISED, came out in late 2018. He reviewed Anton Chekhov short stories in the public domain at www.chekhovshorts.com. Find more at www.tsrichardson.com


28 July 2019

Finding Your Niche


by R.T. Lawton

When I was chief judge for the Edgars Best Novel Award a few years back, I started to notice how many niche books were out there in the mystery genre. Our panel of judges read approximately 410 novels for that one year, so I would say that makes a fairly good sample of what was selling to publishing houses at the time. Some of those books I'll call craft books because they used knitting, quilting or some other craft as a background for the mystery story to be set in.

Cooking was another setting some authors used. These novels usually contained a recipe or more to enhance the cooking part of the mystery. And there were wine specialty backgrounds, presumably for wine connoisseurs who liked their mysteries consumed with wine. Evidently, for some, there is nothing like selecting the right wine to pair with the latest suspect. Plus, there are mysteries set in pet backgrounds with dogs or cats or birds, and of course horses for those equestrians among us in the mystery reading audience. In the past, I've even seen bird watcher series where deceased humans pile up as birds get watched.

As I recall, none of the niche books scored high enough  with our panel of judges to make it into the Nominee Round, HOWEVER, upon looking at the list of prior books written by some of those authors contending for that year's Edgar, some of those lists ran to ten or twelve published books. I don't know how much money these niche authors were making, but they had found a background category with a large enough readership, that some houses considered those niches profitable enough to keep on publishing in them.

So, where am I going with this thread? Here's my thoughts. If you want to be a published writer and really think you have the writing and marketing skills to produce the next Great American Mystery Novel and sell it to one of the big traditional publishing houses, then go for it. See if you can reach out and grab the gold ring on your turn around on the carousel.

BUT, if for some reason, you don't make the big time--after all, the top of that pyramid is rather small and not a lot of authors will fit up there--and, you still want to be published, then you may want to find yourself a niche of some kind that no one else is currently using. Most of the craft, cooking and pet backgrounds are already taken, so unless you've got a new twist on those categories, I'd suggest finding your own niche in a different category. Find something fresh, something mind-catching, something where a jaded agent or editor can raise their hands and say, "Eureka, an author with a story we can sell!"

Now the hard part. You do realize you are on your own to find your special niche? Personally, I would recommend brainstorming sessions with other writers and possibly some with non-writers who are big readers. Rum and Coke has been known to lubricate the creative process of brainstorming, each to his or her own. And, remember that no idea is totally wrong, it may just need tweaking to make it acceptable. Some ideas may take more tweaking than others.

Here's some of my niche examples. When looking at the historical mystery market in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine,  I found short stories set in ancient Greece, ancient Rome, medieval England, old China, old Japan and the Old West. All well taken by other authors. So, I researched other historical backgrounds with inherent conflict already in place; locations no one else was currently using. One of my series became the Armenian, set in 1850's Chechnya where the Russians had designs on moving into India and Afghanistan.  The Tsars in Moscow fronted off the Cossacks as border guards to fight the Muslim Chechens.  The Cossacks disliked the Russian troops quartered in their homes, while at the same time had much in common with the Chechen culture and standards, the people they were fighting. Over 150 years later, they are still fighting in Chechnya, so every time that area makes the news, I get free advertising. My Shan Army series set in the Golden Triangle with opium warlord rivalries during the time of the Vietnam War became another historical niche, as did my 1660's Paris Underworld series involving an orphan, incompetent pickpocket during the reign of Louis the Fourteenth, the Sun King.

Dave Zeltserman found a new short story niche by creating a new type of private detective sidekick, a miniature processor, named Archie, with the artificial intelligence capabilities of seeing and hearing. The human detective wears Archie as a stickpin on his clothes and uses him to gather clues in his cases. Naturally, since Archie has AI abilities, he tries to guess the solutions to various crimes in competition with his owner's decision as to who did it and why. For all the data available and the processing abilities Archie has, he is usually a mental step or two behind his human counterpart.

Chris Muessig found a couple of niches in AHMM and EQMM. One with his pro wrestling series and secondly with his Jake Miller during World War I series. I am a fan of Jake's journey from training camps on the East Coast to the ship taking troops across the Atlantic to the killing fields of France. There is always a great mystery involved.

Barb Nickless, a novelist, found her niche with her creation of a protagonist working as a railroad detective. When she needed access to a real-life railroad detective in order to do research for her series, I introduced her to one. It must have worked out, because she now has book four under contract. Her Ambush, book 3 is a great read.

All those examples noted above were niches other authors weren't currently using. And, they worked out quite well.

How about you? Any thoughts on the subject? Any niche that is working for you?

Don't be shy. We all love to hear about what worked, and...even what didn't work. As for me, my EZ Money Pawn Shoppe series, my Bookie series,  my 1900's Perfume River series and my 1900's Boer War series failed to make the cut. I'm still looking around for a new niche that piques my interest.


27 July 2019

Themes in Novels (in which Bad Girl discovers she’s not so flaky after all…)


by Melodie Campbell

One of the great discussions in the author world is whether your book should have a theme or not. Of course it’s going to have a plot. (Protagonist with a problem or goal and obstacles to that goal – real obstacles that matter - which are resolved by the end.) But does a book always have a theme?

Usually when we’re talking ‘theme’, we’re putting the story into a more serious category. Margaret Atwood (another Canadian – smile) tells a ripping good story in The Handmaid’s Tale. But readers would agree there is a serious theme underlying it, a warning, in effect.

Now, I write comedies. Crime heists and romantic comedies, most recently. They are meant to be fun and entertaining. So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered recently that all of my books have rather serious themes behind them.

Last Friday, I was interviewed for a CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) mini-documentary featuring female Canadian crime writers. During this, the producer got me talking about the background to my most awarded series, The Goddaughter. This crime caper series is about a mob goddaughter who doesn’t want to be one, but keeps getting dragged back to bail out her inept mob family.

I know what it’s like to be a part of an Italian family that may have had ties to the mob. (In the past. My generation is squeaky clean.) The producer asked me If that informed my writing. Of course it did. But in our discussion, she stopped me when I said: “You are supposed to love and support your family. But what if your family is *this* one?”

Voila. There it was: a theme. All throughout the Goddaughter series, Gina Gallo grapples with this internal struggle.
So then I decided to look at my other books. The B-team is a spin-off from The Goddaughter series. It’s a funny take on The A-team television series. A group of well-meaning vigilantes set out to do good, but as this is comedy, things go awry. In fact, the tag-line is: “They do wrong for all the right reasons…and sometimes it even works.”

Was there a theme behind this premise? Was there a *question asked*? And yes, to me, it was clear.

In The B-Team, I play with the concept: Is it ever all right to do illegal things to right a wrong?

Back up to the beginning. My first series was fantasy. Humorous fantasy, of course. Rowena Through the Wall basically is a spoof of Outlander type books. Rowena falls through a portal into a dark ages world, and has wild and funny adventures. I wrote it strictly to entertain…didn’t I? And yet, the plot revolves around the fact that women are scarce in this time. They’ve been killed off by war. I got the idea from countries where women were scarce due to one-child policies. So what would happen…I mused…if women were scarce? Would they have more power in their communities? Or would the opposite happen. Would they have even less control of their destinies, as I posited?

A very strong, serious theme underlying a noted “hilarious” book. Most readers would never notice it. But some do, and have commented. That gets this old gal very excited.
I’ve come to the conclusion that writers – even comedy writers – strive to say something about our world. Yes, I write to entertain. But the life questions I grapple with find their way into my novels, by way of underlying themes. I’m not into preaching. That’s for non-fiction. But If I work them in well, a reader may not notice there is an author viewpoint behind the work.

Yes, I write to entertain. But I’ve come to the conclusion that behind every novel is an author with something to say. Apparently, I’m not as flaky as I thought.

What about you? Do you look for a theme in novels? Or if a writer, do you find your work conforms to specific themes?



Got teen readers in your family? Here's the latest crime comedy, out this month:

On AMAZON

26 July 2019

Movies 1960-1963


Movies 1960-1963
by
O'Neil De Noux

My father, an army CID Agent, was stationed at Camp Passalaqua, SETAF, Verona, Italy, from 1960 to 1963. We lived off base in the city of Verona –  one of the great experiences of my life. I was 10 when we arrived in Italy and was immediately disappointed there was no American television. No TV for three years. It wound up being one of the best things that happened to me because I read and read and read – children's books, adult fiction, non-fiction. Fell in love with the school library and the post library. I attended Verona American School, Borgo Milano, Verona, and spoke fluent Italian by the time we returned to the states.

I also fell in love with movies. The post theater changed movies every other day and we saw nearly every movie released between mid-1960 and mid-1963. I still think of them as Verona movies. There was no motion picture codes back then - no PG and PG13 ratings. Parents figured out what we could watch, which meant I was not allowed to watch any Alfred Hitchcock movie (Psycho came out in 1960) and any James Bond movie because of the naked women. My father came back from seeing Dr. No and said we could have gone with him, assuring my mother there were no naked women in the film. Just a woman in a bikini. I did get to see some movies with mature themes.

Verona movies. Viewed now, some were good, some bad but we kids loved seeing them all.

I remember ...

This great adventure –




Young, hot Jane Fonda –



Another great war story. Jane Fonda? No. Great beauty Dana Wynter. Smart. Sharp. Kenneth More was dynamite in a subdued role. The scene in the claustrophobic room when they learned HMS HOOD had blown up was riveting –



OK. I was 11 years old and loved this one –



I thought this was the best movie ever made when I saw it as a kid. Still think it's great –



I looked for Sidney Poitier in all subsequent movies. Saw A RAISIN IN THE SUN in 1961 too –



Wow. Great flick. Lee Marvin was such a great bad guy –



Didn't realize I liked musicals until I saw this one –



Scariest werewolf movie I've ever seen. This werewolf was awesome –



Fun. Fun. Fun. Even had Fabian –



The song sold me but hard to take my eyes off Capucine. What? Fabian again?



Did not realize the genius of David Lean yet. The panoramas. Peter O'Toole was fantastic. Omar Sharif was the coolest –



Still don't know what all the fuss was about with this one. Never thought Ann-Margaret was the "young Marilyn Monroe." Wasn't bad but ... I mean the hero was Bobby Rydell –




My parents did not realize the content of this one. It was about our home town. A movie about a "stylish New Orleans brothel" may have been a bit much for kids. Capucine and young Jane Fonda together in this one –



When you're a kid there was JERRY LEWIS. We also saw CINDERFELLA  –



Another mature movie. Natalie Wood was wonderful. Wasn't crazy about pretty boy Warren Beatty –



They kept this one around a while –



Several Elvis movies came around, this was the best. We also had GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS! and BLUE HAWAII –



Glad I saw this when I was a kid. It left a big impression on me –



OK. Had a crush on Hayley Mills after this one –



Love this movie. Great songs. James Dean was the smoothest and got a crush on Deborah Walley.



So many other good movies came to the theater. Others I remember – THE LAST VOYAGE, THE LOST WORD (the one with Claude Rains), WHERE THE BOYS ARE, THE WACKIEST SHIP IN THE ARMY, THE MIRACLE WORKER, THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, THE HORIZONTAL LIEUTENANT, MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (Marlon Brando version), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (Herbert Lom version), IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD, ZOTZ!

That's all for now.
http://www.oneildenoux.com

25 July 2019

That One Time Karen Carpenter Really Cost Me


by Brian Thornton

Two weeks ago I talked about my experiences on both fronts of the customer service industry: as a consumer and as a customer service rep. You can find that post here. In that post I alluded to the time when I worked for "someone who really put the 'ass' in 'assistant manager,'" a real jerk who wound up firing me.

I said then that this was a story for another time.

Well. Now is that time.

Everyone's worked for a lousy boss (or more than one!). It's kind of a rite of passage. Lord knows I've had more than my share.

This was especially true when I was working my way through college and grad school after I got out of the Navy. I worked a series of menial customer service jobs while getting my Master's and my teaching credential.

I remember thinking at the time that at least with these jobs, I could go home after work, and not just go below decks to my berthing (not like you can pull the ship over at night and just send everyone home). So even though these jobs pretty much universally sucked for one reason or another, at least I was a civilian again.

Plus, my final boss in the Navy had been a genuine piece of work. Incompetent, ignorant, and frequently mean, I thought I'd never work for his like again once I got out.

Then I went to work at a music store (look it up, millennials!). Now, this was in 1989, so it wasn't a "record store." They sold pretty much exclusively CDs and cassettes (although by this time cassettes were also on their way out).

This was in December, and I was hired as holiday overstaff help. Turned out I was pretty good at selling music. We had a bonus system which rewarded "suggested sales," where someone would come in looking to get something for a music-loving family (because, you know, Christmas) and need help finding something that family member would like.

Bonuses were handed out weekly, and the first four weeks I worked there, I won every week. This was in large part because I was (and continue to be) interested in and familiar with a wide variety of music. Not just pop and rock, but soul, jazz, funk, classical, even a fair amount of country music (hip-hop not so much. One of the other guys led in that category).

So people would come in looking to get something for their opera-loving grandmother, their country-loving uncle, their jazz-head cousin. And because they didn't share this relative's musical taste, they'd need help finding something that would be a hit as a gift.

I cleaned up. The people I worked with (with the exception of the guy who loved and knew hip-hop) didn't listen as widely as I did (and still do).

Now, the guy I worked for, I'll call him "Dick" (not his real name), was the assistant manager of the store where I worked. The manager was responsible for two different stores, and left the day-to-day management of this particular store to Dick. Dick seemed to relish his semi-independent status. He spent most of his time in the store in the back office doing paperwork, or standing half-way up the stairwell that led to said back office, feet spread, hands behind his back, staring out over the store the way I'd seen a ship's captain staring out over the deckhands scrambling to stations.

Dick and I were the same age, and had even attended the same community college, although our paths had never crossed there. I dropped out and went in the Navy, and he graduated from their music program (Dick was a drummer). I had a lot of musician friends. During the middle of my third week working at this store I happened to ask whether he knew a couple of these musician friends while we were busy stocking shelves.

You know. Just making conversation.

I didn't think much of it at the time, but when I mentioned one particular name (a sax player I'll call "Russ," because that is, in fact, his name), Dick hesitated for just a moment before saying, "Yeah, I know Russ."

A week later, I was stocking shelves in the rear of the store when one of the other sales associates approached me with a middle-aged lady in tow. Dick was in his customary spot on the stairwell, doing his Captain Ahab thing.

"Hey Brian," the other sales guy, whose name escapes me, said. "This lady is looking for the new Carpenters album."

"Karen Carpenter?" I said.

"No," the lady chimed in. "She's dead."

At that point Dick, who had been listening in, pointed in the direction of my head, made a cocking motion with his finger, and made a shooting sound. Both the other sales associate and the customer laughed.

Now, anyone who knows me knows how much I enjoy getting the last word. it doesn't happen all that often, but when it does, I savor it. I had no idea what moved Dick to "shoot me in the head," but I can admit I didn't really much like it. I mean, no one likes being called stupid. Not even stupid people.

So I said, "Yes, she is dead, Been dead since '83. But her brother just released a posthumous collection of her stuff called Karen Carpenter." And with that I reached over to the shelf, pulled down one of the new Karen Carpenter CDs I'd seen there, and handed it to the by-now very pleased middle-aged lady.

And then, because, again, I like getting in the last word, I turned back to Dick, and pointed at him and said, "So *sound of a gun going off here* yourself."

And then I went back to stocking shelves.

I was fired less than twenty minutes later.

The chain I worked for had recently adopted a "one write-up and you're gone" policy. So Dick wrote me up for "insubordination." And while I was still sitting there blinking at him, he told me, with a visible level of pleasure I had not seen from him in the month or so that I'd known him, that, because of their new policy, I was fired.

I was stunned.

So I left. And then I did what I ought to have done the week before.

I called Russ.

"Hey man," I said, "Do you know Dick (last name redacted)?"

"Dick (last name redacted)? Yeah. I know him," Russ said. "He's a thief."

Turned out that when my community college's full band had gone back east to play some music festival, they had been put up by the college hosting the festival. Russ was in the middle of getting his party on with the rest of the woodwind players when he'd seen Dick walk past down the hall carrying a brand-new, and very expensive-looking cymbal.

Russ had followed Dick down the hall, confronted him, asked where he got the cymbal, and then Dick tried to blow him off and tell him to mind his own business. Anyone who knows Russ knows that wasn't gonna work.

You see, my friend Russ is one of those guys who has a code and really lives it. It's one of the things I've admired most about him for the nearly forty years I've known him.

And Russ has no use for thieves.

Long story short, Dick put the cymbal back, none the worse for wear. The same could not be said about Dick once Russ was done with him.

After I in turn had filled Russ in on what Dick had done to make particular day memorable for me, he said, "Did he pay you?"

"No," I said. "Why?"

"State law is, they gotta pay you up if they can you. Day of."

Armed with this new knowledge, I called up Dick's direct supervisor, the manager who ostensibly ran the store where I'd worked. Turned out he'd been expecting my call.

"Sorry, Brian," he said, genuine regret in his voice. He was an older guy, all business. Not even all that interested in music. "You're good with sales, and I like you, but Dick is a good assistant, and I have to support him on this."

I said I understood, but that I wasn't calling to dispute my firing. I was calling to ask how I was going to get paid.

"Didn't Dick pay you up on your way out once he'd terminated you?"

I said he hadn't.

The manager swore. Then he apologized, and said, "If you come down to (name of store on other side of town redacted), I'll cut you a check."

I suggested going back to the store where I'd just been canned. That seemed to surprise him.

"That wouldn't bother you?" he said.

I said it wouldn't. Plus it was closer and way more convenient for me to get to that day.

He agreed. "Dick really ought to have paid up when he terminated you. I'll talk to him about that and tell him to have your check ready."

So within a half-hour I was walking back in to the store from which I had been so recently fired. Upon seeing me walk in, Dick, once again on station half-way up the stairwell to the back office, immediately motioned for me to follow him upstairs into the office.

"Got my check?" I said, all business. I'd gotten past shocked and was almost past mad. I just wanted to get paid.

"Yeah. Cute stunt, calling the boss," he said as he handed over a hand-written check drawn on the store's corporate account.

There was a problem, though. I hadn't been paid my final bonus for winning the suggested sales contest from the week before. It was fifty bucks, which was a lot of money to me back then, and I said so.

"You were fired. So you don't get that bonus."

"Who does, then?"

"The person with the second-highest total for last week."

"Let me guess," I said, doing everything in my power to keep a straight face. "That person is you."

Dick actually had the good grace to turn red at that, but he didn't say anything.

I sighed, pocketed the check, and said over my shoulder as I walked out, "Wow, Russ was right about you, Dick. You are a thief."

I'd like to say that getting that sort of last word like that was worth losing that extra fifty bucks. But I'm objective enough now to say it wasn't. That money would have gone a long way for me back then.

Ironically (or, if you prefer, karmically), Dick got himself fired not long after that. I heard a whole bunch of speculation as to why.

In the meantime I got my bachelor's degree and went to another local university in pursuit of my Master's. And I saw Dick on campus a lot there. He'd gotten divorced, grown his hair, and was playing in a reggae band while majoring in music.

Again, this was all stuff I heard. Mostly from Russ, who was wired in to the local musician scene (and still is). As for Dick, he and I passed each other on campus frequently. Never said another word to each other.

In retrospect, I hope the guy's mellowed with age. I have no idea what he's up to now. And I hope he did something nice for someone else with that fifty bucks he stole from me.

And yeah, I'm not perfect now and I certainly wasn't then. I did get cute trying to needle him back. But it was pretty harmless, and in no way "insubordinate." Then again, in retrospect I am pretty sure my being flip with him was just a pretext.

The point? I try to remember what it was like to work for someone like that. And to never act that way myself. I supervise a lot of people in my day gig. None of them deserve to be treated like that.

No one does.

And how about you? Who was your worst boss ever, and how did the experience of working for them affect you? Feel free to weigh in in the comments section.

See you in two weeks!

24 July 2019

Metropolis


David Edgerley Gates


Fritz Lang's movie Metropolis was released in 1927. Paranoid and hallucinatory, it's the first feature-length dystopian SF picture, but of course its spooky Teutonic future is at right angles to the spooky present of a doomed Weimar.


Philip Kerr's last Bernie Gunther novel, Metropolis, came out this year. It's set in 1928, and sure enough, Fritz Lang's chilly breath hovers over the story. (His wife, the screenwriter Thea von Harbou, steps into the book to pick Bernie's brain for cop shop detail - she's turning over some ideas in her head for a serial killer story.) Bernie remarks early on that for all its grime and despair, his home ground of Berlin mirrors both the human condition and the German national character, and you can say the same about a book or a movie, so is it true of this book or that movie?

Lang had a problematic relationship with the Nazis. He'd been raised Catholic, but his mother was originally Jewish. It was an obvious pressure point. And while we're on the subject, Thea, the wife, was a Nazi sympathizer from early days. Hitler and Goebbels were huge fans of Metropolis, as it happens. But after Lang made The Testament of Dr. Mabuse in late 1932, and Hitler came to power in January, 1933, the Nazis banned Mabuse, which was pretty clearly aimed at Hitler. Goebbels, on the other hand, offered Lang a job as head of UFA, the biggest German movie studio. It was bait-and-switch. Lang was being invited inside the tent, but the price of admission was spelled out: he was selling his soul. Lang said he'd think about it, and beat feet for France. Thea stayed behind and divorced him. UFA went to Leni Riefenstahl.

The question is often raised in the Bernie books - in fact, it's the central spine of the stories - What would you do as the world disintegrated around you, as it lost all moral force, what choices would or could you make? Metropolis goes back to the beginning, chronologically. It takes place before March Violets, the first of the novels. But it looks forward. The foreshadowing is all there, On the other hand, Bernie doesn't comment on what he sees and does from a future perspective. This dramatic irony, which is used in a number of the books, isn't present here. Bernie is blessed with ignorance of the future, even though the choices keep lining up. The answer to the questions is, You compromise just a little every day, and it gets easier.

How can we know, how could we possibly predict whether we'd rise to the occasion, show grace under pressure, or simply cave? It seems, generally speaking, as if even the major life-changing decisions we make are essentially taking the path of least resistance. If you've followed Bernie's history, as I have, over the thirteen books leading up to Metropolis, you respect him not just for his survival skills, but for his generosity, and his self-respect, even if he sometimes loses confidence. Seeing him here, right as his life is about to take a walk off a cliff, is enormously affecting, because you know what's coming, and he doesn't. The future of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, as frightening as it is, can't begin to conjure up the waiting chaos, and the terror.


Metropolis, the novel, is a swan song. Phil Kerr died last year. This is one terrific run of books.

23 July 2019

The Future of Writing


by Paul D. Marks


Many of us have nostalgic, warm feelings of curling up with a book in the rain. For a lot of us here at SleuthSayers it’s more than likely a mystery or a thriller, though I’m sure we all read many different kinds of books, mainstream fiction, non-fiction, a little of everything.

But how many of our kids have that warm feeling? How many of our kids enjoy reading just for the pleasure of it? How many people read paper books anymore? And are young people reading these days? They do seem to read YA books, maybe on Kindle and iPad but not often in paperback. But they are reading less than previous generations and spending more time playing games on their phones, texting and watching movies instead of reading. More distractions and shorter attention spans. They’ve grown up with everything being faster and getting instant gratification. Do they ever read classics or history or something that’s a stretch for them? And how many never read anything longer than a  Facebook post or Tweet?


My wife, Amy, who takes the train to work, says, “I notice on the train a lot of people staring at their phones. Some are reading, but the really serious readers have paperbacks or Kindles and don’t read on their phones. Most are texting or playing games. And it’s time that could be spent reading but they don’t. And that’s scary. I understand wanting to do something mindless and entertaining for a little while, but we also need to exercise and stretch our brains and imaginations sometimes, too.”

It seems to me that, while there are still some places to buy books besides Amazon, and that people still read, I’m not sure how many people read or what they’re reading. So the question is, is fiction a dying art? And how does that affect our writing?

Many people, of all ages, would find Don Quixote slow to come to a boil. Nothing happens for too long. That’s the way it is with a lot of books from earlier times and not even all that earlier. Hemingway was known for his “streamlining” of the language, but many people these days find his books slow going.

The same applies to movies. Even movies made 20 or 30 years ago are too slow for many people today. And when they watch movies they often watch them on a phone with a screen that’s five inches wide. How exciting is that? And many movies today are of the comic book variety. I’m not saying no one should read comic books or enjoy comic book movies, but it seems sometimes like that’s all there is in the theatres.

And novels have become Hollywoodized. I like fast paced things as much as the next person, but I also like the depth a novel can provide that movies or TV series often don’t. And one of the things that I liked about the idea of writing novels was being able to take things slower, to explore characters’ thoughts and emotions.

In talking to many people, I often find there’s a lack of shared cultural touchstones that I think were carried over from generation to generation previously. That also affects our writing. Should we use literary allusions, historical allusions? If so, how much do we explain them? And how much do we trust our audience to maybe look them up? The same goes for big words.

Way back when, I was writing copy for a national radio show. Another writer and I got called on the carpet one time and dressed down by the host. Why? Because we were using words that were “too big,” too many syllables. Words that people would have to look up. So, we dumbed down our writing to keep getting our paychecks. But it grated on us.

But in writing my own books and short stories I pretty much write them the way I want to. I’m not saying I don’t stop and consider using this word instead of that. But I hate writing down to people. When I was younger I’d sit with a dictionary and scratch pad next to me as I read a book. If I came on a word I didn’t know I’d look it up and write the definition down. And I learned a lot of new words that way. Today, if one is reading on a Kindle or similar device, it’s even easier. You click on the word and the definition pops up. That’s one of the things I like about e-readers, even though I still prefer paper books. But I wonder how many younger people look up words or other things they’re not familiar with.

And what if one wants to use a foreign phrase? I had another book (see picture) for looking those up. But again, today we’re often told not to use those phrases. Not to make people stretch. I remember seeing well-known writers (several over time) posting on Facebook, asking if their friends thought it was okay to use this or that word or phrase or historical or literary allusion because their editors told them they shouldn’t. That scares me.

So all of this brings up a lot of questions in my mind: What is the future of writing? Are we only going to write things that can be read in ten minute bursts? And then will that be too long? What does all this mean for writers writing traditional novels? Will everything become a short story and then flash fiction?

In 100 years will people still be reading and writing novels? Or will they live in a VR world where everything is a game and they can hardly tell reality from fantasy?

So, what do you think of all of this?

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

My story Past is Prologue is out in the new July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Available now at bookstores and newstands as well as online at: https://www.alfredhitchcockmysterymagazine.com/. Hope you'll check it out.




Also, check out Broken Windows, the sequel to my Shamus Award-winning novel, White Heat.



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

22 July 2019

When to Enter


by Steve Liskow

Many moons ago, I discussed why I enter so few writing contests. If there is a hefty entry fee, I stay away. If I don't know the judges or feel comfortable with the criteria, ditto.

But sometimes, dumb luck gives you an advantage, and it's true of both contests and submissions to anthologies. If you're in the right place at the right time, there are ways to get an inside track.

Several years ago, I learned about the Black Orchid Novella Award. I had a short story that never sold, and I expanded it into a novella and won. Yes, writing a good story helps, but the Black Orchid Novella Award pays tribute to Rex Stout and his detectives Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. My parents liked Stout, so I read many of his novels and novellas when I was young. We were both raised in the Midwest, so his voice and rhythm and characters influenced my own writing. In other words, writing a story that fit the contest's requirements was definitely in my skill set.

I've entered two stories in that contest, and won both times. Since it's an annual event, the submission dates are standard, which means I know when to have a story ready and have a whole year to come up with an idea (or not) and rewrite until it's worth sending. That means no rushing, important because I can't rush. I've written on demand, but it always takes me several revisions, which means lots of time.

My titles should tell you I like blues and rock and roll. Several years ago, I wrote a blog about plagiarism in rock music. Among other performers, I mentioned Led Zeppelin and their frequent "borrowing" from blues artists. That idea was fresh in my mind when the Mystery Writers of America posted a submission call for an anthology with the theme of "Vengeance," to be edited by Lee Child.

Well, Child's first novel is Killing Floor, a title taken from an old Howlin' Wolf blues classic. Led Zeppelin milked it dry for a song they called "The Lemon Song" on their second LP. Child has another novel called Bad Luck and Trouble, a line that appears in both "Born Under a Bad Sign" by William Bell and Albert King and "Double Trouble" by Otis Rush.

I figured Child was a fan of American Blues. What if I could write a story about a blues songwriter who stole a song and the results caught up with him? I called it "Hot Sugar Blues" and hoped the title would help the story get through the gatekeepers to Child himself. It appeared in the anthology and was later named a finalist for the Edgar Award.

Yes, I think it was a good story, but it still needed the right audience. You can help that happen.

Several years ago, I joined four other writers judging submissions for the Al Blanchard Story Award, sponsored by the New England Chapter of MWA. Let me share what that five-month stint taught me.

The submission time was three months, and we received 142 stories of 5000 words or less. Only a dozen came in during the first several weeks, and only 41 through the sixth week, so I read them all, Because I was used to reading lots of papers, I read EVERY story (even though I only had to read every fourth one) and took notes. (Some people have lives. I'm not one of them). I graded them all from 1 to 10 and made a spread sheet of my comments.

I didn't award any story a 9 or 10, but I gave NINETY-ONE stories a 1 or 2. That's right, nearly 2/3 of the entries earned that score, and for the same reason(s). They started with turgid--often unnecessary--backstory and most of them wallowed in description. They tended to tell rather than show, had little or poor dialogue, and a few had endings that came out of nowhere.

Don't do those things.

A whopping 41 stories came in the last day of the contest. Don't do that, either. By then, judges are in a hurry. They're looking for a reason to dump you and move on, so a typo, a badly-chosen name, or a cliche may be enough to knock you out on page one.

If a contest takes submissions for three months, I like to wait about six weeks. That gives readers time to go through enough entries to establish a personal standard of their own. They still have enough time to be flexible, though, so they'll give leeway to something a little different. When the time crush kicks in (the last two weeks), they may already have their personal favorites locked in and it's hard to dislodge them. Hit them when they're still comfortable.

Keep in mind that judging is ALWAYS subjective, no matter how specific the criteria, and no matter whether it's for a contest, an anthology, or a standard submission. Three of the five stories I rated the highest in the contest I judged didn't make anyone else's short list, but seventeen of the stories I rated a 1 or a 2 DID.

Not long ago, an editor turned down my submission because he liked the story but didn't like the golf that was essential to the plot. He never explained why. I sold the story elsewhere in two weeks. Maybe if I'd used tennis or Jai alai, it would have sold the first time out.

You never know. But some guesses are better than others.

21 July 2019

A Public Service Announcement


by Leigh Lundin

Florida politicians are as environmentally sensitive as Jeffrey Epstein at Scott Pruitt’s Mar-a-Lago bachelor party. In the eighty years since Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Florida hasn’t exactly become a hotbed of environmentalism.

“Drain the swamps” is the rallying cry of misguided developers. Wetlands are Nature’s kidneys, filtering polluted water before it enters ever-depleting aquifers, shrinking underground rivers supplying the state’s water.

“Chop down the forests” isn’t heard quite as often these days, but I encountered a guy who still believes trees cause pollution and environmentalism is a dastardly plot. He forgets William F Buckley Jr mentioned conservation and conservatism share the same root words and meanings.

Imagine my pleasant shock when I began seeing posters and postcards from some Orange County government subversives with tips to save the environment. Bless their hearts. Here is an example:

Orange County Public Service Announcement Nº 4

Orange County fertilizer brochure

However, those icons in the left middle of the page reminded me of a guy with a gun to his head and then possibly a gas pump. Nah. Eventually I settled upon pesticide sprayers in the land where roaches are the size of rats, rats are the size of cats, and a mouse the size of humans. But for fertilizer? At least their hearts are in the right place.

Florida panther
Florida housecat
Naturally my next thought concluded SleuthSayers would be remiss not to create its own public service announcement. But what should a criminal PSA include?
  • It should pay homage to its inspiration.
  • Orange County’s orange inexplicably went missing above, but we can fix that.
  • It should respect the work the county put into theirs. After all, they should know what a PSA looks like.
  • Therefore it should look attractive.
  • Maybe it should be informative. Or not. But yes, let’s.
I considered a bit of humor made especially for the occasion:
Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day.
Give a man a puffer fish, you feed him for a lifetime.
Too subtle, huh? Maybe if I copyrighted it…

So after much head scratching, I came up with the following.

SleuthSayers Public Service Announcement Nº 1

Florida crime craft poster

What do you think? Have we succeeded in alerting the public? If not, it’s the fault of, uh, Orange County, yeah, that’s it.