21 August 2019

Made in the Decade


by Robert Lopresti

Back in January, when I produced my yearly thing I wrote: "I was somewhat surprised to discover that this is my tenth annual list of the best short mysteries of the year, as determined by me. I will have to do something to celebrate that in a month or two."

Well, more than a month has passed, but here we are. My first thought was to pick out the Best of the Best from the 151 stories that made my original list, but that seemed like a fool's errand for various reasons. Below you will find 15 categories, subgenres if you will, and in each I have listed five stories that made my best of lists in the last decade. They aren't the Best of the Best, just excellent examples of their subgenre.   Of course, some of these could have easily fit into several categories.

And by the way, there is a hidden category tucked away here: stories with twist endings.  There are many examples below but to point them out would be counterproductive.

As a lagniappe I have added a Classic story in each category. "Classic" here is defined as a great story that was published before I started reviewing.

Availability! In each case I have listed the original publication unless I thought there was a more available site. I provided links to a few stories that are available for free on the web. You may find others elsewhere on the web but I suspected those sites might be copyright-violators or malicious, so I skipped 'em.



AMATEUR SLEUTH
Palumbo, Dennis. "A Theory of Murder," available free at Kings River Lite.
Perks, Micah. "Treasure island," in Santa Cruz Noir, edited by Susie Bright, Akashic Press, 2018.
Petrin, Jas. R. "Money Maker," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2017.
Rusch, Kristine Kathryn. "The Wedding Ring," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2018.
Rozan, S.J. "Chin Yong-Yun Meets A Ghost," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2015.
Classic: Kemelman, Harry. “The Nine Mile Walk” in The Nine Mile Walk and Other Stories.

COZY
Cajoleas, Jimmy. "The Lord of Madison County," in Mississippi Noir, edited by Tom Franklin, Akashic Press, 2016.
Harlow, Jennifer. "The Bubble," in Atlanta Noir, edited by Tayari Jones, Akashic Press, 2017.
Page, Anita. “Isaac’s Daughters,” in Malice Domestic Presents: Murder Most Geographical, edited by Verena Rose, Rita Owen, and Shawn Reilly Simmons, Wildside Press, 2018.
Stevens, B.K. "The Last Blue Glass," available free at B.K. Stevens's website.
Todd, Marilyn. "Slay Belles," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. January/ February 2017.
Classic: Asimov, Isaac. “The Acquisitive Chuckle,” in Tales of the Black Widowers.

CRIMINAL’S POINT OF VIEW
Block, Lawrence. “Who Knows Where It Goes,” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, January 2010.
Howard, Clark. “White Wolves” in The Crooked Road, Volume 3.
Paul, Bryan. "The Ice Cream Snatcher," in Thuglit, issue 13, 2014.
Sareini, Ali. F. "A Message In The Breath Of Allah," in Prison Noir, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, Akashic Press, 2014.
Warthman, Dan. "Pansy Place," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January-February 2012.
Classic: Francis, Dick. "A Carrot for a Chestnut," in Field of Thirteen.


ESPIONAGE
Child, Lee. “Section 7 (a) (Operational),” in Agents of Treachery, edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage Crime, 2010.
Deaver, Jeffery. "Hard to Get," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2017.
Faherty, Terence. "Margo and the Silver Cane," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January/February 2013.
Lawton, John. “East of Suez, West of Charing Cross Road,” in Agents of Treachery, edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage Crime, 2010.
Rabb, Jonathan. "A Game Played," in The Strand Magazine, June-September 2013.
Classic: Household, Geoffrey. “Keep Walking,” in Days of Your Fathers.


FANTASY
Blakey, James. "Do Not Pass Go," in Mystery Weekly Magazine, September 2017.
Goree, Raymond. "A Change of Heart," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, October 2012.
Law, Janice. "The Crucial Game," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January-February 2018.
Powell, James. “The Black Whatever.” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, January 2010.
Rozan, S. J. "e-Golem," in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine,September-October 2017.
Classic: Ellison, Harlan. “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs,” in Deathbird Stories.

HISTORICAL
Levinson, Robert S. “Regarding Certain Occurrences In A Cottage At The Garden Of Allah,” in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, November 2009.
Law, Janice. “Madame Selina,” free podcast.
Rutter, Eric. “Runaway” in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 2009.
Thornton, Brian.“Paper Son,” in Seattle Noir, edited by Curt Colbert, Akashic Press.
Williams, Jim. "The Hotel des Mutilées," on Williams's website.
Classic: Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Garden of Forking Paths,” in Collected Fictions.

HUMOROUS
Gould, Heywood. "Everything is Bashert," in Jewish Noir, edited by Kenneth Wishnia, PM Press, 2015.
Lawton, R.T. "Black Friday," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, November/December 2017.
Maron, Margaret. "We On The Train!" in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, May 2015.
Schofield, Neil. "It'll Cost You," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 2014.
Wiley, Michael. "Making It," in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, September-October 2017.
Classic: Thurber, James. “The Catbird Seat,” in Thurber on Crime.

NOIR
Crouch, Blake. “The Pain of Others,” in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March 2011.
Gaylin, Alison. "Restraint" in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March/April 2013.
Neville, Stuart. "Faith," in Blood Work: Remembering Gary Shulze: Once Upon A Crime, edited by Rick Ollerman, Down and Out Books, 2018.
Pluck, Thomas. "The Uncleared," available free at A Twist of Noir.
Stodghill, Dick. “Deathtown,” in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, November. 2009.
Classic: Kinsella, W.P. "Dance Me Outside," in Dance Me Outside.

PASTICHE
Faherty, Terence. "The Man With The Twisted Lip," in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, February 2015.
Lewis, Evan. "The Continental Opposite," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May 2015.
Warren, James Lincoln. "Shikari," in The 1% Solution.
Warren, James Lincoln. “Shanghaied” in The 1% Solution.
Zeltserman, Dave. “Julius Katz,” in The Julius Katz Collection.
Classic: Powell, James. “The Tamerlane Crutch,” in Christmas Forever.
POLICE
Alcalá, Kathleen. “Blue Sunday” in Seattle Noir, edited by Curt Colbert, Akashic Press.
Camilleri, Andrea.  "Neck and Neck,"  in Montalbano's First Case and Other Stories.
Estleman, Loren D. “Death Without Parole.” in Detroit is Our Beat: Tales of the Four Horsemen.
Phelan, Twist. "Footprints in Water," in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, July 2013.
Powell, James.  “The Teapot Mountie Ball,” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine,  March/April 2011.
Classic: Westlake, Donald E. “Come Back, Come Back,” in Levine.

PRIVATE DETECTIVE
Crowther, Brad.  “Politics Makes Dead Bedfellows,” in  Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2011.
Gates, David Edgerley.  "Slip Knot," by David Edgerley Gates, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, November 2011.
Helms, Richard.  "Busting Red Heads,"  in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March/April 2014.
Moran, Terrie Farley.  "Inquiry and Assistance," available for free on Moran's website.
Rusch, Kristine Kathryn. “The Case of the Vanishing Boy.” The Case of the Vanishing Boy.
Classic: Grafton, Sue. “A Poison That Leaves No Trace,” in Kinsey and Me.

PSYCHOLOGICAL
Brackmann, Lisa. "Don't Feed The Bums," in San Diego Noir, Akashic Press, 2011.
Cody, Liza. "I Am Not Fluffy," in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, December 2013.
Itell, Jennifer. “Inevitable.” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, November 2010.
Merchant, Judith. “Monopoly.” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March/April 2009.
Pronzini, Bill and Barry N. Malzberg. "Night Walker," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine,, March-April 2018.
Classic: Bradbury, Ray. "The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl," in The Golden Apples of the Sun.

SUI GENERIS
Armstrong, Jason. "Man Changes Mind," available free at  Thrillers, Killers, 'n Chillers.
Muir, Brian. “Dummy,” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, May 2009.
Rogers, Cheryl. "The Ballad of Maggie Carson," in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, May 2016.
Smith, Mark Haskell. “1968 Pelham Blue SG Jr.” in Crime Plus Music, edited by Jim Fusilli, Three Rooms Press, 2016.
Weikart, Jim, "The Samsa File," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 2013.
Classic: Faulkner William. “A Rose For Emily,” in A Rose For Emily and Other Stories.

SUSPENSE
Buck, Craig Faustus. "Blank Shot," in Black Coffee, edited by Andrew MacRae, Dark House Books, 2016.
Day, Russell. "The Icing on the Cake," in Noirville, Fahrenheit Press, 2018.
Estleman, Loren D. “Rumble Strip” in Amos Walker: The Complete Story Collection.
Gates, David Edgerley. "Cabin Fever," in The Best American Mystery Stories 2018.
Tippee, Robert. "Underground Above Ground," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2017.
Classic: Cail, Carol. “Sinkhole,” in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Presents Fifty Years of Crime and Suspense.

VICTIM’S POINT OF VIEW
DuBois, Brendan. "The Final Ballot," in Mystery Writers of America presents Vengeance, edited by Lee Child, Mulholland Books, 2012.
Hallman, Tom, Jr. "Kindness," in Mystery Weekly Magazine, April 2018.
Law, Janice, "The Double," in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Issue 7.
Opperman, Meg. "The Discovery," in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Issue 18.
Rusch, Kristine Kathryn. "Christmas Eve at the Exit," in The Best American Mystery Stories 2016.
Classic: Ellin, Stanley. "You Can't Be a Little Girl all Your Life," in The Specialty of the House and Other Stories.

20 August 2019

Balancing Comedy and Tragedy

A few years ago I was editing a manuscript in which an amateur sleuth found a dead body. A couple of paragraphs down, she made a joke. It raised my eyebrows. "Too soon," I said in a note to the author.

Don't get me wrong. I love humor, especially black humor. Ranging from wry observations to slapstick situations, humor is important because it can lighten a book's mood. But you have to know when to be funny--and when not to. In the case I mentioned above, I suggested having the sleuth wait a couple of pages before she makes light of the situation. The author did so, and it made all the difference.

Today I'm pleased to welcome as a guest author my friend Sherry Harris, who knows all about writing humor, including the importance of timing. Sherry writes great books and takes edits like the pro she is. Sherry writes the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mysteries about a woman in Massachusetts who runs garage sales for other people. Sherry's here today to expound on balancing comedy and tragedy in mysteries. Take it away, Sherry!

--Barb Goffman

Balancing Comedy and Tragedy
 
by Sherry Harris
 
I was sitting at the bar at Writers' Police Academy (this sounds like the start of a bad joke) when I started talking to a woman near me. I asked her what she wrote and she told me. She then asked what I wrote, so I told her I wrote a cozy series--the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mysteries. She said, "Oh, well I write serious books." I replied that I wrote serious books too. That I don't think murder is funny, but that I did use humor in other parts of my books.

I'm caught somewhere in between comedy and tragedy. In my most recent book, Let's Fake a Deal, (published July 30th), there are two parallel story lines. As the book opens Sarah is arrested for selling stolen goods at a garage sale and a few chapters later a friend of hers is arrested for murder. I was shocked when someone who interviewed me said they thought the first chapter (where Sarah is arrested) was one of the funniest scenes they've ever read. When I wrote the scene my vision of Sarah was that she was really scared. I guess that just proves humor is in the eye of the beholder. After the interview was over, I reread the scene with a different mind-set and saw how it could be interpreted that way.

Where do I add the humor? I'd like to tell you I carefully plot it all out in advance but I don't. I'll make a decision early in my writing process on how to add some humor. For Let's Fake a Deal, I tossed around ideas with my independent editor, Barb Goffman. (Hi, Barb, thanks for having me here today.) We came up with the idea that Sarah could do a garage sale for a woman who was obsessed with cats. Not a crazy cat woman who has twenty cats living with her, but a woman who wants to make the front of her house look like the face of a cat. To afford that she has to sell off her massive collection of cat-morabilia. So the cat-tastic garage sale was born.
Kishi Station in Japan was redesigned to resemble a cat in honor of a beloved local stray cat. (Can you see it?) This station isn't in the Sarah Winston books, but it's a great example of what a dedicated cat lover could do with enough funds.
But the Sarah Winston books have more than funny situations. Each of my books is set partially on an Air Force base, and I weave in difficulties military families face. In Let's Fake a Deal, one of Sarah's friends, who has been selected for promotion to colonel, has an IG (inspector general) complaint filed against her, which holds up her promotion. I did a lengthy interview with a friend who served as a Navy JAG for 23 years. We talked about the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated world. Then I interviewed other women I knew who had served. The interviews fascinated and horrified me. Their stories are woven into the book.

I hope the titles add some humor and Sarah is funny. She's not funny in a slapstick, "slip on a banana peel" kind of way, but she has an optimistic outlook on life. Her observations about life add humor to the books. But I also want her to be multilayered so when she stumbles over a dead body Sarah hurts, and when she sees someone die she reacts like a real person would. 

****
 
Sherry Harris is the Agatha Award-nominated author of the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mystery series. She is the President of Sisters in Crime, a member of the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime, the New England Chapter of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and International Thriller Writers.
 
In her spare time Sherry loves reading and is a patent-holding inventor. Sherry, her husband, and her guard dog, Lily, are living in northern Virginia until they figure out where they want to move to next.  (Barb here: That's what she thinks. I'm not letting her move away ever. No how. No way.) 
 
 
 
Twitter: @SHarrisAuthor
 
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SherryHarrisauthor

Instagram: SherryHarrisAuthor

19 August 2019

Robert Johnson and the Hell Hound

by Steve Liskow

Last Friday, August 16, was the 42nd anniversary of Elvis Presley's death. It was also the 81st anniversary of the death of an even more important music figure. On the same date in 1938, Robert Johnson, often called the King of the Delta Blues, died after drinking a bottle of poisoned whiskey. The story could become a great true-crime book if I had the bent for the massive research necessary, but I don't. Johnson's saga has already fueled works in various genres anyway.

Born May 8, 1911, Johnson was the guitar hero around the Mississippi Delta, standing on a pinnacle with Charley Patton, Son House, and nobody else. He only recorded 29 songs over the course of two sessions, one in a San Antonio hotel room in November 1936 (22 tracks in two days) and a Dallas hotel room over a weekend the following June (20 more tracks). The recording logs say 17 more tracks were recorded, but nobody knows what happened to them. We have 42 surviving tracks, one or two takes of 29 iconic blues songs.

Columbia released a vinyl LP of 15 songs in 1961, and among the musicians who heard Johnson for the first time were Eric Clapton,
Eric Clapton, circa 1968
Keith Richards, Jimmy Page,
Jimmy Page with the Yardbirds
Brian Jones, and Mike Bloomfield.
Mike Bloomfield
That spark fanned the flame of the American blues revival and the British Invasion. An LP of the remaining songs appeared in 1970 and stoked the earlier frenzy. There have been three remastered CD sets of Johnson's work. The last two went platinum, the latter in less than a week.

What did Johnson give us? Well, Eric Clapton played "Ramblin' on my Mind" with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers after he left the Yardbirds. He still considers "Cross Road Blues" his trademark song since he recorded it live with Cream in 1968. That trio also covered "From Four Until Late." Elmore James had a 1951 hit with his slide version of "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom." Delaney and Bonnie and Johnnie Winter each recorded "Come on in My Kitchen." Led Zeppelin played "Traveling Riverside Blues" in their live sets. I first heard "Walkin' Blues" on a Paul Butterfield album (Mike Bloomfield played guitar), and the Grateful Dead often played it live. The Rolling Stones did a killer version of "Love in Vain," mostly when Mick Taylor was their slide maestro. The Charlatans covered "32-20" on an early LP, and I can't begin to count the artists who have performed "Sweet Home Chicago."

That's a pretty good showing for a man who died three months after turning 27.

We have only two existing photographs of Robert Johnson, and they both show him holding a guitar in his amazingly long fingers, which may account for his virtuosity.
Along with that skill, sometimes attributed to his selling his soul to the Devil at a crossroads, Johnson earned a reputation as a lover of both whiskey and women, not always single. He carried on publicly with ladies who wore another man's ring, and it caught up with him in July of 1937.

He and Dave "Honeyboy" Edwards were performing at the Three Forks Store & Jook House when someone sent up a bottle of scotch for Robert. Edwards noticed that the seal was broken and knocked it out of his friend's hand with the warning "Don't never take a drink when the seal's broke."
The Jook joint where Johnson probably drank the poisoned
bottle of scotch, served by a jealous husband.

Johnson didn't listen. Another bottle appeared shortly and he drank heavily while playing. By late in the evening, he was very ill and showed symptoms of what was probably arsenic poisoning. He was making time with the wife of the man who owned the roadhouse, and since rats were around, so was poison. Johnson suffered for several days and contracted pneumonia, passing away on August 16.

This was in Greenwood, Mississippi. the local white sheriff didn't give two hoots about some dead colored singer, and while there were many witnesses and people who knew the situation, nobody ever followed up. Johnson's death certificate doesn't even give a cause of death.
Johnson's death certificate. Notice that the right side is blank except for the notation "No Doctor."

Months later, John Hammond wanted Johnson to play at his Spirituals to Swing concert (Dedicated to Bessie Smith, who had also died recently) at Carnegie Hall. He sent Don Law, who supervised Johnson's recording sessions, to find him. Law eventually learned of Johnson's death, but found another musician to take Johnson's slot in the show and revive his own flagging career: Big Bill Broonzy.

Johnson's playing was the stuff of legend, and his life and songs have inspired novels, plays and films. Elijah Wald explores Johnson and the Delta blues in Escaping the Delta, which points out that blues wasn't even recognized as a separate genre until the 1930s.

David Sheffield's "Love in Vain" is a short story told from the point of view of the coroner examining the body of a dead blues singer. I first found it in an anthology called, fittingly, Delta Blues.

Sherman Alexie's early novel Reservation Blues is a whimsical tale of a man who picks up a black hitchhiker in Idaho and finds a guitar in his back seat after dropping the guy off. Johnson was the hitchhiker who faked his death to cheat the devil out of his soul. He leaves the guitar behind so he can't be tracked, but the magic instrument enables a group of Indians to form a rock band. I assigned the book as a summer reading text one year and encouraged the students to track down Johnson's recordings. It turned out there were two guitarists in the class. Those young men will never be the same.

Thunder Knocking on the Door, a play by Keith Glover, premiered at Yale Rep in the 1990s with Johnson's music front and center. The script is good and the acting was fine, but the loudest applause went to the blues band that made the songs come to life.

Then there's the forgettable film Crossroads. The premise is that an old black harp player knew Johnson and learned a thirtieth song from him that he never recorded. The script and acting don't do it justice. The best part of the film, no surprise, is the soundtrack, created and performed by Ry Cooder and a host of surviving blues legends including Blind Sonny Terry on harp. Cooder and Albert King performed the title song live on TV at (I think) the Grammies that year.

My own novel Dark Gonna Catch Me Here takes its title from a line in "Cross Road Blues." The whole line is "Sun goin' down, dark goin' catch me here/ I ain't got no woman to love and feel my care." When I heard the line for the first time, my reaction was, "What a great image!" Then I thought it could be a title. My cover designer loved it too, and started working before I even wrote the book. He said, "You better go darker than usual, because I am."

I did. By now, the book has probably sold dozens of copies.

Johnson has been dead three times longer than he lived, and he's still fertile ground for musicians. The songs are haunting and evocative and push guitarists to try the impossible. And his archetypal existence and lifestyle continue to inspire legends and stories. Someday, maybe someone will write the work that does him justice.







18 August 2019

Assisted Suicide

by Leigh Lundin
“Ferguson, you got one job, keep the damn prisoner alive. No ganging, no hanging, okay? Don’t let no miscreant get to him. That means no bad guys, see? No corrupt guards, no homicidal convicts, no vicious visitors. Also no shivs, no slit wrists, no sliced throat, no shredded sheets, no seppuku. Shouldn’t be hard, right?”
Jeffrey Epstein
Jeffrey Epstein
From published autopsy revelations about Jeffrey Epstein’s death, statistical probabilities alone suggest a 95% confidence of strangulation. Add in death threats and the fact he appeared facially battered and bruised at his most recent court appearance, the odds he wasn’t murdered is extremely small.

But wait. Commentators have seized upon the notion Epstein might have hanged himself with bed sheets. That’s soooo 19th century.

Some time back, a prison matron explained inmates on suicide watch aren’t given standard bedding. Penitentiaries issue hospital style paper sheets precisely so they can’t be used for hanging. Clothing resembles a tear-resistant hospital gown with velcro closures, no buttons, zippers, or ties. Footwear includes heavy socks and sort of felt slippers, rather than prison-issue flip-flops.

In Eve Fisher’s part of the country, prisoners on suicide watch are stripped naked and given a blanket, or issued a paper uniform and bed sheets. Like their East Coast counterparts, at-risk incarcerated are checked every fifteen minutes and recorded on camera 24/7. Like most who have a working knowledge of prison life, Eve says suicide while under observation is nigh impossible, but once off suicide watch, death for the determined isn’t that difficult.

The prison kitchen provides food in paper bowls without utensils, issued randomly so preparers cannot target an individual inmate. Feed is deliberately bland with virtually no seasoning.

Typically in modern prisons, the bed is poured from concrete as is a tiny seat, shelf, and 1st grader-size desktop. Epstein’s assigned cell reportedly contains a shower. Toilets are usually cold stainless steel devices with neither hinged seat nor lid.

prison toilet
cell toilet © New York Daily News
Cameras remain trained on inmates at all times, even when using the toilet. Cell checks occur about four times an hour, but not precisely at quarter-hour intervals. Reports would have us believe Epstein was not looked in upon for several hours.

In late June and early July, Jeffrey Epstein reported his life had been threatened. On 24 July, a supervisor found him mauled and barely conscious on his cell floor.

Epstein expressed fear for his life. Usually that would call for extra protection, not less.

Two guards have been suspended for dereliction. Their warden has been reassigned. A befuddled William Barr has yet to resign.

Meanwhile, Back at the Raunch

People accused – I emphasize ‘accused’, not convicted – include a number of famous men, at least three women, a senator, a governor, and Epstein’s own lawyer, celebrity attorney Alan Dershowitz, ironically scheduled for a child trafficking mock trial. He has claimed documents ‘prove’ his non-involvement. Whether or not he’s guilty, Dershowitz should know better. Said documents prove no such thing.

The swirling waters have been further muddied by three names linked to the White House, Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, and– yes, it had to happen– Hillary Clinton. The mention of Hillary is a fevered fantasy of the rabid right just as Trump involvement titillates the ludicrous left.

Despite young women being recruited by Ghislaine Maxwell and Epstein at Mar-a-Lago, available evidence suggests both Clinton and Trump prefer fully-formed women, not teen girls. One president dragging another’s name into the mud epitomizes dirty politics.

And the Verdict is

Inexplicably, the Associated Press has dug in taking a position Epstein’s death is suicide. The alternative apparently appears unthinkable. Likewise, normally conspiracy-loving radio talk hosts are unexpectedly warning about unwarranted conspiracy theories, as if they fear further news will undermine some favored position.

The cleverest conclusion I’ve heard regarding Jeffrey Epstein’s death comes from my friend Darlene. Got to appreciate the irony. She calls it…
Assisted Suicide

What’s your take?

17 August 2019

The Best of the Bad Guys


by John M. Floyd



I think it's interesting how often actors say, in interviews, that they love playing villains--and that the more evil the role, the more fun they have. Also interesting is that there are a handful of actors who have never, in their film careers, played true villains--Tom Selleck, James Garner, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Paul Newman, Mel Gibson, Jackie Chan, Charlton Heston, Tom Hanks, Clint Eastwood, Cary Grant--and there are others, like Gregory Peck, Andy Griffith, Kevin Costner, Matt Damon, Robin Williams, Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, Robert Redford, James Stewart, etc., who did play villains and just weren't very convincing. Part of that, I guess, is the image we viewers already have of those actors as "good guys."

But we're not talking, today, about good guys. They're no fun anyway. The question is, who are the best (scariest, most evil, most believable) movie villains?

First, the disclaimers:

Not included are SF/fantasy villains, horrror villains, superheroes villains, or cartoon villains: Lord Voldermort, Darth Vader, Lex Luthor, The Terminator, Freddie Kreuger, Kylo Ren, Jack Torrance, Catwoman, HAL 9000, The Joker, Scar, Biff Tannen, Cruella de Vil, Pennywise the Clown, Michael Myers, Regan McNeil (while possessed), Bellatrix Lastrange, Wile E. Coyote, Agent Smith, The Wicked Witch of the West, etc.

I also didn't include Michael ad Vito Corleone, Bonnie and Clyde, Butch and Sundance, Keyser Soze, and others who might be villainous but we still wind up rooting for. In the following list, we're talking about truly bad people.

Not that it matters, but I've ranked them from least scary/least evil (50) to scariest/most evil (1). In my opinion only.

So here's my list.



50. Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton) -- Mutiny on the Bounty
49. Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe) -- Goldfinger
48. Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) -- Unforgiven 
47. Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Telly Savalas) -- On Her Majesty;s Secret Service
46. Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn) -- Tombstone 
45. Calvera (Eli Wallach) -- The Magnificent Seven
44. Vincent Vega (John Travolta) -- Pulp Fiction
43. Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) -- The Devil Wears Prada
42. Bill Strannix (Tommy Lee Jones) -- Under Siege
41. Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury) -- The Manchurian Candidate
40. Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) -- It's a Wonderful Life
39. Nitti (Billy Drago) -- The Untouchables
38. Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) -- Rebecca
37. Private Detective Loren Visser (M. Emmett Walsh) -- Blood Simple
36. Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) -- All About Eve
35. Bill "Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day Lewis) -- Gangs of New York
34. Elliott Marston (Alan Rickman) -- Quigley Down Under
33. Elle Driver (Darryl Hannah) -- Kill Bill
32. Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) -- Fight Club
31. Noah Cross (John Huston) -- Chinatown
30. Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) -- Double Indemnity
29. Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) -- Blue Velvet
28. Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger) -- Platoon
27. Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) -- Night of the Hunter
26. Dr. Szell (Laurence Olivier) -- Marathon Man
25. Roat (Alan Arkin) -- Wait Until Dark
24, Tony Montana (Al Pacino) -- Scarface
23. Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) -- Wall Street
22. Liberty Vallance (Lee Marvin) -- The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance
21. Frank (Henry Fonda) -- Once Upton a Time in the West
20. Tommy Devito (Joe Pesci) -- Goodfellas
19. Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) -- Taxi Driver
18. Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) -- Die Hard
17. Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) -- Training Day
16. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) -- Psycho
15. Colonel Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz) -- Inglorious Basterds
14. Jame "Buffalo Bill" Gumb (Ted Levine) -- The Silence of the Lambs
13. Max Cady (Robert DeNiro) -- Cape Fear (remake)
12. Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) -- Misery
11. Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) -- Gladiator
10. Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) -- Fatal Attraction
9.  John Doe (Kevn Spacey) -- Seven
8.  Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) -- Shane
7.  Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken) -- True Romance
6.  Serial Killer (Andy Robinson) -- Dirty Harry 
5.  Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison) -- The Green Mile
4.  Amos Goethe (Ralph Fiennes) -- Schindler's List
3.  Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) -- One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
2.  Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) -- The Silence of the Lambs
1.  Anton Chighur (Javier Bardem) -- No Country for Old Men


Runners-up? There are a bunch. Red Grant (Robert Shaw) in From Russia With Love, Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway) in Mommie Dearest, Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) in Split and Glass, Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) in Gone Girl, Warden Norton (Bob Gunton) in The Shawshank Redemption, Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) in White Heat, Baby Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? -- and so on and so on.

It surprised me, as I searched back through movies I'd watched, how many times certain actors' names showed up as villains. And they weren't the ones I would've expected, like Willem Dafoe, Danny Trejo, Tim Roth, Jack Palance, John Malkovich, Christopher Lee, Billy Drago, Ian McShane, etc.--guys who look like villains. Instead, they were names like Kevin Spacey, Glenn Close, Alan Rickman, Powers Boothe, Robert DeNiro, Gary Oldman, and Christopher Walken. (Okay, I take that back: Christopher Walken does look villainous.)

The really surprising thing I found was that a few actors who almost always played "good guys" were extremely convincing as bad guys as well: Denzel in Training Day, Angela Lansbury in Manchurian Candidate, Meryl in Devil Wears Prada, Michael Douglas in Wall Street, Olivier in Marathon Man, Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West. Doesn't seem to happen often.

Now . . . Who'd I leave out? Who'd I miss the mark on? Who are some of your picks?



Next time I'll try to get back to writing about writing.

See you then.




16 August 2019

More about Clichés

by O'Neil De Noux

Back when I was learning how to write fiction, I was taught to not use clichés in exposition. Using them in dialogue was OK as people speak in clichés, which meant using clichés in first person books was OK, since first person books are essentially dialogue – the protagonist telling us what happened. You following me?

Now, in the 21st Century I see a lot of writers use clichés in exposition. I see it in novels and short stories in top magazines and anthologies.

Here are some examples (I will not name the author or the book/story). I've also changed names to protect the … never mind.
It was a far cry from home.

Oliver introduced Donnie to his better half.

The blushing bride came down the aisle.

Lolly was cute as a button.

Rayson was a dyed in the wool rebel.
I was going to list more clichés but how boring is that?

OK, I'm no stickler for rules, but when did this change? I remember Elmore Leonard's, "never use all hell broke loose."

Hell has broken loose. Clichés abound. No big deal. If the reader understands what the writer writes, it's OK with me. It's just, well, with my Christian Brothers and Jesuit education, I stumble over clichés, I pause when I read them. Do any of you?

That's all for now.

15 August 2019

You Can't Make This Stuff Up

by Eve Fisher

Let's start off with the case of Stephen Jennings of Oklahoma, who (along with passenger Rachel Rivera) was arrested after a traffic stop by Oklahoma police and was found to be driving a stolen car, on a suspended license, with a unlicensed handgun, a live rattlesnake, a canister of powdered radioactive yellow uranium, and an open bottle of Kentucky Deluxe whiskey.  Oh, the questions we could ask!  Was he on his way to make the world's first nuclear rattler?  Was the rattlesnake getting his fair share of the whiskey?  Will some brilliant lawyer claim that the whole adventure was the rattlesnake's idea?  That the rattlesnake provided the uranium?  As The Week implied, have the Coen brothers been out-Coened?  (Oklahoma's News)

Meanwhile, there's the guy who took out a full page ad in USA Today on 7/25/19, with the solution to the Great Climate Change Hoax, which involves the law of force, the moon and a $20 billion check.  They must have some money - a full page ad doesn't come cheap - but what they heck, you have to spend money to make money.  Don't believe me?  Read 'em and weep:


If anyone one out there is brave enough to actually tackle the e-mail, phone number, M&M Co., Ltd. (my bet is that they're NOT the candy makers), let me know what's there. 

Now I've seen crazy full-page ads before, mostly because in small towns, a full-page ad in the local newspaper can come pretty cheap.  (NOTE:  Free speech is not always free, but it can always be made more inexpensive.)  This allows a wide range of alternative realities to be presented to us, the reading public, and up here in South Dakota, I've read some pretty strange stuff.  My favorites are the Sovereign Citizen sales pitches calling for everyone to sign up for their Government ID card which allows you to ignore the laws of the false United States with impunity.  BTW, these are actually fairly pricey, especially since no one shows up to help out at the [inevitable] trial after they're used.  But I've never seen an ad that asks for $20 Billion flat out with an apparent expectation that someone will cough it up.

On a lesser note, a guy in Longmont, CO, decided to fix his missing tail light with a red sports drink.  (Source)

Two stories that recently infuriated me were:
Trump administration reauthorizes use of 'cyanide bombs' to kill wild animals  (Read article HERE)
Trump administration weakens the Endangered Species Act (NYTimes)

Apparently we just aren't killing enough wildlife, fast enough, in the United States.  But God knows we tried up here in South Dakota, thanks to Governor Noem's own personal initiative, the Predator Bounty Program, which allowed state residents to go out and kill all those animals which might be eating pheasant eggs or otherwise disrupting the great Pheasant Hunting Season which God knows is a huge money-maker up here.  And get paid for it at $10.00 a tail!

Did I mention that our South Dakota pheasants are Chinese ring-necked pheasants, which are not native to South Dakota?

Anyway, to preserve these Chinese immigrants from natural predators, the Governor decreed that certain nest predators (i.e., they eat eggs) must be destroyed: raccoons, striped skunks, badgers, opossums, and red fox, all of which are native to South Dakota. The bounty season was from April 1-August 12, 2019.
South Dakota Game, Fish, Parks Logo

Did I mention that opossums eat 5,000 ticks a day, and are a major soldier in the battle against spreading Lyme disease?

Anyway, to prove that someone had killed them, and not just picked up road kill, they had to bring in the tails, and including bone, etc.  (The directions were grisly.)  And the animals had to be "harvested" with a trap.  (Speaking of traps, they were built by the inmates at the South Dakota State Penitentiary, labor costs 25 cents an hour, which is why the State could give away the traps for free.)

The really grisly part, to many of us, is how the capturing of an animal in a trap, killing it in cold blood, and then sawing off its tail, was been presented as good old fashioned family fun. While I am not going to post the pictures of Governor Noem's children -  one with a terrified live raccoon in a trap, and then one with the same, now-dead raccoon on top of it - you can find them posted proudly on her official Governor Kristi Noem Facebook site, April 6, 2019 with the following blurb:
"Love seeing kids this excited about being outside!! Our nest predator bounty program launched this week, and we’re seeing great results. Let’s get kids away from the x-box and out with the live box! To learn more about the nest predator bounty program, check out gfp.sd.gov/nest-predator-id/."
Apparently Governor Noem hasn't heard about the studies that have shown that kids who torture and kill small animals are prone to... unpleasant behavior... later on in life. 

Thankfully, the Program closed on Monday, August 12th, "after receiving 50,000 nest predator tails from nearly 3,000 participants.  The bulk of submissions came from raccoon tails at 37,720 followed by the submission of 5,529 skunk tails."  (KotaTV)  This means the State of South Dakota paid out $500,000.  That's a lot of money for something that most environmentalists, scientists, and even members of the Game, Fish & Parks don't think is going to do anything but increase the wild rodent population.  And wild rodents eat eggs, too.

Okay, everyone, let's get calm.  Deep breaths. 

Here is our Picture of the week, your Moment of Zen:



Bear watching sunrise from hotel in New Hampshire.  Who knew they had that kind of vacation money?  (White Mountains)

Meanwhile, I'm recovering steadily from my hernia surgery, and I will spare everyone the grotty details of what hurt where, when, how, etc.  I will only say that, because I had a laprascopic/robotic procedure done, I look as if someone took a very large three-tined fork and stuck it in my stomach to see if I was done.  I had a great surgeon.  A great home care nurse in my husband, Allan.  And I cleared my calendar of everything for 2 weeks.  Life is pretty sweet sometimes.  Especially when you have Medicare!  Huzzah!





14 August 2019

The Breaking Point

David Edgerley Gates


I'd never seen The Breaking Point, although I'd heard things about it, but now there's an excellent DVD transfer available on Criterion. I'm here to tell you it's one hell of a movie, undeservedly neglected.


First, some background. The story goes that Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway are on a hunting trip. Hemingway's bitching that Hollywood can't make a decent picture out of any of the books he's sold them. Hawks says, They don't get the books. And you do? Hemingway asks him. Hawks shrugs. Sure, he says. I could take your worst book and make a terrific picture out of it. We imagine a very long pause here, and then Hemingway goes, Oh, yeah? And just which one is my worst book? Hawks doesn't miss a beat: To Have and Have Not. Okay, asshole, Hemingway says. You got the rights. Put up or shut up.

Hawks goes back to L.A. He calls in William Faulkner. Faulkner probably isn't that big a Hemingway fan in the first place. He tells Hawks the novel's unfilmable. You'd never get it past the Hays Office, for openers. C'mon, we gotta do something, Hawks says. They sit down with Jules Furthman, another longtime screenwriter, and hash out the back story, what happened beforehand. They make up so much, Hawks later says, that there was enough left over for a whole other picture.


You guessed it, The Breaking Point. Which is actually credited to Ranald MacDougall, who just for goobers and grins, also worked on Mildred Pierce; The World, the Flesh, and the Devil; and Dark of the Sun. No slouch, he.

The degrees of separation - or cross-pollination - are I think significant. To Have and Have Not (1944), Bogart and Hawks. Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Bogart and John Huston. We Were Strangers (1949), Garfield and Huston. The Breaking Point in 1950. Directed by Michael Curtiz, who made some zingers, but never breaks into the top lists of auteurs. Maybe that's an oversight. The Breaking Point is certainly atypical of Curtiz. It actually has a lot more in common with Sierra Madre and Strangers than it does with Casablanca. You wouldn't think of Curtiz as a noir guy, but here he delivers in spades.


Then look at Garfield, in context. The Breaking Point was his next-to-last picture; he died after the next one. He himself thought The Breaking Point was his best and most transparent performance. You have to give a passing glance at his politics, which were resolutely Leftie. He wasn't blacklisted, but he was skating on thin ice. Maybe he died before the bastards could get to him. They would have loved to nail him, just because he was Julie Garfinkle from the Lower East Side. 

Garfield never did overtly political parts. Gentleman's Agreement, mmmh, maybe. Force of Evil? The movie itself is about moral choices, and Garfield's character makes the leap of faith in the end. But he isn't represented as Everyman. It's not a Marxist fable. The closest he comes is in We Were Strangers, and even there he keeps his distance. He seems mistrustful of absolutes. He's missing the zeal of the convert.


In this, The Breaking Point is completely consistent. In the most basic and classic sense, it's existential. The guy does what he does because of who he is; or put it the other way around, he demonstrates who he is because of what he does. Skip the philosophy.

Oh, and as if I had to tell you, you're never going to look at Patricia Neal the same way again.


The Breaking Point, moment to moment, is tighter than To Have and Have Not. It might even be a better picture. I think it is a better picture than We Were Strangers, and We Were Strangers, trust me, ain't no dog. I'd go so far as to say The Breaking Point rivals Treasure of the Sierra Madre. No, it doesn't have Bogart disintegrating like a sprung watch, but it's got a decent guy going over the edge, and you don't know if he's coming back.  Neither does he.

13 August 2019

Strange Impersonation

by Paul D. Marks

I was looking for a movie to watch and Strange Impersonation, directed by Anthony Mann, sounded interesting, so I put it on.

And since I’m going to use this movie to make a larger point I’m going to give away various plot elements. I could use other, better-known movies, but as this is less-known and will work just as well illustrating the point, I figure it’s better to give the store away here. I’m using this movie to make a point about most, if not all, movies that do this.

SPOILERS AHEAD:

Here’s the basic plot as told by Bruce Eder on All Movie: “Nora Goodrich (Brenda Marshall) is a dedicated research scientist who is very close to a breakthrough in her field of anesthetics. She allows herself to be used as the subject of an experiment, and becomes the victim of sabotage by her jealous assistant (Hillary Brooke), who is her rival for the affections of the same man (William Gargan). Nora is scarred by the accident, but fate takes a hand when a vicious blackmailer (Ruth Ford), part of an extortion scam that was being worked on her, breaks in to her apartment. In the ensuing struggle, the lady grifter is killed and then mistaken for Nora, while the real Nora goes into hiding. Taking the identity of the dead woman, she realizes how she has been betrayed and maimed and plots an elaborate revenge, undergoing reconstructive surgery that changes her whole appearance. She then reintroduces herself into the lives of her former associates, in her new guise, and begins her revenge. Before her plans can be concluded, however, her masquerade backfires on her, when she finds herself accused by the police -- of the murder of Nora Goodrich” (https://www.allmovie.com/movie/strange-impersonation-v111934#ASyuCJD6Q4IVUJxw.99)


Okay, it sounds pretty convoluted, but just go with it, ’cause that’s not the point of this post.

It started going along pretty well. Nothing great, but I didn’t turn it off either.

So, after the ‘accident,’ and after the blackmailer dies and is mistaken for the scientist, the scientist leaves her fiancé and her life behind. She heads out west. Has plastic surgery to look like the woman who was blackmailing her. She then returns to the city as that person and begins on a course of revenge against her former assistant. She insinuates herself back into her former fiancé’s life, trying to steal him back from his new lover, her former assistant. Before she can pull it all together, everything backfires on her and she finds herself accused of murder—the murder of herself (though really, as we know, the blackmailer).


Okay, still convoluted, but interesting.

EXCEPT…

…that all of the revenge part of the plot turns out to be a dream. Everything after the explosion/‘accident’ didn’t really happen. It was all a dream in the scientist’s head after the accident. So all the emotion and excitement and concern that we invested in the character/s was for nothing. Because none of it was real. There were no real consequences. The assistant didn’t really make an explosive compound that disfigured the scientist. The scientist didn’t really get plastic surgery, return to exact her revenge, which was thwarted before should could finish it and she wasn’t really arrested for the murder of…………herself.

None of it happened. Because it was a dream.

And because it was a dream it’s a cheat. And it makes me angry and it makes me feel like I wasted 68 minutes of my life. I don’t like movies where major plot elements turn out to be dreams. I’ve invested myself, I’ve given over my suspension of disbelief. And then none of it matters.

I won’t name other movies or TV shows where things have turned out to be dreams, because I don’t want to give them away for those who haven’t seen them (with a couple exceptions below). But I can’t think of one that I like once I learn the events that took place were just a dream and didn’t really happen. There are, however, a couple of exceptions: one film noir that I like fairly well where much of it turns out to be a dream, but even that one which, if there is an exception to the rule is it, disappoints me in the end because again, there was no real jeopardy. There were no real consequences. So what did it all amount to? Nothing. The other exception is The Wizard of Oz, but that whole story is a fantasy. We’re not supposed to buy it as a real story as we are with other movies.

(Just as a side note here: I’m not talking about movies like Spellbound, where dreams are used to analyze a character and figure them out. That’s fine. I’m talking about movies where we learn that much of the action was a dream and thus didn’t really take place within the context of the story.)

Freud might have loved dreams and found them useful in psychoanalyzing people. But in my opinion, in a movie they’re nothing but a cheap cheat.

What do you think? Do you find movies based on dreams a cheat? Do you feel deceived after you’ve seen them? Let us know.

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

My story Past is Prologue is out in the 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.



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