31 December 2019

The End is Near


As I write this, 2020 is only a few days away. As you read this, it likely is only a matter of hours. Tomorrow will be about looking forward, and Robert Lopresti will share prognostications from our fellow SleuthSayers. Today, though, is about looking backward.

I’ve had an unusual year, for several reasons, and following is my year-end wrap-up.

COLLABORATION

If 2019 had a theme, it was collaboration.

I collaborated on stories with four writers this year, saw one collaboration published (“Gracie Saves the World,” written with Sandra Murphy, was published in Maxim Jakubowski’s The Book of Extraordinary Historical Mystery Stories [Mango Publishing]) and had three more accepted. Two stories are making the rounds, and two more are still in progress.

I also collaborated as an editor. Trey R. Barker and I co-created and co-edited the Guns + Tacos serial novella anthology series, saw the first six episodes released as ebooks, one each month for the last six months of 2019, and the novellas will be collected in a pair of paperbacks scheduled for release in early 2020. Trey and I are currently editing six novellas for the second season, due out the last half of 2020.

Early in the year I joined Black Cat Mystery Magazine as co-editor and, though my name is listed in the masthead of issue 5, my first real impact on the publication will be the special issue Black Cat Mystery Magazine Presents Private Eyes, due out soon.

And Gary Phillips and I began work on an anthology scheduled for publication in spring of 2021.

NEW WRITING

Following a trend that began a few years ago, my output again dropped. I completed only 14 stories (including the collaborations), down from 19 last year, and that was down from 32 the year before, a huge drop from 56 in 2016.

I wrote (or co-wrote) 67,200 finished words of fiction. The shortest story was 1,600 words; the longest was 17,300 words.

Four stories were written in response to invitations. The rest were written for open-call anthologies, for markets where I’ve previously placed stories, or for no particular market at all.

ACCEPTED, PUBLISHED, AND RECOGNIZED

I had 15 stories accepted for publication. One was horror, one science fiction, one erotica, one a crime fiction/horror mashup, and the rest were various subgenres of crime fiction. Three were reprints; the rest were originals.

I had 22 stories published. One was fantasy, one science fiction, six erotica, and the rest various subgenres of crime fiction. Seven (including all six erotica stories) were reprints; the rest were originals.

My story “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” first published in Tough, was recognized as one of the “Other Distinguished Mystery Stories of 2018” in The Best American Mystery Stories 2019.

REJECTIONS

I received 13 rejections this year, and any year in which acceptances outnumber rejections is a good year.

EDITORIAL PROJECTS

One of the reasons I’ve written less the past two years may be my involvement with various editorial projects.

The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods was released by Down & Out Books just in time for Bouchercon, and the first season of Guns + Tacos was released the last six months of the year.

Edited this year (mostly) and scheduled for 2020 publication: Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir and the second season of Guns + Tacos.

Begun this year and scheduled for 2021 release: Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir 2 and an anthology I’m co-editing with Gary Phillips.

Additionally, as mentioned above, I joined Black Cat Mystery Magazine as co-editor.

UPCOMING

I ended my review of 2018 with a note that “2019 will be the year I just roll with it. I’ll try to take advantage of every opportunity that comes my way and see what happens.”

That worked out well, so I’m going to approach 2020 the same way. A year from now I’ll let you know how it worked out.

30 December 2019

Trouble and Strife - Cockney Rhyming Slang


Several months ago author Simon Woods asked me if I could write a story for an upcoming collection of stories, Trouble and Strife. The concept is to take a word or 2-word combination from cockney slang and write a story about it. The Cockney slang was developed in East London back around the 1850s for criminals and street merchants to communicate to each other in a code that others wouldn’t understand. For example they would use the words “bacon and eggs” for the words legs. And then to make it more confusing they might only refer to the first word instead of the complete words. So a phrase might go something like: “Check out those bacons over there.” 

Here is a video explaining the rhyming scheme better than I can:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=La7Tg5e547g  And you can find a list with several slangs here: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Appendix:Cockney_rhyming_slang 

Editor Simon Wood explained the following rationale for creating the anthology:

“Cockney rhyming slang is something that’s engrained in everyday British speech.  It’s distorted our mother tongue to the point that half the time people don’t realize they’re using it.  Even Americans don’t realize it.  “Chewing the fat” is pretty common in the US but it’s rhyming slang for “chat.” My mum is technically a cockney but my dad tossed around the odd gobbet of cockney rhyming slang all the time which baffled me as a kid until he taught me.  I love rhyming slang.  I love its creativity and imaginativeness.  I like that it keeps you on your toes when you’re having to decode a conversation while you’re having it.  I especially love the colorful phrases rhyming slang kicks up.  They paint a picture—and that was how I wanted my writers to feel.” 



Once I understood what Simon was asking for my mind shot over to a particular scene in the 1990s Scottish film Trainspotting when the characters are actually watching trains and not shooting up heroin. One character (John Lee Miller’s Sick Boy, I believe) turns to Ewan McGregor and says he’s “fuckin’ Lee Marvin.” 

Image result for trainspotting
My odd inspiration

I’ve maybe seen the movie twice and probably not in 15- 20 years, but somehow I recalled the moment when I heard a cockney rhyme and knew what it meant. So I wrote a revenge action story called “Lee Marvin” that would fit within the famous actor’s repertoire. The story kicks off with a tall, white haired protagonist who has been double-crossed, shot, and is starv…very, very hungry.  

Image result for lee marvin
Smilin' and Starvin'
Here are a few more stories featured in the collection as described by their authors. 

Babbling Brook (for “crook”) was one of the first Cockney phrases Simon mentioned when recruiting a story from me. I immediately thought, what if Brook was a person...

When I put a list of Cockney slang in front of me, Dicky Dirt jumped out at me. I didn’t know what it meant, but it sounded like the nickname of a buddy back home. Gweez, Bucket, Kirch, Nuts, Dong, and Snout are all people I grew up with. Dicky Dirt would fit right in. When I learned that it was the slang for shirt, that was cool, because a couple of my friends wear shirts. You know, if there’s a funeral or wedding.

My story "Barnet Fair" is set in a hairdresser's salon called . . . Barnet Fair. Two reasons. First, my favourite Cockney rhyming slang is the stuff I've heard and even used my whole life and didn't know was Cockney rhyming slang. I never wondered why a hairdo was called a barnet (and me a linguistics graduate!) [[just like I always thought "brassick" was the word people were saying when they had no money, because money = brass and it's sickening to have none. In my defence, how could anyone get "boracic" = boracic lint = skint = broke]]. The other reason for the story was my swooning in delight after reading Renee James' Seven Suspsects, whose protagonist is a hairdresser (note: this is not a cozy) and the way it brought back memories of my own days as a Saturday shampoo girl. 

When Simon told me he wanted a short story for his anthology, Trouble & Strife my first thought was, Wife. That quickly morphed into Wife Beater and I knew that Trouble and Strife was the story for me. Trouble was, that title had already been taken so I muttered a few choice Anglo Saxon words and tried to choose something else from the list of available slang terms. But I couldn’t shake Wife Beater, which is somebody who beats up his wife in England but a sleeveless vest in America. Then Trouble and Strife became available again and I had my story. Now all I had to do was write it. The proof being, you’re reading it now.

My story is “Pleasure and Pain.” I travelled that March with my son through Germany’s Black Forest and we came upon many small towns, with people who seemed guarded. They were friendly but there seemed to be something hidden. With the gray and the rain it added to the shroud. So I said to my son, this would be a great setting for a story about a town hiding secrets.

I selected “Tea Leaf” which means thief. The phrase instantly evoked a burglary for me, and allowed me to explore a question I’ve always pondered. What would I do, if I were caught in a store robbery, and I suddenly realize that one of the robbers is someone I know?



Other stories in the collection are:

Angel Luis Colón's "Bunson Burner"
Paul Finch's "Mr. Kipper"
Jay Stringer's "Half Inch"
Sam Wiebe's  "Lady from Bristol"

You can get your copy of Trouble and Strife directly from Down and Out Books, Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other upstanding vendors. 


Wishing everybody a happy New Years along with extra reading and writing!





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 TSRichardson.com

29 December 2019

Season to Taste




Just for fun, let's use the premise that the act of writing stories is similar to the art of cooking fine foods. We'll skip any images of hopping from the frying pan and into the fire as far as plots and scenes go. No, what I'm referring to here is adding a little extra flavor specifically to a particular story or its series. Just like every chef prefers to season various foods with certain flavors to add more richness to the taste, I think stories should be flavored with a little extra seasoning to enrich the consumer's enjoyment. So, pick your own condiment: mustard, ketchup, salt, pepper, curry... I have one series where Buddha Soy Sauce comes to mind, therefore, I'll start with that one.

Paperback cover - coming in 2021
Tales from the Golden Triangle

When I came back to the world from Nam in '68, I brought back a brown, rough-cast glass bottle of Buddha Soy Sauce. Over there, we put it on cooked white rice and the Vietnamese version of sub sandwiches. Seems the French had had a large influence in that country for a while and had introduced the Annamese to long, narrow loaves of French bread.

As a young lad fresh from Kansas, I found that part of the Orient to be a fascinating and exotic land. Many years later, I went on to write fiction about the Golden Triangle, an area contained in Burma, Laos and Thailand, right next door to the conflict in Nam. My story protagonist was a pure-blood Chinese young man raised in the British school system of Hong Kong. His father was an old White Nationalist Chinese soldier turned opium warlord who had taken his younger son (the protagonist) out of the civilized world and placed him in the jungle camps to learn the family business. The protagonist's elder brother who was half-Chinese and half-Shan hill tribe was raised in the savage environment of the jungle and wants no obstacle between him and inheriting their warlord father's opium empire. Plots and counter-plots begin.

For extra seasoning in this series, I added at least one Chinese proverb to the mix in every story. Not only did one of the characters recite the proverb in the story dialogue, it was said in the appropriate place in the story to foreshadow the action about to happen or to explain what had already happened. For instance: "He who reckons without his host must reckon again." Roughly translates to: Some people think only of the advantages they can get in a relationship and yet make no allowances for any potential disadvantages that could happen. In the story, Elder Brother has made a nefarious deal with a rival opium group, but the rival double-crosses him. Bad reckoning on the part of older brother. Then, after the protagonist rescues Elder Brother from the rival group, Elder Brother thinks he is still in a position to be one up on his rescuer, but in the end, he hasn't reckoned with his new host, his younger half-brother.

E-book cover, also in Paperback
as of 2019

Twin Brothers Bail Bond series

Here, I think the heat of curry is appropriate. The proprietor of the Twin Brothers Bail firm has reluctantly hired a new Executive Secretary. Seems all the other candidates have died in accidents, committed suicide, moved, disappeared or were otherwise no longer available for the job. The new hire is a cadaverous Hindu later reputed to have come from an old-time family of Thuggees in India. In this series, to match the action in an appropriate place, the Secretary/Thuggee will utter a saying from the pacifist Mahatma Gandhi. But, when the Secretary says the same words, they end up with a sinister meaning. Example:

     Late the following morning, Theodore entered the outer office and found the swarthy man sitting behind the executive Secretary's desk.

     "What are you doing here?"

     The Hindu fixed his unblinking gaze on Theodore.

     "The divine law is that man must earn his bread by laboring with his own hands."

    Moklal Feringheea then stretched his outstretched fingers.

     Theodore watched the sinuous movement of the muscular hands and took a step sideways.

(NOTE: Thuggees usually strangled their victims. Not quite what Gandhi had in mind for use of  hands.)
E-book cover, also in paperback as of 2019

Holiday Burglars series

For this series, I think sweet and sour sauce, two opposite or different flavors in one. Here, the title of each story has more than one meaning. In "Click, Click, Click," a Christmas season burglary, Beaumont and Yarnell are breaking into the house of Antoine, a drug dealer who hides his illicit proceeds in gift boxes under the Christmas tree. Normally, the "Click, Click, Click" would put one to thinking of the Christmas song where the line goes: Up on the rooftop, click, click, click... referring to the sound of reindeer hooves. However, in this case, our boys have counted houses from the wrong corner and have now broken into a house belonging to a member of the NRA. So, what noise does a revolver make when it's being cocked before firing? Right. And so it goes with the other titles, such as "Labor Day" where the burglars are escaping from the scene of the crime in an ancient elevator when it stops for a pregnant female headed to the hospital..

Anyway, these are just a few examples of how I try to spice up my stories and put a little something extra in them to differentiate my stories from all the other good stories out there.

How about you?

Got any tricks of the trade you would care to share?

All this talk of food made me hungry. I'll go make a sandwich while we're waiting for your answer.


28 December 2019

The Event Was a Success – Nobody Died. (A fun post to welcome the new year.)


Above is the motto of marketing and public relations professionals when describing an event they managed.  You think I’m kidding.  Hah!

A lot of people in the crime writing world know me through my committee involvement in Bouchercon 2016, and the semi-annual Bloody Words mystery con in Toronto.  There’s a reason why I was on those committees.  It has to do with my real job.

I’ve been a professional event and conference planner since the 1980s, when I was part of the Bell Canada Golf Tournament committee.  That’s a lot of years.  In that time, I’ve arranged corporate promotional gigs, entire conferences, and classy fundraising dos.  The key to event planning is the second word:  PLANNING.  We try to anticipate everything that could possibly go wrong, and plan for it.  Probably, we are the most anal, list-making people you would ever come across.  Even so, and even with a ton of experience, I’ve found you can’t plan for everything.  What can go wrong, you say?

Just wait.

You can have water…and well, water.

Note to self: never trust your new staff with critical functions, like – for instance – the bar at a reception for 500.  She took care of the liquor license.  The cocktail food.  The entertainment.  The security.  The insurance.  Everything, in fact, except actually hiring the bars plus bartenders plus spirits.  One hour before the event-start, we were frantically on the phone with a nearby hotel, working a deal to borrow all the staff and spirits they could muster.  They came through, bless their extremely expensive hearts.  As conference-goers waited in the two interminable bar lineups, senior management sashayed up and down the line with lavish finger food to stall the riots.  “It’s so nice to see all the executives get involved like this,” said happy munchers, blissfully unaware of their near-dry event.

Said senior managers took turns slurping the bottle behind the stage.

Lesson learned: ALWAYS put booze and the serving of which at the top of your checklist.  People will forgive most everything.  But not that.

But I thought Moose Factory was in the Prairies…

In Newfoundland, they have a nifty way to make a little extra money.  Moose insurance.  No, really.  I used to work for a really big health care association that had conferences across Canada.  The national conference was in St. John’s one year.  It took a lot of organizing to get the main sponsor’s huge demonstration truck across to the island of Newfoundland.  This was a million dollar vehicle filled with the latest scientific and medical equipment, for demonstrating to the lab manager attendees.  Not a shabby enterprise, and the highlight of our nerdy conference, seeing all those state of the art goodies.  That truck rocked.

Until it was totalled by a Moose on the highway. 

Lesson learned:  ALWAYS get moose insurance.  Yes, this is a thing.

Bus 54, where ARE you?
 

Wine tour.  Yes, those words should never be allowed together.  People who go on wine tours invariably like to drink.  As you might expect, so do their bus drivers. 

It takes 45 minutes to get from Hamilton to Niagara Falls.  A convoy of six buses started out.  Three hours later, five buses made it for the dinner theatre.  The sixth made a slight detour to a winery and never got out of the tasting room.  Nobody there minded.  They had a kick-ass time in the attached resto.  I’m told everyone forgot about the dinner theatre in Niagara.  We tried to reach them.  But the ribald singing made it hard for people to hear their phones. 

Lesson learned:  Never *start* your event at a winery.

Dogs and dragons…it will never work.

Twenty years ago, I joined the PR staff of a major urban teaching hospital.  Anxious to show our commitment to multiculturalism, we scheduled several ethnic lunch days in the cafeteria, complete with food and entertainment.  You can imagine our excitement when the local Chinese community agreed to bring costumed dancers with elaborate twelve foot dragon into our facility.

So it was with great pride and a certain amount of smugness that we had news media standing by.  Not only that, the local television station agreed to film the event.  All good.  Hundreds of people crowded in.  The music started up.  The dancers came on stage. The twelve foot long colourful paper undulating dragon was magnificent.  Cameras rolled.

Cut scene to our blind physiotherapist on staff, who came into the cafeteria with his seeing eye dog Mack.  Mack took one look at the huge dragon and took off, knocking over his master and a table full of thoughtfully provided multicultural food.  Dog went crashing into dragon:  Rips, screams, people running, tables falling, and all this thoughtfully caught on camera for the six o’clock news.  “Hamilton Hospital celebrates Multiculturalism”

We called in every favour we had banked from every media person in town, to keep this off the news.

Lesson learned:  The event was a success.  Only the dragon died.


27 December 2019

Jan and Dean, and the Writer Who Brought Them Back from Dead Man's Curve


Jan Berry had it all.

Jan and Dean's '63 drag race classic,
"Dead Man Curve." 
He was the Jan of Jan and Dean, the pop duo who, along with the Beach Boys, made surfing and drag racing something to sing about. Like the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, Jan wrote and produced. He was writing charts for the Wrecking Crew (if that term doesn't ring a bell, check out the the 2008 doc of the same name) while Brian Wilson and his brothers were still the primary musicians on Beach Boy records. Brian Wilson wrote "Surf City" with Jan. They appeared on each other's recordings.

Brian Wilson and Jan Berry were flip sides of the same coin. Brian Wilson was a studio progeny who stopped touring with his band so he could devote himself to creating gems like "God Only Knows" and "Wouldn't it Be Nice." While Jan Berry was a technically savvy producer, Brian blossomed in the studio. He directed the Wrecking Crew like Dudamel conducts the LA Philharmonic.  Brian was pudgy, and younger brother Dennis (famously the one true surfer of the group) was the only Beach Boy who seemed a natural on an album cover. Though the leader of the Beach Boys, Brian was cowed by his overbearing dad until he and his band of brothers kicked pops out of the control room. Pops got his revenge by selling the Beach Boys library for, if not peanuts, peanut brittle.

Brian Wilson, '66
If you took Brian's musical know-how and combined it with younger brother Dennis' good looks and athleticism, you'd get a closer picture of Jan Berry.  Jan Berry was a BMOC, a West LA high school football player and rule-breaking prankster who took orders from no one. According to Paul Morantz's groundbreaking Rolling Stone essay "The Road Back from Dead Man's Curve," Jan ran away from home for six months after his dad embarrassed him by picking him up at a party in front of his friends. "He had always been his own man and disliked authority of any kind. He was, said a friend, so much smarter, quicker, stronger than anyone else that he just made up his own rules," Morantz writes.

Jan and Dean
Jan Barry was living the dream. While making hit records and touring, Jan was, amazingly, a pre-med student at UCLA, minoring in music. He was the ultimate mid-sixties hyphenate. It's almost as if he had a duel identity, like Adam West's groovy '60s Batman.  Jan Berry, medical student by day, surfer-auteur by night. Jan and Dean even riffed on this idea in the album Jan and Dean Meet Batman. According to Dean Torrence, Jan didn't sweat it if record execs tried to push the duo around. "He's pre-med, I'm at the School of Architecture at USC. What do we care?" Dean said in a 2004 interview with Rolling Stone.  "You're going to kick us off the label? We'll start our own."

Jan dated Ann-Margret. Jan dated Yvette Mimieux. Jan drove his Corvette Sting Ray fast. Sometimes he worked while driving. "I'd seen him transpose stuff (music) while driving in his car,"  Dean remembers. "Why he just didn't ask me to drive while he changed the notes, I don't know."

Jan Barry crashed his Sting Ray into a parked pick-up truck in 1966, not far from the real Dead Man's Curve that he and Dean made a hit record about. Jan Berry suffered permanent brain damage. When once nothing seemed to exceed his grasp, now he had to relearn how to sign his name.  The go-it-alone attitude that had served Berry when he had the talent to back it up now only pushed people away. Los Angeles lowlifes leeched money from Berry, some plying him with drugs. He retained dreams of a come back, but who wanted a singer who couldn't sing? Dean, like the rest of the world, moved on.

Paul Morantz,
attorney, journalist, author
Paul Morantz is a LA hyphenate too; he's a lawyer and an investigative journalist.  As an attorney Morantz has successfully taken on shady cults.  Probably his most famous case was battling Synanon in the '70s. Synanon was a drug rehab facility based in Santa Monica that slowly morphed into a dangerous paramilitary cult. After Morantz became too big a threat, Synanon put a rattlesnake in Morantz's mailbox. The snake bit Morantz, and he spent six days in the hospital. Thanks in large part to Morantz's many lawsuits (and the snake incident), Synanon dissolved in 1991.

Perhaps Morantz's most famous piece of journalism is one of his first. According to his website (PaulMorantz.Com), Paul first met Jan Berry in 1969. Paul was a USC law student vacationing in Palm Springs, where he met a "strange figure with a handicapped body and a broken voice" sitting in the lounge chair next to him.   Paul wrote an article for the Daily Trojan about his two-day encounter with Jan Berry. This was the basis for "The Road Back from Dead Man's Curve," published in Rolling Stone in 1974.

"The Road Back from Dead Man's Curve" details the rise and fall of Jan and Dean, with the focus on the aftermath for Jan. I just want to stop here and say how good Morantz's writing is. He really paints a scene with his words. Here he is describing the leeches who ripped Jan off:

They came like scavengers to a shipwreck. Strangers walked in, used his bedroom and kitchen, and walked out, some with his stereo equipment and others with his records, clothes, or liquor. For those who stayed awhile Jan bought gifts and lent his car but eventually they left, too.

The story builds as Jan slowly, painfully, puts his life back together.  Morantz gives a fully formed picture of Jan before the accident:

He was concerned only with achievement. He worked constantly and kept few friends. His mind was always working on everything at once...

Jan lost the power to concentrate after the accident. Writing lyrics became impossible, though music still flowed through him. Unlike before, Jan has no choice but to take everything slow. He spends his time taking walks. He yearns for friendships. It's clear he'll never get to where he was, but it's enough that he just gets happier. The lessons that Jan Berry has to learn apply to all of us. Morantz is cleverly writing not just about Jan's comeback, but about the human condition. It's really a beautiful tale.
TV movie Deadman's Curve

"The Road Back from Dead Man's Curve" struck a chord. Interest in Jan and Dean picked up. The duo began performing together for the first time in years. Morantz's article became Deadman's Curve, a '78 TV movie for CBS that he co-wrote.  Richard Hatch played Jan, Bruce Davison played Dean. I saw it on TV when I was a kid and loved it.  It fit in nicely with all the '50s-early '60s, Happy Days-stoked  nostalgia of the era. And it's a great comeback story.

Jan Berry was fearless and smart. If the music thing didn't pan out, he'd be a doctor. Maybe he and Jan would have their own TV show. He had a lot of irons in the fire. He wasn't interested in making sensitive music about his feelings, and he wasn't necessarily sympathetic to the counter culture that was rising around him. Even so, "Dean Man's Curve," is a stone cold classic, the best of the drag racing tunes. I like its attention to detail. The Sting Ray. The Jag. The  deserted Sunset Strip. It's a tale of hubris that ends in death.

Jan Berry did walk back from Dead Man's Curve, but unlike his former self, he couldn't go it alone. He had the help of Paul Morantz, a writer who dug deep again and again until he got to the heart of a story.

Check out PaulMorantz.com to read "The Road Back from Dead Man's Curve." Paul Morantz is a terrific writer and journalist who has many great stories to tell. 



I'm Lawrence Maddox.

My novel Fast Bang Booze is available from DownAndOutBooks.com

MadXBooks@gmail.com
Or on Twitter, Lawrence Maddox@Madxbooks.

26 December 2019

Happy Boxing Day & Happy Kwanzaa!


Get it?
First off, Happy Boxing Day to all who practice it!

And speaking of the day originally set aside by our friends across The Pond in the U.K. for "The Help" to get to open their own presents (sort of a poor-person-in-service's bargain rate Christmas-the-day-after-the-actual-event), did anyone else grow up thinking it was weird to look at a calendar to see that Canada set aside a day to celebrate boxing?

Stay with me, here.

(Happy Kwanzaa too!)



When I was a kid, the calendar–and this was that thing we hung on a wall and consulted, not an app that came with our phone chock full of pop-up alarms/reminders and with plenty of room in it for personalization so we could add even more new reminders about stuff only we personally need to be reminded about–read "Boxing Day (Canada)." No mention of the United Kingdom, or any of the other dominions of the British Empire anywhere in evidence on said calendar entry. So I naturally assumed that the people who made the calendar knew something I didn't: that Canadians set aside a day to celebrate the Sweet Science.

This seems more like it.
Now, bear in mind that I was about six at the time. Which kind of explains my thinking, "Huh, I'd expect them to have 'Hockey Day' before 'Boxing Day.' I guess boxing is way more popular in Canada than I thought." I would revisit this notion several months later, during the Summer Olympics. I was truly perplexed that it seemed as if every good boxer was either Cuban, American, or Russian. Not a Canadian in the bunch.

And I was once again puzzled at the popularity of boxing in a country which didn't field very impressive athletes in that sport. This was in 1972, so it was several years before the likes such PR efforts as the "Jamaican Bob-Sledding Team" became a thing.

It was only years later that I came to understand that Boxing Day was a cultural remnant passed on to our cousins to the north by the British. The same British, of course, also settled the original thirteen American colonies. And yet for some reason the tradition of "Boxing Day," widely considered to date back well into the 17th century, just never caught on here, south of the 49th parallel.


And nowadays I'm given to understand that (in Canada, at least), Boxing Day is very much like our American tradition of Black Friday. Can't help but wonder whether internet commerce hasn't played Hell with that tradition up in Canada the way it has here in the States. Due to Black Friday deals shifting online, nowadays we have whole stores that go untrampled, with zero fights erupting over the last "This Year's Must-Have Item" at your local Nordstrom Rack, and any number national retail brands no longer bothering to dragoon all of their available sales forces to go in to work at around 10 P.M. on Thanksgiving Night, in preparation for the busiest shopping day of the year.

But regardless, Canada (and the rest of the dominions of the British Empire, for that matter), you do you.

And Happy Boxing Day!


While I'm at it, a quick shout out to those who celebrate Kwanzaa, which also starts today, and runs through New Years' Day. A relatively recent addition to the interfaith midwinter holiday tradition, Kwanzaa nevertheless has a lot to recommend it, and I am a fan of the intentions behind the holiday: to highlight the contributions of members of the "African Diaspora" to the societies throughout the Americas where they and their ancestors were brought as slaves, and to which they and their descendants will continue to contribute as citizens.


The seven principles Kwanzaa celebrates are Unity, Self-Determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity and Faith. For my money, these are all worth celebrating, and tying that celebration in to African traditions and their cultural echoes in our ever-diversifying culture? Also definitely worthwhile.



So Happy Kwanzaa, and Happy Boxing Day!

See you in two weeks!

25 December 2019

Raymond Briggs



I was first introduced to Raymond Briggs with Fungus the Bogeyman, and then his dystopian heartbreaker When the Wind Blows. I hadn't realized he was already famous in the UK for his holiday stories, The Snowman, and the two Father Christmas books. Briggs himself claims to have no real attachment to Christmas, but for all that, here's some cheer. You'll probably recognize the line in his drawings, which feels altogether specific and familiar.

Bless us each and every one, in this season of both want and plenty.













24 December 2019

My Secret About "Alex's Choice"


This column is about my newly published short story "Alex's Choice" in the anthology Crime Travel. If you plan to read the story, I recommend you do so first before proceeding here. What I'm about to reveal isn't a plot spoiler but it may impact your reading experience.

Okay. Let's get started. (And if you just read the story, I hope you liked it!)

When you start writing a short story or novel, you have some basic decisions to make. Who will my main character be? What will this person's name be? Job and hobbies if relevant? Appearance? What journey will the character face? And perhaps one of the biggest questions, what will the character's gender be? Maybe that question shouldn't be important, but it is, as it can (though it doesn't have to) affect so much in how a story is told.

It's a decision I've made for the main characters as well as the minor ones in all of my stories, except for one. When I wrote my story "Alex's Choice" (published earlier this month in the crime/time-travel anthology Crime Travel), I purposely chose not to make that decision for the title character. I chose the name Alex because it was the most gender-neutral name I could think of. Alex could be short for Alexander or Alexandra, for Alexi or Alexa or Alexis. Or the name might not be a nickname at all. I polled Facebook friends, asking if they thought someone named Alex would be a boy or girl with no other clues. For those who hazarded a guess, the results were pretty evenly split. So is Alex in my story a twelve-year-old boy or girl or perhaps even nonbinary? I never tell you. The answer is up to the reader.

Actually, I wrote the story hoping the reader would not consciously make that decision. Given that the name could be viewed as male or female, I hoped it would lead each reader to assume--without realizing it--that Alex is of the same gender as that reader. That was important because I wanted readers to remember stories they read as a child, fantasies or adventures that swept them away, and to get that same feel from this story. By not telling the reader Alex's gender, I allowed every reader to identify with Alex and perhaps picture themselves as Alex. At least I hope I did.

While I've done no research on this, I'd guess my decision not to tell the reader Alex's gender is similar to the gender-neutral approach to the Choose Your Own Adventure books popular when I was a kid. "You" were the main character, as I recall. The books were oriented toward every child. The main character's gender was never mentioned, likely because the author and publisher wanted every child to be able to see themselves as that character and go on that adventure. (Illustrations in some the books unfortunately depicted the main character as a boy, but I believe the stories themselves never did that.)

This no-gender-mentioned approach added challenges to the writing process. For instance, when talking about toys Alex had when younger, as well as activities Alex enjoys now, I chose things that I hoped readers wouldn't  associate as male or female. This was important because, while boys can play with dolls and girls can play with action figures, for some readers, a reference to dolls will automatically make that reader think the character is a girl, and a reference to action figures will automatically make the reader think the character is a boy.

One choice I made that made the writing process a little easier was telling the story in first person. I didn't have to avoid using pronouns in reference to Alex.

Of course I'm not the only writer to have ever written about characters' whose genders are ambiguous throughout the entire tale. Most such novels and stories, it seems, have been penned in the science fiction realm. As for crime fiction, my research has turned up the Detective Hilary Tamar four-novel series by the late Sarah Caudwell. Tamar's gender is never revealed in any of the books. In Steven Rigolosi's novel Androgynous Murder House Party, the author never reveals the gender of any of the seven main characters in the book. He hints near the end about some of their genders, but they are only hints. And Louise Penny has a character in two of her books, Bean, whose gender is never revealed.

So now you know a big secret about "Alex's Choice." If you read the story before you read this column, did it work--did you picture yourself as Alex? Did you assume Alex was the same gender as you? I'd also love to know if you've read any of the other books/authors I've mentioned above. If so, did not knowing the characters' gender affect the reading process and your enjoyment of the works?

And if you're now intrigued and are dying to buy Crime Travel or are at least thinking about it, here's some helpful information. It has fifteen short stories. The authors with stories in the book are: Melissa H. Blaine, James Blakey, Michael Bracken, Anna Castle, Brendan DuBois, David Dean, John M. Floyd, Heidi Hunter, Eleanor Cawood Jones, Adam Meyer, Barbara Monajem, Korina Moss, Art Taylor, Cathy Wiley, and, of course, me. We've had some solid reviews. To find them, just Google Crime Travel and my name. (I edited the book.) The anthology is available in trade paperback and ebook. (A hardcover version is coming but hasn't been shipped from the printer yet.) You can buy Crime Travel from the usual online sources. Indie bookstore Mystery Loves Company in Oxford, Maryland, also has copies they are happy to mail to you.

I wish you a wonderful holiday season and new year. And happy reading!

23 December 2019

Christmas (On-stage) in Connecticut


by Steve Liskow

Remember the old seasonal entertainment traditions around Christmas? Growing up, I always watched Perry Como's Christmas program on TV, and there were other holiday specials I came to take for granted, too. The Grinch still guarantees a green Christmas, and the Peanuts special a white one.

In Connecticut, and I assume elsewhere, local theaters bombard us with Christmas-themed productions, some funny, some traditional, some downright scary.

Leading the pack is the Hartford Stage Company's production of A Christmas Carol.
It stays faithful to Dickens with elaborate staging including flying ghosts, spectacular lighting effects and creepy sounds. Students from nearby Hartt College play supporting characters, and local children become the Cratchit family. In this, the production's 22nd season, the four-week run was sold out before the opening show. I only got to see it because my wife, who acted at Hartford Stage a few years ago, still gets comps to most shows. Naturally, we grabbed them.

A newer standby is TheaterWorks Christmas on the Rocks. Artistic director Rob Ruggiero invited local playwrights to create monologues in which well-known characters from various other works sit in a bar and discuss their lives since their moments in the spotlight. This year's production features Ted Lange, formerly known as Isaac, the bartender on The Love Boat, as the bartender. He listens to an older Tiny Tim, Charlie Brown, Zuzu from It's a Wonderful Life, and Clara from The Nutcracker, among others.
The production premiered in 2013 and has become a local tradition, gathering momentum and new characters each year.







Joe Mantello adapted The Santaland Diaries, originally an essay by David Sedaris in 1992, telling of his working as an elf in Macy's Santaland. At least three different productions are now running within driving distance of our condo.

And, of course, last but longest-running, a "radio" play production of It's a Wonderful Life, complete with the foley table for sound effects and old microphones the actors pretend to read into. My wife was in a production of this decades ago and, again, we can find several different versions less than a gas tank away.

Like Perry Como in a previous generation, all of these have come to mean Christmas in Connecticut, almost as clearly as mobbed shopping malls and neighbors singing carols after getting fortified with high-test eggnog.

Only two shopping days left, so remember that books are great gifts. There's a book out there for everyone, they can be re-read and shared, and they're easy to wrap. Just sayin'...

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Oh, and BSP for the holidays, "This Year's Model" won Honorable Mention for this year's Black Orchid Novella Award, sponsored by The Wolfe Pack and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. I received the news ten days ago.