13 August 2020

Some Things Will Give You Nightmares


Last week was the 75th anniversary of the United States' atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, 8:15 AM. (Nagasaki was bombed August 9, 1945 at 11:01 AM.) I'm not going into the whole history of how those two cities were chosen to be the first and only cities ever to be nuked, nor why no demonstration bomb or warning was given, nor how, even after Nagasaki, Japan's war council still wanted to continue fighting the war. (It wasn't until the Emperor announced that, as long as kokutai - which approximately means Japanese sovereignty - was recognized, he was going to surrender to the Allies, that the war council was forced to acceptance. Sort of.)

But what I want to talk about is the power of the written word.

Back when I taught History of Japan classes (Ancient in the fall, Modern in the spring), when we got to WW2, I had them read John Hersey's Hiroshima and showed them Frank Capra's short film Know Your Enemy: Japan. You can watch it too, below.


The New Yorker has put the magazine version of Hiroshima (originally published August 24, 1946, and it was the entire magazine) available for free online HERE.

A photograph of a walking figure and dead trees


After watching the movie in class and reading the book, they had to write reports analyzing both as propaganda and/or journalism. And then we discussed it all in class.

Couple of things: they found Frank Capra's propaganda techniques pretty funny and pretty crude. Most of them almost always ignored the fact that John Hersey chose as his protagonists those who Americans would be able to relate to.

"A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors. They still wonder why they lived when so many others died." - Hiroshima, p. 2

MY NOTE: If that sounds similar to the opening line of Thornton Wilder's 1929 The Bridge of San Luis Rey: “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” - it should. Hersey cited it as a direct inspiration for his Hiroshima.
Anyway, the six characters are:
  • Mrs. Nakamura - widow raising children.
  • Dr. Terufumi Sasaki - dedicated physician, very Westernized.
  • Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge - German Jesuit priest living in Hiroshima.
  • Toshiko Sasaki - Catholic - who is abandoned by her fiancé after being left crippled, and becomes a nun with the Society of the Helpers of Holy Souls.
  • Dr. Masakazu Fujii - self-absorbed, worldly.
  • Pastor Kiyoshi Tanimoto - Methodist pastor who loves America.
I mean, really, 3 Christians? Japan is at most 2.3% Christian, and the majority are Shinto and/or Buddhist. One foreigner? Two doctors? Mrs. Nakamura is about the only "typical Japanese" in the book. Think that might be on purpose?

Anyway. To move on to what struck me, year after year. The students, as I say, found Capra's movie crude and even funny. The visuals - piles of dead babies, flamethrowers used on living people, etc. - didn't bother them a bit. In fact, most of them didn't even remember those. But they found Hiroshima harrowing. I always had someone who said, "that scene in the [___] gave me nightmares." And a lot of heads nodding in agreement.

This shouldn't be surprising.

"An average American youth will witness 200,000 violent acts on television before age 18. Violence is often considerable, even in programs not advertised as violent. Overall, weapons appear on prime time television an average of nine times each hour.19 An estimated 54 percent of American children can watch this programming from the privacy of their own bedrooms."

Volume I: summary report of the American Psychological Association Commission on Violence and Youth. 1993.

I'd say it's gone up since then.

Anyway, they'd been jaded. They've seen dead babies before; Grand Theft Auto and other video games provide explicit ways of tearing off people's heads, disembowling them, etc.

But words are still effective. If the writing is good. And Hersey's is very good. What scene affected the students most? Depended on the student. The wounded in the river; Father Kleinsorge wandering around with pieces of glass in his neck and back; the burns; the bodies; the vomiting; the polluted river; the skin… They had nightmares.

It novel cover

That's what writing is all about, isn't it? Making someone see it - whatever "it" is - in their minds.

If you can do that, they'll never be able to forget. We've all read scenes like that. We've all - I hope - written at least one scene like that.

Go, and write some more.


12 August 2020

Pudd'nheads


 

Mark Twain's essay, 'Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses,' is one of the more definitive take-downs, rude, exacting, and murderously funny. Twain's subject was always America, the American narrative and the American imagination. Cooper, for all his faults, is clearly the first American novelist. An infelicitous writer he may be, but he's more or less trying to invent a New World literature, and in this sense, we wouldn't have Twain if Cooper hadn't ploughed the ground beforehand. Twain means what he says about Cooper's stylistic clunkers ("use the right word, not its second cousin"), and certainly there's a generational difference, Cooper an inflated literary monument who's fallen out of fashion, Twain the more spirited and energetic voice, but Twain's real quarrel seems to be with the tradition of Romantic literature itself. Cooper's themes are vigorous, but his execution is lazy, and generic conventions sand off the rough edges. Twain argues for a greater muscularity.  


Cooper's dates are 1789 to 1851. Sir Walter Scott's are 1771 to 1832. They're almost contemporaries. And you can see similarities, their discursiveness on the one hand, and too many easy outs on the other - what you might call the With-One-Gigantic-Leap school of hairbreadth escapes. (In all fairness, Scott is a much livelier and more inventive writer than Cooper; credit where credit is due.) I'm also bringing up Scott because Twain's got a score to settle with him, too. Twain wrote Life on the Mississippi some years after the fact, and although he has a soft spot for the river and its steamboat culture, he's not at all nostalgic for the slave economy of the prewar South, and he puts the blame for the elegiac folderol of the Lost Cause squarely on Walter Scott. Nor does he mean it as metaphor. Twain says expressly that the sentimental goop in Scott's romances - in particular Bonnie Prince Charlie and the failed Stuart uprising of 1745 - leads not only into the failed enterprise of Secession, but that it influences the historically revisionist nonsense that the slave states were some kind of agrarian Eden, unsullied by grasping capital and crude industrial instincts, a benevolent plantation economy, where the darkies of some mythic bygone age were happy to know their place.


Twain has no patience with this crap at all. Remember that he was born in Missouri twenty-five years before the Civil War, and was no stranger to slavery as a commonplace of everyday life. Twain seems to be the first American writer to integrate slavery (no pun intended) into the fabric of his fiction. I don't mean to scant Harriet Beecher Stowe, but Uncle Tom's Cabin is agitprop. It was enormously successful, at the time second in sales only to the Bible, but let's be honest, it's not seriously coherent, or anything like realistic. It rings every phony bell. If we take Twain's critical yardstick as a useful measure, Uncle Tom's Cabin is flabby, and Huckleberry Finn is muscular. Twain represents slavery as a constant in the social dynamic, it's simply there. Harriet Stowe preaches. Twain is more subversive. If slavery is the lie at the heart of America, the original sin, Twain disinherits our creation myth. This country wasn't founded on the altar of liberty, he tells us, it was established with a crime.


Huckleberry Finn is celebrated for its vivid invention: Miss Watson, a tolerable slim old maid, Moses and the Bullrushers, praying for fishhooks; Huck's escape from his father, his deceptions, disguises, and improvisations; the long, somnolent days adrift on the river; the abandoned boat, and the House of Death; the Grangerford feud, easily the single most terrifying episode of the book; the killing of Boggs, and the public shaming of the lynch mob; the horrifying vigilante violence that overtakes the Duke and the King; even its farcical ending, the over-elaborate plot to free Jim. What knits it all together, through its eventfulness and Quixotic structure, the shifting landscape of shore and water, is Huck's shifting internal landscape, his moral antagonisms. Jim is clearly human, Huck sees him as a person; but Jim is chattel, he belongs to somebody else. There's a moment when Jim talks about trying to rescue his wife and children from their new owner, and Huck is scandalized. Jim's talking about doing an injury to a man Huck doesn't even know - this is how Huck puts it to himself - stealing another man's property. The irony passes without being labored. Another example is that that Duke and the King can trade Jim off as a fugitive (he is, of course, having run away from Miss Watson), but it doesn't matter whether Jim is a particular fugitive, on a wanted poster. The fact that he's black, and on the loose, and nobody lays claim to him, is enough. He's guilty by virtue of who he is. Once they miss the confluence of the Mississippi and the Ohio at Cairo, the tip of Illinois, they're drifting into the Deep South. Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas. Jim's exposure is greater, his hope of rescue that much less. The comedy begins to sink, and the inevitable weight of despair settles on Huck's shoulders, a long-held, guilty secret.


For all that I recognize Huckleberry Finn as a great book - I agree with Hemingway, among others, that it is in fact the Great American Novel - Huckleberry Finn is not Twain's closing argument about slavery. That book would be Pudd'nhead Wilson, a novel Twain began as slapstick, or farce, but which descends into utter darkness, a bottomless sinkhole of cruelty and shame.

Pudd'nhead Wilson is a murder mystery, and it turns on themes of doubling. The two Italian twins, who appear to be working a parapsychology con, and the two boys switched at birth, Tom Driscoll and Valet de Chambre. The resolution depends on fingerprinting, very much a novelty at the time of the action, the mid-1800's. (Twain was fascinated by technology. A picture shows him in Nikola Tesla's lab.) By his own report, Twain started out with a comic premise. but the social savagery crowded out social satire, and the unresolved tensions of race, privilege, and clan loyalties are redeemed in brute violence. 


The peculiar institution, a coinage of John C. Calhoun's, had by the 1880's become completely racialized, an American refinement. The practice of indentured servitude, common in colonial times, was by definition a term of indenture with a set expiration date or a buy-out price. But slavery was an inherited station; you were born into it, and would die as property. Your children, no less, were livestock. None of slavery's advocates made a secret of its racial foundation, and of course breeding was encouraged - slaves were a cash crop. The flip side of this, and generally accepted, was that slave women were used for sex by their white owners, and they got pregnant, and these children were born slaves, too. The high-yaller gal was appreciated for having her more African characteristics diluted.

By the time we get to Pudd'nhead Wilson - to clarify, Twain wrote the book in the 1890's, but the story takes place some fifty years earlier, before the Civil War - these racial norms are well established. Roxana, owned by the Driscolls, is one-sixteenth black, and nursemaid to Thomas Driscoll. Her boy Chambers has a white father (possibly Percy Driscoll, her master), and he's but one-thirty-second black, which still condemns him to slavery. He looks white; in fact, Chambers is almost indistinguishable from Tom, but born on the wrong side of the blanket. Roxy exchanges the babies. Her son grows up as heir to the Driscoll fortune, and Driscoll's son grows up in the slave quarters - that hint of the tarbrush is enough. Later in the story, when Roxy explains his clouded birth to her grown son, masquerading as Tom, and threatens to expose him, he eliminates the threat by selling his mother downriver to the Delta cotton fields. Nothing if not resourceful, Tom murders his uncle, and frames one of the visiting Italian twins for it. In the end, he's too clever by half, and the pretense unravels. The false Tom is himself sold on the auction block. The real Tom, raised as the slave Chambers, is restored to his family legacy, but he's neither fish nor fowl: he loses the one tribe he knows, the slave community, and can't assimilate as a white slave-holder. The well has been poisoned.  

Twain seems to suggest that the false Tom is corrupted by privilege,  although he doesn't quite come down on one side or the other, nature or nurture. In the story, race is destiny, but not in the sense that one boy has a sunny outlook because he's secretly white, and the other has a temperament tainted by residual blackness. Some of their character can only be hard-wired, some is learned behavior. Perhaps the slave Tom has a native innocence, or a talent for it, and Chambers, the spoiled child, enlarges into bullyhood. Twain is ambiguous on this score. He's unambiguous in saying that circumstance itself - the iron conventions, the conditions of life, the immobility - creates a fatal lack of choice. Tom and Chambers are bound to one another by blood debt; both of them are trapped.

The longer shadow cast by Pudd'nhead Wilson is historical, the dark bruise of our national grief, spreading underneath the skin. The most pernicious aspect of historical denial is selective memory, and the evasion of responsibility. Glamorizing the South in defeat, and pretending race wasn't at issue, allowed for lynch law and Jim Crow, disguised as state sovereignty. It may have been coded language, but it was unapologetic white supremacy.


Not addressing the buried past - the unburied past, as it happens - or underlying social frictions, stresses any political system. It's generally accepted that the unequal terms imposed on Germany at Versailles in 1919 led to economic ruin and the rise of Hitler. Weimar was too weak to contain the tensions between the Red factions and the revanchist Right that played out across Europe. Much the same happened after the second war, the sentiment that the German Army was stabbed in the back again, even though this time they didn't have any Jews left to blame it on.

We see something familiar, then, in the grievance politics of our dislocated present. The vocabulary is different, to a degree, but the clamor, the intemperance, the hardening of the arteries, echoes the slave state sympathies of John C. Calhoun and his uncompromising belligerence. We seem ready to revisit the Lost Cause, not through the rosy lens of Gone with the Wind, but with a constipated whiner who got pushed off the swings. "George Porgie, pudding and pie, kissed the girls and made them cry. When the boys came out to play, Georgie Porgie ran away."

The question is ownership. Who controls the narrative? If we surrender the narrative, somebody else tells the story. Twain's lesson is that we can recover it, but we have to trust an unreliable narrator. a device as old as Homer. So we listen to our hearts. The rest is noise.


11 August 2020

Black Cat Mystery & Science Fiction Ebook Club


If you like reading crime short stories, and let's face it, you wouldn't be a regular SleuthSayers reader if you didn't, then you should know about Black Cat Mystery & Science Fiction Ebook Club. An offering of Wildside Press--which publishes a lot of mystery anthologies, including the Malice Domestic anthologies since their revival a few years ago and this year's upcoming Bouchercon anthology--the ebook club is nearing its third anniversary. It's like a book-of-the-month club, but weekly and with electronic short stories (and some novellas), mostly reprints. The ebook club is different from Black Cat Mystery Magazine, which is edited by my fellow SleuthSayer Michael Bracken, though the quarterly magazine is sometimes included as a weekly offering to the ebook club members.

Every week, paid club members get an email telling them about the seven (sometimes more) stories they can download that week in mobi or epub versions. Three or four are crime/mystery stories, the rest are science fiction. Unpaid club members get the same weekly email giving them access to one free story, a specific one each week. All of the ebook club stories are available for two weeks only, giving members an incentive to check in each week (or every other one) to download the new offerings.

A lot of the mystery stories are traditional, in the classic mode, originally published early in the twentieth century. But in June, Wildside began including a contemporary story with the mysteries each week. It is these modern stories with which I'm most familiar because I'm the person who's been choosing them. In the spring, Wildside's publisher reached out to me, asking if I would head up this series of stories, finding reprints I thought were really good. He's labeled this imprint Barb Goffman Presents. (That was a big surprise--a nice one--because I thought I was going to be solely behind the scenes.)

Since then I've read more short stories than I have in years, trying to find ones I love and think would be a good fit for Black Cat readers. (Stories originally published by Wildside Press are off the table.) When I find a story I think would work, I reach out to the author. It makes me feel like Santa Claus, which is pretty cool. 

This work has given me an excuse to read many of the anthologies that I bought over the years but never found the time to read. And it's enabled me to share with readers stories that I think are special but might have been overlooked when they came out.

The first story I presented was "Debbie and Bernie and Belle," written by my fellow SleuthSayer John Floyd and published in 2008 in the Strand Magazine. Last week's story, which is still available to paid club members for a few more days, is "The Greatest Criminal Mind Ever" by Frank Cook, originally published in 2009 in Quarry (Level Best Books). And this week's story, which has been chosen as the week's free story for paid and unpaid members, is "The Kiss of Death" by Rebecca Pawel, originally published in 2007 in A Hell of a Woman (Busted Flush Press). Pawel's story is set in the New York City tango community and is a delight to read.

If you want to check out the ebook club, go on over to https://bcmystery.com/. And happy reading!

10 August 2020

The Writer Diaries


Joseph Pittman
introducing…
Joseph Pittman is a friend from about the time we opened bookstore in Austin, called Mysteries and More. I was writing a column for Mystery Scene magazine called Southwest Scenes. I had also started going to Mystery Cons in order to meet authors, agents, booksellers, editors, publishers in person, because I used their information for my column.

Joe Pittman was one of the big name editors I telephoned on a regular basis. He would tell me which books were ready for release. Joe was always helpful, giving me reliable info and we usually spent a few extra minutes chitchatting. We finally met in person in St Louis, MO when Bob Randisi put together and hosted a PWA CON, the first ever conference for private eye writers.


I knew Joe had left publishing because he wanted to write and write he does. He's published more than a few books. We reconnected on FB a couple of years ago. Then, a little over a year ago, Joe and his husband Steve adopted Shadow. And Shadow, a black lab youngster, soon learned to type on Daddy Joe's computer. Shadow began a diary. Talked about settling into a new home with a nice back yard to play in and how he's learned new words and how to play with other families, making friends with other dogs. And especially learning about love. Daddy Joe compiled Shadow's diaries into a book, and Daddy Steve did the cover artwork. It's a small but very entertaining and charming book for all animal lovers.  I highly recommend it.
— Jan Grape

Joseph Pittman is the author of over 40 novels in various genres under his own name and pen name Adam Carpenter. He has written comic crime, noir, small-town sweetness, intrigue, and erotica. His current series features private detective Jimmy McSwain.
Shadow is a beautiful 2-year-old Black Lab / Greyhound mix who has lots to say. His first book, The Shadow Diaries, has just been published. Funny, poignant, insightful, it’s a full-year in the life of a rescue dog. Follow him on Instagram at theshadowdiariesbook.

The Writer Diaries – Volume 32

by Joseph Pittman
Hey, Pittman here. It’s midnight while I write this. The moon owns the night. There’s a pretty dame walking down a dark avenue. A handsome lad in a fedora trails her. My eyes don’t judge either. They just wonder what each is hiding. Probably truth.

Whoa, what’s going on? Have we finally gotten to a diary entry that focuses on the classic American detective novel? Is it noir week? Yeah, sweetheart, it sure is.

You can do a wayback and think about Chandler, Hammett, Cain. They created a genre steeped in language people hadn’t read before. Grit, gumption, a different way of seeking justice. I’ve read ‘em but was never involved in any reissues of their iconic novels.

But I did get to work with some of the giants of the mystery world. it’s interesting to think how they helped shape me as a writer. So, I’m going to focus on four authors, some you may have heard of, all who bring a unique spin to the crime genre. What they have in common? They always let you know whodunit.

I’m gonna start with the Grandmaster. The one and only Mickey Spillane. Back before publishers did hard/soft deals, back before all the mergers, a hardcover publisher would sell the softcover rights to a paperback publisher. And one of the most loyal arrangements was that between E.P. Dutton and Signet. Their star author? The great Mickey Spillane, creator of Mike Hammer. I, The Jury put all three on the map. Hammer was tough. Spillane’s language was hardened poetry.

In the 1990s, Mickey, after a silent period, resurfaced with a new novel, Black Alley, the return of Mike Hammer. I had the privilege of working on this book, but more than that…I got to meet Mickey. He was being named Grandmaster from the Mystery Writers of America, their highest honor. Mickey came to the office that day for a champagne toast.

I remember him telling me I wasn’t born when Hammer was taking his first punch. It was the perfect introduction. He’d brought along with him “the dame,” a lovely woman who had starred with him in those Lite Beer commercials in the 70s. Then we all went to the Edgar Awards banquet, NAL having secured a table to celebrate our Grandmaster. I couldn’t believe I was his editor.

But I experienced that feeling a lot over my career, which brings me to a twist in the noir. Lawrence Block (another Grandmaster) is a gentleman, a scholar, and a bit of a schemer! I’d known his Matthew Scudder detective series, but he also had a lighter side. Enter Bernie Rhodenbarr, bookseller and thief, into my life. Dutton/Signet, now fully merged, was offered the opportunity to revive this comic crime series, starting with the first book in ten years, The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams.

This series became one of my favorite adventures in publishing, and certainly gave me some credibility in the mystery community I loved being a part of. We ended up republishing the first five books, in both hardcover and paperback. Then we published four more new titles. The Burglar in the Rye features a dedication…to me. A treasured moment when I saw that.

To say Bernie inspired my Todd Gleason character is an understatement.

Then there’s this guy, Max Allan Collins. Another genius of detective fiction. I first learned of him when I worked at Bantam. A book called Stolen Away, a historical mystery about the Lindbergh kidnapping. Later, when at NAL, we acquired his Nathan Heller series and went on to publish six titles. Nate was always getting involved in mysteries of the past, helping to solve the unsolvable. His attention to detail, his cleverness, but ultimately his prose, absorbed me.

Lastly, I want to talk about the Gatekeeper of all this history with his devotion to detective fiction. Robert J. Randisi. He is the founder of the Private Eye Writers of America, which awards the Shamus for the best in American detection. I did several anthologies with Bob, memorably a collection of Shamus-winning stories called The Eyes Still Have It. Randisi has published so many books in so many genres, it’s hard to keep track. If I learned anything from him: stay prolific. Finish writing a book, there’s another waiting behind it.

The detective novel is quintessential American. It’s about mood, about voice, it’s about characters who might have been damaged by life, men and women who are looking for solutions on the streets. But ultimately finding their redemption within their own hearts. Motive isn’t just something to uncover in a suspect. It’s something to find within your hero.

At the PWA conference in St. Louis in 1999, I was surprised and humbled to receive a plaque from Bob. “Friends of PWA.” I still am, and I’m grateful to these four talented authors for taking me on their journeys. Truthfully, my P.I. Jimmy McSwain doesn’t exist without any of them.

Thanks for reading.

Love,      
Joseph

09 August 2020

Nipping it in the bud because old men cry.



In February, an elderly man was collecting recyclables in San Francisco when another man threatened him and taunted him. A video shows the elderly man crying while onlookers laugh at him. 

In March, a man yelled at an elderly man suffering from dementia in a convenience store in Vancouver. Then the elderly man was shoved by the other man, he fell and hit his head. 

Both of the elderly men attacked were of Asian descent and, in each case, the men attacking them hurled racist remarks at them. Both of these elderly and innocent men were victims of the heinous crime that’s on the rise: hate crime. 

In the United States and Canada, hate crimes are increasing  Although the number of hate crimes in Canada remain lower than in the United States, we don’t know the actual numbers in either country: hate crimes remain underreported in both countries and, because hate crimes are defined differently in various regions of each country, counting cases accurately is difficult.

Crimes of hate thrive and grow in times of intolerance and certainly we are living through difficult times. Many of the attacks against those of Asian heritage are accompanied by accusations of somehow being blamed for COVID-19 infections. 

Social media is one of the main vehicles that transports racism through society and fuels hate crimes. One tool Canada has to fight this is illustrated by the conviction of James Sears. 

In Aug 2019, the Canadian editor, James Sears, was sentenced to one year in jail for “wilful promotion of hatred against women and Jews..[the judge] lamented the fact that he couldn’t give Sears 18 months, saying the circumstances were more severe than a 1990 case where a 22-year-old self-described racist received a year in jail for antisemitic graffiti including spray painting swastikas on a Toronto synagogue.” 

Canadian hate laws do limit free expression. David Butt has an elegant discussion of this:


“Does freedom of expression as legally defined in Canada provide the right tools for expression challenges in a fragmented and largely angry 21st century social media world?
Canadian freedom of expression law, like so many things Canadian, embodies compromise… our constitution protects not only free expression, but multiculturalism and equality as well. So to read the constitution holistically, we cannot permit one protected freedom to undermine other rights and freedoms enjoying equal status."

As we all traverse this world of social media and the spread of hate based on race, religion and sexual orientation, it remains an open question whether Canada’s compromise of balancing the right to freedom of speech with other rights, will curtail hate crimes. I won’t dwell on the legal problems of enforcing the laws Canada has, the limit of those laws and the complications of all this. Why?

What I will do is join the many voices condemning hate crimes. There can be no civil society when old men are humiliated to the point of tears and then are simply laughed at, when people are spit on, beaten and humiliated simply for their race, religion or who they love. The internet has become a place to spread hate in dark corners that radiate out to infect us all. 

We can prosecute hate crimes after they happen, but we must find ways to stop the propagation of hate in the first place. Some social media platforms are trying to manage hate speech online. However, curbing hate crimes with laws or even regulations on social media may feel like a Sisyphean task and many have asked why bother because the problem is too large? Others ask why do this and curb free speech?

I ask - would we say this about any other crime? Would we say there are too many murders, so why bother trying to stop them? Would we say that trying to stop physical assault may lead us to also stop holding hands and hugging? Surely, we can distinguish racist or homophobic rants from gardening advice. Again, I'm not a lawyer and know that these issues can be very difficult. However, as a physician, I can tell you that treating head injuries in an old man thrown to the ground can also be difficult - but you would be hard pressed to find a doctor who walked away from that task. 

So, it's time we found solutions to hate crimes and the first step is to take them seriously enough to come up with solutions.

08 August 2020

Crime Scene Comix Case 2020-08-010, Invisibility


by Velma

Shifty, sly miscreant as he is, has a clear conscience… of sorts. Let’s visit Shift on the job.

We show another clip from our criminally favorite cartoonist, Future Thought channel of YouTube. Check it out.


That’s today’s crime cinema. Hope you enjoyed the show. Be sure to visit Future Thought YouTube channel.

07 August 2020

Nailed it


After four hours, the man leans back in the uncomfortable metal chair and says, "I buried him in field behind my house." I sit back and let it rush through me, resist looking at the video camera. The man just confessed. We have some physical evidence. We have two witnesses who put him with the victim. We have a decent case and now we nailed him. A confession. The DA loves confessions. The interview continues as the killer gives the gruesome details and I'm on a high, a rush. We nailed him.

Didn't happen often but when it did it was such great feeling of accomplishment.

We nailed the case shut.


The rush isn't the same but when I nail a story or a novel, it's a great feeling of accomplishment. It doesn't happen often. I was taught early to write the best story or the best novel I can write. Never dare to be adequate. It works and when I go back and re-read the story after a number of drafts and see it's complete, it's a good feeling. When I go back and re-read a story or novel and feel the tingles on my neck, feel my heartbeat rise, I know. I nailed it.

A pause and I submit the story and hope it finds a home, but that's a different part of the writing life. Selection is so subjective. The story might find a home in a big magazine, might find a home in a small magazine, might go homeless until the right anthology creeps along or until my publisher puts it up on Amazon.com. But I nailed it.

During this pandemic I, and many of my writing friends, have written a lot of fiction. Get it written, then get it write. Lots of drafts, lots of polishing until the story or novel shines. Not all of them bring goosebumps when it's all over but when one does – it is a little treasure.

It's a great feeling. Time to find the cats and pet each, which can be pleasant or unpleasant, depending on the cat's mood. I can brag to the cats but not to anyone else. The story speaks to humans in its own voice.

But I nailed it.

Such a rush.

Then back to work.

That's all for now.
  
 www.oneildenoux.com

06 August 2020

When Writing Historical Fiction: It's Better to Travel



[Elmore] Leonard was originally no more a man of the West than was the Ohio-born dentist Zane Grey. While a kid in Detroit, Westerns enthralled him as they did most people in the 1930s and 40s. When he grew interested in writing during college Western fiction seemed a promising genre he could work in part-time. Unlike many writers then selling Western tales to pulps, though, Leonard insisted on accuracy, and kept a ledger of his research over the years, later crediting his longtime subscription to
Arizona Highways magazine for many of his authentic descriptions. All had to be genuine: the guns, Apache terms and clothing; the frontier knives, card games, liquor, and especially the horses.

                            — Nathan Ward, from "Elmore Leonard's Gritty Westerns," in Crime Reads

It's certainly never a bad idea to follow the writing advice of the great Elmore Leonard. His Ten Rules For Writing are rightly famous as terrific advice for any writer of fiction. 

The Great Elmore Leonard

In those instances where Leonard's advice isn't readily available, it never hurts to follow his example, if at all possible. Take the one in the quote above from Nathan Ward's Crime Reads article on Leonard. For years Leonard apparently leaned heavily on the content of Arizona Highways magazine.

It's a fine notion. Now, don't get me wrong: it's always better to travel. There is no substitute for actually going to and spending time in the place you're writing about. But, if you're writing about someplace and you can't afford to go, read travel writers. For that matter, even if you can afford the investment in both time and treasure to visit the region where your work is set, read travel writers. No one can help you get a feel for a certain place like people who make their livings helping their readers get a feel for a certain place.

Take William Dalrymple. The British-born-and-raised son of a Scottish baronet, Dalrymple these days is best known for his recent run of riveting books on the history of the subcontinent: India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Dalrymple is a terrific writer and a first-rate historian who splits his time between a farm just outside Delhi, in India and a summer home in London.
William Dalrymple

But before he began to make a name for himself with books such as White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India, The Last Mughal: the Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857, The Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-1842, and The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence and the Pillage of An Empire, Dalrymple began his writing career as a travel writer, taking readers on a tour through the Eastern Mediterranean and the Holy Land (From the Holy Mountain: a Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East), and of course, chronicling the early days of his life-long love affair with India. With his first book In Xanadu, published in 1989, Dalrymple chronicles his modern retracing of the journey of Marco Polo from Jerusalem in the summer palace of Kublai Khan in China. But it was with his second book, 1994's City of Djinns: a Year in Delhi, a memoir of his first visit to the city which has had such a tremendous impact on his adult life, that Dalrymple really began to make his mark.

And there is so much to this memoir which can be of use to the writer reading about the city. Here's an early excerpt laying out his introduction to Delhi and to India:

I was only seventeen. After ten years at school in a remote valley in the moors of North Yorkshire, I had quite suddenly found myself in India, in Delhi. From the very beginning I was mesmerized by the great capital, so totally unlike anything I had ever seen before. Delhi, it seemed at first, was full of riches and horrors: it was a labyrinth, a city of palaces, an open gutter, filtered light through a filigree lattice, a landscape of domes, an anarchy, a press of people, a choke of fumes, a whiff of spices. Moreover the city—so I soon discovered—possessed a bottomless seam of stories: tales receding far beyond history, deep into the cavernous chambers of myth and legend. Friends would moan about the touts on Janpath and head off to the beaches in Goa, but for me Delhi always exerted a stronger spell. I lingered on, and soon found a job in a home for destitutes in the far north of the city. The nuns gave me a room overlooking a municipal rubbish dump. In the morning I would look out to see the sad regiment of rag-pickers trawling the stinking berms of refuse; overhead, under a copper sky, vultures circled the thermals forming patterns like fragments of glass in a kaleidoscope. In the afternoons, after I had swept the compound and the inmates were safely asleep, I used to slip out and explore. I would take a rickshaw into the innards of the Old City and pass through the narrowing funnel of gullies and lanes, alleys and cul de sacs, feeling the houses close in around me.

Now, I ask you. Can this guy set a scene, or what? Really helpful for drinking in the flavors, colors, scents and sounds of what on the face of it comes across as a truly unforgettable place. Really not a bad guide if you're interested in writing about modern-day India.

But what if, like me, you're a writer of historical fiction?

In Leonard's case, as stated above, he exploited a modern magazine to help give him local flavor not just for another region of the country, but for that region in another era. No mean feat. It's a testament to Leonard's talent, coupled with his singular vision that he was able to "world build" (to borrow a phrase from our friends who write speculative fiction) using these building blocks for his foundation.

So sure, you can (and should) definitely use your imagination to fill in the cracks. There is certainly no substitute for imagination in the fiction writer's tool kit. That said, you need more than one tool in order to get the job of writing fiction done. I've often felt like our "tool kit" as fiction writers should be more aptly called a "tool warehouse." And of course, another way to use travel writing as one of those tools, to help get the feel for a city or street, or region or state or county or what-have-you during a bygone time is to go and find travel writing from the time in which your work-in-progress is set.

I have a writer friend whose current work-in-progress is set during World War II. One of his major characters has a back-story in which he lived in Germany during the 1930s, in the run-up to the war. I referred him to A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube, the first volume in a superb three-volume memoir of a trip on foot across Europe, from Holland all the way to Turkey by travel writer, war-time British commando (the account of his part in a successful kidnapping of a German general in Crete is not to be missed), bon vivant, and (some say) one of Ian Fleming's models for his literary creation James Bond, Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Leigh Fermor set out for Constantinople (Istanbul) in December of 1933, less than a year after Adolf Hitler and the Nazis had come to power. His narrative is replete with rich details about German life during that period, laying out how the Nazis had both a heavy and in some ways, a negligible impact on the country they would eventually drive to absolute ruin. Here is Leigh Fermor's initial impression of Cologne, the first major German city he visited:

After a first faraway glimpse, the two famous steeples grew taller and taller as the miles that separated us fell away. At last they commanded the cloudy plain as the spires of a cathedral should, vanishing when the outskirts of the city interposed themselves, and then, as I gazed at the crowding saints of the three Gothic doorways, sailing up into the evening again at close range. Beyond them indoors, although it was already too dark to see the colours of the glass, I knew I was inside the largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe. Except for the little constellation of tapers in the shadows of a side-chapel, everything was dim. Women knelt interspersed with nuns and the murmured second half of the Gegrüsset seist Du, Maria rose in answering chorus to the priest’s initial solo; a discreet clatter of beads kept tally of the accumulating prayers. In churches with open spires like Cologne, one could understand how congregations thought their orisons had a better start than prayers under a dome where the syllables might flutter round for hours. With steeples they follow the uprush of lancets and make an immediate break for it. Tinsel and stars flashed in all the shops and banners saying Fröhliche Weihnacht! were suspended across the streets. Clogged villagers and women in fleece-lined rubber boots slipped about the icy pavements with exclamatory greetings and small screams, spilling their armfuls of parcels. The snow heaped up wherever it could and the sharp air and the lights gave the town an authentic Christmas card feeling. It was the real thing at last! Christmas was only five days away. Renaissance doors pierced walls of ancient brick, upper storeys jutted in salients of carved timber and glass, triangles of crow-steps outlined the steep gables, and eagles and lions and swans swung from convoluted iron brackets along a maze of lanes. As each quarter struck, the saint-encrusted towers challenged each other through the snow and the rivalry of those heavy bells left the air shaking. Beyond the Cathedral and directly beneath the flying-buttresses of the apse, a street dropped sharply to the quays. Tramp steamers and tugs and barges and fair-sized ships lay at anchor under the spans of the bridges, and cafés and bars were raucous with music. I had been toying with the idea, if I could make the right friends, of cadging a lift on a barge and sailing upstream in style for a bit.

Again, this is quite a scene the writer is setting! So much good material, such a solid feel for the place. Leigh Fermor wrote the memoir some forty years after the trip, based on large part on the deep and thorough entries he made in his journal as an eighteen year-old looking for adventure in a rapidly changing world. And then he goes on to talk about his attempt to "make friends" in that timeless way young people have from time immemorial: he went to a bar:

I made friends all right. It was impossible not to. The first place was a haunt of seamen and bargees shod in tall sea-boots rolled down to the knee, with felt linings and thick wooden soles. They were throwing schnapps down their throats at a brisk rate. Each swig was followed by a chaser of beer, and I started doing the same. The girls who drifted in and out were pretty but a rough lot and there was one bulky terror, bursting out of a sailor’s jersey and wearing a bargeman’s cap askew on a nest of candy-floss hair, called Maggi—which was short for Magda—who greeted every newcomer with a cry of “Hallo, Bubi!” and a sharp, cunningly twisted and very painful pinch on the cheek. I liked the place, especially after several schnapps, and I was soon firm friends with two beaming bargemen whose Low German speech, even sober, would have been blurred beyond the most expert linguist’s grasp. They were called Uli and Peter. “Don’t keep on saying Sie,” Uli insisted, with a troubled brow and an unsteadily admonishing forefinger: “Say Du.” This advance from the plural to the greater intimacy of the singular was then celebrated by drinking Brüderschaft. Glasses in hand, with our right arms crooked through the other two with the complexity of the three Graces on a Parisian public fountain, we drank in unison. Then we reversed the process with our left arms, preparatory to ending with a triune embrace on both cheeks, a manoeuvre as elaborate as being knighted or invested with the Golden Fleece. The first half of the ceremony went without a hitch, but a loss of balance in the second, while our forearms were still interlocked, landed the three of us in the sawdust in a sottish heap. Later, in the fickle fashion of the very drunk, they lurched away into the night, leaving their newly-created brother dancing with a girl who had joined our unsteady group: my hobnail boots could do no more damage to her shiny dancing shoes, I thought, than the seaboots that were clumping all round us. She was very pretty except for two missing front teeth. They had been knocked out in a brawl the week before, she told me.

And that's just a taste. Leigh Fermor's three volumes here truly form a treasure trove: a window into a long-vanished world, and a feel for both the time itself and the timeless humanity of its cast of thousands. Well worth a read whether you're writing something set in Middle Europe during the 1930s, are a student of human nature, history, great writing, or (most likely) some combination of all of the above.

Patrick Leigh Fermor (Right) in Crete, 1943

And that's all for now. Tune in next time when I break out the work of a Flemish diplomat and show how his long letters home from his posting in the court of the Turkish sultan helped inform the writing of a couple of my published works.

See you in two weeks!






05 August 2020

Breaking Into Showbiz 3



This is the third time we've played this game.  Rules are simple.  Below is a list of well-known characters from popular culture.  The question is: Where did they start?  For example, the Cisco Kid began life in a short story written by O. Henry, of all people.

On the side in a white box you will see a list of possible origins.  Don't assume there is one-for-one match (one character from radio, one from opera, etc.)

Answers at the bottom of the page.  Good luck!

Paul Bunyan

Charlie Chan

Jiminy Cricket

Robinson Crusoe

Green Hornet

Detective John Munch

Horace Rumpole

Karen Sisco

Staggerlee

Honey West


Ready? Okay, here are the answers:


Paul Bunyan. Folklore. Sure, the giant logger started in oral legends, but as is usually the case with folklore, it's complicated.  The earliest known written appearance is a one-line reference in a newspaper in 1893, a joke that would make no sense to anyone unfamiliar with "Paul Bunion."

He was apparently only about eight feet tall until 1916 when William B. Laughead used him in an advertising pamphlet.  That's when he grew into a man who could lift mountains and make lakes with his footprints.

Because so many of the familiar stories show up late some scholars call it "fakelore," but James Stevens, who wrote a book about our big boy in 1925 argued that making up new tales based on the basic framework is exactly how the stories worked in the lumber camps.

Charlie Chan.  Real Life.  Sort of.  Yes, Charlie Chan made his first appearance in Earl Derr Biggers' mystery novel The House Without A Key (1925), but he acknowledged that the character was inspired by Chang Apana, a famous member of the Honolulu police force.  Unlike his fictional counterpart, Apana was not permitted to work on cases involving White people.  Biggers and Apana met in 1928, by the way.

Chan is considered an offensive stereotype today - less for the novels than for the countless movies starring White men in the part - so it is easy to forget that Biggers was trying to combat the "sinister Oriental" cliche represented by Fu Manchu, by creating a decent and brilliant Chinese policeman.


Jiminy Cricket. Movie. The living puppet began in The Adventures of Pinocchio, an Italian children's book by Carlo Collodi, published in 1883.  In that book the Fairy with Turquoise Hair gave him a talking cricket as a conscience, which the little wooden brat promptly murdered.  So the animal appeared as a ghost throughout the rest of the book.

As part of the Disneyfication of the book, in the cartoon the insect turned into Jiminy Cricket, complete with top hat and umbrella.  (The name, of course,  already existed as a modified swear word.)  Jiminy was voiced by Clifford Edwards, who got to sing "When You Wish Upon A Star," which became the Disney corporation's unofficial anthem.  Until then Edwards was better known as Ukulele Ike, a very popular crooner in the early days of the phonograph.  Among other things, he did the first recording of "Singing in the Rain," and had a hit with "California, Here I Come." 

In a most un-Disneylike twist, Ukulele Ike had also recorded some hokum - which is to say double entendre songs that were only sold to adults "under the counter." 


Robinson Crusoe.  Novel.  Daniel Defoe's immortal novel about a desert island castaway is often linked to the ordeal of Alexander Selkirk, who spent four years on an island off the coast of Chile after being dumped there by his captain.

But Andrew Lambert, in his book Crusoe's Island, argues that the book is a mash-up of the adventures of several maroonees, if that's a word.  Defoe never confirmed or denied Selkirk's influence.


Green Hornet.  Radio.  The masked hero in the green fedora (secret identity of newspaper publisher Britt Reid) came to life on Detroit radio station WXYZ in 1938, as did his assistant and chauffeur, Kato.

I included him here largely because many years ago the NPR quiz show Says You did a round of questions about comic strips, and somehow included one about the olive wasp: "What was the name of the Green Hornet's grand-uncle's horse?" 

I knew the answer.  But I was irritated because GH didn't start in a strip or even a comic book, and you think a radio show would know he came from radio show.  (And by the way, that is a clue to the answer to that question.)


Detective John Munch.
Real Life.  Detective (later Sergeant) John Munch entered the world through the wonderful TV series Homicide: Life on the Street, played by Richard Belzer.  When that show ended Munch left Baltimore Homicide and moved to NYPD for Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.  Believe it or not the cynical conspiracy-minded cop  also made guest appearnces on The X Files, Arrested Development, The Wire, 30 Rock, and a handful of other TV series.

So why do I say he started in real life?  The TV series Homicide was based on David Simon' award-winning nonfiction book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.  Munch is clearly (and admittedly) inspired by Detective Sergeant Jay Landsman.

Here is how that book begins:
    Pulling one hand from the warmth of a pocket, Jay Landsman squats down to grab the dead man's chin, pushing the head to one side until the wound becomes visible as a small, ovate hole, oozing red and white.
    "Here's your problem," he said.  "He's got a slow leak."
    "A leak?" says Pellegrini, picking up on it.
    "A slow one."
    "You can fix those."
    "Sure you can," Landsman agrees.  "They got these home repair kits now..."

Inevitably Jay Landsman did some acting, in The Corner and The Wire.


Horace Rumpole.
Television. The defender of the British criminal classes  began in TV, although he was later seen in novels, short stories, and radio.  John Mortimer, himself a barrister, claimed he created Rumpole specifically to fund his retirement. 

In 1968 Mortimer wrote a TV movie called "Infidelity Took Place," about a barrister who is a sort of ur-Rumpole.  A few years later he wrote a play about Horace Rumbold, but the name was changed because there really was a lawyer by that name.  (Of course, the name is a pun.  Think of a Cockney saying Rump 'Ole.)
 
While Rumpole was conceived as a small-timer who lost most of his cases, as the show went through seven seasons he became more and more successful.  And as Mortimer looked farther afield for interesting plots, Rumpole found himself working in a military court, an African court (with the death penalty on the table), an ecclesiastical court (bizarre for an atheist), and, hardest to believe, conducting a prosecution (inevitably he proved the defendant innocent).


Karen Sisco.  Short Story.  Elmore Leonard would sometimes try out a character in a story before trusting her with a whole novel.  Deputy Marshal Sisco began life in a 1996 tale, "Karen Makes Out."

She then starred in the novel Out of Sight, made into a movie in which she was played by Jennifer Lopez.  That led to the short lived TV series Karen Sisco, starring Carla Gugino. And that was the end of the character. Or was it?

In the second season of the TV show Justified, a much more successful adaptation of Leonard's work, Carla Gugino reappears  as the Assistant Director of the Marshal Service, Karen Goodall.  It is mentioned that she had married and divorced.  Was Sisco her maiden name? 


Staggerlee.  Real life.   Alias Stackolee, Stagger Lee, Stagolee, etc.  The song (and its infinite variants) is based on the murder of Billy Lyons, which took place in St. Louis, Missouri in 1895.  Curiously, I have never heard a version that mentioned that the killing happened on Christmas, making this one of the least likely holiday carols since "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer."  The murderer was Lee Shelton and there are many explanations for his nickname.

Lyons and Shelton were both criminals, possibly business rivals.  Billy Lyons stole Shelton's stetson hat, Shelton got his gun, and the rest was musical history. Most versions of the song I am familiar with show our hero being executed and end with him telling the Devil "I'll rule Hell by myself."  He was a bad man, that Staggerlee.  But in reality, Shelton spent twelve years in prison, got paroled, and returned to stir one year later, and died there.

Honey West.  Novel. One of the first female private eyes, she appeared in 11 novels written by G.G. Fickling (actually Forrest E. Fickling and his wife Gloria.  She debuted in This Girl For Hire in 1957.

In 1965 Anne Francis guest-starred as Ms. West in an episode of Burke's Law, and that led to a TV series of her own, which lasted for 30 episodes.

04 August 2020

I Write Therefore I Am


Walking the dogs. Buster above.
 Pepper (left) and Buster below.
Sometimes—often—I get tired of the writing grind. A lot of blood, sweat, tears and toil for very little reward, or so it seems. I’ll complain to my wife that I want to quit. I’ll think about doing just that. But then I think about what I would do with all that extra time. Garden? Watch TV? Read? Do hobbies? Spend even more time walking the dog.

Who would I be? My whole identity is wrapped up in being a writer and has been almost my whole adult life. I don’t think I’d recognize myself anymore if I wasn’t writing. One hears about people who retire and have these great expectations of playing golf all the time or doing whatever their fancy is and then getting bored awfully damn quick. But also losing their identity because so much of it was wrapped up in their work.

Writing is more than a job. It’s a calling. I’ve sacrificed a lot over the years to work at being a writer, so obviously it was something that was worth making sacrifices for.

And I like the process of creating something out of nothing, yet it’s too late for me to be a molecular physicist, if that’s the right terminology. Writing fiction is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle (something I don’t have the patience for). But like a jigsaw puzzle in writing you have to find all the right pieces and put them in all the right places or it just doesn’t fit.

I write, therefore I am. With my assistant, Curley.

Red Smith famously said: "There's nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."  Even when you open a vein for the Red Cross and donate blood they give you juice and cookies.



Most people don't have an appreciation for what we go through as writers.  The hours spent alone, no one to talk to over the water cooler (though that's changed somewhat with the internet, which is a surrogate water cooler).  The opening of our veins to get to the good stuff.

Like I said, it’s a calling. And it called me very young. When I was a kid I used to set up my army men on the bedroom floor.  But often, instead of moving them around pretending they were on a real battlefield I would pretend that they were on a movie set. I was lucky enough to have one little plastic figure of a cameraman and I'd even set up my TinkerToys in such a way to mimic Klieg lights. I'd move the men around the floor, putting words in their mouths, the good guys and the bad. Making sounds of gunfire and other sound effects. That, coupled with having been born in Hollywood, literally, made me want to do something in the movies. So today when I write something I figure I'm just doing on paper what I used to do on the floor of my room, moving around letters and sentences the way I used to move "armies" across the floor. And it really all amounts to the same thing. On the other hand, I am really still playing with (and collecting) toy soldiers. See pic.

Still playing with toy soldiers.

And, when I started out as a writer I had romantic notions of what being a writer meant. Images of Hemingway sipping absinthe on the Left Bank. And though Hollywood ain't no left bank it did have Joe Allen's at the time, so I went there for drinks. Or I'd sip some whiskey while writing in my little office. But I found that if I drank while writing—or trying to write—I didn't want to write. I wanted to play. So those romantic visions of the drinking writer (at least while writing) vanished quickly as did the bottle. I also thought writers should hang out at bars and dives and soak up atmosphere or thrown beer. My first adventure out was to a well-known sleazy eatery. I sat at the counter listening for tidbits of dialogue, insights into lives. What I got was a shirt full of beer when two guys playing pool a few feet away got into a fight. Free beer, who could ask for more?  If a cop had stopped me on the way home my shirt-alcohol level would surely have been over the legal limit.  Would they have arrested me or just my shirt?
Cafétafel met absint by Vincent Van Gogh
So, though it can get tedious, though the rewards might not always come, I don’t think I could or would ever give up on writing. Ultimately, we write because we have to. We open those veins because we have no choice. And anything’s better than sitting around watching TV all day, even that vein opening.

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

"I hate saying a book transcends the genre and I honestly usually don't like books that do. This one however does and might win some awards because of it."
                                                                          —Jochem Vandersteen, Sons of Spade
                           



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

03 August 2020

The Second Sleep


"The writing of many books," said Ecclesiastes, " is a weariness of the flesh," and even with the invention of the computer and instant research on the web, the construction of many plots and the devising of many characters can tire the Muse. Consider with mysteries that there are only two sorts to murder, male or female, and only so many plausible motives, led by the always dependable lust, greed, and envy, and you can see why the modern version of the Biblical scribe begins to think that books are long and novel series longer.

We crave variety and the getting of it is not always easy. That is why, despite certain reservations, I have to cheer Robert Harris, whose newest, The Second Sleep, pulls off the neat trick of setting the future in the past and lining up one mystery in order to reveal a quite different sort of crime.

Harris first gained fame with another clever premise in Fatherland. His protagonist is a Kripo detective in a post WW2 Germany, and the twist is that the Nazis, having won the war, now are trying to clean up their image, a circumstance which makes all sorts of trouble for the basically conscientious and decent investigator.

He followed up this best seller with a mystery set at Bletchley Park among codebreakers in a UK still very much in the war. After that he went further afield in history, rather than alternative history, to do a series of crime novels set in the Roman Empire. Now he has returned to the south of England to the Year of Our Risen Lord, 1468, with a priest riding an old mare toward a small town in Wessex.

The twist is that The Year of Our Risen Lord is, by our present calendar, roughly 800 years in our future. Our current technological civilization has collapsed, world population has crashed, and the folks in rural Wessex are living like their medieval ancestors with high birth and death rates, lousy sanitation, rudimentary education, a king, and a domineering church.

For various reasons, the religious establishment, recognizably a variant of the Church of England, is particularly down on history, antiquarian books and investigations and speculations of every type. It is a shock to the inexperienced Father Fairfax, our man on the mare, when he discovers that the late Father Lacy, whose funeral he has been sent to conduct, was a passionate collector of ancient
memorabilia and the possessor of a variety of heretical books.

He also possessed a letter from one Peter Morgenstern, who had speculated on possible civilization-ending dangers, including disruption of the computer networks, pandemic, climate change, nuclear war, and a host of other all-too believable perils. These speculations shock Father Fairfax, steeped as he is in the church doctrine that they are living post the Biblical Apocalypse and that it was a supernatural event, a punishment for wrong doing and secularism, that caused the great disaster.

It is in this quite ingenious setting that Harris has placed his first mystery: the real cause of Father Lacy's demise, gradually unfolds the second, much more complex mystery, that forms the substance of the novel. In effect, he has most efficiently borrowed historical descriptions of late medieval/early renaissance life in rural England to depict the future. And it works.

I am not sure the same strategy would be satisfactory in an American novel. But in Britain, where human history is not only thousands of years deep, but with many large and still visible ancient monuments, and where there are relatively homogenous populations that can trace their genetic lineage back a thousand years and more, disbelief can be suspended.

Harris' characters are easy to take, too, perhaps too easily. The main players seem suspiciously modern in their outlooks even after eight centuries of religious indoctrination, and Father Fairfax's fall from grace happens with suspicious ease. That said, The Second Sleep is intelligently put together, its real revelations pack a punch, and it certainly gets high marks for ingenuity, especially when so many best-selling authors find a format and cling to it.