31 December 2020

We Hate to See You Go


I'm willing to bet that there will be songs written and sung about 2020, but none of them will be as sweet as this one by John Mayall (backed by Eric Clapton):

Still, I'm sure that when 2020 showed up, clean and neat as a newborn baby on January 1st, it had no idea what kind of Frankenstein's monster it was going to turn into.  If we had, we'd have showed up with torches and pitchforks on January 21st…

Now I never make New Year's resolutions (never make promises in the dark of the moon…) but I do look back and say what the hell was that?  The nicest way I can put it is that this year, as the old-timers of my youth would say, was "sent to try us", and it certainly showed everyone what they were made of. I learned that I still know how to wait, which keeps on being handy, year after year - and this year more than any other.  I also learned I can be a total news junkie, and that is not a good thing.

Meanwhile:

To all the health care workers and front line workers, whoever and wherever you are and were – you knocked it out of the park!  You're still knocking it out of the park.  We can never thank you enough.  We can never honor you enough.  And we really need to provide mental health care for the PTSD that is coming once this pandemic is over.  And it wouldn't be a bad idea to forgive / pay for all their student loans as a small thank you.  

Meanwhile, here are the gifts I wish for our country - and the world - for 2021:

(1) Coronavirus vaccines for everybody.  100% everybody.

(2) Resocialization.  From children to adults, we're going to have to get used to being around each other again, not ducking across the street or to another aisle in the store, etc.  It's been a long time.  No one except Allan and myself have been in my house since April.  We haven't gone to a restaurant except to get takeout since March.  In person meetings of any kind ended when winter came in and it was too cold to sit on the socially distanced on the porch.  We're gonna need some help.  And a lot of mental health care and counseling.  Even for those of us who have been fortunate enough to not have lost loved ones, there's a certain level of PTSD that's going to rise like an ocean once we can get around to feeling things again.  

(3) Civility, negotiation, conflict resolution and nonviolence.  Because this has been a year of frightening selfishness, disguised as freedom fighting.  From the "militia" that plotted to kidnap and kill at least one governor over lockdowns, to the (still on-going) threats to election officials for not providing the desired results, constant anti-mask protests and general COVID defiance, it's enough to make even Thomas Paine say it's time for a reboot.  The worst, to me, were the anti-maskers who actually protested health care workers:  

To the protester wearing scrubs: “This is a free country. This is the land of the free. Go to China!” (The Guardian

(4) You can't have a country - or even a family - without rules, respect, and personal sacrifice for the greater good.  We need to relearn that on a national scale.  So, a return to teaching kindness, compassion, and empathy in schools, churches, families, and media is definitely needed.  

BTW, to all the anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, etc., one of the best articles I read was written by Martin Luther in 1527, and reprinted in Christianity TodayWhether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague.  An excerpt:

"Use medicine; take potions which can help you; fumigate house, yard, and street; shun persons and places wherever your neighbor does not need your presence or has recovered, and act like a man who wants to help put out the burning city. What else is the epidemic but a fire which instead of consuming wood and straw devours life and body? You ought to think this way: “Very well, by God’s decree the enemy has sent us poison and deadly offal. Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above. See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God."  HERE  (my emphasis added)

(5) Civics classes for all!  We have a great Constitution, and it's amazing how little people apparently know it.  Or how willing some are to make it optional.  (Senator Mike Lee: "Democracy is not the objective." – WRONG)  Teach it in schools, beginning in grade school and repeating the lessons over and over again through college.  Use the texts that immigrants have to study and learn from.  And for the adults in the room, here's the beginning of a refresher course:
  • The Constitution. (HERE)
  • The Declaration of  Independence. (HERE)
  • You could also do worse than read George Washington's Farewell Address. (HERE)
    • That set a high bar for Presidential farewells, didn't it?
  • Frederick Douglass' (What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?)   
(The above is only a start - don't give me crap about who got left off.)

(6) A stake through the heart of racism and the trickle-down theory of economics, which is just another name for the war on the poor (as opposed to the war on poverty), and which is often only another name, yet another cover, for racism.  The trickle-down theory has been thoroughly disproven, time and again, and most recently scientifically.  (Bloomberg)  The truth is, when the rich are given large tax cuts, they're more apt to buy another yacht or stash it off shore for themselves.  But give the poor some money, and they will spend it in their community on food, clothing, rent, etc., which really does create jobs for all.  Give the children of the poor a free, good education, and they will increase the wealth of family, friends, and neighbors.  Give the poor a chance, and the whole world will change, and for the better.  


And now, for something completely different:

Last year, I made Fearless Predictions for 2020.  Most of them - surprise! - did not come true.  But some did: 
  • President Trump will continue to tweet at the same rate most of us breathe.
  • "Xi Jinping will remain President for Life of China. Vladimir Putin will make himself President for Life of Russia. (Russian government resigns) Major pissing contest follows.
  • Brexit will happen. Almost no one, including Brexiters, will like it.
    • Future quote: "It isn't what I expected it to be. I thought everything would be cheaper, we'd have more freedom, and all those foreigners would be gone."
And, still possible: 
 
Speaking of Brexit, even money that:
  • Scotland will vote for independence.
  • Northern Ireland will vote to join the Republic of Ireland.
  • Scotland will join Northern Ireland and Wales in a Celtexit from Great Britain.
  • Normandy and Brittany will consider joining them. The beginning of the Great Celtexit from Europe will begin. Catalonia will try to join, but will be told to cabrear.
Fake news and deepfakes will receive their own category at the Grammys, Emmys, Tonys, and Oscars. No one will ever know who truly wins.

Wildly improbable, but I still want one:

Woolly mammoths will be cloned, especially the last of the species from St. Paul Island, Alaska, which were pgymies - they stood 5'6".  I wonder how they sounded when they trumpeted?  


"May the best of your past be the worst of your future."

HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!

30 December 2020

Which Came First? The Title or the Egg?


 I belong to the Short Mystery Fiction Society. In fact, I am the current president.  I imagine you can figure out what we discuss there. (And, hey, if you want to join, go to this page and look for Subscribe.  It's free.  But do it by tomorrow or you have to wait until the spring when the Derringer Awards have been decided.)

Recently I sent the following note to the Society's list:

I am about to do something that truly irritates me: starting to write a story with no idea what the title will be. 

How about it?  Do you need a title before you start writing?

And that started quite a discussion.  I am going to reduce a lot of interesting comments to four generalized categories:

Inspiration.  Writers who said their stories were often inspired by titles.

Start. Writers who usually know the titles before they begin.

Later. Writers who don't know the titles until the story is mostly or completely finished.

Varied.  Writers who are all over the map.

And speaking of maps, this chart shows the results.

A number of people agreed with me that it is annoying to start without knowing the title, if for no other reason than: what do you call the file?  When I started the story I was complaining about I called the file "Tunnel," which I absolutely hated.  The next day I changed it to "Underpass," which I like so much it may wind up being the actual title.  A subtle difference, perhaps, but huge to me.

I can think of only two times when the title inspired the plot:

"My Life as a Ghost." This was the first story I sold to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  They changed it to "The Dear Departed."  They have never changed another title on me, even when I invited them to do so.

Too Dead For Dreaming. I was listening to "Mr. Tambourine Man" one day and that line leapt out as a perfect title for a crime novel. So I wrote a book set in Greenwich Village during the Great Folk Scare of the early sixties.  Alas, Bob Dylan's publishing company wouldn't permit me to use the line as a title so it became Such A Killing Crime, a line from a traditional song, long out of copyright.  

My story about the Plainfield, New Jersey riots was originally called "Bullets in the Firehouse Door," but before I finished it I changed to "Shooting at the Firemen," which covers the same ground but is shorter and more active.  First readers suggested I drop the "the" so it appeared in Hitchcock as "Shooting at Firemen."  

Do you need a title before you start?  Do they stay the same or change their identity mysteriously?

29 December 2020

Winter Counts


Everyone wants justice. 

Courtroom dignity with an impartial jury or the dark delights of vengeance. The injured and grieving want restitution of one sort or another. Given that justice is so often partial, economically based, or capricious, the mystery novel and its sibling the thriller, have spread across the world, bearing as they do, the promise that the scales can be evened up and right might prevail.

For this reason, the detective, whether PI or cop or, as in David Heska Wanbli Weiden's Winter Counts, something less official and more ambiguous, shows up in nearly every culture and subgroup. Weiden's hero, Virgil Wounded Horse, operates on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, in an impoverished, if culturally rich, community that is seriously lacking in trustworthy law enforcement and reliable justice.

Weiden has said that one motivation for writing this novel was to bring attention to the difficulties of a community that cannot prosecute serious crimes. These are turned over to federal authorities, who are chiefly interested in drug crimes, often declining to prosecute rape, assault, child abuse, and even murder. The results have been particularly pernicious for Native American women.

 Virgil Wounded Horse provides an answer. For a modest fee, he will administer justice in the form of a violent attack and threats of more unless the perpetrator changes his ways. It's not exactly a respectable career path but it's a living and, arguably, an essential service.

The skills Virgil has developed come into full play when Nathan, his fourteen year old nephew, grieving his dead mom and bullied at school, samples some heroin. The boy nearly dies, and Virgil finds himself hunting for the drug dealers and trying to protect his ward, who eventually becomes entangled in a federal investigation.

The novel is strong on place, atmosphere, and action, maybe less so on dialogue. Winter Counts is particularly interesting on the tension between tribal ways and the often-threatening outside world and between loyalty to the people and culture of the rez and the opportunities for advancement elsewhere.

 If the solitary, super-competent hero is a staple of mystery/ thrillers, Virgil Wounded Horse has much that is distinctive in his attitude and outlook and a good deal to say about tribal life, federal stewardship, and white bias.

Winter Counts is one of a number of mysteries by Native American writers, and if you only know the non-Native American Tony Hillerman's stories of the Navaho Nation, Weiden has a fine list on the Strand Magazine website : https://strandmag.com/seven-essential-native-american-crime-novels/.

Interestingly, one of the novels mentioned is The Round House by Louise Erdrich, who is rarely thought of as a mystery or crime writer.  I haven't read that particular novel, but I can certainly recommend her splendid LaRose, which gives a distinctly Native American solution for recompense after a terrible accident.

Weiden ultimately opts for a less spiritual solution to the dilemmas his enforcer faces, but throughout Virgil has a strong sense, not only of justice but of the necessity for healing psychic as well as physical wounds and of restoring community. That gives him a distinct perspective and gives Winter Counts, despite its conventional features, something new in the genre.

28 December 2020

Sister to Sister



In Casablanca at Sid's (Rick's) just short decades ago,  I met this mysterious lady who has more names than I can usually remember, but the one which finally showed up in my '90s bookstore more often was Toni L.P. Kelner. I actually fell in love Sid, her skeleton character. Humphrey Bogart could have carried the part off masterfully.

This wonderful interview with my friend, by Hank Phillippi Ryan, has been reprinted here with permission from Toni L.P. Kelner and the New England chapter of Sisters in Crime. 

-Jan Grape

If you want to find Toni L. P. Kelner, go where the laughter is! For so many years, she’s been such a stalwart to Sisters in Crime in every way. Full of fun and jokes and a marvelous sense of humor, sure. But behind all that is the hardest-working woman in showbiz – – with a pedigree of bestselling mysteries and short stories, an Agatha win, an RT Lifetime Achievement Award, an acclaimed partnership with Charlene Harris, and a glorious and talented and loving family. (Including her wonderful husband Steve, another pillar of the SinC community.)

 She’s never afraid to take a writing risk, including one super successful series (written as Leigh Perry) starring…a skeleton. Yes, that’s the brave and brilliant brain of Toni Kelner.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Do you remember the very first time you thought: I’m going to write a book, and I can do it. What was that moment?

TONI KELNER: I first started trying to write when I was in junior high school, and wrote short stories and even a novella along the way, but the first time I really felt pretty confident that I was going to finish a novel would have been late 1988 or early 1989. That’s when I really got going on my first book-length manuscript, and I was sure I’d finish. I didn’t know if it would sell, but it would be an actual manuscript gosh darn it!

HANK: Wow, that’s thirty-two years ago! That’s astonishing. Did that first book sell?

TONI KELNER: Eventually. I wrote it, shopped it around for a year or so while writing another manuscript, then got some great feedback and rewrote the first one. Once I’d finished the rewrite, it only took a few months to get an agent and then a publisher. (I’ve never rewritten or sold that second manuscript, but I will someday.)

HANK: I have no doubt!  And that’s so inspirational. How many of your books have been published since then? What do you think about that?

TONI KELNER: Seventeen novels, seven co-edited anthologies, and one collection of my short stories. So I guess that’s 25.

 I’m astonished and pleased, but not ready to stop yet!

HANK: Well, of course not!  Gotta know, got to ask. Do you outline? Has your method changed over the years?

TONI KELNER: Only if I have to. I do write outlines when editors require it, but find it constraining. Plotting that works in outline just comes off as contrived in the actual writing. When an outline is required, I write it and get it approved, but then stick it in a drawer and ignore it while I write the book.

HANK:  That’s wise advice. But I wonder if it gets your brain going, you know? Gets the muse listening? Even if the final book is totally different. Getting that core idea is the hardest for me—how about you?  What's the hardest part of the book for you?

TONI KELNER: Getting my tail end writing to get up to speed. Once I’m going, I’m quite fast, but it’s hard to get going. 

Once I’m writing, I try not to repeat myself in terms of plot lines and bits of business. That gets harder each book.

HANK:  Well, yeah, since you’ve been wring for 32 years! (No pressure.) Is your first draft always terrible? Has it always been?


TONI KELNER: My first drafts are much better than they used to be. With the first few, I started too early. I had to cut out a whole first chapter with my first book, then half a chapter with  my second, a few pages with my third… Now I start pretty much where I should start.

HANK:  I love that you learn from yourself.  Very reassuring.  How often in your process do you have doubts about what you’re doing?

TONI KELNER: Almost the entire time except for when I’m rolling down the hill toward the very end.

HANK:  What do you tell yourself during those moments of writing fear?

TONI KELNER: I whine to my husband Steve, who reassures me as best he can.

 I did recently see something inspirational on Facebook. Another writer—and I can’t remember who—quoted something a friend told her. “You’ve written X number of books and stories. Trust yourself to be able to do it again.”

This came at just the right time, because I’ve got a short story due and have been having a hard time writing during Plague Times.

HANK:  Oh, I hear you. If ever there was a time to tune out reality while in the manuscript, this is it. But it’s always safe inside your pages, right?  Do you have a writing quirk you have to watch out for?

TONI KELNER: My characters used to grin all the time, but I’ve gotten better at that one. Now I develop a new one per book that I have to catch while editing. Thank goodness for beta readers.

HANK: True. And so funny. Mine shrug and grin. And it’s hilarious--no one in real life does that, right? What’s one writing thing you always do—write every day? Never stop at the end of a chapter? Write first thing in the morning?

TONI KELNER: I write in the wee hours of the morning. I don’t want to—I’d rather get my work done earlier in the day—but for some reason, I usually can’t settle into work until the world quiets down.

HANK:  Well, you understand your brain, and let it lead you.  How do you know when your book is finished?

TONI KELNER:  If I’m editing and change “said” to “asked,” then in the next pass change “asked” back to “said,” I know it’s time to let it go.


HANK:  Perfect. Has there been one person who has helped you in your career? (I know, it must be difficult to choose just one, but...)

TONI KELNER: So many, but I’m going to say Charlaine Harris. We had been beta reading each other for a while when she invited me to co-edit anthologies with her. That led to a new very visible stage of my career, a new agent, introduction to an editor and publisher, and so many other opportunities. Thank you, Charlaine!

HANK: Well, she’s a total rock star. And so many sisters have her to thank!  Do you think anyone can be taught to be a better writer?  

TONI KELNER: I do. I’ve always liked this philosophy from Gideon in All That Jazz:

"Listen, I can't make you a great dancer. I don't even know if I can make you a good dancer. But, if you keep trying and don't quit, I know I can make you a better dancer.”

I think if a writer keeps trying and doesn’t quit, they’re going to get better. Maybe not great or even good or publishable, but better.

HANK:  Bird by bird, right?  How do you feel about…stuff? Writing swag handouts giveaways that kind of thing. Do you think it matters? Do you have it?

TONI KELNER: I really like creating it but I’m not convinced it works, so I try to restrain myself. I hand out bookmarks, and I’ve got a bunch of microfiber wipes that have original artwork and my book cover on them. Neither are expensive, and both can be mailed with regular postage, so I can still use them during the Plague Times. 

Since lots of conventions and charities ask for auction donations, I also buy skeleton-based items on sale to have on hand so I’m ready to do a gift basket at short notice.

HANK:  You’ve seen so much change in the publishing industry, what do you think new writers need to know about that?

TONI KELNER: Expect change! Keep an ear out to try to predict what that change will be, but don’t assume the experts are going to be right.

Years back, I was at a Berkley Prime Crime dinner when everybody was buzzing about those new-fangled electronic books, and the editor-in-chief told us that we had nothing to worry about. Ebooks were going to settle down and just be a small part of the field, like audio books. Not only was she wrong about ebooks, but she didn’t expect audio books to become a huge market because of downloading services. 

That’s the scary part. On the good side, every change can lead to opportunities. I’ve got books that were long out of print in physical editions, but which are available as ebooks and audio downloads.

HANK:  Yeah, you never know.  You've been so successful, why do you think that is? What secret of yours can we bottle up and rely on?

TONI KELNER: I don’t think of myself as overly successful, just moderately so, but thank you. 

My only secret is being ornery. I just won’t leave. When a series dies, I start a new one. If one story doesn’t sell, I write another one. If I have a dry spell—and I’ve had them—I stick around until it ends. Winning awards, big sales, high-profile deals—those are all great, but staying in the game is the real way to win.

HANK: Yes, yes, yes! We should all print out your advice. (And yes, you are successful!)  What are you working on right now?

TONI KELNER: I’m writing my first Family Skeleton short story for an anthology of mysteries inspired by the Marx Brothers, edited by Josh Pachter. 

HANK: Oh, Josh is great. He has such perfect ideas! Eager to read that!  What book are you are reading right now? 

TONI KELNER: The Art of the Con by R. Paul Wilson, which is research for a new series I’m playing with.

HANK:  Oh, cannot wait to read that, too! You’ll have to keep us posted. Until then, give us one piece of writing advice!

TONI KELNER: Especially in these times, when sales are sparse because of the world at large, write what you’ve always wanted to write. Even if you don’t sell well, you’ll have a great time.

HANK: Aw, that advice is perfect. Thank you! And sisters, how are you doing? My writing went off the tracks a bit at the beginning of the plague times, as Toni so wisely calls this. Did yours? How did you regroup?   

Leigh Perry/Toni L.P. Kelner is two authors in one. As Leigh, she writes the Family Skeleton mysteries, featuring adjunct English professor Georgia Thackery and her skeletal pal Sid. The sixth, THE SKELETON STUFFS A STOCKING, was published in 2019. As Toni, she’s written eleven mystery novels and co-edited seven urban fantasy anthologies with Charlaine Harris. She’s won the Agatha Award and an RT BookClub Lifetime Achievement Award. Her most recent publications were short stories in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and in the Nasty Woman Press anthology SHATTERING GLASS, and forthcoming is a contribution to an anthology inspired by the Marx Brothers.   

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN is the USA Today bestselling author of 12 thrillers, winning five Agathas and the Mary Higgins Clark Award, and 37 EMMYs for TV investigative reporting. THE MURDER LIST (2019) won the Anthony Award for Best Novel, and is an Agatha, Macavity and Mary Higgins Clark Award nominee. Her newest psychological standalone is THE FIRST TO LIE. The Publishers Weekly starred review says "Stellar. Ryan could win her sixth Agatha with this one."

27 December 2020

A Weird Christmas Tale for Writers


Terry Pratchett gave us the character of Hogfather to replace Santa Claus in his best-selling fantasy series. And, since it is only fair that Hogfather, like Santa, should have his own minions, I give you Blind Pig as a potential candidate for one of his elves.

Having worked the motorcycle gangs for several years, it did not take long to find a real-life representative for the character of Blind Pig, a hulk of a free-thinking biker who sees the world around him through a different filter. But, he does love his customized Harley.

So, here's your Christmas gift from me for this year.

A Weird Christmas Tale for Writers
Having been severely encouraged by his new old lady Patricia to acquire a modicum of culture and perhaps broaden his literary interests at the same time, the Pig made the momentous decision to write his memoirs and give them to Patricia as a Christmas present. He perceived himself as the only proper expert for this endeavor, seeing as how he was the sole person that truly understood himself.
Patricia for her part, was suitably impressed that the Pig was going to write anything, much less his autobiography.


Having now heard the term autobiography banded about for the first time, the Pig was stymied for a minute or two. He had been so caught up in the idea of drafting his memoirs that he hadn't even considered the words auto and biography in the same sentence. Ambling off to the kitchen for another beer, he contemplated the two words and decided they wouldn't do at all for his project. In the first place, the Pig refused to ride in one of them steel cages known as an auto, that was for civilians in the straight life. And in the second place, he decided that most auto biographies must have been written by race car drivers, which obviously left him out. Therefore, being a motorcycle enthusiast, he decided to refer to his memoirs as a motor-cy-ography.

Thus having rendered that turning-point decision, he proceeded to gather up his writing materials. Lacking the immediate possession of either a computer or an old-fashioned typewriter, the Pig adjusted his mind to write in longhand. He promptly located the stub of a carpenter pencil and an almost dried-up ballpoint pen bearing the logo of his local bail bond agent. Finding no clean paper to write upon, Pig then moved on to cut up a stash of old brown-paper grocery bags that he'd forgotten to throw in the trash over the last several years. As he labored, Pig thought he had now acquired a glimpse into the demise of the modern writer, seeing as to how most grocery bags had gone from paper to plastic, thus depriving the writer of a convenient source of free paper material.

All set to begin with carpenter pencil in hand, the Pig suddenly found himself plagued by Writer's Block, which pleased him immensely because he now knew that he was on the road to being a real writer, otherwise he wouldn't be blocked. In order to break through this barrier, the Pig thought about what other writers talked of at times like these and knew immediately what he needed to do. Turning to the Z's in the Yellow Pages, he punched a phone number into his cell and waited for someone to answer.
  "Hello. This is the zoo. How may I help you?"
  "Do you have one of those Bullwinkle things?"
  "Excuse me."
  "You know, one of those big brown, grass eating things from the north woods."
  "Oh, you mean a moose?"
  "Yeah, can I borrow one for a while?"
  "I'm sorry, sir. We only loan our animals out to other zoos, not private individuals."
  "Just for a couple of weeks. I'll take good care of him."
The line went dead.
Incensed at his first rejection as an author, Pig retired to the bedroom and commenced rooting through the closet. In quick order, he extracted his black, ninja, steal-at-night clothes, a red Santa hat trimmed in white rabbit fur, several lengths of rope and two pair of old sweat socks from the laundry hamper. As the sun went down, he loaded all his gear into an old pickup he had borrowed from an unsuspecting neighbor. He also threw in a case of Jamaican Red Stripe beer, ten peanut and jelly sandwiches and three Moon Pies, just in case he got hungry during the coming escapade.
#
Early the next morning, as a heavy metal version of Jingle Bells played on the truck's radio, Pig returned to the house where his new old lady Patricia was waiting on the front porch. In the back of the pickup, Pig had one dazed, bound, gagged and blindfolded moose. With an apparent perception of the problem, Patricia then proceeded to explain to Blind Pig the difference between the large, antlered herbivore he had kidnapped from the zoo, ie. a moose, as opposed to the spiritual inspiration for a writer, ie. a muse.

Undaunted by this minor mistake, Pig asked if he could keep the moose in the backyard at least until after the Christmas holidays were over.
The moose, still gagged by the two pair of old sweat socks, had no say in the matter.
- not the end -

PS~ there is a Part Two, but we'll save it for maybe another time. In the meantime, keep on writin'.

Merry Christmas to all !!!
or if you are a Pratchett fan, then
Merry Hogwatch Night to you !!!

26 December 2020

Sleuthing and the Heroine's Journey


Greetings from We the North, where it is currently 41° F, with green grass! Even Santa scratched his head last night, wondering which side of the border he was on.

My pleasure today to introduce another stellar Canadian crime writer - Jayne Barnard - with a topic that blew me away. Some of you know I write epic fantasy as well as crime, and happily for readers, so does Jayne. So you can imagine my delight when I read this post and Jayne agreed to share it with us today on SleuthSayers.

We writing instructors always talk about The Hero's Journey in fiction. But did you ever wonder about the Heroine's? Jayne makes the case using crime fiction, and I am wowed by the brilliance of it. Take it away, Jayne…

— Melodie


Sleuthing and the Heroine's Journey

by J.E. Barnard

Here's a new truism for you: a Hero can be halfway through his Quest before a Heroine gets out the door.

And no, it's not because women are always late.

Males are expected to go out questing and few look askance if they do; females are expected to tend the hearth and the children, maintaining the home for the male's triumphal return. Before she can leave, the Heroine must first wrap up or delegate all the responsibilities tying her to normal life.

For the fictional sleuth, those gender expectations make for distinctly different heroic journeys through the crime-solving world.

Whether hard-hitting like a Hammett hero or cerebral as Hercule Poirot, male detectives generally undertake their heroic crime-solving from a place of relative strength and comfort, with skills and allies already in place, and a secure home to return to. They receive, in Joseph Campbell's journey model, a Call to Adventure that, once they overcome initial reluctance to leave their comfort zone, ultimately draws them into the heroic quest: the hunt for a villain or the race to save a (present or future) victim. Along the way they meet a good woman, a bad one, face off against a father figure or more powerful male, overcome some dangers to gain victory, and return to their comfortable world stronger and more respected, if not necessarily wiser.

Sound familiar? It's the baseline for almost every English-language detective story ever published, and almost every movie ever made.

Where a heroine sets foot in that story her role, as Campbell put it, is to "realize that she's the place that people are trying to get to."

Passive, not active.

In 1990, the acclaimed feminist scholar Maureen Murdoch wrote "The Heroine's Journey" to explicate the still-radical theory that women - in life and in fiction - need not follow the male-structured Hero's Journey, but could chart their own course, taking into account the entangled societal expectations and responsibilities that must be managed before the Heroine was free to undertake a Journey that was both outer progress and inner development. As academic Mega Rogers puts it, "The hero begins his journey with a strong sense of self-preservation and ultimately embarks on an external descent, then return to achieve individuation. In contrast, the heroine begins her story lacking a sense of self, giving too much energy to the needs and opinions of others and embarks upon an internal journey of descent from which she travels outward to achieve her individuation."

Plainly put, the first stage of the Heroine's Journey happens when she gets disillusioned by, or is forced out of, the passive, culturally supported, stereotypical feminine role.

Until fairly recently, fictional female sleuths had two choices: be as tough and unencumbered as any man, like Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski, or be both unencumbered by domestic duties and simultaneously able to do their sleuthing on the home front, as did Christie's Miss Marple and Wentworth's Miss Silver. For both models of female sleuth there wasn't a lot of journeying, heroic or otherwise.

I can almost hear the readers crying out, "What about Nancy Drew?" To which I reply with more questions: did Nancy get forced out of a place of comfort? Did she have responsibilities she couldn't shelve to go sleuthing? Did she have an inner journey along with her outer one? The answer to all three is 'No.' She might have been a good sleuth but she wasn't on a Heroine's Journey. The home she came back to was the same safe place she'd left, with no inner growth (and not much outer advancement) demanded.

The modern female sleuth's journey, like the wider Heroine's Journey, is more than a hearth-bound, small-village imitation of the Hero's Journey. It's been shaping women's lives forever and crime fiction since the mid-1950s, when Mary Stewart started writing romantic suspense about heroines who had jobs instead of children. These heroines traveled, tackled mountains and foreign languages, detected anomalous behaviors, formulated theories of crime, decided for themselves who was trustworthy and who was potentially dangerous, and faced killers without fainting or falling into the nearest hero's arms. As Sleuthsayers' regular blogger Melodie Campbell wrote earlier this year, "Mary Stewart's protagonists had courage and resourcefulness. They fought back when threatened. They risked their lives rescuing large animals (This Rough Magic) and even men (The Moonspinners.) This was not only unusual for the time - it was absolutely groundbreaking."

Following in Mary Stewart's keystrokes, crime fiction authors began to let their heroines leap - or creep - out into the world. Even the redoubtable Dame Ngaio Marsh gave Troy Alleyn, wife of her longstanding male detective, a chance at her own journey. 1968's 'A Clutch of Constables' (the 25th book in the series) send Troy on a river cruise that led her into dangerous waters. It wasn't fully a Heroine's Journey as Troy was already quite independent. Further, the tale lacked introspection about her social role even while she puzzled out the mysterious happenings on board the riverboat. In the end, Inspector Alleyn appeared in his habitual heroic role to wrap things up.

That book, however, bridges the gap between the old, passive, heroine-as-adjunct model and the new: a heroine active in crime solving, stretching her skills and forging her own path.

Around the time Ngaio Marsh stopped writing, Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Mertz took up the challenge, expanding the fictional sleuthing Heroine's Journey through her Vicky Bliss romantic suspense series, and her Amelia Peabody historical/satirical adventures. Vicki's involvement in crime ultimately led her to the traditional feminine reward of marriage and domesticity, while Amelia married early and continued on her journey. For 19 further books, Peters wove Amelia's increasing domestic duties through her career growth, her Suffragist efforts, and her intrepid tackling of crime and criminals. Amelia's inner journey started with rejection of marriage/domesticity (her assigned lot in life), wound through self-reflections upon the conflicting demands into a more individuated and comfortable participation in the company of other women as equals & allies and mirrored - sometimes anticipated - the expanding role of women in the late-Victorian/early Edwardian society. Her series-long arc is a near-ideal example of Murdoch's Heroine Journey. (see The Heroine's Journey for discussion and diagram.)

As the dual inner-outer Heroine's Journey took hold in the reading public's imagination, the old ways of solving mysteries through the exercise of either the fists or the little grey cells ceased to be satisfying. Nowadays, sleuths both male and female are expected to have an inner drive as well as an outer goal.

The speed of this shift is clear in the popular Miss Fisher mysteries as they moved from print to small screen. In 1989, author Kerry Greenwood set out to write an Australian adult Nancy Drew, a well-off and stylish sleuth who had adventures, but with added zing from adult freedoms including the sexual. The books' Phryne had a straightforward, hedonistic life with no much self-reflection beyond a determination to reject the confining expectations of upper class 1920s woman. The 2012 TV series, however, sets Phryne on an inner as well as outer quest. The childhood loss of her sister to a sadistic killer drives the adult Phryne to rescue street urchins and orphans, solve crimes mostly involving women, and along the way come to terms with her guilt and grief over her sister's kidnapping and murder. In doing heroic deeds outwardly for others, she progresses on her inward heroic journey.

Another aspect of the Heroine's Journey is the allies found along the way, more likely to be equal partners than the mentor or apprentices found in the Hero's Journey. As fantasy fiction author Elizabeth Whitton said during a recent panel discussion, "While the Hero's Journey is all about the main guy, the 'I', Heroines tend to talk, think and act as 'we'." Allyship is central for Heroines.

During the writing of my Falls Mysteries, starting in the mid-oughts, the Heroine's Journey was already part of my psyche due to decade of reading crime fiction with heroic female sleuths. My main sleuth, Lacey, is an ex-Mountie suffering from PTSD due to both workplace incidents and the violent spouse she fled (forced out of the home sphere.) My secondary sleuth, Jan, lost her art history career to an illness, ME/CFS, for which no cause and no cure were then (or are now) available. In 'When the Flood Falls,' the first book, Lacey and Jan must band together to save their mutual friend Dee from a midnight stalker who seems to be escalating his invasions. While each starts off thinking the other woman is a frail reed in the partnership, they soon recognize they are stronger together: Lacey's physical power and police training combine with Jan's art-trained observational skills and her deep knowledge of the suspects.

In addition to learning to work together, each woman must progress on her inner Heroine's Journey in order to survive and surmount the rising challenges around the heroic task of saving Dee. Lacey learns to accept help when offered and Jan to ask for what she needs to keep functioning physically. As the trilogy closes, in addition to solving some crimes and saving some vulnerable characters, Lacey has let down her armor and progressed in her inner healing, while Jan takes her first steps back into the wider world previously lost to her illness.

Once you understand the Heroine's Journey dynamic, you'll see it not only in crime fiction but in movies and television...and in daily life. How many true Heroines do you know?

Bio: JE (Jayne) Barnard has 25 years of award-winning fiction to her name. Her bestselling women’s wilderness suspense series, The Falls Mysteries (Dundurn Press) follows contemporary characters facing raw nature and manmade threats, medically assisted dying as well as murder, PTSD, and ME/CFS. Her newest book, Why the Rock Falls, excavates the dysfunctional family lives of Hollywood directors and oil dynasties amid the jaw-dropping limestone climbs in Alberta’s Ghost River valley. Follow her on

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25 December 2020

A Guest of Christmas Past


On the 13th of December 2009, the predecessor of SleuthSayers, Criminal Brief, launched a Christmas puzzle unique to the web. With all seven CB members contributing, it ran for a week… and a bonus eighth day, with clues appearing every in every article. The solution to the puzzle would reveal a holiday message.

Clue or red herring?

At first, we feared the puzzle would be too easy, that flocks of readers would solve it. Then after the 8th day when solutions didn’t flood in, we became concerned it was too difficult. What we initially concealed was that any one day could have revealed the answer, although we dropped numerous hints along the way.

In an unusual turn, one of our readers kept a diary of her efforts. She was dealing with annoying issues at the time, and picked up puzzle solving as a respite. She shared the notes after the solution was announced, and quite an epic struggle it was. A few times she thought she was on the right track, but wasn’t satisfied and the days ticked away.

And then… and then…

If you’d like to take a shot at it, visit the clues in the series of articles on Criminal Brief. Congratulations if you happen to solve it, but be sure to read the amazing journal of the solver herself, CJ Dowse.

In the meantime, I hope you had a happy Chanukah and are enjoying a safe and happy Christmas. But wait. Below find a charming tiny tale that appeared on the 8th day.

24 December 2020

A Christmas Eve Retrospective


 Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

And so we find ourselves at the terminus of 2020. 2020, the year that seemed like it would never end.

Nearly a year into a raging pandemic, nine solid months into a waxing and waning quarantine, and yet the end seems to finally be in sight. Not just of the year, but of the pandemic. A vaccine is on the horizon, and from here we can see a potential return to a fully functioning society.

Is it the Beginning of the End, or the End of the Beginning?

I suppose it all depends on your point of view.

I for one am hopeful. Then again, I'm the mid-fifties father of an eight-year-old son, and I teach middle school, so, as I've said before in this space, I'm in the business of hope.

And so, in this time of hope, this season of generosity, I'm here to glean a few positives from the detritus of 2020. After all, the Yuletide is also the Tide of "End-of-the-Year"lists, so let me give a brief recap of mine.

So this isn't a post about COVID. I'm going to recap my writing goals for the year, and how I did with them.


Goals

I started 2020 determined to wrap up several half-finished writing projects. I had a rough draft of a novel, two partially-completed short stories, and a dead-line for expanding three previously published short stories into novella length for publication as a three-novella collection.

At the beginning of 2020 I was riding the tail end of a streak where I'd collected and edited two companion crime fiction anthologies. This endeavor had consumed the better part of a year, and my publisher had released both of them within the previous six months.

So 2020 was going to be the year I finished things.

So This Happened
Results

I succeeded in finishing all of the above save the novel, which is half-completed (second full and final draft). And even with the novel, I can see the end of the road out on the horizon. I will definitely be putting this one in the can and sending it off to my agent before Summer begins.

My short stories are completed and off with the editors who requested them, and that includes revisions based on requested changes. And my three novellas were published by Down and Out Books just last month!

So I'm going to end of this hopeful note. I wish us all the best and only good things in the coming year of 2021.

Happy New Year, and See You In Two Weeks!



23 December 2020

The Little Drummer Boy


John le Carré changed the landscape, no question. It’s not accurate, though, to imagine he sprang fully-formed from the brow of Zeus. He was a hundred-and-eighty degrees from the shockers of John Buchan and E. Phillips Oppenheim, and it’s often remarked that George Smiley is the anti-Bond, but Fleming was himself a real spy, Naval Intelligence in WWII (le Carré worked for both MI5 and MI6, during the Cold War), and Bond is clearly a conceit, an exaggeration of Fleming’s own masochism and snobbery, not to mention a curious sort of inversion: Bond (and Fleming) parallel the career arc of Kim Philby.

Smiley, on the other hand, might be an internalized version of le Carré’s own habits of concealment and emotional avoidance, and Philby’s treachery - which is plainly one of le Carré’s touchstones – might parallel on a national or historical scale, le Carré’s personal betrayal by his father Ronnie. This isn’t some startling apotheosis; le Carré has spoken and written about it with self-deprecating chagrin.

His literary precursors are Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, Eric Ambler. He didn’t exist in a vacuum. But the influences we recognize aren’t necessarily literary. Film noir isn’t exclusively an American province, there’s a healthy dose of it British postwar movies (along with an equally irreverent streak of comedies). Brighton Rock, based of course on a Greene novel, is one example. Even better are the Carol Reeds of that era: Odd Man Out, Fallen Idol, The Third Man. Not to mention the Dickens movies that David Lean made. It’s no surprise that these pictures contribute to a climate of mistrust and class resentments, or that they pave the way for the thickening claustrophobia of the Red Scare.

Not everybody reads pulp, either, and I’d like to make a case for Donald Hamilton. Dean Martin played Matt Helm as a Bond parody, but Hamilton’s books were darker. I’d recommend The Steel Mirror, not a Helm novel, but a standalone. It’s a Nazi war criminal/Commie menace hybrid, frightening and effective. And then there’s Richard Condon’s Manchurian Candidate. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was, yes, a game-changer, and fifty-odd years on, it’s worth remembering how it moved the goal posts, but not without context.

Le Carré is about betrayal. This is his consistent theme. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is about a deception operation. Leamas describes it at the end. You had a smart guy who suspected his boss of treason. We laid down a trail of bread crumbs, but artful, so it wasn’t that easy to follow. The smart guy was caught in his own snare. In fact, his boss was an asset of British intelligence, but we made him invulnerable by discrediting the investigation. The subtext of the story is class, a peculiarly inflexible British resonance. And the East German investigator, Fiedler, is a Jew, which comes in handy, some Hebe slyboots with a grudge.

The point wasn’t despair, or cynicism. The point was: These guys aren’t playing by the rules. And if we were still thinking, Gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail, we were going to get our ass handed to us. Le Carré, in that sense, isn’t that far from Bond after all.

I read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1965, when I was taking Russian at Syracuse, a nine-month immersion course, courtesy of the U.S. Air Force. The next year, I was in Berlin. I read The Looking-Glass War, and from a more informed perspective, I thought the book was complete baloney. You wouldn’t need to put a live agent in place, you could get everything you needed from electronic intercept. It made me doubt le Carré’s credentials. On the other hand, there was a lovely piece of tradecraft at the end, when the Vopo sergeant starts pulling the fuses in the breaker box in the apartment block.

Off and on, I ran hot and cold. A Small Town in Germany felt very authentic, from my own experience, but it was kind of inert. Then came Tinker, Tailor, and The Honorable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People. Honorable Schoolboy is, I think, a misfire, but necessary. Smiley’s People - the title alone a nod to Kipling – is something of a summing up, and the nuts and bolts are worth the cover price all by themselves. George at Otto’s boat camp?

Then we have The Little Drummer Girl. “Sooner or later, they say in the trade, a man will sign his name.” Probably the best of the books. Le Carré got a lot of grief over it, because it gave a sympathetic picture of Palestinians in the camps, and a decidedly unsympathetic picture of Arik Sharon and the Israeli war hawks, but the story is about hunting a terrorist, and it’s in no way sympathetic to the murder of innocents. It’s completely involving in its spycraft, Winding the Clock, Shaking the Tree, and it’s of course about betrayal. There’s an extraordinary line at the end of the book, “… the last thing Becker wanted was to invent anybody.” This is le Carré’s own admission.

I wouldn’t say he fell off, not by any means, but I began to fall away from him. Our Game, and The Tailor of Panama, are very engaging books, but somehow not entirely present. I liked The Russia House, with its circular-error-probable, but not as much as I should have. I absolutely despised Absolute Friends. Not that it couldn’t happen, but that it took an unworthy shortcut, and an easy out.

My pal Michael Davidson, also a spy novelist, and career CIA, thought le Carré was guilty of moral relativism. I’m not so sure. There’s an interior monologue in Smiley’s People, when Smiley goes to Hamburg, and looks east, across the Baltic, and thinks to himself, this is where the Iron Curtain starts, this is where the prison of thought begins, in the barbed wire. Smiley’s generation fought Hitler. Stalin’s legacy is just as poisonous. Smiley uses doubtful means, but he believes in the mission, and the end game.

Ambiguity perhaps defines le Carré. The Secret Pilgrim is one of his later titles. Too easy, of course, to try and pin a writer down through his admitted weaknesses. I think le Carré is more than the sum of his parts. Early on, in Call for the Dead, he says, “the warmth was contraband.” I can imagine he found warmth. His work is chilly enough.

John le Carré

22 December 2020

All We Want for Christmas is a Fair Shot


Earlier this year, Alex Acks, in “Slush v Solicitations: Just tell us where we stand,” wrote about magazines’ and anthologies’ “complete lack of transparency regarding just how much of their content they actually take from the slush pile versus how much is solicited.” Though writing primarily about SF/F markets, Acks’s comments apply equally to other genres.

TRANSPARENCY

Before I react to Acks’s blog post, perhaps I should provide some transparency about my editorial work.

I edited my first five anthologies more than a decade ago. So, while I’m pretty sure every story in them was selected from slush piles, I don’t honestly remember. I can, however, discuss more recent editorial work.

The Eyes of Texas
: Almost every story came from the slush pile. The one that didn’t was an anomaly. At the Toronto Bouchercon, I discussed the anthology with another writer and mentioned that I was surprised I had seen no stories involving a certain historical event. He asked several questions and later submitted a story in which that event played a role. I accepted the story.

Mickey Finn, volumes 1 and 2: I invited four writers to submit to the first Mickey Finn because I felt they would deliver solid stories around which I could shape the anthology. Three of the writers submitted stories, and I accepted all three. Other than my own contributions, the rest of the stories in MF 1 and all of the stories in MF 2 came from the slush pile.

Guns + Tacos, seasons 1, 2, and 3 (coming July-December 2021): All of the stories included in the first three seasons of G+T were solicited.

Jukes & Tonks (coming April 2021): All of the stories in J&T were solicited.

Black Cat Mystery Magazine
: I suspect several stories in the first issue were solicited (mine wasn’t; I invited myself). I wasn’t involved with the editorial side for the first few issues, but every issue since I joined the staff has been filled from slush pile submissions.

FOUR TYPES OF SUBMISSIONS

In “Slush v Solicitations: Just tell us where we stand,” Acks describes four types of submissions—slush, solicited, backdoor, and select/private—all of which can or do serve as barriers to new writers.

Unsolicited submission via the slush pile is the primary way new writers break into publishing short fiction. However, the slush pile may offer false hope at publications that acquire only a small percentage of their stories from the slush.

So, is it fair to dangle hope in front of new writers by having a slush pile without acknowledging the other three types of submissions and how they impact story acquisition? Acks doesn’t think so and advocates for transparency. If editors are transparent about how they acquire stories and how many stories are actually plucked from the slush pile (as a percentage of total published stories, not as a percentage of total submitted stories), then writers will “know not to waste [...] time or emotional energy on a useless want” where slush piles are more for show, and writers can therefore target submissions to where they feel their stories have the best chance of acceptance.

FROM THE WRITER’S SIDE

Granted, the more information available to writers, the better their odds of success, but in addition to Acks’s desire for transparency, there’s an equally important question that new writers should be asking: How does one rise from the slush pile to become a writer whose work is solicited, whose work will be considered by publications that say they’re closed or that allow submissions via a “submissions portal” with a URL that is “not public”?

The answer is simple: Hard work, good writing, and professional attitude.

Every single magazine with which I have or have had a working relationship began when the editor plucked one of my stories from a slush pile. Almost every working relationship I have with anthology editors began when those editors plucked my stories from the slush piles of open-call anthologies.

I began writing professionally in the 1970s, so much of the information available to new writers today either was not then available or was much harder to acquire. What I knew about publishing came from the pages of Writer’s Digest and The Writer. What I knew about open markets came from the back pages of those same magazines and from the annual Writer’s Market. Later, I discovered newsletters such as Janet Fox’s Scavenger’s Newsletter and Kathryn Ptacek’s The Gila Queen’s Guide to Markets.

Even so, I had little or no information about how many published stories were discovered in slush piles, nor how many in a given issue of any magazine were slush pile finds vs. stories that were acquired through some form of “insider” submission (solicited, backdoor, and select/private). What I did know was that the only way out of the slush pile was to submit a well-written story that met the publication’s guidelines.

So I did it. Again. And again. And again.

And now, though I’m a writer whose work is sometimes solicited, I’ve yet to encounter any publication with formal or informal backdoor or select/private submission policies. That may be the difference between SF/F markets and mystery markets, or it might just mean I haven’t yet reached that level of success.

FROM THE EDITOR’S SIDE

You may have noticed that some writers appear in several of my projects, regardless of whether the projects are open-call or invitation-only. If there isn’t some secret handshake, how does this happen?

The reason is simple: these authors provide good stories, well-told, delivered on time and on theme, and they have proven themselves easy to work with throughout the editing process.

YOU GET A FAIR SHOT, AND YOU GET A FAIR SHOT, AND YOU GET A FAIR SHOT

So, yes, there may be publications and anthology editors with backdoor submission policies and secret/private submission portals, and there certainly are many invitation-only projects, but one’s goal as a writer should be to reach the point where one no longer has to battle through the slush pile on a regular basis.

So, should editors be transparent about their processes? I’m with Acks on this: Yes.

Will complete transparency create a level playing field for new writers? Alas, no.

But, really, all a writer wants is a fair shot.

So, for Christmas this year, let’s ensure that every writer has a fair shot.

21 December 2020

Report to the Shareholders


In 2020, I wrote 16 stories and sold seven. That's nothing compared to several other SleuthSayers, but it shows how I reinvented myself in the year of Covid and other misadventures. I received 14 rejections, too, which means I'm not submitting often enough. 

In spring of 2004, I was struggling with two different novels and heard that you could get attention from agents and publishers by selling a few short stories. I've always liked shorts, but never felt comfortable with the form until I attended the Wesleyan Writers' Conference that summer. Alexander Chee, Roxanne Robinson and Chris Offutt gave me good advice and great writing prompts, so by year's end I submitted seven stories to various markets. None of them sold, but they taught me a new process. The following year, I wrote and submitted ten more stories. None of those sold, either, but each rewrite sucked a little less.

Between then and 2017, I only submitted 13 new stories, mainly because I sold my first novel late in 2009 and published it in 2010. By then, I had six or seven versions of various other novels on my hard drive. I sent some of the older stories out in revision (some sold), but I concentrated on those novels in various degrees of development.

Late in 2019, I published Words of Love, my 15th novel, and it changed my landscape. For the first time since 2003, I had neither a new idea nor an old manuscript loitering on the computer. My writing workshops earned more than my book sales, anyway.

Then came 2020. In late January, I had a minor traffic accident that aggravated a pinched nerve in my neck. My left arm went numb, and the ER doctors thought I'd had a minor stroke. They prescribed blood thinners, pain-killers and other meds for a month, then decided it wasn't a stroke after all. I'd said as much, but the drugs scrambled my concentration. I went off them at the end of February, but by then the pandemic was shutting us down and I had two workshops cancelled. I wrote a novella for a contest, but that was the only fiction I produced in the first half of the year. More about that in a minute (Like the foreshadowing?).

In March, I was diagnosed with cancer for the second time (I hate reruns). Between April and July, I had eight sessions of chemotherapy, followed by surgery in August. The chemo didn't give me the nausea I heard so much about, but my hairline is higher now, and my remaining silken silver locks are a lot thinner. I also have enough unused meds in the bathroom to stock a small CVS.

Fatigue and the new pills disrupted my thought process even more. By May, I didn't think I could plot out a novel again even if I had a decent idea, and it seemed clear that I had to write shorter.

So I did.

Since May, I have written 15 new stories, and the seven sales doubles my personal best for the year.

Between chemo treatments, I self-published a novella that won Honorable Mention for the Black.

Orchid Novella Award last December. Last week, I learned that the novella I wrote last spring earned Honorable Mention again for 2020. The announcement will appear in the Wolfe Pack newsletter, but I receive no certificate or any other proof of the honor. It won't even be mentioned in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, which publishes the winner. Novellas are a hard sell, which is why I self-published last year's near-miss in July. Both other markets turned it down...

I also won my fourth Honorable Mention for the Al Blanchard Award. Again, no money or publication, but I get an impressive certificate and I was recognized at this year's virtual New England Crime Bake, where I've appeared often enough so they know I pronounce my name with a long "O." Eventually, I sold all three of my previous winners, so this story should find a good home, too. 

Since I'm reinventing how I write, I've examined my output for this year much more carefully than I would have a few years ago.

Four of the sales were to anthologies, one a story I wrote in 2007 and another in 2009. Both those stories were fewer than 3000 words, short for me. Another story will appear in a bundle next year, and two stories became only the third and fourth I've sold on the first submission.

Excluding the novella, my average word length was about 4700 words, which didn't surprise me. For years, my comfortable length has been between 4K and 5K. That seems to be my attention span.

Three new stories are between 3K and 4K, seven are in my usual 4K to 5K, and two fall between 5K and 6K. One is over 7K, and the novella is not quite 17K.

All those stories involve a crime but only six of them involve someone solving a mystery. The others feature the protagonist getting away with something or deciding that justice has already been served. I don't describe myself as a noir writer, but many of my stories tilt in that direction.

It's been that kind of year, hasn't it?

I'm doing a desultory edit on a novel that received 50 rejections between 2006 and 2008. Five different agents asked for the full MSS and passed on it without explanation, but I think I finally figured out the problem. If I publish it, it will only be as an eBook.

I am working on two more short stories and one that feels like another novella.

If it gets to a point where it's not fun anymore, there's always piano.

20 December 2020

The Skating Mistress Affair, Part III


bank vault

Part I and Part II provide the background of a unique bank fraud investigation. Last time, Sandman, influenced by his interfering inamorata, could not grasp that having cheated a bank once, he was no longer in a position to negotiate tough deals to make matters right.

No one had any notion of the unreal turn the case would take.


Off-Court Serve

A sizable entourage gathered in North Carolina: the vice president, a local consultant, a legal assistant, two attorneys, a company officer, Chase, and a brace of company people who stayed in the background.

I hadn’t previously met the bank’s attorney, a pretty, dark-haired girl with beauty, brains, and a beguiling sense of humor. Diane and I hit it off immediately.

The vice president introduced the other attorney, a local Greensboro man who’d made good. He’d graduated Harvard summa cum laude, then returned home to practice. His Clark Kent glasses lent a vague, intellectual uncertainty that would fool most people. Women zeroed in on tall, dark, and handsome, although he’d probably suffer an academic stoop in later life. Chase used the term ‘Esquire’, which became the man’s sobriquet for the rest of the trip.

The attorneys laid out a simple plan. They intended to search Sandman’s residence and, if necessary, his workplace for the source code. Since Sandman worked nights and slept days, they hoped to catch him napping– literally.

Esquire’s clerk had filed a brief and affidavits, including a couple from me, in support of search warrants for Sandman’s residence and place of work. They drafted carefully the motion to search the workplace, Carolina Steel. They weren’t Sandman’s employer, they merely let Sandman use their computers for development in exchange for his software and services. Two of their employees, Harry Church and Charley Barley, collaborated with Sandman.

Guilford County courthouse
Guilford County courthouse

An out-of-state entity requesting to search a local company might give a judge pause, but banks enjoyed certain federal privileges and protections. Trailing after the attorneys, we convened at the Guilford County courthouse to obtain a judge’s signatures on the court orders and warrant.

And then we waited. And waited. The courthouse’s architecture would have given Howard Roark apoplexy, a dull cell block unrelieved by a Greco-Roman temple façade. Its uncommonly hard benches had been cunningly copied from a Spanish Inquisition design. After painful hours of aching back and backside, I’d have confessed to assassinating Warren G Harding.

Once we discovered judges had adjourned for lunch, we followed suit. Esquire stayed behind in case a magistrate returned early. We need not have worried. The clock read well after lunch hour when Esquire came dashing back.

Why Southern Deputies Have Stereotypes

   
Sheriff J.W. Pepper   Sheriff B.T. Justus   our Deputy I.B. Dimbulb

The next step entailed the sheriff’s office executing the search warrant. While we waited, the Sheriff’s Department assigned a deputy to us. Jaws dropped. I wasn’t sure about the others, but I gulped in dismay.

Sheriffs J.W. Pepper and Buford T. Justice– movie fans might recognize them as the fat, stogie-chomping clichés portrayed by actors George Clifton and Jackie Gleason, respectively. Our guy looked like their bigger, nastier, meaner brother, the Southern deputy the South has done its best to stamp out.

Mean little eyes peeked out from the fat pads of his cheeks. His hair was losing the follicle war fought on an oily battlefield. He chewed a fat cigar mashed out so often, its end looked exploded. This good ol’ boy had worked hard developing a beer gut, the kegger kind that gave meaning to barrel-chested.

Chase and I’d been chatting up the pretty attorney between us, idly flirting to keep in practice. The deputy looked around at the gathered crew, hitched up his gunbelt and seized upon her to impress.

“Lil lady, whuz this here all about?”

Diane explained we were waiting for a warrant.

“Whut, you’re a legal lady? Purty lil theng lack you? Listen here, I’ll check on it, pull a few strings.”

He wandered off, came back, and glowered at Chase and me still sitting on either side of her. He plumped down next to the law clerk, facing us, legs apart to accommodate the sag of his kilderkin belly. Guilford County law enforcement shirts were made out of sturdy twill, not flimsy civilian fabric that might rupture at the next Big Mac.

“We wait a bit. At least this here’s simpler than last week. Yes sir. We wuz down in n-town, middle of the night, had my nightstick out whaling away, an’ you wun’t believe how shy them dark ones gets facing real lawnforcement.”

A man with a gun, a prejudice, and a loose screw had been turned loose on the streets of Greensboro.

The rest of us sat aghast. The local paralegal looked as if he wanted to shrink out of sight. Our VP, lounging against the wall, grimaced in disgust and departed the scene of the crime.

Next to me, attorney Diane tried to reassure me, the Yankee in the group. She whispered, “Believe me, this is not what Southerners are all about. This moron is… is…”

“An abomination,” muttered Chase. “Pardon the expression, but an utter asshole.”

His eye-watering cigar breath wilted most of us. I couldn’t decide if the deputy was oblivious to our reactions or encouraged by them. Had some of us managed to conjure obsequious interest, the course of events might have changed.

He continued. “Yep, now you takes a good oak nightstick, it makes a real good impression. It’s a grand persuader and if someones gets a bit messed up, you don’ gotta file no reports lack if you draw down. Nows this one darkie…” He didn’t use the word darkie.

I worked and traveled throughout the South, but I never encountered anything like this. More than sickening, this guy frightened us.

Once upon a time, the don’t-tread-on-me temper I inherited from my mother would override the quiet reason of my dad’s DNA contribution. Chase glanced at me in alarm. He’d seen me erupt once before. He leaned over and rested a calming hand on my wrist.

“Leigh, don’t, man. Don’t let anger cloud your vision. We need this guy on our side; it’s too important.”

Chase was right. We didn’t need to antagonize the repellant lawman assigned to us. I stalked toward the restrooms.

Hands on the marble counter, I leaned forward gathering myself. The vice president stepped out of a stall. He washed his hands and said, “Piece of work, isn’t he.”

“That bastard gets his jollies clubbing kids. Makes me sick.”

“That’s why I left before I told him off. We can’t change him now.” He clapped a hand on my shoulder. “C’mon, we endure.”

And we did for two more hours. None of us knew how much more of the deputy we could take before one of us turned homicidal.

Chase and the VP grew increasingly agitated the warrant was taking so much time. As shadows grew long, legal delays put at risk the plan to surprise Sandman asleep. Now past mid-afternoon, the time neared for his inner vampire to stir.

Esquire appeared and waved the vice president over. Minutes later they handed the deputy the court order.

The deputy squinted at the documents.

“Whut’s this here software?”

Chase said, “Computer programs, apps. Software runs the computer.”

“Whut’s it look like?”

“It could be listings, discs, hard drives, or even tape.”

“Yuh, but which?”

“It could be any of the above: print-outs, discs, cartridges, or tape.”

“Yuh, I said which?”

Chase turned helplessly to me.

I said, “We don’t know, sir. If this order was for music, it could be on a cassette, a CD, a vinyl record, or even sheet music, see? Same idea; we don’t know if it’s on a hard drive, CD, or printed sheets. It could be any or all.”

“Listen up. If you don’ know whut you’re lookin’ fur, we jez ain’t goin’.”

Attorney Diane stepped forward. Beguilingly, she said, “This is a court order signed by a judge; you have the warrant. Leigh here can recognize the software.” She rested her hand on his forearm. “We need an experienced officer like you to execute the warrant.”

“Thet judge pulls bogus orders outta his ass all the time. It don’t spell out what it is, I don’t execute it.”

Esquire hadn’t been regaled with the deputy’s adventures like we had, but the antipathy between the two men had blossomed, instant and intense. He said, “Come, Deputy, explain that to the judge.”

“Folks say you got fancy-ass Harvard law school, but that don’t cut no ice. I don’t tote for you. I works for the Sheriff.”

“The judge hears this, you might not work for anyone.”

The deputy stared at Esquire. He unhurriedly took the cigar out of his mouth, pulled out a paper pouch of tobacco, tucked in a chaw, and reinserted the cigar. He gave the distinct impression he’d like to address Esquire with the nightstick. Finally, he said, “Let’s git.” He turned and stomped away.

The Raid

The deputy’s heavily muscled Dodge led our convoy of four cars. The paralegals and staff came along as witnesses. We pulled in front of a modest house in a suburban neighborhood.

Chase stayed back to avoid antagonizing Sandman. I was kept waiting in the last car, I was told, for the premises to be secured.

Four got out. Both lawyers and the vice president followed the deputy up the walkway. The deputy banged on the door.

A spikey-haired, sleepy-eyed Sandman came to the entry, tying the belt of his bathrobe.

“We lookin’ for a Daniel Sandman. You happen to be him?”

“Yes.”

“We got a warrant for software. You got any this here software?”

“No, no sir, I don’t.”

“None at all?”

“No sir.”

“Well, then, a good day to you.”

“But… but…” said Esquire. “We came to search.”

“No, we ain’t gonna do no search.”

“But we have a warrant, a search warrant, as directed by a judge.”

“You heard the boy: He ain’t got none of this software. His word’s good enough for me.”

The vice president spoke up. “He has the software and we have a court order.”

The deputy spoke in mean, measured words. “You heard the boy. He said he ain’t got software. Now, you wantin’ to mess with me?”

Thwarted, the lawyers trudged back to the cars. Revving the Dodge’s big engine, the deputy whipped the powerful car down the street and out of sight.

“We still have the court order for his workplace,” said the vice president.

“A lot of good that will do us now,” said Esquire. “But let’s try.”

Nervy Steel

He directed us to Carolina Steel’s headquarters. As if anticipated, we were swept straight to the top floor where two company officers and their lawyers met us. Clearly, they knew we were coming.

The company attorneys blathered and blathered, made phone calls and blathered more. They claimed they were waiting for senior counsel. Outside the conference room, security gathered.

One of the executives said, “Our boys downstairs assure us they don’t have any of this software mentioned in the court order.”

Chase muttered in my ear. “Least not anymore.”

“That’s why we brought an expert and a court order to search,” said our vice president.

“Now, now. Normally in Carolina, police or deputies conduct searches. You don’t do it differently in Old Vir-gin-I-A, do you? All y’all can’t expect us just to let you poke around, can you, especially since our boys assure everyone nothing’s to be found? Certainly you don’t mean to question our veracity or abuse our hospitality?”

A legal argument ensued, but it grew clear that without police presence, we wouldn’t be allowed beyond the boardroom.

Security personnel moved in to escort us to the parking lot. The burly males looked menacing enough, but the much scarier short female guard appeared itching to shoot one of us in the kneecap.

Thwarted yet again, we adjourned for a post-mortem. It felt like our own. What should have been a simple mission, abjectly nosedived.


Days later, talking to Sandman, he told me what happened behind the scenes.

“Man, the deputy gave me a scare. As soon as I closed the door, I lit the fireplace. Middle of summer and I get a blaze roaring. I’d stacked listings all over the house, one of them on an end table next to the door, not more than two, three feet from where the deputy stood.

“I gathered them up, feeding them piece by piece to the fire, burning the evidence. I also had a couple of mag tapes around. You wouldn’t believe how Mylar stinks when it burns. Gives off this black ash. The stench still reeks in my nostrils. That left a disc cartridge. I figured if worse came to worst, it might anciently sorta get dropped.

“Simultaneously, I called the computer room, and told Charley and Harry the situation. The entire time you were upstairs with the lawyers stalling you, they were downstairs erasing everything they could off of disc and tape, shredding so many listings they fried the shredder and had to roll in another.

“Every ten minutes the CIO would call in. ‘What’s left? What’s left?’ By the time our lawyers let you go, we’d hidden the key pieces and destroyed the rest.

“Harry, Charley, and me… we worried one or all of would be let go, but Carolina Steel’s attorneys nixed that, saying terminations could be used as prima facie evidence we’d done something wrong like destroying the programs specified in the warrant.

“Man, I shouldn’t gloat, but our insane clown deputy beat your Harvard summa cum laude lawyer. Lot of good he did y’all.”

Post Mortem

I accompanied the bank people back to Virginia. It wasn’t a happy trip. The vice president needed to prepare an explanation for the stockholders. The rest of us and Data Corp’s general manager met at the Arbor, a favorite restaurant for dinner, overeating, and imbibing. Comfort food and drink.

We agreed not to talk about the debacle while we ate, but we couldn’t bear the tension. We cursed the deputy, Sandman, Carolina Steel, and software in general. Finally we pushed fried chicken aside and sat back.

“Well,” said the bank’s attorney, dabbing lipstick where it had worn thin. “That was a right fiasco.”

“And other words that begin with ƒ,” Chase said.

Diane put her lipstick away. “What I don’t see is an option anymore.”

“That was it, the end of the line.”

“We’ve got to consider our exposure, to customers, to shareholders, to ourselves. We face serious liability if customers discover we don’t possess the source code.”

“Hmm,” I said.

“Damn,” said Chase, far down in his beer. “I have clients who want to buy it if we can add features and support for new hardware.”

“There is one option,” I said, but no one was listening.

“Oh Lord,” said the attorney. “I wonder if we’ve stepped on any state or federal banking regulations. We could be accused of fraud here.”

“Not necessarily,” I said.

“Even worse exposure,” she groaned, “most of our sales have been out of state.”

I said. “Folks, listen a moment. I can decrypt the code.”

Chase peered at me speculatively, the lawyer skeptically, and Data Corp’s general manager like I was crazy.

Chase said, “Danny told us over the phone it’s too complex even for him. It can’t be done.”

“When do you stop believing the guy who screwed you and start listening to the guy hired to save your butts?”

For the first time in weeks, Chase looked more relieved than morose. He gulped like a man given a Heimlich maneuver.

The general manager reached across for the last piece of chicken. “I’m pretty certain we can’t afford for Leigh to write us an entirely new program.”

Diane’s paralegal had followed both the legal and technical discussions. She had drafted the original purchase contract with Sandman.

“Leigh, what makes you think you can do this?” she asked. “Not only would you have to figure out the program in the ordinary course of events, but a brilliant and devious guy has done his best to see it can’t be done.”

“If anyone can do it, Leigh can,” Chase said with perhaps more conviction than he felt. “If you’d heard the two of them on the phone, you’d know he’s got Sandman on the run. I’ve seen his work, even more brilliant than Sandman.”

“Are we talking battle of the brains or war of the egos?” said the GM. “He may be quite the code-slinger, but experts say code-smashing can’t be done.”

I said, “The difficult part was figuring out it was encrypted. The second hardest has been deducing how. I’ve been working that out at home while I’ve been waiting.”

“You’re plugged into NSA or CIA or something?” said Diane’s paralegal.

“No, it’s merely a puzzle.” A famous quote came to mind. “A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” They stared at me. The Churchill reference fell flat. I couldn’t blame them; we’d undergone a bad day.

“What’s our guarantee?” the paralegal asked. “We already took the word of one guy. It’s not up to me, but I wouldn’t throw good money after bad.”

I said, “Sandman created programs to strip and encrypt the program. I have to design programs to decrypt and restore the code.”

Diane spoke up. “So why are you saying this isn’t the most difficult thing in the world?”

“Sandman didn’t want to trigger alarms, so no fancy NSA 128-bit encryption. Instead, he scaled up cypher obfuscation to support the legend of a hard-to-comprehend way of doing things. He believed he garbled the code too much to permit serious study. He’s wrong, but it’ll take detective work.”

“Even so,” said Chase, “you won’t get the documentation back, the comments.”

“True, but I’ve been living with this program for months. Once decoded, the label names give clues; that’s why Sandman encrypted them. As for the logic, in a circular way I can learn the code by having to document it and I can document the code by having to learn it. Does that makes sense? I’ll attain a deeper knowledge than if I hadn’t had to do the extra work.”

Chase raised his glass. “I bet on Leigh.”

The attorney– she of little confidence– shook her head. “He’s cute but…”

Chase picked up the check and said to me, “Let’s get sleep and start tomorrow.”


Sandman had blown his chance to negotiate a deal that would have benefited everybody. The bank boxed him in legally and I was closing in on breaking his unbreakable code. He still had one more wrong move to make as we wrap up in Part IV.