28 September 2021

A Mess With Texas


The Texas Legislature received a great deal of publicity this past session. For out-of-staters, by law, the Texas House and Senate may meet for a maximum 140-day regular legislative session once every two years. (It is rumored that some of the state's founders pushed for a two-day legislative session once every 140 years.) Because of the time crunch, once the legislature convenes, the session is a compact, dried-on-hot affair with bills flying around the state capital in Austin. Some of the laws enacted this year drew national ire or acclaim depending upon the politics of the reporting body. In particular,


Texas grabbed the national spotlight for new rules regarding abortion/life protection, and election integrity/voter suppression. 

    The legislature also passed, and the governor signed new gun laws dubbed "Constitutional Carry." Since this is a crime and crime writer's blog, I thought it might be worth a column to review these law changes. Many stories get set within the borders of Texas. Let's look at what your characters can legally do regarding carrying weapons. 

    In short, the new laws allow most people to carry a handgun in a holster most places, either openly or concealed, without first obtaining a license to carry. 

    We can chug through the shorthand focusing on the italicized words. 

Most people: The new laws apply to persons 21 years of age or older. Sorry kids, no guns.  Texas has several exceptions to the above-stated general rule. Adjudged felons may not carry firearms. Defendants convicted of a few misdemeanors (assault, threats, disorderly conduct with a gun) can't carry if the prior offense occurred within five years of the carrying. Family violence and individuals under protective orders are prohibited from carrying firearms by federal and state prohibitions. Criminal street gang members are prohibited from carrying firearms as are most intoxicated people. 

    This last line may be my favorite. You can be intoxicated with your gun on your property, or another's property with their consent, or in your boat or vehicle (or another's with their consent). 

    I'm left to wonder about the scope and nature of my consent. If Michael Bracken invites me to his annual Gathering of Writers is he implicitly authorizing me to bring my gun and get drunk? Or does he have to include that in the invitation? And why wouldn't he? What could possibly go wrong with that scenario? 

   A handgun:  Texas has always been less restrictive regarding long guns, rifles, and shotguns. These weapons may be carried unless the armed individual runs afoul of some other statute like disorderly conduct or trespass. The legislature also relaxed the rules over the last few sessions on clubs, knuckles, and knives. I think the logic is that if everyone else is packing 9mm Glocks, are you really that worried about the Bruce Lee wannabe carrying nunchucks? 

In a holster: Buy stock in holster companies. They are a key piece of Texas' new legislative scheme. Carrying a handgun in plain view in a public place is illegal unless the weapon is in a holster. Carrying in a vehicle in plain view is prohibited unless the weapon is in a holster. In the old days (before September 1st) licensed weapon holders had to carry in a shoulder or belt holster. Those restrictions on holsters have been removed. Any holster is now permissible. Litigation will define holster in the years ahead. 

Most places: The new laws carve out eight places where weapons are impermissible: high school, college, and professional sporting events, amusement parks, hospitals, and bars are among those places where weapons were and remain prohibited. Churches are not on the list. 

Either openly or concealed: Since September 1st, no courses, tests, or proof of proficiency is required to legally carry a handgun. The law mandates the Department of Public Safety to develop a training video for the safe handling of firearms. Two videos may be found on their website. They both run for about 8 minutes each. 

     The license to carry still exists. Having one may avail you of more defenses if you are charged with illegally carrying a weapon. It lowers the number of places from which you are excluded. A licensed carrier may also take advantage of the reciprocity laws in other states. 

    The new legislative package also amended the duties of a peace officer to authorize the temporary disarming of a person carrying a firearm if the officer believes it is necessary to protect the officer or another. This has long been the law, but it is made explicit in the new code. Whether the mere carrying of a weapon is enough to meet the threshold to disarm will have to be decided by the courts. 

    That's an incomplete thumbnail sketch of the law. Two other changes, largely philosophical, are worth noting. The governor signed into law a prohibition on local law enforcement assisting federal authorities in enforcing gun laws passed after January 20th, 2021 (President Biden's inauguration). Although no new federal gun laws have come into being since then, we are now a "sanctuary state" for firearms. New laws also removed firearm silencers from the list of prohibited weapons. The legislature added a section to the Government Code to regulate the intrastate production of silencers (an attempt to get around the federal government enforcement of a prohibition through the Commerce Clause). Texas doesn't have a thriving cottage industry in domestically produced suppressors, but someday we might. 

    There you have it. We've joined 20 other states in having some form of Constitutional Carry enacted. Put your piece in a holster and come on down. 

    Last thought. The new laws make it almost impossible for a hotel to restrict a guest's right to bring a gun into his/her hotel room. If you do come to visit, you might choose an innkeeper offering Kevlar sheets.

(Life requires me to be away from my computer on Tuesday, September 27th. I apologize for not responding to comments.)

    Until next time. 


27 September 2021

Female of the Species



Last week, Rob Lopresti posed an intriguing question on the Short Mystery Fiction Society thread. He wanted the titles of peoples' favorite noir-ish short story with a female protagonist. Many people responded with stories I will check out if I haven't read them already, but it made me think long and hard before I answered. Many of my favorite novelists are women, and I read so many short stories that it's insane to keep track. 


Rob's question made me look at my own work, too, because I prefer strong female characters. According to my spreadsheets, over half of my short stories feature women who do bad things (often very well), even if it's in the name of "justice." Nearly a third of them are the protagonist of their particular tale, but only four are narrators. There's some overlap, of course. I made an arbitrary decision that unless the woman was the 1st-person narrator or the story used detached-3rd person through her, she wasn't technically the protagonist. 

Six of my sixteen novels involve women who resort to violence, sometimes for the home team, but sometimes for personal gain. I suspect that male and female writers might have different percentages on that issue, and mine lean more toward women than some other male writers would. On the other hand, several of my favorite male crime writers introduce women who kick serious ass, too. 

I've been around strong women my entire life. My grandmother still drove at age 86, and my mother kept control of her finances until a stroke incapacitate her at age 83. My sister and I didn't know she was a millionaire until I gained power of attorney only months before she passed away. My sister was the valedictorian (and ace softball pitcher) at her private school--where she won the state Latin prize twice--and graduated from Harvard law School. The family joke when she's out of earshot is that she got the brains and I got the looks.

Those are the role models I grew up with, not to mention several of my teachers.


When I drifted into theater, I met many strong and intteligent actresses (my wife, of course), one of whom I met through her brother, who was a member of Mensa. I directed twenty productions in several theaters, all with a female stage manager and several with a female producer. If you don't do community theater, you should know that the stage manager is the absolute boss in the building while a show is in production, and that the producer oversees finances and all personnel working on a show, although I hand-picked my tech crew.

My favorite lighting designer, lights technician (also a great actress), and sound technician were women. So was our theater photographer for several years. That lights designer started as one of my favorite stage managers and became an excellent director, too. And wrote a couple of short plays.

Women tend to be smarter than me--the men on the blog are an exception, of course--possibly because the last several centuries have forced them to find creative and flexible ways to get around restrictive rules made by men (See me avoid getting political here). The could shop, take care of the house and kids, maybe even balance the household budget and pay the bills, and maybe haold a part-time job, but they couldn't vote. Directly.

These women certainly influenced my writing. I can't take a bimbo character serioulsy, and the helpless damsel makes me squirm. My characters like puppies, kittens, cooking (within reason) and sex, but several of them have concealed-carry permits.


Shoobie Dube, Rasheena Maldonado and Valerie Karpelinski are or were police officers at one time. Valerie stripped to earn her college tuition, and that helped her learn to read people, especially men. She and Rasheena are also bi-lingual. Severa of my favorite characters skate in roller derby under names like Annebelle Lector, Grace Anatomy, Ginger Slap, Denver Mint Julep, Raisin Cain, or Desolation Rose. 

Few of my short stories really qualify as "noir," and two that feature viewpoint female protagonists are still awaiting publication, one not for about another year. But my first seven published short stories all feature a woman who commits a crime. Sometimes, it's not murder...exactly.

I have interesting imaginary friends.

26 September 2021

So I was Thinking


So, anyway, I was thinking that maybe I should expand my field of writing and possibly try some new markets. I could always write some horror short stories and see how that went, but to enter that market, I would need to come up with something fresh and really scary from what's already out there. Nah, better not, I like to sleep at night.

Maybe I could try for the sci-fi market. The problem with that genre is my my knowledge of space technology is minimal, so I'd probably be limited to writing space opera and dodging incoming from those readers and editors questioning what little science I did use in my stories.

Well, there is one subgenre under the mystery umbrella which I haven't tried yet. The Private Investigator story. Guess the main reason I haven't wandered into that market is my need to find a new angle into a PI story. Seems that some angles have been used so many times that they have become a cliche. You know what I mean, the PI who is an alcoholic, is retired from or fired from the local police department, divorced, disgraced, has one buddy still on the force who gives him case details, has a certain hobby, is handicapped in some manner (whether it is physical, mental or a language barrier), etc.

I think the last innovative angle I've read was by Dave Zeltserman when he invented a micro-computer with a personality named Archie. Archie, disguised as a tie tac, researched records by hacking into computer systems, answered the business phone and gave advice to his (protagonist) PI, all while bringing him clues. So, then I'm wondering what's left to be fresh and new.

In an e-mail discussion with John Floyd, in which I mentioned all of the above, John was gracious enough to provide me with a copy of his PI story in Black Cat Mystery Magazine. His "Mustang Sally" had just won the Shamus Award for Best Short Story. In that story, his PI was just an Average Joe trying to get by, but the story did have a great twist to the ending, and that is probably why it won the award. So, maybe the PI didn't have to be someone or something special, if it was a really good story. Point taken.

Next step forward. As luck would have it, a guy (Steve Pease) in our MWA chapter carpool is a licensed Private Investigator in the state of Colorado. Not only that, but he also recently taught a twelve lesson course on PIs to a local chapter of another national writers group. And for a small negotiated fee, somehow involving a quantity of wine, plus me being a fellow carpool member, retired law enforcement agent and current friend, I could take a gander at his lesson plans. Turned out to be very interesting information, plus it came with war stories for examples. Great stuff.

So now I'm thinking, with all this material, I'm gonna brainstorm me a PI short story.

Look out Shamus Awards. Here I come.

25 September 2021

Ditching the Day Job: When Your Hobby Becomes Your Work, What Then?


Like many young writers, I had a dream…

Ditch the day-job and become a pro!  Write fiction novels that make enough money to support my simple lifestyle without needing a second income from another job.

As a dream, it was a big one.  The stats on writers' incomes are scary across the globe: I read that in England, the average fiction novelist with a traditional publisher makes less than 4000 pounds a year, down dramatically from the 1990s.  That translates to approximately $8000 a year Canadian, which might cover the costs of your nosh for a year, if it isn't too posh.  But forget living in your car for shelter, because you won't be able to afford the parking.

It took me twenty years of writing to be able to ditch my day job and live the dream.  That was several years ago now, and as I look forward to the release of my seventeenth novel, I want to talk about a curious issue that never occurred to me when I was yearning for the life of a professional author.

When your hobby becomes your work, what do you do for fun?

It's great to do something you love for your work. But in doing so, you lose that hobby that consumed you for so many years.   

In past decades, I wrote for pleasure.  I wrote when I wanted to, and when I was inspired to.  It was the ultimate escape.

Now, life is very different.  The deadlines loom.  You end up having to write when you don't feel like it, and when you aren't writing particularly well.  Which is what work is all about.   

And I've discovered, no matter what you do for a living, no matter how much you like it, we all need a break from work.  More so, we need something to take our minds off the novel in progress. 

So a colleague suggests to me:  why not relive the excitement of those early writing days?

You could write something else for a hobby.

I loved writing short stories.  And I still write at least one a year.  But that can't be my hobby. 

Like so many people in late middle age (stop laughing,) if I am on the computer eight hours a day writing mystery novels, and responding to all the promotional requirements of being an author, the last thing I want to do is spend more time on computers.  My fingers hurt.  My eyes are dry and achy.

Also important:  this hobby is needed to take my mind off my work.  Doing more of the same (creating fiction) doesn't cut it.  

That's the problem I am facing.  For most of my working life, I had stressful jobs in health care.  For relief from that, I turned to writing.  And writing was a fabulous hobby.  

But now that writing books is my work, I am without a hobby.  And I find it hard to find a new interest to obsess me so late in life.  Yes, I read, knit a bit, bake.  But none of those are obsessions the way writing was.

 The search for a hobby.

My LIL (live in lover) also known as the Emergency Contact, is a fanatic golfer.  He tells me that all the pro golfers work on their game every day like the full time job it is.  But that's their work, and they do other things for fun.  Some fish, for example.

Fellow Canadian Linwood Barclay makes the bestseller lists everywhere.  In his downtime, he has a world-class model railway system in his home that gives him pleasure and satisfaction outside of our frantic author world.

Friend and colleague Vicki Delany does jigsaw puzzles. And I mean billion-piece, gorgeous puzzles that should be framed and displayed as art.  She says: 

"It clears my mind completely. I find that I never think about my books or my writing when I'm working on one."

That's what I'm missing now.  A hobby that will take me out of my work, so that I can return refreshed and invigorated.  Something besides eating (at which, granted, I am simply world-class.)

Trickier than I thought.  It's sort of like when you try to find a new best friend later in life.  Most people have had their best friend for decades, just as they've had their beloved hobbies.

So all you out there who think you'd like to make the move from part-time to full time, think about it carefully before you make the jump.  At the very least, go into it with clearer eyes than I did.

Do I regret it?  Not a whistle!  This is what I was meant to do, and finally, I'm doing it.  

But damn, I'd love to add something fun to my life to take the place of the glorious hobby I once had.

Anybody else facing the same dilemma?  I'd love to hear from other plotters on this!

Melodie's latest book, The Merry Widow Murders, will be out in May 2022.  If you've read the mob caper series starting with The Goddaughter, you'll get a kick out of meeting Gina Gallo's great-grandmother in this new series!

24 September 2021

Hi, This Is Uber...


Uber ride
Source: uber.com

My current side gig is Uber. Not sure how much longer that's going to last as I'm in job transition. By the time you read this, I'm probably in my final week as an employee at my current company, hopefully becoming a contractor as I move on to…

Well, it's the 2020s, so a new place to login to every morning, with a couple of afternoons in the office. But for now, I Uber. I will drive Uber tonight after you read this and tomorrow night.

There's kind of a Bob Ross quality to driving rideshare. This is your car. You make the rules. Not that Uber doesn't have rules. They ding you for declining or canceling rides. Passengers can affect your ratings and your earnings. But we rate the passengers, too. I know some drivers who go out of their way to make passengers earn a five-star rating. I don't. They're my customers. I start them with five stars, and unless they do something spectacularly bad, they end their trip with all five. I have hard, fast rules that can result in someone getting kicked out of my car, but in all the time I've been doing this, I haven't had to. It's probably luck, but every rule has a source.

The last time someone failed to get a five star from me, he objected to my playing jazz on the ride. That, in and of itself, is not bad. Sooner or later, someone's not going to like the music. Unfortunately, his only answer to what genre of music he wanted was "Good music." After flipping to three different radio stations, he could only ask why I couldn't play good music. New rule. If a passenger can't tell me what he or she likes, I pull up King Crimson's entire Larks' Tongues in Aspic suite - All 45 minutes of it recorded over a 30-year period - and declare the subject closed. Like a lot of incidents, I doubt this will be repeated. It wasn't a ride-ending incident, but it added a level of aggravation I hadn't seen since driving the "Zombie Apocalypse." The ride, however, got worse.

The Zombie Apocalypse is what I call the midnight to 3am stretch on Saturday nights. I used to work it most weekends as it's quite lucrative. It also provides the best opportunity for someone to get sick in your car. People are not at their best. They're also fodder for stories since most passengers ask, "Got any stories of rides?" I tell them five percent of passengers are bad apples. They get to be entertainment for the other ninety-five percent.

In one case, I relayed a story to a guy about a drunk two weeks previously. He realized I was talking about him. I don't really see faces, so I didn't know. I picked up the gent from a bar in Clifton, the neighborhood surrounding the University of Cincinnati. When we established he, indeed, was the subject of the story, I said, "Look, tell your friends the Uber guy told you a funny story about a drunk he picked up from your favorite bar. No one has to know you're the drunk, just that the story's funny." He liked that. 

You would think the Zombie Apocalypse would have its share of ride-ending incidents, and most of my rules for staying in the car come from earlier shifts that time of night. But I have learned watching cops over the years to use "the voice" to keep people in line. Because, having been the zombie myself in my younger days, I know that's not easy after five shots of Cuervo and a dozen beers. Most people listen. 

The rides I wish I'd have handled differently actually came earlier in the day. One in particular still bothers me. I got a call to Short Vine, a street near the university. The passenger gave his pickup spot as Bogart's, a well-known concert venue. I pull up in front of Bogart's. No show. I call. Across the street, I see a guy with his girlfriend answer his phone and looking straight at me. "This is Uber. I'm here." Behind me, a cop is yelling for me to move.

This is something you need to understand when you call Uber or Lyft: Police win all arguments. If they say move, you move. Period. End of discussion. My passenger wasn't having it.

"No, you're not," he sneered, still looking right at me.

Meanwhile, the cop is off his motorcycle and has that flashlight out with the strobe on it. Time to go. 

"Sir," I said, thinking something more obscene, "I am looking right at you." I had the window down now so the cop could hear my predicament. "You have thirty seconds to get across the street and get in the car, or the ride's canceled. You can take it up with the officer walking up behind me."

The cop slowed but still approached. The guy dragged his girlfriend behind him and got in the car.

Before he could say word one, I looked at the officer and said, "I'm tempted to let you have this guy."

The cop said nothing as I put the car in gear. 

The girl in the back looked a bit dazed. The boyfriend, who already landed squarely on my bad side, began talking smack about her. Would I want to be with her? Awkward descriptions of her anatomy. At the time, I had no guidance from Uber, but in retrospect, I wish I'd booted him from the car and asked the girl if she wanted to go somewhere. Later, Uber told us some subtle ways to short-circuit those situations: Turn up the music, change the subject, or point-blank ask the woman if she really wants to be there.

For the most part, though, people like jazz. If they don't talk, they ride quietly. And since the pandemic, that job has actually been fun. Except for Mr. Good Music. That guy can walk next time.

23 September 2021

The Neverending Saga


Many of you, and even myself, had thought that the Ravnsborg saga had come to a miserable squibbling end, but the saga continues.  Back in January 27, 2020 at the Aberdeen City Council meeting our Attorney General Jammin' Jason bragged – and I am not joking – "One thing I'm good at, it's driving" (see Here).  This quote has not held up well.  Besides killing Joe Boever on that fateful September 12, 2020 night, JJ has racked up some speeding tickets. His latest was on August 23, 2021, four days before his plea deal:  

Footage from a deputy sheriff’s body camera shows Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg being pulled over for speeding in Pierre last month.

“Good evening,” the Hughes County deputy says.

“Good evening,” Ravnsborg responds.

“The reason I stopped you is because you’re doing 57 in a 35. Any reason for your speed?” the deputy asks.

Ravnsborg, driving his personal vehicle, hands over his insurance and registration but says he’s missing something.

“Yeah, I don’t have my license with me,” he says.  (NPR)


BTW, here in South Dakota, the unwritten rule of speeding is that you can go 5-10 miles above the 55/65 mph speed limit in between towns (there's a lot of fairly empty land in South Dakota), but when you hit town you go the speed limit.  57 in a 35 mph zone means AG JJ was driving almost 60 mph in a city - the capitol city of South Dakota.  And without a license.  This really is straight from the "you can't make this up" files.  We all breathlessly await what kind of fine he'll get.  If any.  

Then again - people are pissed.  

Governor Kristi Noem and the South Dakota Department of Public Safety handed the full investigation file over to to South Dakota Speaker of the House Spencer Gosch. Noem is pressuring the Legislature to impeach Ravnsborg.  (Here)

Secretary of the Department of Public Safety Secretary Craig Price, in a cover letter to Gosch that also was released, summarized the report, and sharply criticized the prosecution:

“In my opinion as a 24-year law enforcement officer, and in the opinion of the highly trained highway patrol officers involved in this investigation, Mr. Ravnsborg should have been charged with 2nd Degree Manslaughter,” Price wrote. “The prosecution team was well aware of that position. The South Dakota Highway Patrol stood ready and willing to provide expert testimony regarding the crash and the facts of this investigation at trial, a position that was also made clear to the prosecutor.”  (Mitchell Republic)

Meanwhile, the South Dakota Fraternal Order of Police and the Police Chiefs' and Sheriffs' associations said in a joint press release on Friday, that "we are unified in requesting Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg resign as South Dakota Attorney General.  Ravnsborg’s involvement in the death of Joe Boever on September 12th have resulted in a lack of confidence in his ability to effectively carry out his duties as the chief law enforcement officer in South Dakota.  We are not commenting on the pending criminal case or impeachment process as we recognize his right to due process."  (RCJ)

And he still might not get impeached:  From The South Dakota Standard: 

A powerful insider told me last week that most of them have no special feelings for Ravnsborg. He is not one of them, and they hold no regard for him. But he is a Republican, and it will produce bad publicity for him, the state and the party.  Frankly, they just want it to go away as quietly as possible. If that means Ravnsborg serves until the end of 2022 — based on the belief that he will not be renominated for a second term, much less elected to one — that is what they would prefer.

Maybe.  But people are really pissed.  

Meanwhile, though, I've been thinking about something else which relates to the death of Joseph Boever and many other mysterious deaths in South Dakota, something that links them all, that seems plausible enough, until you start counting it all up - and that is the accusation or ruling of suicide.

Back on November 1, 2004, Morgan Lewis, German professor at Northern State University in Aberdeen was found dead at the doorway from a gunshot wound to the back of his head. Obvious homicide, right? And the coroner did call it a homicide. "But a year and a half later, it was declared a suicide, After a year and a half of haggling among officials, the police declared it a suicide. This declaration was made after some kind of expert organization was called in to examine the case. The report of that organization on which the decision was based was withheld from the public."  (Northern Valley Beacon)

Pro tip: It's almost impossible to commit suicide by shooting yourself in the back of the head.

Or by shooting yourself with a shotgun to the gut (in a lonely field, btw), as was determined by then  Attorney General Marty Jackley about Richard Benda, who - as soon as he was declared dead by suicide - was blamed for embezzling all the missing money in the EB-5 visas for cash scandal in 2013.  

(NOTE:  EB-5, the only immigrant program in the US that allowed a person to buy citizenship for $500,000, is officially, for now, dead, having not been renewed by Congress in June.  See HERE)

And I still don't buy the "shot his family and himself and set fire to the house while the safe walked out the door like a pet potbellied pig" with regard to the Westerhuis tragedy.  
(see my SleuthSayers posts "A Little Light Corruption" about both the Benda and Westerhuis cases HERE and my "Halloween Ain't Over by a Long Shot" update on the Westerhuis case HERE)

And, of course, Mr. Ravnsborg planned to use the "victim threw himself into my car and through my windshield" suicide defense.  If Ravnsborg hadn't done a plea deal, and he'd gotten away with the suicide defense, that would have been the fourth high-profile death in South Dakota declared a suicide while the rest of us stand around with our mouths open going, "WTF?"  

Which makes me wonder, how many more "suicides" in this state... weren't?  

I might have to do a little research.  If I do, I'll let you know what I find out.

22 September 2021

The Siberian Dilemma


I’ve written here before about Martin Cruz Smith and his Arkady Renko stories.  I’ve liked his other novels - Stallion Gate is one of my favorites - but the Renko books are somehow qualitatively different.  They have a flavor of science fiction, almost, or alternative history.  They are a kind of alternative history, when you come down to it, or an alternative reality.



You take your phone off the hook and spin the dial (this is
Moscow, remember) to zero, and put a pencil in the hole to keep it there; there’s enough electrical interference to screw up the transmission from the tap on your line.  You take off your windshield wipers and put them in a paper bag under the front seat; otherwise, somebody will steal them.  Where is Red Square? the fluent but non-native speaker asks, but confuses the public space, ploshchad’, with the geometric shape, kvadrat, and throws everybody else into even greater confusion.  The ice sheet in Polar Star, the white light of the horizon line in The Siberian Dilemma, the dead zone around the containment facility in Wolves Eat Dogs; the physical environment is a hazard.  The psychic environment no less: the ghost of Stalin stalks the Metro, an old KGB enemy is found floating in Havana Bay, the crusading journalist Tatiana Petrovna is thrown out of a sixth-story window, and the verdict is suicide.  Renko is first cousin to Bernie Gunther, another more-or-less honest cop trying to keep his footing on a slippery slope.



Which brings us to “the Siberian dilemma.”  If the ice cracks underneath you, and you plunge into the frigid water of Lake Baikal, you can drown, or you can pull yourself out, and still wet, freeze to death immediately in the cold air.  So, which do you choose?  Fatalistic as Russians can be, the answer is that it’s better to do something, even if that something is equally doomed.



This would seem to define Renko’s character, character in the sense of destiny.  He’s nothing if not a stubborn bastard.  He survives any number of snares laid by the more politically savvy, yet they over-complicate things.  Renko isn’t devious
enough, actually.  He’s easily led, but not so easily led astray.  Somebody more sophisticated would fall victim to a sophisticated device.  Renko staggers across thin ice, but it carries his weight, and a trickster wouldn’t be so lucky.




The interesting thing about Renko is that while he’s by no means innocent in the ways of the world, he has a certain naïve optimism.  He himself would say that if you expect the worst of people, you’ll never be disappointed, but he keeps looking to be surprised by hope.  It’s a terrific internal tension, and it mirrors something in what we imagine to be the Russian national political identity, the reformers vice the careerists and opportunists.  Although the punch line hasn’t been written, we’d all like to imagine ourselves surprised by hope, and it’s not a Russian failing, alone.  Aspiration is a stubborn bastard.

21 September 2021

Three Best


Over the years, SleuthSayers have been well represented in The Best American Mystery Stories, as John M. Floyd pointed out when he reviewed the first “Twenty Years of B.A.M.S.” back in 2016. One-time BAMS Series Editor Otto Penzler has launched a new best-of-year series—The Mysterious Bookshop Presents The Best Mystery Stories of the Year—and SleuthSayers are again well represented, with stories from three members—Janice Law, John, and me—included within the inaugural annual’s pages.

We thought about sharing trade secrets, such as the value of bribery and blackmail when dealing with best-of-year editors, but it turns out I’m the only one of us with low moral values. Instead, Janice and John have joined me to tell you a bit about each of our stories.

“The Client”
Janice Law

I always find the genesis of a story mysterious, but in the case of “The Client,” I can point to two houses, both in an old mill town near where we live. The great water-powered textile and thread mills of eastern Connecticut created prosperity well into the twentieth century. Their loss brought hard times to the area and to Ray Wilde, the first professional detective I have written about since I ended the Anna Peters series.

Ray was actually devised for an anthology edited by our SleuthSayers colleague Paul D. Marks, and a little story-and-a-half house behind our bank’s parking lot provided, not only a venue for my half-formed plot, but suggested a weary ex-cop sitting through a boring surveillance.

The resulting story was about mostly decent people caught in small crimes, and I figured one and done for Ray. Still, I liked his style and his turn of phrase. Another house, an imposing home gently going downhill, provided a home for his client and a use for an item in my notebook: a photo of an old New England Crime boss and his long-time companion.

Edith Wing, courteous and eccentric, a pillar of the library board and the local church, is an unlikely person to lead Ray into deep water. He likes her and I like her, too. Although the mystery genre is maybe kinder to older females than it used to be, women of a certain age are still usually victims or accessories. But elderly Edith Wing gave me an opportunity to create an intelligent, morally ambiguous character, who, as she puts it to Ray, knows that sometimes there are few good choices.

“The Client” appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (May/June 2020).

“Biloxi Bound”
John M. Floyd

One of my favorite subjects as a suspense writer has been the ordinary guy with an ordinary job who suddenly finds himself in a desperate situation. In the case of “Biloxi Bound,” my protagonist is one of two brothers who own and operate a small diner in an unnamed northeastern city. When their neighborhood becomes a hotbed of violent crime and their cafe begins struggling, they decide they should move to the slower-paced (and warmer) Mississippi Gulf Coast. That’s an area familiar to me because I once lived on the beach there during my Air Force years and have spent most of my life not too far away.

To this scenario I added a retired mobster, a friendly cop, a young employee at the cafe, a mysterious regular customer, and several plot reversals. The crime and violence that the brothers hope to avoid does of course arrive at the diner before they can relocate, and the result is nothing either of them could’ve foreseen. All this made the story great fun to write, and when I finished it I sent it to The Strand Magazine, which has always been receptive to tales with multiple plot twists and surprises.

I’m glad I did.

“Biloxi Bound” appeared in The Strand Magazine (February-May 2020)

“Blest Be the Tie That Binds”
Michael Bracken

Temple and I married the day after Thanksgiving about seven months before I began writing “Best Be the Tie That Binds,” and we spent our honeymoon—brief as it was—in a cabin in Brownwood, Texas. Saturday afternoon, during a brief respite from the rain, we took a leisurely walk through the woods, and a large dog of indeterminate breed came charging at us. I’m no hero, but I stepped in front of my new bride and shouted at the dog until it finally turned and ran back the way it had come. That’s when I began pondering how far a man might go to protect his wife.

“In Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” Robert Connelly, pastor of the Union Revival Baptist Church, faces this decision when his new bride is threatened—via a whisper in his ear—during their wedding reception. When the threat takes physical form, and when he later learns his wife isn’t the only one being threatened, Connelly must reach deep into his past—a past he doesn’t readily acknowledge—to the incident that led to his life as a man of God to seek help from a friend whose life went in an entirely different direction.

Though this story was published in a magazine I now edit, it was accepted for publication by Carla Coupe and John Betancourt well before my tenure as editor.

“Blest Be the Tie That Binds” appeared in Black Cat Mystery Magazine #6.

CONCLUSION

John and I often compare notes about the best-of annuals, and between us we identified almost every writer included in The Best Mystery Stories of the Year and The Best Mystery and Suspense long before their editors/publishers made official announcements. So, it was no surprise when John noted that he, Janice and I have been represented eighteen times—either by having stories included or by having stories named among the Other Distinguished Stories—in each of the Penzler-edited best-ofs, and one of us also made the Other Distinguished list in Steph Cha’s inaugural outing as editor of The Best American Mystery and Suspense.

But we aren’t the only SleuthSayers honored this year. Steve Hockensmith made the Honor Roll in The Best Mystery Stories of the Year, and Art Taylor (with co-author Tara Laskowsi) and the late Paul D. Marks made the Other Distinguished list in The Best American Mystery and Suspense.

So, if there’s a lesson to be learned from all of this, it isn’t the value of bribery and blackmail, it’s the value of being a SleuthSayer.

20 September 2021

100 Years Ago, My Mother Went to Law School


One hundred years ago this month, my mother went to law school. A brilliant student who had sailed through school, she was not quite nineteen years old.

Brooklyn Law School, founded in 1901, was her alma mater. According to Wikipedia, "From its earliest days, Brooklyn Law School opened its door to minorities, women, and immigrants, and it offered night classes for those with full-time jobs." Columbia University Law School would not admit women until 1927, Harvard, 1950, and Yale, 1969. In any event, the Ivy League institutions were far beyond the means of a young Jewish woman from Hungary who had come through Ellis Island in 1906 at the age of four and was working during the day to support her recently widowed mother and younger sisters.

Brooklyn Law was exceptional in being receptive to populations that a hundred years later, as we have been appalled to see vividly demonstrated recently, are still struggling for equal treatment. Both my mother and the classmate who became my father would have encountered anti-Semitism if they had dared to approach the Ivies. According to Kimball & Coquillette in "History and Harvard Law School" (2018), Fordham Law Review 87 (3) p 897, "Red Scare hysteria... began in 1919"...leading to "spreading fear of foreign and left-wing influence." In the 1920s, the Law School "severely restricted the enrollment of nonwhite students at Harvard, absolutely forbade the enrollment of women, and sharply reduced the enrollment of Jewish students and employment of Jewish faculty."

Why did Mom go to law school? It certainly wasn't from any lofty notion of serving justice and protecting the weak and innocent. I have tapes of an interview with her that I made when I was getting my master's in social work in the 1980s—on cassette, alas, so I currently have no way to replay them—in which she says she simply needed to make a living. The obvious choice was to become a teacher, but that was out because a cousin she disliked was a teacher. (Brilliant yes, psychologically savvy no. One of my best known poems is titled, "My Mother Rejects the Unconscious.") I already knew why she couldn't be a doctor, because I inherited her squeamish gene. She was a Jewish intellectual who claimed to despise business, insisting it required mere shrewdness rather than intelligence. I suspect the roots of that belief were her father's failure and early death. He was a tailor who did poorly working for others. When he set up shop for himself, his high-quality skills were wasted on an immigrant clientele who couldn't afford to pay. So what was left but the law?

The Class of 1924 at Brooklyn Law Night School consisted of one hundred men and twelve women. Family tradition says my father fell in love with her at first sight in 1921. They never said if he waited the three years till graduation before proposing the first time. We know she turned him down, that time and again and again. Why didn't she marry him? She wanted a career. She didn't know how hard that was going to be for her and every other woman in her graduating class and in her law school sorority, whose members—all Jewish, because no other sorority would have them—became lifelong friends. Also, my father, hardworking, guileless, and incurably honest, made the mistake of telling her—I may have told this one before—"Judy, I'll never be rich." Oy, is that the wrong thing to say when you propose to an ambitious girl!

She finally gave in, and they were married in 1936. They had a long and happy marriage until his death at the age of 91. She lived till 1999. On her tombstone is the epitaph she wrote herself and tucked in among her papers where she knew we'd find it: "20th century feminist from start to finish." She told me how she would walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to work in Manhattan every day with cheese sandwiches for lunch in her pocket. She was a small woman, but I called the poem I wrote about that "Colossa." She still casts a long shadow, and I still miss her.

19 September 2021

How to Speak American


This one’s for you, Anne!

When our Dutch colleague Anne van Doorn visited SleuthSayers, we discussed English competency in general, and American English in particular. Following is my own contribution, but I’ll mention Wikipedia contains a surprisingly good article on the topic.

Grammar

The primary thing that’s driven me mad is the concept of mass versus collective nouns and subject-verb agreement. For example:

  • US: “Tottenham FC is expected to win.”
  • UK: “Tottenham FC are expected to win.”

When I asked a British instructor to explain, all he imparted was, “You aren’t wrong.” If you figure this one out, let me know. (Wikipedia makes a decent stab of kinda, sorta explaining it.)

In parts of Britain, articles (a, an, the) seem to disappear. In Yorkshire you might hear a construct something like, “She dropped pudding on floor.” The tendency appears occasionally in phrases such as, “I took her to hospital,” where an American would say, “I took her to the hospital.”

For some reason, North Americans don’t have a similar problem with school: “I went to school today.” To be clear, that means attending classes, whereas, “I went to the school today,” more likely implies visiting the campus or schoolhouse. We might say, “I attended college,” but also confusingly say, “I attended the university.”

fanny covering (girl in shorts)
fanny
covering
fanny covering (girl in shorts)
also fanny
covering

In the US, bath is strictly a noun and bathe is the corresponding verb. In the UK, bath can be both. My ears still aren’t used to someone saying, “I’ll bath this evening,” (where it’s pronounced bawth). When I try to say it, I sound like a smartass. Er, smartarse.

Meaning

Thanks to internationalism, Americanisms have filtered into the UK and vice versa. However, a few words differ in meaning.

In North America, corn means a particular type of maize. The British use a broader sense of a cereal crop including oats, wheat, and barley.

North Americans tend to use the adjective ‘mad’ when they mean angry. The British limit the word to mean insane.

How do I put this delicately: Never, ever, pat an Englishwoman on the fanny. Bad enough in America, but just… don’t… do it. In the UK, it’s probably not what you think it is.

And…

We come to one of my least favorite (least favourite) words. Feel free to skip to the next topic. I wouldn’t go into this at all, except the English insist upon inserting some derivation of the word piss in every third paragraph– more often if they’re watching a football match in their local pub. North Americans lean toward two meanings, urinate and anger, but the British have come up with many, many more, confusing us poor Americans. These include:

Someone who’s ‘on the piss’ is engaging in a heavy drinking bout until they’re thoroughly ‘pissed’, i.e, drunk. ‘Taking a piss’ can refer to misleading someone, but ‘taking the piss out of’ someone is mocking them. A ‘piece of piss’ refers to something easy to do. A ‘pisser’ is someone or something funny. Telling someone to ‘piss off’ means leave immediately. ‘Piss about’ is to waste time and resources on something foolish. ‘Piss up’ means to ruin something, but plain ‘piss’ means something that tastes bad. Finally the English exploit the word’s versatility with ‘piss on’ implying great contempt and ‘piss in one’s pocket’ meaning virtually its opposite, to ingratiate oneself.

I’m convinced a writer could invent his or her own combination in the form of piss+preposition, and people on that side of the English Channel would intuit exactly what was meant. A wiser choice might be to avoid it altogether. Now excuse me whilst I bath.

French Influence

Despite time and distance, some French spellings and pronunciations have survived in the US. When I was a child, my mother pronounced pot-pourri the French way, ‘POH-puhREE’, but thanks to dumbing down by television and radio, the pronunciation is shifting to ‘pot-porry’. Ugh.

We still pronounce filet mignon as ‘FEElay MIN-yon’ whereas the British say fillet (‘fill-it’) steak. We retain other words the French either seldom use (derrière, double entendre) or the meaning has altered (brassiere). In some cases, North Americans have retained French spelling, such as valor versus valour.

maths symbols

baseball, soccer ball, basketball, football

tyre by the kerb, tire by the curb

Canadians still use serviette but Americans seem to be losing this elegant and useful word in favor (favour) of table napkin.

Spelling

Math in the US, maths in the UK. Sports in the US, sport in the UK. Consistent, right? And of course US soccer = UK football.

British contrast certain nouns ending in -ce with their corresponding verb forms ending in -se. For example: licence/license, practice/practise. Americans (but less so Canadians) often narrow the spelling of noun and verb to -ce endings. Outside US borders, my memory aid associates the ‘c’ ending with ‘concrete noun’.

Then we have variant spellings: kerb/curb, tyre/tire, gaol/jail. If I could get away with it, I’d use kerb and tyre, being unambiguous with their homonyms. We see a precedent in the word clew that retains its spelling for maritime use, but evolved to clue in the crime and mystery world.

A few authors have proposed we Americans adopt British spellings regarding two ‘writerly’ words. One is cosy (instead of cozy), which one SleuthSayer or another uses. The other is storey (instead of story) when referring to the floor of a building. For example, “She was reading a cosy on her second storey balcony.” Your choice.

Finally, the dot at the end of a sentence… the British refer to it as fullstop whereas Americans usually call it a period. That’s a clue to wrap up.

Good luck, Anne!

18 September 2021

Ten Years at SS


  

As you know from my friend Brian Thornton's post yesterday, we Sayers of Sleuth have been at it for ten years now. None of us who started the blog, way back then, knew if it would work or not, and if it would be even half as successful and as enjoyable (to us) as its predecessor, Criminal Brief, had been. All we knew for sure is that we had a good group and we all loved mystery fiction. (By the way, Brian, thanks for the kind words.)

Since I was chosen by my SleuthSayers co-conspirators to "kick off" our new blog with the first column on September 17, 2011, I've been asked to write today about what the blog has meant to me over this past decade (plus one day). The request caught me by surprise, because the anniversary caught me by surprise. Until then, I'd never thought much about how long we've been doing this. Most of the thinking I've done about the blog was probably along the lines of How in the world will I come up with something to write about for my next post?

There have been a lot of them. FYI for those of you who don't read us: I post a SleuthSayers column every first, third, and fifth Saturday, whether I have anything meaningful to say or not--and when I totaled them up the other day (not counting "guest posts" done by my writer friends), it came to 258 columns. Most of those have been on the subject of short mystery stories because that's what I write most. Others were about novels, some were about movies, and some were my random thoughts about the mystery genre or the writing life or the writing process. Looking back over the posts, I found that a surprising number were about style--punctuation, grammar, spelling, capitalization, abbreviation, sentence construction, paragraph construction, word choice, word usage, etc. The kinds of things that I hated during high school English classes but that I now realize are vitally important. At least if you want to get published regularly.

Some of the columns I most enjoyed writing: "Deja Vu All Over Again," about "writing tight"; "The Washed and the Unwashed," about literary fiction vs. genre fiction; Crime (and Other) Scenes," about favorite movies; and "Candy Is Dandy," about the late Ogden Nash.

As for what the blog has meant to me as a writer, here are a few things (besides our fantastic salary) that come to mind:

I've made friends who are now dear to me. Some only online, but many face-to-face as well. At every Bouchercon I've attended I've run into fellow SleuthSayers and "commenters," and when we meet in person it's as if we've known each other for years. Which we have, in a way, because of many, many blog posts, emails, and Facebook messages. I won't name names here because I would certainly miss someone, but you know who you are--and I will always treasure your friendship.

I've learned a lot about the craft of writing. The folks who post and guest-post at SleuthSayers read and write all kinds of fiction, not just mysteries, and many of them have great tips about how to create effective short stories and novels. Some of this stuff you can't find in the style manuals and the how-to books.

I've found out about new markets to target for my stories, as well as helpful facts about publications I was already familiar with. Some of these markets are not well known, and even if they are, the insider information is sometimes the kind they don't include in their submission guidelines.

I've discovered stories, books, and movies I would otherwise never have read or watched. All of us like to pass along recommendations based on what we've enjoyed or learned from, and when you hear these suggestions from those whose opinions you've come to trust, it makes a difference.

I've been forced to write to a deadline. When you know you have to produce an article of around 1000 words at least once every couple weeks, it keeps the writing muscles working. It's nothing like the pressure of a daily-newspaper deadline, but it's still something you're expected to create and deliver on time, and it means you can't just take long breaks from writing. I think that kind of discipline also helps in producing fiction, and is one of the reasons I've been able to turn out so many short stories.

In addition to all these things, I've had a chance to tell others about my own writing. Often that means giving them a behind-the-scenes view of my stories, and sharing whatever information I've picked up about the writing and marketing of those stories. That usually leads to a discussion, and I usually wind up learning more than I'm trying to teach. The bottom line: To be able to reach and swap views with a large number of readers and fellow writers on a regular basis is a rare opportunity, and as a member of SleuthSayers I have that.

In closing, I'd like to thank a few folks. One is James Lincoln Warren, who was the Head Fred at our Criminal Brief blog (without CB there would've been no SleuthSayers) and who was kind enough to recruit me to write the Saturday columns there, back in 2007. JLW, you might not be running the factory anymore, but you're still my hero. Special thanks also to my old friends and SS colleagues Leigh Lundin and Robert Lopresti for putting up with my foolishness and my stupid questions for ten years (fourteen, actually) and to all the other SleuthSayers as well, present and former. If you look at that list, you'll see that it includes some of the best mystery writers anywhere.

I can sense that Velma, our longtime and bossy assistant/receptionist/first-sergeant, is rolling her eyes and signaling me to wind this up, so I will. My final and most important thank-you is to our faithful readers. Your friendship and loyalty is much appreciated by us all.

I hope you'll stay with us for ten more years.





17 September 2021

SleuthSayers Tenth Anniversary: What It's Meant To Me


Ten years ago today the Great John Floyd, one of several mystery author refugees from the long-running Criminal Brief blog, became the first SleuthSayer by posting the initial Sleuthsayers blog entry, "Plots and Plans." Ever gracious, John modestly pointed out that he was not posting first in the new Sleuthsayer rotation because he was best-suited to do so, but because it was simply his turn at bat.

Today, I have the honor of posting the 10th Anniversary post for the SleuthSayers blog, and I'd like to echo the sentiment. Long-term readers of this blog will know that my own usual turn at the wheel comes not on Fridays, but on Thursdays. So why did I draw 10th Anniversary duty?

Not because of what I bring to this blog, but because of what this blog has brought to me.

In a recent late-night conversation with Fearless Leader Leigh Lundin, I expressed how much posting at SleuthSayers had helped me as a writer, how I felt the better for the experience, and how grateful I was for the opportunity to share as part of this endlessly shuffling ensemble of writer friends.

Leigh suggested I reproduce the sentiments I expressed in that conversation in this tenth anniversary post. So here goes.

A bit of background: I'm not an original SleuthSayer. My tenure with the blog dates back to February 21, 2013, when the Immortal Rob Lopresti (Leigh's co-Fearless Leader) introduced me as the freshest-minted Sleuthsayer. My baptism by fire came that very day, with my maiden Sleuthsayers post: "I Owe It All to Rilke." So, yep, I'm not an O.G. SleuthSayer. My tenure only clocks in around eight and a half years and counting.

But that's one of this blog's greatest strengths: the breathtaking diversity of the writers who share their experiences here. People have stayed a while and moved on. Others, such as old friends R.T. Lawton and Eve Fisher have been here for years (both longer than I. I'm positive R,T. is a founding member of the blog and Eve must be close to that, if not also one.). Folks have even left and returned. And the best part is that all of this endless, diverse content churns out daily, and has for 3,650 straight days.

Imagine, whether you're a writer or a fan or some combination of the two, being able to learn something new about the art and science and blood and sweat and swearing and muttering to yourself in a crowded supermarket and dancing in the parking lot when having the Eureka moment that fills that plot hole that had you muttering to yourself in the supermarket in the first place and all the depth and breadth and heights that mystery writing has, can, should, and will again reach.

Every. Single. Day.

Rob and Leigh's invitation to join this happy band came at just the right moment for me. I was recently married, with an infant son, and two years removed from the publication of my most recent book. Getting married, buying a house, combining households and having a child, all in just a couple of years, put a genuine crimp into my writing time/head space.

Turns out, SleuthSayers was a lifeline.

My wife, wise woman that she is, maintains that I work best when I'm working on a deadline. SleuthSayers really allowed me to keep my hand in, as it were, by giving me an on-going bi-weekly deadline. This was instrumental in maintaining my chops, developing other aspects of my writing voice, and outlining new projects. This was the case especially early on, when my total actual output was a single published short story over a three-year period.

These days I'm back on pace: with several completed and published projects-my three-novella collection Suicide Blonde (Down & Out Books, Octobber, 2020) the most recently published. And 2021 has been a great year writing-wise. As I've expressed multiple times over the years, I'm a very slow writer. The process for me just takes as long as it takes. And yet this year alone I've placed three new short stories, wrapped a fourth, and am nearing completion on a too-long delayed historical novel.

And I owe it all to this blog. Thanks to all my fellow SleuthSayers, past and present, to Rob and Leigh for believing in me and my writing enough to invite me to take part in this supportive and welcoming community, and especially to our readers, for taking the time and trouble to read what we lay down here for you. Without the audience, the artist is irrelevant.

So Happy Tenth, SleuthSayers! Here's to another ten!

Feels like we're just getting started!

See you in two weeks!



16 September 2021

Scott and Zelda in My Own Backyard



The Grove Park Inn is a fancy old mountain resort in my neck of the woods, Asheville, North Carolina. Each year the hotel allows visitors to wander free through adjoining rooms 441 and 443 on a weekend that falls close to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s birthday, September 24th. An English professor from one of the local universities, serving as a docent of sorts, shares with guests the unusual circumstances that brought Fitzgerald to the Inn during the summers of 1935 and 1936.


The inn’s staff always “decorates” the room with period props, conveying the impression that Mr. Fitzgerald has just stepped out. A typewriter is among the artifacts, but that doesn’t mean Fitzgerald ever got any serious writing done while here.

His life and career were tanking fast by the time he occupied these rooms. For years he’d been the darling of the big magazines. Editors paid him thousands—yes, thousands of actual U.S. dollars—for stories that might have been a subscribing family’s only weekly entertainment in the days before radio. But by the 1930s, Fitzgerald’s glittering take on society folks reeked of elitism in the harsh light of the Depression. 

On those summer visits to the Grove Park Inn, Fitzgerald was struggling to keep himself afloat financially, and to pay for his wife Zelda’s stays at a nearby Asheville psychiatric facility, Highland Hospital. While Zelda battled her demons, Scott battled his. Determined to reduce his gin intake, he switched to drinking beer. His beverage of choice were so-called “pony” bottles of beer, which contained 7 U.S. fluid ounces. The bizarre sobriety plan might have worked, if it weren’t for the fact that he consumed 50 of those bottles a day—a total of 2.7 gallons of beer.


The inn's staff always litters the suite with empty beer bottles.
(This is not a pony-sized bottle.)

You would think things could not get much worse. Then Fitzgerald broke his shoulder in a swimming pool dive, passed out in his bathroom, and was discovered by the staff the next morning. In a later incident, he nearly fired a handgun, but was stopped by a bellman. These two incidents fueled rumors that he’d tried to commit suicide. His biographers are not so sure about that. He wrestled with thoughts of suicide for the rest of his life, but especially after a scathing newspaper article about him appeared in The New York Post and ran in syndication around the nation.

The reporter, Michael Mok, had visited Fitzgerald in his Asheville rooms, and could not help notice how far the Jazz Age icon had fallen. While this trembling, 40-year-old wreck of a man tried to present himself as on top of his game, a nurse (presumably hired by the hotel) hovered and surveilled his every move, trying to limit his alcohol intake and ensure a sensible diet. Mok’s article was devastating. It portrayed this voice of the Lost Generation as a washed-up has-been.

Fitzgerald eventually moved on to other (cheaper) hotels in the region. He wrote his famous essay, “The Crack-Up,” at a hotel in nearby Hendersonville, a town about 30 minutes south that I’ve talked about in a previous post. He went to Hollywood in 1937, hoping to turn his fortunes around. The money he made there was lucrative, but he spent most of it on his wife’s medical bills and their daughter’s education. He was dead by 1940, at the age of 44, a victim not of suicide but his own ailing heart.


Brian Railsback, professor and author, shares Fitzgerald's story with visitors.

At death he no doubt considered himself a failure, and never lived to see what we now all take for granted: that at some point in every young American’s life, you’re going to read The Great Gatsby, whether you like it or not. The book Fitzgerald conceived as his sparkling masterpiece sold poorly during his lifetime, but today racks up about a half million sales a year, has been translated into 42 languages, and has sold nearly 30 million copies worldwide. That’s just one book. Perhaps more impressive is his short fiction output: 181 stories, published and unpublished, that we know of.

One of those short pieces was written with Zelda, who, I might add, survived Fitzgerald by nearly eight years. She died in a kitchen fire that swept through one of the buildings in the Highland Hospital complex in 1948. Nine women lost their lives that night.

Bus tours swing through the leafy historic neighborhood here on a daily basis to share her story with tourists. On its own, her tale is painful enough, but the full Fitzgerald Asheville saga approaches an almost crushing poignancy.


A stone marker on Zillicoa Street in Asheville marks the site.


* * *


If you can indulge me the mention of yet another alcoholic writer, Dashiell Hammett, I promise to cloak it in a more cheerful wrapper. These Nomi notebooks are fashioned from recycled paper, and are fountain pen-friendly. I couldn’t resist backing the Kickstarter as soon as I glimpsed the noir-themed endpapers. New Yorker cartoonist Shuchita Mishra created these two images as a salute to the city of San Francisco. The building depicted at the bottom is 891 Post Street, where Dashiell Hammett once lived, wrote most of his famous works, and where he sited Sam Spade’s apartment. Check out the Kickstarter for these notebooks and the hilarious video here.

See you in three weeks!

Joe



Some sources for this article:

Read excerpts from the letters of Fitzgerald’s nurse here and here.

An NPR article on Fitzgerald’s days in Asheville.

The Fitzgerald episode is also recounted in my wife’s book, The Last Castle.








15 September 2021

Today in Mystery History: September 15


 


This is the ninth in my series on the past of our wonderful field. 

 September 15, 1885.  Marcel Allain was born,  Together with Pierre Souvestre he created Fantomas, a villain who became one of the most popular characters in French crime fiction.  The authors wrote alternating chapters (I had never heard of anyone writing books that way other than Sjowall and Wahloo), producing more than 40 novels.  Fantomas appeared in movies, TV, and comic books.

September 15, 1890.  Agatha Christie was born in Torquay.  She became a moderately successful chiropractor.  Oh, all right, she became the bestselling mystery author of all time.  Happy?

September 15, 1934.  John Lawrence's "Fade Out" appeared in Dime Detective.  It was his fifth story about New York private eye Cass Blue.  Kevin Burton Smith said that Lawrence was "one of many prolific pulpsters who managed to keep cranking 'em out, logic and finesse be damned."


September 15, 1939.
  On this date Raymond Chandler finished the first draft of Farewell, My Lovely, his second Marlowe novel, and my personal favorite.

September 15, 1977.  CHiPs premiered this evening. The show about California Highway motorcycle cops lasted six years.

September 15, 1988. On this date a Calypso musician is found shot to death in Isola, starting the plot of Ed McBain's 33rd novel about the 87th Precinct.  As was often the case in his books, the title has at least two meanings...

September 15, 1981. This date saw the premiere of Seeing Things, a quirky and funny mystery series from Canada.  Louis Del Grande is the antithesis of the glamorous
detective - a balding middle-aged reporter who can't get a break.  When his beloved wife leaves him he moves into the storage room of his parent's store, refusing to consider that the split may be final.  Then he starts having visions about crimes.  Unfortunately the visions never tell him whodunit, so he has to figure that out on his own.  When it aired, it was Canada's most successful "home-grown" series.

September 15, 1989.  The movie Sea of Love was released.  Screenwriter Richard Price was nominated for an Edgar for best movie. And Al Pacino was nominated for a Golden Globe for best actor.

 September 15, 199?.  On this day sports agent Myron Bolitar had a meeting in a cemetery with a murderer.  This is the beginning of One False Move, the fifth novel in Harlan Coben's  terrific series.


September 15, 1993. 
On this date Julian Semyonovich died.  He had an interesting life, traveling the world with surprising freedom for a Soviet journalist, leading some people to speculate about his connections to the government.  "Look,'' he told a reporter, "if I tell you the truth, you won't print it. So let me tell you what you want to hear: I'm the general in charge of interrogation and intelligence for the KGB."  Probably not.  But he was the founder of the International Association of Writers of Detective and Political Novels, and one of the first Russians to have mysteries published in the west.

September 15, 2000.  Jamie Foxx starred in Bait, a cop comedy-adventure released on this date.

 


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