31 January 2021

A Helping Hand

The Story

My latest story, "A Helping Hand," is currently out in the AHMM January/February 2021 issue. It is the 8th in my 1660's Paris Underworld series. The protagonist, a young, orphan, incompetent pickpocket, tells of his adventures trying to survive in the criminal community of old Paris.

The Con

Like most of my mystery short stories, the storyline is based on my undercover experiences on the street where hardened criminals often looked on others as marks, or pigeons to be plucked, whether these street wolves were after your valuables or just to somehow gain an advantage on you.

A simple uncomplicated con, for instance, used by some of the heroin users in 1970's Kansas City when the users needed money for their next fix went like this. They would enter a large department store, go to a counter and request one of the store's empty bags with the store logo on it. Then, they would move on to the home goods section and pick out an appliance, say a toaster. When no one was looking, they'd place the toaster in the store bag they'd acquired at the first counter. Next stop was the Customer Service Desk where they produced the toaster in the store bag, claimed that a relative/friend/someone had bought it for them as a present, but they already had one, therefore they would like to return it for cash. That's why these days, most stores won't give you an empty store bag, plus you need a receipt to get your money back on a returned purchase.

But then, not all cons are for instant cash. We've all heard reports of pimps and other conmen hanging around bus stations to seek out naive youngsters and pretend to befriend them in order for the street criminal to take advantage of the unsuspecting new arrival. Unfortunately, the world has many predators out there.

The Story

While trying to lift the purse of a wealthy merchant, our protagonist is interrupted by a man with a scar on his face. Scar Face convinces the orphan pickpocket that he has done the orphan a favor by saving him from arrest by the city bailiffs. He continues by telling the orphan that while he did not get the merchant's purse, Scar Face has some comrades with a pending burglary which will make them all some good coin in the end. Seems all these burglars need is someone small enough for a special job. The orphan agrees to join the group and help with the burglary.

The Con

One ploy of many cons is to convince the mark that he is on the inside and that someone else is the victim.

The Story

Our young pickpocket protagonist is introduced to others involved in the burglary scheme. Gradually, Scar Face and his adult partner feed little bits of information to the young orphan about the pending crime. Since our protagonist hasn't eaten for a while and is quite hungry, he goes along with the plan as it is laid out.

The Con

Sooner or later, most cons involve a double-cross where the conman expects to end up with all the proceeds from the scam. The victim finds himself holding an empty bag. A good conman will then also make the situation appear as if someone else took the proceeds. This misdirection gives the appearance as if he too is a victim of unforeseen circumstances and not at fault for the misfortunate events which robbed the main conspirators at the last moment.

Back to the Story

The burglary is successfully completed and the loot is stored in a safe storehouse. Now, the plan is for the loot to be sold off in small lots and the resulting money to be equally divided amongst the four burglars, but Scar Face puts his double-cross into play.

Our young, incompetent pickpocket may not know all the tricks of the game, but he has lived in his criminal community of old Paris long enough to have learned some tricks of his own. He soon enlists the assistance of a couple of unlikely allies.

Get your copy of the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of AHMM, read the story and watch the con unfold.

So what would you have done if you lived on the streets of 1660's Paris and were hungry all the time?

30 January 2021

Behold a Black Cat


I first heard about Black Cat Mystery Magazine when everyone else did, when it was announced in 2017. It started out with John Betancourt and Carla Coupe as co-editors, and quickly became a respected player in the mystery short story community. Last year Carla retired from the magazine and my fellow SleuthSayer Michael Bracken came on board as editor, and BCMM has continued to thrive. Every issue features new shorts by beginning and veteran writers alike.

I've been posting a lot about mystery markets lately (there aren't a great many of them), so today I decided to revisit the stories I've had in BCMM. Here they are, in order:

"Rooster Creek," Issue #1 -- This was a fairly long story, close to 7600 words and a dozen scenes, and was fun to write mostly because of the extra-quirky characters. It was part crime story, part love story, part Western, and one of those "framed" stories that starts in the present, goes back to the past to tell most of the tale, and ends up in the present again.

"Two in the Bush," Issue #2 -- A story more different than any other I've written for BCMM--and the shortest, at 2300 words. It had only two human characters and a parrot, and included only four scenes, two of which are set at a local zoo. Also the craziest ending of any of my Black Cat stories.

"Diversions," Issue #3 -- This story was almost entirely dialogue, around 4000 words, and even though it was one long scene with one setting--the back room of a house that served as an interim jail--it probably contained more plot twists than any of my other BCMM stories. Genrewise, it was a Western mystery, with square-jawed lawmen, tough women, and weasely bad guys, and was a LOT of fun to write. (Dialogue always is.)

"Rhonda and Clyde," Issue #5 -- "R&C" was another long story, at 7700 words, and another that had many twists and reversals, mainly because of its many back-and-forth character-POV switches throughout. This story wound up being selected by Otto Penzler and C.J. Box for inclusion in Best American Mystery Stories 2020, and I used it as a topic for discussion in a behind-the-scenes-of-the-story SleuthSayers column last year.

"Mustang Sally," Issue #7 -- My first private-eye story at BCMM, written because new editor and old friend Michael Bracken announced #7 would be a Special PI Issue. The story was 3200 words and definitely lighthearted, its only crime being an off-screen jewelry-store heist. This was also my only first-person BCMM story, and was the first in a planned series featuring PI Tom Langford and his longtime girlfriend Debra Jo Wells. I just finished writing the second installment, which might or might not ever be published (you know that feeling?).

"The Big Picture," Issue #8 -- I like stories whose titles have double meanings. This was one of those, and at 7800 words it was my longest so far at BCMM. It had a complicated plot with a big cast of characters and several late-in-the-story reversals, and some of the details required a bit more research than I usually have to do.

"The Jericho Train," issue number yet to be announced -- A 4100-word story set in southeast Arizona, and my first at BCMM to involve the planned murder of a spouse. It features an oil baron, his henchman, a bomb, and several women who are always (as in real life) smarter than the men.

 What are the takeaways here, for a writer?

Well, we all know the best way to learn what a particular magazine likes to publish is to read the issues, all of them, if possible, and all the way through. (In BCMM's case that kind of homework is a pleasure, not a chore.) If there are any things to be learned from my own stories at the magazine, I've tried to include them in the following list:

1. All seven of my BCMM stories have plot twists. Some have more than one, and a couple of them have four or five.

2. The average word count is around 5200.

3. Six of the seven stories use third-person POV. Four are third-person singular, two are third-person multiple, one is first-person. (Does this matter? I have no idea.)

4. All are written in past tense.

5. Two have female protagonists, five have male.

6. Only one of the seven has a non-linear timeline.

7. Three have rural settings, four urban.

8. Two of the stories have historical settings, five are present-day.

9. None of them are reprints, per BCMM's guidelines.

10. Three include a lot of violence, the other four not so much.

11. All of the stories except one have multiple scenes. The longest has sixteen.

12. The crimes involved are robbery, burglary, jailbreak, drug trafficking, tax fraud, witness intimidation (obstruction of justice), and murder. Sometimes more than one of these per story.

13. None of the seven stories contain any otherworldly or supernatural elements.

NOTE 1: As Michael reminded me the other day, any analysis of past stories in a magazine (to identify preferences and help you decide what to put in your own stories) should include any past changes of editorship. BCMM's Issue #7 was the first to include stories Michael selected, Issue #8 was the last to include stories Carla selected, and future issues will contain stories selected by both Michael and John (John picks all the classic reprints). If you choose to submit to BCMM, be sure to study their current guidelines here.  

NOTE 2: Remember, stories in BCMM are noticed and considered for best-of anthologies (!).       


The biggest takeaway for me, about Black Cat Mystery Magazine, is that John and Carla and Michael have been extremely professional and kind to me in all our dealings. I'm proud to have been a small part of the magazine, and I thank them all once again. 

To those of you who have been published in BCMM, I welcome your thoughts, in the comments section. Also, those of you who read the magazine!

Best to everyone. Be safe, stay warm, keep writing . . .

29 January 2021

Drinking With Archivists

I have a lovely real-life mystery for you today, but what I really want to talk about is cardboard boxes and what’s hidden inside them.

I’ve written lots of nonfiction, particularly in the self-help/financial/memoir genres, for various ghostwriting clients. But I’ve never done the sort of books my wife writes—deep narrative nonfiction. I was probably in high school the first time I learned the difference between primary and secondary sources. But I had to live to my fourth decade before I ever touched a primary source worth writing about.

By now I’ve tagged along with Denise on research trips to three university libraries, the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, two National Archives facilities, a bibliophilic organization in New York, and a presidential archive. And she’s trained me to be a half-competent researcher of online resources. I’ve come away with a profound respect for the work she and archivists do, as well as fostering a deep geek love for old stuff tucked away in new boxes.

Nothing beats holding a letter that was written by hand with a fountain pen a hundred years (or more) ago. Every thing about the artifact screams history. The grain of stationery, its postmarks, and its postage stamps are just the beginning. Sometimes letters are written on the highly ornate stationery of exotic hotels and resorts that are long gone. Other times they’re written on corporate stationery of businesses—such as carriage manufacturers and ice delivery firms, to choose two examples—that barely exist anymore. Sometimes you find poignant sentimental items—dried flowers, coiled human hair, or faded scraps of fabric—tucked into those letters.

Practicing one's penmanship:
"I long have loved you from afar..."

I love the way old letters were folded to get them down to the size of an handmade envelope. Or the creative methods correspondents employed to reduce the total weight of the envelope, and thus the required postage. When they got to the end of a page, they’d maybe turn it upside down and write in between the lines, or diagonally across their previously written text, confident in that their confidante on the other end would be able to decipher it all.

"My dear Paul: I hope you can freaking read this..."

Researchers must quickly learn how to decipher the handwriting of the person they’re researching. But it’s hit or miss. I have found it easy to read the scanned letters (online at the Library of Congress) of Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Declaration of Independence signer, Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey. They had crystal-clear penmanship. But the letters of Edith Bolling Wilson, second wife and widow of Woodrow Wilson, scrawled in chicken scratch with an unsharpened pencil? Fuhgeddaboudit.

Meanwhile, as you pore through these marvelous treasures in archival boxes, the clock is ticking. A friend whose wife earned a doctorate in art history told me how he’d accompany her on research trips to various libraries and archives because “research is a family effort.” He’s totally correct.

Time and money are working against you. You’re usually visiting a new city to access these precious archives, crashing with friends or staying at a hotel. You’re eating out. Maybe you have a flight out of town in three days, and you can’t spare another day researching because you have to be at another facility on Thursday. You get to the archives right when it opens, and you read through lunch. When the library closes, you’re out the door, wired and starved. Your eyeballs are fried, sunlight feels alien, and your smartphone feels like the most artificial thing you’ve ever touched. My time in archives have transformed me into a stationery snob.

Archivists instinctively describe their collections in cubic feet. A banker’s box, roughly 1 cubic foot, can hold about 2,000 sheets of paper. A Hollinger box, on the left down there, holds about a third of that. But in my experience, if you hit a World War II-era box filled with onionskin stock or carbon copies, each of those boxes actually holds about 63 million sheets of paper.

There’s only so many hours in a day. Using finding aids, you can target your search. But sometimes you go on fishing expeditions, hoping to find materials no researcher has ever laid eyes upon. I found that if I worked my butt off, I could maybe get through one full box in a day, or three or four of the smaller ones, if I could single out just the specific folders we thought would be most likely to hold what we were looking for. But because you’re human, you can only survey so much.

Sometimes, archivists are bursting to share juicy tidbits with you, like the time an archivist brought Denise a copy of a report by a young medical doctor, Charles Augustus Leale, who attended a certain tragic theatre performance in Washington, DC, in 1865. Leale was the first doctor to touch Lincoln after that fatal shot, and managed to get the president’s breathing started again. Leale’s account was only discovered by a researcher in 2012. The account perfectly fleshed out a chapter in Denise’s latest book.

To write her first book of this type, my wife accessed the Department of Energy records pertaining to the Manhattan Project held at the National Archives facility in Morrow, Georgia. Fans of the book still occasionally ask if she came across the names of their relatives who worked on the project.

“No,” she says. “But you’re welcome to try finding them yourself. We only got through a handful of boxes, and there are 5,000 more boxes in that collection.”

Math geeks: If you use the conservative estimate that one cubic foot contains 1,800 sheets of paper, that means that one collection alone consists of at least 9 million sheets of government paper. Archival budgets being what they are, most of those boxes have never been opened and processed since they were entrusted to the National Archives. There are tons more books about the Manhattan Project to be written, I assure you. Just not by Denise.

(Naval District records, RG 181, NARA, Morrow, GA)

Which is, by the way, why archivists drink. And when they do, they tell wonderful stories about things they’ve found rooting around the records. One such mystery is the one beginning above. It’s a pair of ads that ran in the New Yorker magazine in November 1941. Taken at face value, they’re just promoting a parlor game. But if you’re in Naval Intelligence in August 1942, and you see German words, references to air-raid shelters, and random letters and numbers, you start thinking secret codes “of a possible subversive nature.”

(Naval District records, RG 181, NARA, Morrow, GA)

"Attention of the Atlanta Zone Intelligence Officer was called to the fact that the dice shown in the various ads contain the numerals 12-7 and 24 and 5. It is to be noted that 12-7 would be December 7th, and 24.0 is practically the latitude of Pearl Harbor."
(Naval District records, RG 181, NARA, Morrow, GA)

Are we really to believe that America’s enemies were communicating via pricy ads in a New York literary magazine? Lieutenant Commander J.L. Laube of the Sixth Naval District certainly thought so. He suggested that someone track down the person who placed the ads on behalf of this mysterious New York publishing company.

Poking around online, I’ve located a few defunct businesses that operated under the same (admittedly common) name. Indeed, several modern publishing companies use the same moniker. (People really like the word monarch, apparently.)

When our friends at the archives first mentioned the ads to me, I knew they had the makings of a decent short story, even if the real-life investigation ended quite prosaically. But that’s the thing. I don’t know how the real-life story ended. Just one more scrap of paper would have satisfied my curiosity. Beginning, middle, and end.

Don’t worry. I’ve got this. That sheet of paper is somewhere in a cardboard box in Morrow, Georgia. I just have to page through a couple of million sheets to find it.

Or I could make it up. That, my friends, is the beauty of fiction.

* * *

See you in three weeks!


28 January 2021

The Call of the Wild

by Eve Fisher

I was sorting through some fairly old emails and came across an exchange that I want to share today.  But to appreciate it, some backstory:

Back in 1992, a young man named Chris McCandless died in an abandoned bus in Alaska.  His body wasn't found for some time.  Apparently he had starved to death, although have been disputes about that.  McCandless, for a while, became a kind of folk hero - a young man who left his family and went roaming around the country, ending up in Alaska, in an attempt to find an authentic life and to test himself against the wilderness. The last person to see him alive, a local electrician named Jim Gallien, gave him a ride to Fairbanks, and later said he had been seriously concerned about the safety of McCandless (going by the name "Alex") because the young man had a light pack, minimal equipment, meager rations, and obvious lack of experience. He offered to help McCandless with equipment and supplies, but McCandless refused. 

NOTE:  This does not surprise me in the least. When young men go out to prove themselves against the wilderness, the more hardship = better proof. The fact that the wilderness is practically littered with the bodies of young adventurers is irrelevant because, of course, it isn't going to happen to them.

Outdoor author Jon Krakauer wrote Into the Wild, which made McCandless internationally famous.  I was one of the millions who read it.  Up here in South Dakota it was hugely popular because many people remembered McCandless from his time working in Carthage, SD.  He would come into Madison to drink a few beers upon occasion, and read at the library.  

Krakauer decided that McCandless might have starved to death one of two ways:

Rabbit starvation - where the person depends too much on lean game and not much of it, because that's all they can find.  No carbs, no fats will kill you.

Poisoning by wild plant seeds - apparently the seeds of the wild potato are poisonous, and can paralyze and kill you.  Remember that if you ever go harvesting in the wild.  

In the aftermath of the article in Outside and then the book, the opinion range of McCandless was wide:

Alaskan Park Ranger Peter Christian wrote:

When you consider McCandless from my perspective, you quickly see that what he did wasn't even particularly daring, just stupid, tragic, and inconsiderate. First off, he spent very little time learning how to actually live in the wild. He arrived at the Stampede Trail without even a map of the area. If he [had] had a good map he could have walked out of his predicament [...] Essentially, Chris McCandless committed suicide.[42]

Ken Ilgunas, also an Alaskan Park Ranger and the author of The McCandless Mecca,[43] writes:

Before I go any further, I should say that Pete is a really good guy [...] But with that said, I think Pete is very, very wrong. [...] Because I am in the unique position as both an Alaskan park ranger [...] I feel I can speak with some authority on the subject. [...] McCandless, of course, did not commit suicide. He starved to death, accidentally poisoned himself, or a combination of the two.[44]

Sherry Simpson, writing in the Anchorage Press, described her trip to the bus with a friend, and their reaction upon reading the comments that tourists had left lauding McCandless as an insightful, Thoreau-like figure:

Among my friends and acquaintances, the story of Christopher McCandless makes great after-dinner conversation. Much of the time I agree with the "he had a death wish" camp because I don't know how else to reconcile what we know of his ordeal. Now and then I venture into the "what a dumbshit" territory, tempered by brief alliances with the "he was just another romantic boy on an all-American quest" partisans. Mostly I'm puzzled by the way he's emerged as a hero.[45]
- (All of the above from Wikipedia)

Many years later, in 2007, two movies came out about McCandless.  The first, and most famous, is Sean Penn's Into the Wild, which follows Krakauer's book pretty closely.  The second is Ron Lamothe's documentary The Call of the Wild.  Lamothe came up with some new information:

(1) Later findings that contradict Krakauer's book and Penn's film that McCandless was not poisoned by wild potato seeds as Krakauer had suspected, and that such poisoning had been disproved by toxicology reports.

(2) Also, Lamothe suspected that McCandless had an arm or shoulder injury not shown in the famous self-portrait photo by the bus, in which McCandless' shirt sleeve has the appearance of being empty. Lamothe believes, based on McCandless' S.O.S. note, that McCandless had injured his arm or dislocated his shoulder, which prevented his escape and his food gathering.

(3) McCandless did not burn up all his documents and cash, because they were all in a hidden pocket in McCandless' backpack.[1]

Now here's where I come in.  I watched that documentary, and the main thing that struck me was that the backpack had been discovered - and kept (!) - by a man named Will Forsberg.  And - instead of turning them over to the Alaska police or the McCandless family or even show them to Jon Krakauer - he kept them until Mr. Lamothe showed up.  This instantly made me think - what gives?  Lamothe and Forsberg claimed that the State Troopers missed seeing the backpack, but I don't believe it.  Especially when Forsberg also said that he believed that McCandless was the man who vandalized his cabin.  Having that kind of mind, I thought, well, if that's so, taking McCandless' backpack might have been a form of payback.  And, how do I put this delicately? - what if McCandless was not dead yet when he took it?  And McCandless' shoulder got injured?  (See Trouble Magnet)  

I actually wrote to Mr. Lamothe about all of this, and he replied that Forsberg tried to get a reliable address for the McCandlesses, but never did; that he didn't find the wallet in the backpack until years after he grabbed the backpack; that grabbing the backpack was "following longtime Alaskan backcountry tradition"; and he thought my theory was "highly implausible".

Being stubborn, I wrote back, 

Thank you so much for your response. I'm sure that my "modest proposal" does sound highly implausible except to people like me - I have to warn you I've worked in the judicial system for years, and I have, sadly, learned that little is as implausible as it sounds.
While I understand longtime Alaskan backcountry tradition (it's the same in any wilderness setting, really, i.e., finders keepers, under infinitely nobler names), my mind still boggles at two points:
(1) that the state troopers missed the backpack when they arrived on the scene. When there's a dead body involved, 99.999% of the time the officials take with them anything that might even be remotely related to it; and
(2) once Forsberg realized that it must have been McCandless' backpack, he didn't turn it over to the state police. After all, the story broke fairly quickly, and even before Krakauer's book, the search for identification was publicized. (Of course, I do know some back-country types up here that would refuse to turn over anything to any law enforcement types, no matter how important - just on principle; and other aspects of that type of mentality, which I know fairly well, is, in turn, what led me to the highly implausible theorizations.)
Nor do I, frankly, believe it took him years to find the wallet in its secret pocket, which didn't look that secret on camera. (Besides, the first thing you do with a new piece of gear is check it out pretty thoroughly, from curiosity alone...)

The whole thing is pretty interesting. I do believe Chris McCandless starved to death, and, in the long run, it probably doesn't matter whether he had an injury or not. Contrary to the fervent belief of many a dreaming young man in search of glory, nature doesn't give a s*** about your purity or your aspirations, only if you've got the knowledge, ability, skills, and sheer determination to survive. And even then she'll kill you if you're not extremely lucky.

So what do you think?  How implausible is it?  

27 January 2021

This Time Next Year

Not my usual line of country, nor your usual memoir, Jackie Winspear’s This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing.

If you know the Maisie Dobbs books (number sixteen, The Consequences of Fear, comes out in March) or the engagingly sly Care and Management of Lies, you might think you’ve made Jacqueline Winspear’s acquaintance, but you don’t know the half of it. We imagine we’ll learn something about a writer, or the engines of her imagination, if we’re invited inside her life.

Nothing is a one-on-one equivalency, not John LeCarre’s rascally father Ronnie, or whether Anne Hathaway cheated on Shakespeare with his brother, but we nod with a certain familiarity when Jackie tells us her grand-dad was never able to adjust to loud noises after he came back from the trenches: she was a high-energy kid, and bouncing off the furniture needed less of same.

This is one of those intersections of biography and the imagined that stands out in This Time Next Year. Maisie is herself a veteran of the Great War, and her generation is shadowed by loss. For a writer, this can be a second cousin once removed, the shadows inhabited with someone just off-stage, concealments. We observe an absence, what got left out of the story. It’s a narrative device.

Jackie cheerfully confounds this. It’s not that the story is relentlessly sunny, far from it. The voice is one of speculation, and doubt, and a kind of fey suspension of disbelief, but grounded in exactly remembered detail. The dress. The overturned pot of scalding water. The smell of hops. Nothing is sentimental; everything is vivid.

The trick, if I can use that word, is that Jackie reimagines her childhood. She does something that I think is extraordinarily difficult, from a technical point of view. She gives you the child’s perspective. The girl of six. And then she casts an eye back. The girl of six might well be more wary and less forgiving, but the key is that the grown woman sympathizes with the importance of the event, then. This pulled focus is riveting.

Jackie’s mom, Joyce, looms large. “‘Look at the time,’ she’d say, which was a bit pointless, because the black Bakelite clock on the mantelpiece above the stove, the one in the shape of the grand Grecian palace that came from Nanny, never kept good time, though she had the watch Dad had bought for her when they were engaged. That was the watch that, if it stopped working, she’d take it off and, grasping it by the strap would slap it across the table a couple of times, look at the dial, hold it to her ear and then say, ‘There, that did it.’ Slapping the TV, slapping the watch, slapping the radio – which we called a wireless – if something wasn’t working properly, she would always sort it out with a sharp slap. It was a method she also employed when her children didn’t seem to work properly.”

You get the idea. The ironies. The astringency. It’s very affectionate, though. She seems to lay all her cards on the table, but much is withheld. The silences are quite surprisingly loud.

Late-breaking. This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing is up for an Edgar, best Critical/Biographical.

26 January 2021

Don't Kill the Dog: An Examination of this Fiction Dictum

Don't kill the dog. This advice is commonly given to fiction authors. Readers will put up with a lot, but they won't put up with a dead dog. Or cat. Being a lover of furry friends, I can understand, though I don't hold such a hard line. For me, the question is if the animal's death--or even the animal's jeopardy--is necessary for the story. 

Before you go any further, let me warn you that the rest of this column includes spoilers about some old books, movies, and a couple of my stories. I hope you'll keep reading anyway.

I gave up on a TV series once when a dog was killed just to show how far the bad guy (in that case, a bad gal) would go. The show could have achieved the same effect in another way, so I dropped the series in disgust. Similarly, I once read a cozy (a cozy!) in which a horse was killed. I decided I was done with the author after that because the horse's death wasn't necessary for the story. It was gratuitous, and that crossed a line for me. 

In contrast, I have watched the heartbreaking movie Hachi: A Dog's Tale several times. Based on a true story, it involves a dog in Japan that had no closure after his person died, so he spent the rest of his life living at the train station where he last saw his person, waiting hopefully for the man to come home on the  next train, until the dog ultimately died of old age. That movie bothered me because I disagreed with the dog's family's decision to allow him to live his life waiting for a man who would never return, until he dog eventually died sad and alone. But the movie was based on a true story about a dog named Hachiko, and the dog's actions were the basis for the movie, so I accept the plot, and I happily (and sadly) grab a box of tissues and settle in each time the movie comes on. (Richard Gere being in it doesn't hurt either.)

I've also watched Turner & Hooch a number of times. This wonderfully funny movie stars Tom Hanks as a police detective who takes on the care of an ornery dog who witnessed a murder. Hanks's character grows to love the dog, and when the dog dies at the end, it's heartbreaking. Granted the dog didn't have to die. The people who made the movie could have let him live. But the death was important to the story, and it wasn't done for mere shock value. Therefore, I accept it, though I still cry every time it happens.

What differentiates movies like Turner & Hooch, Hachi, and even Old Yeller, where I could put up the animals' heartbreaking deaths, and the books and TV series I mentioned above, is that in these movies the animals' deaths are not gratuitous. They are instrumental to the story lines. (Note: I've never seen or read Old Yeller. I know what its story is, and I could never watch this movie because the dog in it looks very much like my old dog, Scout. It would be too difficult.)

I know not everyone draws the same line in the sand that I do. For some people, any animal's death, or even an animal's jeopardy, is too much. It's why I worried before my story "Alex's Choice" was published in 2019 whether readers would be done with me because I put a dog in jeopardy. I feared readers might stop at that point--about two-thirds into the story--thinking the dog had died, never to learn that there is a happy ending. But the dog's jeopardy is vital to the story, so I went with it. I similarly worried before my story "An Officer and a Gentleman's Agreement" was published about a decade ago because it involves a dead goat. That death is the conflict from which the plot unfurls, so it wasn't gratuitous and thus passed my personal test of acceptability, but I know it might not pass all readers' tests.

I decided to write about this topic today because earlier this month CrimeReads.com ran a column about why killing dogs is the one line that crime writers can't cross. It was a good column, which analyzed why we feel this way about dogs. You can read it here. But I disagreed with the columnist's conclusion that the reason readers won't put up with the death of dogs in crime fiction is that such dogs can't get justice under the law, unlike murdered humans.

More specifically, the author said that animals, particularly dogs, shouldn't be killed in fiction because there's no legal penalty commensurate with the violation, and thus no true justice can be achieved for the animals. That, the author said, is why readers can't stomach such killings. 

She went on to say that you don't go to jail for killing a dog. Well, that may be true in her home country of Australia (and it's surprising if it's accurate), but it's not true in the United States. Laws vary by state, of course, but they're getting stricter all the time. In my state of Virginia, animal cruelty is a class-six felony, which is punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of $2,500. This isn't one of those laws that's on the books but is never used. That five-year prison sentence has been handed out. Yet even knowing that someone could go to prison for five years (should be more) for killing a dog or cat in my state, I still cringe at the thought of reading something like that in a book, and I cringe at the idea of writing it, and I'll only put up with it if it feels to be a considered choice on the author's part, one that's vital to the story, not made just for shock value.

I think killing a dog (and cat and all other pets, but particularly dogs) in fiction is generally verboten because dogs, like little children, are inherently trusting and cute. (Sorry, but cute probably plays a role.) No matter if you neglect them or mistreat them, they love and trust you anyway. I recognize that there are exceptions for some abusive situations, but overall, I believe my premise holds. Dogs might love their family members more than they do other people, but many (most?) dogs are loving to everyone. Consequently, killing a dog (in real life and in fiction) is not just an amoral act of violence, but it also involves breaking a bond of trust between a complete innocent and a person they trust inherently, especially if that person is who the dog looks to for their care and for their love.

That loyalty and willingness to follow any command, trusting that you have their best interests at heart, makes the animal helpless, in a way. It's why they'll wait for you forever, like in Hachi. It's why they'll risk their lives for you, even if not asked to do so. In Turner & Hooch, the dog gets shot because he is trying to protect Hanks's character. It's a sense of loyalty you rarely see among humans. That is what tugs at readers' heartstrings. And that is why fiction readers can put up with murdered humans but they can't stand reading about the death of  animals, even if some readers, like me, will put up with deaths and jeopardy that are instrumental to their story lines.  

It's not a matter of the animal not being able to get justice that's the problem. It's the betrayal of the animal's trust that readers can't stomach. So if you're going to do it, fellow authors, you better have a damn good reason for it, and you better do it with sensitivity too.

25 January 2021

Late Style

Art historians and critics are fond of talking about 'late style'. By this they don't mean the usual age- related deterioration where the painter's or sculptor's hand loses its cunning, the eyes begin to lose their focus, and, too often, the mind, ditto. No, late style is the rare and happy alternative outcome, when despite, or sometimes because of, the frailties of age, the artist experiences a burst of innovation and creativity: Rembrandt's magnificent late portraits, Titian's dark and eloquent religious works, and nearer to our own time, Monet's billboard-sized water lily paintings and Degas' radiant pastels.

Ian Rankin's newest novel, A Song for the Dark Times, has gotten me thinking about late style in detectives and detection, as we have now had three popular sleuths closing in on old age. The late Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander struggled through his last case while in the early stages of dementia. The redoubtable Vera Stanhope has had a serious heart scare. Her unenthusiastic attempts at fitness do not bode well for her future health, and I suspect only her popularity on the small screen will keep Anne Cleeves' inspector going. 

As for John Rebus, Rankin's long-time protagonist, that old copper is now retired. When A Song for the Dark Times opens, he is in the process of giving up his second floor apartment (3rd floor in US terminology) for a smaller ground floor flat. The stairs have become too much for a man suffering from

COPD, a debilitating lung disease. That and the state of his ancient Saab should ensure that he stays home with Brillo, his dog, and a stack of unsolved case files.

But literary detectives are not quite like the rest of us, a mystery is meat and drink to them, and opposition and complications are as good as advanced medicine. When his difficult daughter's partner disappears, Rebus heads for the far north of Scotland to a tiny town adjacent to what was once a WW2 holding camp for enemy aliens and later for POWs. Mystery soon turns into murder, and John Rebus is right at home.

And yet, the key difficulty remains. The old officer is not up for any great exertion, although he carries his inhaler and watches his whiskey consumption. Rankin devises an elegant solution: two parallel investigations. One involves Rebus's attempts to assist the police in the Highlands, who are polite but firm: civilian assistance is not required. 

Rebus soon finds that he is no longer a top cop with privileged access and the ability to give orders. In response, he tackles some of the less obvious lines of inquiry, interviewing the local historical group involved with the camp site and researching the magnate who owns huge tracts of land in the area.

To fill out the mystery and to give his elderly detective a breather, Rankin shifts every few chapters back to Edinburgh where Siobhan Clarke, Rebus's friend, colleague and protege, has a case involving the stabbing of a rich Saudi student. Wealth, political considerations, the presence of Inspector Malcolm Fox, her long time rival, and even an appearance by Big Ger Cafferty, long the Moriarty to Rebus's Sherlock, ensures that Siobhan has her plate full.

Both mysteries unfold with Rankin's usual dexterity, DI Siobhan Clarke shows she learned from a master, and there's a fair bit of cynical cleverness all round. What is different are the adjustments Rebus must make. He has to be patient with his distraught and frankly rather unpleasant daughter, remembering always that he was never the world's greatest dad.

He has to get used to being the recipient of orders – mostly to clear out and let the professionals work – and he has to call on assistance from Siobhan to access the information he wants. He's back to amateur status, no matter how experienced and perceptive he is, and it is interesting to watch him adjust his game plan to his reduced powers, both physical and professional, and, in so doing, acquire a fine late style.

24 January 2021

Tell Me a Light Story, Tell Me a Tale

Your Job: Write us a story of mystery and intrigue.

It’s a box, just an ordinary carton for a light bulb. At $25, the lamp is a bit expensive, but it’s an LED ‘smart bulb’ with motion and light sensors. It also communicates with Google Home automation, which activates it at sundown and disables it at sunrise. The flood lamp supposedly lasts 22 years and uses less than $2 a year in electricity.

Here are the four sides of this curious box:

box front
box left
box back
box right

The box features the specs, a picture of the light and two additional images, one of them a girl who’s apparently joyously toying with her cell phone. The other graphic also pictures a girl… but… what the hell?

blowup of panel picture

The well-lit house appears to be in a forest. This night, two lawn chairs sit empty on the deck. Wood pallets on one side rest against a tree.

But why is the girl on the ground? What is she reaching for? Or pointing at? Or warding off? Why is her pose so peculiar?

Imagination might suggest an Andrew Wyeth painting gone wrong. Or perhaps the girl has been kidnapped, captured and held in the woods. Perhaps she’s trying to escape.

But who’s taken her? Seven little guys with names like Flippy, Flappy, Floppy, and Dorky? Or a weird prince with delusions of Roquelaure? Or aliens? Or a boyfriend in a consensual game of hide and seek? Or she twisted her ankle when three bears chased her? Are those bears hiding beneath the deck or behind the pallets? Enquiring minds want to know.

So click on the picture below to expand it for any grainy detail you can discern, then tell fans a story about the scene.

Strange scene on Sengled light bulb box
*click* the picture to enlarge

Mystery number two: Pray tell us what the hell the package designer was thinking.

23 January 2021

How to Write a True Italian Character (and not get taken out by the Family...)

Apparently, I have been too serious on here lately. There have been complaints.  So in an effort to lighten things up, I'm settling into a literary pet peeve.

Too often in popular fiction, I find Italian characters who don't make the grade. They seem a little cartoonish, as their creators probably aren't Italian, and don't have a true insight into the Italian nature.  So I'm here as a public service, to rectify that.  (Okay, because my Uncle Vince told me to.)

Yes, I'm Italian.  Yes, I've been a Goddaughter, like the heroine of THE GODDAUGHTER.  Okay, maybe not exactly like.  But close enough that I can easily imagine what it would be like to be a mob goddaughter.  The Christmas presents would be pretty decent, for one thing. Not to mention, I can get my salami and mortadella wholesale in any deli in the Hammer (Hamilton.)

So as I turn in my 17th novel which may or may not feature the Italian mob, I offer this help to all authors everywhere.

Melodia's rules on how to write an Italian Character:

  1. She absolutely cannot talk with her hands held down.  Okay, not entirely true.  She can scream if they try to hold down her hands.  And kick.
  2. He has at least 2 cousins named Tony.  And one uncle.
  3. She considers Pasta a vegetable.  (It's good for you!  Really.  Ask any Italian grandmother.)
  4. He can listen to five conversations at once, in at least two languages, and answer back.
  5. She has four first names (Melodie Lynn Theresa Anne…)
  6. For the Pros. Your Italian character should:

  7. Cry when Pavorotti sings the FIFA soccer anthem.
  8. Ask for Brio and Orangina in restaurants. Gasp loudly if they don't have it.
  9. Kiss everybody all the time.  Left cheek, right cheek (THEIR left cheek, right cheek.)
  10. Always wear designer shoes.  Especially when shopping for shoes.  If you don't have a special wardrobe just for shopping, you are not Italian.
  11. And finally:

  12. Long hair only, ladies.  At least until sixty.
  13. Wine is a major food group.  Like cannoli.
  14. Okay, it gets a little tougher now, but weaving in background is important.  So to really give your character some punch, add the following:

  15. She regularly faked a long penance after confession just so the boys would think she was way hot.  (I hardly ever did this.)
  16. His family does not consider a 'heater' something you turn on in winter.

I hate to end a list at 13.  We Sicilians are suspicious.  So here's one last way you can tell if a character is really Italian:

Bling.  Lots of it.  Last trip back from Rome, the plane nearly came down with the weight of newly purchased gold my aunts were wearing.  Heard in all lines at Customs:  "What, this old thing?"

Melodie Campbell writes mob comedies and other loopy books while avoiding family somewhere south of Toronto.  THE GODDAUGHTER DOES VEGAS, finalist for the Canadian Crime Writing Awards of Excellence, is the latest in the series.  Standard warning:  Pee before you read it.


22 January 2021

Still Collecting Names

This writer has lifted character names from sidewalks, signs, name tags in grocery stores, the Olympics, and from live television. There's a new source of names for villains and other despicable characters – the Trump Insurrection.

Just as the bad year 2020 was behind us, we started 2021 with more Americans dying each week in a pandemic many still believe is a hoax – "It's just like the flu." And an insurrection. As the investigations continue, the names of people who desecrated the US Capitol building in an attempt to disrupt the orderly transition of power, their names surface.

I have a NAMES document on my computer where I collect names for characters in my fiction. Lot of names of good people to use and many names of bad people from Nazis to murderers and now – insurrectionists. NOTE: I never use their full name so as not to further display their name so I switch first and last names but despicable is despicable.

NOTE: The FBI's postings seeking information for Assault on Federal Officers and Violence at the United States Capitol draws me to faces. So far I've recognized none of my relatives or friends.

Flag above the Battle of New Orleans, Chalmette, Louisiana

I've more names of good people to use than bad.

I've used names of friends after asking them, never using their full name. Most like it and brag about it.  I have a writer friend whose name will remain confidential who has used the last names of his three wives for villains many times.

I've named a few characters from intersections. Julia Street intersects Carondelet in the New Orleans CBD, hence the character Julia Carondelet.Robertson intersects Bartholomew so we have a Bartholomew Robertson. Dante Street intersects Joseph Street, so we have a Joe Dante.

Naming characters is a ritual I relish. I work hard at it. I believe nearly every other writer does as well. Or they should.

That's all for now.

Stay safe, everyone. This pandemic is far from over.

21 January 2021

I'm Not Gonna Let It Bother Me Tonight

 Last go-round I talked about New Years' resolutions and the domestic terror attack on our national capitol

Today I'm writing on another banner day, but this time the occasion is a much happier one: the orderly (can't say "peaceful") transfer of power between one presidential administration and its successor.

A hopeful note sounds in the middle of a world consumed with chaos, disease, and misery.

We have the pandemic, a sluggish economy, three million jobs lost, and millions going hungry, or on the verge of losing their homes. Or both. Or all of the above.

No I'm not...no I'm not...
We've got our work cut out for us. And that's saying something in light of how hard so many of us are already working just to try to hold everything together.

But—with apologies to the Atlanta Rhythm SectionI'm not gonna let it bother to me tonight.

I'm just not. Tonight is for celebrating. In fact (sorry, have to do it) at Casa Thornton it's already shaping up to be an outright Champagne Jam.

On the National Mall. In New York. In Florida. In St. Louis. In Denver. In Chicago. In Los Angeles. All across the nation, and definitely in our living room!

Beginning with my next post in a couple of weeks I will be back to posting strictly about writing (at least for a while). Right now, I am giddy with visions of not waking up to embarrassment tomorrow morning; no more wondering "What did the object of our national shame do or say to humiliate, belittle or scorn whole swaths of our people today?" 

Nope. Tomorrow morning I'm going to wake up and not worry about what the most powerful man in the world is up to. Same the day after that. And the day after that. And the day after that...and...and...

Because we have a new president! And a new vice-president! A good and decent man partnered with a good and a formidable woman. And married to a woman better educated than he is (and according to him, the "smart one" in their marriage).

So we have as president a man who respects women. A man who respects traditions. A man who respects precedent. A man who respects alliances (and allies!).

Now, if you'll excuse me, that champagne ain't gonna drink itself!

See you in two weeks!

20 January 2021

2020 Was A Big Improvement

Note: I reivsed this column on February 27th, because I needed to add the story by Thomas Perry, which appeared in a magazine with a 2020 date which I didn't receive until last week. 

I had better explain that title before you send for the nice folks with the strait jackets.  2020 was better than 2019 only in the sense that more stories made my Year's Best list.  Last year, my eleventh, 12 stories made the list.  This year it's 17, a 41% increase.  Am I just feeling generous as the world dips into chaos?  Who knows?

For the second year in a row the big winner was Akashic Press, with three stories.  They send me their anthologies for free, by the way.  Following with two were Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, LB Productions, Mystery Writers of American, and Superior Shores Press.

That last one requires a bit of explanation.  Publisher Judy Penz Sheluk asked if I would read an advance copy of Heartbreaks and Half-Truths and give it a blurb if I thought it worthy.  I did so and was happy to write said blurb but, since I read the stories long before the book came out, I didn't feel I could list one as my Story of the Week.  Therefore this is the first time since I started reviewing at Little Big Crimes that tales make the year's best list without appearing there first.

Eleven stories are by men; six by women.  Five are humorous; four are historical; and two have fantasy elements.  

Ready?  Let's go.

Barlow, Tom, "Honor Guard,"  in Columbus Noir, edited by Andrew Welsh-Huggins, Akashic Press, 2020.

The narrator is the only child of Tommy, a former navy man turned plumber. The old man's dementia is turning him violent, profane, and racist  On Veterans Day there is a violent confrontation with tragic consequences.  Some stunning surprises follow.

Cody, Liza, "My People,"  in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November/December 2020.

This is Cody's second appearance on my list.

Shareen Manasseh is  a Jewish woman whose family came to Britain from India.  She joined the police force and, without much training, was assigned to infiltrate the climate change activists - she calls them rebels.  Her work her rethinking her allegiance.  Did she become a cop to get "black-and-white certainty" or because it was better "to be with the bullies than against them?"

Dixon, Buzz.  "Tongor of the Elephants." Heartbreaks and Half-Truths, edited by Judy Penz Sheluk, Superior Shores Press, 2020.

Here, lemme show you something you've never seen before.  The nameless narrator has film of an actor called "J. Cecil Revell, the Million Dollar Profile," being smashed to death by a grumpy elephant while filming a very bad serial.  It's a charming tale of villainy, revenge, and, of course, elephants.

Foster, Luke, "Seat 9B,"  in Mystery Weekly Magazine, June 2020.

The narrator  is an investigative journalist, covering true crime for TV news shows.  On a flight from Los Angeles he suddenly realizes that the man he is sitting next to is the unknown serial killer the country's cops have been looking for.  And since he has "the world's worst poker face," the killer immediately knows he knows...

Goldberg, Tod, "Goon #4," in The Darkling Halls of Ivy, edited by Lawrence Block, LB Productions, 2020.

Goon #4 (his mama named him Blake) is an ex-military thug, now specializing in high-risk assignments.  Having made enough money to retire he decides to go to college and winds up, more or less by accident, in a class on radio performing.  He has some abilities there, it turns out, but more important is the attitude he brings from his previous profession.

Grafton, Sue, "If You Want Something Done Right...," in Deadly Anniversaries, edited by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini, Hanover Square Press, 2020.

Lucy Burgess has reason to think her hubby is planning to get rid of her.  So she plans a preemptive strike, so to speak.  A lucky mistake puts her in touch with a hit man, and this fellow's way with words is a good deal of the charm of the story.

"Keeping my remarks entirely famatory, every matrimonial association is defeasible, am I right?  ...So what I hear you saying is that you and him are engaged in a parcenary relationship of which you'd like to see his participation shifted to the terminus."

Guthrie, C.C., "Cahoots,"  in Cozy Villages of Death, edited by Lyn Worthen, Camden Park Press, 2020.

Alan Peterson is a banker, and son of the wealthiest man in a small East Texas town.  The story opens with him running into Beulah's diner in a panic because his beautiful wife TeriLyn has disappeared.  

But things don't seem to add up.  She's only been gone a few hours.  And isn't Alan supposed to be out of town?  And why is he claiming she has been having mental problems?

Henderson, J.A. "The God Complex," Heartbreaks and Half-Truths, edited by Judy Penz Sheluk, Superior Shores Press, 2020.

Turns out you can't time travel exactly, but you can view time.  The problem is you tend to see what you expect to see.  And quantum physics is right: observation  changes the thing observed.  That means the ideal observer of the past is someone with no emotions. What's the other term for someone with no emotions?  Oh yeah: sociopath...

Hunt, Alaric, "Borrowed Brains,"  in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, May/June 2020.

Daniel McLaren, an aging West Virginian rumrunner, is happy working as a messenger in New York City, but when he gets beaten and robbed of a half-million dollar package the cops decide that the ex-convict is obviously guilty - or at least convenient to blame.

Fortunately McLaren has a buddy in the city, a fellow native of the Mountain State named Clayton Guthrie.  And Guthrie is a private eye.  Together they start to unravel a complicated fraud scheme that is going badly wrong, with possibly deadly consequences.

McCormick, William Burton.  "Night Train to Berlin,"   Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2020. 

This is McCormick's third appearance here.  It is 1939 and Stalin and Hitler are playing footsie.  As part of their nice-making the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany are exchanging prisoners.

Moller is a German-born Communist.  He has lived in the USSR since its origin but is now  being shipped back to his homeland in exchange for some unfortunate Russian the NKVD wants to get their hands on.  He knows that the vehicle he is about to board "might as well be my funeral train."  But there are plots within plots  and an unlikely ally might  help him out.

Moore, Warren, "Alt-AC,"  in The Darkling Halls of Ivy, edited by Lawrence Block, LB Productions, 2020.

This is the second appearance here by Warren Moore.  It ranges between the amusing and startling.

Roger  possesses a newly minted PhD. in medieval English.  He is desperate for work in a crowded  market but he has a plan to avoid teaching at "the Swamp County School of Mortuary Science and Transmission Repair,"

Oltvanji, Oto, "Underneath it all Runs the River of Sadness,"  in Belgrade Noir, edited by  Milorad Ivanovic, Akashic Press, 2020.

Ranko and Kozma are neighbors and old friends.  Kozma is the troublemaker.  As a cop he did little but paperwork and now, in retirement, he is desperate to actually solve a crime for once.  His attempts to find villainy where there may be none has gotten him into hot water with the police and the neighborhood.

But now, just maybe, he could be onto something.  There's a man on the fourth floor who keeps bringing young women to his apartment.  Nothing wrong with that, except they never come out...

Perry, Thomas,  "Katerina Goes to Studio City," in The Strand Magazine, LXII, 2020.

Katerina is a teenager leading a miserable life in Moscow with no hint of a better future.  Then her best friend escapes to the United States and Katerina, a very resourceful girl, arranges to go as well.

Naive as she is, she does not realize why a Russian oligarch ("He's like a king,") would be willing to help a beautiful young girl come to California.  He sends a different man  to her apartment every night and Katerina develops a wide assortment of tricks and games to keep them out of her bed.  Does this begin to sound familiar?  Are you perhaps humming a few bars of Scheherazade?  

Read, Cornelia, "The Cask of Los Alamos," in Santa Fe Noir, edited by Ariel Gore, Akashic Press, 2020.

The thousand injuries of Richard Feynman I had borne as best I could. But when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.

It is World War II.  The Manhattan Project is toiling away in New Mexico and Thurston has taken a deep grudge against his fellow physicist.  Read draws details from Feynman's real life into the fictional  plot which is, of course, modeled on Poe's.  

Rozan, S.J., "Chin Yong-Yun Sets The Date,"  in Deadly Anniversaries, edited by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini, Hanover Square Press, 2020.

This is the third appearance here by my friend S.J. Rozan and the second by the formidable Chin Yong-Yun, mother of  Rozan's private eye Lydia Chin, and quite a character herself.  She notices that Chu Cai, the son of a friend, seems unhappy, even though he has just gotten engaged.  She cleverly arranges for him to come to her apartment to tell his problem to Lydia -- who, alas, is not there.  Perhaps, Mrs. Chin says, she can do the groundwork, although she is not quite sure what ground has to do with the detection business...

Simon, Clea, "No Body,"  in Shattering Glass, edited by Heather Graham, Nasty Women Press, 2020. 

Before she even spoke she knew her body was gone. It had been a struggle, losing it. 

At first I thought the protagonist was a ghost, but no, she is a person in trauma experiencing, as some people do in such a situation, the sensation of being outside her own body. In fact, she was drugged and is being raped.  This story is so much about style that I was not expecting the very clever ending.                                                          

Wishnia, Kenneth.  "Bride of Torches,"  in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery magazine, March/April 2020.

My friend Ken Wishnia has  retold a story from the Book of Judges.  He does a lovely job of showing the Hebrews at war with an enemy who has superior technology. Ya'el  commits the crime (?) which is the centerpiece of our story.  The main thing Wishnia adds to the Bible tale is giving her a motive.  In fact, he offers two, one of which feels very modern without being anachronistic.

19 January 2021

The Return of the Prodigal Writer

I figured I should do an update post about why I haven’t been on SleuthSayers for over two months now. I have a lot to say but don’t know where to begin. So I’ll start with:


I guess I’ll begin at the beginning: Towards the end of October, right before Halloween, I was feeling really weird, so fatigued I could barely stand up, as well as other fun symptoms. My wife and personal doctor finally talked me into going to the ER. Long story short, the ER types said I had cancer and if I hadn’t come in when I did I could have been dead by the following weekend. That’ll sober you up. Of course, there might be some out there who like that idea, but hopefully not too many. At least if you want to kill me, kill me in a book not in real life.

So I spent the vast majority of November (and much of December) in the hospital. In and out 3-4 times, but mostly in. Because after the first dose of chemo, which worked well on the cancer but which also sent the rest of my body into the nine circles of Hell. But instead of greed, gluttony and other alliterative layers of Hell, it was more like pain and boredom. And I created my own circle of Hell: anger.

This isn’t my first bout with the Big C. But it’s a much worse experience than last time. My body is rebelling against the treatments. I had to be in the hospital for all kinds of transfusions of blood, platelets, white blood cells, antibiotics, Snickers and more. I was even on dialysis for a while, but luckily my kidney functions have come back.

I’ve been poked and prodded everywhere. It reminds me of this bit from Alice’s Restaurant: “An' I proceeded on down the hall gettin' more injections, inspections, detections, neglections and all kinds of stuff that they as doin' to me at the thing there, and I was there for two hours, three hours, four hours, I was there for a long time going through all kinds of mean nasty ugly things and I was just having a tough time there, and they was inspecting, injecting every single part of me, and they was leaving no part untouched.” Nope, nothin’ untouched or unexamined or undiscovered.


Things seem more on track now. I’ve had 2.5 doses of chemo now (maybe 3.5 by the time you read this—a half because they had to stop the first one mid-track. Unfortunately, for a couple of the remaining chemo sessions, because of the special chemo they’ll be using, I’ll have to be checked back into the hospital so they can keep track of my labs again and make sure things aren’t too out of whack. I’m not looking forward to that. Being in the hospital is horrible on so many fronts. Depressing. Being woken at all hours. Stir crazy. Lousy TV choices. Mostly crappy food, though some was surprisingly good. Horrible, uncomfortable beds and more.

Plus these days it’s filled with Covid patients. And because of so many Covid cases I couldn’t have any visitors.


Hopefully, things are on a better track now. I’m still having reactions to the treatments, but hopefully my body is responding to them.

And most of the nurses and assistants have been terrific with a couple mildly bad exceptions. But one of the Clinical Partners saved my life when I had a seizure because of all the crap they’re doing to me. I owe him big time!

I asked one of the nurses if the medical shows on TV are accurate and she said they have the doctors doing all the stuff that nurses do in reality. I’ll remember that next time I write something set in a hospital (although I probably won’t want to write anything remotely medical for a while…). And I know it’s cliched but these people are truly heroes. 

I’ve been in life and death situations before, not the slow burn of cancer, immediate, no time to think situations. But now, with plenty of time to think, I can think of all the things that can be done, all the opportunities I missed in life, etc. But hopefully the cancer continues to respond to the treatments and things will get better by and by.


You know you’re in trouble when you look forward to hospital food, but at least that says you have an appetite, which is a good thing.

One of the first nights I was there 4 or 5 burly security guys were escorting a guy who had tried to escape back to his room. I didn’t understand why he tried to escape then. I do now.

Hoard mustard and ketchup and other condiments. Often, if you order something that requires a condiment you have to order it separately. Sometimes you get what you asked for, sometimes not. If you order 3 mustard packets you’re lucky to get two. If you get three, but don’t use them all, save them for the next time you need mustard and they shortchange you. 

Be nice to nurses. Self explanatory.


I want to thank Rob and Leigh for stepping in and putting up emergency posts to fill my spots. They were terrific.

So that’s my story, kind of short-handed. But hopefully I’ll mostly be back on SleuthSayers, though medical issues might still cause me to miss a post or two. But it’s good to get back to some semblance of normal. And good to “see” you all!


And now for the usual BSP:

The Blues Don’t Care has been chosen by the terrific and well-respected crime magazine, Suspense, as The Best of 2020 Historical Fiction Novel. I’m grateful to the fans, staff and contributors of Suspense for this terrific honor, which came totally out of the blue. And, besides infusions of platelets, as you can imagine I needed an infusion of good news right now… 

And not only did Blues win a Best of 2020 Award from Suspense Magazine, but Coast to Coast: Noir, the third volume in our Coast to Coast crime stories series that I co-edit with Andrew McAleer, also won a Best of 2020 Award from Suspense Magazine in the Anthology category. So I’m thrilled about both of these awards:
And Blues Don’t Care was also on two other best of/favorites of 2020 lists:

DeathBecomesHer, Crime Fiction Lover: Top Five Books of 2020 


Aubrey Nye Hamilton, Happiness is a Warm BookFavorite Books of 2020

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