27 July 2021

An Appealing Short Story


     Following a conviction in a criminal trial, the defendant has a right to appeal. He or she
argues that errors the judge made during the original trial affected the outcome of the case to such a degree that the defendant should be entitled to a "do-over." The appellate judges do not retry the case, but rather read the court reporter's statement of facts and evaluate the defendant's claims. Appellate courts issue written opinions weighing the merits of those raised issues. 

    A common claim on appeal is the sufficiency of the evidence. The jury, the argument goes, succumbed to the passion of the moment. In a sufficiency challenge, the appellate court is asked to rule that the admitted evidence could not support a finding of guilt by a rational trier of fact. When the claim is raised, appellate courts spell out the facts. They articulate why a sufficiency claim is not supported by the evidence (or conversely why it is). Appellate opinions are often technical. They are organized around the defendant's claims of error and hash out the arguments regarding those claims. The reading is not necessarily dry, but rather it is purposeful. A sufficiency claim lets the reader get involved in the story of the case, to read what the evidence showed to have happened. 

    I came across a local case recently, Andrews v. The State of Texas. The defendant, Mark Andrews, and his wife, Doris, shared a house with another couple, Don and Amy. Andrews and Don had worked together at a local trucking company until Don quit because of health problems. Mark Andrews later left as well. He became a professional gambler. This career choice routinely had him out of the house from 3:00 am until 8:00 am. The Andrews owned three dogs, Diesel, Sparky, and Tanker. Diesel and Sparky slept with Doris. All three dogs barked at strangers. Don and Amy called them burglar alarms. 

    On January 8th, 2016, at 4:30 am, Mark Andrews burst into Don and Amy's bedroom. He screamed for them to get help. While Don called 911, Amy followed Andrews into his bedroom. She saw him beside the bed, screaming Doris's name. Doris was lying on the bed in a blood pool. Andrews asserted that someone was in the house. He searched from room to room. Then he returned and began chest compressions on Doris. Amy recognized immediately that Doris was beyond saving. Centered on a rug in the bedroom, as if on display, she saw a hammer. While her husband stayed on the line with the emergency operator,  Amy observed that the door to a safe concealed in the living room stood open. Andrews, she testified, looked overly dramatic and announced that the safe had been burglarized. 

    When the police arrived, Diesel, Sparky, and Tanker barked wildly and had to be put outside. The police found no sign of a forced entry. Further investigation revealed that Andrews had recently researched funeral costs, had finances in disarray due to gambling losses, and that Doris owned life insurance. The murder weapon, the hammer, belonged to Andrews and was normally stored in a secured shed. The police discovered the shed unlocked and the door showed no evidence of damage. 

    There were other threads of evidence in the case as well. I am skipping over them for our purposes. The jury convicted Andrews of murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment. He appealed. The court of appeals found the evidence sufficient to sustain the conviction, writing that whoever murdered Doris had: 

        -The physical strength to commit the offense (Don did not. Andrews did).

        -Access to the shed to retrieve the hammer without using force (Andrews did). 

        -Not aroused the alarm of Tinker, Diesel or, Sparky (Andrews would meet this criterion). 

    It is this last point I want to focus upon in a blog for crime fiction enthusiasts.  Sherlock Holmes readers will remember "Silver Blaze," from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes deduces that the thief of a famous racehorse was someone well-known to the stable dog. 

        "Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

        "To the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime."

        "The dog did nothing in the nighttime." 

        "That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes. 

    Holmes grasped that the nighttime visitor was someone the dog knew. The government's evidence in the Andrews trial made clear to the jury that Diesel, Sparky, and Tanker had barks that were "high-pitched" and "yippee [sic]." They did not like strangers and had to be put outside to enable the police to conduct their investigation. Yet, on the fateful evening, they sounded no alarm. The prosecutors raised the point, and the appellate judge went so far as to drop a footnote citing Sherlock Holmes.

    I worked with the prosecutor who handled the case. I called Kevin and asked him if he knew about the Arthur Conan Doyle story. He did not, but he will. We concluded our conversation by finding a PDF of "Silver Blaze" online. 

    After I hung up, I thought about all of this. As mystery fans, we have the best of both worlds on display. Seasoned trial attorneys independently found significance in the same absence of facts as Sherlock Holmes. The contemporary example of life imitating art should make the story continue to feel real and viable. Conversely, the appellate judge knew about "Silver Blaze." He recognized the parallel between the case he was deliberating upon and this hallmark of the literary canon. He purposely incorporated Arthur Conan Doyle's story into his opinion and in so doing, gave names to the anonymous stable dog: Tanker, Diesel, and Sparky. 

    Is it over the top to say that Doris got some justice because of the "dogged" work of the police and prosecution? I think it probably is. 

    Until next time.  



26 July 2021

The Impeccable Poirot


I've been treating myself to a leisurely nostalgia trip through the Art Deco settings of the early seasons of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot on Britbox. David Suchet is the embodiment of the dapper little detective with his perfectly waxed mustache, spotless spats, and compassion for the emotions of others, even though for himself he prefers to rely on the "little gray cells" of his exceptional brain.

The fact that Poirot never changes makes him tiresome to some readers. Christie herself hinted she eventually found him tedious by giving her fictional alter ego, Mrs Ariadne Oliver, similar feelings toward her own protagonist. And Poirot on the page is a flat, even cartoonish character, especially compared to the fully realized characters we write and read about today. But as Suchet inhabits this character, he brings the finicky, precise, keen-witted little Belgian to life. An émigré and an outsider in English society, sometimes lionized and sometimes dismissed, he is sensitive to slights but manages to keep his temper, his sense of humor, and a sense of irony. And in the end, he solves the case without fear or favor.

Like most mystery writers who've been dabbling in deceit and death for a while, I can usually spot a few more tricks of the crime fiction trade than I'm supposed to, whether they show up in a novel, a short story, a movie, or a TV show. Furthermore, binge watching the series is giving me a further advantage, in that neither the prolific Dame Agatha nor the producers (ITV et al), with their ambitious goal of filming the entire Poirot canon, could help repeating some of their techniques.

We know the sweet damsel in distress whom Poirot unmasks at the end as the contemptuous murderess...the disregarded maidservant...the pair who detest each other most convincingly yet turn out to be lovers in cahoots...the victim who comes back to life. We've seen them before, these most unlikely villains, as we have the cluster of murders to conceal the motive for a single death. We may even have used them ourselves.

What we mustn't forget is that these classic devices—the least likely suspect, the unreliable narrator—are familiar to us because Agatha Christie thought of them first and sprang them on a vast audience who were as truly baffled as the witnesses and suspects Poirot gathers together for the revelatory dénouement of each episode.

Fashions in crime fiction have changed. Readers no longer care about the clock set forward or back, the scrap of fabric caught in a latch, the second spoon in the saucer of a coffee cup. But in the Poirot TV series, these details still give us pleasure, because they form part of the vanished world of "society" between the two World Wars when details of dress, manners, and decor still mattered to a lot of people. Such details become clues that help Poirot solve the crime at hand.

In Suchet's interpretation, Poirot is not merely observant. He has a touch of OCD, constantly straightening table settings laid awry or ornaments on a mantelpiece. I particularly loved the moment when he realized the missing will, or was it a compromising letter, had been torn up into "spills," twisted strips of paper meant for lighting the fire, in a jar on the mantel. They caught his eye because the other objects on the mantel were out of order—and he had straightened them the day before.

25 July 2021

One Movie at a Time


2020 was a long dreary year, but partway through 2021 the future started looking brighter as more people got vaccinated and stores, restaurants and various events began to open up. And then, the D mutation flexed its muscle and put question marks on how bad the future could become.

In our little cul-de-sac of nine houses, the majority of homeowners had a hello and wave relationship with their neighbors. During the eighteen years we had lived in this small community, there had not been a single organized get-together for all the neighbors to get to know each other. It was a friendly place… up to a point, but very few of the neighbors socialized with each other. Then one evening, one of our next door neighbors and his spouse proposed an idea they had. Seems the neighbor had a DVD projector, a folding table to put it on and a movie screen he'd made out of an old white sheet.

As a trial run, he hung the sheet from his pergola in his back yard and set up his projector on the table. We brought over two sets of Bose speakers from our old sound system and we set up some canvas camping chairs on their back lawn. The next door neighbors on the other side of our house were also invited to attend the trial run.

The movie selected was Trouble with the Curve, starring Clint Eastwood as an aging baseball scout who had a rocky relationship with his ambitious lawyer daughter. Everything worked well that night, so now it was time to expand to a larger audience, but we needed a bigger venue than his backyard.

The neighbor with the initial idea made up a handbill invitation to a free movie and ice cream social night. That same neighbor and us would would supply the ice cream, bowls and spoons. Everybody else would bring their favorite ice cream topping to share.

A few days before the event, I went around the cul-de-sac ringing doorbells and handing out handbill invitations. At the time, we didn't know if the audience would be the same seven who attended the trial run or a potential high of twelve in attendance. Since the number of attendees was an unknown factor, our driveway, which had the least slope to it, was elected as the bigger venue for this showing.


The movie screen/white sheet was hung with plastic hooks from the rain gutters over our garage door, while the projector and table were located about halfway down our driveway. The ice cream table was set up off to one side on the sidewalk. Everyone brought their own chairs and found places to put them where they would have a good view of the movie. Tiki torches filled with mosquito repellant were set up off to the side in order to ward off any unwanted pests.

Amazingly, there were eighteen in attendance for ice cream and the movie. Because we didn't know how well this project would be received, we had only allowed a half hour between ice cream social before the movie was scheduled to run. But, when the ice cream half hour was up, the attendees were still engaged in on-going conversation with the neighbors they had lived side-by-side with for years with only a wave and a hello. Of course, ice cream time got extended. Finally, I had to instruct everyone to pick up some popcorn which my wife had bagged up and then to take their seats, the movie was about to start. Otherwise, we may not have wound up this party until well after midnight.

For this movie, we showed Second Hand Lions with Robert Duvall and Michael Caine. Another hit. Afterwards, surprisingly enough, everyone stuck around to take down the screen and carry all the equipment and tables back to the original owner's house and/or backyard.

There's nothing like success. For our next event, we may expand the social time by making it a covered dish supper with each family bringing something for the table. This way, they can talk with their neighbors for a longer period of time.

The question now is which movie to show. It needs to be a family friendly one, kids may attend, yet be appealing to a wide audience. Any ideas?

We're just coming together, one movie at a time.

24 July 2021

Feast or Famine


 

 Years ago on a writer web site, I wrote about doing a screenplay as a writing exercise. "What's the worst that could happen?" I said. "Someone buys it?"

A few writers who did shop screenplays piled on to tell their horror stories, but I think they missed my point. I had no interest in selling it. I just wanted to see if I could do it.

So, before the pandemic, I submitted Holland Bay to Down and Out. I did not expect an immediate response. My policy with a manuscript once the publisher asks for it is to forget it exists. I work two jobs, care for an ailing wife, and labor under the delusion I'm the next Robert Heinlein (minus the ideological pretensions.) So, in the interim, a fellow SF writer told me, "Hey, your stuff's a good fit for my publisher, but they want a long list of material because they release fast. Can you spin up an arc?" As I worked up a good rant about how busy I was and how I needed to finish my original trilogy, I went into the restroom at work before telling him off, and came back to say, I had an idea for a nine-story arc.

Um... Yeah. But I didn't expect it to overwhelm me, especially since I had nothing scheduled beyond the trilogy I was wrapping up. And come pandemic time, I discovered I can dictate. So dictate I did. But the publisher passed on all that work. Meanwhile, Down & Out pulled the trigger. No problem. I can work on revisions and publicity while I shopped this monstrosity around.

Well... No. CHBB not only took it, they work faster than Down and Out. So now I've got a scifi novel coming out next month and will have to go through final edits between now and then. Meanwhile, copy edits came back on Holland Bay. Somewhere in there, I'm taking a long-planned vacation to New England.

From the be careful what you ask for department...




23 July 2021

The Incredible Brain of a Mystery Writer


 Mike (Emergency Contact sitting in the Swedish recliner opposite me, reading my latest manuscript) said something today that really got me thinking:

"I am absolutely amazed by your mind.  How you create all these characters, make them all different, and keep them straight is beyond me."

So - being Author person first in the list of my personas, I said the obvious thing all writers would say given the circumstance: "But the thing is, YOU can keep them straight when reading that manuscript, right?"

"Oh sure," he said, to my relief.  "I'm just wowed by your imagination."



I think what he really meant was memory.  And I have to admit, I've been thinking about that a lot lately.

Writing a mystery is hard work.  I don't want to say it is harder work than most of the genres - I've written in most of the genres and each has its challenges.  But writing a mystery has specific requirements that make me wonder how long I will be able to measure up.

In fact, it requires an incredible memory.

In mystery writing, you need a large cast of characters.  

First off, you need a victim.  Check.  Probably two.  And if you're writing a Brit Mystery a la Midsommer, you probably need three.  (Emergency Contact and I joke about who will be the third person murdered in each episode of Midsommer, Brokenwood, Death in Paradise, etc etc).  This victim (or three) must be a fully drawn character.  He must have a past.  There must be a *reason* he is a victim in the first place, and that means drilling down to a life before the murder.

But we said there could be three victims.  Three characters.  Check.

We talk often about the need for five good suspects - three at the very least.  I personally try for three darn good suspects with lots of supporting material, and a couple more perhaps less drawn out.  

So five good suspects, all with believable motivation.  All with *different* motivation on why they would be the killer and take a whack at the victim for gain.  

That's eight characters so far, check.

You need a protagonist, almost always the sleuth.  And a sidekick for the sleuth.  Maybe even a love interest for the sleuth, who could be a local cop.  Three more characters.

That's eleven.

Probably there will be more than one named cop. A constable to search the grounds. Probably there will be a secondary character or two, to run the Inn, serve at the table. You know the drill.

So that's at least twelve unique characters, all with individual motivation, and personalities.  All looking different, with different histories.  All in selected places at the important times for the sleuth to keep track.

Not only the sleuth.  You - the author - has to keep it all straight.

Writing a mystery is an incredible feat of memory.  We intertwine the lives of more than a dozen people, and work them around the novel like so many pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.  I don't know any other kind of writing that requires such complex thinking and as I start my second book in the latest series (The Merry Widow Murders) I am truly shaking in my go-go boots.  Will I be up to it once more?  Will the task of keeping everything straight, creating a dynamic, exciting plot that MAKES SENSE but isn't easily solved, be once more in my grasp?

It's daunting.  And I haven't even talked about the fact that I've already used up eighty plots.  But just keeping the whole thing in motion in my mind is something I know won't be possible forever.

This year, I think I can do it.  The plot I have outlined excites me, and my agent is keen.  Next year?  Meet you back on these pages next summer for a recap.

Melodie Campbell always has a mob angle in her novels, and usually they can't shoot straight.  "Impossible not to laugh" says Library Journal about THE GODDAUGHTER.  "The Canadian Literary Heir to Donald Westlake" says Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.  The Goddaughter series and The B-Team sold in all the usual suspects.

22 July 2021

Balance: the Key to Keeping Burnout at Bay!


Fact #1: Like many other artists (musicians, scupltors, painters, actors, etc.), most writers can't subsist on what they make by writing alone.

Fact #2: Like so many other artists, most writers have either a side hustle or a full-on day gig (or both) to make ends meet.

Fact #3: Juggling the writing career and the side hustle can be draining.

Fact #4: Sometimes the day gig/side hustle can take so much from you that you've got nothing left for the writing.

Fact #5: The above four facts are a pretty good thumbnail of my COVID Year-From-Hell.

Amazingly enough, this is NOT a recent selfie.

Those of you who follow my rotation in this blog (BOTH of you! *RIMSHOT*) know that my day gig is (and has been for decades) teaching history. And I love my day job.

That said: "COVID."

Let me repeat for emphasis: "COVID."

I'm not here to gripe about my COVID experiences. Other teachers elsewhere have done a great job laying out the challenges teachers across this country faced during the past fifteen-to-sixteen months. You can read some of their stories here.

Instead, I'm here to talk about the resulting burnout, and its impact on my writing. And also about what I did to counter the effects of said burnout.

Truth is, in this case, it was a simple choice. Allow me to illustrate with a visual aid:

Just in case you needed directions.

And yes, it really is all about "Balance." 

Not THIS kind of "balance." (Crappy album, by the way. Avoid it if possible.)

So what did I do? How did I achieve this "balance"? Well, it wasn't easy. Basically, I had a four-step process:

FIRST: Commit to whatever is right in front of you.

When I was in college, I had a terrific professor. Really engaging lecturer, tons of charisma. He also happened to be assigned as my academic advisor. And in between funny stories about his time as both an undergraduate and a graduate student at a prestigious university that shall remain nameless, he gave me a single piece of advice.

"I found this great job working as a night-time security guard. I was manning a desk all night and it gave me so much time to study while getting paid."

Now, I worked a lot different jobs in college, including several that were part of the campus "work-study" program. At exactly NONE of them did I get a single opportunity to crack a book and catch up on my homework. I know there are jobs out there like this (and I believe my advisor was telling the truth about his own experience), but it has never been my experience that you can do one thing well stealing time from something else you're obligated to succeed at.

So what I'm saying is: "Lean IN." Give it your all. Leave everything you've got at whatever you're working on, on THAT particular playing field.

In a conversation with my agent the other day, she told me how she's more swamped than ever, because so many people, while cooped up during COVID, have been writing books. That doesn't surprise me.

But the day job I work isn't the type to which I would feel good about phoning in the work. It's just not a job you can do well if you're half-assing it. On top of my day gig, I have a mortgage and a marriage and a child.

So how much writing was I going to get done during COVID? I published this, and I'm pretty proud of it:


In fact, I used COVID to finish up several project I'd left in various stages of completion during the previous couple of years. I've also written and placed three short stories (so far) this year (2020-2021). Three stories, three different anthologies. Publication dates forthcoming.

And yeah, I know, three short stories in a year might sound like light output, but a couple of things:

1. I write VERY slowly.
2. If I write it, it sells, it gets published and I get paid.*

(*with the exception of my first "mistake" novel, and a few early dry runs of short stories that have really not progressed much past the "rough sketch" stage.)

How did I manage this? Simple: when I was at work, I worked. When I was playing with my son, I played with my son. When I was spending time with my wife, I spent time with my wife.

And when I wrote, I wasn't worrying about my day gig. Or my mortgage, or my family. Because, by leaning in and taking care of business on each of these fronts, I was able to clear my mind and better focus/be way more productive than I had any right to be.

Second: Find a way other than writing to keep your subconscious working on your writing.

I keep a writing journal in which I write about my creative process, into which I transcribe story ideas, snatches of dialogue or narrative as they come to me, and I make a point of writing in it three to five times per week, writing day or not.

Find your thing that helps you continue to churn. Keeping out heads in the pensieve (I know, I know, Harry Potter reference) is part of makes us successful.

Third: Be kind to yourself.

This is a tough one. It means not kicking your own ass if you don't write for a day, or a week, or a month, or even a year. There were several months while trying to teach during COVID that I was so stretch so thin and so stressed and so gassed, that I was lucky to journal a couple of times per week.

Whoever said, "Life is what happens when you're making other plans," boy, did they have that right. Beating yourself up about not writing just takes time and energy away from where it is better spent: getting your butt into that chair and getting to work. Work now. Recriminations on the way up the aisle to accept that Lifetime Achievement award.

This one is essential to combat the burnout that is an inevitable portion of most of our professional lives during the Time of COVID. You want to finish that novel? You're not gonna get it done kvetching at yourself about it. In fact, your work is likely to suffer all the more if you're playing these sorts of mind games with yourself.

Or better yet, don't!

Fourth: Build in transitions!

With the challenging day-gig year that I just wrapped up on June 25th (you read that right, June 25th!), I'll admit that I ended the school year pretty danged fried.

Which was why I cut a deal with myself: I didn't even think about writing until I'd had two weeks' distance from the end of the school year. 

I did other things: read. Organized my stuff at home. Played with my family. Slept. A LOT.

Transition time helps the brain reset itself. I've never regretted down time in my writing schedule. My work is always the better for it.

And that's it. My four step process for coping with, and transcending, burnout. What's yours? Let's hear from you in the comments!

Now that's more like it!


See you in two weeks!


21 July 2021

Weird Doings in the Manor House



I just read (well, technically listened to an audiobook version) of a novel that might quite a lot of noise when it came out in 2018.  It doesn't appear to have been mentioned at SleuthSayers and it's worth a bit of chat.

The book is Stuart Turton's The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.  (The 1/2 was added to the title in the U.S. and I think it's an improvement.)  I can describe it so it sounds like a typical Golden Age manor house mystery, but it is miles from that.

The story takes place  between the wars at Blackheath, a decrepid country estate.  There is a party going on, heaps of guilty secrets, and a threat that the daughter of the family, Evelyn Hardcastle, is about to be murdered.  Our hero hopes to prevent the killing, or, at least to solve it.

Sounds like pretty standard stuff, but don't be fooled.

On the first page our hero wakes up in the forest screaming a woman's name (not Evelyn's).  He has no idea who he is, where he is, or what is going on.  He eventually finds his way to the manor house and attempts to piece things together.  But this is far from an ordinary case of amnesia.

Remember the movie Groundhog Day?  Every morning Bill Murray wakes up on February 2nd.  Now imagine that every time that happens Bill is in the body of a different cast member.

That is our hero's fate.  Every time he falls asleep (or is knocked unconscious , or even killed!) he wakes up in the body of a different "host." But his mission remains the same: discover who will murder Evelyn Hardcastle that night.  Only then can he leave Blackheath.  Complicating things: he has two rivals, also trying to solve the mystery.  And only one of them can escape the trap...

If that sounds complicated, trust me, you don't know the half of it.  I would give a shiny new dime for a glimpse of the charts Turton must have used to keep track of what all the various characters are doing when and where.

But the cleverest part, as far as I am concerned, is this: Each of the host bodies our hero occupies has a personality of its own, and as each new event unfolds he struggles to determine if the reaction he is feeling is his (whoever he really is) or that of his host.

Clearly there are non-natural events going on here (though it turns out to not be as woo-woo as you might expect).  But there is also a genuine mystery with a non-mystical solution to be puzzled through.

Preparing to write this piece I discovered that Netflix plans to make a TV version.  I wish them luck. I don't know how they can make it all explicable to a casual viewer.

And writing about this book reminded me of another manor house mystery I read years ago: Farthing by Jo Walton (2013).  This book takes place in 1949 - admittedly a little late for a Golden Age style novel - but it has the classic elements: a manor house, a family and guests stuffed with secrets, and a killing  of a prominent figure.


So why does Walton remind me of Turton?  Well, the murder victim is the diplomat who, in 1941,  brokered the peace treaty between Great Britain and Nazi Germany, allowing Hitler to control everything on his side of the English Channel.  In other words, this book is alternative history.

Your first reaction may be the same as mine: Hitler might have signed such a treaty but there is no way he would have honored it for eight years.  But Walton can explain that: Germany is still fighting the Soviet Union and has no appetite for a second front.

Like the best alternative history, Walton's book tries to think through the consequences and repercussions.  For example: I was surprised by who winds up being U.S. president, but it makes sense.

There are two more books in the series (ironically titled the Small Change trilogy) and I look forward to reading them.

Until next time, stay out of creepy old houses.

 

20 July 2021

Over and Over and Over Again


In “Bad Contracts” three weeks ago, I wrote about selling all rights to several of my stories. Luckily, I’ve not sold all rights to all of my stories.

Retaining rights has allowed me to license reprints and other subsidiary rights—either by actively seeking them or by having editors contact me—and the extra money and extra publications have always been welcome.

Additionally, by retaining rights, I’ve been able to release the audiobook collection Even Roses Bleed (Books in Motion, 1995) and four short-story collections—Bad Girls (Wildside Press, 2000), Tequila Sunrise (Wildside Press, 2000), Canvas Bleeding (Wildside Press, 2002), and Yesterday in Blood and Bone (Wildside Press, 2005)—each of which contains one or more reprints.

So, what opportunities have I had?

MOST-OFTEN REPRINTED STORY

My most-oft reprinted short story, “The Great Little Train Robbery,” originally appeared in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine (June 1985), was reprinted in Detective Mystery Stories (September 2002), in Sniplits (April 2008), and, as “The Great Train Robbery,” in Kings River Life (August 19, 2017).

MOST PRESTIGOUS REPRINTS

“Smoked,” first published in Noir at the Salad Bar: Culinary Tales with a Bite (Level Best Books, 2017), was selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2018 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018), and “Feel the Pain,” first published in Flesh and Blood: Guilty as Sin (Mysterious Press, 2003), was selected for inclusion in The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica (Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2005).

MOST CONVOLUTED PUBLISHING HISTORY

“Of Memories Dying,” first published in Midnight (Tor Books, 1985), has the most convoluted publishing history. After it first appeared, an agent told me it would make a great opening chapter for a horror novel, and I began working with it.

Though I was unable to turn it into a novel, I did turn it into a novella. “In the Town of Memories Dying and Dreams Unknown” was included in my audiobook collection Even Roses Bleed (Books in Motion, 1995).

In 2000, retitled as In the Town of Dreams Unborn and Memories Dying, Barley Books released it in England as a small-sized gift book.

In 2002, the original story was included in Canvas Bleeding (Wildside Press, 2002), a collection of my horror stories.

I later wrote “Dreams Unborn,” a non-horror novella prequel published in Small Crimes (Betancourt & Co., 2004), and “Dreams Unborn” was named an Other Distinguished Story in The Best American Mystery Stories 2005.

And the original story—“Of Memories Dying”—was recently reprinted in Horror for the Throne: One-Sitting Reads (Fantastic Books, 2021).

TRANSLATIONS AND OTHER RIGHTS

In addition to straight-forward reprints, I’ve also licensed audio rights to several stories, I’ve licensed foreign-language rights—Chinese, German, Italian—to another handful, and I once negotiated, but ultimately didn’t license, film rights to one.

TAKEAWAY

I’ve listed several of my reprint and subsidiary rights placements, but the point isn’t that I’ve had these opportunities. The point is that all writers who retain rights to their work can license reprint and subsidiary rights over and over and over again.

But whether we actively seek them out or whether the opportunities find us, we must own the rights to our work in order to take advantage of these opportunities.


“Sonny’s Encore” appears in Black Cat Mystery Magazine #9and my private eye story Disposable Women was published yesterday at Tough.

As the editor of Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, vol. 1I’m quite pleased to note that Alan Orloff received a Thriller Award for his story “Rent Due” and Andrew Welsh-Huggins was nominated for a Thriller for his story “The Mailman.”

19 July 2021

The Changing Landscape


Fifteen years ago, I could send my stories to about thirty potential markets. A few were literary, some were supernatural or sci-fi, a couple were romance. Most of my work was crime/mystery, but I had those other options.

Many of those markets are gone now. The landscape changes more quickly than we can keep track of it, especially since the pandemic, but keep track of it we must.

I currently have at least one submission at each of the mystery markets that still takes stories year-round. I have stories ready to send to the markets that open sporadically, too. I used to write a novel and three or four short stories a year, but, in the last year, I have produced twenty-three short stories and no new ideas for a novel. The changing market is a factor, and I've started paying attention to the territory more than the map.

Fifteen years ago, if I got an idea for a short story--which didn't happen often--I wrote it and looked for a place to send it because there were so many potential markets. Now, I look at the markets and submission calls first and use those submission calls as writing prompts.

Yes, I'm looking for novella markets, too, even though I only write one novella a year, and that's for a contest I have won twice. Are there more anthologies now, or am I simply paying more attention?

In the last year, I have sold twelve stories, five still due to be published. Ten of those twelve sales are to anthologies.

Anthologies often have a specific theme, the idea that I use as a prompt. Last year, one story appeared in Heartbreaks and Half-Truths, about love gone bad.

Another was in Mickey Finn: 21st-Century Noir. A third ws in The Killer Wore Cranberry, a collection of humorous murder stories involving Thanksgiving. There is at least one Christmas anthology looking for material, and one of my unsold stories was rejected by another holiday collection.

I've always been able to write fairly quickly to a prompt. It's no different from the years of essay tests in high school and college, expecially grad school.

But there's another reason I'm paying more attention to anthologies now, too. Time for a brief history lesson.

When the Mystery Writers of America added short stories as an Edgar Award category in 1951, the award went to the best collection of short stories for the year. In 1955, an individual story won for the first time, Stanley Ellin's "The House Party," which appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

Before the mid-1970s, "mainstream" magazines often printed the Edgar-winner. The Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, The New Yorker, and McCall's all featured a winning story, some of them several times. So did Argosy, Esquire, and Story. Between 1976 and 1998, Playboy published four of the Award-winners, three of them written by Lawrence Block.

After about 1975, the winners seldom appeared in mainstream publications and tended to show up in magazines that catered to the mystery reader. Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine printed the earliest individual story to win, and has published 21 winners since then. Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine has published three.

The terrain took another shift at the turn of the century. Since 2000, Ellery Queen has published three Edgar winners, but all the others come from an anthology or a collection of stories by one author (Laurie Lynn Drummond in 2005 and Stephen King in 2016). For mystery writers, this is both good news and bad news.

It's bad news because anthologies usually don't pay much. Generally, the author gets a royalty share divided by the number of writers in the collection. Last year, I made $3.08 from one anthology. Most anthologies don't sell many copies, either, so when you divvy up the take, there's not much to go around.

One glaring exception is the Mystery Writers of America anthology Vengeance, published in 2012. I received a roylty check last December, and that story– nominated for an Edgar but losing to Karin Slaughter's story in the same collection– has made me more money than all except two other stories, and they both won contests. My story appeared between the covers with stories by Alafair Burke, Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, Karin Slaughter, and other big names. It's the best exposure I've had since Border's Books went under. The local store displayed mysteries alphabetically, so my novels were on the same shelf with Dennis Lehane, Elmore Leonard, and Laura Lippman. Man, I miss that store…

Exposure matters. Yeah, it's hard to pay the bills with exposure, but it beats being a complete unknown.

Some new anthology calls lean toward my music background. Over the last couple of years, we've ssen books of stories inspired by the songs of Joni Mitchell, Billy Joel, Steely Dan, the Ramones, or hits from the 1960s. There are more music-themed collections taking submissions as I post this. Now maybe I can write off all those records I've bought as a business expense.

Yes, you have to hear abut the submission call somehow. Maybe you're in a writing group (Short Mystery Fiction Society, for example. Rob Lopresti is the reigning President) that passes the word along. Maybe you're Facebook friends with someone or on a blog site.

The MWAS anthologies have produced the Edgar-winning story four times since 2002. But you have to be an active member of the group to submit a story. The Akashic NAME YOUR CITY Noir series, now numbering several dozen books, is by invitation only. This may be true of many others, too.

But as anthologies proliferate, they give me more writing prompts. Not only are ten of my last twelve sales to anthologies (including next year's MWA collection, Crime Hits Home, edited by SJ Rozan), but I have sent five other stories to submission calls. And I'm working on two others.

18 July 2021

Spycraft, Old School


Zoo Station

Usually SleuthSayers learn spycraft from the invisible-ink pen of David Edgerley Gates. A month ago, Janice Law slipped past the yet-to-be-built Berlin Wall to recall David Downing. I depend heavily on my SleuthSayers colleagues for reading material, and I ordered up Zoo Station.

The tale has a much older ‘golden age’ feel of the 1960s and I had to double-check the copyright of the first in the series, 2007. The initial half of the book is slow paced but it builds tension out of proportion to pages turned. I wondered how the author accomplished that, and I’m not the only one. One critic’s comment on the back cover says, “Downing has shown that he can produce that creepy sense of paranoia along with the best of them.”

Furthermore, the book contains a feature I’ve rarely encountered outside a school textbook, a ‘Reading Group Guide’. Question 9 reads: “Given the relative lack of overt violence, how does Downing create the novel’s sense of menace?”

Yeah. How did he do that?

I have a few notions, but other readers will surely come up with better insights. Mostly I credit the immersive nature of the story where the author puts us in the scene with the perfect serving of detail.

The story’s set as the 1930s draw to a close. Perceptive people smell war on the horizon, but live in hope it doesn’t come. Kristallnacht has left its mark. Kindertransport is under way. Jews aren’t permitted to work, travel, or dine in restaurants. While the word ‘ghetto’ hasn’t yet arisen, Jewry are evermore isolated in restricted parts of cities.

The author has allowed history to do much of the heavy lifting. Much of life seems normal, ordinary, but it won’t remain so. We know the horrors that are coming; we want to warn the innocent, tell them to flee for their lives.

Whereas trains and train stations appear in backdrops and settings, mentions of government buildings feel eerily ominous. Downing mentions 15-foot high doors, evoking the architecture envisioned by Albert Speer.

No worthy espionage story would be complete without Soviet spies. One Russian spymaster isn’t so bad, but woe be he who crosses the path of Stalinist spymistress Irina Borskaya. She eats her young.

The novel’s protagonist, British journalist John Russell, advances through a character arc from somnambulance to getting his rear into gear, helping to get the word out while saving a life or two. His actress girlfriend suggests a hint of Cabaret, but with far more gravitas than Sally Bowles.

A minor note jarred me. Russell is virtually broke when we first meet him. He lives simply, but he drinks goldwasser. It seems a pretension more in line with 007 than our impecunious reporter. I excused the gold-flecked drink on the grounds it was a product of Gdańsk (Danzig), but the affectation seemed peculiar.

Along the line, our hero obtains a ten-year-old motorcar, a Hanomag. I thought myself reasonably familiar with cars of bygone eras, and those of the late 1920s are the peak of design– the Mercedes SSK, the Cord, the Packard, the Dusenberg, the Bugatti, and the gorgeous Auburn.

1928 Hanomag
1928 Hanomag © Bonhams Auction

I hadn’t heard of Hanomag. I had to stop to look it up. It turned out to be one of the homeliest automobiles ever made. Easiest way to tell the front from the back is to look for the single, motorcycle-style headlight, on the left in this photo. Oh well, our hero’s Hanomag ran most of the time and many folks had no cars at all.

As Janice suggests, Zoo Station reads as old style spycraft with luggage storage and postal drops, suitcases with false bottoms, and shadowy men who make others disappear. Downing’s novels aren’t nearly as gloomy as those of, say, John Le Carré.

When you’re bored with the current digital library on your Kindle or Kobo, stop in a musty used book store and pick up a dog-eared copy of Zoo Station. Go old school.

17 July 2021

Voices from the Past


  

Years ago, back when you could watch network TV without endangering your brain cells, there was a series of United Airlines commercials I especially remember. One of the two reasons they made an impression was their background music, Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," which I love, and the other was the voice of the always-unseen narrator. The first time I saw one of them and heard it I knew that voice was familiar--but after repeated viewings I still couldn't figure out whose it was. (No Google or Alexa around in those days.) Finally it came to me. See if you recognize the voice--it starts at about the halfway point in this one-minute commercial from the late '80s.

For some reason I thought about that the other day, and it triggered other memories of overhearing movie or TV dialogue from another room and thinking, I know that voice. Part of that's probably due to the fact that I watch so many movies, but part of it's also because certain voices are just unique--so recognizable that hearing them for only a few seconds can tell you who's speaking.

That got personal a few months ago, when I'd plugged in a Netflix DVD of the James Franco film As I Lay Dying and walked into the kitchen in the middle of the movie to get a snack. As I was heaping ice cream into a bowl I heard a voice so surprising it made me stop in mid-scoop. I hurried back to the TV to see that one of the actors was an old friend from my IBM days named Jim Ritchie--we worked together for years--and who has a voice unlike any other in the world. (Jim also played Matthew McConaughey's father-in-law in A Time to Kill many years ago, but I hadn't realized he had a part in this movie as well.) I later played that scene for my wife after telling her not to look at the screen, and when she heard it she too gasped and said, "Is that Jim Ritchie?" If you want to hear Jim's voice for yourself, here's one of his recent videos.

We as writers understand that physical voices aren't as important to our work as they are in some of the performing arts, unless maybe we're doing a reading or an interview or a podcast. What we produce (thank goodness) is usually intended to be read, not heard. But in the TV or movie business, a distinctive voice is an asset. I can think of several actors like Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, Tommy Lee Jones, Rosie O'Donnell, Gary Cooper, Slim Pickens, Ben Johnson, Kathleen Turner, Alan Rickman, and others, whose voices also tend to fit in with the characters they play. And some--Bernadette Peters, L.Q. Jones, Fran Drescher, Strother Martin, Steve Landesberg, Jennifer Tilly, Lorraine Bracco, R. Lee Ermey, Holly Hunter, G.D. Spradlin, etc.--whose voices are certainly unique but maybe not immediately familiar to the general public.  

You know, of course, where all this is leading. It's leading to a question.

In your opinion, who are the actors and actresses with the most recognizable voices?

 

My picks:


Katherine Hepburn

Lee Marvin

James Earl Jones

Lauren Bacall

Jack Nicholson

Henry Fonda

Steve Buscemi

Cary Grant

John Wayne

Kirk Douglas

Suzanne Pleshette

Humphrey Bogart

Morgan Freeman

Michael Caine

Samuel L. Jackson

Christopher Walken

Audrey Hepburn

Jimmy Stewart

Jeff Goldblum

Al Pacino

Burt Lancaster

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Sam Elliott

Rosanne Barr

Sean Connery


I think I could identify any of those people after ten seconds of listening to them speak.

As you can see from my honest but unscientific list, a voice doesn't necessarily have to be pleasant to be distinctive or easy to recognize. So my second question is, Which actors'/actresses' voices do you LIKE the most?


 My top-twenty choices of voices:


Morgan Freeman

Billy Bob Thornton

Judi Dench

Katherine Ross

J. K. Simmons

James Earl Jones

Patrick Stewart

Jane Seymour

Dennis Haysbert

Emma Thompson

Gerald McRaney

Sam Elliott

Melanie Griffith

Diana Rigg

Ben Johnson

Lee Marvin

Kim Dickens

Barbara Bel Geddes

Powers Boothe

Gregory Peck


Why do I enjoy hearing these folks' voices? I'm not sure. If I had to give reasons, I guess some of them--Freeman, Thornton, McRaney, Dickens--bring back good memories of my southern childhood, and some are soothing and relaxing, and some have a foreign accent that I like . . . and some are just interesting. I think my all-time favorite voice is that of Lee Marvin.

  

A closing note: I always found it fascinating that the voices of brothers James Arness (Gunsmoke) and Peter Graves (Mission: Impossible) sounded exactly alike. If you're not old enough to remember those guys, take my word for it.

 

Here's another video I saw on YouTube the other night, on this familiar-voice subject. It's part of an episode of the updated game show To Tell The Truth (one of those many remakes that are sometimes fun and sometimes irritating).

 

And FYI: If you didn't recognize his voice, the narrator in the aforementioned United Airlines commercial was Gene Hackman.


See you in two weeks.



16 July 2021

A Sherlock Holmes Canon for Kids


In the summer before the pandemic, my wife and I went to a local minor league game with another couple and their three kids. When the youngest daughter, who was barely ten back then, announced she wanted to sit near good ol’ Joe, I thought nothing of it. Like Archie Goodwin, I am convinced that dogs and children find me irresistible. It wasn’t long before she spotted me paging through an ebook on my device.

“What are you reading?

“A book.”

“What kind of book?”

“Uh, it’s a Sherlock Holmes story.”

“Really? Is it a mystery?”

“Well, yeah—they’re all mysteries.”

“What’s the story? Can you tell me? Because, you see…” she said, her voice rising, “I like MURDER!”

One of the guys sitting in front of us—a total bro in sunglasses, Croakies, and a 20-ounce microbrew sloshing away in a flimsy paper cup—whirled around. “I don’t know what’s going on here, but this conversation suddenly got very interesting!”

Which was a hoot.

Except I didn’t quite know how to quickly summarize the plot of the Holmes tale I was reading in language suitable for a child. Especially someone else’s child. If the tale had been the Red-Headed League, for example, I might have focused my description on the strangeness of hiring gingers to copy the encyclopedia. Or, if it was the story of Silver Blaze, I would have treated her to Holmes’s deductions regarding the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.

But this story, the Crooked Man, if I remember correctly, was a little too adult. Sexual jealousy and spousal manipulation is not something you want to delve into with a kid unless you’ve got parental consent forms filled out in triplicate. I was not going there. Instead, my little friend and I talked about about Holmes and Watson and sweet, sweet murder in the abstract.

Many of us grew up reading those stories. I loved them, but I also remember that many of them went over my head because I didn’t have the maturity to understand what these grown-ups were yammering on about. When you couple that with archaic language, mores, customs and behaviors, it’s not hard to see that the best Holmes for kids may well be cherry-picked Holmes.

Since I’m not going to be able to do that for everyone’s kid, I’ve compiled the following list of children’s book series that I think would make good introductions to the Canon. Understand: I don’t propose these as a substitute for Canonical Holmes. Rather, I see them as a bridge to Holmes.

I recently read the first books of all the series I mention here. Incredibly, all of them are/were written by American authors. 

Two caveats: 
* The recommended age ranges are the suggestions of the publishers, not me. The child you have in mind may read at a higher or lower level. 

* If you’re buying for birthday or holidays, keep in mind that many of these books are available in boxed sets. It might be smarter to splurge on the set.


The Great Shelby Holmes by Elizabeth Eulberg (The Great Shelby Holmes Series, Bloomsbury, $7.99).

John Watson is an 11-year-old Black kid who has just moved with his mom to New York City for the first time, after years of growing up on US Army posts. John, a budding writer, is starved for friends in his new city. (John’s parents are divorced, and his dad is bad about calling or visiting.) Their landlady Mrs. Hudson introduces John to the strange 9-year-old girl who lives across the hall of their Harlem apartment building, in apartment 221B. 

Within seconds of meeting the Watsons, this girl deduces that John’s mom is a doctor who sustained a hip injury while serving in Afghanistan. The girl, of course, is the brilliant, titular Shelby Holmes, who has made a name for herself cracking cases in her Harlem neighborhood, befriending the local shopkeepers and bookies, and irritating Detective Lestrade of the NYPD. 

The plots of these charming series, currently in its fourth book, are loosely inspired by the original Holmes stories, and feature kids of all races and economic backgrounds. Illustrations here and there break up the text.

Since the character names are drawn so directly from the Canon, readers have to pretend that the original Sherlock and Dr. Watson never existed, since people would be referencing them any time they met our heroes. 

But I assure you that as soon as I learned that Shelby has a smarter, lazy brother named Michael, that she was studying violin in school, and that she has for a pet an English bulldog named Sir Arthur, I was thinking, “Sherlock who?” Ages 8-12 years.


Basil of Baker Street, by Eve Titus/Cathy Hapka (The Great Mouse Detective series, Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, $5.99).

I adored the first two books of this series when I was a kid. The first one still holds up. 

Basil, a mouse who lives in the basement at 221B Baker Street, learns deductive techniques by eavesdropping on the great sleuth himself. Basil’s adventures are narrated by his mouse companion, Dr. David Q. Dawson. Together, the two battle crime in a Victorian “underworld” teeming with vicious cats, rats, and other threatening creatures. 

The first Basil title was published in 1958, and inspired the 1986 Disney film, The Great Mouse Detective. Eve Titus, who conceived and wrote the first five books, died in 2002. The series—now eight books strong—was continued by Cathy Hapka. It warms my heart to see that the first five titles retain the original art by the late Paul Galdone. Really fun. Ages 6-9.
Basil in a Box!



The 100-Year-Old Secret, by Tracy Barrett (The Sherlock Files series, Macmillan/Square Fish, $6.99).

Growing up in 21st Century Florida, 12-year-old Xena and her 10-year-old brother Xander play an unusual game. They study strangers and deduce their occupations based on clues gleaned from these people’s manner of dress and behavior. They’ve learned how to play the Game from their father, whose family has apparently “played” it for generations. 

But when Dad, whose name just happens to be Mr. Holmes, is transferred to London for a year, the children discover the shocking truth: they are the great-great-great-grandchildren of a certain violin-playing denizen of Baker Street. When Dad’s elderly Aunt Mary Watson presents them with a handwritten notebook of Sherlock’s unsolved cases that the Watson descendants have carefully preserved for a century, the children become embroiled in the mystery of a precious stolen painting. It seems that Sherlock abandoned this case, as he cryptically notes in his casebook, “to pursue intriguing case of lion’s mane.” 

Four books thus far in this series. They are much shorter than the Shelby Holmes books above, but have no illustrations. Ages 8-12.


The Case of the Missing Marquess, by Nancy Springer (Enola Holmes Mystery series, Puffin Books, $7.99).

Springer’s knack for telling detail and research give us a marvelous rendering of Victorian England and the plight of women, young and old, during that period. 

Her heroine, Enola, is Sherlock and Mycroft’s younger sister. In the first book, Enola awakes the morning of her 14th birthday to discover that her mother—the only surviving Holmes parent—has disappeared. Wonderful bits of deduction, code-breaking, and the use of the language of flowers throughout the first book. 

This series is the basis of the hit 2020 Netflix film, which as you might know attracted some bad attention from the Doyle estate for giving Sherlock “too many feelings,” as one journalist cheekily put it. (The parties settled out of court.) 

I’ll talk about the film in a future post. Spoiler alert: I loved it. Solid family entertainment, though its plot departs significantly from the text of the first book. A second film is in the works, but get those kids reading the series now.

Short books, with no illustrations. PRH/Puffin pubs the first six books in the series; Macmillan pubs the seventh next month. Ages 8-12.


* * *

See you in three weeks!

Joe

15 July 2021

A Republic, If You Can Keep It


On June 30, 2021, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem announced that she was sending 50 National Guard troops to Texas to help secure our border, that the deployment would last between 30 to 60 days and that it would be paid for by "private donation."  The donor was not a South Dakotan, but from Tennessee:  Willis Johnson, billionaire Republican donor, who made his fortune building an "international junkyard empire." — Argus

Many of us South Dakotans were irate at the thought of our National Guard being hired out per some out-of-state billionaire's behest.  From Governor Noem's Communication Director, Ian Fury:

“The Governor has authority under SDCL 5-24-12 to accept a donation if she determines doing so is in the best interest of the State. The Governor has additional authority to accept donated funds for emergency management under SDCL 34-48A-36.”

But "experts say it sets a troubling precedent in which a wealthy patron is effectively commandeering U.S. military might to address private political motivations."  And South Dakota State Senator Reynold Nesiba (D) said, “This could set a dangerous precedent to allow anonymous political donors to call the governor and dispatch the Guard whenever they want."

To which I - and many others said – No kidding. 

Allow me to share why:

Once upon a time Rome was a Republic consisting mostly of free farmers surrounding the city-state of Rome. But Rome was always paranoid. They always thought their neighbors were out to get them, and the best thing was to conquer them first. (See the Punic Wars.)  

By 267 BCE, they'd conquered the entire peninsula of Italy.  Then they went abroad, and fought Carthage (present day Tunisia) in three Punic Wars. In between the First and Second, Rome conquered the entire Greek world. And by the end of the Third Punic War, here's what they'd gained, territorially:

Rome 145AD

But in order to do this, Rome built the largest military of its day. Now soldiers had originally been free farmers who went off to fight and then come back home to their lands. But after 100 years of war, the  army was no longer made up of "citizen soldiers" or "free farmers". For that matter, the free farmers were pretty much bankrupt, and trying to find a job in the city. The Roman equivalent of factory farming were latifundia, plantations that produced cash crops – cattle, wine, olive oil, wine. They were owned by patricians (BTW, all the Roman Senators were patricians, and most were very wealthy), run by overseers and worked by slaves. (They didn't have John Deere back then.) There were no controls over the overseers, and no attempt to treat slaves humanely. Cato the Elder argued that it was cheaper to work slaves to death and buy more than to treat them well. (Fun guy.) After a while, the landowners found it cheaper still to produce wheat and barley in overseas colonies using slave-labor (Sicily, Spain, Africa): the original outsourcing.
  • BTW, slaves were everywhere: Almost the entire population of Carthage was enslaved after the 3rd Punic War - farm & factory labor – and all those Greeks (a favorite source for tutors and skilled labor). Julius Caesar's campaign in Gaul (cd France) sent back 1,000,000 slaves. This flood of slaves meant it was often cheaper to buy a slave than hire a worker, and even when it wasn't, the presence of so many slaves kept wages very low; around 30% of Italian population were slaves.
Now the irony is that while the Senate saw itself as the guardian of republican liberty, for most of the Republic it spent most of its time and energy protecting the right of a few hundred families to get and keep almost all the land, wealth, and power in Italy. To do this, bread and circuses become the order of the day: low-cost food and free admission to entertainment and bath houses. This kept the poor shut up, if not happy. 

But let's get back to the military, which expanded rapidly, constantly. Rome was more or less at perpetual war (at least around its vast borders) until its fall around 476 CE. Back home, the senators squabbled over who got to be governor of the richest provinces, and who would be one of the two consuls elected every year by the Senate. The consuls ran the executive branch of government and for years the judiciary. Each consul was also the equivalent of a commander-in-chief, commanding an army of two legions strong (20,000 men).  Almost every Senator wanted to be consul.  The fights over that office led to blood feuds, which I'm not going to go into (look up the Gracchi brothers - you could start HERE).  


Rome 117AD

Rome, ca 117 CE

Late in the Republic, Marius (157-86 BCE) and Sulla (138-78 BCE) were rival generals. Marius was a wealthy plebian general, who bought his Roman citizenship. Sulla was a (rare) poor patrician general, who was opposed to any and all reforms. Marius made some changes to the army, but the most significant was making his men swear an oath of loyalty to him, not the Republic, not the Senate. Of course, every other general did the same.  From then on, the legions followed their general, whatever or whoever they were fighting.

Sulla and Marius' rivalry exploded into violence in 88 BCE, when Sulla took his troops and marched on Rome.  This was the first time that Roman troops marched on Roman citizens, but it would not be the last. Marius responded in kind. The result was a 5 day blood orgy of horrific looting, rape, arson, pillage, mutilation and killing.  But then Marius died (of natural causes!). Sulla took over, and retired in 79. Everyone felt the Republic would be just fine now, ignoring the fact that these two had just shown future generals how to take over Rome. And Julius Caesar, 21 when Sulla retired, was the man to do it.

Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE) traced his descent all the way back to Aeneas, son of Venus, daughter of Jupiter; after his death, he would be deified. He made his name as a military commander in Gaul, and he made sure everybody knew about his exploits by writing the Commentaries. He was superb at power politics, willing to pay, bribe, subvert, seduce, or marry anyone he had to in order to get ahead. In 60 BCE he formed a triumvirate with Pompey and Crassus to take over Rome. Crassus - banker, provider of fire-insurance and owner of silver mines, was the equivalent of a billionaire in his own day. Pompey had mopped up the Spartacus revolt with typical brutality, and was mega-rich thanks to provincial governorships in Asia. He also married Caesar's daughter Julia, but when she died in 54 BCE, so did their alliance. 

By 52 BCE, Julius Caesar had conquered all of Gaul and invaded Britain. He came back as a conquering hero, with 13 loyal legions (at least 65,000 troops) totally loyal to him and him alone. The Senate was terrified, and made Pompey sole consul of Rome, with absolute power. Pompey "asked" Caesar to come back as a private citizen, leaving his legions behind, a polite way of telling Caesar that he was going to be outlawed, killed, and his property confiscated. Well, nuts to that, and in 49 BCE he "crossed the Rubicon" with his troops into Rome and launched a four year civil war. Pompey eventually fled to Egypt, where Cleopatra beheaded him as a favor to Caesar. In 47 BCE, Caesar was absolute ruler of Rome.

His assassination three years later was supposed to bring back the Republic - that's what Brutus and Cassius said they wanted. Instead, it brought all-out war, in which it was every general and Senator for himself. The winner was Octavian, Caesar's adopted son and heir, whom few would have bet on to win: young, inexperienced in battle, relatively unknown. But Octavian hired the best generals, plus he had patience, a genius for administration, and always spoke out firmly on behalf of conservative values. It also didn't hurt that, as Caesar's heir, he was fabulously wealthy. Octavian, at 32, became master of the Roman world, and was transformed into 

AUGUSTUS CAESAR (b. 63 BCE, r. 31 BCE-14 CE)

And he had a long life and a long reign: 45 years as absolute ruler of Rome, even though he began by proclaiming that the Republic was restored. Throughout his reign, he always maintained a pretense of maintaining the Republic. He publicly declined the dictatorship, was never called emperor, and while he held every office of power and the title of Augustus (or revered one), he made sure that everyone knew that his favorite title was princeps: "first among equals" or "chief citizen."

He maintained the facade of the Republic: elections were held, the assemblies met, the Senate passed laws. But before anything passed, Augustus sponsored it and approved it. He had absolute power, and everyone knew it: you just didn't say it bluntly. At least, not at first. Later, no one worried about it. 

By the time he died in 14 CE, almost everyone who could have remembered the Republic was dead. The only thing Roman citizens knew was imperial power, and, frankly, they liked it. They were addicted to it:  the power, the wealth, the constant flood of goods and services, the mastery.  Freedom seemed to be a small price to pay.



"There is a story, often told, that upon exiting the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was approached by a group of citizens asking what sort of government the delegates had created. His answer was: "A republic, if you can keep it." The brevity of that response should not cause us to under-value its essential meaning: democratic republics are not merely founded upon the consent of the people, they are also absolutely dependent upon the active and informed involvement of the people for their continued good health."  (Link)

Transforming the United States military (on any level) into hired mercenaries, at the beck and call of any billionaire and their political cause, is no way to keep it.



PS - From the "How Low Can They Go?" files from South Dakota:  State AG Jason Ravnsborg, who struck and killed Joe Boever on a remote highway on Sept. 12, 2020, and was only charged three “Class 2” misdemeanors for it, is up for trial at the end of August, and plans to defend himself by claiming that his victim was suicidal and threw himself into Ravnsborg's windshield.  (HERE)  Because God forbid that Ravnsborg should take any responsibility and pay a maximum total of $1,500.  I'm still working on getting the stench out of my nose from this one.