21 October 2021

How To Cook A Wolfe


The September 6, 2021 New Yorker Food Issue featured reprints of articles from cooks/writers such as M. F. K. Fisher, Anthony Bourdain, and Susan Orlean, as well as Chapter 6 of Vladimir Nabokov's Pnin, which is about a dinner party with perhaps enough pirozhki for even my insatiable appetite for tiny savory pies.  

But the article that rang my bell, blog-wise, was Adam Gopnik's Cooked Books.  Originally published April 9, 2007 as "What's the Point of Food in Fiction?" it starts off with this proposition:

There are four kinds of food in books: food that is served by an author to characters who are not expected to taste it; food that is served by an author to characters in order to show who they are; food that an author cooks for characters in order to eat it with them; and, last (and most recent), food that an author cooks for characters but actually serves to the reader.  (New Yorker)

 Now it is true that most books have food in them.  The glaring exception being, of all things, The Tale of Genji, 1066 AD, which has endless detailed descriptions of clothing, handwriting, perfumes, flowers,  ghosts, and sex.  But the only mention of actual food is medicinal, when a woman asks a lover that he please not stop by that night since she still reeks from eating garlic, believed to cure colds.  

But most of the time, food is a way of giving the characters something to do, or a reason to get together.  Especially if someone's going to be poisoned by foxglove in the sage dressing, fish paste in the sandwiches, or just hit with a frozen leg of lamb that will be roasted later on with (I hope) rosemary and garlic.  

Side note:  While Gopnik mentions James Bond's (a/k/a Fleming's) obsession with food, the quote I remember best is Felix Leiter's discourse on martinis in Thunderball.  I read it in junior high, sitting in the back row during some godawful boring assembly.  Now I'd already had a martini or two (this was the summer my mother worked her way through the Bartender's Manual with interesting results for all), and didn't like them:  I was too young, and favored Cuba Libres.  But the passage stuck with me.  The trouble was I was reading the entire Bond series at the time (a thing, like work my way through the Bartender's Manual, that I never plan to do again), and I couldn't remember which one it was. But here it is, found at last: 

The Martinis arrived. Leiter took one look at them and told the waiter to send over the barman. When the barman came, looking resentful, Leiter said, “My friend, I asked for a Martini and not a soused olive.” He picked the olive out of the glass with the cocktail stick. The glass, that had been three-quarters full, was now half full. Leiter said mildly, “This was being done to me while the only drink you knew was milk. I’d learned the basic economics of your business by the time you’d graduated to Coca-Cola. One bottle of Gordon’s Gin contains sixteen true measures – double measures that is, the only ones I drink. Cut the gin with three ounces of water and that makes it up to twenty-two. Have a jigger glass with a big steal in the bottom and a bottle of those fat olives and you’ve got around twenty-eight measures. Bottle of gin here costs only two dollars retail, let’s say around a dollar sixty wholesale. You charge eighty cents for a Martini, one dollar sixty for two. Same price as a whole bottle of gin. And with your twenty-eight measures to the bottle, you’ve still got twenty-six left. That’s a clear profit on one bottle of gin of around twenty-one dollars. Give you a dollar for the olives and the drop of vermouth and you’ve still got twenty dollars in your pocket. Now, my friend, that’s too much profit…”  

But moving along, back to Gopnik and cooking from/ with/ in/ off the books.  First, I find it sad that he never mentioned Fanny Flagg's Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe, which combines murder, friendship, race relations, my favorite lesbian couple (outside of Angela Thirkell's Hampton and Bent) in all of literature, and a lot of cooking.  Ms. Flagg even provides excellent recipes for everything except - well, read the book.  Those fried green tomatoes really are delicious.  But maybe it was too low-brow for Gopnik.  

On the other hand, he likes Robert B. Parker's Spenser, who does cook a lot.  The thing is, to me, I was never interested in any the dishes Spenser made.  And his constant production of cornbread was always a mystery to me, when a light, flaky buttermilk biscuit is just as easy to make and tastes better with gravy.  

Another author Gopnik didn't mention was James M. Cain, which is a shame, because Mildred Pierce is both my favorite of all his works, and the one that finally taught me how to make those light, flaky buttermilk biscuits with the simple line: "She made pie crust, for biscuits."  100% correct.  All you have to do is make a short pie crust made with baking soda and buttermilk, barely knead it, and cut thick.  

BTW, Cain often seems to describe every meal the hero or heroine has, which makes sense considering how many of his novels are set in hard times.  He also uses food and sex kind of interchangeably. 

In The Postman Always Rings Twice, Frank's first meal at Nicks' diner is "orange juice, corn flakes, fried eggs and bacon, enchilada, flapjacks, and coffee", and it's Cora who makes the enchiladas.  She's hot in more ways than one.  

In Mildred Pierce, Mildred is an excellent cook, but it doesn't hurt that she uniforms her staff and self in "sharkskin dresses, of a shade just off white, white with a tint of cream in it, and... little Dutch caps... Always vain of her legs, she had the dresses shortened a little. Now, she hurriedly got into one, put on her Tip-Top shoes, stuck on the little cap... she looked like the cook in a musical comedy."  It works:  her ex-husband Bert and her first ex-lover Wally eye her legs and her restaurant, but it's her current lover, gentleman ne'er-do-well Monty Beragon, who takes her home:  "I've been looking at that damned costume all night, and with great difficulty restrained myself from biting it. Now, get it off." 

 In noir, sex and food and ambition are all wrapped up as tight as Cora's enchiladas.

Of course, when we talk of detection and food, we have to talk about Nero Wolfe, whose life revolves around books, orchids and food:  solving mysteries at high prices is how he pays for them.  I have a copy of The Nero Wolfe Cookbook (by Rex Stout and the Editors of the Viking Press).  And I've read a lot, if not all, of the Nero Wolfe stories and novels.  

A few things leap out:  

Nero Wolfe was as obsessed with eggs as Anthony Bourdain.  Eggs burgundian, coddled eggs, eggs au buerre noir, apricot omelets, bacon and apricot omelets, strawberry omelets, shirred eggs (one scoop of flour away, I hate to tell Wolfe, from toad in the hole), clams hashed with eggs, forty minute scrambled eggs, etc., - none of which I have made, because I need a Fritz to make something that time-consuming that early in the morning.  Nor have I nor will I ever make my own scrapple, brioche, or green tomato jam.  And Fritz puts sugar in his buttermilk biscuits - Anathema!  

Stan Hunt © The American Magazine (June 1949) – Wikipedia

Also, frankly, Fritz often overdoes the richness:  the flounder swimming in cheese over buttered noodles is enough to make Gunter Grass' Flounder choke on his sorrel.  And there's ingredients you can't even hope to find today in most American butcher shops, much less grocery stores: kidneys, tripe, turtle steaks, quail... and starlings?

Of course, things used to be different.  In my childhood I remember seeing kidneys, liver, gizzards, and brains for sale right there in the meat counter at Safeway. Grossed me right out. Now you have to ask at the local if they even have liver, and they'll look at you funny. (And they do not carry songbirds, thank God.) 

Also, Wolfe - or Fritz - never seemed to have heard of sweet red peppers, which certainly existed prior to modern times.  Green peppers show up in recipes where they never should, including Fritz' Hungarian Goulash (p. 94), which I have made, replacing the green peppers with red, and using a strong Russian vodka in place of Polish vodka.  It was pretty good, served with buttered noodles, Celery and Cantaloupe Salad (p. 35), Tomato Tarts (p. 51), Corn Cakes (p. 80), and Blueberry Grunt (p. 59).  We had 10 for dinner, including ourselves, and we all ate well.  But I have a feeling that Fritz would have served more unctuous side dishes than we did.  What Nero Wolfe really needed with every meal was a side of lipitor.  

And, looking over the cookbook, and the novels, I have to agree with what Archie Goodwin said in The Final Deduction:  

“At the dinner table, in between bites of deviled grilled lamb kidneys with a sauce he and Fritz had invented, he explained why it was that all you needed to know about any human society was what they ate. If you knew what they ate you could deduce everything else—culture, philosophy, morals, politics, everything. I enjoyed it because the kidneys were tender and tasty and that sauce is one of Fritz’ best, but I wondered how you would make out if you tried to deduce everything about Wolfe by knowing what he had eaten in the past ten years. I decided you would deduce that he was dead.”

Ya think?


PS - Some people have asked about the on-going shenanigans in South Dakota, from the further fallout of the Pandora Papers, to the current investigations (two!) of our Governor, to the apparent race to see how many state legislators can get a DUI covered up, to the SD Senate Majority Leader's son, who got almost $750,000 in coronavirus relief funds for a SD business which was actually located, operated, and paying (some) taxes in Texas - fear not, eager readers.  All shall be revealed.

20 October 2021

Popcorn Proverbs #5



Are you heading back in the theatres yet?  Not me.  But as a reminder of the goodle days, here are quotes from 25 crime movies.  As before, they are in alphabetical order by titles.  Purely by coincidence, three actors get two quotes each.  The answers are below. Good luck!
 
1. Or maybe she didn't die. Maybe she just moved to the suburbs - I always confuse those two. 
 
2. Can I trust you?  Can I trust you?  Can I trust you? 
 
3. I loved Al Lipshitz more than I could possibly say. He was a real artistic guy, sensitive, a painter. But he was always trying to find himself. He'd go out every night looking for himself. And on the way, he found Ruth. Gladys. Rosemary. And Irving. I guess you could say we broke up because of artistic differences. He saw himself as alive. And I saw him dead.
 
4. One of us had to die. With me, it tends to be the other guy. 
 

5. -What are you going to do?
-I'm going to sit in the car and whistle "Rule Britannia".
 
6. Isn't it touching how a perfect murder has kept our friendship alive all these years? 
 
7. I don't feel I have to wipe everybody out, Tom. Just my enemies. 
 
8. -The fellow whose job I'm taking, will he show me the ropes?
  -  Maybe - if you're in touch with the spirit world. 
 
9. I hear you paint houses.
 
10. It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms.  
 
11. Who do men instinctively pull at loose threads on their parachutes? 
 

12. What can I tell you?  Don't piss off a motivated stripper. 
 
13. Has it occurred to you that there are too many clues in this room?
 
14. - Do you realize that because of you this city is being overrun by baboons?
-Well, isn't that the fault of the voters? 
 
15. -Can you be any more of a condescending ass?
-Yes. 
 
16. In my book "brave" rhymes with "stupid."
 
17. Go ahead. Jump. He never loved you, so why go on living? Jump and it will all be over.
 
18. You shoot me in a dream, you better wake up and apologize. 
 

19. The funny thing is - on the outside, I was an honest man, straight as an arrow. I had to come to prison to be a crook 
 
20. I studied on killing you. Studied on it quite a bit. But I reckon there ain't no need for it if all you're gonna do is sit there in that chair. You'll be dead soon enough and the world 'll be shut of ya. You ought not killed my little brother, he should've had a chance to grow up. He woulda had fun some time.  
 
21.Women make the best psychoanalysts until they fall in love. After that, they make the best patients.

22. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.


23. We're going to let 'em keep the goddamn subway train. Hell, we've got plenty of them; we'll never even miss it.

24. What I do for a living may not be very reputable... but I am. In this town I'm the leper with the most fingers. 
 
25. -Do you know what a blood oath is, Mr. Ness?
-  Yes.
-Good, 'cause you just took one.
 
THE ANSWERS LURK BELOW...
 

1. - Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) Can You Ever Forgive Me?


2.- Ace Rothstein (Robert DeNiro) Casino

3. -Mona ( Mya ) Chicago

4. - Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) The Departed
 
5. -Edna (Rosemarie Dunham)/ Carter (Michael Caine) Get Carter

6. -Arthur Adamson (William Devane) Family Plot
 
7. -Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) The Godfather, Part Two
 

8. -Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) / Major Dalby (Nigel Green) The Ipcress File

9. -Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) The Irishman

10. - Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) Kind Hearts and Coronets

11. - Harlan Thromby (Christopher Plummer) Knives Out

12.  -Michael Clayton (George Clooney) Michael Clayton

13. -Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) Murder on the Orient Express (1974)


14. -Commissioner Brumford (Jacqueline Brooks) / Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear
 
15. -Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) / Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) Now You See Me
 
16. - Josh Howard (Sammy Davis Jr.) Ocean's Eleven

17. - Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) Rebecca

18. -Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) Reservoir Dogs

19.  -Andy DuFresne (Tim Robbins) The Shawshank Redemption

20. - Karl Childers  (Billy Bob Thornton)  Sling Blade


21. - Dr. Brulov (Michael Chekhov) Spellbound

22.  - Harry Lime (Orson Welles) The Third Man

23.  -Mayor (Lee Wallace) The Taking of Pelham 123

24. -Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) The Two Jakes

25.  -Malone (Sean Connery) / Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) The Untouchables
 
 
 

19 October 2021

Laws and Flaws


Mark Thielman

     In my last post, I discussed the new "Constitutional Carry" laws enacted in Texas during the most recent legislative session. Those laws took effect on September 1st. The changes to the gun laws were not the only alterations to Texas' legislative canon. As I mentioned in that last post, a few other notable additions caught national attention. The abortion restriction/life protection of the fetal heartbeat law and the voter suppression/election integrity laws elicited praise/criticism depending upon the reporter's political stance.

      Those changes and the attention they garnered obscured some other modifications to the Texas Penal Code. Before you strap on your Smith and Wesson and come on down, I want to make you aware of a half-dozen of them. I'd like to thank my friend, Richard Alpert, a member of the Baylor Law School faculty and legislative update speaker, for helping me bring to your attention a few that might have escaped local or national publicity. 

ProtoplasmaKid,
CC BY-SA 4.0,
Wikimedia Commons

1. The Texas Legislature solved homelessness. I think that the Nobel Peace Prize will be making its way to Austin soon. Every state can follow our model with this innovative and low-cost strategy. The governor signed a bill making homelessness illegal. Texas Penal Code § 48.05 prohibits camping in a public place. To ensure that all those people who want to be homeless can't sneak around our prohibition, the language forbids sleeping in tents, lean-tos, with bedrolls, sleeping bags, or blankets. Because we're not inhumane down here, the law specifically says that before the police can ticket for the violation, they must first counsel with the camper about alternatives, alert them to the dangers of human trafficking and try to contact appropriate government and non-profit officials. If they arrest, the police must also make sure that the camper's belongings are safeguarded. Our law enforcement officials don't need to be concerned with arresting murderers and rapists, they have a new legislative priority. Still, the Nobel Prize will look cool at the governor's mansion.

2. Lest you become concerned that all these counseling duties will make our local police too soft, Texas Penal Code § 9.54 authorizes the use of deadly force with drones by law enforcement. Drones are prohibited from killing if they are autonomous. No algorithm will determine when a robotic death ray may be deployed down here. 

3. While the Texas legislature relaxed the gun laws, it did up the restrictions on fireworks. Texas Penal Code §50.02 makes it a felony for someone to explode fireworks intending to interfere with the official duties of a law enforcement officer.

     Something like this might have happened in Portland or New York or Los Angeles. No one seems to be quite sure. There are no reported cases of firework assaults occurring here in Texas. We also had a variety of laws prior to September 1st safeguarding police and criminalizing attempts to hinder them in their duties. Apparently, what the legislature had done in the past wasn't enough. Now, police are specifically protected from Black Cats and bottle rockets.

     This change seems instructive on the legislative process in the social media age. Someone saw a post about something happening somewhere. Texas now has a law here to punish behavior that maybe happened there.

English: Designer unknown;
published by Knopf,
Wikimedia Commons

4. Police were not the only occupation to find the rules changing around them. Texas Government Code § 1702.3876 makes it against the law to impersonate a private investigator. Many fiction readers/writers praise research as the key to authentic writing. Remember this one before you go full-on "Spade and Archer" preparing for your next story.

5. The legislature modified Texas Penal Code § 43.251and raised the minimum age for employment in a sexually oriented business from 18 to 21. If you find yourself hanging out in some seedy cabaret and alongside a pole-dancer, rest assured that, by law, that employee is old enough to carry a handgun in a holster. You might keep your artistic criticisms to yourself. 

6. If these changes arouse your passions and motivate you to run for office, but you find yourself constrained because you happen to be ineligible as a convicted felon, take heart. Since September 1st, Texas Penal Code § 37.10 reduced the punishment for individuals convicted of lying on an application for a place on a ballot. If you want to cross your fingers and fudge about your record, hoping that no one notices, the penalty for getting busted was lowered from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class B. You're looking at only half as much time in jail.

Of course, there were a host of other legislative changes. Some plug loopholes and others address niches that had been overlooked in the hustle of past legislative sessions. Here's hoping that the above list will help you stay legal on your next swing through the Lone Star State.

Until next time.

18 October 2021

Seeds of a Writer


Every story you write is merely a fictionalized piece of autobiography. We spend our lives trying to make bad stuff better, good stuff perfect, and maybe make sense of it all.

During my senior year of high school, a former swimming coach was arrested for running a "Summer Camp" where he photographed boys naked and forced some of them into sexual acts. I changed all the details, but that scandal inspired Postcards of the Hanging, which I finally self-published in 2014. I started writing it in 1972 and submitted several revised versions before it became my sixth-year project at Wesleyan University in 1980. Between then and my self-publishing, it gathered dozens of rejections under various titles and uncountable rewrites. 

Other experiences have inspired stories, too, but only one of them has sold...so far.

After my freshman year of college, I needed a mental break. I'd worked retail in a drug store the previous summer, which was convenient becasue it was within walking distance of my house. But it only paid minimum wage and I wanted more.

Early in May, the local labor council told me a company was hiring college students at $2.25 an hour, a whole dollar above minimum wage. I found myself working in a pickle processing plant (say that five times fast). They told me to wear a hat to protect my hair, and after one night (six PM to five AM), I understood why.

Dozens of women from their late teens to considerably older and mostly Mexican, stood a floor above me as a conveyer belt carried pickles by their stations. They sorted them and dorpped them down chutes to dozens of wheelbarrows below, where I waited along with four other "college students." Then we trundled those loaded barrows out through the warehouse to vats of brine. There were different vats for different kinds of pickles. 

They wanted college students because college freshman were 18, so there was no legal limit on how much we could be told to lift. A full wheelbarrow of saturated pickles weighs about 130 pounds, and we each moved about 200 per night. The salt brine filled the air; by break time at ten, my eyes burned like I'd been reading barbed wire and I had blisters the size of dimes at the base of all my fingers. 

I quit after one night, but I used that job for a story that won Honorable Mention in the Al Blanchard Story Award several years ago and appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine: The Girl in the Red Bandanna.

While my hands healed, I turned down an invitation to work at the drug store again. A week later, I found a job in a sheet metal plant. On my first day, the foreman said they were adding a small night shift and asked if I was interested. There was a five percent bonus, so I said yes.

I became half the team running a two-man sheer, a beast with a ten-foot blade that dropped with 15 tons of force to cut sheet metal. Al, who drove a '58 Ford, was missing three front teeth, and chain-smoked Chesterfields, teamed with me to cut roughly 3000 sheets of 18-gauge galvanized steel per night into smaller pieces for various farming implements. We worked from 5:30 pm to 5 am, with a ten-minute break at 9, another at 3, and a half-hour for lunch at midnight. Friday was 3:30 to midnight with supper at 6. It sounds awful, doesn't it? Believe me, it was wonderful.

I was one of nine people on the entire shift, three of us college kids, and four welders. One of the welders added a piece of scrap metal to the back of my putter to give it more weight and help my golf game. When things were slow (rarely), another sheet metal guy taught me to drive a fork lift. 

 Friday, the foreman, a cousin of Detroit Tigers outfielder Jim Northrop, ordered takeout fish or chicken for our supper. A good humor truck saw us hanging out on the loading dock and started coming by so we could get ice cream for dessert. I returned home late Friday night as if I'd been on a date, so my weekend was a "normal" schedule.

Weekdays, I slept until about noon and played golf in the afternoon. Between lugging four-by-eight sheets of galvanized steel and wearing steel-toed shoes, I worked into the best physical condition of my life, and my golf game benefitted from it. I added about 40 yards to my drives and broke 80 a dozen times over the next few months, many of them during competitive play in a summer weekend league.

I lived with my parents and drove my mother's car to work. That work week was 52 weeks, which meant 12 hours of overtime. My living expenses consisted of keeping gas in the car and buying my own groceries. That summer before my sophomore year, I earned the money to pay for the rest of my undergraduate education. 

Yes, my social life was non-existent. The girls I knew weren't up at midnight to take a phone call for a possible date. All the metal in the building interfered with radio reception, so we could only get WSGW, which had a transmission tower two miles away. At midnight, they put a stack of singles on the spindle, played them, read the news, then played the same stack again. Between midnight at five, we heard those songs a dozen times in the same order.

But what a great summer for rock. "Paperback Writer" and "Rain." "Paint It, Black." "96 Tears" by our own local ? & the Mysterians. "Dirty Water," "Bus Stop," "Monday, Monday," "Hanky Panky," "Dedicated Follower of Fashion," California Dreamin'," "Wild Thing," "Summer in the City," "Sunshine Superman." Local versions of "Farmer John," "The Kids Are Alright (another one of my novel titles),"

and my introduction to the 13th-Floor Elevators, "You're Gonna Miss Me." That was the last summer where singles ruled. The following year would begin the shift toward albums that finally took hold about 1969-70. The Monkees premiered on TV two weeks after I quit that job. 

I've never figured out how to use that job for another mystery, but I'm still trying. I got hired because the previous operator of that sheer got careless and lost three fingers. I quit just as I was losing fear of the machine, which seemed prudent. I dated a few times before returning to college. I had my heart broken for the very first time by a girl I'd known in high school. I haven't lived in Michigan outside of a dormitory since 1967 and she and I haven't attended the same reunions. There are definitely stories here, but maybe I remember the details so clearly I don't know how to tweak them. If they were still fresh and not history, maybe I could do more. 

I still have a few short stories that come from the next couple of years in college. They all involve music, which shouldn't surprise anyone who reads my stuff. Someday, I'll find a home for them, too.

What's in your garden?

17 October 2021

The Digital Detective, Wall Street part 3


I’m still astounded Fortune 500 companies and government facilities not merely allowed, but invited me, a 19-to-20-something freelance me to play with their very expensive computers. I mean work, not play, yeah, work is definitely the word. Reputation is everything. And okay, I have authority issues. So I’m told.

Striking off on my own meant no security blanket, no 401K, no pension, no profit-sharing. It meant scary months when I wondered if the phone would ring with a client and months when I wondered if the previous client was going to pay or not. That’s a concern– some companies withheld payment until they once again needed help. Sometimes managers wouldn’t like what I reported. My type of work– designing systems software– was specialized, so occasionally famine struck.

During one drought, camels were toppling over, birds fell from the sky, and my bank account appeared a distant mirage. Finally a call came in before the telephone company could cut me off. It was Wall Street again, a mutual funds house. Loretta was their CIO, Chief Information Officer.

100 Maiden Lane, NYC © Emporis
100 Maiden Lane
NYC © Emporis

“Darling, are you available?”

“Personal or pleasure?”

“Are you saying personal isn’t pleasure?”

“You’re married.”

“Was, Darling, was.”

“Loretta, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be, I’m not.”

She lied. I could almost hear the sounds of tears leaking from her eyes. She was a nice lady who’d come up through the ranks.

“Loretta, what’s happening?”

“If you’re available, I need help.”

“Please don’t let it be application programming.” Even if it was, I desperately needed the work.

“Well… Did you hear we’re undergoing a conversion from Cobol to C?”

“You and every other firm with fresh university graduates.”

My professors, Paul Abrahams and Malcolm Harrison, were language experts. Abrahams was chairman of ACM’s SIGPlan and would eventually be elected president of the US’s professional organization, the Association for Computing Machinery. They received early releases of Unix and with it the C language. For me, it was a love-hate relationship.

She said, “I know you’ll be simply shocked, but we’re experiencing crashes. We can’t cut over until we nail the problem. Nobody around here can read machine code. I know it’s not your thing, but nobody knows how to do Cobol anymore.”

In the following, I’ve tried to trim back technical detail to make it more accessible and I apologize where I failed to restrain it. The gist should suffice.


Next day I took the Staten Island Ferry to lower Manhattan, where I strolled up Pearl Street and turned onto Maiden Lane. The mutual funds house took up a few floors of an older building, although the interior was done in chrome movie set futurism.

The glass room remained there running their big iron computer. Off to one side was a new server chamber covered in curved, blue plexiglass. Very spaceshipish.

Loretta blended 10% boss and 90% Cub Scout Den Mother, which made her a popular manager among the guys. She called in her lead analyst and chief programmer, Richard and Robert. The latter radiated lethal hostility.

“Leigh’s here to shoot that bug that’s killing us.”

“We don’t need help,” Robert said. “He’ll just waste our time.”

Loretta said evenly, “You’ve had months and it’s still not identified. Please give Leigh all the help he needs. He’ll likely work nights to have the computer to himself.”

After Loretta departed, Robert said, “I know who you are. You used to be hot shit.”

“I’ve never heard it put so charmingly. Listen, I’m not here to take your job. I’m not here to threaten you. I’d like to get the job done and move on. Show me what’s going on.”

As predicted, the program started and died with an out-of-address exception– the program was trying to access memory that wasn’t there.

I asked for listings and a ‘dump’, formerly called a core dump, a snapshot of memory when the system died. The address of the failing instruction allowed me to identify the location of the link map, an org chart of routines that made up the program. Sure enough, the instruction was trying to reference a location out of bounds of its memory.

I took the program source listing home with me and spent a couple of days there studying it. It was ghastly, a compilation of everything wrong with bad programming and especially in C. It contained few meaningful variable names and relied on tricks found in the back of magazines. Once in a while I’d see variables like Principle or Interest, but for the most part, the program was labled with terse IDs such as LB, X1 and X2. This was going to take a while.

The company had no documentation other than a few layouts from the analyst. When I called in to ask a question, Robert stiff-armed me. I arranged my first slot for Friday evening with time over the weekend.

I began with small cleanup and immediately hit snags. I’d noticed a construct that read something like:

hash_cnt = sizeOf(Clientable);
cust_cnt = abs(hash_cnt);

Wait. What was the point of the absolute value? C’s sizeof() returned the number of items in an array. It should never be negative. You could have five apples on a shelf or none, but you couldn’t have minus five.

As part of the cleanup, I removed the superfluous absolute value function. Robert dropped down as I compiled and prepared to test. I typed RUN and the program blew up. What the hell? Robert appeared to sneer, looking all too pleased.

He said, “That section was written by that old guy, John. He didn’t know crap, so no surprise it’s hosed up.”

I knew who he was talking about, a short, pudgy guy in his 40s with Einstein hair. I’d never been introduced, but I’d heard him speak at a conference. John was no dummy, no matter what Robert said.

Robert smugly departed. I stepped through the instructions, one by one, studying the gestalt, the large and small. My head-smack arrived on Sunday. Curious why sizeof() would return a negative value, I traced how hash_cnt was used. As I stepped through the instructions, I saw it descend into a function called MFburnish().

I couldn’t find source code for MFburnish(). No one could. Without source, it would be very difficult to determine what happened inside it.

I went back to the variable Clientable that was passed to sizeof(). The array was loaded from a file, Clientable. Both consisted of binary customer numbers. I spotted something odd.

C is peculiar in that it uses null (binary zero) to mark the end of an array. This file had two nulls, one about the two-thirds mark and another at the absolute end.

At first, I thought the file had shrunk and the marker moved down while remaining in the same space. But when I looked at the file, it had the same defect… or feature.

As some point, I looked at the link map to check upon another routine and for the first time noticed what I should have spotted earlier. There amid C Library functions of isalpha(), isdigit(), islower(), isupper(); was sizeOf().

Double head-smack. First, C’s authors claim sizeof() is a unary operator like +n and -n. To me, sizeof() looks and acts like a function and nothing like a unary operator. But by their definition, it shouldn’t show up in a link map with real functions. On closer inspection, the programmer read not sizeof() but sizeOf(). Another annoyance of C is that it’s case sensitive, meaning sizeof and sizeOf and SizeOf and even SIZEOF are not the same thing. This kind of nonsense wouldn’t have been possible with their old Cobol system.

The deception seemed awfully abstruse, even by C standards.

interest truncation example

The Clientable had two parts. The first part contained the account numbers of every client. The latter part repeated certain clients. Unlike sizeof(), the ginned-up sizeOf() showed the actual length of the full file expressed as a negative number, hence the abs() funtion.

Someone had written deliberately misleading code. But why?

Money, of course. Moving backwards, I began to look at the code with a different eye. And there it was… not merely the expected interest calculation, but the conversion from binary to decimal, another Cobol to C difference. One of the company’s programmers had pulled off the oldest thefts in computerdom– shaving points when rounding numbers.

Next week: The Confrontation

Following are Cobol versus C notes for the technical minded. Feel free to skip to next week.

16 October 2021

Mystery Magazine


  

Some of you are probably thinking, You left out part of the title. Did you mean Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, or Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, or Black Cat MM, or Sherlock Holmes MM, etc.? Nope, the title's right. Mystery Magazine is the former Mystery Weekly Magazine, which--as most of you know by now--recently renamed itself and thus clarified things a bit, since it's published once a month.


Let me begin by saying that Mystery Magazine (new name or not) is an excellent publication, based in Canada and published by Chuck Carter, and in my opinion it has become one of the half-dozen leading short-fiction mystery markets. It usually features from eight to ten short stories and one interactive "solve-it-yourself" mystery in every monthly issue, it recently raised its pay rates, it pays on acceptance, it responds quickly to submissions, its covers and layouts always look good, and editor Kerry Carter is kind and competent and professional in every way. Another thing that might be interesting to writers is that after submission MM provides a monitoring link that allows you to see how many stories are ahead of yours in their to-be-read queue. The magazine's only drawback is that they don't provide a free author's copy of the issue your story appears in, but to me that's overridden by the fact that they pay so promptly, often on the same day the acceptance email appears.

Another thing to like about Mystery Magazine is that they are receptive to cross-genre stories. By that I mean writers can include the occasional fantasy, science fiction, horror, or Western ingredient along with the mystery/crime element. To give you an idea of how much that open-minded policy has helped me, here are some quick summaries of my stories at MM/MW so far: 


A gambling addict is pursued by murderous loan sharks. A mystery, but mostly a chase story. ("Merrill's Run," Jan 2017) 

A mix of crime and fantasy involving a missing teenager, a thunderstorm, and travel between dimensions. ("Lightning," Sep 2018) 

A lonely blind woman is targeted by a killer. Just a crime/suspense story with nothing cross-genre going on. ("Rachel's Place," Dec 2019)    

Two brothers in the depression-era south--one of whom has visions of future events--try to protect their alcoholic father from old enemies. ("The Barlow Boys," Nov 2020) 

A former combat soldier stumbles upon a bank robbery and is aided by a woman with paranormal powers. ("Charlie's War," Dec 2020) 

A combination Western/mystery/coming-of-age tale with a minor woo-woo element. ("Wanted," Feb 2021)  

A straight crime story set in the cottonfields of northwest Mississippi. ("The Delta Princess," Sep 2021)  

An offbeat mystery/fantasy featuring occasional small crimes. ("The King's Island," Oct 2021)   

A Western about a small town terrorized by a pair of killers. Obvious genre-mixing here, including a tiny bit of otherworldliness. ("Bad Times at Big Rock," upcoming)  


My point is, only a third of these stories were strictly mystery/crime/suspense. The others all had various shades of paint mixed into the genre can--and those stories probably wouldn't even have been considered at some of the other respected mystery markets. I still write mostly straight and undiluted mystery/crime plots and I will continue doing that, but when I do feel the urge to create a cross-genre story, Mystery Magazine is always on my mind as a possible home for it.

One last thing. I'm not alone in my fondness for this magazine. Many of my fellow SleuthSayers have had stories published in MM as well, before and after its name change: R.T. Lawton, Michael Bracken, Eve Fisher, Robert Lopresti, Steve Liskow, Robert Mangeot, Joseph D'Agnese, Elizabeth Zelvin, Melodie Campbell, the late Paul D. Marks and B.K. Stevens, and probably others I'm leaving out.

What are your thoughts, writers and readers, about Mystery Magazine? Have you read it? Enjoyed it? Written for it?

Here's hoping they stay around for a long time.




15 October 2021

Careful With That Website, Eugene



 Last week was... um... interesting for Facebook. Not in the usual "Wow, that tech company invented something really cool" way. That seems to be left to SpaceX these days. (Let's face it. How many of you, even devoted Apple users, yawn at a new iPhone anymore?) No, Mr. Zuckerberg had an interesting week as in the old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times."

For starters, one of his own managers went on 60 Minutes and confirmed what most of us suspected. It's more profitable to let us at each other's throats through Facebook than to actually combat misinformation and outright fraud. That was Sunday night. On Monday morning, it got worse. Suddenly, Messenger did not work. This aggravated me not because "Oh, noze! I can't have my favorite cyber-distraction while I work!!!" No, Messenger displayed a "No Internet Connection" message. Not good. Usually, this means my computer's aging WiFi card flaked out. I had to kill my work session and reset my card. Sounds arcane and technical, but all it means is I right-clicked and reset in about three mouse clicks. It takes longer to find the router on the list of connection choices. Only...

My work session came up fine but no Facebook or Messenger. There are then two sites I go to for what's going on with the Internet. One is downdetector.com, which tells you if your favorite web site or your Internet provider is having a bad day. The other is Twitter, which lets you use the hysteria of the world to gauge people's reaction to it. Downdetector usually has a few hundred reports when Amazon is slow in updating its site or Google has a rare outage. Oh, no. The graph showed reports of Facebook and related sites in the hundreds of thousands. Compare that to the next day, when my web host flaked out for about fifteen minutes. Forty reports, and while not GoDaddy, this is not exactly a bit player in the trade.


 

What did Twitter look like? Oh, my friends, it looked like a party. Normally, I hate Twitter. They keep serving up political tweets I don't want to read. That day, I noticed how easy it was to mute [insert preening politician or idiot pundit here]

Earlier, author Sara Celi, whom I've had a few conversations with, mentioned the 60 Minutes interview and suggested we, as writers, are getting too dependent on Facebook with marketing. I suggested Facebook would, like AOL before it, implode and become irrelevant, that someone would build a better mousetrap for data, one that didn't rely so much on division and falsehoods to drive revenue. Then Facebook went down. I followed up my tweet to Sara with, "I was kidding! I didn't think they'd take me seriously!"

It is, however, true we've become dependent on Facebook. Also Google, Microsoft, Apple, and probably a few you don't even think about. But you can live without Google. Not everyone has a Gmail account, and there are other search engines. Your computer could be run on something other than Windows or OS X, and it would not take much to replace the iPhone or your favorite Android device.

Source: Paramount

But Facebook has surpassed AOL in its ubiquity and its user base. The number of people without a Facebook account, even in less developed places, is actually a minority. The problem is writers, particularly small press and independent writers, are almost chained to the platform.

That same platform that disappeared for six hours on Monday.

Social media is not going away anytime soon, if ever. Like television, it will likely morph and fragment in the future. But the specific platforms? 

I liken it to Dan Ackroyd in Grosse Pointe Blank shouting "Who is like this Beast? Who can stand against him?" whenever someone worries some retail juggernaut is monopolizing our buying. In retail, the Beast was originally Woolworth, supplanted by, in order, Montgomery-Ward, Sears, K Mart, and now Walmart. And Walmart is running scared of Amazon. Before you decide Amazon is unstoppable, let me point out that Jeff Bezos says that one day, Amazon will go out of business. Hard to argue with the man who rode into space on the most expensive phallic joke in history.

It's even more pronounced in the realm of online platforms. Who was like CompuServe (or, as those of us who couldn't afford it called it, Compu$pend)? Who could stand against them? Well, AOL could. But AOL got knocked off its perch by Yahoo, who toppled before MySpace, which got crushed by Facebook. What makes anyone think Facebook is invincible or immortal?

Maybe they are immortal, but as a wise man from Hamilton, Ontario, once said, you're only immortal for a limited time.

Inertia killed CompuServe, the first big shared platform of note. (There were others - GEnie, Prodigy, FidoNet.) It also reduced MySpace to that site where booking agents find bands (and much less blinding these days.) But hubris killed Facebook and will most certainly destroy Facebook. Already, a simple solution to the damage they cause has been posited: Chronological feeds instead of using the algorithms to guess which posts people will get twitchy enough to click. But Facebook's revenue is too dependent on an divisive model that change, if it comes, will come too late.

Meanwhile, someone will build a new mousetrap to collate data and connect your online world without being so damn creepy. They'll likely partner with someone like salesforce.com or Google or even Microsoft and/or Apple. All four companies have shown an interest in a more effortless way to manage content. All it takes is one person to do with the social network concept Mark Zuckerberg played with at Harvard and do like Bezos and Musk are doing with Project Mercury and Apollo. Duplicate it, fight off the patent trolls, and give people a less stressful platform.

Will the last person on Facebook please turn off the lights?


14 October 2021

A Very Special Character Study


Dear Readers:

As you may recall, last time around I dropped some thoughts on "Setting as Character," and promised to expand on them this go-round. I'm going to make good on that in two weeks, because I've got the perfect idea for this current turn at the wheel. So instead of talking about "Setting as Character," Let's talk about "character."

******

Sooooo....character.  It's not plot. It's the only other thing aside from plot that can drive a story. And what makes for interesting characters?

Realistic (and often contradictory) personality traits.

I've been thinking about this very thing quite a bit lately, as I wrap the final draft of a long-delayed novel that will be finished and off to my agent before the end of this year!

Of all things, it was a vacuum cleaner commercial that gave me my own particular epiphany about how to write great, interesting, realistic characters. This one, to be exact:

Smoothies!

A biker who's a neat freak? Another who does needlepoint?

Interesting characters because they subvert expectations. Just like real life.

I have a cousin who is outdoorsy as hell: hunting, fishing. Sells cars for a living. A real man's man.

And for relaxation, he taught himself to crochet.

Interesting, right? Unexpected?

And even better because it's real life.

The best fictional characters mirror real life. Let's talk about one.

A woman, mid-seventies, married over fifty years, outgoing, friendly, caring, compassionate. A good friend, great sister, terrific mother and grandmother. Unironically loved Barry Manilow back in the '70s.

Once won enough money playing the slots on a visit to Vegas that she was able to buy herself a new floor for her kitchen (Including what it cost to have it installed). Not an isolated occurrence. This woman has a system. Every time she goes to Vegas, she wins thousands.

Enjoys gardening. LOVES Bruce Springsteen's music.

Was the queen of her high school's "Senior/Junior Ball" during her senior year.

Is strictly a social drinker. And yet, once, as a young woman, she stayed up late with her in-laws, drinking. By morning she had matched her father-in-law drink for drink, and the two of them had drunk every other adult member of the family under the table.

Slipped on the ice getting the morning paper one New Year's Day, and broke her ankle. Was able to laugh about it that same day (there's a "great pain meds" joke in there, somewhere!).

While in her thirties, once drove across the Columbia Basin from Yakima to Spokane with her eldest son, then in his teens. Drove for an hour shortly after sunset with the domelight in her car on so her son could finish a book he was reading.

Loves the color yellow. Hates surprises. Has a very close relationship with her daughter-in-law.

Started taking piano lessons last year. (That's all you get on this one. There's a ton of backstory there that the reader doesn't need to know for this tidbit to work, especially with the writer keeping it in mind while writing about it).

Possesses one of the most subversively bawdy sense of humor you'll ever encounter.

Is one of the kindliest souls I've ever known.

Okay: confession time. This character is a real person. My mother, Berniece. And it's her birthday tomorrow. Please join me in wishing her a happy one!

Love you, Mom! Hope this is pleasant surprise!






13 October 2021

Endeavour


I was a big fan of John Thaw as Morse, and an even bigger fan of Lewis, when they brought Kevin Whately back for the sequel.  Then there’s cross-casting, Clare Holman in Island at War, for example, which also featured Laurence Fox (who later shows up as Lord Palmerston in Victoria).  She pops in on an episode of Death in Paradise, and she and Kevin have separate guest shots on New Tricks - his the more sinister.  A treat, watching them out of character, playing against their familiar type. 

Why, then, does the prequel Endeavour leave me cold?


Perhaps it’s a resistance to origin stories.
  In both the series Inspector Morse, and in Colin Dexter’s books, Morse is already established, and somewhat opaque.  He has a history, but it doesn’t appear to weigh on him overmuch.  He has associates - you wouldn’t quite call them friends – but doesn’t play favorites.  He has eccentricities, some of them fixed, some fluid, but in fact he seems almost flat, as a character, and not fully in the round.  John Thaw gives him a larger presence than he has on the page.  Colin Dexter himself said, after Thaw’s death, that there could be no more Morse, that he couldn’t imagine another actor in the part. 

The cleverness of Lewis is that they don’t try to revive Morse, but they do give him imaginative echoes.  Lewis, now the senior, has a less procedural junior, instead of the other way around.  Lewis is luckier in love than Morse, or at least not star-crossed.  The puzzles are, if anything, more tangled, and the resolutions sometimes more uncertain.  They have a classic shape, but they’re less than final.




Mysteries have a formality.  We want them to satisfy.  The rules are bent, the public compact is broken, and what’s gone wrong needs to be put right.  You can push and pull at these boundaries, but that essential balance remains a constant.  If a mystery doesn’t do this, then it’s actually something else.  I’m not complaining if it is something else, but the mystery qua mystery is deeply conservative, in a social sense.  It can be a novel of manners, à la Christie, or Sayers, or even Ross Macdonald.  It can be a novel of bad manners, for that matter, like Lehane or Dutch Leonard, but it shares that same unity. 

My apparent issue with Endeavour isn’t that it doesn’t play fair.  Not at all.  The exec producer and writer is a guy named Russell Lewis (coincidentally), who wrote “The Way Through the Woods” for Morse, five episodes of Cadfael, two out of three episodes for Heat of the Sun, a Trevor Eve series, and five for Lewis, among a host of other credits.  Clearly, no slouch.  My crankiness is that I don’t find the impulse to explore Morse’s back story in any way needful.  In other words, the show would work for me as a standalone, but as part of the canon, it gets on my nerves.

OK, so I’m a grump.  I think if you had little or no experience of Morse, or Lewis, you could well enjoy Endeavour as another ingenious and not overly gimmicky Brit police procedural.  For me, too much previous.  But don’t take my word for it.  The show has many strengths, the writing, the cast, the production values.  We’re back in Oxford, for one, with its evocative locations, and back in the 1960’s, with a little of the rough-and-ready, so far as the cops go.  You could do worse. 




All the same, I have to say, I’d rather go back and revisit those nine seasons of Lewis.  It was charmed.  That easy.

12 October 2021

Protect Your Inner Life


Reacting to Lan Samantha Chang’s essay on LitHub.com, “Writers, Protect Your Inner Life,” Trey R. Barker (my Guns + Tacos co-creator/co-editor) posted on Facebook:

Michael, dressed for the
convention that never was.

The essay “at least partially misses what is actually the death of a writer’s inner self: the outer world. The world must take precedence, which makes it incredibly difficult to find time to do the actual writing, much less time to: A - think up the story, and B - do the foundational thinking that leads someone to the questions that become the basis for any writing. That is the inner life writers need to protect. It seeps away little by little and most often, a writer doesn’t even realize it. Not until it is nearly completely gone do they recognize what they’ve lost and by then? It can be too late to get it back.”

The loss or significant constriction of a writer’s inner life, which results in a reduction in creative output, is not the same as writer’s block. Writer’s block is an inability to write. Losing one’s inner life degrades, and potentially eliminates, one’s desire to write.

I should know. Events the past several months have wreaked havoc upon my inner life.

The eighteen-hour-a-week job that provides a steady base to my wildly fluctuating freelance income turned, for several months, into a thirty-hour-per-week job; health issues (nothing life-threatening, thank you for asking) demanded time I didn’t have to give and attention I didn’t want to give; and editing projects that I voluntarily took on consumed much of the time not otherwise filled.

When I wrote—and I did write—the stories I completed were adequate, probably even publishable, but lack a key element that comes from a rich inner life: They lack heart.

Without a rich inner life and the time to explore it, one loses heart, the quality of one’s creativity diminishes, and, thus, the desire to write evaporates.

Temple has noticed the light fading from my eyes—she says I’m happiest when I’m writing and happiest of all when writing is going well—and she’s asked what she can do to help me re-engage with my inner life. She’s even offered to use part of a recent bonus to fund a weekend getaway so I could lock myself in a room somewhere and do nothing but write. Though tempted by the offer, I know now is not the right time. I would likely spend much of the weekend mulling over the many outer-world concerns that have already invaded my inner world.

As Chang writes in her essay, one must “[h]old onto that part of you that first compelled you to start writing.” She further notes that “[t]he single essential survival skill for anybody interested in creating art is to learn to defend this inner life from the world.”

So, I think what I need to do is regain a firm grasp on the part of me that first compelled me to start writing—the youthful exuberance that made me think other people would be interested in the stories I had to tell—and combine it with a careful rebuilding of the inner world that allowed me to write so many stories over the years. Only then will my stories have heart, and only then will I regain a compelling desire to write.




My story “Remission,” first published in Landfall (Level Best Books, 2018), was reprinted in the first issue of Black Cat Weekly as a Barb Goffman Presents selection.

11 October 2021

An Outsider Love Story:
Rachel Mendoza and Her Taino Husband


It's Columbus Day, now also known as Indigenous People's Day, and so it should be. My novel, Voyage of Strangers, tells the story of what really happened when Columbus and a fleet of Spanish soldiers with sharp-edged steel weapons and horses, greedy for gold and blinded by Christian zeal to the humanity of any who didn't share their faith, descended on the agricultural Taino, who had neither. The Taino solved disputes by playing batey, a game akin to soccer, based their spiritual life on nature gods, and were governed by the principle of matu'm, generosity. The Taino were doomed from the moment Columbus set foot on Caribbean soil.

I've written posts about Voyage, Columbus, and the Taino before. I've written and spoken about the original protagonist of the Mendoza Family Saga, Diego, the young Jewish sailor who appeared unbidden in my head one night and demanded I tell his story, which began in "The Green Cross" in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Marching onto the deck of the Santa Maria in 1492, he gave me a way to tell the familiar—and long distorted—story through eyes unfiltered by Christianity. His friendship with the boy Hutia gave him entrée into the appealing culture of the Taino, allowing my story to move beyond the Eurocentric.

Diego's sister Rachel, who first appeared in Voyage of Strangers, was originally meant to be a secondary character. But she's become an enduring series protagonist with at least a forty-year lifespan in 15th-16th-century years, beloved by readers of the "Harem" stories in Black Cat Mystery Magazine, and my own favorite character among those I've created. Rachel and Hutia, later called Ümīt, are perennial outsiders as a couple yet also exemplars of resilience, the power of love, and the ability to make a home and family no matter what.

The Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492 into a hostile and wartorn Europe, mostly without resources, were decimated by the time they arrived, as the Mendozas do, in refuges like the Ottoman Empire. So many had died that girls were under pressure to marry as young as twelve to start rebuilding the Jewish people—an attitude that reappeared in some sects of Judaism after the Holocaust. The Mendoza parents don't believe in child marriage, but they certainly want her to marry a Jewish boy.

By the time Rachel and Diego rejoin their parents in Istanbul in 1497, Rachel has drunk deeply from the cup of freedom. She has climbed the rigging of a sailing ship, felt sun on her limbs, traveled half the world, fought for her life, and fallen deeply in love with Hutia. He, in turn, has witnessed the systematic massacre of his people. By 1496, at least one-third of all the Taino had been killed. Many committed suicide by drinking cyanide extracted from raw yuca. Until recently, the Taino were believed to be extinct. For the purposes of my series, Hutia is the sole survivor. He intends to stay with his people, fighting to the death, but at the last moment he puts love first and sails for Europe with Rachel and Diego, posing as their slave.

Once in Istanbul, Rachel has to convince her parents that this is the only boy she'll marry. Being wise and loving, they put up a fight but eventually give in. I made Hutia a bit of a paragon: handsome, smart, and good at everything he tries, including languages. He's saved both their kids' lives a few times, too. Hutia is perfectly willing to convert to Judaism. But the stodgy rabbis of Istanbul won't allow it. A savage in the synagogue? Absolutely not.

Hutia has a brilliant solution. He changes his name to Ümīt, which means "hope," and converts to Islam instead. Jews are tolerated in the Ottoman Empire, but only Muslims are admitted to all its privileges. And unlike the Jews, Islam welcomes converts eagerly. As a Muslim, Ümīt will be well placed to protect the whole family and advance its interests. Rachel finds just the right job as a kira, a purveyor or personal shopper to the ladies of the Sultan's harem. It's not long till Ümīt is working at the Palace. By the 1520s, he is one of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent's valued advisers.

Their children, as Umit says, "study Torah and the Qur'an with equal enthusiasm and question everything."

Rachel says, “If we had not learned to tolerate a great deal of inconsistency, not a single Mendoza would have made it out of Spain alive back in 1492."

10 October 2021

1977


“The hangman asked if Turpin or Lucas had any last words. "Nothing," they answered… The hangman yanked on a lever and the trapdoor fell open with a crash that echoed through the jail…On their way down, the men made no sound.”

These events took place on` December 10, 1962, the last time a Canadian would die from capital punishment.

“The death penalty was abolished July 26, 1976, with the passage of a bill barring its use introduced by the government of Pierre Trudeau.” 

A short year later, a gruesome rape and murder would test the resolve of Canadians to support this ban on capital punishment. 

On July 28, 1977, Emmanuel was shining shoes at Yonge and Dundas streets in Toronto. His family had immigrated to Canada from Portugal three years earlier and, the family all worked to support the family, including 12 year old Emmanuel. 

He was lured away from his shoe stand with an offer of $35 to help move some equipment. This money was important to Emmanuel because it would allow him to buy dog food for a puppy he wanted.

Instead, for “12 tortuous hours, he was held captive and raped by the men in the third-floor apartment,” and finally murdered.

“The biggest thing that happened was a protest … on Aug. 8, where members of the Portuguese community came out and called for … bringing back the death penalty and they called for the eradication of homosexuality.” 

The protest was accompanied by angry articles and letters concerning the death penalty, but  capital punishment remained banned in Canada despite this pressure.

Unfortunately, this also fuelled a rise in homophobia and that had many consequences.

In June 1969, Parliament had passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1968–69, which decriminalized sexual activity between men, but, “The murder of Emanuel Jaques put this idea into people’s minds that homosexuality was somehow associated with pedophilia … This sort of association that homosexuals were dangerous, perverted and somehow a threat to children.”

This attitude towards the LGTBQ community was echoed in the press, by the public, by police, and eventually resulted in the bathhouse raids of 1981, where four bathhouses frequented by the LGBTQ community were raided and the occupants were treated viciously. These raids resulted in “growing politicization and support of the gay community [and] fueled civil rights activism, made homophobia less acceptable, and have led to Pride becoming one of Toronto’s largest annual public celebrations.”

Ultimately, the LGBTQ community and their supporters prevailed. Their rights are stronger now with “anti-discrimination, anti-harassment, gay marriage, homoparentality, blood donations, transgender rights and outlawry of conversion therapies.”

In 2020, police chiefs of Canada issued a formal apology for oppressing and opposing LGBT rights.

This one grotesque and horrible murder of a child and the resulting protests, media coverage and anger threatened to topple decades of human rights progress. Eventually progress took its rightful place in pushing these rights further. 

They say history teaches important lessons. These are the days where the fabric of our rights, our scientific progress and our basic humanity feel threatened - nay, moving backwards. I find myself looking back often to turbulent times. Looking for hope. Looking for lessons.

09 October 2021

So Good, She's Scary



It's October, and for the season I'll swim out alone to the literary lake's deep pool, where the water turns dark and you can't see the bottom and something just brushed against my feet.

Let's talk Shirley Jackson.

That Shirley Jackson, the self-proclaimed witchcraft dabbler and landmark American author. In 1948, Jackson wrote "The Lottery," among the most celebrated of short stories. In 1962's We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson created a masterfully enduring--and deranged--lead character, Merricat Blackwood. 

Original 1952 cover

In between, Jackson pulled off The Haunting of Hill House (1959). Many consider it the finest haunted house novel, period--because it's not about ghosts. Don't misunderstand. At Hill House, things definitely go bump in the night.  But the novel's genius is in its layers beneath, a study of what haunts our own minds. 

The novel's synopsis: Dr. John Montague, an anthropologist secretly pursuing paranormal studies, craves hard proof that disbelieving peers would have to accept. To get it, Montague spends above his means to rent the notoriously haunted Hill House for the summer. Hill House, built 80 years earlier by the spiteful and greed-mongering Hugh Crain, who believed himself damned to hell. The sprawling house had only known dead wives and suicides and shut-in orphans. Constant tragedy and abandoned ownership led to village rumors of curses and the supernatural, or as Jackson wrote it, "whatever walks there, walks alone." 

Montague won't dare name this whatever until he's documented it scientifically. To draw out activity, Montague invites potential guests with paranormal brushes or apparent psychic ability. Everyone roundly declines or ignores the invite except the "bohemian" artist Theodora--just Theodora--and our protagonist Eleanor Vance. After her father died, Eleanor had a run-in with poltergeists--or likely her own burgeoning psychokinesis. Whatever it was, it rained stones on the Vance home for days. Her family  speaks no more of it. Rounding out the group is rakish Luke Sanderson, the owner's nephew sent to keep precautionary tabs on both house and guests--and to shake some adulthood into him. Luke is set to inherit Hill House. 

The four settle in amid the suffocating gloom. The house is vile, Eleanor thinks on arrival, but we've already learned her mind runs amok on its own. Still, she's not wrong. Hill House is designed to confound with corridor mazes, rounded corners, and architecture built off-angle. Wallpaper patterns turn the eye dizzy. Cold drafts abound. Doors won't stay open, even when propped. Eleanor's rampant imagination is our lens, through her initial dread, her exhilaration to have stumbled upon friends, her surprise at a restful sleep and a sense of belonging. 

And there's the novel's magic: belonging, where we do and where we don't.

Montague's invite is the escape Eleanor has waited to grab. To then, Eleanor hasn't made a single human connection in her thirty-two years alive. She hated her recently-deceased mother, who Eleanor nursed through a slow death, and Eleanor hates her sole surviving family member, the sister who keeps Eleanor as a nanny. A litany of doubts and assumptions blaze through Eleanor's head for every thought she risks sharing. Her calming ritual is a whispered saying that dear Mother taught, dear Mother who died on Eleanor's watch. "Journeys end in lovers meeting," a line Shakespeare wrote for Twelfth Night's court fool. 

What Eleanor really wants is to shut herself off from the world. On her drive to Hill House, Eleanor marvels at each New England cottage as a quaint shelter--if perfected with high walls and oleander hedgerows. Eleanor is clueless how stunted being locked away has left her, that her over-indulgence of someday dreams crowds out real human contact here and now. It's a safe and beautiful retreat--that beckons delusion and isolation if one rambles there too long. Eleanor has rambled there those thirty-two years. When others don't recognize her inner depth, out lashes her resentment-fueled temper. 

Eleanor isn't someone to make angry. Even Hill House finds that out.

Hill House conjures manifestations in due course, but Jackson hardly bothers showing the ghosts. The only spectral event directly on the page is a vision Eleanor has beside the manor's brook, of a family enjoying a picnic.  Otherwise, things stay corner-of-the-eye, and the nightly presence stays banging and giggling outside of bedroom doors. It's fear Jackson focuses on. Our houseguests are most afraid of what they might experience, and it stops them from flinging open doors and confronting what walks there.

As the manifestations grow more violent, Eleanor's psychokinesis becomes plausible--and formidable. Every supernatural incident in the novel can be pinned on Eleanor, be it a wild imagining or stress hallucination or her paranormal gifts. Whenever Eleanor is thinking of dear old Mother or has her pride wounded, Hill House lurches alive.

And it comes regularly for Theodora. Theo is the anti-Eleanor, elegant and confident and outwardly rebel. Eleanor needs a home and purpose, Montague needs peer acceptance, and Luke needs to earn his inheritance. Theo doesn't even need a last name. Theo only rushed to Hill House last minute after a major fight with her live-in "friend." My Nell, Theo dubs Eleanor as soon as they get acquainted. If Eleanor is finding Hill House more a home, Theo is ready to burn it to ashes.

Jackson danced around Theo's orientation and whether Theo and Eleanor have sexual tension or a sisters' bond. Either way, Jackson makes it clear Eleanor and Theo aren't up to each other's impossible standards. It's central to their isolation. Eleanor finds no one worthy of sharing her inner life. Theo can't speak her truth or let down her guard. She might've even been stripped of her family name.

As claustrophobic manor houses will do, soon friends are squabbling. Theo has a straight-razor wit and takes pleasure training it on Eleanor. Naïve Eleanor sees Theo as competition for Luke's attentions, although Eleanor isn't much into Luke anyhow. She's just casting about for a lovers meeting. Theo's real crime is growing familiarity, the latest domineering figure in Eleanor's life. Next thing, Theo's bedroom is smeared in a foul-smelling substance that could be ectoplasm. Later, as Eleanor is lost in that picnic vision, Theo senses a descending and never-shown horror that forces them to run as if their souls depended on it. Whether Eleanor summoned the horror is another thing left open.

It makes you wonder why exactly Eleanor's family kept her locked away. 

The novel reaches its climax when Montague's wife arrives. Mrs. Montague is the real ghost chaser here, and she and her comic sidekick set about actually investigating Hill House. Up to then, Dr. Montague's methods involved journaling and afternoon cocktails and catching up on his reading. He's the father figure seeking to negotiate co-existence with Hill House. It hasn't worked. The house, or the charged environment, is changing the ad hoc family hour by hour, cycling them between fear and rationalization and euphoria at each violent disturbance survived. Nightmares have seeped into Eleanor's peaceful sleep now, something disembodied holding her hand. Hill House is awake, and this is what Mrs. Montague wants to call forth. 

Mrs. Montague gets a fast answer from an entity calling itself: "Eleanor Nellie Nell Nell." In short order, Hill House is all buckling walls and banged doors. Eleanor disassociates and gives in to whatever stalks her imagination--her lover's meeting, at last. Eleanor wakes the next morning to find Theo, Luke, and Dr. Montague exhausted from a constant fight against Hill House. Meanwhile, new arrival Mrs. Montague didn't experience a thing. 

In her waking dream, Eleanor can--or believes she can--sense activity across the grounds, down to the mice and blades of grass. She is a sprite losing coherence and playing dangerous games of hide and seek. Dr. Montague orders Eleanor to leave and never return. No appeals heard, just bags packed and loaded into her car. 

1963 film version
Hill House won't let her leave, we think. Eleanor's melding into it was a gothic inevitability, we think. Eleanor has gazed upon the treacherous curve in the driveway, where Dr. Montague spoke of carriage accidents when past guests fled in terror, the same spot where Lady Crain died eighty years earlier. Eleanor is all detached smiles as she plays along as if to leave, all smiles thinking the hide-and-seek had just begun, all smiles when she swerves toward a tree. It's where her descent was always signaled to end.

Eleanor's dying thought is, "Why didn't they stop me?" 

Regret. Confusion. Jackson spent 181 pages setting that trap. Eleanor seems finally aware she took her dreaming much too far. No one escapes themselves. Eleanor is and will be forever who she is, awkward Nell with the family baggage and mommy issues. Suicide might've been a supernatural pull or despair at her evaporated fantasy world. Eleanor dies haunted either way. 

Seriously, though: Why didn't they stop her?

So untethered, Eleanor didn't need to be driving such roads on her own. Everyone understood that, and yet Dr. Montague insisted Eleanor leave alone. It was important, he claimed, and neither Theo nor Luke objected. This could've been basic psychology, Eleanor needing agency and a clean break. It could've been Hill House's influence. The others had been there as long as Eleanor, long enough to have the same warped judgment. Or it could've been fatalism, Montague believing anyone else in that car was needlessly doomed. More questions Jackson left floating. 

But there's this: Several times previously, Dr. Montague promised Eleanor he'd shepherd her safely away if things ever came to it. Things did. He didn't.

Shirley Jackson,
Wikipedia
With Jackson, never discount cruelty as a motive. In "The Lottery," human nature lets horrors evolve into institutions, even of forgotten origin. In We Have Always Lived in the Castle, families and whole communities can justify violence with speed and ease. Cruelty seeps throughout The Haunting of Hill House. A cruel man built the place. A cruel mother raised Eleanor. Friends and family tear at each other. Jackson understood humanity to our blotched souls, the brimstone stuff we don't admit we're capable of. Jackson was so good at capturing this, she was scary. 

Jackson was alternately imposing and feeling overshadowed as a Bennington faculty wife, despite her successes. Her health was failing when she came across records of an overly-academic 19th Century paranormal society. Well-intended but deluded work, to her opinion, and it inspired The Haunting of Hill House. The society's fixation on rationalizing phenomena tripped past an answer obvious to Jackson: Ghosts existed, as natural as you and I. Accept that, Jackson held, or let fear and ignorance remain more harmful than any spirit. Face these things head on, that's the Mrs. Montague approach. Understand it. Name it.

In fairness, Jackson didn't necessarily recommend that path. It's in her opening sentence: "No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream." It's a warning. Seek ghosts or human nature if you must, but beware: True knowledge can be a terror staring back at you.