30 November 2021

Supreme Grammar


  As I've mentioned previously, my employed hours are spent in the criminal courts of Texas. Consequently, I normally don't invest much time thinking about Supreme Court cases on topics outside of criminal law. That becomes apparent every time someone asks me a question about copyright or wills or contracts. 

    This past April, however, the Supremes handed down an opinion that I stumbled into while looking for something else, Facebook v. Duguid. The background of the case follows: As a security precaution, Facebook sends an automated text alert when a user logs in from a strange device. Duguid apparently had a recycled phone number of a Facebook user. He got alerts from Facebook even though he had never created a FB account. Duguid sued, claiming that the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 protected his privacy from this invasion. The act was written to prevent robocalls. (Who couldn't possibly be riveted by a case interpreting the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991?)

    The case turned on the sentence within the act defining what the statute meant by an "autodialer." Spoiler alert--Facebook's notification was held not to be a statutorily prohibited "autodialer." As defined by the TCPA, an "automatic telephone dialing system" is a piece of equipment with the capacity both "to store or produce telephone numbers to be called, using a random or sequential number generator," and "dial those numbers." 

    What I found fascinating was not the outcome but rather the discussion. The nine justices focused on whether the clause following the comma "using a random or sequential number generator" modifies both verbs "store" and "produce" or just the one closest to it. The opinion is an argument about the significance of the comma. 

    Justice Sotomayor offered up the Series-Qualifier Canon of statutory interpretation. She argued that under this "conventional rule of grammar, "[w]hen there is a straightforward, parallel construction that involves all nouns or verbs in a series," a modifier at the end of the list "normally applies to the entire series." She used commonplace sentences to illustrate the interpretation. 

    "Imagine if a teacher announced that "students must not complete or check any homework to be turned in for a grade, using online homework-help websites." It would be strange to read that rule as prohibiting students from completing homework altogether, with or without online support."

    Justice Alito agreed with the outcome of the case. He wrote a separate opinion, however, to criticize the reliance on the Series-Qualifier Canon. He threw down his own sentences to support a contrary position, including a Biblical quotation.

    "He went forth and wept bitterly [Matthew 26:75] does not suggest that he went forth bitterly."

    Justice Alito does not put forward a different interpretive canon, he argues that these are guidelines and are not ironclad. Interpretive canons are helpful in understanding language, but they are not to be applied as rigid rules. 

    This is the Supreme Court having a bare-knuckle brawl about commas and reading English. 

    Rest easy, the nation's brightest legal minds have resolved the burning question of an auto-dialer. Be forewarned, however, in the future, other words will surely come up for interpretation.
 
    To this point, Justice Alito suggests a data-driven approach to grammar rules, word usage, and definitions.

    "The strength and validity of an interpretive canon is an empirical question, and perhaps someday it will be possible to evaluate these canons by conducting what is called a corpus linguistics analysis, that is, analysis of how particular combinations of words are used in a vast database of English prose."

Jebulon, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
 
In the future, therefore, we might crowdsource law. Corpus linguistics employs language usage databases to answer legal questions. When judges are called upon to interpret a word, they often begin with the question of 'what it means to the public?' To answer this, they might Google the word or look it up in a dictionary. Corpus linguistics seeks to systematize the approach. 

    (I've read short stories that put AI in the courtroom, usually as a substitute for juries. Here is a not-too-distant alternative use for AI.)

    If, for instance, a judge wanted to discern the meaning of "to keep and bear arms" and she wanted to know what the zeitgeist of colonial America was regarding firearms, she might look to the Corpus of Founding Era American English. Brigham Young University released the database with nearly 100,000 texts from the period beginning with the start of the reign of George III and ending with the death of George Washington. From a variety of texts, she could read how the words were employed. 

    Depending on her judicial philosophy, the original intent of the framers may not be the judge's desire as the tool for interpreting words and phrases. Consider this example: When the Earl of Sandwich wanted a bit of food that he might eat while gambling, the "sandwich" became meat between bread. That's what period literature would describe. An Originalist, therefore, would not include PB & J in the definition of a sandwich. As times change, our words, and language do also. (I thank Slate for this example 4/8/21) The scope of the applied corpus might also bake in race and gender notions no longer appropriate. 

    Corpus linguistics may be a great beginning to legal interpretation. (Much like the dictionary definition would be a great start.) The problem in a data-driven world is that judges might easily let quantitative analysis become the end rather than the start of the examination. 

    Few reading the post will ever engage in much statutory interpretation. What then might be the take-home point? Your commas matter. And, the story you write today may become part of the corpus, the database, that the computers of tomorrow's lawyers draw from. Choose your words carefully. 

    Until next time.
    


29 November 2021

Post Harlem Shuffle– the Uses of Mystery


A number of famous folk have been turning out mysteries and thrillers lately. Both Clintons have published political thrillers with a little help from James Patterson and Louise Penny, while double Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead has produced Harlem Shuffle. Technically this is an historical novel that wraps a portrait of Harlem in the turbulent early 1960's around a heist scheme and a revenge plot. Our guide through this tangle of events is one Ray Carney, a good man, a faithful husband, a devoted dad, who, as the novel puts it, was "only slightly bent when it came to being crooked."

If the inhabitants of Whitehead's much praised The Underground Railroad were light on characterization and heavy on allegorical import, Ray is a man in full, hopeful, contradictory, vengeful, generous, and clever. In a word, complicated.

And he'd better be. Harlem in the '60's was a complicated place. New York City as a whole has never suffered from an excess of good government, and the Black city within the city was no exception. Stratified by wealth and color, impoverished by bias in nearly every facet of life, poorly educated, badly housed, and beset by crime, Harlem's vibrancy, creativity and vitality came despite danger and corruption.

Ray knows all about that. He owns a small furniture store, supplying a variety of new and used sofas and dinette sets, recliners and lamps. Much of his clientele buys on time and their payments are not always timely. Worse, the whole city appears to run on bribes to white cops and protection money to black gangsters or, in the lingo of the times, on the circulation of  "the envelopes."

With money going out the door, it is no surprise that Ray, whose late father, Big Mike, was a career criminal, does not look too closely at the source of the second hand radios, TV's, and appliances that cross his path. Indeed, shortly after the novel begins, what was happenstance begins to seem like fencing in earnest, thanks to his charming but feckless cousin Freddie. 

Freddie hangs out with the likes of Miami Joe, an ambitious but maybe unreliable thief, and Pepper, an ultra professional hitman. One foolish thing leads to another with Freddie, who involves his sensible but devoted cousin with Chink Montague, the big mobster of the moment.

If that is not complication enough, Ray is simultaneously attempting to move up the social ladder. He wants to grow his business and handle really quality furniture. He also wants to improve his standing with his snobby in-laws, disdainful of both his impoverished background and his dark skin.

Colson Whitehead
Colson Whitehead

His attempt to join the Dumas Club, the prime organization for Black movers and shakers, provides more than he bargained for, namely another route to the underbelly of Harlem. There characters like Cheap Brucie and Miss Laura have interesting connections with the cream of Harlem society, presenting both danger and opportunity.

Soon Ray is juggling any number of tricky situations, endangering his marriage by flirting with criminality and endangering his life by making enemies of both outright mobsters and the seemingly legit, some of whom are white. His path through these dangers presents a picture of a society under extreme pressure. Riots that he understands 100% threaten hard-won prosperity, while the corruption that saps the economy of Harlem also provides a vital source of income.

It clearly takes a man of Ray Carney's particular talents and background to survive. His decent impulses and work ethic are as essential as his ingenuity and ability to compartmentalize, driving the novel, along with his imprudent loyalty to Freddie, the brother he never had, the companion of his youth and the spark plug of innumerable adventures.

28 November 2021

Using All Your Resources


I was in the process of writing this blog article about how writers should use all of their creative resources to get a new story started and then I got sidetracked. Was the correct word sources or resources? Might be best to have a look. I went to Google as the deciding judge. Sources vs. resources.

Uh huh.

They lost me in their definition examples when they used the sun as both a source of energy and as a resource of energy. So, I'm just going to use the word resource and you readers can decide on your own which word is correct under these circumstances, source or resource.

Anyway, to get back on track, I don't know how the rest of you authors get your ideas going in order to create a new story. Short story or novel, take your pick.

I usually go to sleep putting my brain on notice to come up with something and then wake up with a character in trouble in whatever type of scene, write the scene down that morning and then come up with a plot at a later time. Or take a walk and daydream along the way. That's probably why I have so many story starts setting in computer files waiting to be finished. Of course, this way I always have something to continue writing on.

Even so, my brain doesn't always cooperate at sleep time or on walks, in which case the well runs dry and any lowered bucket hoping to fill up with fresh elixir only bumps against moist sand. But, working undercover and with sly criminals for twenty-five years, I learned early on that it was best to have more than one trick in the bag.

So, I've got this Huey pilot buddy who has done a few things in his time that I'm not allowed to talk about and has a fine brain of his own. He is not a writer himself, but he does understand some of the basics and he likes mysteries. So, we get together every so often and bounce story ideas off each other. Maybe five percent of what he comes up with is pure gold. For instance, a few years ago, he came up with an Archimedes science solution to apply to one of my stories set in the 1660s Paris Underworld series. This solution gave me the second half of the story and an ending. AHMM subsequently published the story, "Of Wax and Watermarks."

And then, a couple of years ago during one of our brainstorming sessions, he produced two main characters and several very visual scenes set it modern day Italy. All I had to do was stitch the scenes together, add the dialogue and come up with the ending. It was like being handed an outline. The story felt like it almost wrote itself.

Did it get published?

Yes it did.

Mystery Weekly Magazine (now known as Mystery Magazine) snapped it up and placed it in their September 2021 issue.

I don't know if any of you writers out there have someone you can bounce story ideas off of as a resource, but you might consider the concept.

As for me, I'll keep the guy around as a resource. I might even ply him with a little Vanilla Crown Royal from time to time to loosen up the corners of his mind for creativity. As a sometime resource, he's gold.

So, what resources do you have in your bag of tricks?

27 November 2021

How Much Violence Against Women can YOU Read in your Fiction?


This is a difficult post.

The Globe and Mail newspaper this morning mentioned that Stig Larson died on this day in 2004. I mentioned this to a man I know who is a reader - a man I like and respect - and he said, "I really liked his books."  This brought about a discussion that has gotten me thinking.

Now, as you may recall, the writing community was quite split on Larson's book 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' when it first came out.  Most authors I know, at the time, thought it needed severe editing.  But others were more concerned with aspects of the content.

I remember being at the bar of the Drake Hotel in Toronto, a notorious hangout for crime writers like ourselves, and hearing the following from a well-known male crime writer sitting beside me.  "Stig Larson was one sick puppy."

I asked him to elaborate.  After all, he was a male thriller writer of some note.  Here's what he said:

"That graphic torture scene of a young woman?  We all know how long it takes to write a book.  He would have been weeks writing that chapter.  What kind of sicko could spend that much time devising ways to describe that kind of horrific torture?"

His words really hit home with a lot of us, all of whom were published crime authors.  

Another male author at the table said, "He glorifies violence against women."

I write mainly heists and capers.  My Goddaughter series is about a mob crime family, so I'm not exactly a cozy writer.  In my short stories, I can go quite dark, but never to the point of torture.  I can't write grim novels - I simply can't spend day after day in a dark world.  It affects me mentally.

Violence is absolutely at the core of a lot of crime fiction.  It's not the topic of violence that was at issue here.  What my male author friends at The Drake were commenting on was the stunning increase in graphic description of heinous acts in fiction. It's not offstage in any way, in these books.  But I think what bothered me today is the following:  my fellow reader friend didn't even remember the torture scene that has haunted me for years.  ( I won't go into details here.)  His memory of the series was that of a woman getting her own back.  Fair enough.

So I asked him:  "Would you be able to read a scene in which a child is tortured in that way?"

He said:  "No, definitely not.  I'd have to put it down."

Telling, isn't it?  And that of course is the issue that haunts me today.  Those books of Stig Larson - and some like it that are extremely graphic in their abuse and murder of women - have done well.  Readers seem to accept it as a means to advance a plot in which - hopefully - justice will be done in the end.  (One could argue that if you are a woman killed in a horrible way, there is no justice, but that's a topic for another post.)

The end justifies the means now, so to speak.  Or is it deeper than that?  Does this reflect a deeper societal desensitization, nonchalance, or fatigue when it comes to the topic of violence against women?

My friend is not the only one.  At some point, and I think it took off with the publishing of the Stig Larson books, the fiction reading society moved to embrace a more graphic description of violence against women as entertainment.  And I have to admit, this bothers me.

Comments welcome.  I'm struggling with this one and could use others' insights.

Melodie Campbell writes about the mob in Hamilton Ontario, with tongue firmly in cheek.  You can get her books at all the usual suspects.

26 November 2021

Black Friday


In year's past, anyone who read my previous blogs knows I am not a fan of Black Friday. To many, it's the official start of the Christmas season.

It's also a primo time for crime. How do I know? I drive Uber.

No one's committed a crime in my car in all the time I've been doing rideshare. Usually, people want to get from point A to point B. But especially since the world is ready to move on from the pandemic – Whether the pandemic is ready to move on from us is another story - this year promises to be packed.

Malls and big box stores will be ideal locations for pick pockets, muggers, and the odd smash-and-grab. Already, one person has jumped in my car and talked about witnessing a fight and the aftermath of a homicide in Over-the-Rhine here in Cincinnati. Years ago, that would not even have been news. I got propositioned by a working girl there on Vine Street back in the bad ol' days. (Spoiler alert: I rolled up the window and jumped when the light turned green.) Now, however, it's party central. So when bad things go down there, it's news.

Crowds are like riots. In reality, riots are just angry crowds. And crowds bring out the worst in people. I know attending the sold out show of one local band, the Naked Karate Girls, or, as I call them, the Beastie Boys of the Queen City, I had to leave the bar several times. They're that popular. As the night wore on, alcohol worked its magic, and my then-spousal unit found herself bumped by a couple of guys who thought nothing of shoving the cute blonde (who, cute as she is, had about fifteen years on these schmucks) the way young boys pull girls' hair or snap their bras because they can't just say, "I think you're cute. Wanna dance?" When I came back into the bar after that, she pointed them out to me. The thing about drunk belligerents is weakness. Some guys are spoiling for a fight, and you avoid them unless you yourself are also spoiling. (When they won't leave you alone, all bets are off. That's usually when someone goes to the ER.) But when they prey upon someone because they perceive them to be weak, they don't handle quiet intimidation well. 

So, I intimidated them. They started bumping other girls. I planted myself in front of them and pretended not to notice them. They moved away. I moved with them. They moved again. I moved with them. Anyone who's met me knows I'm the least scary person in the room. However, I'm also 6'1" with broad shoulders. A person of that description who is scowling and not saying anything?

They moved right out of the bar, out to the parking lot, and into their cars. Probably thought I was the bouncer.

Riots are worse. We all know there are people who live for riots, who, like Heath Ledger or Jared Leto's Joker, live to watch the world burn. Get a crowd worked up and angry, and they're like a pyromaniac with a box of wooden matches. They'll throw a rock in a window. They'll set fire to a car. They'll pick a fight with a cop or even a protester. Or start a fight between one of each.

In one hilarious example a few years back in Baltimore, one such gentleman found himself on CNN spouting incoherently about police brutality – Never mind he couldn't tell you the actual event that spawned it, which was a suspect not taken to the ER when he had breathing trouble – when his mother marched out on camera, grabbed him by the ear, and started dressing him down in front of not only a squad of cops in riot gear, a crowd of protestors, but the entire country. This guy wasn't protesting. He was trying to drop a match on the world. His mother's reaction to his playing with matches was similar to my mother's. Only I played with actual matches, and my mother didn't have an audience, just a fly swatter. (Pre-timeout days, but my father was an artiste with the timeout. Ask my younger brothers.)

Black Friday is somewhat like this. People used to make fun of those at Walmart at 4 AM to grab a $20 DVD player. Yet one year, my brothers and I found ourselves in Walmart on Thanksgiving. Walmart was in This-Is-Not-A-Drill-Mode with sections of the store cordoned off so workers could prepare for the next day's onslaught. It was surreal. The aisles had stacks and stacks of the DVD players with crowds of people at 6 PM on Thanksgiving standing there with their hands on them. It reminded me of a Stephen King novel about a town taken over by Sinister Forces™.

Or the Purge movies. In fact, that year, my niece was on a Purge kick, so I posted to Facebook that my brothers and I were at Walmart "where murder is legal for the next 24 hours. The new Founding Fathers thank you for shopping at Walmart. Have a blessed day." (I suspect Walmart will not be carrying any of my books, especially if one of the Waltons reads Suicide Run, but that's scifi and for another blog.)

Nonetheless, I plan to mask up and go out next weekend for Uber. There will be no shortage of those wanting to take advantage of the mad rush, and the extra trips will let me get some shopping done while I'm between shifts.

Hopefully, my crime-free streak will continue. If not, barring serious injury, I'll have another story to tell while I look for a new side hustle.

I'll be back in three weeks with my annual A Very Tom Waits Christmas. For now, here's Steely Dan's take on Black Friday, featuring the late Walter Becker…

25 November 2021

Thanks!


Well, it's that time of year again. 

Time to take a few moments and reflect on the blessings we have received, and to give thanks for same.

Some highlights:

First and foremost, I'm grateful for my family and friends. Furthermore, I'm grateful that they have remained healthy during this pandemic. And of course I'm grateful to have my health as well.

I'm grateful for the vaccine. Doubly grateful for the new one for children (our nine-year-old got his first shot just last Saturday).

I'm grateful for the love of my wife and son. I'm grateful that my wife is my best friend. I'm grateful that my son seems to be developing "my" sense of humor.

I'm grateful for my writing (of course). I'm grateful that 2021 has been for me, the "Year of Finishing Things," so many half-finished writing projects (and several new ones) wrapped up, sold and placed for publication. I'm grateful to have a number of new projects on the horizon for 2022. 


I'm grateful for my day gig, the people I work with, and the students I serve. I'm grateful for public employee unions (especially my own). 

I'm grateful for President Joe Biden, his amazing wife, his family, and the same goes for Vice-President Harris, her husband and family, as well. I'm grateful for my country, and for everything it represents, the positive and the negative- for America as a whole.

I'm grateful to live in a gorgeous part of this country. 

I'm grateful for books. All of them. Every last one.

I'm grateful for the Seattle Mariners (World Series 2022! This is our year!).

I'm grateful to have healed up from my cascading series of leg injuries last Spring.

I'm grateful for my son's unflagging and continually escalating excitement about the impending Christmas season. And I'm grateful to be here for it!

I'm grateful to be member of this community, for my fellow Sleuthsayers, and for my regular turn in the rotation. And of course, I'm grateful for all of you, our readers.

Lastly, I'm grateful for the opportunity to be grateful, today of all days, and to get to share it with my family. How about you? What are you grateful for? Feel free to share in the comments!

See you in two weeks!



24 November 2021

The Unwashed


 

I got a call from the laundromat where I drop off my stuff for wash, dry, and fold, and they’d been broken into.  Whoever it was had rifled the laundry bags, and mine was light a couple of pounds.  I was a little nonplussed.  Maybe a junkie, or maybe just kids, random mischief.  Maybe they thought they’d get lucky, and find rolls of quarters, who knows?  But suppose somebody so desperate, they were looking through people’s dirty clothes hoping to find a pair of jeans that fit, or a sweatshirt.  It’s like stealing from the Goodwill drop box, or diving the dumpster behind a supermarket for bruised fruit.  There are people in this country who can’t imagine such a thing, just as there are people living hand-to-mouth, who can’t imagine it any other way. 

The next thing that crossed my radar was in The New Yorker archive, a profile of David Simon while he was shooting the last season of The Wire.  He remarks at one point that they’d taken the ideas of Greek tragedy, of fated, doomed people, and used them in the context of a contemporary urban environment.  “Instead of these Olympian gods,” he says, “indifferent, venal, selfish, hurling lightning bolts, … postmodern institutions are the indifferent gods.”  The social contract, in other words, has failed.

What this reminds me of is the postwar world of the 1940’s, noir and its discontents.  The subtext of noir has always been the collapse of moral order, and the foreground has always been a rat in a maze.  The indifferent gods are the forces of brute capital, in one reading, or simply the exercise of power.  The noir hero is reduced to bare essentials, and pitted against Fate.  He maneuvers across a hostile landscape, and internalizes the darkness. 

Another point, here, is that noir is often about people on the margins.  But this goes back to the 20’s and 30’s.  Warners, for example, was more class-conscious – or more socially self-conscious – than, say, Fox.  It’s the difference between Ida Lupino and Greer Garson (and meaning no disrespect to Greer Garson, either), and there’s an enormous contrast in social content between a movie like My Man Godfrey and Wild Boys of the Road.  Jack Warner got wise to Hitler early on, too, and wasn’t shy about speaking his mind, although it cost the studio money: Germany was a big market, and the price of doing business there was to keep your voice down.  Warners had always been big in gangster pictures, too, and there’s a certain subversive glamor there.  I think, though, that it took the war, and the exhaustion that followed, with the Red Scare, to create the necessary conditions.

It isn’t simply cynicism; that’s a misreading.  It’s weariness, and mistrust, and the deeper paranoia that the Cold War brought.  Look, for instance, at Shack Out on 101, or Pickup on South Street, or the almost definitive Kiss Me, Deadly.  At the end, when Gaby Rodgers opens the case, and the white-hot Furies spill out, what is it that’s lured her to this Doom?  The moth to the flame, it would seem.

Are we seeing something similar, in this uncertain and mistrustful present?  Is the Zombie Apocalypse a metaphor for the dispossessed, or should it be taken literally?  We internalize the darkness, and we seem to have fallen into a place that’s dangerously familiar.  The noir world is narrow.  It’s persecuted and conspiratorial.  Nothing is what it seems.  Authority is suspect.  The only constant is treachery, each of us isolated in our fear.

We’re trapped in generic conventions, and we know the story ends badly.  We’ve seen it before.



23 November 2021

For Everything There is a Season


I spent the last weekend of October at a VRBO in Comanche, Texas, with James A. Hearn and our spouses. The getaway was organized by Temple and Dawn, and the intent was to get us all away from daily stresses.

I’m one of those people who must keep occupied at all times, so I had a difficult time relaxing. Instead of enjoying the quiet and the company, I kept thinking about all the writing and editing projects I’d left behind.

Despite not being fully engaged in the art of relaxation, I came home with a new attitude toward the trajectory of my life. During the past few years, I’ve been writing less and editing more, and I had been wrestling with what that meant.

A week after we returned, Temple and I had a long discussion in which I decided to embrace editing as a priority over writing rather than as something in competition with writing. By the end of our conversation, I felt as if a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

In one of those events that would be too coincidental for belief if I’d included it in a short story, the next day I was offered—and I accepted—an editing situation in which I’ll be acquiring fifty-two stories a year. A week after that, a different publisher greenlit three anthology proposals, and all of this is in addition to existing editing commitments.

As King Solomon might have written in Ecclesiastes, if he’d worked in publishing: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to write, and a time to edit.” My time to edit has come.

So, keeping busy won’t be a problem for the foreseeable future, and the next time Temple and I get away—with or without the Hearns—I might better appreciate the downtime.

 
My story “Crush” appears in the Winter 2021 issue of
Vautrin.

22 November 2021

Lights! Action! Murder...


 by Steve Liskow

A week ago, I did something I haven't done since 2004.


Proof, that last audition, 2005

I auditioned for a play at a local community theater. From the early 1980s until 2009, I acted, directed, produced or designed for over 100 productions in central Connecticut, but I pretty much left theater in 2010. It was a combination of burnout and signing my first contract for a novel, and it seemed like time to turn from stage to page. Since then, I've acted in one show where the director invited me to take the role, and directed a couple of one-act plays where friends I'd worked with before asked me to step in.  
Me as the cop in Miller's "The Price," my last role in 2013



I seldom read plays anymore. At my age, I don't see a lot of interesting roles I could do, anyway. But this particular play needed a sixty-five-year-old male who is a former literature professor, and it's a substantial role, the only male with four women. 

When I arrived at the theater, I met four other men; I'd worked with three of them before--often--and knew the fourth. All of us were over 60. Coincidence?

I didn't get cast, but Barbara, my wife, will play the matriarch lead. She still performs in three or four productions a year. In fact, she closed in a production Saturday night, and her first read-thru for this new show will be tonight.

I don't mind not getting cast (I can stay home watching the UConn Women basketball games), but it started me thinking about my overlapping interests/careers.

One novel and fifteen of my short stories use music as an important component of the story. Two of my novels involve teachers, my day job for three decades. I've only used theater in one story, and it didn't involve the actual play at all. Upon further reflection, I couldn't remember a single story involving theater by ANYBODY that strikes me as better than mediocre. I haven't read everything out there, of course, and Linda Barnes, a former teacher and actor herself (and also from Michigan), used an actor/amateur sleuth for several novels before creating Carlotta Carlyle. She left the actor behind because she decided his propensity for showing up where people died might affect his chances of getting cast again. 


I've never read any of Barnes's theater stories, but most of the others--and I can't think of many--betray the writer's lack of knowledge or experience in theater. The performance spaces, characters, and technical aspects of the show all sound like they're out of the 1950s, and the actors and other theater people are little more than comedic stereotypes. The last light board with those immense levers like Frankenstein's laboratory disappeared by 1990. For the last show I directed at Hole in the Wall in 2008, my lighting designer sat in the auditorium and programmed 104 light cues involving about 70 instruments on her laptop. For all I know, today she might use an app on her phone. 

The lessons I learned in theater carry over to writing, though. Both my acting and directing mentors quoted Sanford Meisner's dictum about monologues: nobody has to watch the person speaking a monologue unless the actor MAKES him pay attention. That doesn't mean over-the-top histrionics (which are hard to do on paper). It means being real and showing what is at stake. High stakes is what story-telling is all about. 

And that got me thinking again, always a dangerous thing. I haven't written a new story in a few weeks because I've been trolling for ideas.

Maybe it's time to go back to that other part of my life and try a mystery based on theater.

(...Fade to Black...)

21 November 2021

Character References


Queen's Gambit, girl and chessboard

The Netflix miniseries Queen’s Gambit led me to check out the novel from my local library. I was charmed. Walter Tevis chronicles the professional life of chess prodigy Beth Harmon, an orphan who rises above her expectations.

Her journey reminds me of the vicissitudes of Bobby Fischer, America’s erratic genius. When Fischer faced off against his friend and relentless Russian competitor Boris Spassky in Reykjav√≠k, for the first time the US saw Fischer and Spassky’s battle televised move for move. Those of us with an interest in chess enjoyed the showdown.

When Queen’s Gambit appeared on Netflix, those days came back to me. I was immediately captivated. I’m going to preach heresy– I liked the series slightly better than the novel.

Film has advantages over words on a page and one here was the portrayal of chess on the ceiling. (You have to see it to get what I mean.) Beyond that, the miniseries offered a few subtle enhancements. For example, Beth learns Russian and happens to overhear an opinion about her… a critical opinion that gives her a chance to assess the destructive path she’s taking.

Top chess players often suffer a touch of madness, Fischer among them. The great Paul Morphy committed suicide. Few women play. It might be sexism or women may be too smart to pursue chess. The actress, Anya Taylor-Joy, perfectly portrays that touch of something not-quite-right and does it in an endearing way.

In both book and on screen, the players (her competitors), her mentors, and especially her step-mother are well drawn. Unfortunately, the novel’s sketch of her primary Soviet opponent reminds one of a boar-like Leonid Brezhnev. The movie version opted for a sophisticated, elegantly dressed family man, which carries much better.

The series outlines that male habit of being cautious of interlopers until they prove themselves. Beth’s biggest fans become those she defeats. She earns their respect, unstinting admiration and, in one case even love.

The ending of the miniseries is well done, a fitting ending to a poignant story.

But…

In both book and film, I level a criticism about a small but important lost opportunity. The story opens with Beth’s mother crashing her car into a steel bridge. Later, her childhood friend Jolene asks, “What’s the last thing your mother said to you?”

Beth answers, “Close your eyes.”

Absolutely chilling, or it would have been except both the book and the film felt they had to add background, diluting that simple answer down to nothing. Therein, I thought, lay a lesson.

Oh, the cover, Queen’s Gambit… sheer genius.

chessboard with bottles of booze and pills

20 November 2021

Who Chose the Prose for Those Anthos?


  

I think I've mentioned, here at SleuthSayers, the fact that I've been submitting almost as many short stories to anthologies as I have to magazines these past couple of years. (Reminder: a collection is a group of stories written by the same author; an anthology is a group of stories written be different authors.) And the more stories I've sent to anthologies, the more I have come to appreciate the knowledge and professionalism of the folks who edit those books. I've done it myself only once, fifteen years ago. I had a great time with it, met some fine writers, made long-lasting friends in the process, and--I hope--produced a good anthology. But I haven't done it since. It's hard work, a lot harder than writing. 

As sort of a nod and vote of thanks to those editors, here's a list I put together of some of the recent anthologies I've been published in and the people who steered those ships.

NOTE 1: All these are within the past couple of years, except for those edited by folks with whom I've worked several times--in those cases I've listed multiple projects from the past.

NOTE 2: I've shortened some of the anthology titles, when possible (apologies to those editors). But the list is long enough as it is.




Editor                                                          Anthology


Josh Pachter          Only the Good Die Young (Untreed Reads, 2021)

                               The Great Filling Station Holdup (Down & Out Books, 2021)

                               The Beat of Black Wings (Untreed Reads, 2020)


Cameron Trost        The Black Beacon Book of Mystery (Black Beacon Books, 2020)


Abigail Linhardt       Winter's Vindication (SummerStorm Press, 2021)


Eric Guignard          Professor Charlatan Bardot's Travel Anthology (Dark Moon Books, 2021)

                                Pop the Clutch (Dark Moon Books, 2019)

                                Horror Library, Vol. 6 (Farolight Publishing, 2017)

                                After Death (Dark Moon Books, 2013)


Donna Carrick         A Grave Diagnosis (Carrick Publishing, 2020)


Lyn Worthen            Cozy Villages of Death (Independently published, 2020)


Michael Bracken      Jukes and Tonks (with Gary Phillips, Down & Out Books, 2020)

                                 The Eyes of Texas (Down & Out Books, 2019)


Otto Penzler             Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2021 (with Lee Child, Mysterious Press, 2021)

                                 Best American Mystery Stories 2020 (with C. J. Box, HMH, 2020)

                                 Best American Mystery Stories 2018 (with Louise Penny, HMH, 2018)

                                 Best American Mystery Stories 2015 (with James Patterson, HMH, 2015) 


Verena Rose/Harriette Sackler/Shawn Reilly Simmons              Masthead (Level Best Books, 2020)

                                                                                                     Landfall (Level Best Books, 2018)


Greg Herren            Florida Happens (Bouchercon anthology, Three Rooms Press, 2018)

                                Blood on the Bayou (Boucheron anthology, Down & Out Books, 2016)


Rick Ollerman         Denim, Diamonds, and Death (Bouchercon anthology, Down & Out Books, 2019)


J. K. Larkin             Pets on the Prowl (Red Penguin Books, 2021)

                               Stand Out II: Best of the Red Penguin Collection (Red Penguin Books, 2021)

                               Behind Closed Doors (Red Penguin Books, 2021)

                               Heart Full of Love (Red Penguin Books, 2021)

                               What Lies Beyond (Red Penguin Books, 2020)

                               'Tis the Season (Red Penguin Books, 2020)

                               A Trip for the Books (Red Penguin Books, 2020)


Judy Tucker/Lottie Boggan        Mad Dogs and Moonshine (Queen's Hill Press, 2008)

                                                   Fireflies in Fruit Jars (Queen's Hill Press, 2007)


Sandra Murphy          Peace, Love, & Crime (Untreed Reads, 2020)

                                   A Murder of Crows (Darkhouse Books, 2019)


Philip Levin               Rocking Chairs and Afternoon Tales (Doctor's Dream Publishing, 2012)

                                  Magnolia Blossoms and Afternoon Tales (AWOC Publishing, 2010)

                                  Sweet Tea and Afternoon Tales (AWOC Publishing, 2009)


Barb Goffman           Crime Travel (Wildside Press, 2019)


Andrew MacRae       Mid-Century Murder (Darkhouse Books, 2020)

                                  Sancuary (Darkhouse Books, 2018)

                                  We've Been Trumped (Darkhouse Books, 2016)


Johnny Lowe            What Would Elvis Think? (Clinton Ink-Slingers, 2019)


Theresa Halverson/Sarah Faxon             Released (No Bad Books Press, 2021)


Judy Penz Sheluk       Moonlight & Misadventure (Superior Shores Press, 2021)

                                    Heartbreaks & Half-Truths (Superior Shores Press, 2020)


Jake Devlin                 BOULD Awards Anthology (Independently published, 2021)

                                    BOULD Awards Anthology (Independently published, 2020)


Patricia Gaddis/Alexandra Pollock        Mini-Mysteries Digest (Heinrich-Bauer, 2021)


John Connor                Crimeucopia: The Cosy Nostra (Murderous Ink Press, 2021)

                                     Crimeucopia: Dead Man's Hand (Murderous Ink Press, 2021)

                                     Crimeucopia: As in Funny Ha-Ha (Murderous Ink Press, 2021)

                                     Crimeucopia: The I's Have It (Murderous Ink Press, 2021)


Tony Burton                Ten for Ten (Wolfmont Publishing, 2008)

                                    Crime and Suspense I (Wolfmont Publishing, 2007)

                                    The Seven Deadly Sins (Wolfmont Publishing, 2007)


Owen Litwin                The Odds Are Against Us (Liberty Island Media, 2019)


Sarah E. Glen             Mardi Gras Mysteries (Mystery and Horror LLC, 2021)




Some of the above editors (Barb, Michael, Rick, Lyn, Judy Tucker, etc.) have also edited magazines and other projects that contained my creations, and I've found these folks to be just as able and helpful at that as they were with the anthologies. A good editor is a godsend in this crazy business, and I thank them all sincerely.

Questions: Have any of you worked with the editors I've mentioned? Do you have stories in any of their upcoming anthologies? How about other editors, and if so, what were your experiences? Have you edited anthologies yourself? Also, what are some of the more "different" anthologies, themewise, to have featured your work? Please let me know in the comments section below. (If you're interested, here's an earlier SleuthSayers post that discusses themed anthos.)

Meanwhile, keep writing those stories--for anthologies, magazines, collections, and whatever other markets you might find. Good luck with them all!


 


19 November 2021

From the Christmas Shelf


Every year I flip through the books on our Christmas shelf to see if I want to read or re-read any titles I’ve acquired and tucked there over the year.

But wait—

Yes, I know it’s not even Thanksgiving, and you’re probably appalled at the thought of me raising the specter of Christmas. But due to supply-chain issues, the words I wanted to use to talk about Christmas books are in short supply worldwide, so I’ve been advised to order those words early, get them shipped to the house, and them sprinkle abundantly in my prose throughout November instead.

Word of caution: The words very and just are quite plentiful in the market right now, so when in doubt, just use very. Just use it very very much. In short supply this season: decency, compassion, and common sense. On the other hand, unfortunately the U.S. is overstocked with stupidity, demagoguery, and mendacity, so feel free to use those words until we have eradicated the surplus.

But seriously, I thought it might be fun to share with you some books I have enjoyed in recent holiday seasons.








 















The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Our Most Cherished Holiday, by Stephen Nissenbaum (Knopf, 1996, 381 pages).

This is a brilliant nonfiction history of the American Christmas tradition, even if it is woefully mistitled. I like the book because it demonstrates convincingly that Christmas in America in the early 19th century was a distinctly low-key affair. Using the diaries of New England women, Nissenbaum reveals that the most these diarists did to celebrate the holiday was attend church, and lay in unusual pantry ingredients so they could bake a special cake for their families and visitors. Only later, mid-19th century, do we see Christmas celebrations necessitating the purchase of gifts, first for children, and then of course for every freaking person in one’s social circle. The creation and development of the American Santa Claus plays a major role in crassly forcing the holiday to swing toward commercialism. The book also blows your mind with a discussion of the selfish roots of philanthropy. You watch as wealthy New Yorkers donate money to feed the poor, then assemble in coliseum-like settings to watch as starving children stuff their faces. The last chapter, on the African-American Christmas traditions that grew out of slavery, is also fascinating.





















Christmas: A Biography, by Judith Flanders (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s, 2017, 256 pages).

Flanders is best known in the mystery community for her novels and a book she did on how the Victorian obsession with crime arguably engendered mystery and true crime literary traditions. She also did a wonderful book on Dickensian-era London. This book, about the origins of Christmas as an international holiday, is rich and head-spinning, chiefly because, as she says, the way people celebrate Christmas in other nations will always seem alien to outsiders. Americans think they have a cultural lock on Santa Claus, but they have no freaking clue about how the gift-bringer tradition plays out in other cultures. Yule lads in Iceland, la Befana in Italy, to name two easy examples. I like this book quite a bit, but I’ll never understand why her publisher did not include the footnotes so you can easily flip to a historic source in the back if you’re intrigued by something she says. (Full footnotes are available on Flanders’ website.) You will enjoy knowing that as long as Christmas has been around, people have been complaining about it. Whether it was too raucous, too commercial, too gluttonous, too heretical, the poor holiday never seemed to please anyone.

A Christmas Memory, One Christmas, & The Thanksgiving Visitor, by Truman Capote (Modern Library, 1996, 107 pages).

I grew up regarding Capote as a comical fixture on the talk shows my parents watched. In high school an English teacher had us read In Cold Blood (why do we do that to kids?) It was only in college that I came to his other writing, which I always found remarkable for its precision. This little classic of three stories is charming because it reminds you how little you truly need to make a holiday special. The best-known story, "A Christmas Memory," boils down to a loved one, a recipe, and some outdoor activity. Extra points if you can figure out Miss Sook’s fruitcake recipe on the basis of Capote’s prose alone. The actual recipe is never given in the book. The author apparently had no use for that conceit, which is now so common to food memoirs.




















Seth’s Christmas Ghost Stories, illustrated by Seth (Biblioasis, 2016).

By now most of us know that A Christmas Carol by Dickens grew out of a British holiday tradition which dictated that ghost stories be told this time of year. This delightful little series of books, curated and illustrated by the surname-less New Yorker cartoonist Seth, takes that to a logical extreme. Each volume is a single ghost story by name-brand writers—Edith Wharton, Dickens, etc.—that are suitable for gift-giving and reading in front of the fire. The Wharton book, which I received from a friend, is a mere 37 pages. The complete series currently runs to 11 titles, about $7 in paperback or $0.99 each in ebook form. And when I describe the books as little, I mean that literally. They’re about 4-by-6-inches in size. I wonder if some clever editor (or Seth himself) had visions of Christmas stockings in their head when they conceived the series.






























The Snow Queen, illustrated by Vladyslav Yerko
I’m not a fan of this particular tale by Hans Christian Andersen, but the adaptations I’m recommending here are something entirely different. As far as I know, these books were pubbed by two separate houses, one as a 32-page version (top) with prose by an unnamed translator, and another as a more luxurious, slipcased 96-page retelling by Nicky Raven (bottom). Both versions showcase glorious illustrations by the Ukrainian illustrator, Vladyslav Yerko, who in his fanciful bio tells us that as an infant in Kiev he slept in a large suitcase in his grandmother’s home. Yerko’s Snow Queen books were pubbed in multiple languages, but are now out of print. (Still, new and used copies turn up on Biblio and Bookfinder, but always confirm that you are buying an English-language version before checkout.) When I was a lowly intern starting out in publishing, one of my editors at a New York arts magazine subjected me to a lecture in which she insisted that illustrations (which I grew up loving) could never approach the realm of fine art. I flip through the longer of Yerko’s two Snow Queen books every Christmas just to mentally bash that notion to pieces. Behold, folks, I give you Yerko, fine artist and illustrator!




I suppose I could prattle on with other books, but I think that’s quite enough from me. I’ll be back in December with a different sort of holiday selection. If you have any favorite books that you reach for this time of year, please let me know. I never get tired of adding to my shelf.

See you in three weeks.

Joe
josephdagnese.com



18 November 2021

Things Fall Apart


[Sherlock Holmes said,] “It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”

“You horrify me!”

“But the reason is very obvious. The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard’s blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser."

— Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Copper Beeches

Living in South Dakota, and most of that time in a small town, I agree with Holmes' assessment 100%.  

I've related in many a blog the ins and outs of various government corruption and malfeasance, from EB-5 to Gear Up! to the death of Joe Boever, and more.

I've also sat in a courtroom and watched as a grandfather, convicted of molesting all four of his grandchildren, was given a slap on the wrist from a judge because the man "had an unblemished record."  

And then there's the petty stuff: small towns where "everyone takes care of each other", so they don't have to enforce the rules.  With predictable results:  people don't shovel their sidewalks unless they feel like it, a noted person (with money) was allowed to turn numerous private properties into private junkyards, and the memorable time when one man threatened to shoot anyone that set foot on his property.  And then complained because the volunteer fire department watched his house burn down. 

BTW, there's no feud like a small town feud, unless it's a small town church feud.

Back on January 13, 2019, in my post "What We're Best at Being Bad At", I said that South Dakota was really good at embezzlement. And we are. To quote myself:

"Besides grifting on the state level, there's also one heck of a lot of small potatoes embezzlement here in South Dakota, much of it fueled by gambling addiction and/or medical bills. $500 from the local VFW; $1,500 from a doctor's office; $2,500 from a nursing home. Interestingly, other than the public humiliation, the punishment is usually a slap on the wrist: the main penalty is to pay the money back and do community service. Rarely is there any jail time. Perhaps that's why it's so common…
But sometimes it's bigger: Just recently, up in Kingsbury County a family-run grain elevator has gone bankrupt because the family was hedging commodities and lost as much as $15 million of other people's money." (HERE)

At the time I didn't go into details, because so much of it was "gossip".  Well, it's now two years later, and "Jared Steffensen of the Arlington, S.D., area, pleaded guilty to theft by deception in his H&I Grain Inc. business, at a June 29, 2021, hearing at the Beadle County, S.D, courthouse at Huron. He speculated on grain trades, and then failed to pay millions to farmers. He and his wife, Tami, could face five years in the state penitentiary. His mother, JoAnn also pleaded guilty to a felony of failing to inform state regulators that her company was failing financially." (AG Week)

SD grain elevator

Former H&I Grain Inc. site at Hetland, S.D, original location for a family business that ran into legal trouble when Jared Steffensen of Arlington, S.D, accelerated speculation in grain trades, costing ~32 farmers and companies millions of dollars.
Photo taken May 6, 2019, Hetland, S.D. Mikkel Pates © Agweek

Citing“criminal mentality” (for one thing, the scam went on for months) and “lack of remorse,” Circuit Judge Kent A. Shelton sentenced Jared and Tami Steffensen each to terms of five years in state prisons and made them liable for restitution of $4,966,491.80 to farmers, as well as other costs. And had them marched out of the courtroom, in handcuffs, back to jail. (Ag Week)

But the neighbors know, in the words of Greg Albrecht, whose family lost more than a million dollars, "We're never going to see nothing out of it." And they probably won't.

And that's not the worst scam:

On November 4, 2021, Robert "Bob" Blom, a feedlot operator in Corsica, South Dakota (pop. 592) was sentenced to 91 months in prison after pleading guilty to a Ponzi scheme. Basically, he ran a custom cattle feeding operation in which he resold cattle he didn't have in inventory to investors, falsified invoices and used the money to pay back old investors.

He owes $24,282,865.94 to people he conned – life-long neighbors, who definitely feel that he's getting way too little for his crimes. "Was there any plea bargaining for me?" asked Rod Myer, a cattle feeder that worked with Blom for 14 years and was a victim in the case. "I hear a lot in the courtroom today on how Bob felt. Well, how do you think I felt?… There goes my life savings." (Argus)

That's TWO multi-million dollar peculations occurring in TWO rural counties in South Dakota.

Now here's the deal: if you live in Corsica, SD (pop. 592), in Douglas County (pop. 2,835), or if you live in Hetland, SD (pop. 46) in Kingsbury County (pop. 5,187), you know just about everyone in the entire county.  You went to school with them, to church with them, etc. You've known them all your lives.  You trust them. "A man's word is his bond" is a common saying.  A handshake could seal major contracts.  And suddenly, one family in each of these counties, in absolute cold-blood, screwed everyone - life-long friends and neighbors – out of their life savings. 

It's not even the money, as much as that hurts. As Jeff Hampton, a friend of Blom’s for over 50 years, said, "Bob should never see the light of freedom again — those are hard words coming from a friend.” Then he turned to Blom. “You’ve destroyed the trustworthiness of a man’s word.” (Ag Week)  And he only got 7.5 years in prison.  

Let's put it in perspective:

In South Dakota, you get drunk and kill someone in a bar-brawl, you can - and many do - get life without parole for 1st Degree Manslaughter.  If you hit and kill someone while driving drunk, at least 10 years.  (Does not apply to state officials driving late at night on rural roads who run into deer with glasses. They get misdemeanors. And complain about that.)  One recent case involved 4 young men who were all charged in the shooting death of a man named Jordan LeBeau. The actual shooter got 40 years, but Kevin Rice got 60 years - not for shooting the victim - but for not stopping the shooting.  (Argus)  

Meanwhile, financial crimes get a slap on the wrist. 5 years. 7.5 years.  You have to be Bernie Madoff to get a life sentence.  Otherwise...  Well, all those people shouldn't have trusted them, right?  We'll set up a payment plan.  And - sort of related - Smithfield Foods in Sioux Falls recently finally admitted to not doing enough to stop Covid back in the beginning, when 1,294 workers got Covid and 4 died - and paid a fine of $13,000.  This is around $10 a survivor OR $3,250 per death, which tells you how much a meat-packing plant worker's life is worth.  

Watch your backs, folks. There is no Eden, and even in Eden there was a snake.  Why not in South Dakota, where we talk like Mayberry, and act like Goodfellas?  God, I wish I was joking.




17 November 2021

John Lennon's Sherlock Holmes Pastiche


featuring William Burton McCormick

Sherlock Holmes pastiches are a cottage industry. New adventures or parodies of the world’s most famous literary detective by authors other than his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have existed since the nineteenth century and include such well-known scribes as Mark Twain, Stephen King, John Dickson Carr, Jeffrey Deaver, Loren D. Estlemen, Anne Perry, Michael Kurland, Nicholas Meyer, Edward D. Hoch, Dorothy L. Sayers, Michael Moorcock, Neil Gaiman, Conan Doyle’s son Adrian and several SleuthSayers members among the thousands of other writers worldwide. One name that may not immediately come to mind is John Lennon.

Yes, that John Lennon.

A little background. From his boyhood to his time at the Liverpool College of Art to the early days of the Beatles, Lennon kept a scrapbook where he’d scribble poetry, cartoons, and nonsensical stories in the Lewis Carroll “Jabberwocky” tradition. The best of these were collected for the book In His Own Write, published in March,1964.

With the advent of Beatlemania, In His Own Write was assured commercial success selling 300,000 copies in England alone. More surprising, given the hostility towards the Beatles as a “teenage fad” at the time, was the effusive praise it received from establishment critics. Many compared the best passages to Carroll and James Joyce. 

In the wake of its critical and commercial success, other musical artists began to write and publish their own poetry, most notably rival Bob Dylan. (Inspired by In His Own Write, Dylan began working on poems in 1965 that would be collected in Tarantula (1971).) But Lennon did not have the option to wait as long as Dylan. A follow up was demanded to In His Own Write. One to be published the next year.

This was no easy task for Lennon. The Beatles were in the midst of a world tour, required to record two albums and numerous singles in ‘64, film A Hard Day’s Night and heavily promote everything. What’s more, Lennon had used up his backlog of poems and stories for In His Own Write. Everything for the next volume would have to be from scratch.

He carved out time do some (non-song) writing, when vacationing in Tahiti with his wife Cynthia, bandmate George Harrison, and Harrison’s then girlfriend Pattie Boyd in May,1964. Their private boat was stocked with a few English-language books including a Sherlock Holmes omnibus.  After reading the collection, Lennon reasoned that all Holmes stories were essentially the same and decided to include a parody in his next book. That book was A Spaniard in the Works (June,1965) and the parody was "The Singularge Experience of Miss Anne Duffield” written by Lennon with the aid of Cynthia, George and Pattie over several bottles of Johnnie Walker while at sea.

As can be guessed from the title "The Singularge Experience of Miss Anne Duffield” is a nonsense-language story. At just under two thousand words, it is the longest piece of prose Lennon ever published. (He jokingly called it his novel). If you’re looking for the vivid imagery found in such Lennon songs as “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” or “Across the Universe” you won’t find it here. Instead, this is a tongue-in-cheek Liverpudiian pun-fest that owes more to The Goon Show and the gobbledygook language “Unwinese” created by British comic Stanley Unwin than any nineteenth century Lewis Carroll “Jabberwocky."

The opening lines are:

I find it recornered in my nosebook that it was a dokey and winnie cave towart the end of Marge in the ear of our Loaf 1892 in Much Bladder, a city off the North Wold. Shamrock Womlbs had receeded a telephart whilst we sat at our lunch eating.

This can be loosely translated in a more Arthur Conan Doyle way as:

I find it recorded in my notebook it was a dark and winter day towards the end of March in the year of our Lord 1892 in Manchester, a city of the north world. Sherlock Holmes had received a telegram while we sat at our lunch eating.

The fun is in deciphering the heaps of puns piled atop each other and the way Lennon apes Holmes story conventions. If you enjoy word play, 1960’s British in-jokes and groan-inducing puns, then this may be the Holmes pastiche for you. If not, or you find it “all a bit silly” (as Harrison’s friend Eric Idle might say) you may prefer to encounter Lennon’s wit on Abbey Road rather than Baker Street.

The plot (as much as there is one) sets Shamrock Womlb and his friend Doctored Whopper against a Jack the Ripper doppelganger Jack the Nipple who is “a sex meany of the lowest orgy.” (Did he invade Pepperland later?) When challenged Jack admits “‘I'm demented’ he said checking his dictionary, ‘I should bean at home on a knife like these.’”

Groan you might, but Lennon is the one writer to reveal the true source of the great detective’s amazing deductive powers in a dash of metafiction. Wolmbs, it turns out, knows all because he’s “seen the film” while Doctored Whopper remains at a disadvantage having “only read the comic.” So now we know.

There are titular jokes afoot too. While the story is filled with many characters including a prostitute Mary Atkins, her pimp boyfriend Sydnees, an escaped prisoner Oxo Whitney (who terrifies Whopper’s imagination) and the Lestrade stand in Inspectre Basil, there is no appearance or mention of a character named Miss Anne Duffield despite being in the title. This mirthful twist is the penultimate red herring (Yes, penultimate… wait and see). You thought this was about Anne Duffield? Well, think again.

A recurring gag throughout the piece is Lennon’s lampooning of the famous refrain “Elementary my dear Watson.”  (Holmes aficionados well know that this phrase is not found in any of Conan Doyle’s stories but appears to have been first recorded by P.G. Wodehouse in 1909 and became familiar with the greater public as a result of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films of the 1930’s and 1940’s).

In Lennon’s work, the phrase becomes:

“Ellifitzgerrald my dear Whopper,”

and “Eliphantitus my deaf Whopper,”

and “Alibabba my dead Whopper,” 

and “Alecguiness my deep Whopper,” etc., etc.

“Elementary, my dear Watson” never appears in canonical Conan Doyle. It never appears in noncanonical Lennon either. Some purity in that.

I must now talk about the ending. The vast majority of the original Holmes stories are told from the point-of-view of Dr. John Watson, supposedly recalling cases from years earlier with startling detail. Every clue, every movement and emotion are remembered by Watson’s vault of a mind in his chronicling of Holmes’s adventures for posterity. Some have commented on Watson’s amazing clarity.

Additionally, in many stories, Holmes leaves Watson’s presence, only to return with new information and miraculously solve the case. Well, in Lennon’s pastiche these tropes appear as well.  Shamrock Womlb leaves without explanation, causing Doctored Whopper to curse his friend: “‘Blast the wicker basket yer grannie sleeps in.’ I thought ‘Only kidding Shamrock’ I said remembering his habit of hiding in the cupboard.” When Shamrock returns [SPOILERS] he apparently reveals the solution to Whopper but then Whopper says… “I poked the fire and warmed his kippers, when he had minicoopered he told me a story which to this day I can't remember.”

Yes, whole story is a red herring. The good Doctored didn’t record the ending…

The joke is on us. The solution is lost to Whopper’s fading memory.

Or Johnnie Walker.

On a boat off Tahiti.

Maybe that’s where Miss Anne Duffield went.


William Burton McCormick is a Shamus, Derringer and Claymore awards finalist. His two latest releases are the historical thriller novella A STRANGER FROM THE STORM and the modern espionage thriller KGB BANKER (the latter co-written with whistleblower John Christmas).