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. 



08 October 2021

Annabel Lee Buried Here, and Other Boneyard Myths



I spent two weeks in Charleston, South Carolina, this past summer. That’s not exactly a fun time of year to visit that city. Every morning, we left our hotel needing to walk one measly mile to the library where my wife was doing some research. And every morning, as soon as we left the cool lobby of the hotel behind, I sniffed the outdoor air and thought, “Oh, the humidity isn’t that bad.” Twenty minutes later I was drenched, and desperately needed to wash up and dry off in the library’s air-conditioned bathroom before I could be trusted not to perspire onto the precious documents the archivists were fetching us.

Early in our visit, we noticed the entrance to a cool-looking cemetery just across the street. The Unitarian Church burying ground was accessed through a narrow archway that fronted King Street, Charleston’s high-end shopping drag.


One gray morning, we peeked into the archway. Ahead of us was a long footpath planted with tropical seeming plants. Heavy iron gates on one side hid charming row houses and courtyards. A tall brick wall on the other side.
  

The cemetery was down the lane somewhere, but a torrential storm broke overhead, and we fled the scene, determined to return. We didn’t, because there was always something else to do, because the heat was always miserable, and because the last thing you want to do after a day of research is ruin your eyes reading old gravestones.


The head librarian happened to mention that the cemetery was popular with the city’s haunted walking tour folks. Upon hearing this, my first thought was, “Oh, great.” In my cynical view, when a person with a fondness for history wants to enter a profession where actual facts don’t matter, they become a ghost tour operator.

But curiosity got the better of me. One afternoon near the end of our trip, I couldn’t resist poking around online to see what was special about this particular 244-year-old burying ground. Things I learned at the feet of Professor Google:
  • The woman who inspired Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee” was buried in this cemetery. Yes! It was the absolute truth! A beautiful and wealthy Southern belle named Anna (see what I did there?) had fallen in love with a soldier early in the 19th century. Her family didn’t approve of the match. The two lovers took to meeting in this very cemetery to smooch and canoodle. And of course she died. Of yellow fever. Or maybe tuberculosis. And her highborn family buried her in this charnel earth. Bereft, the soldier pined away for the rest of his days. Poe heard the tale and turned it into a poem.
  • No! said another website. Anna’s lover was not just any soldier but Edgar Freaking Allan Poe himself! Yes! Eddie had fallen in love with her when he was stationed briefly in nearby Fort Sullivan in 1827. And when his love died, Poe memorialized their love—replete with supulchres and wingèd seraphs of heaven—in the now immortal poem.
  • To mess with Poe’s head, Anna’s father dug six graves but buried her in one of them, so Poe would never know which one enclosed his love.

Pick a grave, Edgar, any grave...

  • Anna’s powerful father had Poe reassigned so he’d leave South Carolina forever.
  • On certain nights, when the light, moon, humidity, and depth of the pockets of visiting tourists are just right, the ghost of Annabel Lee wanders the cemetery dressed in—what else?—a white dress.

Nearly everything I read online was nonsense, and has been carefully debunked by others. Just as an example: the woman everyone claims was Poe’s lover, Anna Ravenel, isn’t buried in this graveyard or anywhere else, because she didn’t exist. Also, would a lovesick Poe have waited 20 years after he doffed his military uniform to write a tribute to a real woman? (“Annabel Lee,” his last poem, was published in 1849, the same year he died.) And though plenty of people like to imagine Poe wandering the streets of Charleston, one wonders if he would have had the time, cash, and ability to travel from Sullivan’s Island to downtown Charleston to canoodle. (It’s an 11-mile trip by car today, 4.5 miles by boat and foot across Charleston Harbor.) But myth is everything when you’re dealing with Poe. His legend exudes ’em the way fresh tombs ooze ichor.


Myth aside, the cemetery warranted a visit, if only to grab some moody photos. The Unitarian congregation was famously known for its program of benign neglect. Whatever sprung from the earth was allowed to flourish—naturally, wildly, gloriously. A plaque at the entrance says that in 1831 the Unitarian Church chose to designate this ground a “garden cemetery” filled with “pass along” plants—that is, plants that aren’t cultivated commercially and thus only available from one’s friends, neighbors, and family.

Late in our Charleston stay, I found myself alone on the humid morning march to the stacks. My wife had given me very precise instructions about which documents I was to consult that morning, while she headed to another facility. I was to check in with her by noon.

That’s the morning I chose to dash down the cemetery lane and grab only a few of the shots you see here. A shin-tall sign warned visitors not to take rubbings. You shalt not rub!

I would have lingered. But my shirt was now pasted to my chest and back. And guilt was rising in my mind. If I didn’t get to the library soon, I’d blow our last day in these archives. But no worries—I’d return at quitting time.

Day’s end, I was striding up the footpath. What did I see? Turns out, it was the precise day that the church ladies’ garden club had arrived to spruce up the cemetery. A half dozen women in floppy straw hats were planting atmospherically appropriate ferns on the walkway. Others were trimming errant vines. When I reached the cemetery proper, I was astonished to see that someone had already blazed through, weed-whacking everything in sight. The air smelled of gasoline and aerosolized vegetation.

I shot more images with the sinking realization that the ones I’d shot that very morning were so much better than what now lay before me. One day I’ll return, and hopefully wild nature will be back, ensnaring and coaxing the dead back into the earth.


Weeds, whacked.

Other resources you might enjoy:

Edgar Allan Poe’s Charleston, by Christopher Byrd Downey.


The Name of Annabel Lee, by Julian Symons. (I read this mystery novel ages ago, and remember enjoying it, but I cannot recall a single bit of the plot.)

See you in three weeks with another boneyard tale...

Joe




07 October 2021

Pandora's Box


Who Let the Dogs Out?


Last week was our Governor's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week, as the following stories broke wide open:

(1) Governor Noem's daughter flunked her appraiser's test so our Governor met with her daughter and the supervisor of the state employee who oversaw her application in a closed meeting. The result was that the daughter got her license and the employee was "encouraged" to retire. Gov. Noem has been tapdancing as if she's in a house infested with cockroaches trying to explain that none of this had anything to do with political pressure, just an attempt to "streamline" the process of becoming an appraiser, and "eliminate barriers to licensure". At least for her daughter. (AP News) (Meanwhile, someone on the appraisal board has since leaked that the daughter flunked her test 4 times, not once.)

(2) Corey Lewandowski. Read it all here: (The Bulwark; The Daily Beast) BTW, Ian Fury, Noem's official spokesperson, said “Corey was always a volunteer, never paid a dime (campaign or official)." To which I instantly responded, "So, you are saying that he did it for love."

(3) AG Ravnsborg (the one who hit a deer with glasses, remember?) has referred Noem’s use of the state plane for various things (private trips, campaigning for Trump, fundraising, etc.) over to Government Accountability Board for review. (Dakota News) Considering that Noem's been calling for Ravnsborg's impeachment / resignation (to be fair, so have we all), this may end up being filed under Revenge Is A Dish Best Served Cold.

And

(4) The Pandora Papers:


By now, you'd have to be under a rock not to have heard about the Pandora Papers, leaked documents from a coordinated, global investigation of how the wealthy and powerful store millions of dollars in secretive trust funds, leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and reported on by the Washington Post and other partners. Naturally, the state which leads the list in housing these very dicey funds is South Dakota.

"South Dakota now rivals notoriously opaque jurisdictions in Europe and the Caribbean in financial secrecy. Tens of billions of dollars from outside the United States are now sheltered by trust companies in Sioux Falls, some of it tied to people and companies accused of human rights abuses and other wrongdoing." (Washington Post)

Now I am proud to say that in one way, I actually broke this story, on SleuthSayers, back on June 20, 2012. It's just that no one listened. As the once and [probably] future AG Marty Jackley once told me, "Call me when there's a crime." To quote myself:

And the latest hot businesses are shelf corporations. These are entities that are created by lawyers incorporating a bunch of corporations that exist in name only—no assets, no employees, and no board members except the agent filling out the paperwork. (It’s sort of like the residency corporations, who have an owner and a person doing the mailings, and that’s it.) Anyway, if you want to start a business, you pay a fee to the incorporator, and you’ve got a corporation. And you the purchaser get complete anonymity. And no taxes. And no accountability. The following is a pitch from Corp95.com: https://corp95.com/

“South Dakota is one of the best kept secrets in the corporate formation world. The state has NO corporate income or franchise taxes. Their annual fees are minimal ($50 per year) and they allow for the most privacy of ownership than in any other state. South Dakota is a low key environment and does not require that its businesses maintain any physical presence in the State. Formation is fast and requires a minimum of personal information. You will pay no more and sometimes less than some of those states that claim to offer privacy but do not actually do so. Why form your company in a state that claims to have no taxes, but then charges high fees to compensate for this. South Dakota truly does offer the most privacy at a very reasonable ongoing fee. Call us at 800-859-6696 and let us provide you with the details for formation of your business entity in this friendly state.” The Wild West Continues (my emphasis)

Corp95 is still making the same pitch, and has been joined by a host of other sharks looking for chum.

But the whole thing started with the late, great[ly interesting] multi-elected Governor "Wild Bill" Janklow, who changed South Dakota law to allow all kinds of things that just weren't allowed in other states. For example, in the 1970s Citibank, which had invested heavily in credit cards, was going bankrupt what with high national interest rates. South Dakota was in a major recession. Citibank promised 400 jobs RIGHT NOW if Janklow abolished the "anti-usury" laws that South Dakota (and all other states) had, so he did - in a single day.*

Seeing the success of that repeal, Janklow went on to deregulate trusts. Back in the 17th century, 'judges fought back against a permanent aristocracy by creating the “rule against perpetuities”, which limited the duration of trusts to around a century, and prevented aristocratic families turning their local areas into mini-kingdoms. In 1983, Janklow abolished the rule against perpetuities and, from that moment on, property placed in trust in South Dakota would stay there for ever.'

“It’s a clean industry, there are no smokestacks, we don’t have to mine anything out of the earth or anything, and they’re generally good paying jobs,” said Tom Simmons, an expert on trust law at the University of South Dakota, when we chatted over coffee in central Sioux Falls. Alongside his academic work, Simmons is a member of South Dakota’s trust taskforce, which exists to maintain the competitiveness of the state’s trust industry. “Janklow was truly a genius in seeing this would be economic development with a very low cost to the government,” he said. (By “the government”, he of course means that of South Dakota, not that of the nation, other states or indeed other countries, which all lose out on the taxes that South Dakota helps people avoid.) The Guardian

Anyway, the ICIJ's and Washington Post's reporting focuses on two Sioux-Falls based trusts: Trident Trust, an international company that opened its Sioux Falls office in 2014, and the South Dakota Trust Co., created by a founding member of Janklow's task force in 2002.

Details from the Washington Post and ICIJ investigations include:
  • The family of Ecuadorian brothers William and Roberto Isaias created trusts with South Dakota Trust Co. in 2012, soon after the brothers were convicted of embezzling government bailout money for their failed bank. Their conviction was later overturned.
  • Family members of Carlos Morales Troncoso, the former vice president of the Dominican Republican, opened several trusts with Trident in 2019 that contain $14 million in personal wealth and shares of a sugar company. The company is "accused of human rights and labor abuses, including illegally bulldozing houses of impoverished families to expand plantations."
  • Federico Kong Vielman, a powerful businessman from Guatemala, moved $13.5 million to Trident 2016. His family is linked to a former dictator and gifted free hotel stays to a former Guatemalan president, likely in exchange for "political favors." U.S. labor officials have accused his family's palm oil company of underpaying workers and exposing them to toxic chemicals. U.S. environmental authorities later found the company released pollutants into a river and the issue was resolved in an arbitration panel.
  • Guillermo Lasso, president of Ecuador, opened two new trusts with Trident in 2017 after his country made it illegal for public officials to store assets in tax havens and as media reports questioned his interests in a bank in Panama.
  • José “Pepe” Douer Ambar, a businessman from Colombia, had a trust with Trident. He settled a case with the U.S. government after an investigation found he was involved with "a vast enterprise to sell drugs in the United States and launder the proceeds."
  • Horst Happel, a business leader from Brazil, created a trust with Trident in 2018. Happel settled a case with the Brazilian government after allegedly colluding to underpay local farmers. He also settled a case with the U.S. government after he allegedly violated limits on futures trading.
  • Christopher Pallanck was formerly married to Cleopatra Cameron, an oil heiress from California who put millions in a Trident trust. Pallanck was granted full custody of their children and Cameron was ordered to pay child support. Trident successfully argued to the South Dakota Supreme Court in a 2017 case that it didn't need to pay out the child support, SDPB previously reported.

"Trident told the Post it complies with all regulations and cooperates with authorities. South Dakota Trust Co. declined to comment on its individual clients but told the Post it exceeds review standards by screening clients for criminal activity and legal or regulatory concerns. Bret Afdahl, director of the South Dakota Division of Banking, told the Post that the state audits trust companies and can penalize firms that do not meet standards, such as confirming the identities of all customers. He said foreign clients and assets receive extra scrutiny." (NPR) (my emphasis)

HA HA HA HA!!! Remember Paul Erickson (former Vermillion, SD Republican operative) and Maria Butina (the Russian spy who loved him and the NRA)? They founded two LLCs which were obviously shelf corporations. Bridges LLC was set up in 2016, and Medora Consulting LLC in 2018 - both "located" in an apartment complex in Sioux Falls, both without any stated purpose or partners. But may well have been laundering money from Aleksandr Torshin and an as-yet unidentified Russian oligarch with a net worth Forbes estimated to be about $1.2 billion. (Vox) Nobody, as far as I know, ever checked into them.

Still it's all harmless, right? Just a place to park money, and it's their money, and someday I might win the lottery, so we need this, right?

"Well, here is an example from one academic paper on South Dakotan trusts: after 200 years, $1m placed in trust and growing tax-free at an annual rate of 6% will have become $136bn. After 300 years, it will have grown to $50.4tn. That is more than twice the current size of the US economy, and this trust will last for ever, assuming that society doesn’t collapse altogether under the weight of this ever-swelling leech.

"If the richest members of society are able to pass on their wealth tax-free to their heirs, in perpetuity, then they will keep getting richer than those of us who can’t. In fact, the tax rate for everyone else will probably have to rise, to make up for the shortfall caused by the wealthiest members of societies opting out, which will just make the problem worse. Eric Kades, the law professor at William & Mary Law School, thinks that South Dakota’s decision to abolish the rule against perpetuities for the short term benefit of its economy will prove to have been a long-term catastrophe. “In 50 or 100 years, it will turn out to have been an absolute disaster,” said Kades. “Now we’re going to have a bunch of wealthy families, and no one will be able to piss away that wealth, it will stay in the family for ever. This just locks in advantage.” (The Guardian)

And every year "the legislature passes an annual bill supporting the industry, following updates by a task force that holds unadvertised meetings to discuss trust laws around the world." Nice. (Dakota News Now)

And, of course, some South Dakotans are making money off of it. USD Law Professor Tom Simmons says “A lot of my students are working in the trust industry, they’re great jobs, they enjoy them and they are raising families in South Dakota, where otherwise they may have left." (Kelo-TV) Really? according to Republican State Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, 500 people are employed in South Dakota's mysterious trust industry, which is 0.1% of total SD employment. (And I'll bet most of them are administrative assistants making $25-40K.) There are also "Help Wanted" signs everywhere you turn in Sioux Falls, so I think 500 people could find other work in South Dakota as we get going with "BUST THE TRUST" slogans, signs, legislation…

But, but, but…

  1. This is a nice state, full of nice people, who would never do anything wrong;
  2. This is a nice state, full of nice people, who would never be so impolite as to raise a ruckus no matter what. (Most South Dakotans avoid conflict as if it were an unsedated colonscopy)
  3. This is a nice state, full of nice people, which is why we can have basically a one-party government with no accountability, no transparency, and no public access, because what could possibly go wrong?
  4. This is a nice state, full of nice people, but we're freaking broke (again), because we don't have a big labor force, we don't have any taxes (other than sales and property tax), and all the big money we get seems to go in other people's pockets or just freaking vanishes (EB-5, Gear Up, and probably a few of these secret trusts), so we have to get money from somewhere, and we just won't look into it too deeply BECAUSE
  1. This is a nice state, full of nice people, who would never do anything wrong. (Repeat on an endless loop.)

$50.00 a year, folks, and this too can be your dream LLC in South Dakota, where we talk like Mayberry, but act like Goodfellas.




*The elimination of usury laws led to the meteoric rise of T. Denny Sanford, who founded First Premier Bank, which made its name and its money on being one of the major subprime credit card providers (high interest - try 79.9% on a $300 credit limit in some cases - to those with low credit ratings ). Mr. Sanford, currently [semi-]retired, is the patron of Sanford Health (formerly Sioux Valley Hospitals & Health Systems), and much, much, much more.