22 May 2022

Euphonics


Not Eurythmics

Long before I began to write, I realized some words have soft forms and others hard edges, even harsh, jagged teeth. The letter G has a soft form that alliterates with J, but the hard G means serious business. For example:

glare, goat, glum, gormless, gut, gash, gears, grate, grill, glut, gangster, garage, guttural, gale, gaffe, gaff
Combine the G with the letter R, then Gr… can sound overly masculine, even violent.
grit, gravel, grind, grubby, grungy, grumpy, grate, grill, grotesque, grab, growl, grope, grease, gross, grunt, grim

The sounds– the letters– that follow can soften a word. Examples include:

glen, glade, gorgeous, glorious, glamorous, girl

The Sound You Hear…

Not Ebonics

The understanding and practice of sounds is called euphonics. It comes to us from the realm of music and poetry, and it refers to the sounds of words. Some words work well together where one word seems to naturally follow another. Contrarily, other words don't sound right when harnessed together. Poets and lyricists treat euphonies as one of their best tools.

Authors also use euphonics, although they may not be aware of it. I pay a lot of attention to names: ethnicity, meaning, type (occupational, place, etc) and the sound. I often try to fit a name with a character’s personality: Is she smart, sly, sensible, seductive, sensuous, soft, sordid, staid, straight-laced, stalwart, or staggeringly strong? I strive to reflect that in the name.

Positive About Negatives

Thanks for a tip from ABA and Sharon pointing me to an article by Joslyn Chase. Chase drew my attention to a book, Euphonics For Writers by Rayne Hall. Among other topics, they point out words beginning with N tend to impart a negative tone. I might add that many, many languages have this same characteristic:

no, nay, nix, non, nein, ne, nee, nej, nie, não, nu, nyet

Not only do words have meaning and inflections carry meaning, but the sounds of words also affect readers and listeners.

If you’ve read Rayne Hall’s book, what is your impression?

21 May 2022

Reading About Writing


  

Earlier this week, at the latest of what we've been calling our "watercooler" Zoom meetings in the Short Mystery Fiction Society, we talked a bit about reference books for fiction writing. Specifically, Michael Bracken mentioned the book Dreyer's English, written a few years ago by Benjamin Dreyer, a Random House VP. Michael even said the book has been praised and recommended by AHMM editor Linda Landrigan--which is reason enough for us mystery writers to want to be familiar with it.

NOTE 1: I wrote a SleuthSayers column about Dreyer's English back in 2019, and in that piece I pointed out that I'd found the book to be not only useful and informative but easy to read. It was even fun to read. It's not my absolute favorite writing reference book--Stephen King's memoir/instruction-manual On Writing is--but this one is now a close second.

Thinking again about things discussed during that Zoom meeting, I recall that Barb Goffman mentioned that she often buys those writing "self-help" books but seldom reads them. They wind up just sitting there on her shelf. I do the same thing: I can't seem to resist them, either in bookstores or on Amazon, but when I sit down at home with the purchased books I often never do any more than skim through them and then forever put them aside. I almost never refer to them when the actual plotting/writing happens. 

But . . . that's not always the case. Here are ten books about either the craft or the business of writing (or both), that I did enjoy and read, and that I often reference and even re-read. I've listed them here in order of preference, #1 being my top pick. (As I mentioned, Dreyer's is a recent addition.)


1. On Writing, Stephen King. A fantastic book. Enough said.

2. Dreyer's English, Benjamin Dreyer.

3. Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, Lawrence Block. A collection of his Writer's Digest columns.

4. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King. The best "style" guide I've seen. 

5. Bird by Bird, Ann Lamott. A funny and interesting look at the writing life.

6. The First Five Pages, Noah Lukeman. Advice to get an editor to keep reading past the opening.

7. Stein on Writing, Sol Stein. An editor's view of style, craft, and strategies.

8. Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder. Actually a book about screenwriting.

9. Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, Lynn Truss. A delightful mix of writing advice and entertainment.

10. Story, Robert McKee. Another look at screenplays and screenwriting.


NOTE 2: I didn't include The Elements of Style--maybe I should've; I bought a copy of Elements for each of our three kids when they went off to college--and I can also think of several more books not listed here that other writers hold in high regard. But these remain my top picks.

Now . . . What are your favorites? Maybe it's time some of mine got replaced.


Until then, use whatever helps, and--above all else--keep writing.




20 May 2022

More About Covers


A few weeks ago a new writer member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society asked for advice on craft and best practices. I referred the writer to SleuthSayer and received a quick thank you.

Got me thinking so I thought I'd share my earlier comments about covers (and a few new comments about covers).

My original SleuthSayers post started with advice from Harlan Ellison and other writers who felt a book cover should have one strong image, the writer's name and maybe one thing about the book – it's a novel or a mystery novel or a thriller, etc. Maybe a notation about awards the book received such as Edgar Award or Shamus Award. Maybe a note about writing awards the writer received but don't clutter up the cover with a list. That's why there is a back cover.

Covers should be clear when viewed as a thumbnail since our books are viewed more online than in a bookstore. A cluttered cover or one which does not clearly give title and author's name can be confusing.

A tip I included was this and it worked. I received a couple emails commenting how it worked –

TIP: If you do not have the ability to design a cover using Adobe InDesign or Photoshop, get the image you want on your cover and go to the nearest university's art department. Seek out a college student majoring in graphic design and hire the student to design your cover. They can add your cover to their portfolio and you can cut a bargain with them.

I was going to put examples of good covers but the writers I contacted have not gotten back to me. I was also  going to put examples of bad covers but, hell, I don't like to do things like that. You can use your imagination and I don't have to make anyone angry or feel like I'm putting them down because who the hell am I anyway.

As an Indie writer I am able to control the covers of my books and spell my name correctly. As you can see, it's nice to have an artist in the family. As previously mentioned, the covers of my early books were pretty bad.

Here are a few of my recent ones:







Nothing's perfect but all you can do is try.

www.oneildenoux.com


19 May 2022

Hiding in Plain Sight & Other Crimes


by Eve Fisher

Musings about Hiding in Plain Sight:

First of all, re the story of former Corrections Officer Vicky White who ran off with the inmate Casey White from Alabama, I am amazed that they stayed uncaught that long. I mean, 6'9"?  Seriously?  They were caught, as you probably know, in Evansville, Indiana, where "they were found with $29,000 in cash and four guns, including semiautomatic weapons and an AR-15. They also had several wigs in different colors." But, no matter how many wigs they had, how did they make it 11 days without being turned in, especially staying in a motel for a week?  Outside of a basketball convention, 6'9" anywhere should have been like Herman Munster in a Mickey Rooney lookalike contest. 

Along similar lines, I want to know how Jack Reacher isn't known all over the country:

6 feet 5 inches tall, weighing 210–250 pounds and having a 50-inch chest. In Never Go Back, he is described as having "a six-pack like a cobbled city street, a chest like a suit of NFL armor, biceps like basketballs, and subcutaneous fat like a Kleenex tissue."..."He was one of the largest men she had ever seen outside the NFL. He was extremely tall, and extremely broad, and long-armed, and long-legged. The lawn chair was regular size, but it looked tiny under him. It was bent and crushed out of shape. His knuckles were nearly touching the ground. His neck was thick and his hands were the size of dinner plates."  (Wikipedia)  
So... tell me again why he has to introduce himself anywhere?  

And I've written before about James Bond announcing himself everywhere he goes.  "Bond, James Bond."  Not very secret.  

Meanwhile, it's tragic that Ms. White killed herself, but: a widow, no children, and highly respected as a CO at the jail - employee of the year four times - what did she have to go back to? Jail. Trial. Prison. Corrections officers - any law enforcement officer - often face retaliation in prison. The truth is, sometimes consequences show up that are so stark and horrific there's no way to live with them...

Speaking of Consequences...

Some news outlets are already speaking of the Buffalo, NY white supremacist terrorist as a "white teenager," and "just a boy, really." Bull hockey. Last I heard, 18 makes you an adult in this country. You can vote, marry, drive, and as he did, buy any kind of freaking rifle or "long gun" you want from a licensed gun dealer anywhere in this country at 18. 

I'd say more about this case, but I'm too sick to my stomach. 

Meanwhile, even before this one, we've had 198 mass shootings in the United States this year:  
https://www.gunviolencearchive.org/reports/mass-shooting 

Who's safer with this endless flood of guns, ammo, and hot rhetoric?  Personally, I think it's about damn time that Stochastic Terrorism be made a crime.  


After all, if they could convict the woman who texted her boyfriend repeatedly, encouraging him to kill himself (and he did), why can't we do something similar to people on "certain networks", etc., who actively rev up their listeners to a fury and then say things like, "I'm only asking questions." 

Like a maniac who shoots deadly firebrands and arrows, so is one who deceives a neighbor and says, “I'm just asking questions...”  Proverbs 26:18-19 (Paraphrased for modern usage)

No you're not. You're trying to get them stoked so that you get higher ratings. And maybe there'll be a shooting, and then the ratings will shoot up even higher. 

Which leads me to my next idea:  a Sandy Hook style class-action lawsuit against Tucker & Friends and Fox News for the whole "great replacement theory" and other racist theories that are getting innocent people killed.  

Even More Horrific:  Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

The numbers are horrific. As of March, 2022, there were "103 people missing in South Dakota, with Indigenous people making up 62% of all missing persons despite being only 8.7% of the state’s population. According to the Attorney General’s Missing Persons page, Indigenous women make up 28% of all missing persons and 63% of women currently missing in South Dakota." Also, "Native American women are murdered at a rate ten times higher than the national average." (HERE  And a few of the grisly details HERE)  

Meanwhile, the South Dakota legislature approved making an Office of Liaison for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP), which was fantastic! 

But then AG Ravnsborg said he couldn't find "the necessary funds to establish such a position." Yes, we have a very cheap legislature - they don't give money to anything, even when it's their idea. 

At last the non-profit Native Hope said it would fund the position at $85,000 per year for three years, so there may be some hope. Now can they find the law enforcement necessary to do the actual investigating???

BTW, Native Hope's website is:  https://www.nativehope.org/  Donations are always gratefully received.




On a Lighter Note, What's in a Name?

"A man found floating on a raft in the ocean off the coast of Rhode Island in 2016 after his boat sank has been indicted on charges alleging he killed his mother at sea to inherit the family's estate, according to the indictment unsealed Tuesday.  The eight-count indictment released in federal court in Burlington also says Nathan Carman shot and killed his grandfather, John Chakalos, at his home in Windsor, Connecticut, in 2013 as part of an effort to defraud insurance companies, but he was not charged with that killing. [Why, one may ask?] Carman was found in an inflatable raft eight days after he went fishing with his mother, Linda Carman, who was never found." 

Now families are tricky things, and God only knows what led Mr. Carman to do the things he did. But greed does seem to have been a factor:  he sued the insurance company for $85,000 for the loss of his 31 foot fishing boat, The Chicken Pox. (NewsTimes)  Yes, The Chicken Pox

So of course I sat around thinking of similar suitable names for a boat, and came up with:

Montezuma's Revenge
The Spanish Flu
Daddy's Hemorrhoids 
Reilly's Pyloric Valve 

And those are just the printable ones.  Feel free to add your own!






18 May 2022

Albuquotes



Two weeks ago
I wrote about my adventures at Left Coast Crime in Albuquerque last month.  Those of you who read my column regularly, if such there be, know that that will be followed with my favorite words of wisdom from the con.  As always, I have removed all context to make things more interesting.  Enjoy.

 "There's always someone in the audience who asks about writer's block.  Who volunteers to be that person?" - Reed Farrel Coleman

"Wasn't the world better when it was better for me? Spoiler alert: No." - Catriona McPherson

"I don't start writing chapter one, page one, until I have about ten thousand words of notes."  - Mick Herron

"I wanted to write a book that would be Speed with canoes." -William Kent Krueger


"What the reader wants is not always what the reader needs." -Glen Erik Hamilton

"I've been the eye candy for Torrey House Press." - Scott Graham

"I do the research after I've written the book." - Catriona McPherson

"I'm interested in sharing the things about human beings that make me glad to be a human being." -Thomas Perry

 "I'm a New York Times bestselling author because I buy a lot of my own books." - Reed Farrel Coleman

"I've had people say 'I could read a whole novel in that voice' and I think 'My God, I could never write whole novel in that voice.'" - Amy Drayer

"It looked more like a breakdown than a career move." - Catriona McPherson

"I am addicted to semi-colons. I can hardly write a text message without them." - Mick Herron

"I talk to myself constantly, and I didn't know that until my husband started working from home." - Jamie Mason

"I can always win a contest of who has the most useless dissertation." - Catriona McPherson

"If I could I would write an entire book with a group of people locked in a room being unpleasant." - Mick Herron 

"I may have a tendency to be a preacher, but I don't like being preached at." -Karen Keskinen

"Overreacting in advance saves time later." - Catriona McPherson

"When you're writing a short story you need to distill a character to a single sentence." - Raquel V. Reyes

"Patience is one of the hardest parts of writing." -Amy Drayer

"Someone once said 'You're plots are just this side of ludicrous' and I thought 'Challenge accepted." - Catriona McPherson


"Part of why you write is to find out what you think." -Thomas Perry

"Writing a series about a lot of characters is like there's already a ghost novel waiting." - Mick Herron

"No crying on the yacht." - Catriona McPherson

"I like to think that not all my characters are needy all the time" Laurie R. King

"I love the time when I've finished a book and no one else has seen it so I can live the lie that it's great." - Jess Lourey

"People say that in the past racism was acceptable.  It never was. It was just acceptable to some White people." - Catriona McPherson

"I spent my first Bouchercon behind a potted plant." -Tracy Clark

"I'm barring anyone from saying 'I'm just a reader.'" - Catriona McPherson

"If you want to write about another culture, fall in love with it a bit." - Tori Eldridge

"It's quite easy to work out who the mole is in Wind in the Willows." - Mick Herron

"If you want to visit 1920s Scotland, just go outside.  It's still there." - Catriona McPherson

"I'm basically an evil man." -Thomas Perry

"It's important for children to read widely, not just the good stuff.  Quantity is important at that age." - Mick Herron

"A word of advice: Don't Google nun's underwear." - Catriona McPherson

17 May 2022

For Sin and Whiskey


    One of the benefits of being a magistrate is that I get to leave the county jail at will. I exit the facility when I choose. No one chases after me shouting "escape" or reports me to my supervisor for taking an unscheduled break. My unsolicited tip for the day: if you must go to jail, make sure that you know you'll get out again.

    Just outside the front door of Tarrant County's central jail facility, affixed to the wall, a plaque informs visitors that upon this site stood the first church erected in Fort Worth. The sign is easy to miss. Most people don't study the walls looking for historical tidbits. But I'm glad I saw it. I like the symmetry of knowing that since Fort Worth's earliest days, this spot has been dedicated to rooting out sins in one form or another.

    If an early Fort Worth resident walked one block east from the First Christian Church, he would find himself at The First and Last Chance Saloon, the first bar opened in my city. Records describe it as a dingy box of a room with a few shelves along the west wall holding whiskey, a local peach brandy, and gin. On the unornamented bar sat a bucket of water for those drinkers who needed a chaser. In another choice historical happenstance, two of the county's misdemeanor courts occupy the floors rising from the southeast corner of Taylor and Weatherford, the intersection where The First and Last Chance once stood. Driving while intoxicated prosecutions occur weekly at the site of Fort Worth's first saloon.

    My favorite story from those early days also deals with whiskey. When Major Ripley Arnold established the fort at the confluence of the Clear and West forks of the Trinity River, there already was a settlement, Bird's Fort north and east of Fort Worth. Bird's Fort, later Birdville, had been established in 1840, nine years earlier than Fort Worth. In 1850, Birdville was named the county seat. By 1856, the expanding village of Fort Worth felt it should replace Birdville as the county's seat of justice. The reasons were a mixture of pride and practicality. Citizens came to town on court day. Court day, therefore, was good for retail business. Influential citizens from Fort Worth persuaded the legislature to hold a special election to resolve the question. The votes would be cast in November 1856.

    Both towns' leading citizens plotted. The election had three polling places established around the county. Fort Worth and Birdville, naturally, were the primary voting centers. In front of both mercantile stores in Fort Worth, the town leaders placed barrels of whiskey. After voters cast their ballots, they could imbibe. The reasoning, it seems, was that those who came to Fort Worth to vote would more likely cast their support behind the challenger.

    The opposition employed the same tactic. The city leaders of Birdville stored their whiskey in a stand of live oaks near the town's polling station. On election eve, however, intrepid Fort Worth residents found and siphoned off the barrel. On voting day, the Birdville election managers had no alcohol inducement.

    Despite this, the voting remained too close to call. As the election drew to a close, Sam Woody rode into Fort Worth with fourteen of his neighbors. They resisted the temptation of the whiskey, entered the election hall, made their way past the election judges, and each cast their ballots. They, they saddled up their horses and rode out of town on their way home. They needed to get started. Although Woody had been a county resident for years, he had recently moved to the neighboring county. When he came, he brought fourteen other ineligible votes with him.

    Fort Worth won the election by seven votes.

    Curious readers might ask whether the Fort Worth residents went to the First Christian Church to seek absolution or to the First and Last Chance Saloon to celebrate?

    What happened instead? A parade of jubilant and inebriated citizens marched by torchlight to Birdville. There, they collected the county records, desks, chairs, and law books. Loading them onto wagons, the procession marched back to Fort Worth, carrying their spoils of victory.

Fort Worth Postcard by The Fair
The Fair (Fort Worth), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

    A legislator supporting Birdville discovered that more votes had been cast in the election than eligible voters. He protested the outcome. Pro-Fort Worth representatives challenged his protest. The legislature resolved the back-and-forth dispute by ordering another election. The Fort Worth contingent added a rider to the bill adding a third election option, a new county seat at the center of the county. The second ballot was held in 1860. The earlier vote had already reshaped the county's economic landscape. This time, Fort Worth soundly defeated Birdville (FW 548, Center 301, Birdville 4).

    These days, Birdville only exists as the name of the school district for some of Fort Worth's northeastern suburbs.

    Around these parts, we spend a great deal of political time and energy worrying about election irregularities. Scores of elected officials work to safeguard me and my fellow citizens from voter fraud. I wonder if they realize that the city they're protecting likely wouldn't exist without purloined whiskey and Sam Woody's voter fraud.

    Until next time.

16 May 2022

My Father and Cousin Clyde,
Reprise and Update


Clyde and Bonnie

It recently came to my attention that my Cousin Clyde Barrow was in the news again. His face along with Bonnie Parker's were seen on Russian television.

You've got to be kidding I thought. How could this pair of alleged (Do I have to say alleged if they were never tried?) bank robbers murders and all arround bad folks, who were killed in a shoot-out with the law enforcement in the 1930s, be shown on a Russian owned TV newscast? 

Bonnie and Clyde were young, she 19 and he, 23. They wound up being two of the most colorful and notorious gangsters in early USA 1930s history. Today is one week shy of the 89th anniversary, of that day on May 23, 1933.

I have no idea how or why their photos was shown on Russian TV this past Monday on the anniversary of Russia's victory day over Germany. But during a concert a photo of Bonnie and Clyde was shown, somehow supposedly depicting refuges from 1945 WW-II. 

This photo was shown for several hours until someone (from Russian media?) recognized the couple and the photo was taken down. You can Google Bonnie & Clyde photo on Russian TV if you want to  see it. I personally got a big laugh about it and decided to reprise my SleuthSayer article from March 15, 2015 about my dad and cousin Clyde.

Need I mention the Austin policewoman character in two of my novels, AUSTIN CITY BLUE and DARK BLUE DEATH was named Zoe Barrow? Her name came to me as a way to honor my dad and the Barrow name. The Barrows were from England, lived in VA, NC eventually moving to LA and came into TX with Stephen F Austin. I honestly don't think I was subconsciously thinking to rehab ole Cousin Clyde. REALLY!!

Find my original article here and following is Bonnie Parker's poem.

The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde

You've read the story of Jesse James
of how he lived and died.
If you're still in need;
of something to read,
here's the story of Bonnie and Clyde.

Now Bonnie and Clyde are the Barrow gang
I'm sure you all have read.
how they rob and steal;
and those who squeal,
are usually found dying or dead.

There's lots of untruths to these write-ups;
they're not as ruthless as that.
their nature is raw;
they hate all the law,
the stool pigeons, spotters and rats.

They call them cold-blooded killers
they say they are heartless and mean.
But I say this with pride
that I once knew Clyde,
when he was honest and upright and clean.

But the law fooled around;
kept taking him down,
and locking him up in a cell.
Till he said to me;
"I'll never be free,
so I'll meet a few of them in hell"

The road was so dimly lighted
there were no highway signs to guide.
But they made up their minds;
if all roads were blind,
they wouldn't give up till they died.

If a policeman is killed in Dallas
and they have no clue or guide.
If they can't find a fiend,
they just wipe their slate clean
and hang it on Bonnie and Clyde.

There's two crimes committed in America
not accredited to the Barrow mob.
They had no hand;
in the kidnap demand,
nor the Kansas City Depot job.

If they try to act like citizens
and rent them a nice little flat.
About the third night;
they're invited to fight,
by a sub-gun's rat-tat-tat.

They don't think they're too smart or desperate
they know that the law always wins.
They've been shot at before;
but they do not ignore,
that death is the wages of sin.

Some day they'll go down together
they'll bury them side by side.
To few it'll be grief,
And to the law a relief
but it's death for Bonnie and Clyde.

15 May 2022

¿Quién mató a Sara?


John Floyd Bad Guy Award

Not every miniseries on Netflix is a Harlan Coben story. Astounding, yes, I know, even though I enjoy them sprinkled amongst other series.

My Netflix favorites tend toward foreign productions. European shows dominate, but occasional works slip in from South Korea, South Africa, Venezuela, and Mexico. And Mexico is where the murder mystery Who Killed Sara? is set.

Many of its actors appear in telenovelas, i.e, Hispanic soap operas, sexy soap operas. Cultural tip: Pretty much everything on Telemundo and Univision is sexy, good motivation to learn Spanish.

So, because a number of these actors are cast in daytime dramas, Who Killed Sara? was miscategorized as another telenovela and dismissed. Creator José Ignacio Valenzuela never expected the show might become a global sensation, and misjudging the series as a mere soap serial seemingly sealed its coffin, limiting its impact within Latin America.

Except word got out. People watched. And more people watched. And more. So many viewers, Netflix noticed. And funded a second season. And a third. At one point, it topped their popularity list. Who Killed Sara? had made it.

How Good Are the Bad Guys?

I’m convinced the success of a crime novel hinges upon how good– er, I mean how bad the bad guy is or how complex. The worst of the bad guys should either make your fictional life much more interesting or scare the bloomers off Buchenwald Oberaufseherin Ilse Koch… or both.

Think of any James Bond movie. The best are those with the baddest badass bad guys. The cars or the fancy ass gadgets from Q, might have drawn our curiosity, but remember the scary Colonel Klebb, Dr No, the metallic-toothed Jaws, and pretty much anyone from Golden Eye. Them’s scary!

(A major miscast in Tomorrow Never Dies was media mogul Elliott Carver– the world had yet to meet Rupert Murdoch, an Australian leftist hellbent on bringing the US and Britain to its knees… That’s one hypothesis.)

I previously promoted Hungarian actor Lukács Bicskey as one of the most interesting bad guys in the film Titled Day of Wrath / Game of Swords. Sadly, the movie’s star, American actor Christopher Lambert, sucked the life out of the show, guaranteeing a spot in Film Purgatory.

Who Killed Sara? poster

I present a new nominee for badass bad guys: Ginés García Millán playing César Lazcano, self-made multimillionaire businessman, patriarch of the Lazcano crime family. He’s a charming man who kicks the crap out of his son Chema for being gay and recreationally bangs the wife of his older son, Rodolfo. He and his henchmen are not above murder, including multiple attempts to kill their children’s betrayed friend, our hero Álex. And yet as much as César hates and fears the boy he betrayed, he also admires him. More than once, he is heard berating his kids, telling them he wished he had Álex as his son instead.

Other bad guy nominees might include the OddJob to  Lazcano’s Goldfinger is psychopathic sadist Sergio Hernández, played by Juan Carlos Remolina, César’s best friend and business partner. And Mariana Lazcano, portrayed by Claudia Ramírez, wifely manipulator and enabler. Thanks to her motherly pretense, her insidious nature takes longer to reveal. But César Lazcano…

The plot’s problem becomes not who killed teen Sara, but who didn’t have a motive to kill her? Sara, her brother Álex, and the three Lazcano children were close childhood friends, but Sara was extra ‘friendly’ with everyone. She pretty much jodido’d the entire cast except possibly her brother Álex… I think. Then someone sabotaged a parasail killing her.

To keep his family and their business at arm’s length, César and Mariana Lazcano persuaded the dead girl’s young brother Álex to shoulder the blame, promising at most weeks in jail, a transplant for his ailing mother, and a handsome reward him for his troubles. Álex and the Lazcano children were shocked when Álex was sentenced to eighteen years, and worse, reneged on the promises, including caring for his dying mother. Lazcano even attempted to kill Álex in prison.

Thus the series begins with Álex’s release from a tough Mexican prison. He’s angry, wants vengeance, and is determined to sort out who killed his darling sister, not knowing she had carnal relations with half of Ciudad de México, both Lacano parents and their son Rodolfo, Álex’s former best friend.

And then things change. Fluid situations melt and reform. Alliances shift. César Lazcano and Álex team up and attain a mutual respect, whereupon the second season wraps, waiting for season three, and we’re not much closer to figuring out who killed Sara.

Some of My Best Friends…

Actor Eugenio Siller plays the Lazcano’s middle child, José María ‘Chema’ Lazcano, César and Mariana's middle child, second best friend of Álex… and deeply in love with him, unrequited love. His father refuses to acknowledge Chemo is gay and beats him badly to demonstrate manly virtues of something or other.

Nothing goes right for poor Chema. Minor missteps and the simplest of errors results in magnified consequences. To my surprise, I found my heart breaking for him. His character has tragedy stamped all over him. Second only to the relationship between Lazcano daughter Elisa and Álex, I chewed my metaphorical nails over Chema. The actor and writers reached across the border, the cultural barrier, and the gay-straight continuum shaking up my normal affectionate tolerance similar to Álex’s. Nicely accomplished.

And Now We Wait

This project has been filmed through the pandemic. I can’t imagine what the crew had to go through to avoid infections in this midst of this killer coronavirus. For certain, they have created an innovative story with care worthy characters, at least through two seasons. I’m adding this to my list of pending new seasons. It’s darn well worth it.

Have you seen it?

Update: NetFlix says season 3 will be released on the 18th of the month. Yay!

14 May 2022

Your Word of the Day Is Panglossian


First of all, if anyone stops you wherever and accuses you of being Panglossian, hit pause. They're guilty of SAT-style, Fancy Pants vocabulary. Fancy Pants needs a stiff drink and mirror time over what they're about. Secondly, and here's where plain language comes in, Panglossian isn't a compliment. It's a warning. Maybe both of y'all need to check yourselves.

To be Panglossian is to remain excessively optimistic against all evidence to the contrary. Failure, consequence, injury, whatever. Adverse outcomes are merely trifles. Signs, actually. Signs of a larger plan in motion and destined to end fabulously. 

No, I didn’t know Panglossian was a word, either. Maybe I did when I prepped for the SAT. That was a few years ago. I happened upon Panglossian on March 9, 2021, when Dictionary.com made this their Word of the Day. Panglossian. It's nice on both the eye and tongue. Fun, and I love a fun word. That SAT prep got me into a liberal arts school.

At the risk of further hoity-toity, the word traces back to Voltaire’s Candide (1759). A smash synopsis: Candide and his enthused adventuring companions stumble from satirically bad events to ever worse, no matter what anyone plans next. Candide's friend and tutor, Pangloss, philosophizes away each non-stop disaster--syphilis, violence, loss of personal freedom--as evidence of that larger plan cooking along fine. Our universe, as perfectly created, must always run to perfection.

Wrong. Sometimes, things suck. Sometimes, things are flat terrible, and somebody needs to do something about it right darn now. Pangloss couldn't grasp that--because he couldn't acknowledge flat terrible things. Trapped in his circular pathology, Pangloss never took obvious steps to avert his next disaster. 

Somewhere March 10, 2021 or later, I had an urge to write something Panglossian. I've done stories with folks planning jobs too big for their talents and with folks using doomed perseverance as a defense mechanism. I wanted another level of that. An optimist's optimist, someone all-in on their rose-colored lens no matter what.

I could just whip that up, right? Sure, start ‘em in trouble and make it worse. Then worse again. Dump a whole Freytag's Pyramid on 'em.

Easy as pie. It's a great thing, to be alive and writing.

So I wrote it in one fast sprint. I dropped a first-person character in a bank robbery already gone totally wrong. The cops have the branch surrounded, the driver has wisely taken off, and the rest of the crew are stuck and not seeing eye-to-eye. That set-up could go dark, but noir and optimism aren't two great tastes that taste great together. This had to be a light tale, a comic caper. I've done those. Lots of 'em. Yes, this was going to be terrific.

Draft one had a rough spot. Okay, a big rough spot comprising about 100% of the manuscript, but that's what first drafts are. Rough. Milestones toward final glory.

Sure, I didn't have the POV's name yet, and sure he was emotionally low when he should've hit optimistic highs. This is why there are second drafts (and thirds and fourths and fifths, etc., etc.). All part of the process. Yes, this was going great.

Another smash cut past many more drafts. Which weren't coming together.

I had the premise, the plot, the location, the cast, but I'd rushed past one crucial thing: the character. He wasn't talking to me. Didn't want to. I hadn't respected that this was his story, too. So I did something I rarely do. I asked him to answer a few background questions for me. Forget what's on the manuscript page. Let's rap. He leapt to share who he was, his whole life story and why it drew out the optimist in him. There were only two last drafts before the version Mystery Magazine picked up.

I can be too optimistic. I am perfectly capable of under-engineering a story. I'm also capable of recognizing flat terrible things and working them into shape. It's that liberal arts education. They taught me to better myself.

We can all learn. We can all challenge our work to another level. Rewards await, rewards that escaped Pangloss. If nothing else, we'll rest easy knowing that Fancypants won't have this vocabulary zinger against us.

13 May 2022

You Said What About the Bard?


Recently, someone told me what a rebel he thought he was for giving Stephen King a three-star review on Goodreads. "Look at me. A nobody. And I dared to give Stephen King a three-star review. I had to point out that I once wrote a review in a forum that Cell was utter crap. I, too, am a nobody, but as a reader, I have to be honest. And believe me, I'm going through King's entire canon, a years-long project I may wrap up next year.

Years earlier, in a chat room where a bunch of mystery types hung out, Shakespeare came up. I had recently seen The Tempest performed. Now, The Tempest is a great story that's been the template for a lot of subsequent tales, quite a few science fiction. Prospero, the exiled duke, is a terrific archetype for someone powerful cast out of society or even a mad scientist. And why not? He's both. But during the chat, I mentioned, "But I can't stand Ariel. She's like the token female." One could make that argument about Alaira in Forbidden Planet, which sets The Tempest in space, files off the serial numbers, and no one calls Leslie Nielsen "Shirley." However, Altaira, while providing the leggy eye candy many fifties movies required, is an active participant. Ariel bored the hell out of me. The response?

"That takes a lot of balls to criticize the Bard!"

Really?

First off, William Shakespeare deserves his place among English language writers. He did more to drag English into the modern era than anyone else, dragging it kicking and screaming into the modern era and away from Canterbury Tales. It also helped standardize English to the point where Pacific Rim countries use English because, as I sit here, there are at least six languages, not counting Russian, from Northern Japan to Malaysia, including several in China. Learning English is simpler. I'll leave the debates about cultural imperialism and colonialism to someone else. The point is, English, like French before it and still alongside it in some places, is an international language.

That said, Shakespeare was a writer like any other, human and prone to mistakes. He was very good at catching mistakes or, like a musician who doesn't have a modern producer interfering with his work, good at exploiting mistakes. He makes the most judicious use of anachronisms of any writer in any language, which helps make his work timeless.

But dare one criticize the Bard? Let me ask you this. How often do you see King John performed. John was a fascinating figure, a tyrant who'd be right at home among the tech moguls, autocratic leaders, and arrogant CEOs of today. But there is a consensus among scholars that Will did not execute his take on the Plantagenet's most unpopular heir very well. One even suggested they liked Mel Brooks's version from Robin Hood: Men in Tights better. Brooks is no Shakespeare. On the other hand, a collaboration between the author of MacBeth and the creator of Blazing Saddles would be hilarious. That's another topic.

The point is that yes, he has earned his place in the pantheon of English letters. So have a lot of writers. But Shakespeare occasionally wrote garbage. So has Mark Twain. And Hemingway. And there's no shortage of people lining up to lecture you on why Stephen King is overrated. Some other time, I may Jimsplain why they're wrong about King, but not today.

So, why would I criticize the Bard? How dare I? I'm the one Will worshiped. I'm the audience. I'm the reader. If he's not connecting, or he's rubbing me the wrong way (Titus Andronicus is a recently read example.), I'm going to say something.

The flip side of that is that Shakespeare's reputation is safe. No one's going to rethink their position because some minor crime writer from Ohio thought that Titus Andronicus or King John are weak plays. On the contrary, because he wrote MacBeth and Richard III and Romeo and Juliet, I can finish up Edward III. (In Will's defense, I think he was brought in to salvage that one at some point, since it was a collaboration.) But not to say anything?

We hold Philip Roth up as a man of American letters, but there is no end of criticism leveled at Operation: Shylock. Looking at King, even King will tell you there are a few books he wished he hadn't published, and I don't mean the violent, disturbing Rage (of which I have a copy.) He claims no memory of Cujo or Christine, mainly because his chemical hobbies interfered with his writing. And the aforementioned Cell was one of the first novels started after his accident. There are explanations, but it doesn't change that two of those books were ordeals to finish.

So, why not the Bard? We love him. We read and watch his plays endlessly. He attracts us whether we love Hallmark or scifi or history. Richard III is the ultimate political thriller. The Taming of the Shrew is a raunchy version of the latest Lacey Chabert offering. The Tempest manages to get remade as a scifi movie or TV episode every couple of years. So, why not come out and say when something doesn't work? Do we not learn from the mistakes of the greats the way we learn from what they get right?

12 May 2022

More Questionable Choices: Roman Emperor-Style


 Last time around we discussed some of the stupid things some of the most powerful men in the world–Roman emperors– done (and by which they were in turn then UNDONE). You can find that post here. In today's installment, we continue the fun.

Vitellius

Let's begin this installment with another of the emperors from the tumultuous "Year of the Four Emperors" (68-69 A.D.). We profiled the folly of the martinet Galba in our last installment. In this one let's take on the story of one of his successors, the wicked, gluttonous Vitellius, of whom no less a worthy than Roman senator and historian Tacitus wrote: "Seldom has the support of the army been gained by any man through honorable means to the degree to which [Vitellius] won it through his worthlessness.

Vitellius came from a noble family and before taking the throne had a long career as a government official, serving several of the previous emperors, including Caligula (who once famously ran him over with his chariot) and Nero, who Vitellius actually seemed to really like.

An aristocrat with no real military experience, Vitellius found himself in command of the critical legions defending the Rhine river border of the empire at the beginning of Galba's reign. Galba himself had appointed Vitellius to the position, in part because he thought Vitellius' military inexperience would keep him from doing as Galba himself had done: bribe his troops to proclaim him emperor and march on Rome.

Vitellius the Glutton
Turns out Galba underestimated Vitellius. After all, how much military experience do you need to offer a large cash bribe to your legions in exchange for proclaiming you emperor? And Vitellius had been taking bribes himself for so long as corrupt imperial official and toady to a variety of emperors before, him, that bribing his own soldiers came naturally to him.

By the time Vitellius had swatted aside yet another emperor-general (Otho, whose former wife was the pregnant bride the emperor Nero had kicked to death in a homicidal rage) whose troops had proclaimed him emperor and arrived in Rome. Galba was dead at the hands of the Praetorian Guard- because he was too cheap to pay them the bribe he had promised in exchange for their support.

Vitellius learned from his predecessor's example and made sure all promised bribes were paid. That wasn't enough, though. Vitellius had other problems.

Like the fact that his unsavory reputation, rapacious greed, venality and cruelty made him intensely unpopular. And then there was the fact that there was a more attractive option out there on the horizon. Vespasian, the general in command of the defense of Rome's eastern borders.

Vespasian's troops had proclaimed him emperor and he had begun his own march on Rome at around the same time as Vitellius. Because the Rhine is closer to Rome than the Syrian desert is, Vitellius got there first.

And that really seems to have been the extent of his good luck. Popular support swung in favor of the ever closer Vespasian. Vitellius panicked and unleashed a reign of terror intended to quell dissent and shore up public support for him. Thousands of citizens were butchered in the streets. 

Vespasian the No-Nonsense
And still Vespasian made his way mostly unchallenged, toward Rome.

Once Vespasian's troops had entered Italy, he sent word ahead for his elder brother, a respected lawyer, to negotiate a transfer of power with Vitellius. Vitellius agreed to meet with the brother, only to have him arrested and put to death–all with Vespasian's legions only a few days' march away.

Vitellius' remaining military support melted away after that point, and with Vespasian's troops entering the city, the all-but-deposed former toady attempted to flee Rome disguised as a a day laborer, his clothes stuffed with precious gems intended to help him make good his escape.

These gems proved his undoing–halted and searched by Vespasian's troops, Vitellius was caught out when they found his escape fund sewn into his clothes. Vitellius was duly dragged into the Forum where he was publicly tortured to death, his lifeless corpse then unceremoniously dumped into the Tiber (a common fate for condemned criminals at the time).

For his part, Vespasian, a hard-headed, no-nonsense career soldier who came from a middle class family, has no place thematically in this collection. He was far too smart, honesty and capable to commit the sorts of blunders enshrined herein. His second son Domitian, on the other hand....

But we'll talk about HIM next time.

See you in two weeks!

11 May 2022

BUSCADEROS: A Love Story


This is a gun post, so if that stuff leaves you cold, feel free to skip ahead. I’m not going to take offense. I know not everybody shares my oddball enthusiasms.

When I was a kid, there were a lot of Westerns on TV. They began to taper off in the early 1960’s, and cop shows and private eyes picked up steam, but if you look at primetime in the years just previous, Westerns dominated the schedule every night. ABC’s Sunday line-up, for example, was Colt .45, Maverick, Lawman, The Rebel, and The Alaskans. That’s a solid block, although I guess you could argue that The Alaskans, strictly speaking, was more sled dogs than horse opera. (And except for The Rebel, they were all produced by Warners.) Mondays was Cheyenne. Tuesdays had Sugarfoot and Bronco, Laramie, Wyatt Earp, and The Rifleman. Wagon Train ran on Wednesdays. Thursdays, you had Bat Masterson and Johnny Ringo. Friday was Rawhide and Hotel de Paree. Saturday night brought us Wanted: Dead or Alive, Have Gun - Will Travel, and Gunsmoke.

L to R: Will Hutchins, Peter Brown, Jack Kelly, Ty Hardin, James Garner, Wayde Preston, John Russell

Is it any wonder that I was crazy about cowboy guns and fast draw? I drew on Wayde Preston in the titles for Colt .45, and on Richard Boone in the opening sequence of Have Gun – Will Travel, but I never mastered the trick of Wayde Preston’s spinning his seven-and-a-half-inch-barreled Colts back into the holsters. By this point, mind, I’d moved on from the cheesier grade of cap gun to the top-of-the-line Nichols 45 Stallion, the closest thing you could find to the nickel-plated gun Shane carried. And then Mattel came out with their version, superseding the Fanner 50, the Shootin’ Shell .45, an actual double-action, single-action you could cock coming out of the holster, a huge step up in design, as regards verisimilitude.







We put away childish things.

I went to summer camp, and learned the basics of gun safety, shooting single-shot bolt .22’s at fifty feet. This is back in the day when the NRA was essentially an educational and shooting group, not a political lobby. (I don’t want to get into how Wayne LaPierre and the 2nd Amendment absolutists hijacked it –maybe next time.) You got merit badges for your shooting skills, and I think I made it to Intermediate, which later stood me in good stead, when I shot Expert with the .30 caliber carbine in Basic Training, but I’m getting ahead of the story.

My dad himself had a single-shot Remington bolt .22, and he took me up Mass. Ave. to Roach’s Sporting Goods, across from the Sears, and we bought a Mossberg. Nice gun, I still own it. The next summer I was fifteen, and he let me buy a .22 Colt Frontier Scout, up in Ellsworth, Maine.

Let us pause, for a moment. My father was the gentlest of men. He served, though, in all three theaters of war, in the Navy, back and forth across the North Atlantic, with the wolfpacks, later in the Mediterranean, and through the Suez Canal, and at the end, in the Pacific. He only told the funny stories, of course. They ran aground in the Suez Canal because the skipper was drunk. It’s only years afterwards, reading his logbooks, that I hear about a close call, outside the anchorage at Scapa Flow. Never a word.

This gentle man, however, saw no contradiction in his son learning how to conduct himself safely and sensibly around firearms. He encouraged it. I could go off on a long sidebar about the guys who came back from the war, but I’ll leave it for now. For the purposes of this story, I spent hours with that Frontier Scout, dry-fire and live fire, cleaning it religiously, taking it apart all the way to the springs, spinning it in and out of the holster. I lived with that gun. (Still own it, too.) For a very long time, that was my model, what I imagined a gun should be.

Some years later, I bought its big brother, a single-action replica of the Colt SAA made in Italy. Heavy bastard, two and a half pounds, chambered in .38-40, with a trigger pull of no more than a few ounces. Tricky gun to shoot, with a lot of felt recoil, and not exactly practical. It was a sentimental choice, and meanwhile, I’d discovered the 1911. It was time I left an earlier century behind.

Again, let’s admit the influence of a Western, not a TV series, but The Wild Bunch. It’s hugely transitional, in many ways, but particularly its time period, introducing the automobile, for one, and the machine gun. And of course the .45 auto, the Colt 1911 pistol, which is almost a character in its own right. “I’m curious about the weapon you men are carrying,” Mapache’s German advisor says. “It is restricted to the use of military personnel. It cannot be purchased, or even owned.” And in the last gunfight of the picture, the .45 auto is in heavy rotation, speed reloads and all, shaking out spent magazines and slapping in full ones. It’s a far cry from the showdown in Shane, or Ride the High Country, for that matter.

Steve Hunter, who’s far more knowledgeable about guns than I am – Point of Impact, Dirty White Boys, Hot Springs – caught wind of the fact that a .45 auto wouldn’t reliably cycle blank rounds, and the armorers on The Wild Bunch wound up buying .38 Supers, which you could find in Mexico, because it was the heaviest caliber legal for civilian carry. Two things, here; I know I’m trying your patience. The first is that anything bigger than the .38 Super, or the 9MM, was illegal in Mexico, and the .45 was restricted to military and police. Secondly, the .38 Super is an outlier. The .45 auto cartridge and the gun itself were designed around each other. John Browning originally came up with an autoloader in .38, and the War Department rejected it. This is a complicated story, involving the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection, and I can’t do justice to it, here. The point is that after the 1911 in .45 was adopted by the U.S. Army, the .38 Super came along in the 1920’s, and it turned into a gunfighter’s gun. John Dillinger carried one.

Steve, being Steve, immediately went on GunBroker, and bought a .38 Super.

So did I. It was an alloy-frame Commander, and I’m here to tell you it’s one of the most reliable guns I’ve ever shot. You could put two hundred rounds through it, it got dirty, it kept right on shooting. The design was still state of the art.

Hunter did a lot with the .38 Super. It’s a major plot point in Black Light, when Bob Lee’s dad Earl is killed in a cornfield, and it resurfaces in Havana. For me, I gave the gun to Mickey Counihan, in my postwar New York stories. There was just something about it.

I don’t own a 1911 any more. I caved, and got a 9MM. It’s a CZ 75 compact. Heavy, simple, reliable. Actually the second most reproduced handgun in the world, for military and police, a generation removed from the Browning High-Power, another much-copied gun. I’ve still got a reflexive weakness for the single-action Army and the .45 auto, but fashions change. A gun is like a piece of furniture, threadbare and comfortable. We’re reluctant to give it up.

[Having opened the door here, I’m going to commit. The transformation of the NRA from a minor sportsmen’s group into a major political lobbyist is one of the big stories of the last thirty years, and it happened under the covers. Nobody noticed until it was too late. Stay tuned.]