31 August 2022

Take a Flying Leap

 Two years ago here I wrote about listening to the audiobook of Pride and Prejudice, my first encounter with Jane Austen.    I have been working my way through her other novels, in no order, and have had an interesting experience with her book Persuasion (1818).

I should put in a spoiler alert here, I suppose.  

There is a famous scene in which the characters are visiting Lyme (really Lyme Regis) and and walk along the Cobb, a stone wall at the harbor.  Louisa demands that Captain Wentworth "jump her down" from the steps. Although Austen doesn't say so explicitly it seems obvious to me that the teenager is   1) flirting, and  2) using the opportunity for some physical contact with the handsome sea captain.

There is another point involved, and Austen nails that one down with a sledgehammer: Wentworth had previously criticized the novel's heroine, Anne Elliot for being too persuadable, easily having her opinion changed by others.  Now, in a classic case of be-careful-what-you-wish-for, he is unable to convince Louisa not to jump.  She does so with unfortunate results.

Austen does like falls.  Being so concerned with social rank she seems to enjoy the up-and-down metaphor. (My first piece about Austen  focused  on her use of the word "condescension" which literally means "stepping down together.") Earlier in the same novel Wentworth refers to a happily married couple going out for a drive: "I wonder whereabouts they will upset to-day. Oh! it does happen very often, I assure you, but my sister makes nothing of it; she would as lieve be tossed out as not."  Louisa, tellingly, approves of that sentiment.

And Louisa brings me to the real topic of this piece: a bit of word-nerdery.

When I read the phrase "jump her down" I was intrigued.  I had never heard it before.  So I decided to consult that source of all linguistic knowledge, the Oxford English Dictionary. I don't have a copy of the twenty-volume set but as a professor emeritus at the university where I used to work I have online access.  

Not surprisingly, "jump" turns out to be an interesting word.  The verb has been traced back to 1511.  The noun makes an appearance half a century later.  But what about the meaning that caught my attention?

Sure enough, the oldest example the OED offers is from our book: 

 J. Austen Persuasion (1818) III. xii. 259
   She..ran up the steps to be jumped down again. 

Fair enough, but my problem is with the definition they offer: 

a. To cause to jump; to give a jumping motion to; to drive forward with a bound; to startle. 

But that isn't what Austen is describing in Persuasion.  Wentworth isn't causing Louisa to jump.  A more accurate definition would be something like "to catch or otherwise assist someone who is jumping."

 Here is the Cobb scene as imagined in two film productions of Persuasion.  They disagree on details  but are both on my side versus the dictionary, I think.

By the way, when the poet Alfred Tennyson visited Lyme Regis his friends offered to show him some important historic site and he responded: "Don’t talk to me of the Duke of Monmouth; show me the exact spot where Louisa Musgrove fell."

 One more language question for all the Austeneers out there.  Why in the name of heaven are four of the characters in the book named Charles? Didn't she know any other names?

Anyway, that's a summary of my never-to-be-written PhD. dissertation on English literature.  If you don't like it, well, the Cobb is still there, and you know what you can do.  (Or just tell me in the comments.)

30 August 2022

Ready for Autumn? For Magic? For Murder? How About All Three?

It's the end of August, and to me that means the end of summer and the beginning not just of autumn but of ... SPOOKY SEASON! (Yes, yes, I know: autumn doesn't begin for another 23 days, but in my heart, September equals autumn, and September starts on Thursday. Close enough.)

What better way to celebrate the imminent start of SPOOKY SEASON (do you hear me announcing it, as if with trumpets and fanfare? I hope so) than with a brand-new anthology mixing magic and murder? There is no better way. And that's why it's perfect that today is the official publication date of Magic is Murder, the tenth volume in the Chesapeake Crimes series. Every prior volume in this short-story anthology series has had at least one story—one as many as four—that won or were nominated for major awards (the Agatha, Anthony, Derringer, Macavity, and/or Thriller). My fellow editors (Donna Andrews and Marcia Talley) and I are hopeful that the stories in this book will be as well received.

So, you're wondering, when I say magic, do I mean stories with witches and sorcerers? With more unusual fantasy elements? Or maybe a stage magician? Yes, yes, and yes. We have all of that—and more! (Is there a magician/stripper in the book? You'll have to find out for yourself.) As the book's description says, tales of fantasy worlds and stage illusion, of magic-users and magic-abusers, fill these pages with a heady, deadly mix. That word "deadly" is key, because this is, first and foremost, a crime anthologywith magic baked into each story.

We've had two reviews so far, one by Mystery Scene magazine and one by Lesa's Book Critiques. I'll be so bold as to share parts of both:

Mystery Scene called the book "a solid anthology" with some "excellent tales" and said of some of them: "Rosalie Spielman's 'What's a Little Murder Between Mammals' is a smile-inducing take on cats, shape-shifting, and murder. 'The Thirteenth House,' by Jaquelyn Lyman-Thomas, verges into urban fantasy with a disappearing house, secret passages, and (of course) murder. Stacy Woodson's 'The Midnight Show' is a melancholy take on family, loss, memory, and death. 'The Snow Globe,' by Greg Herren, is a dark and humorous Christmas tale'Santa, Dylan thought, certainly has a great six-pack'about loneliness, voodoo, and reconnecting with family."

In her review, Lesa Holstine said, "My favorite story was 'The Thirteenth House' by Jaquelyn Lyman-Thomas. [...]  I’d love to read an entire novel about this neighborhood. [...] Then, there’s one that’s fun for anyone who enjoys traditional mysteries with a touch of a ghost. Eleanor Cawood Jones' 'Whiskers McGruff and the Case of the Missing Clue' introduces the most recent owner of a combination bookstore and charm shop, along with the ghost of a cat who knows just what book readers will want. [...] There are so many excellent stories here that fans of short stories will undoubtedly find at least several they enjoy." You can read the entirety of this review here

I know you're eager to see the full list of authors and their stories in this book, so here they are, in order of appearance:

  • "What's a Little Murder Between Mammals" by Rosalie Spielman
  • "Courting Disaster" by Cathy Wiley
  • "The Thirteenth House" by Jaquelyn Lyman-Thomas
  • "The Midnight Show" by Stacy Woodson
  • "The Wig" by Tara Laskowski
  • "A Touch of Magic" by Shari Randall
  • "The Snow Globe" by Greg Herren
  • "Something Dark and Dangerous" by Donna Andrews
  • "A Charming Solution" by Smita Harish Jain
  • "What Goes Around" by Robin Templeton
  • "Everyday Magic" by Pam Clark
  • "Pyewackett" by K.M. Rockwood
  • "Behind the Magic 8-Ball" by Marcia Talley
  • "Whiskers McGruff and the Case of the Missing Clue" by Eleanor Cawood Jones
  • "Abracadaver" by Alan Orloff
  • "Mr. Filbert's Classroom" by Adam Meyer

These stories were chosen by judges extraordinaire Heather Blake, E.J. Copperman, and Douglas Greene. Our wonderful cover was designed by Stacey Logan. Eagle-eyed Sherri Mayer helped with proofreading. And the amazing Daniel Stashower wrote the introduction. We thank them all for their efforts.

I hope you're as excited for Spooky Season as I am and that Magic is Murder will fit perfectly into your reading routine on the coming cool nights, when the moon is bright and anything is possible—even a shapeshifting PI winging her way across the sky (literally) on the way to solve a murder.

In addition to Amazon, you can buy the trade paperback version of the book right now from one of my favorite indie bookstores, Mystery Loves Company of Oxford, Maryland, as well as directly from the publisher, Wildside Press. It should appear on Barnes and Noble's website as well as the sites of lots of other online bookstores any time now.

I wish you a magical day. 

29 August 2022

Last Dance With Mary Jane

Barb Liskow

Today is my wife's birthday (Happy birthday, Barb).

It was Michael Jackson's birthday, too. It's also the 56th anniversary of the Beatles' last live performance, at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Apparently, John was sick of touring, but the others were less certain. Paul, for example, loved live performances. Many things stand out about that last show.

For one thing, less than 60% of the seats sold, at a maximum price of $6.50. You can find a video of that show on YouTube, the sound predictably sketchy, and it lasts about 28 minutes. To put that in perspective, Arlo Guthrie's song "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" lasts over 18 minutes by itself, and Iron Butterfly's self-indulgent "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" is over 17. The live version of "Free Bird" is about 14.

The Beatles played eleven songs, opening with Chuck Berry's "Rock And Roll Music" and closing with Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally." They played nothing from Revolver, the new album in record stores. Their next single was "Strawberry Fields/Penny Lane," followed by the Sergeant Pepper LP, so they were moving away from songs they could feasibly perform live anyway. Ringo, the oldest member of the quartet, had recently turned twenty-six.

It feels like a fitting date for me to sign off here, too. I've been contributing to this blog for nearly six years now, and I've loved learning from Barb, Rob, Eve, Liz, Leigh, Janet, John, Michael, and everyone else, but I'm running out of ideas worth sharing.

I've learned about history and historical crimes, police and court procedures, films, sci-fi, aesthetics, and more other topics than I can list here. I've loved commenting and receiving comments from everyone, but it's time to leave the silver bullet on the bar and ride into the sunset.

Like the Beatles, I'm changing my focus, but I'm going in the opposite direction. They moved from singles to albums, and I'm turning from albums to singles. I published my last novel in paper in 2019 (another appeared as an eBook last year), but I have eight short stories due to be published over the next 12-18 months. That would be a total of 46 stories since 2007, along with 16 novels.

I have twelve stories in submission limbo, too (some probably rejected without telling me) and three more in various stages of revision.

Hey, it isn't the Library of Alexandria, but I started late. Music, writing, theater, music again, writing again. I'm still trying to find something I'm good at.

This is a good time to introduce Chris Knopf, who will be joining SleuthSayers and taking over my slot soon. If you don't know Chris's work, you owe it to yourself to check him out. We met at Crime Bake several years ago when I had only published a few short stories and my novels were still seeking a home. When I became an active member of MWA, he agreed to blurb my first self-published novel, which most writers were either unwilling or forbidden to do at that time, and he gave me a huge boost up. 

Chris has published 9 Sam Acquillo novels and 3 Jackie Swiatkowski books, all set in the Hamptons, and assorted stand-alones. He won the Nero Award in 2013, and more and more stories are appearing in the major mystery periodicals like Alfred and Ellery. He writes terrific prose, so clean and vivid you don't notice how good it is until you read someone else after him, and his dialogue is even better. I think you're going to enjoy meeting him.

I'll sneak back when I can work free from other entangling alliances.

And, finally, congratulations to fellow Sleuthsayers O'Neil De Noux, Eve Fisher and Barb Goffman, who have "Other Distinguished Stories" listed in the Best American Mystery and Suspense Stories 2022.

Stay safe, everyone.

28 August 2022

July 8th on Juneau Wharf

Port of Skagway
The brown line running downhill was
the landslide that wiped out a dock the
week before we got there.

Jefferson Randolph Smith was born into a wealthy aristocratic family in Georgia, but they lost their fortune and way of life after the Civil War. They subsequently moved to Round Rock, Texas, where Smith found work as a cowboy. This occupation soon introduced him to saloon life.

Outside one of these saloons, Smith watched a con man use sleight of hand to run a game with three shells and a pea. Concluding that fleecing suckers for a living was easier work than the hard life of a cowboy, Smith talked the con man into teaching him how to operate the game.

In time, Smith moved on to Leadville, Colorado, and successfully worked his short con with the shells and pea on the local miners.

Using his charisma, Smith partnered up with another con man and they made more money together than they had separately. Seeking to expand his business, Smith decided to move his game to a larger market.

The Red Onion
An 1898 saloon/brothel in Skagway

Denver had lots of miners with pockets full of cash and Smith was determined to get his share. He soon organized a gang of con men and other criminals. Known for his charming personality, he bribed policemen, "contributed" to politicians and made other criminals aware that they either joined his gang or else some of his people would be around to see them.

Coming up with a new scam, Smith would gather a crowd with his patter while he took a bar of soap, wrapped a hundred-dollar bill around the bar, put a paper wrapper around the money and the soap and finished by tossing the bar into a pile of other soap. He wrapped other bars of soap with various denominations of currency in a similar manner and added them to the pile. Then, for the measly price of $5, he offered to let members of the crowd purchase one bar of soap and try their luck.

At first, the crowd was reluctant, but when the first buyer unwrapped his bar and joyfully revealed a fifty-dollar bill, Smith reminded the crowd that the hundred-dollar bill was still in the pile. After that, the buying rush was on. Of course, all the winning buyers were shills and Smith had palmed the other large bills during the wrapping.

Frank Reid's grave in Skagway

From time to time, Smith would get arrested by unbribed officers. John Holland, one of the officers who did arrest him, forgot Smith's first name while writing up the arrest report, so he called him Soapy Smith. The nickname stuck. When the locals later turned up the heat, Soapy took his criminal operation to Creed, Colorado.

In Creed, which had just found a rich strike of silver, Soapy quickly bought up most of the property lots. He kept the lots he wanted for his saloons and other businesses, while selling the remaining lots to incoming store owners and other businessmen at high prices.

Within a month of moving there, Soapy declared himself as the man running Creed. Only one man refused to acknowledge Soapy as the man in charge. That man was named Bob Ford.

Ford was not well liked by the other residents of Creed. It seems that Ford had committed what the other residents considered to ne an infamous act earlier when he lived in Missouri. There was even a song about him where some of the lines went something like this:

… the dirty little coward who shot Mister Howard and laid poor Jesse in his grave.

Jesse being the outlaw Jesse James, who some people considered to be a folk hero at that time. Soapy subsequently had a private meeting with Bob Ford, after which Ford no longer bucked Soapy's operation.

Soapy's resting place and me

When the U.S. decided to use gold as their standard to back up their currency and to leave silver out of the equation, Soapy read the handwriting on the wall for Creed's silver mines. He quickly sold his properties in that city and moved his gang back to Denver. After wearing out his welcome in Denver a second time, Soapy decided to join the gold rush in Alaska.

Setting up operation in Skagway, Soapy came up with a new con. Since the miners were so far away from home, they were lonely and eager for news from their families. Soapy set up a telegraph office and charged the miners $5 to send a telegram. He also charged $5 for them to receive a telegram. Of course, the telegraph lines didn't go any further than the walls of the telegraph office. Soapy would read the outgoing telegrams, wait a few days and then write a reply telegram allegedly from the miner's family. Somehow, the family always requested the miner to send them money. By telegram, naturally.

In time, the honest citizens of Skagway got tired of Soapy's criminal ways and therefore formed a vigilante group for truth and justice. Not to be outdone, Soapy formed his own much larger, vigilante group to protect his version of the situation.

On July 8th of 1898, Soapy got word that the city's vigilante group was having a meeting in a warehouse on the Juneau Company's Wharf. He got his Winchester rifle, gathered up his private vigilante group and they went down to the docks to break up the other group's meeting.

Frank Reid's head stone

Frank Reid, the city engineer, had been assigned, along with four other men, to guard the meeting on the wharf from outside intruders. Enraged at Soapy's brashness, Frank stepped forward to stop him.

In the ensuing discussion, Soapy took his rifle off his shoulder and shot Frank in the thigh and the abdomen. At the same time, Frank drew his pistol and shot Soapy in the arm, one leg and the heart. (A later version says Frank's first shot was a misfire and that Murphy, one of the other guards, took Soapy's rifle away from him and shot him in the heart.) In any case, Soapy's calendar ceased on that day, July 8th. The uncrowned king of the con men had expired.

Ford was carried around the city on a litter and hailed as a hero. He died twelve days later from his wounds. They buried him in the city cemetery and raised money to buy him a large head stone to mark his grave.

Soapy was buried a few feet outside the cemetery and received a wooden board for a marker.

27 August 2022

How to be a Success: Go Cookie-Cutter Blonde and Stay There

WARNING:  Not a comedy post.

Back in my forties, I made a critical career error.  I didn't dye my hair blonde.

Dark auburn from birth, I kind of liked my unique hair colour which went well with the snake green eyes I also came with.  (My first husband was a big fan of the combo, and used to say, every time a British Racing Green Jaguar went by, "there go your eyes".)

Thing is, back then, I didn't know that every successful woman was supposed to be blonde.  Not brunette, not auburn, and certainly not grey.

Yes, I'm talking about the current uproar in Canada, about Lisa LaFlamme being let go from the CTV news anchor position. She was 58 and had let her hair go grey due to the pandemic.

What you may not know is that Lisa LaFlamme is gorgeous.  She is glamorous beyond anything I could achieve.  She is a respected journalist with 30 years experience, much of it in the field, overseas.  She has been given the Order of Canada for her work.

She is also the 'brand,' meaning she was the anchor for the top rated evening news show in Canada.  It is the most viewed IN CANADA.

And CTV have let her go.

Who torpedoes their most successful brand? 

No amount of back-peddling can whitewash this.  We all know why.  The big honcho in charge was even quoted in a meeting as having said, "Who allowed Lisa LaFlamme to go grey?"  Every major media outlet and blog in the country is screaming foul on this.  The Beaverton, a wonderful satirical magazine, said this:  "...clearly she should have been fired the day she turned 50...We cannot apologize enough for subjecting our viewers to the sight of a woman who is almost 60 years old."'

Some time ago, my former agent (a nice guy who died suddenly) said to me, "Keep dyeing your hair." Showing your age, it seemed, would be career-limiting.

Why this post?  Lisa LaFlamme and I are of an age. She chose to eschew the cookie cutter blonde look (I'm sure the networks buy this dye by the barrel) and embrace her grey, confident in the fact that her professionalism was the key to holding her anchor position.

So I ask it again, as I did in my 40s, and my 20s, will we ever have a world where the way a woman looks does not override what she accomplishes?

I could write more, but I'm due back out on the picket lines carrying my sign, "I can't believe I'm still protesting this shit."

Sunnier postscript:

I've just had a revelation.  My last dog Sunny was a huge Frankenpoodle, a shaggy golden delight of clumsy friendliness.  Stranger adored him.  In contrast, our previous adorable shaggy dog, who was dark brown in colour, seemed to make people wary at first.  I am wondering if the same might be true of humans.  Do blonde-haired women (even if bottle blonde) naturally seem friendlier and less threatening than dark or grey-haired ones? Is that why Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, as the saying goes?  Comments welcome!

26 August 2022

The Day the Language Changed

Recall your high school English classes, the books you had to read. Early on, it's usually Moby Dick or The Scarlet Letter or even Robinson Crusoe. Of this last, I prefer the Andy Weir version, but that's a story for a different day.

Now let's not kid ourselves. No English teacher is going to assign Tom Clancy or Danielle Steele or Nicholas Sparks. Their job is not to bump up sales at Barnes & Noble. They want culturally significant writings in the English language. A stranded sailor in the waning days of exploration, a metaphor-heavy story about an angry captain and the whale who maimed him, and religious hysteria in Colonial New England have a lot to say about how the language has evolved.

Take those three tomes with Charles Dickens' body of work, and you realize that, at least in the 18th and early 19th centuries, novelists were a wordy bunch.

And then some guy from Hannibal, Missouri writes a travelogue laced with humor, local color, and... spare prose? The Innocents Abroad is a diary of one Samuel Clemens's travels from the Mississippi River through Utah and Nevada, to California, and even to Hawaii back when it was still independent. Writing as Mark Twain, he ditches the heavy, ponderous prose of Melville and Hawthorne (and Dickens) for one-liners. Instead of long introductory essays (Hawthorne goes on a political rant about the Whigs), Twain jumps in and starts talking about preparing for his trip. This isn't fine literature. This is a cigar-chomping Border State wanderer talking to you over a bottle of whiskey. 

And the eyes sweep right across the page. Even though language has shifted somewhat since 1870, you understand instinctively what Twain is saying. It's a refreshing change.

He's not the first English-language writer to cut to the chase. Shakespeare himself kept his dialog spare, lacing just enough in to avoid long passages of stage setup and sound effects. Yes, he wrote drama, but in between his less-than-subtle references to classical literature and to history (skewed, of course, toward the Tudors and their Stuart cousins) are puns, dialog meant to appeal to the masses. But Shakespeare wrote drama. Washington Irving did not. If you've ever read his essays about living among the Dutch of Upstate New York or his famous The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, you know Irving didn't waste words.

But Irving was an exception. Twain, more popular in his own time than Irving ever hoped to be, was, no pun intended, novel.

Of course, Dickens, Melville, and Hawthorne, while trying to lean into symbolism and history (sometimes contemporary history), also had to keep hungry audiences coming back. In an age before mass media, readers in Illinois or Texas had no clue about whaling ships or pre-Revolution Massachusetts. Dickens knew his readers did not just live in London, and those that did knew nothing about parts of their own city. So, internal monologue and heavy description were not just smart, they were mandatory.

Twain emerged after the Civil War, when telegraphs sent news and messages instantly across the continent. The telephone would follow in 1876. And anyone could hop the railroads and cross the country. So, people's knowledge of the world had widened. By the time of A Tramp Abroad, Twain did not have to spend pages describing the Swiss Alps or the German Black Forest unless it served his story.

In fact, the first really difficult Twain book to read is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and mainly for his insistence on writing in Huck's broken dialog. On the other hand, we are discussing a book that introduces a character too racist for the Confederacy, that being Huck's Pa. The Prince and the Pauper, The Gilded Age, and Tom Sawyer all have more in common with Stephen King and Nicholas Sparks than Herman Melville.

Is it our shortening attention spans? Maybe. But Twain, for all his reputation while alive and since, was an outlier. For an example, I direct you toward Henry James's Portrait of a Lady, which begins with James doing his own literary criticism. (Spoiler alert: I abandoned that one. I could finish Moby Dick.)

It wasn't until after World War I, a few years after Twain's death, that prose started to tighten up. We now look to Hemingway as our role model. Clean, sparse prose almost to the point of white room scenes, Hemingway was part of the Lost Generation. Raymond Chandler made fun of him in a Philip Marlowe novel, but that same novel followed his example, just with more similes that fell to the ground like cocaine from a politician's coffee table. (Ouch. That was bad.)

Hemingway's time overlapped that of Tolkien, whom I would call the last of the classical writers. The Lord of the Rings trilogy has so much description, interior monologue, and side stories that Stephen King's work looks like a collection of pamphlets. But try to submit something like The Fellowship of the Ring today, and expect a form rejection letter back. Update The Old Man and the Sea for the present day, and you might get a serious look.

But I have to believe Hemingway took Twain's get-to-the-point method of storytelling as permission. Some lament the change as the death of the "high-minded novel." Normally, that means tales of middle-aged college professors in inappropriate relationships with young female students. (Actually, Philip Roth pulled that off brilliantly in The Human Stain, but that was a jumping off point.) These days, especially in crime fiction, we want our prose lean.

25 August 2022

The Mills of the Law Grind Slowly, Too

A couple of weeks ago there were commutation and parole hearings here at the penitentiary in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I am not giving names or case incidents. What I will say is that, as always, the amount of news that some of these received in the local media was intense. And the hype and fear that followed - well, it was way over the top.

Sioux Falls Prison

A whole lot of people were and are convinced that if an inmate goes up for a commutation hearing - and receives it - they get released back into the community that day. WRONG.

Commutation is not a pardon, nor compassionate release. It actually has nothing to do with actually getting OUT. It's a process. Before there's even a hearing, there are interviews, a complete review of the case files, more interviews. If everything goes well, a recommendation is made to the Parole Board to hear it. They don't have to.

If the Parole Board agrees to hear the case, then there is a hearing with the inmate that is open to the public (friends and family on both sides, media, supporters, politicians, etc.). The hearings can be brutal. I've sat through a couple of them along the line. Lot of unfettered emotion. DAs and SAs and sheriffs relitigating the case, despite being told that they're not there to relitigate the case.

At the end of the hearing, with the inmate and public sitting there, the board votes. If the majority votes against approval, the inmate goes back to his/her cell. If they want, they can reapply next year. Some do – year after year after year. Some bag the whole idea and never apply again.

If the majority approves commutation, then the inmate still goes back to his/her cell.

Because the next step isn't release: it's determining what the sentence should be. A commutation is not a pardon. A commutation means that the Parole Board has decided that the sentence (usually life without parole) can and should be reduced to a number of years, and they get to decide how long. I've heard figures like 100, 200, 300 years bandied about. So what a commutation gives you is not an instant get out of prison free card, but a new sentence which makes it possible, sometime in the future, that you can apply for parole. And you can always get turned down for parole, too, even after a commutation.

But before that, the governor has to sign off on the commutation.

So a recommendation packet is made up, with all case files, documentation, the recommended new sentence, etc. And it gets sent to the governor's desk where... It's up to the governor.

Because the governor can sign the paperwork whenever the governor damn well wants to. As one Parole Board member said, governors have been known to sign the paperwork within days or weeks or months, or years. Or never.

And, of course, the governor can reject the Board's recommendation entirely and refuse to sign off on it. In which case, the inmate can apply again the next year, though I would advise waiting for a new governor.

But if the governor signs off, then the inmate has to continue to serve until they're finally eligible for a parole hearing - and the whole process starts up again.

So, even with a commutation, it can easily take years for an inmate to be released.

This is the way the law works. It's slow. It's messy. It's rarely swift. It's an exhausting process.

But it beats a world without it.

24 August 2022

The Satanic Chorus

Five months after the initial publication of The Satanic Verses, the Ayatollah Khomeini put a bounty on Salman Rushdie’s head, for defaming Islam. (It shouldn’t be lost to view, as the author John Crowley points out, that The Satanic Verses also lampoons Khomeini.)

In the thirty-odd years since, the novel has been burned, bookstores have been fire-bombed, riots have killed dozens. A guy blows himself up in London when he prematurely sets off an explosive device; the book’s Japanese translator is found murdered; thirty-seven people die at a Turkish literary conference when the hotel is burned down. And in August of this year, a fanatic finally caught up with Salman Rushdie himself, and stabbed him multiple times, putting Rushdie in critical. He survived the attack, probably losing an eye.

Meanwhile, down in Albuquerque, there’ve been a series of ambush killings, targeting Muslim men. The first was back in November of last year, and police regarded it as an isolated incident. Then there were three more recent murders, in July and August, over a span of two weeks, and that put the focus back on the earlier homicide. Was there a pattern, and were they hate crimes?

Each of the victims had been Muslim, and of South Asian descent. The community was alarmed, unsurprisingly. In this actively malignant age, was somebody with an imagined grudge trawling for towelheads? New Mexico isn’t particularly homogenous: the grievances at issue between the native Indian population, and the Hispanic conquerors, and the Anglos – late arrivals, a mere three centuries of self-importance and privilege – are as close to surface as a bruise. For the relatively small and contained Islamic social and religiou fabric, how could this not be a threat?

“I believe in America,” the undertaker tells Don Vito, the opening line of The Godfather. The immigrant American experience has always been about promise, about a new world both literally and metaphorically. It hasn’t worked out all that well for the indigenous people who were here first, but for the huddled masses, yearning to be free, the shtetl Jews on the Lower East Side, the refugee Cubans in Miami, the Irish and the Italians - even the Africans brought chained in the holds of slave ships from the Bight of Benin, who came north between the wars, to the Great Lakes steel towns, to Ohio and Chicago, and New York.

They brought their labor and their industry, and their energy. Jazz, and fashion, and the Harlem Renaissance. America is about reinvention. What was Greektown, in Baltimore, two generations ago, is now Syrians, and Vietnamese, and Salvadoran groceries. How not? There are two hundred languages spoken in Queens. My cousin Peter, born and bred in New York, in some ways the archetypal WASP, goes to Queens to eat. Instead of hunkering down inside a fortress of white privilege, he’s excited to find something new.

Immigrants and exiles are borne up by hope.

It comes as no sad surprise that the guy APD arrested as their primary suspect for the killings in the Islamic community turns out not to be some white supremacist but one of their own, a lame with a chip on his shoulder named Muhammad Syed. He apparently went after these guys because of perceived slights. He has a record of domestic violence complaints, dropped because nobody in his family would press charges against him. We would suspect, the women, and a culture of submission, an authority figure who terrorized them. In other words, we’re not talking about a Medieval belief system, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s primitive interpretation of Islam, we’re talking about Primitive Dick Syndrome. The murders in Albuquerque were about insecurity.

This seems to be kind of where we’re at.

I don’t know whether the clown who went after Salman Rushdie really imagines he’s going to get ninety-nine virgins in Paradise, or whether he’s just compensating. It’s hard not to see these guys as sad sacks, Lee Harvey Oswalds, dead ends and losers. They’d never make it on a level playing field.

And while we’re on the subject, I think the Ayatollah’s another limp dick.

It’s a locker-room thing. The biggest loudmouths have the least wisdom. Anybody with sexual confidence keeps it to themselves. Would this be about Trump and his fluffers? You betcha. Kari Lake, running for governor of Arizona, tells us Gov. DeSantis of Florida has Big Dick Energy. She’s opening herself up to a bunch of cheap shots, but I’ll settle for the one. All that Big Dick Energy is what killed those guys in Albuquerque, in my opinion. It’s a toxic, corrupted view of manhood.

I may not like militant Islam, but I don’t have much if any respect for militant evangelical Christian Nationalism, either.

Over-orthodox bible-thumpers of any description just plain stick in my craw. Nobody’s got a lock on salvation, not you, not me, not the pope in Rome. I think Marjorie Taylor Greene’s a moron, but what really gets my goat is her righteousness. If she were nothing more than a simpleton, I might be able let it go; but she’s pushing a poisonous brand of snake oil I can’t swallow.

The problem with the mullahs and the anti-vaxxers and crusaders of every stripe, is their conviction that they alone know the path to godliness. Trump and DeSantis are of course without principle, repellent and opportunistic thugs, but that’s a horse of a different color. The more dangerous aspect is the committed and convinced among us. There’s no reasoned argument you can use with a true zealot.

I’ve got no prescriptive answer. We’re stuck with this gene pool, for better or worse. You have to wonder, though, about our poisoned models for masculine behavior.

Honor killings, rape as a weapon of war, vengeance for disrespect. But isn’t it just locker-room talk, after all, that Big Dick Energy? Who does it really hurt?

Fill in the blanks.

Oh, and now polio is back.

Just how dangerous is ignorance and misinformation?

I give up.

23 August 2022

Can I Trust You?

Temple and I have been together for nine years, married for seven, and for several years now she’s been reading nearly everything I write before it ever gets submitted to an editor. It’s taken a while, but I have learned to trust her judgement.

Temple not only improves
my writing, she also makes
me dress better.
I mention that because for the past two weeks I’ve been wrestling with the end—and by “end,” I mean the last sentence—of a private eye story that otherwise we both like very much.

This trust didn’t happen overnight. Initially, showing Temple my final drafts was more me showing off: “Look what I wrote. Aren’t I great?”

The first few times she dared—dared, I say!—to suggest I might be able to improve something I had written or that some plot element didn’t make sense or that what was so clear in my head had never made it to the page, I was—to put it mildly—a bit huffy.

Over time, though, I’ve realized that any problem she notes with one of my stories is something to which I need pay attention. I don’t always agree with the solutions she suggests, but her suggestions always help me find a solution that satisfies us both.

This was brought home in a big way earlier this year with “Blindsided,” a story I co-wrote with James A. Hearn. Andrew’s wife, Dawn, also reads most of what he writes, and when Dawn and Temple saw an early draft of “Blindsided,” they told us we had written far past the actual end of the story. We grumbled, and moaned, and cut until they were satisfied.

And the story sold to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and received an Edgar nomination.

Temple’s not the type, but if ever there was something she could hold over me, that would be it. After all, without her comments and Dawn’s comments, Andrew and I might have written a decent story and it might have gotten published, but it certainly wouldn’t have been nominated for an Edgar.

So, that last sentence of the private eye story I’ve been wrestling with for two weeks? I’ll keep wrestling with it until Temple gives it her seal of approval.

“The Ladies of Wednesday Tea” was reprinted in Black Cat Weekly #50.

“Little Spring” was reprinted in Black Cat Weekly #51

Everything is Relative” was published by Fried Chicken and Coffee, August 13, 2022.

22 August 2022

In Defense of Midsomer Murders

As I’ve learned by reading literary novels, it is fashionable for highbrow British connoisseurs of film and television and noiristas everywhere to consider the long-running TV show Midsomer Murders the epitome of whatever they consider naff (Britspeak for tacky), fit only for whatever group they designate the hoi polloi—whether it’s nursing home residents, the working classes, drinkers of something called stewed tea with milk, or readers of Agatha Christie. Snobbery is nothing but a relish for contempt, and Midsomer Murders has survived it for 22 seasons (series in Britspeak), with another on the way.

I've been re-watching the earliest episodes of the show with John Nettles as the original DCI Tom Barnaby, not for the first time, and I'm noticing how firmly the show's collective tongue (writer's, presumably director's and producer's, and certainly those of the ensemble of fine actors) is in cheek. It's not just cozy mystery set in the picture-perfect imaginary Midsomer County. It's brimming with verve and stylish in every detail. Nor is it lacking in wit.

The thought that it's so commonly misunderstood as silly and even as pitched for unintelligent viewers reminds me of the misconception of that brilliant satirist Jane Austen's work as "sweet." Intellectuals would never make that mistake, of course, scholars having long since canonized the Austen oeuvre. Indeed, it's taken movies and Elizabeth and Mr Darcy murder mysteries and mashups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to remind us Austen's characters are also also fun and playful. But I digress.

The TV show is based on only seven excellent mystery novels written by Caroline Graham. Anthony Horowitz wrote the scripts for the first two, The Killings at Badger’s Drift and Written in Blood. Each episode serves up with glee a splendid stew of crime and detection, humor, English village life in idyllic surroundings, and the grotesque. Cottages are thatched. Village dwellers ride bicycles, if not horses, depending on their class and means. From cottage to stately home, every dwelling has a glorious garden. And the police are always offered a cup of tea.

Burglars and murderers invariably wear black wash leather gloves. When about to be murdered, the victim has invariably come downstairs to investigate a suspicious noise, saying, “Hello?” or “Who’s there?” or opened the door to someone we can’t see, exclaiming, “You!” or “What are you doing here?” But it’s all in good fun, like the audience yelling, “Look behind you!” at a pantomime in London at Christmas. The village characters are beyond eccentric, and some of the means of murder downright hilarious.

Some critics think the show has long since jumped the shark or has been disappointing since DCI John Barnaby took over for his cousin Tom many seasons ago. But for a cheeky yet nostalgic look at the perfect English village that never was, where you can always count on several murders and a solution at the end—and light relief from reality, which all of us need once in a while these days—you can’t go wrong with Midsomer Murders.

21 August 2022

Florida News Part 1

Florida postcard

Like Whack-a-Mole, the Sunshine State germinates and hatches weird news stories faster than a journalist can pursue them. The delay… yeah, the delay is the coronavirus’ fault. The stories had to go into quarantine. Yeah, that’s it. I can’t keep up, so the best I can say is that these are ‘news’ since my previous installment. We’ll begin Part 1 with privilege and politics.

Movie Theatre Murder Update

In 2014, we reported retired police captain Curtis Reeves murdered Chad Oulson and wounded his wife who, during previews, was sending a text message to their babysitter. Movie previews. The captain pled self-defense, which seemed farfetched even in this shoot-first / stand-your-ground state of insanity. But lo and behold, a jury earlier this year acquitted Reeves, who claimed he’d been in fear of being attacked… by popcorn.

Matt Gaetz Privileged Driving Award I

Manatee County Commissioner George Kruse was driving one fine evening when a tree, apparently intoxicated, leaped in front of Kruse’s Ford truck. Commissar Kruse did what any sensible man of means would do, he phoned his wife. After a little more thought, he phoned police. By the time deputies arrived, Kruse was sitting in his wife’s car. We’re not here to say he was drunk, but when he exited the car he was schlurring shyllables and schtumbling and schtaggering. Wifey blamed the “shitshow asphalt,” whatever that means.

Since police couldn’t place him in the wreckage of the truck, he was let off, but took swings at his critics, claiming he is the victim of a political witch hunt. Unfortunately authorities utterly failed to investigate or interrogate the tree.

Matt Gaetz Privileged Driving Award II

Flagler County Commissioner and Vice Chairman Joe Mullins likes to drive very, very fast in his red Ferrari and his Mercedes, and he pulls his privilege card whenever stopped for speeding, more than 90mph twice in the month of June alone. Even when cops give him a break by knocking a few mph off his speed, he warns them not to make any career-ending moves and informs them he “runs the county.”

Charming fellow. He helped arrange bussing of protestors to the January 6th insurrection, although afterwards he claimed he feared getting too close to the crowds storming the Capitol. When asked to resign as Commissioner, he refused. Then he was accused of fraud and racketeering, selling counterfeit Masters Golf Tournament tickets and phony badges to a travel company, a scheme that approached and might exceed a million dollars. Once again, the perpetrator claims it’s a political witch hunt and remains in office.

Ron DeSantis Abuse of Power Award

But guess who doesn’t remain in office? An elected State Attorney that Governor DeSantis stripped of his title following critical remarks about abortion laws. Previous Governor Rick Scott once attempted to remove Orange County’s elected State Attorney whom he didn’t like, but stopped short, merely taking cases away from her. In this case, State Attorney Andrew Warren is suing the governor, citing free speech and blatant abuse of power.

Matt Gaetz Jeffrey Epstein Award

Which reminds me, Matt’s ‘wingman’ (his words, not mine) in the world of teenage lust, Joel Greenberg, would finally, absolutely, most certainly be sentenced this month. Except he won’t as cooperation continues in what Gaetz considers a political witch hunt. Greenberg’s next sentencing date is 1 December.

If our (allegedly) corrupt politicos are correct, nary a hunted witch or warlock shall remain in Florida, not even Universal Studios’ The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. How do we manage to keep electing these creatures?

20 August 2022

Ethel, Is That Henry Fonda?

Okay, I know that's an odd title. Here's a bit of backstory, before I get to the main topic.

Ideas for SleuthSayers columns can come in unexpected ways. A few days ago I finished a sort of noir short story about a dumb guy and his smart girlfriend on the run from the mob, and--since I write stories like a chainsmoker, lighting up a new one as soon as the old one's done--I was about to start writing another tale, this one about two rednecks searching for hidden treasure on one of the islands off the Mississippi Coast. But I also found myself thinking about the writing itself, thinking about how much fun it always is for me to type THE END on one story and then forget about it and write a totally different story after that--maybe even one in a different genre. That's what keeps all this from getting boring. And while these thoughts were zinging around in my mind, my wife called to me and told me to check the Facebook page of one of our daughters-in-law because some new pictures had just been posted of three of our seven grandchildren. So I did.

Hang on, I'm getting there.

As ordered, I hopped over to Facebook and took a look at the photos of our (fantastic, if I do say so myself) grandkids, and as I was about to go back to my Word program and my new story, I happened to see another Facebook post. This one said something like "Did you know the actor who played Wilson in Cast Away was the same one in the volleyball scene in Top Gun?"

I gotta tell you, I liked that. I'm easily entertained anyway, and I thought that was cute. And since I had a SleuthSayers post coming up that I hadn't even started on, it got me thinking about something else. I'm a card-carrying movie addict, and I've always suspected that movie and TV actors, like writers, enjoy trying different kinds of projects--different characters, different genres, etc. Unless they're actors committed to a series, I doubt they want to play the same roles, or even the same kinds of roles, over and over again. (Even Wilson.)

Anyhow, all that is what led to this column, and to this question:

Who are some actors who have played extremely different roles in different movies, roles so against type that you almost didn't know who they were?

Remember Charlize Theron in Monster? Or Sean Connery in The Untouchables? It was hard to believe he was James Bond. And did Indiana Jones once pilot the Millennium Falcon? Surely not--but those two guys sure look alike. And how many of us who saw Kathy Bates in Fried Green Tomatoes were goggle-eyed at her performance in Misery? The more I thought about this, the more movies and roles I came up with. Was I honestly supposed to believe Richard Harris in Camelot and Richard Harris in Unforgiven were the same man? How could that nice Air Force captain who Dreamed of Jeannie become a devil like J.R. Ewing? Had Robin Wright in House of Cards really been Forrest Gump's girlfriend, and the Princess Bride?? How had Rocky morphed into Rambo? I could easily imagine Joe Moviegoer sitting in a theater in Bugtussle, Oklahoma, watching the villain in Once Upon a Time in the West murder an entire family, suddenly elbowing his wife and saying, "Look, I think that's Henry Fonda!"

So here, without further ado, is a list of fifty actors who--in my opinion--played shockingly different characters, sometimes polar opposites, in different productions, and the movies/TV shows featuring those characters:

Lee Marvin -- The Dirty Dozen and Cat Ballou

Donald Sutherland -- M*A*S*H and The Hunger Games

Jane Fonda -- Nine to Five and Barbarella

Denzel Washington -- Remember the Titans and Training Day

Jeff Bridges -- The Last Picture Show and The Big Lebowski

Sally Field -- The Flying Nun and Norma Rae

Leonardo DiCaprio -- Titanic and The Revenant

Sigourney Weaver -- Alien and Galaxy Quest 

Kurt Russell -- Overboard and Escape from New York

Burt Reynolds -- Smokey and the Bandit and Deliverance

George Clooney -- ER and O Brother Where Art Thou?

Meryl Streep -- Mama Mia! and The Devil Wears Prada

Woody Harrelson -- Cheers and Zombieland

Jeff Daniels -- The Newsroom and Dumb & Dumber

Richard Crenna -- The Real McCoys and Wait Until Dark

John Travolta -- Grease and Pulp Fiction

Lou Diamond Phillips -- La Bamba and Longmire

Bryce Dallas Howard -- The Village and Jurassic World

Keanu Reeves -- The Matrix and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure

Elizabeth Taylor -- Giant and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Tom Hanks -- Splash and Saving Private Ryan

Fred MacMurray -- My Three Sons and Double Indemnity

Dennis Weaver -- Gunsmoke and Duel

Jack Palance -- Shane and City Slickers

Sandra Bullock -- The Blind Side and Miss Congeniality

Daniel Day Lewis -- Lincoln and The Last of the Mohicans

Robert Shaw -- From Russia with Love and Jaws

Lloyd Bridges -- Sea Hunt and Airplane!

Faye Dunaway -- Bonnie and Clyde and Oklahoma Crude

Gregory Peck -- To Kill a Mockingbird and The Boys from Brazil

Frances McDormand -- Fargo and Raising Arizona

Jack Nicholson -- Easy Rider and Chinatown

Scarlett Johansson -- Ghost World and Black Widow

Robert Duvall -- Lonesome Dove and Apocalypse Now

Christian Bale -- Batman Begins and Vice

Michael Douglas -- The American President and Romancing the Stone

Kathleen Turner -- Peggy Sue Got Married and Body Heat

Marlon Brando -- A Streetcar Named Desire and The Godfather

Kevin Costner -- Field of Dreams and 3000 Miles to Graceland

Glenn Close -- The Natural and Fatal Attraction

Eddie Murphy -- Beverly Hills Cop and The Nutty Professor

Kelly McGillis -- Top Gun and Witness

Bruce Willis -- Moonlighting and Sin City

Laura Linney -- The Truman Show and Ozark

Russell Crowe -- Gladiator and L.A. Confidential

Elijah Wood -- Lord of the Rings and Pawn Shop Chronicles

William Holden -- The World of Suzie Wong and The Wild Bunch

Emily Blunt -- Mary Poppins Returns and Edge of Tomorrow

Robin Williams -- Mork & Mindy and Dead Poets Society 

Dustin Hoffman -- The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy (and Tootsie, for that matter)

These are some that first came to mind; there are many, many more. Please feel free to add to the list in the comments section. (I love this stuff.)

By the way . . . if you haven't seen Galaxy Quest, believe me, you should. It's streaming now on Amazon Prime.

See you again in two weeks.

19 August 2022

Filling the Blank Walls in My Life

One of the joys of genre fiction is that it reliably generates cool art. While writers are probably best known for staring at the blank page, we occasionally struggle with blank walls as well. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed seeing how writers decorate their offices and living spaces with enlarged, framed images of the covers of their books, anthologies to which they’ve contributed, and magazine covers sporting a mention of their name.

I want to discuss another source of art that many of us have never considered. I need to step back slightly in time to 2012, shortly after I’d sold my first story to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Back then, I had Google alerts set to ping me anytime someone reviewed one of my books. (I have since ceased the practice. At the time I was obsessed with collecting any mention of my titles and immediately bringing them to the attention of my publishers, so they could be sure to get in their requisite number of daily yawns.)

Imagine my surprise to learn one morning that one Tom Pokinko blogged about reading and enjoying my AHMM story, “Button Man.” This struck me as weird, since the story hadn’t been published yet. Turns out, Mr. Pokinko, then based in Ottawa, was an artist commissioned by AHMM to illustrate the story. He posted a “pencil” sketch of the image he intended to create, and later posted the final “pen and ink” drawing. (You’ll learn in a second the meaning of these quote marks .)

“Button Man” (AHMM, March 2013) was a historical set in the late 1950s in New York’s Garment District. It was fun to see how Mr. Pokinko illustrated rolling racks of clothing and period dress that brought the scene to life.

Copyright © Tom Pokinko

Five years later, my wife and I had moved to a new house. Our office was larger than the previous one we’d shared. Finding myself staring at a fresh set of blank walls, I suddenly thought of Tom’s drawing. I wrote and asked if he would be willing to sell me the “original” drawing—that is, if he still had it and had no further use for it.

Tom gently informed me that there was no original drawing to speak of, since he (and most artists working today) create digital images, which they can more easily edit and transmit to their art directors. He offered the next best thing: a high-quality digital print on acid-free paper and archival inks that will not fade over time. He would matte the image, and sign it prior to shipping.

His only advice was to stick closely to the size of the image as it had run in the magazine. Any larger, and we’d sacrifice print resolution. Digest-size magazine pages appear stubby, but the images that run on them are necessarily designed to be somewhat tall and thin to stay out of the gutter and margins. We settled on a 8 1/2 x 11-inch print, fitted to an 11 x 17-inch matte. That’s a fairly standard frame size, by the way, which held down costs on my end.

A few years later, the cycle repeated itself. AHMM hired illustrator Tim Foley to create an image for my Sherlockian story, “A Respectable Lady” (AHMM, July/August 2017 ). If you’re a regular reader of the magazine, you will recognize Mr. Foley’s cross-hatched style immediately. He’s a longtime contributor to many publications who is over-the-moon proud of his AHMM work, which has allowed him to illustrate the work of everyone from Leo Tolstoy to Rob Lopresti! Mr. Foley maintains a running tally of all his AHMM pieces on the website, and is trying to amass a hard copy collection of all issues in which his work appeared. (That’s where you come in, author! See below for details.) I had a sense of déjà vu when I contacted Mr. Foley. He was happy to sell me a signed digital print, and offered the same advice on sizing I had heard from Mr. Pokinko. In less than a month, after a visit to his local copy shop, I had another piece for the office wall.

Copyright © Tim Foley

I enjoy collecting art this way because, in a sense, the pieces were custom-made for me, or at least for whichever story of mine they illustrate. In the process, I learned that the magazine sends artists a copy of the story, which they read to conceive their image. Predictably, Dell Magazines are not high-paying illustrator’s markets, so artists are usually delighted to re-sell existing work at a reasonable price to the writer who inspired it. (Think of it as the artistic equivalent of story reprints.) In total, I spent $170 acquiring the two pieces.

If you’re thinking of acquiring AHMM or EQMM art, look for the credit line as it appears under the published image. Chances are, the artist can be easily contacted via their website.

I have not made a careful study of this, but it appears that not all digests commission art for stories. In some cases, they simply download images from stock agencies. I’ve also learned that it’s worth asking yourself if you enjoy the image in question before contacting the artist. There’s one AHMM picture that will never appear on my wall. If you don’t love it (or even like it), you’re probably better off continuing to stare at that blank wall until something desirable comes your way.

* * * 

Help out an artist! Tim Foley wants to locate paper copies of all the AHMM issues that have featured his work. If you’re like me, you probably have more copies on your shelves than you know what to do with. Tim’s list is here; the dates of the missing issues are indicated in BOLD. Contact him if you have a copy you can spare. You will probably also discover that he illustrated some of your stories well!

See you in three weeks with yet another story about mysterious art!


18 August 2022

The Pastry War

 Stop me if you've heard this one before.

Strong nation seizes on a historically unremarkable event as an excuse for a war declaration on a weaker nation, with the actual intent of bullying the weaker nation into agreeing to a political/economic settlement advantageous to the strong nation.

"Sure," you say. "History is rife with these sorts of examples. Take the Opium wars between Great Britain and China, as just one such example."

Good example, however, the one I'll be writing about during this week's turn with the blog took place in the Western Hemisphere.

"Well," I hear you say, "The United States intervened throughout the Caribbean islands, Central and South America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries."

I'm thinking of one such intervention that took place further north and west. And earlier.

"Oh," you think. "Mexico. The Mexican-American War?"

Mexico is definitely involved, but this was even earlier.

And the inciting event, according to the bully nation in this instance, was the vandalism of a pastry shop. If we're thinking in stereotypes, which county do you think most likely to get all worked up over pastry?

You read right. Pastry.

Stuff like this.

Now I hear what you're thinking? Can't be, right? Which country has elevated the making of pastry into high art? Why, France, of course.

Yep. We're definitely talking about France. The simple (and by "simple," I mean, "In no way, shape or form, 'Complete.'") answer is that the French government actually started a shooting war over a pastry shop.

A French pastry shop.

Obviously not the French pastry chef in question.

Owned and operated by a French citizen.

In a nice suburb of Mexico City.

Here's a quick overview of the rest of the story: after Mexico won her independence from Spain in 1821, the forces which had ousted the Spanish failed to unite behind any one leader for long, and quickly turned on each other. Thus the 1820s and 1830s in Mexico tended to be violent, unsettled times. One of the many results of this state of affairs was the frequent looting of locally owned businesses.

Usually these business owners had little recourse in such situations. Crime was rampant, the central government hopelessly corrupt and weakened by factionalism, and in no position to either crack down on rioters and looters, political or otherwise, or to make meaningful compensation to those whose businesses suffered as a result of these frequent outbursts of public violence.

One such victim of one such riot was a French citizen whose family name has come down to us, unaccompanied by a first name. This "Monsieur Remontel" cited an 1828 riot in the fashionable "Parian Marketplace," which occupied a bustling corner of the tony Mexico City suburb of Tacubaya, at that time a getaway playground for Mexico's richest where they could escape the heat and dust of neighboring Mexico City.

In Monsieur Remontel's complaint requesting compensation from the Mexican government for damage done to his pastry shop during the Parian Marketplace Riot, he was quick to point that the rioters who trashed his shop were in fact Mexican Army officers in uniform. And only had these officers destroyed Remontel's property, they had eaten ALL of the unfortunate man's pastries!

Remontel's shop was valued at roughly 1,000 pesos. He insisted on being compensated to the tune of 60,000 pesos.

Not surprisingly Remontel's efforts went exactly nowhere with the Mexican government, and so he turned in frustration to the French government. He submitted the same outlandish number (60,000 pesos) to the government of King Louis-Philippe. And in this, Remontel had company. Plenty of French citizens had advanced claims against the Mexican government in the years since 1821.

So the French started throwing their weight around. Their ambassador got laughed out of the Mexican legislature when he presented his government's demands for compensation. French newspapers took up the drum beat demanding satisfaction, and Remontel's little pastry shop captured the country's imagination. In no time at all the French navy was blockading Mexico's busiest port, Vera Cruz.

Of course there was more to the French aggression than merely seeking reparations. France wanted economic concessions.

During the years since Mexico won independence, the French had built a robust trade with the country, coming in third behind only the United States and Great Britain. Unlike the other two, though the French still paid taxes on both imports and exports moving through Mexico's ports.

During the next year the French navy seized dozens of merchant vessels attempting to leave or enter Vera Cruz, bombarded and eventually took the massive fort defending the harbor, and did immense damage to the already teetering Mexican economy. Add in that the war the French termed the Guerre des Pâtisseries and the Mexicans called the Guerra de los pasteles gave the eternally troublesome General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (of "Alamo" infamy) the opportunity to get back into the national spotlight, losing a leg in battle with the French, and giving him a platform to make more mischief in pursuit of his never-waning ambition.

In 1839 the British (who, along with the Americans were losing money because of the on-going French blockade) succeeded in negotiating an end to the hostilities. In exchange for an end to the blockade, Mexico agreed to compensate French citizens (including the much aggrieved Remontel) to the tune of 600,000 pesos, and to lower taxes on French trade.

With the ink still dry on the treaty, the Mexican government once again fell, and the one that replaced it reneged on the promised payment, as did every succeeding government for the next two decades.

With the United States consumed by its own civil war, the French saw an opportunity to collect on this war debt, and used it as a pretext to invade Mexico again, this time conquering the country and installing an Austrian nobleman as the puppet "emperor" of Mexico. This "empire" lasted (at considerable expense to the French government) until the recovered United States threatened an invasion in support of the ousted Mexican government in 1867, and the French withdrew, with little to show for their second intervention in Mexico.

And on top of all of that, Monsieur Remontel never saw a single peso of his much-longed for compensation.

And that's it for me this time. See you in two weeks!