30 September 2022

The Secret Inside You

If you grew up within driving distance of New York City during a particular period in history, you and your classmates would inevitably be bundled up at some point in your academic career and dragged en masse to the Museum of Natural History, so you could while away the hours peering at creepy dioramas of Neanderthals frozen in time, or rampant dinosaurs recreated from their fossilized remains, or a giant life-size blue whale dangling precariously from the ceiling.

When the time came, I too made the trek to that museum, but I didn’t have to like it. By the time I was in fourth grade, the only New York museum worth my time was the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and all because of a book.

This is the actual book. I’ve kept it all these years. It’s called From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg, who died in 2013 at age 83. I’ve never read any other books by her except this one. Mixed-Up Files was enough to carry with me all these years. And only a few years ago did I realize the debt my writing owes to it.

The story doesn’t sound terribly remarkable. Feeling unappreciated in her white-bread Connecticut household, a young girl named Claudia decides to run away from home. She knows herself well enough to know that she requires money and comfort to pull off this caper. She enlists the help of her brother Jamie, a master card cheat, who has the princely sum of $24 to his name. The two run away to New York City and move into the Metropolitan Museum of Art. By day, they educate themselves by tagging along with school groups. By night, they swipe pocket change as they bathe in the museum’s fountain and sleep in Marie Antoinette’s bed.

While living in their magnificent digs, Claudia becomes obsessed with nailing down the provenance of a mysterious statue of an angel, which the museum has recently acquired. Some evidence identifies the statue as the work of Michelangelo, but the experts beg to differ, as they always do. Claudia and Jamie spend the remainder of their money to travel to the home of the statue’s last known owner of record, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, who just might know the truth. Eccentric, witty, rich, and marvelously perceptive, Frankweiler offers the children a challenge: The truth is hidden somewhere inside her Mixed-Up Files, a long bank of file cabinets in her office. If they are clever enough, they can find the answer. The children accept the wager, and what they discover in their search makes me want to cry like a baby forty years later.

I like two things about this book. It just took me until adulthood to figure out what they are.

One is that the book is written in first person by Frankweiler herself, who appears at the very beginning, writing a letter to her attorney, and saying that she feels compelled to explain the changes she is about to make to her last will and testament. She tells us that since she’s interviewed the two children extensively, she feels qualified to present this unbiased account. This narrative framework seems dodgy, but I’m currently using it with a book I’m writing. It seems to be working.

With that intriguing intro, she leaps into the story, though she will not appear as a character in the main action until the last quarter of the tale.

I think you should read Mixed-Up Files if you haven’t already, so I won’t give any spoilers. (If nothing else, see if it is suitable for the child in your life.) Suffice to say that Claudia and Jamie solve the mystery, and Frankweiler—a proxy for Konigsburg herself—manages to save one last satisfying secret for the book’s final pages.

The second reason the book charmed me is that it’s remarkably wise. The author understands that all children—young and old—want to feel special, and solving a mystery is one of the best ways to arrive at that specialness. This may partially account for the mystery lover’s addiction.

Here’s the quote that sells it. Frankweiler, in a conversation with Jamie, says:
Claudia doesn’t want ad­ven­ture. She likes baths and feeling comfortable too much for that kind of thing. Secrets are the kind of adventure she needs. Secrets are safe, and they do much to make you different. On the inside, where it counts.
Yes. Yes. Absolutely true. Konigsburg, throughout her long career, became known for spouting similarly profound gems in her writing. I sometimes like reading quotes people have pulled from her books. She was that good. Here’s another:
Some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up and touch everything. If you never let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you.
When I was still working at Scholastic, one of my office mates was lucky enough to interview Konigsburg about one of her new books. Like me, my friend loved Mixed-Up Files and so she was tempted to ask a few questions about that book. One too many questions, I might add. Konigsburg bristled, saying Mixed-Up Files was her second book, it was old, and puh-leeze, she was trying to promote the new book.

Today I know in my heart how she must have felt. But Mixed-Up Files won the Newbery Award in 1967 and has touched millions of readers since. E.L. Konigsburg wrote 21 great books, and I’m sure that in time I’ll read them all. But if I never do, all I need is this one. It is that special.

* * *

See you in three weeks!


29 September 2022

When Character Development Meets "The Real World"

Flat characters are two-dimensional in that they are relatively uncomplicated and do not change throughout the course of a work. By contrast, round characters are complex and undergo development, sometimes sufficiently to surprise the reader.

Stock character, a character in a drama or fiction that represents a type and that is recognizable as belonging to a certain genre. Most of the characters in the commedia dell'arte, such as Columbine and Harlequin, are stock characters.

         – Both quotations courtesy of The Encyclopedia Britannica

I have written at length in this space about the importance of character development in your writing. (If you're interested in reading some of my previous work on character, feel free to click here, here, here, and here.) And lately, I've returned to the well, and begun to consider the importance of the delicate balance of character development versus character continuity.

Take John Updike's Rabbit series of four novels, all featuring the same central character, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. The series takes place over a span of thirty years, taking Rabbit from his mid-twenties to his death in retirement. Updike released the various novels an average of ten years apart (1960, 1971, 1981 and 1990). The final two novels (Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest) won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Over the course of the series Updike kept his character restless and angsty, while also showing both physical and mental changes in the character as he grew older. He did this against an evolving social backdrop (the early '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s, respectively) that dovetailed pretty seamlessly with the character's arc (see my post on the effective use of setting as another character in your work). And, obviously, "Rabbit" Angstrom would be an example of the "round character" defined above. Taken as a whole, the books are well worth your time.

Where Updike's series presents a collective masterwork of balancing development and continuity, it has in many ways presented an outlier bucking the last few decades of writing marketplace trends. This seems especially true in crime fiction.

Don't get me wrong. There are lots of great writers currently out there developing their characters, working their collective tails off, and producing really unforgettable stuff.


The last few decades have seen the rise of the so-called "airport thriller." And where early practitioners of the art of thriller writing (then, as now, a sub-genre of crime fiction), such as Robert Ludlum and the immortal Elmore Leonard were masters equal to Updike in writing characters who showed growth, they have proven the exception rather than the rule. The emphasis in thrillers is on fast-paced plotting, and with the market growing more and more lucrative, publishers have shown a preference for thrillers as part of a series of books, rather than the stand-alones most favored by so many masters of the sub-genre.

I'm not giving examples because I'm not looking to call anyone out. Plus, were my agent to tell me tomorrow that a top five publisher was offering me a multi-book contract adorned with a whole lot of zeroes to write thrillers that adhered to these standards, I would not hesitate to dive into this end of the writing pool. Character development tends not to be a hallmark of thriller writing. It's delightful to see when you find it, but truth be told, thriller fans (my brother among them) tend to read thrillers for the action, first and foremost.

What I'm saying is that I have begun to see this "light" character development crop up more and more in other types of crime fiction, especially in any number of series. The character has a benchmark, and even in a series that runs for years, tends to vary little from said benchmark. In so doing, series lead characters which ought to be "round" tend to take on the aspects of so-called "stock characters."

Rather than give examples of this, let me go in the opposite direction, using a real world example.

There's this guy I used to know. We grew up on the same block. Neighbors and friends for years and years. We eventually lost touch (as people often do), and a few years ago, I happened across his social media presence. Here's a thumbnail of the "character" I found there:

My old friend worked in radio, eventually helming his own talk radio show. From here he took a quick detour into StartUpLand at one of the pioneer startups where he made a pile, then eventually found his way back into talk radio. Now in his fifties, his political and social positions seem to rely heavily on the foundation of his deep spiritual faith, and the importance of his family in his life.

And I say good for him. He was a great guy back then, and I have little doubt he still is.

What makes this thumbnail so interesting is the set of fundamental differences I see between the guy I knew back in early-to-mid '80s and his current self. When we were teenagers growing up together, my old friend was practically a socialist. And for all intents and purposes heavily agnostic (not irreligious so much as indifferent to religion). Something that hasn't changed at all is that he was a brilliant, and opinionated conversationalist then, as he still seems to be. One huge difference was that he loathed Ronald Reagan more than I did (I still do. If anything I loathe Reagan more in retrospect). Not sure what's changed there, but needless to say, my friend isn't exactly "anti-Reagan" (or anti-his memory, I guess) these days.

Some other things: he went on a family vacation with myself and my extended family, and developed his first real crush on a girl who came on the trip with one of my cousins. It was amusing to watch this most opinionated of guys basically abandon several of his previous opinions based on what his new love interest thought. 

And yet I never saw him in love again during the time I knew him. If anything I saw him protecting his heart, flirting with girls, never dating, plenty of "hanging out," but never making himself "available."

Here's the funniest part, though. I had another friend back in my teens. Conservative, grew up with a strong church background, also opinionated. Loved Reagan.

I've stayed in touch with this friend. He's got grown kids, a thriving career in a union construction job, climbs mountains and he frequently uses his free time helping build schools in Sub-Saharan Africa. I have no idea how feels about politics these days. We don't talk politics when we talk. We talk music. And it's always great.

That funny thing? My first friend back in the day heartily disliked this second friend. And nowadays my second friend reminds me of my first friend in his youth and that first friend reminds me much more of my second friend in his youth.

Heyyyyy I think I might have the germ of a story idea here....

See you in two weeks!

28 September 2022

A Dagger of the Mind


Things in Russia are going from bad to worse these days, and don’t look likely to get better anytime soon, but I’ll go out on a limb.  I think Vladimir Putin is circling the drain.  This is more of gut feeling than a considered analysis; still, there are indications he could be forcibly retired, or assassinated, or simply disappear. 

As you might have noticed, an awful lot of people have been falling out of windows, lately.  Former director of the Moscow aviation institute went head over heels down a few flights of stairs.  Another aviation guy, Far East and Arctic development, washed up off of Vladivostok – shortly after their CEO died of a stroke, aged 43.  Chief executive of Lukoil fell out a hospital window.  Another exec with the same company died while consulting a shaman, in a room supposedly used for “Jamaican voodoo” rituals.  The story goes he was looking to buy a toad venom hangover cure.  An oligarch hanged himself in Spain; one of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  Both of them associated with natural gas production.  A stabbing death.  A suicide by hanging in the UK.  A second one at a cottage outside of St. Petersburg (he’d reportedly been badly beaten, the day before).  The  previous month, another suspicious death, the same village, different dacha.  Kind of a mortality spike.

These events have been this year, and most of them since the invasion of Ukraine.  Also, mostly in the energy or defense sector, which are related.  Were they depressed, or under a cloud, out of favor with the Kremlin?  No way of knowing.  Russians tend to look for conspiracies and plots, when a simpler explanation might suffice.  But if this sequence of accidents and despair turns out to be Expedient Demise, or circling the wagons, who benefits? 

Putin has always understood the efficacies of terror.  The clear historical precedent is Stalin.  When you go after enemies real or perceived with poisoned umbrellas or polonium cocktails, it echoes the murder of Trotsky.  And it gets easier; after throwing a reporter down an elevator shaft, it’s not that hard to flatten Grozny, or sacrifice schoolchidren.  Putin enjoys plausible deniability - not taking credit, but winking at it.  We know he’s got blood on his hands, and in point of fact, he wants us to know it.  His missing signature is more conspicuous by its absence. 

Now, in this context, consider the Ukraine war. 

What, exactly, was the object here?  A quick and brutal decapitation of the Zelensky government and the total annexation of Ukraine, an Anschluss, to demonstrate Russian resolve and its inevitable historic destiny, and to prove once and for all the debility and fundamental lack of purpose in the American and European alliance.  None of which worked out, and what we might call a fundamental lack of purpose in the Russian military and political establishment has been fatally exposed.  Interestingly, while we can applaud the courage of Russians who’ve protested the war on humanitarian grounds, the more serious threat to Putin himself is coming from the Right, who are taking him to task for not prosecuting the war more vigorously – i.e., scorched earth.  We might take note that this group hasn’t been arrested or harassed, and perhaps they’ve found sympathetic ears in the military and security apparat. 

Some years back, there was a political movement in Russia called Pamyat’, which means Memory, and also called the National Patriotic Front.  It was ultranationalist, and to nobody’s surprise, virulently anti-Semitic.  The movement has withered, but the sentiment lingers, not entirely on the fringe, either.  A few contemporary Kremlinologists have pointed out that in the past, coups in Russia (or the USSR) haven’t hinged on policy differences.  Whoever’s going to push Putin down the stairs won’t make major institutional changes; they’re simply elbowing each other out of the way for more space at the trough.  They might find it convenient, though, to play on the revanchist grievances of the Right, and then discard them afterwards, but a bargain with the Devil always ends badly.  In any event, I don’t think it’s a matter of if, but when.  The toadies and bottom-feeders around Putin are going to stick the knife in him.  It could result in a net benefit, but the worrisome thing is that they dig themselves a hole, and pull it in after them. 

27 September 2022

The Gift of Writing—and Reading—Fiction

Families come in all shapes and sizes. Ideally, what keeps them glued together is love. With love comes understanding and acceptance and an inclination to give your family members the benefit of the doubt.

At least, that's how it should work. But life isn't ideal, at least not always. Sometimes people are selfish. Or immature. They could be rigid and stubborn and damaged. When such people clash, conflicteven crimecan be inevitable. 

In real life, it's sad. But in fiction, examining such people can give readers not only an opportunity to feelmaybe satisfaction or anger, sadness or joybut it can prompt them to examine their own inclinations, to think about what they'd be willing to do for others, especially when what's wrong seems right. Maybe they'll even find a better way to live. The prompting of such self-examination might be a lofty goal, but I think it's what many authors want. To entertain, yes. But also to make a difference with our words. To affect people. To make them feel and think.

It's what I hope to do with my newest story, "The Gift." It appears in Land of 10,000 Thrills, this year's Bouchercon anthology, which was published earlier this month by Down & Out Books. In "The Gift," Debbie has always believed in setting a good example for her grandson and the kids at her high school, where she toils as principal. But sometimes the line between right and wrong blursespecially when family is involved.

I can't say more about the story without saying too much. So instead I'll tell you a little more about the book. It's edited by the wonderful Greg Herren, and the call for stories required they be set in Minnesota (where this year's Bouchercon was held) or an adjacent state or Canadian province. My story is set in Iowa.

Knowing the quality of the writing of many of the other authors in the book, I expect I'm in for a treat with all of them. You too. These other authors are: Eric Beckstrom, Eric Beetner, Mark Bergin, Susanna Calkins and Erica Ruth Neubauer (co-writers), L.A. Chandlar, Meredith Doench, Mary Dutta, John M. Floyd (a fellow SleuthSayer; yay, John!), Jim Fusilli, R. Franklin James, Jessica Laine, BV Lawson, Edith Maxwell, Mindy Mejia, Richie Narvaez, Bryon Quertermous, Marcie R. Rendon, Raquel V. Reyes, Bev Vincent, Tessa Wegert, Michael Wiley, and Sandra SG Wong.

Here's an abridged version of the anthology's back-cover copy:

For years, the Midwest has been used as a stand-in for "average America." The sweeping Great Plains, the heavy snows of winter, ice fishing and mighty rivers and frozen lakes. Midwesterners have a reputation for being the salt of the earth, friendly and kind and helpful and nice. But is "Midwestern nice" merely a cover for what really goes on in this part of the country? John Wayne Gacy, the bloody Benders, and Jeffrey Dahmer were all Midwesternersbut that doesn't mean every Midwesterner has bodies buried in their basement ... or does it? 

Editor Greg Herren is proud to present a series of tales that will shock and surprise youand maybe make you think twice about that ice-fishing trip or before taking a snowmobile out after the sun goes down. Featuring authors from all over the Midwest who know just how dark and lonesome it can get out there in the country at night, these crime stories will entertain you with their trip down the dark side of the "real America"where the twilight's last gleaming has an entirely different meaning and feel.

You can buy the anthology in trade paperback and ebook from all the usual sources. To get it right from the publisher, click here. For Amazon, click here. For Barnes and Noble, click here. To get it from an indie bookstore near you, click here.

Happy reading!

26 September 2022

Crime Scene Comix Case 2022-09-018, Sunken Treasure

Once again we highlight our criminally favorite cartoon lab, Future Thought channel of YouTube. We love the sausage-shaped Shifty, a Minion gone bad.

Yikes! In this episode, Shifty almost becomes legitimately rich… if we overlook that part about a stolen boat.

  © www.FutureThought.tv


That’s today’s crime cinema. Hope you enjoyed the show. Be sure to visit Future Thought YouTube channel.

25 September 2022

BSP: Paperbacks 7 - 8 & 9

I spent this summer bundling some of my short stories into collections. The result is that three more paperbacks are now in print. Most of these stories were previously published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine or various other magazines or anthologies.

Paperback #7

9 Tales from the Golden Triangle consists of nine stories set in the mountain jungles and opium fields of Southeast Asia in the years after Mao's Red Army had pushed the White Nationalist Army under Chang Kai-Shek out of China during their civil war. Part of the White Army went to Taiwan while other divisions found refuge in the mountain jungles of Burma, Laos and Thailand. And, since an army must eat, as the common wisdom went, those latter army divisions soon became involved in the opium trade.

In these stories, two half-brothers contend to inherit their warlord father's opium empire. The elder half-brother was born of a hill tribe mother and raised in the jungle camps. The younger is full-blood Chinese and was raised in the British education system of Hong Kong. Existence means living with treachery and deceit while trying to live up to their father's expectations. Only one brother can win.

Paperback #8

9 Historical Mysteries Vol 2  is a continuation of the Volume 1 collection. The first five stories are set in the 1660s Paris Underworld during the reign of the Sun King, Louis the Fourteenth, on the throne of France. A young, orphan pickpocket, incompetent at his trade, grows up in a criminal enclave outside the gates of Paris. His fellow criminals tend to take advantage of his youthful ignorance and inexperience in order to draw him into their schemes.

The next four stories are in The Armenian series set in 1850s Chechnya ranging from the Cossack cordon along the Terek River and south into the hill tribes of the Wild Country in the shadows of the Caucasus Mountains. In this land, trust is an unmarked grave in the rolling steppes where The Armenian must survive dangerous encounters by his wits.

Paperback #9

9 Tales of a Criminal Mind are stories ranging from power to greed, from excitement to vengeance, where the criminal rationalizes his actions in order to justify the crime. Inside are nine tales of a criminal mind. Some humorous. Some desperate. Some done out of family loyalty. Yet all are against the law.

The last story collection includes the 2022 Macavity Nominated and Edgar Award winner in the Best Short Story category, "The Road to Hana."

All nine books, now on Amazon, are part of my endeavor to keep my stories out there in the market place for readers.

Thank you for your time.

24 September 2022

SIX Reasons Mystery Manuscripts Fail

 I was talking to a former student the other day about his classic mystery manuscript.  It's really good in so many ways - so good in fact, that it was shortlisted for the Crime Writers of Canada Unpublished Manuscript award.  However, this manuscript has yet to to be picked up by a publisher or agent.

So that got me thinking, why not?  What could be the reasons novice novel writers might just miss the boat?

So here goes.  Based on my reading of over 1000 manuscripts (from being a judge of various contests, and being a teacher of advanced novel writing for over thirty years) here's what comes to mind first. 

Why Mystery Novels Fail:

1.  Too Many Characters

I was reading a manuscript the other day that had me so confused, I went back to review my own work.  In my latest novel (The Merry Widow Murders, out early 2023 from Cormorant) I have 12 named characters.  The protagonist, her sidekick, her lover, six suspects and or victims, plus three secondary characters (total 12.)  I then went to my client's manuscript and stopped counting at 20.  

Too many character can be hard to keep straight and will take a reader out of the story.  In this case, I advised combining a few characters and not naming people who only appear as support (the taxi driver, the Porter, the woman behind the cash.)

2.   No Clear Protagonist

So many times I've heard students say to me, "Oh, my novel has three protagonists."  And I calmly tell them the accepted definition of a novel:  A protagonist with a problem or goal, and obstacles to that goal.

The problem with having more than one protagonist, I explain, is the reader doesn't know whom to root for.  Have you ever dropped a book after about ten pages?  Chances are, you didn't care about the protagonist.  

The first job a novelist has is to make readers care about the protagonist, so they will want to find out what happens to him/her/they.  Of course you can and should have strong secondary characters.  I always recommend a close sidekick, for the reason below.

3.  No Close Sidekick 

It's a trick experienced novelists have, you might say.  Give you protagonist a sidekick to talk to, so that there aren't pages and pages of internal monologue.  Dialogue is active; monologue is telling.  Give your protagonist a Dr Watson or Captain Hastings, and they can discuss the case together, making it a much more dynamic read.

4.  Not Enough Suspects

This should be obvious.  A mystery novel should be a mystery until the very end, when you find out whodunit.  I've queried several publishers, and they tell me you need at least three good suspects for a mystery novel.  Even better if you can develop five.  If you have only one good suspect and he/she/they is obvious from the start, then it's not a mystery!   It may still be a crime novel (including caper, suspense or thriller) but if the perp is obvious, well you're simply not writing classic mystery.

5.  Violating the rule of Chekhov's Gun

Yes, that Chekhov - the one we tried to get out of reading in high school.  To paraphrase his famous rule:  If you point out there is a gun hanging on the wall in the first chapter, it absolutely must be fired by the end of the book.

I was reminded of this rule while reading a manuscript recently that had the action chapters interspersed with the insertion of diary excerpts.  Trouble was, the diary excerpts were several pages long, and the reader (me) had no idea why she was supposed to be reading them.  It took one out of the story. In the end, much of the information in the excerpts had no bearing on the crime.  

It's that last bit that makes me think of Chekhov's gun.  Sure, someone will say we need red herrings in a mystery novel.  But info-dumping a whole bunch of information at once that may have no bearing on the crime can be a reason a book is not picked up by a publisher.

6.  The Protagonist Does Not Solve the Mystery

Okay, we all know that mysteries need to be solved by the end.  That's the whole point of them.  No one reads to get to the middle, as Mickey Spillane said.  They want to get to the end, and there better be an ending.  All my students know this.  But what they sometimes forget is that the protagonist needs to be in at the 'kill'.  Most readers (and therefore publishers) will not accept a mystery novel where the protagonist is 'told' who the killer is.  They want the protagonist to come to that conclusion by examining a series of clues and making brilliant, while logical deduction

That's the first six that come to mind.  Have you any to add?

Melodie Campbell writes capers and mysteries, along with pretty much anything else publishers will pay her for.  www.melodiecampbell.com

23 September 2022

Black is the Night


Stories Inspired by Cornell Woolrich

Just received my copy of BLACK IS THE NIGHT. Haven’t read it yet, so this is not a review. I’ve read and admired the writing of Cornell Woolrich since before I started writing nearly forty years ago. Too many favorites to mention but I have read his excellent NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES four times. Worked hard to get a story included in this anthology and happy as hell to have succeeded.

Editor/Writer/Critic Maxim Jakubowski and long time owner of Murder One Bookstore in London, the UK's first specialist crime and mystery bookstore has brought together some cool writers in BLACK IS THE NIGHT. Fans of Cornell Woolrich, hell all mystery readers and writers should check this out.

Here is some of the promotional information on the anthology:

A gritty and thrilling anthology of 30 new short stories in tribute to pulp noir master, Cornell Woolrich, author of 'Rear Window' that inspired Alfred Hitchcock's classic film. 

Featuring Neil Gaiman, Kim Newman, James Sallis, A.K. Benedict, USA Today-bestseller Samantha Lee Howe, Joe R. Lansdale and many more.

An anthology of exclusive new short stories in tribute to the master of pulp era crime writing, Cornell Woolrich. Woolrich, also published as William Irish and George Hopley, stands with Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner and Dashiell Hammett as a legend in the genre.

He is a hugely influential figure for crime writers, and is also remembered through the 50+ films made from his novels and stories, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear WindowThe Bride Wore BlackI Married a Dead ManPhantom Lady, Truffaut's La Sirène du Mississippi, and Black Alibi.

Collected and edited by one of the most experienced editors in the field, Maxim Jakubowski, features original work from: 

  • Neil Gaiman
  • Joel Lane
  • Joe R. Lansdale
  • Vaseem Khan
  • Brandon Barrows
  • Tara Moss
  • Kim Newman
  • Nick Mamatas
  • Mason Cross
  • Martin Edwards
  • Donna Moore
  • James Grady
  • Lavie Tidhar
  • James Sallis
  • A.K. Benedict
  • Warren Moore
  • Max Décharné
  • Paul Di Filippo
  • M.W. Craven
  • Charles Ardai
  • Susi Holliday
  • Bill Pronzini
  • Kristine Kathryn Rusch
  • Maxim Jakubowski
  • Joseph S. Walker
  • Samantha Lee Howe
  • O'Neil De Noux
  • David Quantick
  • Ana Teresa Pereira
  • William Boyle

Can’t wait to read it.

22 September 2022

The Novel-Writing Machine

Many years ago, the Industrial Revolution marked the first great change from natural time to clock time. Before that, if there was a clock in the village or town, it was on the church tower, and marked only the hours, because there was no need to mark the minutes. Nobody paid attention to that. In a 90% agricultural world, the rhythms of life were based on the land, which meant constant work in the spring and fall, lighter work (except for the haying) in summer, and a winter spent mostly just trying to stay warm. People got up when it was light, went to bed when it was dark, and that was that.  And, besides Sundays off, there were more holidays throughout the year than today, thanks to the rhythms (and rule) of the Church.

Then came the Industrial Revolution, began in Europe, the usual factory hours were 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, 52 weeks a year. (It was considered a luxury when the factory workers were given half-days for Saturdays, and the 40 hour workweek was only put into law in 1940.) Humans became servants of the clock and of the machines. And now it's considered normal to get up, eat, work, and sleep by the clock, by the job, by the cell phone, not by nature. 

And now by AI and algorithms?

I read an adaptation of the The Great Fiction of AI by Josh Dzieza in last week's "The Week" (The Last Word:  The novel-writing machine) and found it pretty damned disturbing from start to finish.  Read the entire article here:  (LINK) To begin with:

"On a Tuesday in mid-March, Jennifer Lepp was precisely 80.41 percent finished writing Bring Your Beach Owl, the latest installment in her series about a detective witch in central Florida, and she was behind schedule. The color-coded, 11-column spreadsheet she keeps open on a second monitor as she writes told her just how far behind: she had three days to write 9,278 words if she was to get the book edited, formatted, promoted, uploaded to Amazon’s Kindle platform, and in the hands of eager readers who expected a new novel every nine weeks."

Every nine weeks?  What world are people living in?  

"However, being an Amazon-based author is stressful in ways that will look familiar to anyone who makes a living on a digital platform. In order to survive in a marketplace where infinite other options are a click away, authors need to find their fans and keep them loyal. So they follow readers to the microgenres into which Amazon’s algorithms classify their tastes, niches like “mermaid young adult fantasy” or “time-travel romance,” and keep them engaged by writing in series, each installment teasing the next, which already has a title and set release date, all while producing a steady stream of newsletters, tweets, and videos. As Mark McGurl writes in Everything and Less, his recent book on how Amazon is shaping fiction, the Kindle platform transformed the author-reader relationship into one of service provider and customer, and the customer is always right. Above all else, authors must write fast."

Sudowrite is an artificial intelligence tool designed to break through writer's block - for fiction writers.

"Designed by developers turned sci-fi authors Amit Gupta and James Yu, it’s one of many AI writing programs built on OpenAI’s language model GPT-3 that have launched since it was opened to developers last year. But where most of these tools are meant to write company emails and marketing copy, Sudowrite is designed for fiction writers. Authors paste what they’ve written into a soothing sunset-colored interface, select some words, and have the AI rewrite them in an ominous tone, or with more inner conflict, or propose a plot twist, or generate descriptions in every sense plus metaphor."

"AI may just be another tool, but authors haven’t previously felt the need to remind themselves that they — and not their thesaurus — are responsible for their writing or have fraught debates over whether to disclose their use of spellcheck. Something about the experience of using AI feels different. It’s apparent in the way writers talk about it, which is often in the language of collaboration and partnership. Maybe it’s the fact that GPT-3 takes instruction and responds in language that makes it hard not to imagine it as an entity communicating thoughts. Or maybe it’s because, unlike a dictionary, its responses are unpredictable. Whatever the reason, AI writing has entered an uncanny valley between ordinary tool and autonomous storytelling machine. This ambiguity is part of what makes the current moment both exciting and unsettling."

Jasper.ai is another tool, more for non-fiction, but we'll see:

"They’re using it to generate Google-optimized blog posts about products they’re selling or books that will serve as billboards on Amazon or Twitter threads and LinkedIn posts to establish themselves as authorities in their field. That is, they’re using it not because they have something to say but because they need to say something in order to “maintain relevance” — a phrase that I heard from AI-using novelists as well — on platforms already so flooded with writing that algorithms are required to sort it. It raises the prospect of a dizzying spiral of content generated by AI to win the favor of AI, all of it derived from existing content rather than rooted in fact or experience, which wouldn’t be so different from the internet we have now."  (my emphasis)

"[Meanwhile, Lepp says] she’s a little embarrassed to say she’s become reliant on it [Sudowrite]. Not that she couldn’t write without it, but she thinks her writing wouldn’t be as rich, and she would certainly be more burnt out. 'There’s something different about working with the AI and editing those words, and then coming up with my own and then editing it, that’s much easier. It’s less emotionally taxing. It’s less tiresome; it’s less fatiguing. I need to pay attention much less closely. I don’t get as deeply into the writing as I did before, and yet, I found a balance where I still feel very connected to the story, and I still feel it’s wholly mine.'"

"With the help of the program, she recently ramped up production yet again. She is now writing two series simultaneously, toggling between the witch detective and a new mystery-solving heroine, a 50-year-old divorced owner of an animal rescue who comes into possession of a magical platter that allows her to communicate with cats. It was an expansion she felt she had to make just to stay in place. With an increasing share of her profits going back to Amazon in the form of advertising, she needed to stand out amid increasing competition. Instead of six books a year, her revised spreadsheet forecasts 10."  (my emphasis)

"She thinks more fully automating fiction right now would produce novels that are too generic, channeled into the grooves of the most popular plots. But, based on the improvement she’s seen over the year she’s been using Sudowrite, she doesn’t doubt that it will get there eventually. It wouldn’t even have to go far. Readers, especially readers of genre fiction, like the familiar, she said, the same basic form with a slightly different twist or setting. It’s precisely the sort of thing AI should be able to handle. “I think that’s the real danger, that you can do that and then nothing’s original anymore. Everything’s just a copy of something else,” she said. “The problem is, that’s what readers like.”

photo © Wikipedia

Is this really our future? And what if I don't want it?

21 September 2022

Outer Space and Eastern Illinois


A week before the mystery community headed to Minneapolis for Bouchercon, I, contrarian that I am, went to Chicago for Chicon 8.  That was the 80th World Science Fiction Conference.  As I have written before, science fiction fandom is our field's bigger and older sibling. Chicon went for five days, had about 3,400 attendees, and had 1,404 events listed.  Impressive as all heck. 

First thing to say is, they took covid VERY seriously.  Everyone had to have proof of vaccination and had to stay masked.  The photo above shows me wearing my volunteer vest, walking around looking for trouble (literally), which included reminding people to wear their masks.  (I encountered three people who needed the hint, and all complied without argument.)  In spite of this, the Con management informed us that 60 attendees reported to them testing positive within five days of the convention. That's about 1.8%.  Does anyone know the number for Bouchercon?  

Let me tell you about some highlights of a few panels I attended.

Best Science Fiction / Fantasy Murder Mysteries. I added a few titles to my Must Read list. (See the covers of some of these titles on this page.)  

Roberta Rogow made an interesting argument: It is easier to write genre-crossover novels these days because, unlike brick-and-mortar bookstores, online stores are happy to place a volume in as many places as it belongs.

Someone on the panel quoted Walter Mosley as saying mystery is simile and science fiction is metaphor.  That requires some contemplation, I think.

At the end of the panel Mark Painter said he had been trying to remember the earliest example of an SF mystery he had seen in a visual media.  He decided it was "The Conscience of the King" from the first season of Star Trek.

Someone replied: "What about the one where Scotty was accused of murder?"

"'Wolf in the Fold," said Painter.  "And the one with Elijah Cook, Jr."

"'Court-Martial,'" I called from the audience.  And added: "How do we remember this crap?"

Fortunately everyone laughed.  And speaking of Star Trek...

Remembering Nichelle Nichols. 
The actress who played Lieutenant Uhura in the original series died last month and fans met up to say how much she meant to so many people.  (Whoopi Goldberg at age five: "Mommy, there's a Black woman on TV and she's not a maid!")

David Gerrold, who started his career at age nineteen by sending an unagented script to Star Trek ("The Trouble With Tribbles") was friends with Nichols for half a century and said she "moved in a bubble of charisma."

I highly recommend the documentary, Woman In Motion, which tells how NASA recruited Nichols to encourage women and people of color to apply for the space program.  Amazing story.

The Origin and Evolution of Conspiracy Theories.
  Kenneth Hite says the oldest example of conspiracy theory in the West was the Roman hunt for followers of Bacchus, 2d century BC.  This same pattern was later used for persecuting the Christians, who copied it for attacking the Jews.  He also says forget about QAnon; the highwater mark of conspiracy theories in the United States was the Anti-Masonic Party, which ran candidates for president.

Time Travel.  The legendary Joe Haldeman, born in 1943, explained "I am from the past."

Connie Willis, one of my favorite SF writers, said that on a panel she once explained how she uses time travel in her books and a physicist complained "'That's wrong.  Time Travel doesn't work that way.'  I said: Has there been a breakthrough since this panel started?"

What happened After My Story Got Optioned.  John Scalzi reports that a producer once tried to option one of his books to prevent other companies from making it and competing with the producer's film based on another book. Another of his books has been optioned continually for fourteen years.  "It paid for my daughter's college education."

Meg Elison had her book optioned by a screenwriter who only heard of it because one word in the title matched the title of a TV the writer had been streaming, so Amazon suggested it.

The Middle Ages Weren't Bad.
  Several historians argued that the so-called dark ages get a bum rap.  Ada Palmer, who studies the Renaissance said:  "My period  was mean to your period and I'm sorry."  She said there is a lot more Renaissance art than Medieval art because we destroyed so much of the latter.  During World War II the allied pilots were forbidden to bomb Florence, to protect all that pretty stuff, but cities with older art were fair game.

When did the Early Modern period begin?  Palmer says there is a disagreement of 400 years depending on which field you ask, because they all want to claim their favorite work as modern, not part of that tacky ol' medieval stuff.

David M. Perry said medieval people loved democracy.  They formed groups, created complicated by-laws, and voted on stuff.  They just weren't allowed to run their governments that way.

Palmer recommends historical fiction about Europe written by Asian authors, who look at things quite differently than us.  

Morally Ambiguous Characters. James Patrick Kelly invoked our field for this one, saying his favorite morally ambiguous hero is Sam Spade.

David Gerrold said the morally ambiguous character does the right thing for the situation, although in another situation he would be horrified by it.    

And just for giggles, here are the names of some panels I did not attend:

* More than Sexbots and Slaves

* If It's Not Love, Then It's The Bomb That Will Bring Us Together

* I'm Trapped Here For An Hour!  Ask Wes Anything!

* Why is the U.S. Banning and Challenging So Many Books?

* Werewolf Torts and Undead Tax Liabilities

* Abolition and Our Future: Imagining a World Without Police

* Let's Talk About Consent, Baby

Next time I will offer some of my favorite quotes from the Con.  Until then: Keep watching the skies!

20 September 2022

Eighteen Hundred Miles of Forced Comparisons

     As I described in my last post, my traveling companion and I drove to Minneapolis for Bouchercon. Rolling mile after mile across America’s abdomen, a mind can drift. 

   We stopped for the night in Kansas City. While there, we visited the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library. A blockbuster museum, the place tells the trajectory of a humble man of ordinary beginnings who rose in the desperate circumstances of World War I to become a leader. The museum describes his grit, his core integrity, even in the company of shady characters, and his triumphs when his opponents underestimated him. It’s not hard to leave there thinking that if Harry Truman hadn’t become president, he’d have the makings of a great mystery detective.

We can take a stab at guessing who might have written Truman-based mysteries.

    Just down the road from the Truman Library stands barbecue history. There are a variety of culinary camps surrounding barbeque. One traces a line through central Texas. Another school has its heart in Kansas City. Although the foodie reviews identified several hot new places, we visited the classic, Arthur Bryant’s.  The restaurant is the foundation of Kansas City barbeque. Over a thickly sliced brisket sandwich, we think of the place as The Murder in the Rue Morgue of Midwest barbeque.

    Driving northward, we called on Winterset, Iowa. Winterset is in the heart of Madison County, home of the covered bridges that served as the setting for the 1992 novel and the 1995 film starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. Winterset is also home to the John Wayne Birthplace Museum. Romance, drama, gunfights, and action—the town served to get us in the proper frame of mind for elements of mystery novels.

    Just south of Minneapolis, we passed through Northfield. Serendipitously, September 7th, the day we arrived, was the 146th anniversary of the failed bank robbery by the James-Younger gang. In 1876 the raiders hit town intending to rob the First National Bank. Courageous townsfolk armed themselves and repelled the bandits. The town recognizes the street fight with “The Defeat of Jesse James Days.” As we hit town, the residents were busy blocking off streets in preparation for a celebration of regular people fighting back against the criminal element. The drive through Northfield foreshadowed the conference. 

From Thursday through Sunday, the real thing, Bouchercon 2022. We immersed ourselves in mystery and suspense. We made some new friends and got re-acquainted with old ones. After our COVID-enforced absence, we reconnected with folks we hadn’t seen in years. We listened to some stars of our craft, Craig Johnson, S. A. Cosby, and Kent Krueger, among others. Likely, we heard from others who soon will be. I appeared Friday on a panel on short story writing. Thanks to Barb Goffman, Amber Royer, Ted Fitzgerald, Mary Dutta, and Raquel Reyes for making it memorable.

    No conference is complete without making some small discoveries. I've got a couple of books. I didn't know anything about them, but the first few pages demanded I bring them home. I have notes reminding me of a couple more written by authors who blew me away as panelists. 

    Museums can do that too. I’m a big fan of pocket museums. Leaving Minneapolis, we ventured south to Austin, Minnesota, and visited the Spam Museum. Because, why not. The museum celebrates the creation, production, distribution, and quirky passion for Spam. The name probably is a portmanteau for “spiced ham,” although no one exactly knows for sure. The entire museum is a giant advertising vehicle for a canned meat product. But, it worked. We carried home a collection of TBR books and a can of jalapeno Spam in our trunk.

  The city of Omaha offers Boys Town, founded by Father Flanagan and immortalized in a movie starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney. The visitor’s center features, among other things, the world’s largest ball of canceled stamps. It sits in the center of a room and draws you to it.

    An Irish priest, a collection of delinquent juveniles, and a rare object on display in the middle of an unguarded room. Who couldn't work with a set-up like that?

    Until next time.   

19 September 2022

Hiding in Plain Sight, or, Oh, My God, Everyone’s Jewish! by guest blogger Kenneth Wishnia

My guest this month is Ken Wishnia, co-editor with Chantelle Aimée Osman of Jewish Noir II, just out from PM Press. The anthology has a foreword by Lawrence Block and a remarkable variety of Jewish voices and settings packed into twenty-three powerful stories, including my own contribution. Ken also edited the Anthony Award-nominated Jewish Noir.

Kenneth Wishnia’s novels have been nominated for the Edgar, Anthony, and Macavity Awards. His short stories have appeared in EQMM, AHMM, Queens Noir, Long Island Noir, and elsewhere. He teaches writing, literature and other deviant forms of thought at Suffolk Community College on Long Island.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright apparently didn’t learn that she was Jewish until 1996, more than 55 years after her parents sent her away from Czechoslovakia to the UK for safekeeping on the eve of WW II.

Cardinal John O’Connor, leader of the Catholic Church in New York City for 16 years, apparently died without ever learning that “his mother was born a Jew, the daughter of a rabbi” (see Cowan, Alison Leigh. “The Rabbi Cardinal O’Connor Never Knew: His Grandfather.” New York Times, 10 June, 2014).

Even Eddie Muller, the “Czar of Noir” who was in the first Jewish Noir collection, told me that he had learned of some Jewish ancestry in his lineage. It turns out he was referring to his paternal grandfather--not exactly a distant relative--who changed his name from something very Jewish and foreign-sounding to make it easier to find a job when he emigrated to California a few generations back.

This raises some serious issues regarding the suppression of Jewish ethnicity during less enlightened times. I mean, how many Americans “discover” that they have Christian ancestors? People don’t discover they’re Christian, or part-Christian, because in the US that identity never needed to be suppressed or hidden.

But we’re writing about noir, aren’t we? Glad you asked!

Hedy Lamarr in
The Strange Woman (1946)
As co-editor of Jewish Noir II, naturally I’m a fan of film noir, and any such fan can tell you that one of the primary stylistic precursors to American film noir is German Expressionist film of the 1920s and early 1930s. Until recently, I had no idea how many of those influential practitioners of the art were German and Austrian Jews who would flee for Hollywood when Hitler came to power. This list includes: Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Edgar G. Ulmer and Fred Zinnemann (Austria); Robert Siodmak, Curtis Bernhardt, Max Ophuls and John Brahm (Germany); as well as Anatole Litvak (Ukraine).

Jewish directors who emigrated before 1933 include: Michael Curtiz (Hungary), Lewis Milestone, Charles Vidor and William Wyler (Germany); Hugo Haas (Czechoslovakia), and László Benedek (Hungary). (Note: I am indebted to Vincent Brook’s film study, Driven to Darkness, for this information.)

Lauren Bacall & Humphrey Bogart in
Dark Passage (1947)
I started to dig deeper, and learned that a large number of actors in film noir were also Jewish, almost always working under anglicized or completely invented names, a common practice in Hollywood till this day (I’m looking at you, Winona Ryder). The list includes: Lauren Bacall (b. Betty Joan Perske), Turhan Bey (b. Turhan Gilbert Selahattin Sahultavy), Lee J. Cobb (b. Leo Jacoby), Tony Curtis (b. Bernard Schwartz), Howard da Silva (b. Howard Silverblatt), Lee Grant (b. Lyova Haskell Rosenthal), Peter Lorre (b. Laszlo Lowenstein), Zero Mostel, Simone Signoret (b. Simone Kaminker), Sylvia Sydney (b. Sylvia Kosnow), Cornell Wilde (b. Kornél Lajos Weisz) and Shelley Winters (b. Shirley Schrift).

Cornell Wilde & Gene Tierney in
Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
I compiled an appropriately obsessive list of Jewish directors, writers and actors who contributed significantly to the film noir canon; the list goes on for 14 pages in 10-point type.

Family note: My parents were both born in 1931, so of course they lived through the classic era in Hollywood. My dad was incredulous about Lee J. Cobb, asking, “Are you sure he was Jewish?” My mom’s response: “Cornell Wilde was Jewish?”

Crime writer S.J. Rozan’s response: “Fritz Lang was Jewish?” I know, his mother converted to Catholicism, mainly to avoid anti-Semitism in Germany, and Lang himself denied being Jewish for most of his life, but his mother was indeed Jewish, and converted when Lang was 10, meaning he was born Jewish. Under basic civil law and traditional Jewish law, Fritz Lang was Jewish.

Simone Signoret in Diabolique (1955)

Other Jewish (or part-Jewish) actors from the film noir era whose names might surprise you include: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (Doug Sr. b. Douglas Ullman), Leslie Howard (b. Leslie Howard Steiner), Paulette Goddard (b. Marion Goddard Levy), Paul Henreid (family name originally Hirsch), Hedy Lamarr (b. Hedvig Kiesler), and a real outlier: Ricardo Cortez (b. Jacob Krantz). Not sure why the ethnic masquerade of Latino identity, since in so many cases Jews masqueraded as Anglophone Christians.

Of course, many performers did this, regardless of their ethnicity (just ask Lucille LeSueur --I mean Joan Crawford). But why am I still finding out that so many key figures in world culture were Jewish? Just in the past couple of weeks, I’ve learned (from their obituaries!) that several prominent artists I had no idea were Jewish were in fact Jewish, including the British-born theatrical innovator Peter Brook (family name originally Bryk) and the composer of the James Bond theme, Monty Norman (b. Monty Noserovitch). I also just learned that Frank Oz, best known as the puppeteer for Miss Piggy, Bert, Grover and Yoda, was born Frank Oznowicz. And this happens all the time. Once again, people don’t hide their Christian identities. But Jews? That seems to be a case of, “Gee, mister, the name Issur Danielovitch Demsky doesn’t exactly spell box office gold on the marquee. How about we call you Kirk Douglas?”

Shelley Winters & Richard Conte
in Cry of the City (1948)
This phenomenon, which still feels like a job requirement in certain professions, can also be turned against the Jews as an example of our allegedly uniquely perfidious nature: the poet T.S. Eliot appears to mock Jews who try to erase their ethnic identities when their crude manners (and propensity for evil) give them away every time, in his 1919 poem, “Sweeney among the Nightingales,” where the sixth stanza ends: “Rachel née Rabinovitch / Tears at the grapes with murderous paws.”

During Hollywood’s Red Scare, Representative John Rankin of Mississippi made a show of “outing” a number of prominent entertainers by revealing their birth names, implying that they were hiding their true identities in order to subvert American values from within, as if Danny Kaye (b. Dovid Daniel Kaminsky) and Eddie Cantor (b. Edward Isskowitz), two of Rankin’s examples, were planning to oppress American Christians by sneaking in communism between comedy routines, or something like that.

That’s one reason it was so much fun working on the Jewish Noir II anthology, in an era when we’re free to use our foreign-sounding, often polysyllabic names: Kirschman, Markowitz, Schneider, Sidransky, Zelvin and Vishnya (the Slavic pronunciation of Wishnia).

And speaking of my family name, it may be a liability on the bookstore shelves—I’m usually down on the floor with the rest of the W-Z authors--but it’s an asset in the world of Google searches: if you google “Kenneth Wishnia” you don’t get 100,000 other guys with the same name. You get me.

And by the way, I’m Jewish.