30 April 2023

Don't Ever Get Old


As Ben Johnson's character says to another old timer in a John Wayne western just before the big gun fight scene, "Don't ever get old."

I always thought I would go out hot, young and handsome, but advancing old age has informed me otherwise. It would appear I'm screwed on two of the three. Plus, it seems that due to medical stuff, I will now be out of pocket for a few months. Thus, I have decided to inflict at least one of my earlier blogs upon you. 

25 November 2011

Flying Without a Parachute

There was a time early in my career when we wanted to get into a house, but had no probable cause for a legal entry. Without probable cause, any evidence found inside the residence becomes fruit of the poisonous tree. In short, this means any items found inside get thrown out as inadmissible evidence in court.

So here's how it all went down.

The Setup
A street informant called the office.
"Hey, you guys got a warrant for Bopper, don'tcha?"
"Yes, why?"
"Well at ten o'clock this morning, Bopper's gonna be at James Lewis' house to make a score."
The phone got hurriedly hung up, the troops got hatted up and we all headed out to James Lewis' place where his apartment consisted of the entire third floor. We set up surveillance and waited. Time passed. A blue Cadillac pulled up out front, two men got out and went into the house. Ten o'clock went by. One of the two men, a tall thin guy, came out of the house and returned to the Cadillac, sitting on the passenger side. More time passed. Then it started.
"Bopper's walking down the street," came the radio call.
"Wait," replied the case agent.
"He's headed for the house," said the radio voice.
"Wait," said the case agent.
"He's going up on the front porch."

"Not yet," ordered the case agent.

"He has his hand on the doorknob."
"Hit it now," barked the case agent.
Four government vehicles immediately came alive, screeching up to the front of the house and bouncing over the curb. Car doors opened and agents with drawn guns came screaming out, making as much noise as possible.
"Federal Agents!"

Survival Instincts: Fight or Flight
Bopper morphed into Panic Mode. Bless his heart, he ran into the house we wanted to enter, but hadn't previously been able to acquire probable cause for a legal entry. However, there are exigent circumstances known as Hot Pursuit for situations like these. When law enforcement is in immediate pursuit of a fleeing felon, a search warrant is not needed in order for officers of the law to enter the same building which the pursued felon has just entered during the chase.
Having now found himself inside James Lewis' house, and seeing no good exit, Bopper chose to ascend the stairs to the second floor. The Thundering Herd close behind him, still hollering "Police" and "Federal Agents," shifted into Hot Pursuit Mode.
Having now arrived at the second floor landing and still not finding a good way out, Bopper continued his desperate journey upward toward James Lewis' apartment on the third floor. In full hue and cry, the mob followed at his heels.


Now, we take a short intermission to catch our breath and explain that in those days only seasoned agents had the privilige of entering the house. Snot-nose green agents, such as myself fresh out of the academy, were regularly assigned to the perimeter where nothing of consequence ever happened. Special Agent Pat got assigned to the back of the house and I got assigned to the front. We two newbies were designated to miss all the fun.
Bored, I decided to do something. Since the tall, thin Cadillac passenger had previously been inside the house, I thought maybe he'd be holding, so I knocked on the passenger window and flashed him my tin. In no time, I had him out of the car, hands on the roof, legs spread into the proper position and was patting him down. Just as I found contraband in his hip pocket, I heard a great noise behind me.
I glanced back at the house.

The Not (W)Right Brothers
Two bodies came flying out the front third-story windows and landed on top of the front porch roof. They stood up with guns in their hands. Neat.

A Sharp Drop in Business
Unknown to us, James Lewis already had company in attendance trying to conduct a little business. His company's nerves began to unravel as they noticed the Thundering Herd was ascending the stairs and coming their way. By the time Bopper burst into the room, their taut nerves snapped and they departed via the front windows.
At least now I had something to do.
Wheeling the tall, thin Cadillac passenger around in front of me, where I could keep an eye on him, I placed my gun hand on his right shoulder and pointed it at the two miscreants on the porch roof, ordering them to drop their weapons.
They looked at me, looked at their buddy the gun rest, looked at the distance to the ground and then decided, yeh, they'd drop their guns. Good thing. If there'd been a shooting match, I'm fairly certain my gun rest would have ended up hard of hearing in his right ear. Took another half hour before I had enough help to get them two off the porch roof.

One Landing for Every Launch
Back to inside the house. When Bopper made his Mad Hatter entrance into James Lewis' apartment, he was still looking for a rabbit hole. However, since all the front exits, also known as the third-story front windows, were occupied at the time, he opted for the side window. Bad choice as Bopper soon realized.
Left behind, James Lewis sat flabbergasted through it all. He'd never seen a show like this before and therefore sat quietly, readily giving up his two handguns, plus all his contraband to approaching members of the Thundering Herd.
Bopper, outside the house and now in mid-air, suddenly saw that what he had failed to consider during his hasty departure was that there was nothing to deaccelerate his downward flight, except a concrete driveway.
Turns out in all the confusion, none of us saw his exit.
At a descent rate of 32 feet per second per second, his right leg failed to stand up to the pressure of cement bringing an end to his ill advised experiment of flying without a parachute. He then crawled through a bordering hedge and "ran" away from us. Our Probable Cause had literally flown out the window. Took us an hour to catch up with him.

After that, I graduated to the level of door crasher.

So now you have the background. If you want to compare the above telling with the fictionalized published version, you'll have to acquire the Who Died in Here? anthology. All short story submissions to it required a crime in a bathroom. Author compensation was a sum of money, plus an air freshener. I still have the air freshener.

29 April 2023

Simultaneous Submissions


When I was teaching courses on writing and selling short fiction (my final classes were five years ago this month), there were three questions I usually asked those students who already had some experience:

1. Do you outline your stories, or just start writing and see where it goes?

2. How do you begin your stories? With a character? A setting? A plot? A theme?

3. Do you submit stories simultaneously, or to only one market at a time?

Mostly I asked these questions because I thought the answers were interesting. As for number one, about half the students in any given class always said they outline and half said they don't. The answer to number two was usually "with a character." The third question, like the first, was often a 50/50 split. I never tried to change the way students answered these--but I did try to point out a few things, about question #3.


A simultaneous submission, for those of you who don't know, is the sending of the same story manuscript to more than one market at the same time. (This is different from multiple submissions, which involves sending several different manuscripts to the same market, either at once or over a short period.) At first glance, simultaneous submissions seems a sure-fire way to increase your odds of getting a story published in the least amount of time. And actually, it does increase your odds. If more than one editor is considering your story, you have a better chance of selling it soon--and after all, one acceptance is all you need.

Therein, however, lies the problem. One acceptance is not only all you need--it's all you want. What if you've sent your story to three different editors and more than one of them say "yes"?

In real-world terms, it's like asking a young lady to go with you to the school dance and then asking another before you get an answer from the first, just to make sure you don't wind up sitting home alone that night. That approach seems a little foolhardy to me. Writers, and high-school kids as well, have enough troubles and stress already; they don't need to actively look for more.

The Good

There are, of course, writers who love simultaneous submissions, and I understand why. Again, it helps their chances of getting published. As for the risks, those who do it regularly say the risk is small. Getting a story accepted at all isn't easy, so there's fairly little danger that several different editors in several different places at the same time will like a particular story enough to buy it. Besides, some of those markets state in their guidelines that they "allow" simultaneous submissions, so what's the harm?

Think about that for a minute. Let's say you send out a mystery story to two separate markets. If one of those two markets rejects your story, all's well and good--you still have another egg in your basket (or, if you're a hunter, another load in your shotgun). If the second market happens to reject it also, you're back to square one, but all is still peaceful in the world. And if the first market rejects it and the second market accepts it, well, everything's great--you've not only made a sale, you've saved yourself a lot of time. And in fact that's the way simultaneous submissions usually work. Either two rejections, or one rejection and one acceptance, with time saved either way. Nothing wrong here, folks.


But let's say that first market says "yes." In that case, you send the editor of the other market a polite note withdrawing your manuscript from consideration there, while still celebrating your good fortune at market #1. Market #2 probably won't take offense at this; you're not telling them the story's been accepted elsewhere, you're just telling them you'd like to withdraw it. But they won't be overjoyed either. Editors are smart, and a withdrawal note like that, polite or not, tells them that another editor has probably been looking at the story also, and decided to buy it. You've still not broken any writing rules--but it's not something you want to do too often.

The Bad (and the Ugly)

Now consider another scenario. Let's say that market #1 accepts your story and, during your celebration, market #2 later says "yes" as well, possibly before your withdrawal note reaches #2, or before you think to send the note, or before they have an opportunity to read it. If that happens, you have stepped in an extremely stinky place in the cowpasture. You will now have to tell one of those two editors that your story--even though they have spent time reading it and possibly discussing it with their staff and have told you they want to buy it--is no longer available to them. And they'll know why.

But why should they mind? you might ask. Their guidelines said they allow simultaneous submissions. My answer to that is, it doesn't matter--they still won't like it. And they'll remember you. They'll most likely put a little black mark beside your name, and those can stay in place a long time. 

One more thing. We're not talking just about stories that might be submitted to several markets on the same day. Simsubs are also stories that are sent to one market and then later sent to another market before you receive a response from the first. The point is, your story is being considered at more than one place at the same time. This kind of delayed-submission situation is where I personally have run into trouble. Twice. In each of those instances I had submitted a story to one market that hadn't responded in so long I assumed it had been rejected, so I submitted that story to a different market, and then--wouldn't you know it?--the first market sent me a note accepting the story. In each case, after a few bad words and some acid reflux and some visions of two-dates-to-the-prom, I sent a carefully-worded withdrawal letter to that second market. As it turned out, the editor who received the withdrawal note seemed to take it well and I don't think any damage was done--but I still remember how bad I felt having to do that, and after the second time it happened, I resolved never to make that kind of mistake again.


Bottom line is, I think the possible risks of simultaneous submissions outweigh the advantages. I believe that after sending a story to an editor, you shouldn't send that story anyplace else until you've received a response (yea or nay) from that editor. If you feel that's a waste of time, I have two suggestions. One is to send the story first to a market that you know will respond fairly quickly--there are several of those, and that'll cut down the wait time. The other suggestion is to write more stories while you're waiting, and send those to other markets. 

So, to go back to those first three questions to my classes, my own answers would be: (1) I outline my stories (at least mentally) before beginning, (2) I aways start with a plot, not characters or setting or whatever, and (3) I don't do simultaneous submissions. Once again, I would never try to encourage you to do what I do on questions #1 and #2--different strokes, and all that--but I would encourage you to give a lot of thought to #3. That one's a roll of the dice, and when it comes to writing and publishing, I'm not a betting man.

If you're a writer, what do you think about simultaneous submissions? Do you or don't you? Have you or haven't you? If you haven't done it already, would you or wouldn't you? Any war stories, about this kind of thing? Please let me know, in the comments section below. I'd also love to hear the opinions of editors, if any of you decision-makers are reading this.

By the way, I have submitted this column only to SleuthSayers and to noplace else. (Who else would have me . . . ?)

Upcoming news: Next Saturday, May 6, I'll be featuring a guest post by my friend Judy Penz Sheluk in this space. I hope you'll tune in.

28 April 2023

The Mystery at the Heart of “Masquerade”

My notes and case dossier from 41 years ago.

Buried treasures, anagrams, and complex puzzles are all tropes found in mystery fiction. They’re also elements of a delightful children’s book that spawned a sub-genre in kidlit in the 1980s.

It all started with a 1979 picture book called Masquerade, written and illustrated by a British artist and “wizard” named Kit Williams. (The book was published by Jonathan Cape in the UK, by Schocken Books in the U.S., and by publishers elsewhere around the globe. The plot of the book is simple. A sprightly hare is charged with transporting a precious amulet, a gift from Lady Moon to the aloof Sun-God. Jack Hare travels the length and breadth of England to deliver the prize, but loses the amulet along the way. Readers are encouraged to use the clues hidden in the book’s 15 hyperrealistic illustrations to find a very real sculpture, which Williams crafted from gemstones, faience, and 18k gold, and buried somewhere in that blessed plot, England.

Like some kind of latter-day Willy Wonka, Williams promised to send an airplane ticket anywhere in the world to the person who wrote him and convincingly demonstrated that they had cracked the code. He further promised to travel with the winner to the secret site and assist in the dig.

Thus ensued a colorful couple of years that saw (mostly) adult readers of the book going nuts digging up gardens, soccer fields, and other public and private lands all over the nation, in search of Williams’ jewel-encrusted rabbit. One long-suffering woman told British media that people kept digging up her rabbit-shaped topiary in search of the treasure. As the book’s fame spread, its New York publisher proudly bragged to the media that no less an entity than the FBI bought copies for their trainees to test their mettle cracking the code. They couldn’t, but with all the publicity the book sold at least 2 million copies worldwide.

While I never cashed in my childhood savings bonds and booked my ticket to England, I too became obsessed with the book, which arrived in U.S. bookstores about the time I was entering high school. I paged through the book countless times, and even “taught” the book for a time when I was tutoring kids in math and reading at a local elementary school. I was counting on the genius of little kids to help me unravel the case, because I was hopelessly stumped.

Like any good mystery, the book piled red herrings on top of red herrings. The visual clues included atomic numbers, magic squares, and so on, all designed to lead you astray. Williams actually painted a herring gull—a type of seabird—into one image. In another, he painted a goldfish whose scales appeared red where they overlapped with an underlying image of a hare. Each image featured a riddle painted in its borders. Some of the letters were red, others had barbed serifs. The barbed or red-letter clues, once decoded, amounted to a handful of innocuous and often unhelpful anagrams.

While Williams insisted in the book flap copy that no knowledge of British geography was necessary to solve the mystery, the book nevertheless touched on history, mathematics, literary references, British train schedules, astronomy, physics, botany, and the animal kingdom. For example, one clue found in the border of the very first image reads: “One of Six of Eight”—a reference to Catherine of Aragon, the first of six wives of Henry VIII.

In 1982, newspapers around the world revealed that the rabbit amulet had been found by a gentleman who sent what he believed to be the solution to Williams. Williams later published a smaller paperback in which he spelled out the solution in excruciating detail. Obsessive that I was (and still am), I rushed out to get that new version of the book and was astonished by the diabolical complexity of the puzzle.

To summarize this quickly, the key to the puzzle was drawing a line from the eyes of the living figures—humans and animals—in each of the paintings through their fingers (or paws/claws/fins) until those lines crossed and touched letters in the border. But you had to get the hierarchy of beings—men, women, children, hares, and lesser animals—in the proper order if you ever hoped to assemble the letters in the right sequence. One clue to this arrangement is found on the title page: “To find the hidden riddle, you must use your eyes, / And find the hare in every picture that may point you to the prize.” (Italics mine.)

If you do this, the marginalia spelled out the following:


From here, it becomes a matter of locating a monument in England dedicated to Catherine of Aragon, and waiting for the sun on the day of the vernal equinox to cast a shadow pointing to the location of the treasure. Where was the monument, you ask? An acrostic formed by the bolded letters above reads: Close by Ampthill. That’s Ampthill, Bedfordshire, where Catherine was exiled following the annulment of her sad marriage.

The two most important images in the book was one featuring Sir Isaac Newton and another depicting a woman known as the Penny-Pockets Lady. These two spell out the color-coded hierarchy of beings that solvers were intended to follow. 

In the Isaac Newton image, the barbed letters (circled in blue) spell SIR, and
the red letters (circled in red) spell ISAAC—both of which have nothing to do with
solving the final mystery. However, if you draw lines from the eyes of certain figures
through their hands, toes, paws, fins, etc, the resulting lines point to letters
that spell the secret word HOUR in the above acrostic.
Please do not ask me how to draw the lines;
I knew how when I was 16 years old, but not today.

By now I think we can agree that an American high school kid, aided only by his love of mysteries and a gaggle of second graders as his Baker Street Irregulars, had little hope of cracking the case.

Many years after the treasure’s discovery, The Sunday Times of London alleged that the finder had not played fairly. Instead of decoding the clues properly, he learned of the hare’s approximate location from an ex-girlfriend of Williams, and started digging holes until he struck pay dirt. The prize should have gone to two physics teachers from Manchester who cracked the code exactly as its creator intended, but whose letter reached Williams too late.

Scandalized, Williams apologized to the world at large. By then he had moved on to writing other puzzle books, painting more gorgeous images, and designing fanciful public clocks. As one who struggles constantly to conceive of even one or two clues to embed in my stories, I can only marvel at someone who possessed the creativity to layer such a dizzying array of clues for a book spanning a mere 32 pages. In my eyes, Kit Williams is some kind of a genius.

Masquerade is no longer in print, but you can still find reasonably priced copies online. If you’re buying for a child, you will want the 9-by-11-inch hardcover. If you want to learn how to decipher the code in the author’s own words, look for the 6-by-7.5-inch paperback version of the book “with the answer explained.”

See you in three weeks!


27 April 2023

An Exile in the Realm of Morpheus

"A tired mind become a shape-shifter."
— Rush, "Vital Signs" from the 1981 album Moving Pictures
Morpheus, the troublesome god of sleep

I am in awe of people who can write the opposite of their experiences. Women who convincingly write male Point-of-View characters. Men who do the opposite. People without disabilities writing characters with them. Stephen King inhabiting the character of an axe-wielding maniac snowed in at a Colorado resort hotel. Hillary Mantel bringing Renaissance English politician and royal fixer Thomas Cromwell not only to life, but convincingly and sympathetically so.

Now, I believe it is the obligation of the fiction writer to do right by their characters, and I'm hardly saying that I have spent my writing career writing only those experiences I have had myself, but the more extreme stuff I have hesitated to capture in the written word. Extrapolating my own experiences out into others where a bit of research and a fair amount of imagination can bridge the gap? Sure. And I'm always looking to challenge myself, so there's that, too.

But every once in a while life steps up and hands you a new experience, one so alien to your regular way of being that it can stand in stark contrast to your usual day-to-day existence. For my money, to go through something this unique and memorable and not to put it to use in my fiction? That would be nuts.

And my first step toward incorporating something new into my fiction is usually to write about it in my writing journal. I'm going to make use of my notes from this experience in laying out what it was like to be an out-and-out insomniac for two weeks.

The short answer?


Let me start at the beginning.

And it begins in Las Vegas. 

With Sting.

Recently my wonderful wife took me on a vacation culminating with a celebration of my birthday by going to see Sting in concert at Caesar's Palace during the final week of his residency. My parents and brother also went. Great trip. Great time. We were scheduled for an early Sunday flight out on the morning after the concert.

The Sting in Yellow (GREAT concert!)

We got up and out that morning, only to arrive at McCarran Airport and discover that mechanical difficulties had delayed our flight. As it was we waited seven hours hovering around the gate, waiting to board.

And when we made the mad dash to board, I somehow left behind one of my carry-on bags. The one with my CPAP machine. For those of you not aware of the significance of this, let me put it this way: I have severe sleep apnea. Without a CPAP I snore very loudly and have trouble getting into REM sleep (to say nothing of driving to distraction anyone unlucky enough to be caught within earshot while I'm trying to sleep). I have used a CPAP for the better part of a decade. I had an idea how reliant I had become on my CPAP since adopting it (MUCH better and deeper sleep for me as a result), but I was about to find out just exactly how much.

I only realized I'd misplaced my CPAP once we'd landed, gotten home and begun to unpack. Once I realized I'd lost it, I got my original CPAP machine out of storage. I tried using it that first night.

It did not go well.

I kept drifting off and then jerking awake once I began to snore. This must have happened fifty or sixty
times that night. The older CPAP didn't work as well as my current state-of-the-art one, and halfway through the night I gave up even trying to use it.

And my poor wife eventually gave up and spent the wee hours of the night/morning in the guest room.

That next morning and all of the following day I was a zombie. Falling asleep in mid-conversation with my wife (both working from home that day), losing track of what I was I thinking/talking about in mid-sentence. A below the surface widespread itchiness across the breadth of my skin and behind my eyes and in the center of my head. And as long-time readers of this blog (BOTH of you! *rimshot*) will recall, I have tinnitus in my left ear. The lack of REM sleep that first morning turned that ringing up into something very like a roar.

Me getting out of bed in the morning. Would you believe I'm usually a morning person?

All that first day – a Monday – I spent trying to track down the bag which contained my CPAP. I called the airline. I called the airport. McCarran airport in Las Vegas is world renowned for its terrific customer service. It did not disappoint this time either.

The airline was a total bust. At the airport came through and found my CPAP and sent it to me. It would only take three days to get to me which meant by the time they had tracked it down, on Tuesday, I would receive it by Friday. So in the meantime, I was in the position of needing to find a way to compensate for my CPAP. 

My old CPAP was out of the question. It just didn’t push air at a high enough rate to keep me from snoring. That left supplements.

As almost anyone in their 50s, will tell you, to turn 50 it’s to say goodbye, or if you prefer good night, to a straight eight hours of sleep. I do better than most, I’m up, maybe once a night. And I sleep very well.

But as with everyone else my age, I have felt the need to supplement in order to try to get to sleep sometimes. This supplementation has usually taken the form of use of Melatonin.

So… not THESE types of Pink Floyd dreams

But I don’t really like melatonin, in part, because when I take it, I am usually guaranteed to have dreams the likes of which drove Syd Barrett out of Pink Floyd. And they are frequently obstacles to getting a good nights sleep.

However, I was desperate, feeling off after my first day of not really sleeping, so I tried some melatonin.

It did not help.

Imagine the same dreams, the same, psychedelic quality to them, undergirded, and intensified by a whole new color, palette, most of which I would be hard-pressed to describe during my waking hours. On top of that because I didn’t have my CPAP I would drift in and out of sleep, and a sort of Wakeful sleep? Or a sleepy wakefulness? Tomato, tomato I suppose. 

The end result is that I am pretty sure I didn’t get more than two or three hours total sleep that night. And I also didn’t get into rem sleep at all.

The next morning, everything was gray. Color had leaked out of my world. My eyes ached. So did every muscle in my body. My hair follicles. My teeth. My fingers felt like 10 worms attached to my palms, which also ached.

And did I mention that everything was gray? Complete gray scale. I had very little idea what I was doing. I fell asleep multiple times, only to be awakened by my own snoring. 


And over.

And over.

By Thursday the panic attacks began to set in. I would go from a fugue state to a waking state to a dream state. I would try to catch up with naps during the day, only the jerk awake moments after falling asleep with my heart racing, and no idea where I was.

On the supplement side of things I graduated from melatonin to THC laced gummies. I live in Washington state and weed is legal here, but to be honest, it’s never really been my thing.

But I was desperately in need of an extended period of sleep, and I wasn’t yet ready to try Ambien. So THC gummies it was.

The end result? Now I was not only sleep deprived.

The opposite of "enjoyably high."

I was also stoned. 

I did not enjoy it.

Thankfully, my CPAP arrived on Friday. And yet even death, my regular sleep patterns did not immediately return to me. I still woke up several times a night, usually panicked, had a hard time getting comfortable in any bed, or on a couch the Sunday night after I got my CPAP back I slept in a chair.

That was the beginning of the return for me though. I slept a solid five hours straight that night. I have rarely had as much energy on a Monday as I did that Monday. Over the next several days, in conjunction with several daytime naps, I manage to put my regular sleep schedule back together.

The grayscale receded. I was no longer stoned because I took no more gummies. I skipped the melatonin (except for one night mid week. It help me sleep 10 hours.). The fugue state receded. The waking dream ended. I felt like Edgar, Allan Poe, coming out on the other end of a bender.

The color leeching back into my nights.

And now, on my regular sleep schedule again, I am ready to use this experience in my fiction. I have always had a rational understanding of the effectiveness of sleep deprivation as a torture method. But now I can attest to how devastating a too tired mind can truly be.

In fact, one of my favorite rock bands (Rush) put it best:  “A tired mind become a Shapeshifter.”

Truer words have really been spoken.

How about you? Have you had an experience with this kind of sleep deprivation? Had another experience that was so alien to your normal way of being that you felt the need to memorialize it in your fiction? Tell us all about your experiences in the comment section below.

And on that note:

See you in two weeks!

26 April 2023

Candice Renoir

So, they cancel Doctor Blake, leaving a lot unresolved.  There may have been good reasons for it, in the real world, but given the interior reality of the show, it was hugely disappointing.  Craig McLachlan left under a cloud, and you can’t lose your lead actor, and then try to paper it over by pretending the character abandoned his life and livelihood, turning his back on everything we knew him to value.  It’s insulting.  Everybody who watched Bonanza knew Dan Blocker had died.  The writers didn’t have to conjure up a phony exit for him – Hoss fell down a well? – when the audience had already skipped ahead to the end.

The point about Blake is that they got caught on the back foot, as I understand it.  They tried cobbling something together, and it didn’t work, in spite of the best efforts of Nadine Garner, a marvelous actress put in an awkward situation.  I had much the same response when The Coroner wasn’t renewed after its second season; I was distressed when Island at War didn’t continue.  I had an investment in those characters. 

What’s a girl to do?  I’ve watched all the current episodes of Death in Paradise, and I’m biting my nails waiting for Bosch: Legacy to pick up where they left off – horrific cliffhanger this past season.  There’s a good New Zealand cop series called Brokenwood, and it turns out that both Unforgotten and Shetland are shooting new seasons, in spite of the leads leaving, but meanwhile.

To the rescue comes Candice Renoir, a French policier, streaming on Acorn.  (BritBox and Acorn are both available as add-ons with Amazon Prime.  Worth it.)  The premise is a working mom, four kids, back in harness running the small major crimes unit in a lesser Mediterranean port city, not so fashionable as Nice or as mobbed up as Marseille.  Her immediate superior, the commissaire, is a younger career woman, chilly and ambitious, her second-in-command is the guy who should have gotten the job, and resents her taking over.  Then there’s the good-looking neighbor, and the ex floating around, and the cute undercover cop in the next office, and so on.  I know.  It sounds like a truckload of clichés, or just too cute for school.  However.  What could be annoying and generic is actually charming and original.

The chief asset is the casting.  Cécile Bois, in the lead, sells it from the get-go.  I didn’t know her from a hole in a ground.  She was forty and a little when the show premiered, and she presents at first as slightly Barbie, but it’s protective coloration.  Close behind are the other cops on the team, and the kids who play her family.  The trick, of course, is to make this convincing in a few bold strokes, because it’s essentially a situation dramedy.  The kids are attitude, and a quick pose; so are the cops, for that matter.  The characterizations aren’t that deep – you have to take them on faith – but they get spikier, and more unexpected, as the relationships develop.

The crimes are a mixed bag, not always really ready for prime time, and the police work is sometimes perfunctory and not terribly authentic, quite honestly.  I don’t know that this is that much of a weakness.  The show is character-driven, but when the plotting is ingenious (and it is more often than not), that emphasizes the strength of the character dynamics. 

There is one technical fumble that’s odd.  The show is broadcast in French.  The subtitles lag slightly behind the audio, so an English speaker is always playing catch-up, and sometimes the dialogue is too fast and clever.  It helps to have a little half-remembered high school French, although the slang is well beyond what I remember from high school.  Quel bêtise.

25 April 2023

It's Malice time!

I like to think of myself an an organized person, but sometimes life just kicks my butt. Normally I would write this post tomorrow (Monday) so it can appear at 12:00 a.m. Tuesday, but I forgot--until a minute ago--that they are doing internet upgrades in my neighborhood tomorrow and I'll be without service for a good chunk of the day (and that's if they keep their word to finish on time). So I need to write this now, but I don't have time to write a full-fledged column now so ... I'm taking the easy way out.

The Malice Domestic convention starts on Friday. Malice, as it's affectionately known, is a fan convention that celebrates the traditionally mystery, though the authors and fans who attend typically read across the crime-fiction spectrum. I am honored to be this year's toastmaster. Our other honorees this year are: Hank Phillippi Ryan, guest of honor; Vaseem Khan and Abir Mukherjee, international guests of honor; Ann Cleeves, lifetime achievement honoree; Tanya Spratt-Williams, fan guest of honor; Luci Zahray (better known as the Poison Lady), Amelia honoree; and Elizabeth Peters, our Malice Remembers honoree.

I'm also honored to have a short story nominated for this year's Agatha Award. My fellow finalists are Cynthia Kuhn, Lisa Q. Matthews, Richie Narvaez, and Art Taylor. You can access the five nominated stories through Malice Domestic's website. Just click here and scroll down to the names of the short stories. Each one is a link. Happy reading!

If you're going to Malice, yay! I'm looking forward to seeing you.

And I'll see you all here in three weeks.

24 April 2023

Things writers can do when they discover they’re old.

Stay up all night.  Not because you’re dancing in the moonlight or pounding tequila, but because you’ve forgotten to go to bed.  You get engrossed in something, like binge watching David Attenborough, and suddenly dawn is breaking and the birds are singing. 

Objectively determine that falling off a roof is a bad idea.  Experience shows that a roof’s greatest utility is keeping rain out of the house and slowing down broken tree limbs.  There’s absolutely no need to crawl out there to look at the stars or contemplate ending it all just because your first short story was rejected by The New Yorker.

Be done with expectations.  What’s done is done and anything good that happens next is a happy surprise. 

Finally understanding your pets.  Sleeping most of the day now makes perfect sense.  The dog also teaches that snap judgements about people have merit (wag your tail or bite an ankle?),

while cats demonstrate that a sense of superiority need not have any basis in prior accomplishments or public recognition.

Admire physical beauty as something more than an incentive to propagate.  That he or she has a well-turned ankle, or nice blue eyes, can be observed more as an art historian than a randy fool.  And written accordingly.  

Forgetting.  Though there’s inconvenience in constantly searching for your wallet, iPhone and favorite pen, this comes in handy when avoiding regret and recrimination.  It also nurtures false optimism, which allows you to produce day-after-day with little chance of reward. 

Smelling the roses.  It’s amazing how much detail is apparent when arthritis sets the pace of movement through the world.  Recordable in various obsessive writings, fact and fiction.   

Harboring grudges.  Most fade over time, but a few have a lasting quality, best savored when you realize those feelings were entirely justified.  Useful in passages focusing on revenge. 

Assembling sentences with confidence.  At this point, good writers, or not so good, know their voice, and accept the product as their own.  As to good, or not so good, the relief is in not caring very much what other people think.   

Embracing the routine.  When life is no longer driven by external forces, daily rhythms are naturally re-occurring.  Not so much planned or plotted out, simply arising from celestial habits, like the tides and phases of the moon.

Knowing what books you like, and not like.  The days of forcing yourself to read a book you don’t like to the end are long gone.  Peer pressure has vanished, as have many of your peers, so there’s no incentive to prove you’re part of the cognoscenti.  Time is running out, so no need to waste it with unhappy consumption.  The same goes for movies, TV shows, kale and popular vacation destinations.

Sleeping in.  Since sleeping itself is not always achievable, this is a blessed event.  As a side benefit, writing time becomes whenever you’re awake, which could be any time day or night. 

Honesty.  Younger people feel compelled to present themselves as appropriate to their cultural and social cohort.  Ignoring all that baloney is the ultimate liberation. 

Experience unconditional love.  After a certain amount of time sets in, you tend to accept that you love those you love, no matter what.  Regardless of imperfections in the beloved, it’s something integral, indivisible, abiding and everlasting.   One compelling reason to keep tapping on the keyboard.


23 April 2023

The Digital Detective, Banco and Bunco, Part 2

Resuming from last week

Money Laundering

Checks (‘cheques’ in other English-speaking countries) are becoming less common in our digital society, but they still have their uses: Investors often receive dividend checks, some companies send refund checks, and many of us write checks to our lawn guy and housekeeper. Check handling still holds a place in our economy and so does a scheme called ‘check washing’.

Crime segments on programs like Dateline and 20/20 have warned us against the practice of bad guys plucking checks out of mailboxes and ‘washing’ them in a ‘household chemical’ bath. Then with a blank check in hand with the original signature, they fill in a new payee and amount. The scheme can work with bonds, wills, and other instruments, anything with a dye-based ink written with ordinary pens. Very old inks comprised of iron compounds remain unaffected.

Wait. Are you going to share with us?

What is the household chemical? Enquiring crime writers want to know.

The answer is ink-dependent and I’m aware of two compounds. Women baddies may have an advantage: The primary go-to chemical, acetone, is the principle ingredient in fingernail polish remover. Other dye-based inks may better respond when treated with ordinary bleach.

Here’s a how-to video by Dr Uniball… (Shh. I know, I know, the poor man. I’m afraid Dr Uniball suffered an unfortunate lab accident.) That aside, here is one of his experiments:

Note: Although not mentioned in the video, fraudsters can preserve the signature by covering it with transparent tape. Ink not so protected washes away.

So how can you shield yourself against lawnmower man bleaching your check or your nifty cleaning lady rewriting the palty cheap-ass amount after an acetone bath? You can purchase speciality India ink pens costing in the hundreds of dollars. Or, as I recently learned, you can buy a less than two dollar Uniball at your local Dollar Store. This pigment-based pen is made by Mitsubishi Pencil Company, yes, a sister company of the car manufacturer. Look for Uniball 207, pictured here:

UniBall 207 pen

But wait. If you’re a fraudster and your victim banks with Chase or certain other banks, you don't have to bother erasing and filling in checks. Crooks have discovered Chase’s sloppy remote banking by smartphone looks only at the numeric dollar amount and routing number. Bad guys can add in an extra digit to the dollar amount, changing it from hundreds to thousands. Chase doesn’t trouble themselves to validate the written amount or check the written payee matches the conman’s name on the account. They even allow the same check to be deposited more than once.

BoA Signs of Fraud
Signs of Fraud from Bank of America

A casual survey suggests Chase Banks may figure in more frauds than all other banking institutions combined.Worse yet, Chase battles customer victims who try to get their money back. Lily, our Chase target in a previous article did everything right, trying to get an oblivious and lackadaisical Chase to take action. And they die– they blamed her.

No place in the world is safe from fraud, but if YouTube is to believed, Arizona suffers an outsized number of attacks. And naturally, Chase customer service isn't there when needed.

From A to Z, ATM to Zelle

Zelle is German for jail, literally, a prison cell. I’m frankly surprised it doesn’t mean Sucker!

I can’t trust Zelle. If accounts of a money app can’t be viewed and studied on the web, the customer/victim is at a disadvantage when attempting to reconcile transactions. Unfortunately banks and society at large push us in that direction.

Former business partners owed me money and had been steadily paying me through Sun Bank. Abruptly payments stopped. I notified them. It turned out Sun wanted to cease sending direct, electronic payments to my bank (and others) and insisted its ‘partners’ use Zelle. The problem was that Sun submitted payments into the black hole of Zelle, but my bank didn’t see them.

“Not our problem,” said Sun. “Call Zelle.”
“Not our problem,” said my bank. “Call Zelle.”
“Not our problem,” said Zelle. “Call your bank.”

This occurred after repeated and futile attempts to get a phone number for Zelle, who declined to help because they were ‘too far removed from the situation’, claiming they were outside the transfer rather than being the conduit. It took four months of repeated complaints to resolve the issue.


As you might imagine, Zelle is a convenient tool for fraud. In one particular scam, you receive an SMS text that your bank account has been put on hold, pending unusual activity. You phone the conveniently provided phone number, and a polite professional asks how she can help you.

She ‘checks’ your account, saying it appears nefarious forces are attempting to penetrate your security. The solution is to safely move your money into a bank-approved Zelle account. If you’ve not heard of Zelle, she provides you a web link showing your bank works with Zelle, and she’ll help you set up a new free account, which will make bill paying so much easier.

Ten minutes later, your new Zelle account is all set up and your money moved into it. “Thank you, thank you,” you say before hanging up, upon which the scammer sets to work. You receive another text message, this time from your real bank. Your accounts have been emptied.

“Not our problem,” says Zelle. “Call your bank.”
“Not our problem,” says your bank. “Call Zelle.”

22 April 2023

Can you love the art and loathe the artist?

For years, I've told my writing students that to be a successful novelist, you must be the writer, AND the author.  The Writer does the writing:  alone in a room, butt in chair, hands on keyboard for hundreds of hours.  The Author is the personality out in public and on social media.  The halcyon days of novelists being able to hide behind a word processor were over in the 90s.  Readers and publishers expect you to be out in public, promoting your books.

Here's the thing that has always puzzled me.  I don't understand why readers want to meet the author.  For many years, my favourite author has been the Sicilian, Andrea Cammilleri.  I adore Inspector Montalbano, star of his sharply funny books.  In fact, I so adore Cammilleri, that I have no real interest in meeting his creator.  Why?  Because Montalbano *is* Cammilleri to me.  Seeing him in person would take away the magic.  What if he looks entirely different?  What if Cammilleri is 80 while Montalbano is 50?

(Sadly, I knew that to be the truth.  Cammilleri died recently, at the age of 93.  With him, dies Montalbano who was just into his 60s.  No more books, and that's a tragedy for me.)

But I digress.

The point of this post:  I am always a bit surprised when readers are enthusiastic about meeting me.  I wonder that they too might find seeing me in person could corrupt the image they have of my protagonist/s.

But beyond appearance, and possibly worse, does my own character do justice to my protagonist?

Do we have to like the artist to love the art?

Put another way: if the artist falls from grace, does it affect how we perceive their art?

A few names come to mind.  Woody Allen.  Michael Jackson.  Can I still watch a Woody Allen movie without feeling slightly queasy?  Can I listen to Thriller or Beat It, and enjoy them, without thinking of disturbing sexual misconduct? 

And then there is Dilbert.  Can we still laugh at the comic strip, yet deplore the opinions of its creator? 

The jury is out for me on this one.  I really do go back and forth about equating the art with the character of the artist.  I am sure that if we looked into artists of the past (I'm going way back here - the Romans, Renaissance, Age of Enlightenment, 19th century) we would find people who held views that we find abhorrent now.  People who conducted themselves in amoral or cruel ways, but produced wondrous art.

How far does one go in this?  Should we be refusing to value the art of men who denied women the vote until the last century?  Should one idolize and cheer for Tiger Woods on the PGA tour when he treats women so dishonorably?

I don't know.  I'm anxiously ambivalent about this one.  In fact, I'm losing sleep at night.  It's 5:20 AM right now as I'm writing this sentence.  I've been up for two hours, stewing on this.  

Which all goes to show... I've found another fabulous way to procrastinate on writing my next novel. 

Melodie Campbell writes wryly funny crime books, from the shores of Lake Ontario.  The Merry Widow Murders will finally hit the shelves in May.

21 April 2023

How It's Done and Over Mastication

Inspired by recent posts from Michael Bracken and John Floyd, I wrote the following.

In his SleuthSayer's posting of 4/11/23, Michael Bracken said, "I don't often write about the genesis of my stories because I often don't know or don't remember much about how they came to be. My stories don't exist, and then they do."

Yep. Looking back – that's how I feel about most of my stories. How the hell did I come to write that story? I do remember the inspiration for some of my stories, but not a lot of them and now that I think about it, remembering the inspiration isn't important. Only the story matters.

I do remember being asked by an editor what inspired me to write a story which won an award and I could not remember the inspiration. Since I'm a fiction writer, I made up an inspiration. Faked it.

In John Floyd's SleuthSayer posting of 4/15/23, he wrote about writers ruining their books in the rewriting process, editing a book over and over, making it worse rather than better.

I can echo that. A writer friend once asked me to read his new novel. I did and liked it a lot. His agent, however, recommended changes and so did his editor. The writer made the changes after complaining to me about it. The book was published and when I read it, I saw how the editing, the over masticating of scenes, had taken all the spontaneous enthusiasm out of the book. It was flat and what was original was gone. It had become the agent and editor's idea of the book.

When my agent at the time recommend changes in my next book, I changed agents. The recommended changes were massive. Another reason I'm an independent (indie) writer. It's my art.

Having said all that – I've experienced this type of destructive meddling only a few times. Nearly all of the editors I've worked with have helped my writing.

Lots of lessons out there for writers. Beginning writers should follow SleuthSayers. I've been writing since the 1980s and I learn something new here all the time.

(I hope this is the correct logo)

That's all for now.


20 April 2023

The Legend of Jack Ruby

 by Eve Fisher

Actually, this story is primarily by Gary Cartwright, and was published Texas Monthly in November, 1975.  I think it's an appropriate column for the week, give or take a month, that he was born back in 1911.  

Jack Ruby, Lee Harvey Oswald's assassin, who in turn, assassinated John F. Kennedy, was born Jacob Leon Rubenstein on or around March 25 and April 25, 1911, in Chicago. From then on... it's legendary, mythic, and damned uncertain what happened and why. But one thing is certain, he played his part:

"If there is a tear left, shed it for Jack Ruby. He didn’t make history; he only stepped in front of it. When he emerged from obscurity into that inextricable freeze-frame that joins all of our minds to Dallas, Jack Ruby, a bald-headed little man who wanted above all else to make it big, had his back to the camera.

I can tell you about Jack Ruby, and about Dallas, and if necessary remind you that human life is sweetly fragile and the holy litany of ambition and success takes as many people to hell as it does to heaven. But someone else will have to tell you about Oswald, and what he was doing in Dallas that November, when Jack Ruby took the play away from Oswald, and from all of us.

Dallas, Oswald, Ruby, Watts, Whitman, Manson, Ray, Sirhan, Bremer, Viet Nam, Nixon, Watergate, FBI, CIA, Squeaky Fromme, Sara Moore—the list goes on and on. Who the hell wrote this script, and where will it end? A dozen years of violence, shock, treachery, and paranoia, and I date it all back to that insane weekend in Dallas and Jack Ruby—the one essential link in the chain, the man who changed an isolated act into a trend."

Personal note:  I still remember watching this on the news, and even at 9 years old, I knew there was something fishy about it: I turned to my parents and said, "But they stood back and let him shoot him!"  


"Twelve years ago, when the first announcement that the President had been shot was broadcast over the PA system at Richardson Junior High School, Gertrude Hutter, an eighth-grade teacher, began crying. Bob Dudney, who is now a reporter for the Times Herald, recalled the moment. She turned her back long enough to compose herself, then addressed her class with these prophetic words:

“Children, we are entering into an age of violence. There is nothing we can do about it, but all of us must stay calm, and above all, civilized.”"

Read it all here:  Texas Monthly

Gertrude Hutter was a prophet.  But I doubt even she could have foreseen the seemingly endless death and destruction we have unleashed upon ourselves.  

1963 seems quaintly peaceful:  one assassination, and a nation horror-struck, but pulling together in mourning.  

Even 1975 - Watergate, the last year of the Vietnam War, Squeaky Fromme, a bomb at LaGuardia killing 11 people,  - seems like an era of safety for most, if not all.

But today...