31 July 2023

Open Books. Open Minds.


There’s a lot of commentary out there over a surge in book banning.  I know this practice has been going on for a long time (in the past, arguably worse), but there's good evidence we're in a real book banning frenzy.  Either way, there’s nothing about book banning that’s any good. Not at all, at no time, not ever. 

The notion that the tender moral and intellectual sensibilities of the average school kid could be irrevocably harmed by a saucy, blasphemous or retrograde work of art is preposterous.  Kids are a whole lot smarter and worldly than anyone knows, especially their parents.  If there are, in fact, those utterly devoid of critical judgement, easily swayed by some loony, anti-social thought, then all book bans do is delay the inevitable.  Meanwhile, you’re denying the vast majority the opportunity to form their own opinions and triangulate their sense of where they fall on the socio-political-ethical spectrum. 

And by the way, books aren’t really banned in the US.  They’re merely kept off the shelves of schools and libraries.  Any half-intelligent kid can get her hands on any book published in the world, and she will, if she wants to.  Book banning is a fool’s errand. 

You may think book banning is a favorite right-wing sport, but there’s plenty of it happening on the left.  Worse, some of the banning is done by publishers themselves with revisionist versions of classic works.  They don’t seem to realize that this is just as censorious and illiberal as banning Gender Queer.

When I was pretty young, I read Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer.  Both were beautifully written and nowhere near as salacious as I was hoping for at the time.  I also read Mao’s Little Red Book, and at no time did I feel compelled to murder capitalists or throw the intelligentsia into re-education camps.  I read all of Ayn Rand, which was lousy literature and had no influence on me whatsoever, though I wondered what all the fuss was about.  If you were corrupted by The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Catcher in the Rye, you’ve got bigger problems than your choice of reading material.

I got a lot out of Ezra Pound’s commentary and obtuse poetry, though no fascist impulses emerged.  I think he was a traitor of the first order, but I still occasionally flip through The ABC of Reading, since it’s sort of humorous and full of compelling literary insight. 

Our son had a free-range education.  That doesn’t mean we didn’t offer opinions on what he was reading, providing some perspective, but he was never told how to think about the content.  I would only ask him to keep a big grain of salt nearby when facing various arguments.  Resonate to what moves you, but maintain a healthy skepticism.  You may at some time change your mind, and you’ll feel better about it if you didn’t first succumb hook, line and sinker. 

He turned out fine.  We don’t agree on everything, but that’s what independent thought is all about. 

It’s no accident that autocratic regimes ban books as a matter of course.  They all do, and always will, because they are trying to control their subjects’ minds.  Does history look back fondly on Savonarola’s Bonfire of the Vanities, or Hitler’s book burning?  That should tell you all you need to know about censorship. 

The same applies to the news media.  I read everything, and always have.  Left, right and center.  I want to know what the political and cultural commentators are saying.  All of them.  Knowledge isn’t agreement.  It’s just knowledge. 

The most important impulse is to keep ones mind open.  Confirmation bias is absurd.  If you think you know everything already, don’t bother reading.  Use the time to ferret out trigger warnings in Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood or put horns on your head and charge the US capital. 

30 July 2023

Setting the Hook

Stone Age Fish Hook
Photo from Wikipedia

In his review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's short fiction book, Twice Told Tales for Graham's May 1842 magazine issue, Edgar Allan Poe had this to say about the beginning of a short story: "...If his very initial sentence tend not to be outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step..."

Even though they spoke and wrote English in those days, they sometimes wrote and talked a little funny as compared to today's use of words. To me, Poe was writing about hooking the reader, or getting the reader interested in your short story by the wording of your very first sentence. Of course, if you care to wade through all the words Poe wrote for that review about 180 years ago, feel free to Google said review and come up with your own opinion.

Poe was referring to a narrative hook, but several of us have started a short story with dialogue and if done interestingly enough, the story start can also be done that way. And, if you can't set the hook in the first sentence, then the hook should be placed no later than the last line of the first paragraph.

Think about the situation. If you open a magazine or an anthology and start to read a short story, which is going to encourage you the most to continue reading, a plain, boring, no excitement opening or one which makes you wonder what's going to happen next? That what will happen next is the hook and that hook is what pulls you, the reader, further into the story being told. And, if it work this way on a reader, then imagine how this hook works on an editor who receives 100+ submissions a month. How far do you think that editor will read on a submission if the story doesn't grab their interest early on? It is a shrinking market out there for short stories these days and therefore tough enough for a writer to avoid a manuscript rejection without making this common error.

Rob mentioned in one of his recent blog articles that I had critiqued one of his short stories and had suggested that the story's beginning was boring. He then changed the opening to imply the possibility of future violence. The story subsequently sold, which may or may not have been a result of setting the hook early. A couple of weeks later, I critiqued a story from a different author. Same problem, but the author had already wondered about his opening and was considering rearranging the order of his story to start with an event closer to the action (an early hook). Both of these authors had multiple acceptances from AHMM and EQMM, yet somehow the setting of the hook in the opening had slipped by them in the writing process. You can bet I will be more careful in my own story openings now before I hit the SUBMIT button on short story manuscripts.

Damn, I shouldn't be reminding you people about setting the hook early. You all are my competition for this shrinking short story market.

Oh well, too late now.

Have a good one.

29 July 2023

Here Come da Judge


True story: While I was trying to figure out what to post for today, I was asked by a writer friend to serve as a judge for an upcoming fiction competition. This kind of thing would probably be nothing new for you, and wasn't for me either--I've judged dozens of fiction-writing contests over the years. (That says nothing about my qualifications; it's just something that happens when you've been around and writing for a long time. In any case, I was honored to be asked.)

I'm sure you know the types of contests I'm referring to. Some are local, some regional, some have solo judges, some are judged by committee, some have cash prizes, some are sponsored by groups or conferences that have the winning stories appear in an anthology. Arguably the most prestigious competitions (certainly for mystery writing) are those for national awards like the Edgar, Shamus, etc.

Anyhow--long story short--since opportunity has knocked, I figured I 'd use that for today's post.

To me, judging writing contests is a mix of fun and work. Fun because some of the entries you have to evaluate turn out to be great stories; work because most of them don't. But I assure you I've learned a lot about writing from each of these endeavors, and I've also learned quite a bit about what I suspect editors, agents, and publishers have to go through every day in the process of selecting which stories/novels to publish.

An example, and some observations:

Assume you have been asked to be a judge, and you find that you'll have a hundred short-story manuscripts to consider, and your task is to pick the best three.

When your stack of entries arrives, I predict that about a fourth of them, maybe a fifth, will turn out to be good, well-written stories. That's just usually the way it happens. Also, another fourth of the stack will be terrible stories. Those that are left--about half--will usually be somewhere in between. I realize that's a big generality and that there's nothing certain about what you'll find in any set of manuscripts to be judged, but so far I've found that the old 25-50-25 percent division is pretty close. Strange but true.

Another observation: whether you're one of a group of judges or if you're doing it all yourself, you'll probably find that your first read-through of the stories is to weed out the bad ones. That sounds like a negative way to approach all this, but it's natural, and is pretty much the way editors do it. If/when you find things in a story that just don't work at all, that story goes in the reject stack and you move on to the next one. The stories that are left when you're done are the ones that'll be re-considered. (This, by the way, is the whole premise of Noah Lukeman's excellent book The First Five Pages. It says that a publisher/agent/etc. can usually decide in the first five pages of a novel manuscript whether to reject it. For short stories, it's obviously a much shorter span--maybe the first page or two, or even the opening paragraphs.

Once the rejected manuscripts are put aside, you'll probably then re-read the others and do the same thing all over again, this time comparing them with each other in terms of quality. Again, I predict you'll end up with anything from fifteen to twenty-five out of a hundred that are truly good stories, and then you'll have to decide which of those are the very best.

One thing that I find difficult is when the contest organizers require you to fill out a detailed scoresheet evaluating different parts of each story, assigning points to things like plot, characterization, dialog, setting, viewpoint, and theme, and coming up with an overall total to determine the winners. I'll do that if I'm forced to, but I think it's unnecessary work. Good stories don't always hit the normal checkboxes. Some of the best stories I've ever read do strange and unusual things with plot, POV, and so forth--you know what I mean. I prefer contests that allow the judges, solo or teamed, to come up with which stories they think are deserving of the top honors without resorting to the detailed "Fiction Writing 101" lists and rules and checkboxes. But that's just me.

I also don't like it when contest organizers tell me I must read every story all the way to its end. That's a terrible waste of time. If you're going to trust me enough to be a judge, trust me enough to know when to reject a story, and--as mentioned earlier--that decision might happen early in its reading. 

As for whether the judging is "blind"--some contests withhold the authors' names--that precaution honestly doesn't make any difference to me. Some of the best stories I've seen have come from writers whose names I didn't know at the time, and some stories by known authors have disappointed me. As it turns out, the upcoming competition I mentioned will feature blind entries, which is of course an effort to assure entrants of its fairness. But I think it rarely matters to a judge.

NOTE: One thing I try not to do (although I have, when I didn't know it at the time) is serve as a judge for a competition that requires entrants to pay fees. I don't agree with that practice and I don't enter those contests, just as I don't submit stories to markets that charge submission fees. 


Do you often participate in the judging of writing competitions (big or small)? Have you ever done so? Did you enjoy the experience? Did you learn anything from it? Are there any past judging gigs that were particularly fun or interesting for you? Did you have a set routine by which your evaluations were made? If a team effort, what did you think of working with other judges? How about the scoring process? Did you find it overly restrictive, or were you given free rein?

I've already mentioned that this kind of request (to be a judge) was nothing new. Well, neither is the fact that I said yes. When the person asking is a friend, it's hard to say no.

I'm hoping I'll find some great stories.

28 July 2023

Poisoned Pen

A friend of mine sent me this article asking if I knew anything about it. The long, tortured affair took place in Circleville, one of those small railroad towns that dot the Midwest. This one is north of Columbus and not on any of the Interstates. I grew up on the fringes of the Cleveland area, spent six months in Amish country, and have lived in Cincinnati ever since. So, no. I barely knew of Circleville.

Which is interesting because of the town's long-standing mystery. Who's writing all the nasty letters?

It began in the 1970s. A bus driver named Mary Gillespie began receiving letters accusing her of having an affair with the school's vice principal. The harassment continued for some time until her brother-in-law and his wife tracked the letters back to one of Mary's coworkers, a man named David Longberry. Longberry was never charged, though he was later charged with sexual assault in an unrelated case.

But before the letters stopped, Mary's husband received a phone call. Angry, he went to confront Longberry with a pistol. Almost an hour later, police found his pickup off the road, him dead.

While Longberry was never charged, he came under some unwanted scrutiny. The letters stopped.

For a time. Then they started up again, along with signs on Mary's bus route detailing her alleged affair. The number of letter recipients increased as well, as more and more Circleville residents began receiving their own poisoned pen letters. Things escalated when Mary attempted to rip down a sign along her route only to find one crudely booby-trapped with a pistol.

The perpetrator attempted to file off the serial number, but a forensics technician recovered it. The gun traced back to a brewery employee in Columbus, who in turn sold it to his supervisor, who then sold it to someone else. The gun belonged to Paul Freshour, Mary's brother-in-law and the one who fingered David Longberry.

Before long, the sheriff began looking at Freshour.Eventually, he was convicted and sentenced to prison. The letters stopped.

Again, only for a time. Eventually, Unsolved Mysteries got involved, sending a production team to the small town. Soon, producers received their own poisoned pen letters threatening the crew if they showed up. Spoiler alert: Robert Stack totally did a segment on the unknown letter writer. Perhaps feeling the heat, the letter writer soon went silent for good.

Longberry and Freshour have both since died. Curiously, letters continued after Freshour went to prison. Only when Unsolved Mysteries showed up did they stop. The long story sounds like the beginnings of a Stephen King story, although King would have made the perpetrator supernatural or had him run afoul of the supernatural. More likely, it has much in common with SA Cosby's semi-rural Virginia tales, should Cosby opt to write an homage to Sherwood Anderson.

The motivations and machinations behind such episodes are familiar to anyone who grew up in small towns, exurbs, and even suburbs. Like the Cleveland-area town where I grew up, Circleville is exactly the type of American or Canadian town described in the song "Subdivisions," existing between the bright lights and the far, unlit unknown. Most of us who grew up there hear whispers, half-heard gossip. So-and-so is having an affair with someone-or-other. The bus driver grows pot on an abandoned farm. The undertaker enjoys his work too much, or the small bank president is skimming the receipts. Undoubtedly, the original letters arose from something like this: misplaced outrage or perhaps jealousy. Over the years, someone else became a copycat, the way some serial killers or burglars will copy some of the more outlandish of their chosen crimes. This person or persons saw a way to lash out at small-town hypocrisy. Unlike burglars, robbers, and worse, their crime is one of nuisance. It can flare into deadly confrontation, but the reason the person or persons behind Circleville's ordeal could continue for so long is one of resources. Small town police and rural/semi-rural departments are understaffed while urban agencies have a higher number of murders, rapes, robberies, and property damage to deal with.

And of course, now I have a pitch for Down & Out Books.

27 July 2023

Crime Scene Comix Case 2023-07-022, Parking

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

Yikes! In this Crime Time episode, Shifty channels Cool Hand Luke.

  © www.FutureThought.tv


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

26 July 2023

The Martha's Vineyard Mysteries

I enjoy a brutally scathing review as well as the next guy, even when undeserved – Dorothy Parker’s elegantly snide ‘Tonstant Weader Fwows Up’ comes to mind, directed at Winnie-the-Pooh, no less - but I’ve always avoided dishing it out.  This could simply be good manners, or fear of retribution, or the courtesy of least said, soonest mended, but I’d rather encourage my enthusiasms.

On the other hand.  I watched a limited series that ran under the Hallmark banner, the Martha’s Vineyard mysteries.  Four hour-and-a-half episodes, so TV movies, essentially.  I’d like to say I can’t quite put my finger on what doesn’t work, but that would be too charitable.  I can tell you exactly where it goes wrong; it takes lazy tropes, and hits you over the head with them, again and again.

Let’s look at the basics.  You need an engaging cast.  The secret of Rockford, or Magnum, for that matter, is that you can spend time with Jim Garner or Tom Selleck, and their amiability is half the battle won.  But there’s obviously more: you take an amiable ensemble, and you have some kind of relatable gimmick, to create character conflict, and you get a show like The Coroner, or Death in Paradise, or Brokenwood.  Are they all that original?  Not really.  It’s the familiarity we keep coming back for.  They’re series.  The two main characters in the Martha’s Vineyard mysteries are played by Jesse Metcalfe and Sarah Lind, both of them charming and attractive.  The guy who plays her dad, the island’s chief of police, is Eric Keenleyside, even better.  So far, so good.

The set-up.  He’s a former Boston cop, wounded in the line of duty, out on disability.  She’s a local girl, went to medical school off-island, now she’s back.  They of course have a history, a summer romance back when.  Her dad, the aforementioned chief of police, needs their help to investigate the sudden rash of murders occasioned by the scripts.  Oh, and the ex-cop has psychological baggage, his partner killed in the same ambush that made him redundant.

The thing is, you can forgive a certain amount of contrivance.  It’s not the end of the world.  The problem here is that it’s all contrived.  They’ve checked every single box.  (I left out Bob the barista, who serves coffee and Zen.)  Jesse and Sarah’s charm just isn’t enough.

And the writing – I’m sorry – is dreadful.  They’ve taken a paint-by-numbers concept, and the scripts follow suit.

One last aggravation.  It’s not location shot, not even establishing footage; they filmed in British Columbia.  It’s as close to Martha’s Vineyard as Jessica Fletcher’s Cabot Cove is to Ogunquit, Maine.  I know, there are economies of scale.  Good Will Hunting was shot in Toronto.  Tom Selleck’s series of Jesse Stone movies was shot in Halifax.  Fair enough.  Canada’s great for making movies.  But in this case, they’re not even paying lip service.  There’s a scene where the chief and the cop are fishing for bluefish.  Off a beach, in the harbor, in protected water.  You go after blues with a surf-casting rig, on an open shore, where the bottom shelves off, because blues run in deeper water, and chase smaller baitfish into the shallows.  They’re ferocious predators, fierce on fishing tackle.  I realize I’m being a real pissy-pants about all this, but it just sticks in my craw.

Certain things are tried and true, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but there’s a real difference between staying in the audience comfort zone and desperate laziness.

25 July 2023

New Three-Book Series

SleuthSayers readers know me primarily as a crime fiction writer/editor, and some remember me as the “King of Confessions” because I wrote several hundred stories for magazines such as True Confessions and True Story. I’ve written extensively in other genres as well, and a new, three-book series collects many of the short stories I wrote about men in love and lust.

My first professional short-story sale was to a children’s magazine back in the 1970s. The next two professional sales were to a men’s magazine, so I’ve been writing adult material during my entire career. In addition to non-fiction and pictorials, the adult magazines published fantasy, horror, mystery, romance, suspense, and science fiction, as well as straight-forward erotica.

When the rise of the internet hastened the collapse of the adult magazine market, written erotica went mainstream, and several book publishers stepped in specifically to address the underserved LGBTQ readership. During the 2010s, publishers such as Alyson Books, Bold Strokes Books, Bruno Gmünder, Cleis, StarBooks Press, and Xcite pumped out short story anthologies for gay readers, and I contributed to many of them, writing for well-respected editors such as Winston Gieseke, Richard Labonte, and Neil S. Plakcy.

Among other publications, my stories appeared in Best Gay Erotica (2013), Best Gay Romance (2010, 2013, 2015), Best New Erotica 4, Ultimate Gay Erotica (2006), and the Lambda Literary Award-nominated anthologies Show-Offs and Team Players.

As so often happens in publishing, the market changed in the late 2010s. Markets I had cultivated ceased to exist, and editors moved on. So, as I have done several times before, I shifted the focus of my writing and carried on.


A few years ago, an editor I had worked with on other projects announced his publishing company’s intent to launch an erotica line, so I pitched a collection of my gay erotic and romance stories. He liked the idea. When we realized how many stories could be included, the project grew from a single collection to a trio of collections. Then Neil S. Plakcy agreed to write introductions for all three volumes of the series.

Unfortunately, just as the first of the three books was being released, the publishing company was sold. The new owner immediately cancelled the erotica imprint and cancelled my publishing agreement.

Deep Desires Press, with whom I had previously worked on two smaller projects, came to the rescue, and recently announced that Kindle, Kobo, Nook, and other electronic editions of all three collections are available for pre-order and that paperback editions will also soon be available.

The Men in Love and Lust series includes All-American Male, nineteen stories about men of all ages; Queer Bait, twenty stories about men on both sides of the law; and Sporting Wood, nineteen stories about men at work and play.

These collections aren’t for a general readership, so I’ve not included cover images nor any links. If you’re interested, they aren’t difficult to find.

24 July 2023

The Bowery — A Vanished World Revisited

The protagonist of my long-running Bruce Kohler mystery series got sober at the beginning of Death Will Get You Sober, written in 2003 and published in 2008 by St Martin's (back before the birth of Minotaur), on Christmas Eve in detox on the Bowery. I wrote the following in a SleuthSayers post called "Down on the Bowery" in 2012.

The Bowery in lower Manhattan, along with Seattle’s Skid Row and its namesakes in Los Angeles and other cities, had long been synonymous with down-and-out chronic alcoholism. The area was famous for its bars and flophouses as well as the “Bowery bums” who came from all over the country to drink cheap Thunderbird and sleep it off in the gutter. I first went down to the Bowery in 1983. I was not yet a fiction writer, much less a clinical social worker with a master’s degree or a psychotherapist. For a seminar connected with getting my alcoholism counseling credential, I had a choice of places to intern. My professor urged me to pass up the expensive private clinic and go down to the Bowery. “You’ll love it,” he said, and he was right.

I caught the very end of the era before the homeless spread out all over the city. There were only a few bars and two or three genuine flophouses left. But walking down the Bowery from Astor Place, you entered another world when you crossed Fifth Street. The program was housed in the notorious men’s shelter on Third Street, still a scary place at that time. To reach the elevator, you had to breast your way through crowds of not too sweet-smelling men who stood around in a fog of cigarette smoke. The elevator had no buzzer. To get to the program on the fourth floor, you had to pound on the scarred elevator door with your fist, and eventually Wisdom the elevator man would bring it creaking down to get you. (His name was Winston, but no one called him that.) You took your life in your hands if you used the stairs.

My first day as an intern, the last of the cops who’d formed the first “rescue team” in 1967 to bring “Bowery bums” to detox instead of just throwing them in jail took me out with him. It was Check Day, when all the guys on any kind of public assistance or veteran’s benefits got their monthly check. So nobody was lying in the gutter. The cop said we’d find them in the bars. It was 10:30 in the morning. I remember the sun slanting down across the bar, the dust, the bartender polishing a glass, and the row of heads that turned toward us in unison.
They all knew the cop. They knew why we were there. The bartender sounded like an elevator man in Bloomingdale’s. He said, “Fourth floor! fourth floor! who wants to go?” They knew exactly what he meant. They’d all spent many nights in the shelter. Some of them had been in detox 60 times.

The shelter was cleaned up by the time I went back in 1993 as program director of an outpatient alcohol program. The building also housed a drug therapeutic community. I once walked up the formerly dangerous stairs in a Santa Claus hat and a red feather boa to help sing Christmas carols in the detox. During the later 90s, chi-chi restaurants and fern bars started moving onto the Bowery. A block east, blue recycling garbage cans stood neatly in front of the Hell’s Angels clubhouse. Their stretch of Third Street curb was painted yellow. The city had put up a sign: “Parking reserved for Hell’s Angels motorcycles only.”

Today, the building has been thoroughly renovated, though it still houses social service programs.
There’s a chic restaurant on the corner and a boutique hotel beyond it, with an outdoor patio bar looking onto the 18th century graveyard hidden behind the facades of the buildings that form the square between Third and Second Streets and the Bowery and Second Avenue.
When I left in 1999, it was still a secret wilderness of spiky grasses, wildflowers, and a gnarled old tree or two, its silence broken only by birdsong and the occasional yowls of mating cats. Now it looks like a park.

Ten years after I wrote this—the blog post, not the novel—Project Renewal still runs programs for the homeless out of the old Men's Shelter. I've heard they bought the building from the City for a dollar. It's been thoroughly renovated, and the word PUBLIC in faded, giant letters, with the L missing, is no longer visible on its side to give passersby a smile. At the Bowery Hotel, as of July 2022, you could book a room for Christmas Eve ("room only") for between $515 (queen) and $1,281 (suite) a night. If you imagine yourself facing south at Astor Place and the point where the north end of the Bowery (it is a street) meets Lafayette Street as the prow of a ship, its figurehead is the Cooper Union, in whose Great Hall Abraham Lincoln gave the speech that propelled him to the Presidency. That's still there. It's a landmark building. But the Bowery as a neighborhood with a flavor of its own, even a changing one with fern bars overtaking the dereliction, is gone. The buildings, glass and steel and chrome, were built in the twenty-first century, after I left my job and finally had time to write Death Will Get You Sober, which I'd been talking about for years.

23 July 2023

Flash Fiction– Improv

Leigh Lundin

It’s time once again for a touch of flash fiction.

It’s time once again for a touch of flash fiction.

I can’t accept full credit for the word play seeded by one of those chain emails that arrived via the internet, author unknown. I merely turned the idea into writing advice disguised as a short story. Read and enjoy.


Room for Improvement
by Leigh (and Anonymous)

During a domestic discussion, my wife said, “I can describe you in six words.” She went on to say I’m mature, I’m moral, I’m modest, I’m proper, I’m polite, and I’m perfect!

I love my wife, shes the greatest. “Anything else?” I asked.

“You also have a fundamental misunderstanding of apostrophes.”

22 July 2023

Why I Watch British TV (almost exclusively)

 A friend of mine says he prefers British TV because "they use real people."  By this, he means everyone on the set isn't young and model-gorgeous, like in most American shows.  I agree with him.  I much prefer Brit crime shows to American.

I've studied this recently and have found that the real difference is about women: that older, average looking women are virtually absent from American shows.

Some examples that struck me hard:

Blue Bloods:  At first, I thought this show would be appeal to me.  My spouse loved it, first time around.  The protagonist is a good man, a decent man, who loves his family.  But two episodes in, I realized that all the older women had been banished from the set.  Both the mother AND the grandmother are dead.  So those nice family dinners that appear in each episode have men in an array of ages, but no women over 40, at all.  Just good-looking young women.

I understand the device being used here.  The protagonist can be seen as a good man in our eyes, a decent man, because he is not cheating on his wife.  His wife is dead.  Therefore he can have dalliances with other younger women, and still be seen as heroic.  And the male viewers get their eye candy.

I am so so sick of this banishing of older women from major roles.

Which brings me to the latest Indiana Jones film.  Social media sites for women are raging about this one.  An 80 year old man with a 30-something-year-old co-star?  Not even someone my age, *twenty* years younger than the star will do?

One younger woman said to me:  "Does it help that she's his god-daughter?"  And to her, I said, "You're missing the point.  The point is that it is okay for an elderly man to be on that screen, but no one wants to see a woman over 50, apparently.  Let alone one nearing 60, which is a *full generation* younger than the man!"

Which brings me to British shows.

Way back when, we reveled in Prime Suspect.  Helen Mirren was my hero.  A woman, not young and gorgeous, but absolutely fascinating on screen in a lead police procedural role.  

Then, Vera, which is still running.  Overweight, poorly dressed, over-smart, with a mouth and wit that makes me smile.  Where is the American Vera? 

And now - Annika.  If you haven't seen Annika, you're in for a treat.  Nicola Walker is 53, and doesn't mind looking it.  Don't look to her for top fashion.  As my husband says, she's 'every-woman'.  But what a woman!  

I can name more.  Sister Boniface.  Lucy Lawless in My Life is Murder.  Agatha Raisin.  Miss Marple, for Pete's sake!   

Whenever I say Miss Marple, someone always counters with Jessica Fletcher.  That was decades ago!  Where are the older women leads on American crime shows now?  Where are the real women, who don't wear high heels on a crime scene, and haven't resorted to gravity-defying cleavage?

In this, I think we of the second wave feminist movement failed.  If anything, older women have become more invisible as the decades rolled on.  It has become even more important to be young and sexy now than in those early decades of my youth.

Except in Great Britain, where women of all shapes and ages seem to be appreciated.  I will continue to watch British crime shows.

Melodie Campbell writes Brit-type classic mysteries with Brit-type humour.  (note the u)  The Merry Widow Murders is her latest book.  As seen in Ellery Queen:

21 July 2023

The President Who Played Detective, and other adventures

Replica of Washington's Rising Sun chair, used during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. (The Museum of the American Revolution)

Is it my imagination, or have museums in the U.S. gotten loads better? Last summer I visited the visitor center at Valley Forge National Historical Park, and was impressed that the exhibits integrated two things that would have been unthinkable two decades ago: hands-on learning for kids, and excellent representation of the contributions of women, Native Americans, and people of color.

My childhood memories of this particular episode in the Revolutionary War featured three takeaways: George Washington had a white horse that he either rode or prayed beside; the American troops were poorly outfitted and left bloody footprints in the snow; and gee, the winter weather sure was bad.

I never learned that Washington’s encampment included “camp followers,” typically the spouses of the soldiers who cooked meals for the troops, mended clothing, and performed other valuable services. I didn’t learn that African American soldiers and Native Americans were also among the troops. I didn’t know that other civilians tagged along as well, earning a living selling wares and munitions. The visitor center touched on all of these things, including the fact that General Washington despised the camp followers, calling them a “clog,” i.e. a drain on the army's food and resources. 

Time was, you’d have to specifically visit a children’s museum to find child-height exhibits that asked critical thinking questions and encouraged kids to open boxes, touch replicas, and push buttons to reveal answers or to hear period-appropriate sounds.

When I confessed my astonishment to all this to one of the rangers, he informed me that everything I was seeing was installed during the center’s pandemic closure. Even the film shown in the theater had been revamped to depict troop diversity and the contributions of women.

These sorts of changes to the way we tell American history are often lambasted as revisionist. Others make a big deal when something is Not Taught In Schools, as if the omission is part of a conspiracy. It’s not. I haven’t seen a decent history textbook in forty years that does justice to the breadth and complexity of American history. As a culture, we choose what’s important, and then we water it down even further to create textbooks. For as long as I’ve been alive, the accomplishments of white men was believed to have been of paramount importance. So that’s what we taught. The best teachers I’ve known—of history or anything else—ignore the textbook and teach using materials they’ve discovered through their passion for the subject.

I hit plenty of other museums and historic sites on a recent trip up the coast, following a wedding. I offer these quick capsule reviews.


The Museum of the American Revolution:
This museum dates to 2012. Great assortment of weaponry and Hessian headgear. It has a replica of a pirate ship, a Liberty Tree, a replica of the statue of the King George statue that solders and civilians tore down in 1776 in downtown Manhattan, and melted for bullets. You also learn about colonial-era voting rights for women, and the contributions of women, Africans enslaved or free, and Native Americans to the cause. The crown jewel of the museum collection is the tent used by Washington at Valley Forge. I went to the museum on a weekday, and found that the docents were pretty good at warning you when large school groups are likely to impede your progress through the galleries.

The Betsy Ross House: I’d never been, I’m glad I went, but I’m not sure I’d go again. Most historians question the assertion that Ross sewed the first U.S. flag, a story which came to light about a hundred years after her death in the form of affidavits signed by her descendants. There are wonderful exhibits for kids. You really get a sense of what it was like for a woman to run a successful business as a seamstress and upholsterer in this era. The house is minuscule, and I venture to say that the outside courtyard and attached gift shop comprise more square footage than the entire house. The best book I’ve found on the central question—did she or didn’t she?—is the one by Marla R. Miller.

The President's House: The house where Washington lived during the later years of his presidency no longer stands, but its footprint is smartly delineated by a series of exhibits on the edge of the green in front of Independence Hall. According to Pennsylvania law, any slave who lived in the state for six months automatically became free. To circumvent this law, the Washingtons rotated their slaves so no one person would hit the six-month-mark. Panels and film clips recount the story of an enslaved woman, Ona Judge, who managed to escape to New England and live out her life in freedom. See the book by historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar.

Washington's Privy. (Mt. Vernon)

Franklin Court: Old Ben’s house no longer stands but you can walk the courtyard where he and his family resided. Nearby are a historic post office, print shop, and a museum—all of which I love. But I was a Franklin fan going way back. Round tablets stationed throughout the courtyard tell you where the privies serving this household were once situated. I love historic crap, but not necessarily this version. The only exhaustive book on Franklin’s life in recent years is the one by Walter Isaacson.

While in Philly:
We did cheese it up at Campo’s and Sonny’s, two Center City joints known for cheesesteaks. I split two of these sandwiches in one day with my wife, and lived to tell the tale.

Washington DC:

The National Postal Museum: This was a surprise. You can see replicas of old stagecoaches that delivered mail, and postal train cars that carried postal workers who sorted mail as the train rocketed to their next destination. You can wander a forest, imagining what it was like to travel through colonial America delivering mail and following axe marks on trees to reach the next mail stop. I was astonished to learn that the name of newspapers was originally derived from the method by which they were delivered—hence names such as The Post, Courier, Packet, and so on. All of these exhibits and the Smithsonian’s postal archives are housed in this massive old postal building. There’s a working postal window within the gift shop, where you can buy hot new stamp releases. Highly recommended.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture: This is a very new museum and still hot with tours and school groups. Timed entry is mandatory, and helps keep the pace going. If you start at the beginning, with exhibitions focusing on slavery, you’ll encounter a sluggish series of queues. The pace picks up in later galleries. The biggest takeaway is seeing just how many nations engaged in the slave trade. But it would be incorrect to see the museum solely as the story of slavery in America. It’s so much more, and far too rich to take in on one visit. We’ll be going back. One book I’d recommend: All that She Carried by Tiya Miles.

Colonial Williamsburg: I’d visited here for a blur of a weekend as a kid, and during a book signing event as an adult. This was the first time I actually entered most of the restored structures and spoke with the artisans and docents who bring this place to life. The tinsmith, the pewterer, the printers, and the bookbinders not only know about their craft as it’s practiced today but also how it was conducted in the 1760s-1770s England and Williamsburg. At the drop of tricorn hat, they can quote from interesting historical records they consulted to bone up on their professions. When I asked a gunsmith if the metal parts of their weapons were made by the local blacksmith, he scoffed, “No way! We don't even drink with those guys! We make everything ourselves.” I enjoyed the shops, I enjoyed the period-authentic menus at the restaurants, and I dug the live music. We stayed in an attic room on one of the main drags, which granted us admission tickets for the length of our stay. I’d return again to visit structures closed or under renovation on this time around.

George Washington’s Mount Vernon: I’d never been, and I’d return again. The grounds feature a modern museum, the residence, several outbuildings, a working farm with animals, stunning views of the Potomac, and the tombs of the president and Martha. The most powerful part of our visit was a wreath-laying ceremony at the graveyard of free and enslaved persons. As each new grave is identified (but not exhumed) local scout troops are invited to mark the graves with hand-painted rocks. About 80 burial sites have been located; about 150 people are believed to have been interred here. We befriended a docent and fifer who made this short ceremony all the more special.

He was very proud of that lawn.

I admit that my headline here is clickbaity but I couldn’t resist sharing an anecdote related on the enslaved persons tour. The lawn in front of Mt. Vernon was cut by workers wielding scythes back in the day. Vast lawns were a sign of wealth. Washington instructed his overseers to tell the enslaved workers (about 500 people over the span of years that the couple lived here) not to walk on the grass but to stick to the well-marked paths around it.

Washington arose one morning to find a footprint in the grass. A clever surveyor, he dashed indoors for a measuring tool, recorded the dimensions of the footprint, and instructed his men to visit the slave quarters, measuring feet until they found the culprit. According to our docent, the records state that the unnamed offender was found and severely dealt with. (The presumption is that they were whipped.) The evidence seems skimpy, if you ask me, considering the similarities in people’s foot sizes. But hey, you do you, Detective-in-Chief! Yay Washington. Yay America.

* * * 

BSP: Today I am a proud husband bragging about his wife. Denise had an article appear this week in Rolling Stone, pegged to the opening of the Oppenheimer film that opens this week. You can read it here. You may encounter a paywall, that is apparently applied at random. You can usually read the whole article if you activate your browser's "reader mode."

See you in three weeks!



20 July 2023

The Mystic Chords of (Literary) Memory

Guy Pearce having a completely unmemorable day
 Two things straight from the jump:

First, I have been blessed from birth with an excellent memory.

Second, as a rule, I dislike, unreliable narrators.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that unreliable narrators have their place in literature in film and in art. Look no further than Guy Pearce’s character in Christopher Nolan’s superb Memento. 

That said, it is easy to get the unreliable narrator wrong. No examples of that here, because the point of this piece is not to call out other writers.

Instead, I’m gonna talk about how unreliable memory can be from personal experience, discuss my attempts to document, same, and end with a few recommendations of work by authors, who do seem to get the unreliable, or “memory-challenged” narrator right.

First off, my own experience with memory.

I'm a trained historian. Names and dates are my jam, as are long, detailed event sequences. More than that, I have a sharp memory for sound, especially conversation. If I hear it, I can usually recall it very clearly.

I'm also fifty-eight years old, had COVID fog that took forever to shake not too long ago (a couple of years ago), and am finding myself reaching for words in ways I never really experienced before the past couple of years. On top of that, I have at least three family members in recent generations who suffered from dementia in their golden years. Two of them had scar tissue from brain surgery and the third had other potential outside causes for their dementia. Still makes me wonder and makes me nervous, usually at the same time.

Having a close-up view of family members losing their memories is as good a reason as any for my personal distaste for unreliable narrators with memory problems. Sort of a "there but for the grace of God go I" sort of thing, I guess.

But there's also the fact that the unreliable narrator can be misused to bail a lesser-skilled author out of the requirement that they "play fair with the reader." Again, no names, but I have also read many examples of just this sort of lazy writing.

And even when it's effectively rendered, it can still come across as manipulative in the extreme. Don't get me wrong. I am all for moving the reader. That is the writer's job. "Moving" a reader and "manipulating" them are hardly the same thing. I am aware there might be those who may disagree with this conclusion. I invite them to write their own blog post and expound upon their point of view there (or drop a friendly disagreement into the comment section below!).

Which is not to say that I don't recognize a successful attempt to pull off the unreliable narrator when it's done well. (Again, see Memnto above). In addition to Nolan's movie, I've got three pretty well-done examples for those who might interested in exploring this sort of subgenre of the mystery/thriller world. Two of them I've read myself, one highly recommended by the mighty Jim Thomsen, editor extraordinaire, and his recommendation is good enough for me.

So here they are: one well-known, the other critically acclaimed, and the third, as I said above, new to me:

1. Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane 

I'm pretty sure that once I brought up the notion of an "unreliable narrator," many of you immediately thought of this best-selling novel from a best-selling author, and the successful movie it spawned, starring the highly skilled Leonardo DiCaprio. I don't want to say too much for those of you who haven't read it, but suffice to say that I found this a terrific and inventive use of the unreliable narrator (who I really liked.).

Oh, and if you want to see what happens when Christopher Nolan and Leonardo DiCaprio team up to play around with memory, I highly recommend the wonderful Inception.

2. In the Woods by Tana French 

This one won a ton of well-deserved awards (The Edgar, Barry, Macavity and the Anthony, all for Best First Novel) when it was published in 2008. From the outset, French plays fair with the reader. On the very first page she sums up the point of view of the narrator, Dublin police detective Rob Ryan thusly: 

"What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this—two thing: I crave truth. And I lie."

What follows is a dizzying descent into hell in one of the best psychological novels ever published. Powerful, well-executed, and utterly believable.

And while I admire the work and how French pulled it all off, I can't honestly say that I liked the novel. I sure didn't like the narrator (I hesitate to call him the "protagonist," for reasons I won't go into because I do not want to spoil the story for those who have not read it). I also wouldn't say I enjoyed reading the book. I felt moved and I felt it affected me. For some people that's enough. 

But saying that the book "stuck with you" is not the same thing as saying you liked the book/enjoyed reading it. And all I can admit is that it stuck with me.

3. Oblivion by Peter Abrahams 

This is the book Jim Thomsen recommended, and not having read it, I can't say much about it except that the memory component of it kicks in when the POV character (private investigator Nick Petrov) suffers a brain hemorrhage arising from a tumor. Shenanigans ensue. If Jim says it's good, that's enough for me. It's going on my TBR list and I'll likely report back once I've finished it.

And on that note, it's time to wrap things up here. Thanks for reading, let us know what you think in the comments, and if you have recommendations/reactions to the opinions I've staked out above, would love to see that sort of thing in the comments as well.

Hope you're enjoying your summer, and as always....

See you in two weeks!

18 July 2023

Five Red Herrings: 12

1. Sounds of Suspense.  If you are a fan of Alfred Hitchcock you might want to head over to BBC Sounds and listen (for free) to Benny and Hitch, a radio play by Andrew McCaldon about the highly productive and finally explosive relationship between the director and composer Bernard Herrmann. They collaborated on eight movies, including some of the Master's best.  (He said Herrmann deserved one-third of the credit for Psycho's success - although, as the play points out, he didn't share the profits with him.)  Tim McInnerny and Toby Jones star and the BBC Concert Orchestra performs Herrmann's music. 

2. The Customer is Cussible.  If you have a few thousand hours to spare I highly recommend Not Always Right, a website designed for people in retail to complain anonymously about customers.  They have since added: Not Always Legal, Healthy, Family, etc.

So far I have collected three short story ideas from the website.  Here is an example of what they offer:

I work at a musical instrument store. A customer is trying to buy something when the checkout shows me a code indicating that the card is registered as stolen.

Me: “Sorry, the checkout is buggy today and it’s locked. I just need to fetch my manager to fix it.”

I tell my manager, and he and the salesman stall long enough for the cops to get there. Three or four officers come in, ask the guy a few questions, and then arrest him.

The best part is that, as the guy is being hauled out in handcuffs, he starts shouting back at us.

Thief: “The service here is terrible! I’m going to tell everyone I know not to shop here!”

3. Play Free Bird. This next piece is off-topic but it is certainly about publishing. In November 1951 a group of friends went hunting in Ireland.  One of them, Sir Hugh Beaver, fired at a golden plover and missed. This led to a debate over which was the fastest game bird in Europe. 

Unable to find the answer easily, Beaver realized that a book which provided this sort of information would be hugely popular (and profitable) to settle arguments in pubs.  So he convinced the brewery for which he worked to publish one: the Guinness Book of World Records has been selling millions ever since.  So a failed hunting trip  was one of the most profitable expeditions in publishing history...

4. Definitely not me.  Do you ever vanity google yourself? No? Liar.  

I had a nasty shock recently when I did that.  In 2019 Salvatore Lopresti and his son Robert Lopresti of Bristol England, were accused of Modern Slavery for forcing a disabled man to work in their ice cream shop.  Nasty story.

5. Is the Rule Forgotten?  Take a look at the photo here.  Does that actress (Nicola Walker) have blond hair? If not then ITV has violated the international rule I have pointed out in the past: All police shows about cops who investigate cold cases must be headed by blond women.   

Whaver their hairstyle the show is worth watching, although Season Four was, well, forgettable.  I hear Season Five is coming soon.