30 September 2023

Crime Scene Comix Case 2023-09-022, Statue

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, only one outcome is possible.

  © www.FutureThought.tv


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

29 September 2023

The Bachman Books - Or, Not Stephen King

Stephen King
Photo by Shane Leonard

Once upon a time, an underpaid, overworked schoolteacher from Maine wrote some books. A lot of books. He loved horror, but he also knew that might limit him. So, on horror he put one name, using another for decidedly not-horror books, with one exception. As his first published novel was a story about a teenage outcast with telekinetic powers, you can tell which type of story he liked to write.

The novel was Carrie by Stephen King. But the other books, three dystopian thrillers and a noir story about a guy who ain't givin' up his house, didn't really fit the King mold. Not when he had a major streak of successes with his first four novels: Carrie, Salem's Lot, The Stand, and The Shining. All these are not just horror classics but, in the case of The Stand and The Shining, literary masterpieces the snooty MFA-prof-having-dirty-thoughts-about-student set cannot bring themselves to acknowledge. Maybe King will have to die first for them to accept him. Except he's already rejected him, so it'd be like inducting the Sex Pistols into the Rock Hall.

But what of those other books? King originally took his mother's maiden name and the name of someone he knew and combined them into "Gus Pilsbury." Now, I have a hard enough time selling books as "Jim Winter" (a Star Trek reference only one person in 30 years ever figured out. Captains April and Pike would be so disappointed.) Stephen King is an easy-to-remember name. Gus Pilsbury makes me think of biscuits or cinnamon rolls or... Oh, look. Laura Lippman (another market-friendly name and one, like King, gracing her birth certificate) has a new one out!

King picked up on this. After Carrie and Salem's Lot, he wanted to see if he could do it again. So out went "Gus Pilsbury" and in came "Richard Bachman," complete with a fake bio and a picture of one of his editors as the author photo. King even listed a religion for Bachman. (Rooster worship, for the curious.) As Bachman, King had four books in the trunk. Actually, he had five, but he wasn't happy with one until he took it out in the 2010s. What were they?

Rage - Inside the mind of a mass shooter. When King wrote this, he was a schoolteacher and one not that far removed from the high school angst and anger that power this story. Also, mass shootings were rare. Then came Columbine. The shooters admitted in their journals they took inspiration from this story. So King decided to kill his own novel. But how is it as a novel? Meh. There are little King flourishes in it. His catch phrase, "friends and neighbors," shows up. But it's a lurid trip into the mind of a teenager who loses it with fatal consequences. You can still get it in older copies of The Bachman Books, but otherwise, no recent reprintings. It will probably stay that way for decades to come.

The Long Walk - King embraces his inner Ray Bradbury, then gets dark. Really dark. Every year, a select group of teenage boys participate in the Long Walk, starting at the US-Canadian border and following US 1. In theory, they could make it all the way to Key West, but no one can stay awake that long. Why do they do it? The Prize. In a gambit King will repeat in The Running Man, the boys risk getting shot in order to get the Prize, implied to be more money than God has and never having to worry about food, housing, health care. It's a sham run by a militaristic figure called "the Major." The America depicted in it could be taken straight from The Handmaid's Tale. As a non-horror novelist, King is finally finding his groove.

Road Work - Probably my least favorite of the Bachman books, but I understand where it comes from. King wrote this as his mother was dying. A single mom who had to keep as much of her struggle from her kids as possible, she was the center of his universe, at least until he met Tabitha Spruce, aka Tabitha King these days. The novel is a bitter, angry story about a man who resent eminent domain long before it was abused to put in shopping malls and overpriced housing. In this case, a fictional Midwestern city is adding a bypass which will go through where his job and his house both sit. Rather than move and take the money, he sits on his hands and ignores the warnings. He loses his job and his wife, and it doesn't end well when the construction crews finally show up. 

The Running Man - Probably the best known Bachman book. Soon after King was unmasked as Bachman, he sold the film rights. It became an Arnold Schwarzenegger action romp. King wasn't happy with the movie, but both are fun dystopian stories. In the book, Killian is a black man who is a grinning, sleazy figure arranging for the poor to participate in fatal gameshows to keep the masses entertained. Had they followed the book, one might picture Laurence Fishburne channeling his inner Marvel villain in the part. In the movie, Killian is the host, played by Richard Dawson of Family Feud fame. In both, Ben Richards kills him off, only more directly in the movie. While it has the dark dystopian themes of the earlier Bachman books, it's probably the most fun to read.

Thinner - Really, a thinly disguised Stephen King book, and the one that unmasked him. Billy Halleck runs over an old Romani woman and is cursed by her son to grow ever thinner. At first, this is great for the overweight Halleck, but soon, he starts resembling a concentration camp survivor. This hasn't aged well, but is the novel which blew his cover. While the references to Gypsies and their culture have not aged well, there's no mistaking Portsmouth, NH is really Derry. It reads and looks like a King book. Yet sales of the book suggest the next Bachman book scheduled, Misery, would have broken through and put "Bachman" on the bestseller list. Instead, King got an inspiration for The Dark Half.

The Regulators - King's not even trying to hide it now, especially since the four-volume Bachman Books collection had been out for years. It's a sequel to Desperation, which is not my favorite King novel. There's a meta-story here where Bachman, whose bio now says he died of cancer in 1987, wrote the sequel without meeting King or reading Desperation. It doesn't really work, and King puts Bachman to bed for close to two decades.

Blaze - King calls this a trunk novel. It isn't even dystopian, nor is it a thinly disguised King novel. When Stephen King did not know what kind of writer he wanted to be, he penned this noir novel about a slow-witted, brutal man nicknamed Blaze. Blaze does some horrible, evil things, yet he isn't evil. He is a victim of circumstances. Ironically, King had even less faith in this story than he did Carrie, but once he dug it out, he rewrote it in American Typewriter font to recreate the vibe he had when he wrote the original. It's probably the best of the six books, but maybe because he wrote it with an innocence one eventually loses writing over time.

28 September 2023

The Art of Misdirection

Mention red herrings in mysteries, and one's mind turns naturally to Agatha Christie, she of the artful misdirection, the nasty suspects, and the unexpectedly important clues. But Kate Morton's new Homecoming, provides worthy competition and adds two interesting twists to the old formula.

For one thing, there are no obvious villains. For another, all the victims are genuinely, a reversal of the common pattern, most felicitiously summarized in one of my favorite mystery titles, Nobody's Sorry He's Dead. In Homecoming, by contrast, everyone is sorry and so they should be.

But what of suspects? Here again Homecoming has some surprises. The venue is a small town in the Adelaide Hills of Australia in the late 50's. Everyone knows everyone and most are on good terms, while those closest to the victims are almost uniformly decent, public spirited, generous, and kindly natured. Little joy there for the unfortunate detectives. 

The case, concerning a mother and three of her children found dead after a picnic and a fourth child, a weeks old infant, missing, not only proves impossible to solve but becomes a famous true crime novel, a bestseller in both Australia and in the States, home to its author, Daniel Miller. Like the rest of the characters, he is a decent fellow, a careful researcher, an empathetic interviewer, and altogether an ethical journalist.


And here is the other clever touch, his book becomes a trusted source for one of the key protagonists in Homecoming, Jess Turner-Bridges, the grand daughter of Nora, who is the sister-in-law and aunt of the victims. In 2018, when the much loved Nora takes a serious fall and winds up in grave condition in the hospital, Jess returns to Sydney from London where she has been working as a journalist.

Nora's fall soon triggers Jess's investigative instincts, because it occurred on the dangerous attic stairs, long forbidden to the household. Why had Nora, well into her eighties, risked those stairs? And was there any connection to what one of her carers describes as an upsetting letter from South Australia, location of the small town where the famous case occurred fifty-nine years earlier?

Inveterate readers of mysteries will know that Jess's questions will eventually lead to at least a partial solution of the case, but the unraveling entails a complex narrative skillfully done. Events of the 50's are relayed by our omniscient narrator, while we have Jess's perspective on contemporary 2018 events in London and Sydney. 

We also have old documents and newspaper reports and most importantly, Daniel Miller's book, As If They Were Asleep, which is Jess's bible for most of her investigation. Chunks of Miller's narrative form a counterpoint to her personal life, her memories of her grandmother and of Polly, her absent mother, who has a complicated life story of her own. 

Throughout the book, the consequences of romantic disappointments, bad advice, and a desperate longing for children confirm the notion that domestic life can have as high stakes as any thriller. Homecoming delivers a good story while showing that there are still new ways to outwit the reader and to keep mysteries mysterious.

27 September 2023

DAHAAD ("Roar")

In my continuing quest for something consistently watchable (and knowing full well that Season Two of Bosch: Legacy is coming back in October), I happened across the web-based series Dahaad, and it’s a keeper.  The title translates as “Roar,” in Hindi, and the show itself might be described as Bollywood noir.  This is not to damn it with faint praise.

For openers, the Indian film industry is the biggest in the world; “Bollywood” refers more particularly to the subset of Hindi cinema, and as a pejorative, to the happy-sappy musical features and romances (masala movies) that have historically been tentpole successes for the major studios.  There’s more diversity than these labels suggest.

Dahaad begins with the customary product awareness warning, but instead of assuring us no animals were hurt, it tells us we might get hurt feelings.  There is, for example, Hindu-Muslim violence; there’s caste discrimination; the police and body politic are corrupt; brutality against women is a commonplace.  There’s even sex – discreet, by American standards, but the fact that it’s there at all is probably grounds for pearl-clutching.  In fact, my guess is that Dahaad has something to offend everybody.

The basics.  It’s a police procedural.  They’re trying to chase down a guy who preys on women.  A serial.  So far, so good.  You’re thinking you’ve seen it before.  But not exactly.  The thing that drew me in is that the crimes – the opportunity, the M.O., and the baseline, what makes the victims victims – is generated by the culture.  It’s in no way separate, or free-floating.  The brutalization of these women, as we might say of all women, is socialized.

This is of course not peculiar to Indian society, or to Hindu social practices specifically, but in this case, the women have been led to believe they’re of no value, if they haven’t married by a certain age.  The bait is a love match, an escape from convention, deceit masquerading as rescue.  They elope, and abandon their families – the families return the favor, their daughters having shamed them – and when the women later turn up dead, suicides, who will claim them?  They’re nobodies twice over.

So the first hurdle in the story is even realizing there’s been a crime, then the realization that there have been dozens of murders, over a period of years, and lastly to understand that it’s a pattern, that they’re dealing with a hidden, methodical psychopath. 

Other pressures and prejudices interfere with an effective pursuit.  Predictably, the chain of command is influenced by politics and religion, not to mention nepotism, bribery, class, and clan.  The investigating officer is a woman, still single in her early 30’s, and of a lower caste, so she’s unclean.  All the minor aggravations and humiliations obtain.  But she keeps plugging away.

You know early on who the guy is, and so do they, about halfway through.  But they can’t pin it on him.  One of the sidelights is that the series is really procedural.  The storyline doesn’t get wrapped up all that neatly; it plods, a bit.  The cops get frustrated.

You have to give it two episodes, at least (out of eight, total), to get used to the rhythm.  It’s in Hindi, or a choice of language soundtracks, subtitled in English.  The subject matter is definitely creepy.  These things mitigate against.  I, on the other hand, think the positives reward attention.  The two lead cops, and the bad guy, held me all the way.  The heroine, Sonakshi Sinha, is well-known as an actress – if not to me – and exceedingly glam, from her stills in previous parts.  She definitely mutes it, in this show.

There’s one scene I thought was gratuitous, or even cruel.  The cop’s mom keeps bugging her to settle into marriage, and tries to set her up with potential suitables.  Finally, the daughter blows up at her, and deals out crime scene photographs of the dead women.  This is what happens, the cop tells her mother, to desperate people, because they’ve been led to believe they have no value, and they grasp at straws.  This is what happens.  They’re found dead.  Do you understand how a mother like you made them victims?

Of course I’m not a Hindu woman of marriageable age, and I felt the scene was preachy and hurtful.  But when I thought it through, it occurred to me that there might be quite a few young Hindu women who’d watch that scene and pump their fists, and shout out loud, You go, girl!

Dahaad is about being heard.

26 September 2023

Be Careful What You Wish For

Hanging out at
Bouchercon San Diego.
I swore I would never edit an anthology of “crime fiction inspired by the songs of —.” That’s Josh Pachter’s lane. He’s created several excellent anthologies with this premise, and I’ve contributed to four of them: Joni Mitchell, Jimmy Buffet, Billy Joel, and the Beatles. Other editors have also ventured into this lane, and I’ve contributed to some of them, as well: an Alec Cizak anthology inspired by the songs of Waylon Jennings and a Sandra Murphy anthology inspired by songs of the 1960s. I’ve also been invited to two more inspired-by anthologies I’ll name later if my stories get accepted.

But last Wednesday (September 20), while driving home from an out-of-town dinner with Temple, I thought of Aerosmith’s song “Janie’s Got a Gun” and knew it would make a great anthology title. When I returned home, I did a quick search on Amazon and Google to see if anyone had done an anthology of crime fiction inspired by the songs of Aerosmith.

I couldn’t find any.

So, at 8:51 Wednesday night, I posted this on Facebook and X-Twitter:

Has anyone produced an anthology of crime fiction inspired by the songs of Aerosmith? “Janie's Got a Gun” would be a great title. You a publisher? Hit me up, maybe we can do this.
I expected a few people to say, yeah, that would be cool.

Instead, the post blew up on Facebook. By the time I shut down for bed at 10:22, I had a publisher and several potential contributors. When I awoke Thursday morning, I had more potential contributors than the anthology could possibly accommodate.

By Saturday morning, after swapping a handful of emails with the publisher—overall word count, number of stories, deadline for submission, potential release date, etc.—we had a handshake deal. I wrote contributor guidelines and sent the information to all the interested writers.

A few dropped out after seeing the guidelines and the due date for delivering stories to me, leaving sixteen writers to fill sixteen slots. By Sunday afternoon, every slot had been filled. About half the contributors are writers with whom I have previously worked, many of the rest are writers I am familiar with in one way or another, and a few are new to me.

Putting this project together ran contrary to my established process. I usually have a plan, and I stick to the plan. This came together unexpectedly and quickly, and it’ll be interesting to see how well the anthology turns out.

So, look for Janie’s Got a Gun: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Aerosmith on November 8, 2024, the anniversary of the song’s release.


Though I have written and edited nonfiction and have written fiction in multiple genres, writing and editing short crime fiction has become my raison d’être.

For much of the last year, Temple and I have been exploring ways to give back to the community of short crime-fiction writers. We considered everything from scholarships to new-writer awards, and each time we ran up against potential barriers, among them: Who would manage these? Who would ensure the scholarships or awards were presented appropriately? And how does presenting something once a year to a single writer each time benefit the community as a whole?

We had no answers.

Then, Stacy Woodson entered the conversation. Temple could not attend the Edgar Awards with me this year, so Stacy became both my guest at Edgar-related events and my guide, getting me from New York to North Bethesda for Malice Domestic, and we spent a fair bit of time discussing what Temple and I were hoping to do.

The upshot from all our conversations was that one of the best ways to recognize and advance short crime fiction and its writers is by increasing publishing opportunities. What many writers want most is to be published. What many writers want second most is to be paid.

Over the following months, we brainstormed various ways to make this happen. Starting a magazine or a publishing company from scratch, while a beautiful dream, seemed impractical. I have years of experience on the editorial side, Stacy has experience with logistics, and Temple has organizational skills, but all of us lack experience in the business side of publishing.

As a small start to increasing opportunities for writers, Stacy and I developed two anthology concepts. I have edited or co-edited several projects for Down & Out, and I have co-edited one for Level Best (Murder, Neat: A SleuthSayers Anthology, coedited with Barb Goffman, due out in 2024). So, we pitched one anthology to each publisher, and both anthologies were greenlit.

Then came Bouchercon San Diego.

Remember the advice I gave earlier this month in “Make Time for Meet-Ups”? Well, Stacy, Temple, and I met-up with many people during the convention, including Shawn Reilly Simmons of Level Best Books. Stacy spent much more time with Shawn then we did, and she organized a post-Bouchercon Zoom call where we discussed, among many other topics, how Stacy and I could work with Level Best to create more markets for short crime fiction.

The upshot? Stacy and I now have an agreement to produce several anthologies for Level Short, the new anthology imprint from Level Best Books. See the press release for more details.

Giving back by creating opportunities—that’s one of the best ways to support the community.

The extra workload is also a reminder to be careful what you wish for. You might get it!

“Neighbor Boy” appears in
Unnerving Magazine 18.

Queer Bait (Book 2 of the Men in Love and Lust series) was released by Deep Desires Press.

Prohibition Peepers: Private Eyes During the Noble Experiment was released yesterday by Down & Out Books. Contributors include Susanna Calkins, David Dean, Jim Doherty, John M. Floyd, Nils Gilbertson, Richard Helms, Hugh Lessig, Steve Liskow, Leigh Lundin, Adam Meyer, Penny Mickelbury, Joseph S. Walker, and Stacy Woodson.

25 September 2023

Linguistic fussbudgets, pedagogues and scolds.

I revere the English language.  My parents taught it to me early on, and I still like the way it sounds.  I wish I spoke other languages, but I’m lucky to have English, since almost everyone around the world speaks it well enough to get by.  I do have adequate Spanish, Italian or French to trot out briefly, just long enough for the other person to take pity on me and continue in English, happy with my attempt.

I know it’s my native tongue, so I’m not entirely objective, but linguists agree it has a lot going for it.  For one thing, English is astonishingly promiscuous.  It will copulate with any other language and produce lively, hybrid offspring.  It’s Open Source.  Anyone who wants to suggest an alteration can have at it.  Whole subcultures have made important contributions, rarely acknowledged except through their enduring modifications. 

(I believe African Americans have had a greater influence on our contemporary language than any other group.  Though that’s a subject for another essay.)

France has an old and venerated institution called the Académie Française which is charged with anchoring the French language somewhere in the 19th century.  Which is one reason why the Lingua Franca of the world’s academic, commercial and governmental interactions is now, ah, the Lingua Anglaise. 

A central principle of linguistics is that languages evolve.  If you don’t think that’s the case with English, you’re backing a losing proposition.   All you need to do is sample 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th century literature to see how true this is.  

That’s why efforts by English purists are not only absurd, but completely doomed to failure.  You may as well decide that a particular bacterium, currently occupying a petri dish, is the ultimate expression of the species and inviolable in that form forever.  Wait a few minutes. 

That’s not to say that the inevitable changes should just proliferate at will.  A certain discipline applied to the progression is not a bad idea.  An organized, orderly, ongoing retreat.  Holding to certain standards in the short term, forcing the fresh iterations to prove their worth, or inevitability, makes the process civil and responsible.  It keeps English teachers, proofreaders and copy editors employed, and gives elderly pedants something to sniff about in their book clubs. 

It also saves us from the vast majority of unworthy alterations and contributions that are instead left to whither and die as the flood of variations are created, with only the sturdiest able to survive. 

Contrary to my haphazard application of proper grammar, syntax and usage, I belong to this volunteer cadre of English defenders.  I hold firm to “Those people love my wife and me.” As opposed to “Those people love my wife and I.”  In my world, a business downturn will never impact the economy.  Though it will have an impact.  Those dogs are never different than mine.  They’re different from mine. 

A new trend I’ve noticed is to forego the plural form of there are, or there’re, for the singular, however many items follow along.  “There’s hundreds of people showing up every day.”  Versus, “There’re hundreds of people showing up every day.” I’ve caught myself doing this as well, appalled.  Though what it teaches me is that common parlance is a powerful thing, creeping into our minds and words despite efforts to keep it at bay. 

I apply these faltering principles to my speech and writing, but never in correcting others.  All they’re doing is participating in the relentless, unstoppable march of language evolution.  Nobody’s fault and no ones responsibility to police (except in France).  

24 September 2023

Ah, We Bearly Knew Him

You know those times where you reflect back on some unfortunate event like a car wreck and start thinking if only I had lingered five more minutes over coffee, then I wouldn't have been in that intersection and been hit by that red-light runner. Or maybe, if I had left home ten minutes earlier, then congested traffic wouldn't have made me late for that important morning meeting and the boss wouldn't be giving me the stink eye. Yep, time and timing can be important to you and yours.

Now, as they say, every story should start at the beginning. So, that's where we're headed.

It was early last July and I had one of those high numbered birthdays coming up, one I wasn't keen to celebrate. Recognizing my mood, my wife decided we were going on a four-night- attitude-check car trip. She packed us up and off we went west from Denver on I-70 to Glenwood Springs, the confluence of the Colorado River and the Roaring Fork River. Due to massive rain storms, both were close to overflowing their banks. On the Colorado, we stopped several times to watch white-water rafters test their skills against the turbulent water. 

On the south bank, underneath the four-lane bridge crossing the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs is an area known as the Underground. It is a street consisting of restaurants, breweries and shops. If you like BBQ, then try Smoke's BBQ. Even the Amtrak stops in this part of Glenwood within a half block of a brewery.

Less than hour south of Glenwood is the historic village of Redstone, where a good breakfast or lunch can be had at the old hotel. Across the Crystal River from Redstone sets remnants of about 25-30 coke ovens and the railroad tracks that freight trains used to transport the coke to industrial furnaces during the early 1900s.

Within ten years of being built, the coke ovens shut down and the railroad went away. In the  1960s, hippies moved in and used the ovens as temporary housing. 
Now, the ovens are listed in the National Register.

Headed back to Glenwood Springs, if one is familiar with the area, there is a place along the Crystal River where hot springs bubble out of a high river bank and people have stacked up rocks to make their own rough hot tubs. It's free to all, just bring your bathing suit, however there are no changing rooms available.

Returning east on I-70 from Glenwood, the interstate becomes an over and under highway construction due to the narrowness of Glenwood Canyon. Two hours past scenic Hanging Lake, we turned south to Keystone, a village consisting mainly of condos for skiers in the winter time. Here, we continued our private brewery and bakery tour in places such as the Dillion Dam Brewery and the Blue Moon Bakery. Tasty stuff.

We checked into the Hyatt Hotel in Keystone for a two-night stay. Behind the hotel is a one-car-deep parking lot, a two-mile long walking path which passes behind several condos and partially borders a marsh and the Snake River out back. The marsh teems with fish, ducks and beaver, while Chickadees and Humming Birds flit through the mountain air above. A few old boardwalks cross the marsh from one side to the other. Pairs of older folks walked their lap dogs on the path, as did young kids with their dogs. A peaceful scene.

A little before dusk, Kiti and I finished our two-mile walk and went up to our second floor room overlooking the path and some of the marsh. Just before dark, Kiti was watching the beaver swim around when she happened to look over to where we had left the walking path a scant few minutes earlier. And, there came a big brown bear down that same path. He walked past three fence posts, climbed over the top wood rail and wandered into the marsh. Kiti was so surprised that she couldn't get her cell phone camera organized quick enough to get a closer photo. For some time after, we wondered what if we, or the old folks and their dogs, or the young kids and their dogs had been walking on that path a little later? Or, what if the bear had come earlier? Those dogs would have been no more than an appetizer to that bear. And me, I don't run so good any more. Then, a few short minutes after the bear, a man came walking up the path carrying a pizza box in both hands. If that box contained a hot pizza, I'm pretty sure that the aroma of hot toppings would have settled any discussion of ownership had those two met face to face.

Like I said at the beginning of this post, timing can be everything.

So, as you pass through life, keep your eyes open and always be aware of your surroundings. Otherwise, under the wrong circumstances, you could end up exiting this world as........ 

23 September 2023

DEFINING THE COZY MYSTERY – Is this real life? Is this just fantasy?

Every now and then you meet a writer so sympatico, you feel like you've known them all your life.

I met Jonathan Whitelaw this year, through Crime Writers of Canada.  Then, we did a panel together at MOTIVE Crime Festival in Toronto, which was about as much fun as you can have, legally.  His brand of humour is my brand, and I'm delighted to bring him to these pages.


Is this real life? Is this just fantasy?

by Jonathan Whitelaw

I had a moment of revelation recently.  It wasn't some divine tap on the head or bolt out of the blue.  But it was just as important.

Cozy mysteries are rooted in the humdrum of real life.

That's it.  That's all it is.  Strange how ten little words put in a particular order can offer you so much clarity.

For context - I'm a cozy mystery writer.  An award-winning one at that - although saying that out loud still sounds strange.  My Bingo Hall Detective series began in 2022, with the most recent - The Village Hall Vendetta - just released here in North America in August.


They follow the misadventures of a mother-in-law/son-in-law amateur detective duo running around the English countryside trying to catch murderers and villains.  And I, quite honestly, have an absolute blast when I'm writing them.

I was recently being interviewed for The Times newspaper in the UK and was asked about what cozy mysteries are and why they're so popular.  There are a million different answers to this, but that little sentence was the first that came to mind.  Cozy crime is rooted in the hum drum of real life.

Now, I can hear protests already.  Real life isn't hum drum, Jonathan!  It's the most exciting, action-packed thing that can ever happen to a person.  And that's true, I agree with that.  However, let's be honest, not EVERYTHING in most of our lives is as high-octane as a Fast and Furious movie, is it?

When was the last time any of us got excited waiting in line at the post office?  Or when we've scanned our bananas at the self checkout only for the computer to go on the fritz?  Orgies of action these moments are not.

And that's where the cozy mystery comes in.  Our lead protagonists are rarely if at all law enforcement, instead coming from down the block, at your local library or, in the case of my series, your relatives.  They are your friends, coworkers, colleagues and confidants.  They are you and I, thrust into a world of murky murder, mischief and mayhem.  And that is, for me, what makes the cozy mystery genre so appealing.

Throw in a good dose of humour, some lavish scenery and a juicy whodunnit and you could be on to a winner.  Scientists and boffins much cleverer than me (they don't use cleverer for starters) have shown an uptake in sales of the cozy genre during times of crisis.  Local, domestic or international, it's no wonder that readers, and the public, need some reassurance from time to time.

The cozy mystery has proven over and over again to at least help with that reassurance.  Yes, there are no graphic violence or sex scenes.  No, you won't find forensic analysis or ballistic reports on gunshot wounds.  What you WILL get, however, is a mystery that, by the end of the 90,000 words, is resolved, the good guys winning, the bad guys getting their just desserts, and hopefully, some laughs along the way.

Who wouldn't want that in these topsy-turvy times?  Cozy mystery is an escape from real life...by staying firmly IN real life.  Go figure!

Jonathan Whitelaw is an award-winning writer, journalist and broadcaster. After working on the frontline of Scottish politics, he moved into journalism, covering everything from sports to music to radioactive waste – and everything in between. He's also a regular reviewer, panellist and commentator. His novel - The Bingo Hall Detectives - won the Lakeland Book of the Year Fiction prize 2022.


Bonus Pix!  Jonathan and Melodie on stage at MOTIVE  (with Sam Shelstad)

22 September 2023

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the My-Time

A man named Karl who lived in Germany in the 19th Century was a jack-of-all-trades. A skinner at a local slaughterhouse. A dog catcher. A tax collector at a time when one literally went door to door collecting cash payments. And a night watchman. Anything to make ends meet.

Karl (left) with friends, canine and human.

Karl needed to keep himself and the town’s funds safe as he strolled or patrolled the streets of the burgeoning industrial city of Apolda in Thuringia. Since Karl and his buddies loved dogs, and often frequented the city’s annual “dog market,” he hit upon the idea of breeding himself an animal to accompany him on his rounds. A four-footed security guard who would stick by his side and keep strangers at bay. A dog bred not for the field but for city streets. When Karl died in 1894, his canine-loving friends perfected that breed, which they named in honor of their departed friend, Karl Friedrich Louis Dobermann.*

Cut to Summer 2019. I am standing at the edges of a decimated vegetable garden in North Carolina. Just as our veggies reach perfection, they become a banquet for the neighborhood’s rabbits and wild turkeys. The chief culprit is a groundhog who resides under our shed. Some days, I spot the plump marauder sunning itself in the yard. The effrontery! One day, I spot two.

“It’s a female!” I tell my wife. “She just had babies!”

Judging from the number of groundhogs we spotted over the ensuing years, Lady Whistle-Pig was popular with the gents.

One day, after surveying another truncated zucchini plant and chomped tomatoes, my wife announced, “We need a dog!” 

I resisted. What do parents always tell their kids before bringing that puppy home? It’s a big responsibility. I wasn’t sure I wanted that. Except for the garden, I had perfected the art of sedentary living and marriage to my keyboard. A dog would wreck that.

Weeks passed, and Denise refined her requirements. We needed a smart dog. “I’m not going to have a stupid dog,” she said adamantly.

Two friends of hers had each recently gotten German shepherds, which appear prominently on lists of the world’s smartest breeds. These lists vary slightly, depending on who’s drawing them up. Anthropocentric to a fault, humans equate canine intelligence with trainability. The border collie is always No. 1, the standard poodle No. 2, the German shepherd No. 3. Also popular are golden retrievers (N0. 4) and Labrador retrievers (No. 7). The Australian cattle dog always makes the list too, around No. 10. Damn smart dogs, the Aussies.

A friend of ours—a canine and equine artist—dissuaded us from the German shepherd. “Do you like the idea of cleaning up rolling tumbleweeds of fur around your house?” he asked.

We didn’t.

He recommended a Dobie. As a former vet tech, he believed Herr Dobermann’s breed ticked three basic boxes: They were among the Top 10 intelligent breeds, usually ranking at No.5. They were less unpredictably bitey than shepherds. They shed minuscule amounts of eyelash-sized hair. And as an artist well versed in canine anatomy he regarded them as drop-dead gorgeous.

I grew up in a family with dogs; a golden retriever and later a mutt. Like Archie Goodwin, I had formed the erroneous impression that all dogs loved me. It never occurred to me to ask someone, “Is your dog friendly?” before approaching them.

In short, I was an idiot, and remained so until the day a neighbor’s Rottweiler took me for a snack. As the dog’s jaws clamped on my wrist—I still have the scar—two thoughts occurred to me in quick succession:
  1. Gee, he’s strong enough to crush my wrist.
  2. Huh—I probably should be wary of dogs.
Getting a Doberman to protect one’s vegetables seemed like overkill. Any yapping canine would do. During the pandemic, I surfed the web to research Dobermans, which in my uninformed view were just as fearsome as the pooch that bit me.

I learned that Karl’s breed are the only dogs created for personal protection. He and his friends believed that they were breeding “police-soldier dogs.” In World War II, the breed became a dog of choice for the Germans and the U.S. Marines. The latter used them as cave explorers, messengers, scouts, and bomb-sniffers. Twenty-five dogs, mostly Dobies, lost their lives on Guam, where a regal statue of a reclining Doberman stands in the U.S. war dog cemetery there. (More on this story in a future post.) They served as police dogs, too, until police forces moved on to breeds like German shepherds and the Belgian Malinois.

Doberman fanciers and police dog handlers love to pontificate on the reasons for that shift. Dobies have short coats, they say, so they aren’t great for outdoor police work in cold or hot weather. Taping their ears so they grow into the “correct” position is time-consuming. The dogs are too independent. They take too long to mature. Their bite style—bite and shred—makes them undesirable compared to shepherds, who bite and hold a suspect until they can be formally arrested.

On forums frequented by police dog handlers, people insist Euro-dobies are tougher animals. The European Dobermann is bigger and beefier. The American is more gracile. In their zeal to breed a safe family pet, goes the argument, Americans have winnowed the dogs’ natural aggression out of them. Breeders have created animals for show, not street work as originally intended. The American dogs were Little Lord Fauntleroys compared to der Dobermannpinscher.

Which sounded fine to me. It comforted me to see videos of American Dobermans patiently enduring the hugs of human toddlers, babysitting infants in swings, playing in kiddie pools, and serving as therapy and seeing-eye dogs.

Okay, I told Denise, let’s try to get a sit with some breeders. But that became impossible in 2020, when breeders halted their programs for fear that their animals would contract Covid-19 from prospective adopters, or vice versa. I gave up trying. It seemed like a pain in my tailless rump.

So when Denise revisited the dog issue again last summer, I told her we should select a rescue dog from the local shelter. Getting the eyelash-shedding dog of her dreams was unlikely to ever happen. Breeders required you to submit an application to judge your suitability. Did we have a yard that was completely fenced? (No.) Did we have experience taping Doberman ears? (No.) Had we thoroughly researched the dog ordinances in our municipality? (Um, what?) Sheesh.

“It’s way too complicated,” I said.

In early June 2022, we were sitting outdoors, again surveying our trampled garden. Denise peeked at the web on her phone for about three minutes, dialed a number, and in a matter of minutes was speaking with a lovely woman in South Carolina—three hours from our home—who had recently helped her champion female bring nine puppies into the world.

I am at heart a pessimist. If it was that easy to find a puppy, there had to be some catch. You don’t just pick a breeder off the web, I informed her, though that’s exactly what I had attempted to do in 2020. Turns out, she had unknowingly picked the oldest continuing Doberman kennel in the United States. A breeder whose late founder is mentioned lovingly in most textbooks on the breed. When the nine-pup litter was old enough to accept visitors, we drove south, and fell in love with one of the males. The kennel took a deposit, and promised to begin using with him the name we planned to bestow upon him.

I also learned that once in the kennel’s history, one of their dogs achieved fame prancing through the plotlines of this (fictional) detective’s adventures.

Hillerman will always be Simon Brimmer to me.

Well, shoot, I thought, I needed to break out my stash of Hawaiian shirts, and start growing a luxurious mustache. However, I wasn’t sure about sticking my ample keister into a pair of 70s-style short-shorts. But I had time to drop some weight; we would not be getting the dog for another six weeks.

While waiting, I dove back into the research. The breed was known for docked tails and cropped ears, to better reduce handholds for criminals. Ironically, in the 1980s European kennel clubs banned the practice of surgically altering dogs of any breed. They now regarded the practice as cruel and inhumane. Naturally, the erect ears and short tails remain the breed standard in the United States.

Hearing this, my own ears perked up. I had watched numerous videos on how to insert and wrap posts in my future puppy’s ears until his cartilage grew to support them in the customary position. We’d need to do this every five days, for 10 months at minimum. It looked daunting, fiddly, and prone to error.

We shot a note to the breeders. Please, oh pretty please, could we have our dog intact? The floppy ears issued at birth were perfectly fine with us. We never intended to show the dog. We just wanted him to protect our damn tomatoes.

Sorry, said they, the ears are already done. We cannot sell a dog that does not conform to the breed standard.

I haven’t talked much about this publicly, but during this period my doctors gave me a troubling medical diagnosis. Luckily, the cancer was eminently treatable. But I would be shuttling daily to two different facilities for treatment. Did we really want the responsibility of a puppy as I endured chemo-radiation? Should we forfeit our deposit and walk away?

We couldn’t abandon this face.

When I was sick and wasting away, I’d wake from an unplanned nap to find the little guy asleep on my belly. When I woke mornings dreading the day, the only thing that got me out of bed was the thought that we had to walk the dog.

Months have passed, and the world looks different. I have grown accustomed to people stopping to say, “Sir, you have a very pretty dog.” (For some reason, it’s always hefty Southern gentlemen who use this phraseology.) I’m in remission, healthier, and stronger. I’ve gained back some of the forty-five pounds I lost, but constant walks and puppy training sessions have kept excess poundage at bay. I know the trails in the woods behind my house far better than I ever did before, and walk about 10 miles more a week than I ever have. My cholesterol’s dropped. Even my eyesight is better.**

Without hesitation I can say that this animal has saved my life.

Still, it’s challenging living with an 80-pound lap dog who doesn’t know his own strength. True to Herr Dobermann’s vision, the dog follows me everywhere—except when on a leash. He chases fish and tadpoles in the pond below the house, even though he’s too heavy to swim gracefully. He detests the rain, and won’t deign to walk in it. He peers curiously at passing hawks, crows, airplanes, but growls at the occasional Chinook helicopter. After each morning’s walk, he insists upon sitting perfectly erect in the front yard, head swiveling to check the perimeter of the entire neighborhood.

The groundhog under the shed is long gone. I must have missed the moving truck. Rabbits, turkeys, feral cats, and squirrels do not tarry long within our fenceline.

But since Mother Nature is a prankster, we have new problem.

The dog’s new favorite thing? Tearing up and scattering tomato plants to the four winds. Who can blame him? It’s the best fun ever.

* * *

* In Europe, kennel clubs retain two N’s when referring to the breed; in the U.S., it’s one N. The Europeans also reject the term pinscher, which means terrier, as inaccurate; Americans continue to use it.

** I know this sounds incoherent at first glance. But conditions such as ocular hypertension are apparently reduced by something called exercise. Never tried it until now.

Query: If anyone knows of dog handlers who have worked with the breed in law enforcement or military settings, kindly get in touch. I’m collecting interviews for a future nonfiction project.

See you in three weeks!


21 September 2023

A Strange Sort of Mourning

By now, most of you know that I volunteered at the Sioux Falls prison for 12 years (Alternatives to Violence Project and the Lifer's Group), and then for the last year have been working from home in a kind of advisory capacity for the Lifer's Group.  I still hear most of what goes on from those who are still going into the prison, both news and gossip, so I don't feel too isolated from it, and I'm glad of that.

I've gotten to know a lot of inmates very well over the years.  I know a lot about their families as well as their crimes. I've gone to hospital when they've had surgery.  I'll never forget showing up at one inmate's hospital room (with my bona fides to let me in), and the surprise on the guard's face.  Inmates just don't get many visitors. Some inmates have stayed in touch after they've gotten out either on parole, or flatting (slang for doing all their time).  And I've written letters in support of some inmates' applications for parole.  

But there's a lot of sadness.  

The 18 year old kid, coming down off meth, who's still trying to think straight (and not succeeding), and trying to grapple with a 40 year sentence for the manslaughter he committed while tweaking, and he really doesn't remember much of any of it, because he was tweaking so hard and then he crashed so fast, and when he came to he was being arrested, and...  he doesn't know what the hell he's going to do.  

The 56 year old guy who used to be one of those 18 year old meth-heads who got federal time because he used a gun and had too much meth in his possession, and is at the pen because the feds are moving him - again - from one facility to another because that's what they do, and he's lost track of his family so many years and prisons ago, and there's no sense in making friends in prison because they just keep busting everybody up and moving them, and he's just there at AVP because it's something to do, but his eyes are freaking dead.  

The 75 year old guy who's been in for 45 years and ain't never getting out, because this whole "compassionate release" thing doesn't happen, not really, unless you have family who will take you in OR you are so close to dying they can just send you to hospice, and he's not there yet, so he's still working because you lose points and privileges if you refuse work, and he takes care of people in the hospice area of the pen, and so he knows exactly where he's going to end up and how it's going to be.  (He was the model for Papa Bell in my story, "Cool Papa Bell" in Josh Pachter's anthology, Paranoia Blues.)

The years pass slowly / quickly in a penitentiary.  Twentysomethings change into Fortysomethings into Sixtysomethings, and all that time they've been in a cement and metal world with 40 minutes outside rec once a day except in winter.  South Dakota winters are long.  And in those years, everything's changed, from technology to cultural norms to dress codes to their health, and after enough decades, they're seriously frightened of getting out.  

The Vietnam Vet in his 70s who was fixing to flat (finish his time) and talked to me that last AVP weekend about his PTSD, never treated, and how certain sounds still made him want to curl up in a ball and hide under his bunk, but he never dared do that in prison because someone would kill him sure or worse.  And when he finally was released, he asked to be taken to a nondescript motel which rented rooms by the week or the month, and there he is, holed up with his small remittance - enough for the rent and his fast food - and his TV, and plans to never see anyone ever again.  

Did I mention health problems.  Enough years on prison food and just about everyone has hypertension and diabetes, because it's heavy on carbs, low on protein, and very low on fresh fruit and vegetables.  The stud muffin of 18 is now 50 pounds overweight, and worried about a having a heart attack.  There's HIV and hepatitis everywhere, from prison tattoos (the tattoo artists brag about using new needles, but there's no guarantee) or blood-to-blood contact (gang fights, gang rape, gay sex).  And there's cancer.

Recently I found out that an inmate had died in a local hospital. I wasn't surprised.  He'd been part of Lifer's Group since it was restarted in 2017, and he'd had cancer then. Aggressive cancer.  He looked like a bone thin Alun Armstrong (Brian in New Tricks) in a wheelchair, with a strong speech impediment and a bad temper.  We watched him get thinner and weaker, but still showing up - wheeled in by one of the other guys - and trying desperately to communicate (it was throat cancer).  He could be a pain in the ass - when he got on a rant, he stayed on it - but he could also make valuable contributions.  God knows he knew what the prison hospital and hospice (ideally) should have been.  

Because of all of this, I've thought a lot over the years about how horrible it would be to grow old, get sick, to battle loneliness, guilt, mental illness, addiction, heart disease, cancer in prison.  And to die of it, ANY of it, in prison.  

Prison Alun was a felon, guilty of a terrible crime - but he paid for it.  He paid a lot, and it was more than just time.  

20 September 2023

That San Diego Treat

 I am writing this on the plane back from San Diego after having enjoyed the 2023 Bouchercon.  It is, I think, the eighth I have attended  and it was at least as well-run and fun as any of the others.

Here is one big improvement they came up with (at least, I have never been to a con where they did this).  Instead of stuffing the attendees’ swag bag with free books, each member was given three tickets which they could take to a room called the Book Bazaar (NOT the dealer's room) and swap them for any three new books they chose.  Once the organizers knew how many books were coming from publishers the freebie count went up to five.  As you can imagine this resulted in a lot of boxes of swag being shipped back home.  I myself made a little pilgrimage to UPS.

One of the highlights of the weekend (for me) was a panel I moderated.  I stole the idea from the World Science Fiction Conference where it is called “45 Panels in 60 Minutes.”  We called our version “20 Panels in One.” The idea is that audience members write down topics and toss them into a hat and panelists pick them out and have less than a minute to bestow their wisdom on that subject.  

At Worldcon this turns toward comedy but here the questions were serious and the brave panelists (Mike McCrary, Eleanor Kuhns, Steve Von Doviak, and Keir Graff) did a great job.  The result seemed to me to be close to an mini-unconference.  Instead of the usual panel arrangement (moderator asking questions for 40 minutes, followed by 10 minutes from the audience) this was 40 minutes of audience queries, with me finishing up. 

Sample questions: “What is your protagonist most afraid of?  What are you?”  “Donald Westlake. Discuss.” 

It was an interesting experiment.    One audience member told me she thought it should be repeated at every con, but I don’t plan to be at the Nashville con, so someone else would have to take that on. I can think of two improvements: instead of using a floppy sun hat, I should have brought the dapper fedora you see in the picture.  And instead of going down the row each time I would ask the panelists to speak up if they have anything to contribute on the topic.

And speaking of reactions… I have mentioned that I was once on a panel with a very chatty moderator.  Afterwards a stranger came up and said “I attended your panel.  I wish I’d gotten to hear you.”

Well, after “20 Panels in One” a stranger said “I wish you had spoken more.”

I replied “The moderator isn’t supposed to.”

“But in this case it would have been okay.” Maybe she was right, since none of us had been chosen for our expertise on the topics.  

I also got to be a panelist on “What Librarians Wish Readers and Writers Knew,” with Sarah Bresniker, John Graham, Leslie Blatt, and Michal Strutin.  This turned out to focus on three main topics: how to get books and book events into libraries, doing research in libraries, and coping with the recent attacks on libraries by conservative groups.  The question period turned into mostly passionate defenses of libraries from audience members.  One author said it was the most useful panel of the weekend. And being librarians we even created a webpage with useful resources to go with it.

Librarians Panel

Still on the subject of libraries, I did an Author Spotlight (one person blabbing for 20 minutes) on how we caught the guy who stole rare books from over 100 libraries.  I had good attendance which I attribute to creating posters (that is, 8x11 pages).  I left 20 on a freebies table, they were all picked up, and 15 people came.  That’s a good sell-through rate.

I attended two panels on short stories (three if you count the Anthony nominated anthologies panel, and four if you include Josh Pachter’s Spotlight about editing music-themed anthologies.)  

More highlights were two humor panels, one of which featured one of the best and rarest conference moments: the point at which all the panelists suddenly discover something together.  

An audience member had asked if any of the panelists used a sensitivity reader for their books.  All of them said no.  Then each of them got thoughtful and acknowledged:  “But when I write about a certain group, I ask my friend to read it…” Donna Anders summed it up: “We don’t call them sensitivity readers.  We call them people who know things.”  When I told my wife this she said “Volunteers are undervalued.”

Another highlight: there were more people of color than I have ever seen at a mystery event.  This may be in part because of the geography, but I’m sure some of it is due to Crime Writers of Color.  CWoC sponsored a reception called Underrepresented Voices and bragged that while they started with 30 members in 2018 they are now over 400.  That’s great.

As former president of the Short Mystery Fiction Society I had the honor of announcing the Derringer Award winners and giving out the medals and certificates to those present.  I was especially delighted to give Martin Edwards the Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer Award for lifetime achievement.

One great point of any con is making new friends and meeting up with old ones.  I won’t try to name all the ones I shared a meal or a chat with, except to mention fellow SleuthSayers Michael Bracken, R.T. Lawton, Travis Richardson, and Barb Goffman.  I left Barb for last so I could single her for congratulations: she won a well-deserved Anthony Award for her short story “Beauty and the Beyotch.” Whoo-hoo!

Let me end with one more gathering of friends.  Jackie Sherbow, the managing editor of both Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazines, invited all of the Dell magazine writers present to join her poolside for a drink.  I won’t try to name them all but if you read AHMM and EQMM you would recognize the 20 or so names.  

I looked around and said: “Boy, if a bomb went off right now the face of mystery short fiction would be changed forever.”

Because, hey, that’s the way we think, isn’t it?

Join me here in two weeks for my favorite quotes from San Diego.

Oh, one more thing: I have a story on TOUGH which you can read for free.