31 March 2024

Nursery Crimes and Grim Fairie Tales

Jack Spratt fleeing from his wife bearing a bottle of poison

Last week, we brought you the surprise discovery of Zelphpubb Blish’s L’Histoire Romantique et les Aventures Malheureuses de Jacques Horner Hubbard Ripper Beanstalker Candlesticken Spratt, also titled Grim Faerie Tayles, a crime story believed lost to the ages.

Thanks to an arrangement with the British Museum non-Egyptian archives at the University of Brisbane in Glasgow, we are pleased to bring you this legendary poem, a work considered to rival William McGonagall’s Scottish translation of Poetic Edda.

The Curiously Murderously Nursery Mysteriosity Atrocity

A Grim Faerie Tale by Zelphpubb Blish (1419-1456)

woodcut scene: Jack and bad wife Jill Jack Spratt of nursery rhyme fact:
    With merry men his wife was seen.
He had no clue Jill wasn’t true,
    How could she be so mean?
“Render him dead,” her lover said.
    Why did they act so cruel?
With nightshade fruit and mandrake root,
    She played Jack for a fool.
woodcut scene: Jill and her lover plot
woodcut scene: Jill stews and brews Under low heat she sautéed meat,
    Badger brains and ferret feet.
She hated waste and tried a taste,
    And found it savory sweet.
She stirred in newt and poisoned fruit.
    The odor made her faint.
She added mouse found round the house,
    And now the mouse– it ain’t.
woodcut scene: Jill stews and brews
woodcut scene: Jill and lover plotting She shirred a dish of poison fish,
    She dosed it sight unseen.
She sniffed it twice, she added spice,
    But still Jack stayed the scene.
She stirred the vat. She sprinkled gnat,
    Sliced in a long dead rat.
That killed a bat, it killed her cat,
    Yet Jack remained intact.
woodcut scene: Jill brews poisoned stew
woodcut scene: Jack comprehends the peril Soon Jack fell ill, he sensed ill will,
    Finally dawned a notion.
How à propos, he had to know
    About her deadly potion.
Jack felt quite old, flushed hot and cold,
    Consumed by prickly fever.
With some alarm, he grasped the harm,
    When she snatched up a cleaver.
woodcut scene: Jack comprehends the peril
woodcut scene: Jack flees. Fearing his wife, he ran for life.
    Jill appeared ready to kill.
Rather than dead, poor Jackie fled
    And tottered up the hill.
Heart a’flicker, he felt sicker.
    He'd drunk a dram of liquor.
He glanced aghast. She ran so fast.
    She hastened much, much quicker.
woodcut scene: Jill overtakes an ailing Jack
woodcut scene: Jill kills Jack Cresting the hill. Jack took a spill.
    Cobblestones made him stumble.
The resulting wreck fractured his neck,
    Jill’s push caused him to tumble.
Twas no avail, Jack kicked the pail,
    Shuffled off this mortal coil,
Gave up the ghost, demised utmost
    Because she’d been disloyal.
woodcut scene: Jack dies
woodcut scene: authorities investigate Jill Though she’d contrived, coppers arrived.
    They inspected how Jack died.
The sergeant said, “We’ve got one dead.”
    He wrote murder, homicide.
Plods sniffed the vat. They smelled a rat.
    They seized Jill’s deadly bucket.
They eyed the stew, the deadly brew.
    Twas then Jill muttered, “chuck it.”
woodcut scene: authorities investigate Jill
Grim Fairie Tales book cover • This was thought to be the end of the epic poem until the team's archivist, Rob Lopresti, discovered their Teutonic landlady making shelf liners and patching broken plaster with 600-year-old folios. Much of Zelphpubb Blish’s work has been lost behind mouse-run laths of the German inn, but the team found a scrap deemed to be the true ending of the poem:
With pen in hand, Sergeant LeGrand
    Jotted her infamous last words.
“I lost my nerve and forgot to serve
    Four and twenty sickly blackbirds.”
woodcut scene: Jack and bad wife Jill.
woodcut scene: A defiant Jill pretends to pray before the noose. Under arrest, Jack’s wife confessed
    In the church’s saintly hallows.
Disdaining hood, froward she stood,
    Defiantly faced the gallows.
She lost her head, poor Jill lay dead
    Over a man, the village said.
Committing vice, she paid the price
    When she took a lover to bed.
woodcut scene: Jill is laid to rest in her coffin.

— end —

Happy Easter and April Fool’s Eve.

Spratt was known to ingest no polyunsaturated fat substitutes rendering poisoning difficult.

Last year, we shared a nursery rhyme about a greedy sister by Australian poet David Lewis Paget.

authorities investigating death of Jack Spratt

30 March 2024

The Best Movies You've Never Heard Of


A friend once told me he thought I'd seen more movies than anyone else he'd ever known. I also seem to recall him rolling his eyes a bit when he said that. I didn't mind. I'm well aware that I spend a lot of time in fantasyland, and I also realize that even though I've enjoyed a great many of those movies, I've also seen many that were a stupendous waste of time.

My post today is about some that weren't.

An Unscientific Study

First, I should point out that my all-time favorite movies (Jaws, The Godfather, Jurassic Park, To Kill a Mockingbird, Casablanca, Raiders of the Lost Ark, L.A. Confidential, 12 Angry Men, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Silence of the Lambs, Aliens, Lonesome Dove, The Big Lebowski, etc., are some of them) aren't included in the following list. Why? Because you've probably seen them. All of those are well-known. 

I also didn't include three that I would've listed among the unknowns a few years ago--Galaxy Quest, In Bruges, and Blood Simple--because they've recently become more popular, maybe because viewers like me have tried to tell everyone about them. (If you haven't seen those, I suggest you treat yourself.)

Anyhow, here are my recommendations of movies of all genres that you might not know about but that I think are cool enough to watch many times each (the ones I consider the very best are at the top of the list):

50 Hidden Gems (and some Guilty Pleasures)

Sands of the Kalahari (1965) -- Stanley Baker, Stuart Whitman, Susannah York

The Dish (2000) -- Sam Neill, Patrick Warburton

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007) -- Ethan Hawke, Philip Seymour Hoffman

Medicine Man (1992) -- Sean Connery, Lorraine Bracco

A History of Violence (2005) -- Ed Harris, William Hurt

The Spanish Prisoner (1997) -- Steve Martin, Campbell Scott

Signs (2002) -- Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix

From Noon till Three (1976) -- Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland

Always (1989) -- Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter, John Goodman

Wait Until Dark (1967) -- Audrey Hepburn, Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna

Monsters (2010) -- Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able

Suburbicon (2017) -- Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac

An Unfinished Life (2005) -- Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman, Jennifer Lopez

The Last Sunset (1961) -- Kirk Douglas, Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone

Wind River (2017) -- Elizabeth Olsen, Jeremy Renner, Graham Greene

The Hanging Tree (1959) -- Gary Cooper, Karl Malden, George C. Scott

The Gypsy Moths (1969) -- Burt Lancaster, Gene Hackman, Deborah Kerr

The Ghost and the Darkness (1996) -- Michael Douglas, Val Kilmer

Magic (1978) -- Anthony Hopkins, Ann-Margret, Burgess Meredith

Ransom (1996) -- Mel Gibson, Gary Sinese, Rene Russo

Under Siege (1992) -- Steven Seagal, Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Busey

Third Man on the Mountain (1959) -- James MacArthur, Michael Rennie, Janet Munro

Lady in the Water (2006) -- Bryce Dallas Howard, Paul Giamatti

The Rocketeer (1991) -- Billy Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, Timothy Dalton

Sorcerer (1977) -- Roy Scheider, Chick Martinez

Secondhand Lions (2003) -- Robert Duvall, Michael Caine, Haley Joel Osment

Shadow in the Cloud (2020) -- Chloe Grace Moretz, Taylor John Smith

Vanishing Point (1971) -- Barry Newman, Cleavon Little

Used Cars (1980) -- Kurt Russel, Jack Warden

A Life Less Ordinary (1997) -- Holly Hunter, Ewan McGregor, Cameron Diaz

Waterhole #3 (1967) -- James Coburn, Carroll O'Connor, Claude Akins

Brassed Off (1996) -- Pete Postlethwaite, Tara Fitzgerald

The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) -- Jason Robards, Stella Stevens

Fall (2022) -- Virginia Gardner, Grace Caroline Currey, Jeffrey Dean Morgan

Out of Sight (1998) -- George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez

Night Moves (1975) -- Gene Hackman, Jennifer Warren, Melanie Griffith

Silver Bullet (1985) -- Gary Busey, Corey Haim, Everett McGill

While You Were Sleeping (1995) -- Sandra Bullock, Bill Pullman

Idiocracy (2006) -- Luke Wilson, Maya Rudolph

Stranger than Fiction (2006) -- Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman

Lockout (2012) -- Guy Pearce, Maggie Grace, Peter Stormare

Someone to Watch Over Me (1987) -- Tom Berenger, Mimi Rogers, Lorraine Bracco

Amelie (2001) -- Audrey Tautou, Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Joe vs. the Volcano (1990) -- Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Lloyd Bridges

No Way Out (1987) -- Kevin Costner, Gene Hackman, Sean Young

Kings of the Sun (1963) -- Yul Brynner, George Chakiris, Shirley Anne Field

Necessary Roughness (1991) -- Scott Bakula, Kathy Ireland, Evander Holyfield

Cat People (1982) -- Nastassja Kinski, John Heard, Malcolm McDowell

No Escape (2015) -- Owen Wilson, Pierce Brosnan, Lake Bell

The Blue Max (1966) -- George Peppard, Ursula Andress, James Mason

Questions for the Class

Have any of you seen these? Did you like 'em? Any additions to the list? Full disclosure, here: Also among my favorites of the well-knowns are Die HardBlazing Saddles, and Rustler's Rhapsody, so you should consider that before taking any of what I say too seriously. But thanks for indulging me.

Have fun at the movies!

29 March 2024

How to Turn Your Book Cover into Matchbox Art

I live in a town that sports a stupid amount of gift shops. Such abundance delights the tourists, and keeps the economic engine of this little mountain town purring. Some years ago, my wife picked up two handmade items in one of those shops that we keep on a side table in the living room. They are matchboxes decorated with the covers of vintage mystery novels. They’re so adorable that we never use them, preferring to light candles with an electric gooseneck lighter made by Zippo. The matchboxes just sit there, looking pretty.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve handled them over the years, wondering how hard it would be to turn one of my book covers into an equally cute piece of decor. Turns out, it’s really easy.

  • To decorate your living spaces
  • To give as gifts (they make nice Christmas tree ornaments, as I’ll shortly reveal)
  • To offer as swag to book clubs or fans
  • To appease the insatiable gods of book promotion
Now, yes, it is much simpler to print bookmarks, bookplates, and the like than it is to create handmade matchbox art. But the process is so straightforward (and cheap) that you could assembly-line the whole process, pressing the kids and grandkids into service, and whip up a sizable batch that will delight family members and others who have supported your books over the years. You could also surprise author friends with matchboxes featuring their books. These days people are over-wowed by handmade items.

Matchboxes (a typical 10-pack of 32-count wooden matches costs about $5 at a supermarket.)
A few sheets of white card stock
Chisel-tip markers or paint
Glue (Elmer’s, contact cement, glue gun, glue stick, etc.)
Scissors or X-Acto knife
5-inch piece of ribbon or twine (optional)
A high-res .jpg or .tiff file of book cover
Computer and printer
An accountant to write off these business expenses

1. How lucky we are that the dimensions of the wooden-match matchbox conforms so well to those of the standard book cover! Before you start, measure the width of your matchbox. I’m betting it’s 1.25 inches. (Regardless of the size of yours, round down to the nearest quarter inch to simplify your life.)

Look, ma! I'm a hand model!

2. Dash to your computer. Find the .jpg or .tiff file of your book cover. (You must use a high-resolution version.) Duplicate the file so that the original remains pristine. Double-click on the file copy, and it will most likely open in Acrobat or Preview, depending on your system. Choose “Adjust Size” from the dropdown menu.

3. You’ll be presented with the dimensions of the current image. Ensure that the width and height are “locked” and that you are working in inches.

4. Change the width of the image to the width of the matchbox. (I typed 1.25 inches in the Width box.) When you do this, the Height will change to the appropriate proportional dimension. Ensure that the resolution is somewhere between 200 and 300 pixels/inch. If the software tells you that cannot perform this operation until you convert to a .tiff file, agree to the conversion and name the resulting file. We’ll wait while you open the new file, adjust the size of the image, and change the pixels.

5. Either way, once you’ve adjusted the size, hit OK.

6. Open the new file. It will look smaller, but not necessarily matchbox sized.

7. From your File menu, choose print. You’ll get a dialog box that shows how your cover will print—a tiny matchbox cover embedded in the center of a giant sheet of white paper. If you’re just making one match box, you’re probably going to have to sacrifice this one sheet of paper to the tree gods.

Yes, folks, Murder, Neat is a little masterpiece.

8. If you’re moving beyond a single prototype, let me assure you that you can use software such as Canva (free), Pages (for Mac; paid), or some other design program to “tile” your new file on a single sheet of paper, so you can print, say, 16 mini-covers on a single sheet in one fell swoop. This will work as long as the image you tile conforms to the new matchbox dimensions. Go ahead and print your file on card stock.

9. Away to the workbench! With paintbrush or markers, prettify your matchbox to hide the manufacturer’s logo and other details. I used acrylic paint markers, but Sharpie glitter or metallic markers are fine too. (A fat “chisel-tip” marker covers a lot of terrain at one stroke.) Regardless of what you do, you’re probably not going to be able to disguise all of the print on the box. That’s okay. The ones sold in gift shops look just like yours.

10. Paint carefully around the strike zone so the wooden matches can still be used.

11. Allow each painted side of the box to dry before moving to the next.

12. Feel like painting the internal drawer that holds the matches? Go to town.

13. Cut out your book cover with scissors or an Xacto knife.

14. Apply glue to the blank side of the book cover. Gently affix the cover to the box. Let dry. 

That’s it! You’re done. Unless, of course, you want to upscale the heck out of this project…

15. Fold your optional ribbon in half and glue the ends. 

When dry, glue the ends to the inside bottom of the matchbox drawer.

When dry, you now have a loop from which you can hang the box. A wire hook is all you need to display the “book” on your Christmas tree, for example.


Paint the matchbox a color that will contrast nicely with the predominant color of the book cover. If you need help picking a color, squint and see which colors pop out at you.

Here’s what I mean:

Since the cover of our recent (and most excellent SleuthSayers anthology) Murder, Neat is largely black, I painted the box red, which makes the black pop, and echoes the color of the title font.

I used red again to echo the cherry on the cover of my book.

I’ve always loved the cover of editor Josh Pachter’s Jimmy Buffett anthology, but the cover would disappear against the backdrop of an equally orange box. So I contrasted the cover against the blue of the parrot’s wing. (Call me crazy, but I think a margarita-green color would have also worked.)

The cover of Art Taylor’s On the Road With Del & Louise presents a challenge. The biggest fields of color are teal, orange, and red. If I had chosen one of those colors for the box, sections of the cover would have faded into the background. I went with basic black, which echoes the asphalt of the road depicted on the cover. He said hopefully.

I’m sure that a professional crafter would be able to crank out far more competent work, which is why they’re selling them in gift shops! My scissor skills are not the greatest, and my cover placement could be straighter. But I’m happy with how these turned out. If nothing else, they have enlarged my understanding of what is meant by the craft of writing.

If you need more inspiration, you will find countless videos on YouTube by searching under Matchbox Art.

Join me in three weeks when I will show you how to assemble an FBI-grade forensics kit using only a cereal box, a can of motor oil, and a banana!

* * *

I’m out of here. You know where to find me.

They don't let you smoke in bars anymore.
Yet they still give away matchboxes. Go figure.

28 March 2024

Forget "Time to Write" – What About Headspace?

 Hello fellow Sleuthsayer Faithful!

Feels like forever since I jumped into the swirling maelstrom of thought and discussion which is our beloved Sleuthsayers blog!

Anyway, let's get to it.

I was thinking just today about this passage I read a long time ago, I'm not sure where:

"On the 49th day there under the fig tree, the Buddha finally silenced his mind."

I'm certain the quotation isn't exact, but "mindfulness" and the benefits Buddhists believe accrue from protracted periods of silence really aren't the point I hope to address today.

I'm talking, of course, about headspace.

Heh.... I wish.

I once took just eight weeks to write 80,000 words. I had a two-book contract on which I was past deadline: word count for each? 40,000 words. The only reason I was able to pull it off is that both books were nonfiction.

I currently find myself close to missing another deadline. The reason?

How long have you got? Excuses? I have none.

Reasons? I'm positively lousy with 'em.

I probably ought to add that when I wrote two books in two months, I was single, between girlfriends, no mortgage, and aside from a serious falling out with the editor originally assigned to me by publisher (new to the business. I was her first "project." Talk about GREEN!), I was pretty much the definition of "care-free." Just me, the day-gig (For those of you playing at home, I teach history), and my writing time. Oh, and my crippling student loans. That's what I wrote all that nonfiction for. To supplement my paltry day-gig income and help stay on top of my student loans. So, still mostly "care-free."

That was then.

Next week I turn 59. And although I have never been happier in my life than right now, this moment, I am no longer "free from care."

I'm happily married to one of the best people I know. I'm the father of an 11-year-old boy who by turns both delights and confounds me.

And because I'm a parent now, and a husband, and a devoted son to parents staring down the onset of their 80s, and brother to a great guy currently living and working out of state, I worry.

I know some guys feel it somehow unmanly to admit to worry, or even to talk about things like anxiety, but the older I get the more I've come to think that's hogwash. If you're a private person, that's one thing. Keeping a lid on what's going on with you emotionally is just a recipe for a stroke.

Anyway, the worst part?

I used to be able to silence my mind. Not like the Buddha. Forty-nine days to get it done and find enlightenment? That guy was a boss for that alone. Mad respect.

But I could shut everything out when I had to and just do, as the late G.M. Ford so often put it: "Ass. Chair. Write."

It's all laid out there, just waiting for us, right?..... RIGHT?

Not anymore. I have more and more trouble shutting out the things that worry me. Plus, I have a lot going on: family members with a variety of ailments, concerns that arise at the day gig, the thousand course corrections required of a responsible "middle school parent" these days.

Don't get me wrong, I still have my good writing days. And my wife, who knows me better than anyone (which is as it should be), has said many times that I "thrive with a deadline."

Which reminds me....that deadline....yeah.

If you read this far hoping that I'd reveal my discovery of some magic bullet that could help grant instant, deep, abiding and never-ending headspace, sorry to disappoint you. In fact I wrote this post hoping to crowdsource my dilemma.

So how about it, friends? Got any semi-secret tips on getting into and remaining in a writing headspace? Or not-so-secret ones, for that matter? 

If so, please feel free to drop a suggestion into the comments. And failing that, if you're a fellow traveler on this perplexing road of perpetual distraction, feel free to come to the comments if only just to commiserate!

And that's it for me this go-round. 

See you in two weeks!

27 March 2024

The Matter of Arthur

I’m not quite sure why Rosemary Sutcliff floated into my periphery, recently - I saw her name somewhere, obviously - but as soon as it happened, I immediately went out and found her Arthurian historical, Sword at Sunset, which had fallen off my radar in the interval of fifty years, and read it again.  If you’re not familiar with the book, it reimagines the legend of Arthur much the way Mary Renault does with the mythological Theseus in The King Must Die, as an actual historical person, not a demigod.     

Arthur is, of course, the “Matter of Britain,” a story every English schoolchild once knew by heart.  The basic lineaments were around long before Sir Thomas Malory and Le Morte d’Arthur, in the 15th century, going back to Geoffrey of Monmouth, in the 12th.  I’m more concerned with the modern iterations.  Leaving aside Prince Valiant, no disrespect, Hal Foster’s draftsmanship is astonishing, but he positions the Round Table in some sort of fairytale medieval period; excuse me, but no.  That puts Arthur some time after the Norman Conquest, which just doesn’t fly.  The better guess lines up with Rosemary Sutcliff and Bernard Cornwell, who place the historical Arthur after the fall of Roman Britain, the withdrawal of the legions to Gaul, around 400 AD.  Then come the Saxons, raiding across the North Sea, and the Picts, from beyond Hadrian’s Wall.  Arthur would appear to be the last hope of civilization and order, fighting a losing battle against the darkness.  

The version most of us know is T.H. White’s Once and Future King, which is the source material for Camelot.  I saw the Broadway-bound tryout.  (Back in the day, the big shows would work the kinks out on the road.  They’d open in Toronto, and then circle through Boston, Philadelphia, and DC, before they got to New York.)  The production of Camelot in Boston ran, as I remember, four hours.  They cut at least an hour, after that.  For my money, I would have watched Richard Burton for six hours.  He made Arthur tragic in a way I’d never even considered.  I thought the story was about Lancelot and Guinevere.  Not that Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet were chopped liver, but when Burton was on stage, every other character was a walk-on.  I wore out the original cast LP, and it reduced me to tears every time I listened to it.  

Camelot is somewhere in that Neverland along with Prince Valiant.  It’s a backlot fantasy, it doesn’t have the smell of smoky hearths and scorched meat, unwashed bodies in thick fur cloaks, blood and bowels and rape, but there’s a counter-narrative to both: Marion Zimmer Bradley and Mary Stewart, The Mists of Avalon and The Crystal Cave, which feminize the story, in the one case, and foreground the otherworldly or magical, in the second, but these are mirror narratives, the female principle (in myth, at least) a correlative of sorcery.  

Robert Warshow wrote a famous essay about the Western, in which he said there were only X archetypes, of plot, and character.  And we could haul in Joseph Campbell, or Robert Graves, or Jung, but the arc of the hero bends in similar ways.  A friend of mine was leaving Excalibur, and he overheard a young person say to their date, “It’s just like Star Wars.”  

We draw the sword from the stone, and our fate is foretold.  There’s no escaping it. 

26 March 2024

Davy the Punk

Bob Bossin has been an important figure in the folk music community of British Columbia for half a century.  I recently had the pleasure of reading his biography of his father. DAVY THE PUNK (2014) tells an amazing story of immigrant resilience, Canadian history, and crime.

The press and the law called Davy Bossin a gambler, but he never placed a bet.  They called him a bookie but he never took a bet either.   He managed to be a major part of the illegal horse-betting industry, while the government struggled desperately to prove that anything he did was illegal.

Among the supporting characters in this true story are Franklin Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, Frank Costello ("the prime minister of the underworld,"), and the Crew Cuts (remember their hit song "Sh-Boom?").

With Bob's gracious permission I am reprinting here the opening pages of Davy the Punk.  I suspect that after reading it you may want to buy the book.

DAVY THE PUNK, excerpt
by Bob Bossin

It is the summer of 1956 and I am sitting with my father, Davy Bossin, in the bleachers above first base in Maple Leaf Stadium, the old ballpark on the shore of Lake Ontario. Summer nights in Toronto are as humid as a Georgia swamp, and the stadium on the waterfront has been dubbed ‘the poor man’s air conditioning’. Davy is sitting in the comforting breeze off the lake, reading the newspaper. I am giving him a fervent play-by-play of the game between the Maple Leafs and the Havana Sugar Kings. I am ten.

Through the early innings, we are joined by one, then another of my father’s cronies, who gather in the evening air to swap stories, argue politics, and only incidentally watch baseball. By my father’s decree, my colour commentary stops when the friends show up. This is fine with me; I love hearing the men talk the way they do when they are away from their work and their wives. I make myself as small as I can, hoping that my presence will be forgotten and I will overhear some secret that would otherwise be withheld until I have been dispatched for peanuts or hot dogs. Toronto was known, in those days, as Toronto the Good, but the Toronto these men know is tantalizingly bad.

‘Did you see Benny Kaufman died?’

‘Benny the Shoykhet? With the book in the little butcher shop in the alley off Kensington?”

‘Yeah, exactly. Benny's gone, alev ha-sholem.’

‘Did he ever get pinched? I don't think he ever got pinched. He had a hell of an operation. You could make a bet, have a drink and buy a chicken.’

‘Did he actually sell chickens?”

‘Sure he did. They were good kosher chickens. Of course he always kept a few in the back in case of a raid. He had one of the kids out at the street, who'd whistle if the cop turned into the alley. Then the bubba would come downstairs and they'd stick the bottles in her apron and throw a couple chickens on top, and she'd shuffle down the alley, smiling and nodding at the cop. Benny stuffed his betting slips up the ass of one of the chickens. They never caught him.’

'Yeah, they did. Herbie Thurston pinched him. Remember, Harry Thurston’s boy who became a cop.’

‘Nah, you're all mixed up. Herbie never pinched Benny; the guy he pinched was Murray the Rug.’

‘In the old dry cleaner’s on Dovercourt!’

‘Exactly. When he was a kid, Herbie used to go in with his father, when the old man placed his bets. Then when he became a cop, he went to Murray, and he told him, “Murray, I'm a policeman now and I'll arrest you if I have to. You've done well, it’s time you retired.” Of course Murray didn't listen. He looked at Herbie, and saw the little pisher tagging after his old man. And nobody had ever been able to charge him, because they could never find his slips. But Herbie knew from his father that Murray kept them under his toupee. So he nailed him.’

The stories go back and forth, of this bookie who got busted, of that one who never did. My father sits there reading the paper. The conversation flows by him, like water around a rock.

“What was the name of the guy … the one they arrested over and over?”

Silence. Nobody remembers. Then a new voice says, ‘Shnooky Schneider. It was Shnooky Schneider.’

The voice is my father’s. When Davy speaks, it is as if he were a king. Heads turn. This is because he speaks so rarely. And because, when he does, he is a natural-born story-teller. He folds his paper, none too quickly, and begins to recount how Arnie the Shnook Schneider was busted for bookmaking sixty-seven times, every one a first offence.

‘In those days Amie was working for Manny Feder,’ my father begins quietly, `back when Manny and his brothers had the big horse room on Queen Street, before they opened the Brown Derby. It was a pretty smooth operation, as it oughta be, since Manny had half the cops in town on the pad.

`But every now and then, the heat would be on. Old Reverend Domm would get up in Bathurst Street Church and preach a fire-and-brimstone sermon on vice, and then Holy Joe Atkinson would publish the whole damn thing in the Star. “Sunday morning, in Bathurst Street United Church, the Reverend Gordon Domm warned of the wave of corruption loosed on the city by gambling racketeers."’

My father gives the Star the voice of Walter Winchell. As the plot heats up, so does his delivery.

`Then the next day they'd send some cub reporter down Queen Street to lay some bets at some of the bookie joints, as if that was news to anybody, and they'd run that on the front page. And that would get the Decent Citizens riled up, and they'd start demanding that the police do something. So the cops would call Manny and say, "Sorry, Mr Feder, but we're gonna have to raid.” And they'd tell him when. Then Manny would call Shnooky and tell him to get ready.'

Here my father pauses, pretending to some interest in what is happening on the field. The men around me wait for him to go on. It seems to me all Maple Leaf Stadium does.

`Manny's joint was on the second floor and it would be going full blast with punters betting, smoking their cigars, the phone ringing, odds coming in and getting chalked up, the loudspeaker blaring-- "They're at the post. And they're off…"

`But upstairs, on the third floor, there was another room with just a table, an unconnected phone and a folding chair. And that's where Shnooky would wait for the cops. They'd come charging in, up the stairs, past the horse room, straight to the third floor. They'd arrest Shnooky and grab the telephone, so they could report that `gambling equipment was seized." Then they'd go back downstairs, past the horse room again, and take Shnooky to the station, where Manny would be waiting with Shnooky’s  bail. Then, when Shnooky was convicted, Manny would pay the fine, which was, by standing agreement, a hundred bucks. It was like a tax.

`Of course the law said that, on a third conviction, bookmakers go to jail.  But the cops would misplace Shnooky’s priors, or the magistrate would be one of Manny’s customers, or both.  So every time, it went down as Shnooky’s first offence.  And the government got its hundred bucks, which was good money in those days.’

Sometimes the laughter from our section was so raucous the pitcher would turn and look up.

25 March 2024

A chip off the old block.

    When I went to sailing school, our instructor noted that it’s not a matter of if you get seasick, but when.

    That was about 25 years ago, and it still hasn’t happened. This after a few times in six-foot plus confused seas (this is an actual term, which roughly equates to being in the agitator cycle of a giant washing machine).

    Now that I’ve made this boast public, it’ll likely happen the next time I get in a kayak,  but I’m taking my chances.

    By that logic, I’ll take another flyer. I admit I’ve never had writer’s block. This thought was occasioned by a novice writer who asked me how I handle such things, including what he called “hitting the wall”, which I assume means confronting an impassable edifice suddenly erected in front of your work in progress and not the side of a building on Dead Man’s Curve. I had trouble answering because it’s never happened.

    My heart goes out to anyone who has dealt with this.

    As I once felt crossing the English Channel in a storm, watching most of the passengers lined up along the rail sharing the contents of their insides with the salt water and torrential rain. The rest were in the loo.

    A significant percentage of the mystery writers I know are journalists.

    I bet few are beset by writers block, which is probably true of former copywriters like me. From what I understand, editors share the same general attitude as creative directors. If you aren’t able to write what you were supposed to write that day, they fire you. Usually the next day.

    Aside from generating colossal amounts of stress, which by correlation supported a lively bar trade in the neighborhoods surrounding newsrooms and ad agencies, this also focused the mind, and instilled the kind of discipline notable in air traffic controllers and members of the bomb squad.

    Pressed by my novice friend, I did have a few suggestions when ones productivity seems to be flagging, or when you’re not sure what should happen next in the novel.

    Getting up to go to the bathroom is the first tactic. I wrote a lot of headlines standing at a urinal. If you have a more luxurious schedule, a nice walk around the block usually does the trick. If you have both the time and means, perhaps a quick trip to Italy. Countries where you don’t know what people are saying are excellent places to write in public, say at a trattoria or outdoor café a la Ernest Hemingway (though go light on the Pernod).

    Reading other people’s writing doesn’t do much for me in this context, except for a few extraordinary stylists, like Bill Bryson, Gillian Flynn, or Amor Towels, whom I find inspirational, despite setting insurmountably high standards.

    But above all, whenever I feel the writing at hand is stalling out, I simply switch over to another project, any project.

    I usually have about three books going at once, at various stages of completion, and there are always emails to old friends and short stories waiting to be written.

    The best palliative for being stuck is to just start writing. The act itself, for me, usually limbers things up and then I'm back in business. The greatest impediment to writing is not writing. Don't worry how it's going to come out. Just start typing.

    Another trick with books is to write down in advance what I call "things that could happen." These are scenes or plot features, and often twists, or something unexpected. I can refer back to that to see if there's anything there to latch on to.

    I don't fear the blank page. In fact, I like it. It means anything goes. Dive in! Most editors will tell you the beginnings of books and short stories are often the weakest parts, and they're good at noting where you should have actually started the thing. That's fine. It just means you hadn't yet warmed up the engine.

    Writing for SleuthSayers, I have a long list of possible topics, and several opening paragraphs. These are handy diversions, and usually result in something I can use. Today, I thought, geez, none of this is helping.

    Then it occurred to me, why not write about not knowing what to write?