30 April 2024

Character Revealed


     When this blog posts, I'll be on the road. My traveling companion and I will be returning to
the Lone Star State from Malice Domestic 2024. While there, I'll participate in a panel discussion with fellow Sleuth, Barb Goffman. Joining us are Kate Hohl, Mary Dutta, and Kerry Hammond. The panel will be talking about, "Short Stories: Quickly Connecting Reader to Character."

    (It's an odd space-time continuum bending moment. I'm writing prospectively about an event that will have occurred by publication.) I look forward to/enjoyed discussing the craft of short story creation with these accomplished writers. 

    I'm excited to learn many things from them about building character. Do they, for instance, build characters first and then allow the plot to emerge from the interaction among these individuals, or do they conceive of a plot and build characters to inhabit that narrative? Do we all do the same thing, or do our methods vary? 

    As with many seminar topics, I'd be shocked if we surprise anyone with our discussion. There are only so many ways to reveal character. Our panel will, I hope, provide an entertaining review and, perhaps, systematize the process. If we succeed, the readers and writers in the audience will be better able to think about the characters in the next story they open. 

    We might quickly run aground over the use of the word "character." We always create characters within our stories. Each character has a particular character that makes them heroic or villainous or NPCs in the vocabulary of my gamer children. To keep the conversation afloat, I'll use "character" as the word to describe the person or animal involved in the story and "nature" when discussing the qualities that make them who or what they are. 

    As writers, we have a handful of tools for developing nature. Time permitting, I hope our panel's discussion will include a conversation about them all. Some authors might rely heavily upon dialogue to show us the nature of their tale's characters. Accents, word choice, and truncated versus elaborate sentences tell us something about the people inhabiting the stories. We learn from their questions, their answers, and their non-answers. In other stories, appearance might be the tool. Physically appearance and mannerisms usually elicit our first reaction to people. The vise-like grip, the sweating brow, and the beady eyes all help draw a picture for the readers and shape their expectations. 

    Action and a character's response, or lack thereof, may tell us about the story's inhabitants. Something happens and characters change. A door opens. There is a moment of stress. The characters fight, flee, or freeze. What the characters do and how change affects them shows their nature. 

    Finally, a writer might reveal the nature of the characters through their thoughts. The monologue playing inside the characters' heads as they evaluate situations, resolve conflicts, and make decisions exposes the nature of the individuals we are reading about in stories. 

    These are the readily available tools for showing readers the characters. They are the devices for making them interesting and believable. As authors, we deploy them to make the characters worth getting to know. 

    Sometimes, however, we choose to tell readers about a character's nature. As writers, we might present nature ourselves. The advantage is economy. The writer may say that a character is stupid. In that case, the reader learns the information far more efficiently than descriptions and dialogue may permit. The downside is that, having invested nothing, the reader might not care. 

    A final alternative is to have a character reveal the nature of a fellow character. One person may comment on or think about the nature of another. This method reveals something about both individuals. The reader is called upon to decide whether her opinion agrees with the speaker or thinker's evaluation. 

    As evidenced by the previous sentence, it's worth noting that almost no story relies entirely upon one technique. A reader will need some clues from appearance, speech, or action to pass judgment on another character's evaluation of nature. 

    Thinking about revealed nature for the Malice panel caused me to look back upon "Streetwise," my story in the current issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. The story concerns the interaction between a man and his friend. The friend is currently homeless. 

    I wrote "Streetwise," with alternating points of view between the two men. At the time, I wanted to shift POV as an exercise I'd not tried before, at least not intentionally. It seemed a good technique for feeding details slowly, extracting them from the different observations and experiences of each man. 

    As the story ping-ponged between the two, each character's nature is revealed by the thoughts of the other. It's that sixth technique discussed above. The reader can measure each character's evaluation of his friend based on the revealed facts. The story is a "tell" with a bit of "show." 

    Multiple POVs and telling about the other characters are suitable only for some stories. I wanted to try it for this one. I'm honored that the kind folks at Alfred Hitchcock liked the story. I hope that the readers do also. 

    Until next time. 

29 April 2024

Slackers, Lost Souls and a Serial Killer


In mysteries, as in every other category, fashion decrees novelty, and it is always pleasing to come across something new – or new again. Perhaps in response to the super heroes of the last few years, the Jack Reachers and Lisbeth Salanders of the thriller world, not to mention the high tech apparatus of procedurals, there have been some novels featuring not so polished heroes and not so much efficiency.

Mick Herron's Slough House series kicked off in 2010 with Slow Horses, named for the washed up and seemingly incompetent spies inhabiting Slough House. In 2019 Alexander McCall Smith debuted what his publisher calls Scandi Blanc, featuring a competent Inspector Ulf Varg investigating frankly whimsical crimes.

Now we have Anders de la Motte's, The Mountain King, the first in a promised trilogy, which combines super competent and alert investigator Leo Auster (reminiscent in more than one way of Lisbeth Salander) with The Resources Unit, AKA The Department of Lost Souls (a Slough House if there ever was one). Their truly trivial crime of the moment is a complaint about rogue figures appearing in a super-sized model train layout.

The Mountain King

Can this work? Well, yes it does. De La Motte manages the tricky combination of super cop, a young woman prepared, literally, for every conceivable danger by Prepper Per, her intelligent but seriously paranoid and sadistic father. Given dear old dad and her high powered lawyer mom, Leo has her problems and a decidedly difficult style of personal relations.

Unsurprisingly, she is not a great team player. Faced with a high profile kidnapping, she soon runs afoul of the powers that be and of her sworn enemy Jonas Hellman, a honcho in the National Police. Removed from the investigation partly because her mother is one of the victim's family lawyers, Leo is literally send downstairs to the Department of Lost Souls.

The department's prior head, the alcoholic and seemingly disorganized Bendt Sandgren, is seriously ill in hospital after a heart attack and a fall. He's left her with the case of the disturbed model railway setup, and Leo is not best pleased with either that or with the slackers who inhabit the department.

When she pushes ahead with her own line of investigation into the kidnapping, danger and mayhem ensue. This is all very satisfactory because, besides what looks like whimsical eccentricity, De La Motte has included a really chilling serial killer and one of the scarier hideouts in recent literature. If you are claustrophobic, read this one with a door or window open.

De La Motte channels Agatha Christie with a bevy of red herrings and suspects as well as creating very plausible inter-office tensions and rivalries. He himself served in the Swedish police force and clearly knows the territory.

Anders De la Motte
Anders De la Motte

So, this one has helpings of noir and Scandi blanc, too. Do we need a new category for the combo or like all good mysteries does The Mountain King need no label?


Janice Law's The Falling Men, a novel with strong mystery elements, has been issued as an ebook on Amazon Kindle. Also on kindle: The Complete Madame Selina Stories.

The Man Who Met the Elf Queen, with two other fanciful short stories and 4 illustrations, is available from Apple Books.

The Dictator's Double, 3 short mysteries and 4 illustrations also available at Apple Books.

28 April 2024

Is That a Derringer in Your Pocket?


First things first: my deepest thanks to the SleuthSayers for inviting me to be a contributor to this blog. I had to fight off a bit of imposter syndrome to accept. In many ways I still feel like I’m just getting started as a mystery writer, and it’s humbling to be in the company of all these masters of the genre. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from SleuthSayer columns over the years, and I’ll do my best to be a worthy member of the team (for those of you wondering who the new kid is: https://jswalkerauthor.com/).

So. What shall we talk about?
(Raiders of the Lost Ark still)

For my first post, I thought it would be worth taking a behind-the-scenes look at something a lot of writers probably spend more time thinking about than they’d readily admit: awards.

If you’re interested in mystery short stories, you’re probably familiar with the Short Mystery Fiction Society. (Hopefully you’re a member, since membership is free and offers a host of benefits. End plug.) The SMFS annually presents the Derringer Awards for the best short mystery stories, in four categories: Flash (up to 1,000 words), Short Story (1,001 to 4,000), Long Story (4,001 to 8,000), and Novelette (8,001 to 20,000). You can find more details here, but in brief, every January SMFS members submit stories published during the previous year for consideration. These stories, stripped of information identifying authors, are passed on to volunteer judges, who spend two months reading, considering, and scoring. At the beginning of April, the five (or more, in the case of a tie) finalists in each category are announced, and the entire SMFS membership has until April 29 to vote. Winners are announced on May 1.

Sounds simple, right?

I was elected by SMFS to the Derringer Awards Coordinator position last June (and let me give a quick shout out to the able and esteemed Assistant Coordinator, Paula Messina). As the end of 2023 approached, I rather abruptly and belatedly realized there was a lot to do. First on the list: recruiting judges. The official Derringer rules call for three judges plus an alternate for each category, with the obvious restriction that nobody can judge a category in which they have submitted a story.

I had a lot of worries about this system. Would enough judges volunteer? What if some dropped out halfway through the process? Fortunately, another part of the Derringer policy gives the Coordinator discretion to make adjustments to the system as needed. I decided to recruit not just four judges per category, but as many as possible, for several reasons. First, it would allow me to break up the larger categories. Based on previous years, it was a safe guess that there would be around 200 entries in the Long Story competition, for example. Asking anybody to read 200 stories in just two months–and read them closely enough to evaluate and score them–was obviously untenable, and would only make it more difficult to recruit judges. With enough judges, I could break that group up while still being sure that each story would be scored by at least three judges.

Derringer Medals. Shiny!

As it turned out, I was worrying over nothing. There were plenty of volunteers–enough that every story, in every category, was read and scored by at least four judges. No judges withdrew, and every single one took the process seriously, followed directions closely, and met their deadlines. There’s the first thing I learned from this experience: a lot of writers are very generous with their time and efforts. Derringer judges are anonymous, but I hope they all read this and know how grateful I am to them for making the process as painless as possible.

By the way, for the curious, there ended up being 26 stories submitted for the Flash category, 151 for Short Story, 201 for Long Story, and 35 for Novelette. Phew!

The second thing I learned was that writers, bless our hearts, can be a little iffy on following directions. I posted (I thought) a very clear set of instructions for prepping stories to be submitted–basically, Word files in standard Shunn format with all identifying information about the author removed. I even included instructions for how to remove the metadata from the file. If you’ve read the SleuthSayers blog for any length of time, you’ve surely seen these sages of the pages say time and again that the first rule in submitting a story to a magazine or anthology is to follow the provided guidelines. The Derringers reward published stories, so I knew the people submitting were, by and large, experienced writers, and assumed they’d have no problem doing so.

Well… they tried, anyway. More than a third of the files I received had some significant deviation from the directions. The most common, not surprisingly, was the author’s name still appearing in the metadata, but there were others. The author was frequently still named at the top of the story or in a header–or, in many cases, in an “about the author” paragraph tagged onto the end of the story. Files arrived in a range of non-Word formats, including a couple I’d never encountered before and couldn’t open. Many stories were submitted in the wrong category, so I quickly learned to verify word counts. A few people put multiple stories in the same file. I received several that still had editorial comments inserted throughout the text and visible tracked changes.

When I posted to SMFS asking people to double check their submissions, several members said I should just reject any stories that didn’t meet the guidelines. That was my initial intention, but ultimately simple time management dictated otherwise. It was a numbers game, really. Going through a submitted file to correct the most common mistakes took two or three minutes. Sending the story back with an explanation of the problems could take five, or ten, or fifteen, depending on how complicated the issues were, and would guarantee that I’d have to deal with the file again, possibly more than once. On days when I got twenty or thirty submissions, that time could add up pretty quickly. I could have simply deleted the problem files and not bothered informing the submitters, but then I would have gotten a lot of angry and confused emails when the list of submitted stories was posted. I did reject submissions so far astray from requirements as to be unusable, but for the most part I just fixed the problems.

Was this the right call? Who knows? To quote Dr. Henry Jones, Jr., I’m making this up as I go.

All of which brings me to the third thing I learned running the Derringers: evaluating writing is enormously, inherently, irreducibly subjective. I knew this, of course, but looking at the final scoresheets, I’m kind of amazed at just how subjective it is. Remember, the Derringers reward published stories. This led me to assume that there’d be a certain basic level of quality built into the submitted stories, that scores would lean high, and that low scores would be uncommon.

As a theory, it made sense. In reality, not so much.

Without getting into the murky details, each judge gave each story a score, the lowest possible being 4 and the highest being 40. Before the scores started coming in, I wouldn’t have thought it likely for a story to get a 4 from one judge and a 40 from another. Not only did it happen, though–it happened multiple times. Even in cases that weren’t quite so extreme, the scores for most stories were more widely distributed than I would have guessed.

As a writer myself, I find this heartening. Rejection is part of this game, and most of the time we don’t know why it happens. The standard advice is to turn the story around and get it back out to another market as quickly as possible, and the Derringer scoresheets provide ample evidence that this is the correct approach. The judges are all accomplished writers themselves, many with editorial experience, but that common background didn’t mean they shared a single view of what the best writing looks like. Obviously, editors don’t share such a view, either, so if you hit one who thinks your story is a 4, keep hunting. The one who thinks it’s a 40 might just be out there.

The bottom line is that running the Derringers has been a lot of work, but also gratifying. We usually think of writing as being a pretty solitary pursuit, but much of what I’ve found most rewarding about it has been the social contacts–through SMFS, through conferences like Bouchercon, and now through Sleuthsayers. Being the Derringer coordinator has given me the chance to be even more deeply engaged with the mystery writing community, and to meet more great folks (again, the judges couldn’t have been better!). I’m looking forward to meeting even more of you through my posts here.

Joseph S. Walker and Friend
The new kid in town
and his faithful sidekick

Thanks for reading, and thanks again to the SleuthSayers for this opportunity. Assuming this post goes up as scheduled on April 28, members of SMFS still have one day to vote for the Derringer winners (every vote counts!). And say, if you are a member of SMFS (and you really should be!), consider giving back to the community by running for one of the officer slots or, come next January, volunteering as a Derringer judge.

Look for the announcement of the Derringer winners this coming Wednesday, May 1!

Got questions about the Derringers? Let me know in the comments. See you next month!



27 April 2024

A Gal out of Time (aka Why Write Historical Crime?)


A few months past, I said on these pages that I would offer a post about writing historical fiction.   

In fact, I wish I had read this post before I started writing historicals!

Now, I had been forewarned.  Several years ago, my friend, the excellent writer of cozies, Vicki Delany, said to me:  "Don't write historical crime.  You narrow your market by doing that."

What she meant was this:  I've heard that only about 20% of the crime reading market read historicals.  Of those potential readers, most have preferences for  a certain time period.  Some read Victorian, and no other.  Some like classical Rome, and no other.  Some like between the wars, like me. Very few historical crime readers read all periods.

So you are reducing your market considerably.

I can attest that this is true, and would speak the same words to aspiring writers today.  But my emphasis for this post is different.

Here's what I have to offer, while writing the third book in the 1928 Merry Widow Murder series:

The trouble with writing historical novels strikes me as a very similar to that of writing comedic novels:  Not only do you have to come up with an original plot, wonderful characters, engaging dialogue, compelling pacing, and believable motivation like every other author, but you have this additional requirement that other authors don't have.  You have to make it funny.  And you don't get paid any more for doing it.

Historical novels - and I write exclusively mystery/crime novels now - are of the same ilk.  You have to include all the traditional elements of a great mystery book, but you also have to do a tremendous amount of research to get the time period right, and I don't just mean setting. Yes, I give great attention to detail of the food and drink of the time (was Chicken a la King served then?  How about a Sidecar?)  Music of the time (When exactly did Mack the Knife become available in sheet music?)  And clothing (the Flapper look wasn't the only look for clothing in the 1920s, and short skirts weren't as short as Halloween costumes now would have you believe.)

Questions like:  When did ocean liners move from coal to bunker C fuel?  (1917ish - after the Titanic)  

What were the mores of the time?  The etiquette?  Could respectable women travel alone on an ocean liner, in first class?  (Yes, with a maid.)  Did the maid have her own cabin, or did she stay in yours?

I nearly go mad with the research I have to do!  Every single page I write, I'm looking something up.  And that brings me to the comparison with comedic writing:

In historical novels, you have to do everything a writer of contemporary fiction has to do, but you also have this extra requirement:  you must research, you must get it right, and - you don't get paid any more for doing it.

I can speak to the importance of getting it right.  My first series was actually fantasy, the Rowena Through the Wall series, which takes place during the dark ages in Great Britain.  


'But even in fantasy, you have to get it right.  In book two of that series, Rowena and the Dark Lord, magic occurs.  Rowena inadvertently brings forth a Roman Legion fighting Bodicea.  Now, I did the usual thing.  Researched Celtic warfare, and researched Roman warfare, so I could get the battle styles right.  I also researched Roman armor and weapons, vs Celt.  It then occurred to me that I needed to dig deeper into what it would mean for a Roman Legion to vanish from battle.  Would they be considered deserters?  (Yes)  Would this affect their families back in Rome (Hell, yes.)  So they would do everything possible to get back to the battlefield, even if it mean imminent death.  And that created a turning point for my plot.

Believe it or not, and to my great surprise, some Roman scholars read the book, because they like to read everything that has anything to do with ancient Rome.  And one professor emailed me to say, "I can see you used Legion number XXX in the book, located at XXX in the month of..."  He enthused about the thrill of reading accuracy in fiction.  (Good thing I was a college professor at the time...)

Now, I know that if I had not done my research, I would have heard about it.  Even though the book is a fantasy!  People love to point out when you get things wrong in a book.  So I breathed a sigh of relief, that this time, I carried it off.

But it's a heck of a lot of work.

I've been lucky to get a two-book contract for books two and three, and an option for the 4th.  In some ways, I'm relieved, because I'm learning this period of time inside out, and it's good to be able to use it for more than one book.

But I have to ask myself:  why do it?  Why write fiction set in historical times?  I ask myself that every day, writing this third book.  And I've come to some sort of conclusion.

There's a certain amount of security, in writing and reading a book that takes place in the past.  Why?  It's a simple as this:

The world is still here.  Mankind survived the trials from the time of our book, survived WW1, the depression, WW11.  There's comfort in knowing that the world lives on after the book ends.

But in our world today, who knows?  The future is a blank.

And that's why I love writing about the past.


Melodie Campbell can't resist a classic mystery crackling with humour, and that's why she wrote one herself.  The Merry Widow Murders is her 18th book, and the first of a new series.




26 April 2024

King Arthur and Vince McMahon?



 My current Audible listen is Le Morte d'Arthur by Thomas Malory. It's the earliest complete telling of the King Arthur legend in the English language. Written near the end of the Hundred Years War (just in time for the Wars of the Roses! Oh, those whacky Norman monarchs!), Malory, of whom there is little known, renders the tale of the legendary king as a treatise on the Chivalric Code. It's also a transitional time for the English language. Gone is the bizarre Anglo-Saxon tongue of Beowulf. By now, poet and royal in-law Geoffrey Chaucer has normalized writing literature in English. (The Normans, originally Vikings who became French, considered Anglo-Saxon a degenerate tongue in their early days. Henry IV decided an English court should speak English. I know. Radical.) But Malory's Middle English looks like Shakespeare trying to forge new entries into The Canterbury Tales. However, after the most recent reading of a Knight of the Round Table going out and doing feats of daring-do, I can only hear one phrase as I start a new section.

LET'S GET READY TO RUMBLE!

Sony

Strange, isn't it? That sounds like something more out of the movie A Knight's Tale (with Chaucer as a character and a 90s rock soundtrack) than a Norman coopting of a Saxon forgery of a Welsh legend originally based on the life of a warrior from the waning days of Rome. Malory tells a familiar tale of Uther Pendragon taking an enemy's wife, Igraine, and conceiving Arthur, who is raised in secret, pulls Excalibur from a stone, then conquers all Britain and Ireland before marching down to Rome to give the Emperor Lucius what-for. (Historians will note that was actually the Vandals and the Visigoths, not Graham Chapman and the Monty Python troupe.) And then we get into the Knights of the Table Round, of which Malory says there are about 150. And each one goes out to fight whomever they will fight. Sometimes, they run afoul of Arthur's incestuous sister, Morgan Le Fay, and fight each other. In listening, I noticed knights will be the hero in one book, the villain in another, and sidekick in yet another. Doesn't that sound like WWE?

Le Morte d'Arthur is episodic and tends to repeat itself. It's not the post-World War II spiking of the ball for England like TH White's The Once and Future King (and by extension, the musical Camelot), which followed more modern storytelling. Nor is it the more complex, feminist reworking that is Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon, which has more in common with Dune than Malory, aside from the characters. No, these tales were not meant to be a single novel or play like Shakespeare in his day or even today's ten-episode streamers. Nor was it intended for the elite few who could read. Like Homer before him, Malory and Chaucer wrote for their stories to be read piece by piece to the masses, who didn't really care about which god slept with which goddess or... Well... Let's just say Greek and Roman mythology is less complicated than Phonecian. (Moloch? Seriously?) No, the masses gravitate toward action. Fight scenes. Heroes with a code. Damsels in distress. (Though these days, the damsels often come armed with brains or weapons or both and usually cause or relieve distress more often than be in it.) They want adventure.

Heroes and villains. Like pro wrestling. And the heroes swap places. One chapter Sir Tristram is the boldest knight, save Lancelot. The next, he's dumped his damsel for another and off living like a Duke in Brittany, earning several knights' enmity. But wait. A rival to Arthur has kidnapped or killed one of the knights of the Round Table. Or Morgan Le Fay (who also switches sides a lot) has hexed one of our heroes. Another knight comes in to save the day, but he needs help. "Oh, um, Trist? Why don't we settle this with a joust a Pentecost. I could really use a hand right now." 

Even Lancelot becomes the villain eventually. Many of the knights lust after Queen Guinevere. Lance actually does something about it. It's the precursor to pro wrestling. Andre the Giant is the good guy. Then he's not when he battles Hulk Hogan. Roddy Piper is a heel. Then he's the wise old man of wrestling. (Also, a guy with really cool sunglasses that expose capitalism's faults. I'd have thought $200 for a non-prescription pair of Oakleys was a hint, but that's a couple of other columns.)

Malory, I've come to realize, was a pulp writer. So was, to some extent, Shakespeare, but he wrote long, (usually coherent) plays. (And someone should have let him completely rewrite Edward III. Is it really his canon if he's the obvious script doctor on a polished turd? I digress.)

Even Dickens and Twain wrote this way early on. The Pickwick Papers aren't so much a novel as a serialized forerunner to Freaks and Geeks minus the MST3K cameos. Even Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, two of the most influential American novels ever written, read like a newspaper serial or, to our modern eyes, a streaming program. But unlike Dickens and Twain, who spent a fair bit of time fleshing out even their most one-dimensional characters, Malory has simple good guys and bad guys who are interchangeable. It was Twain, White, Bradley, and a host of movie directors and novelists who gave the various knights deeper motivations. Read The Mists of Avalon, and you wonder why Merlin didn't get smacked around by an angry Morgan Le Fay. 

Malory picked up where Chaucer left off in terms of language, bridging the gap between the nascent Middle English of the Plantagenet Era and Elizabethan style we see in Shakespeare and the King James Bible. But Chaucer was writing a cross-section of English society that would inspire later classics, including Dan Simmons's classic Hyperion. Malory wants you to throw some popcorn in the microwave (or it's 15th century equivalent, in a pan over an open fire.) Or maybe, since Arthur was pilfered from the Welsh, stick the Orville Redenbacher in the popty ping. (Which remains my favorite Welsh slang of all time.)

And besides, if it weren't for Lance, Gawain, and Gallahad, we'd have never had Holmes, Phillip Marlowe, or Jim Rockford. 

Or WWE Raw



25 April 2024

LCC Seattle: A Love Letter


 This year I attended my tenth Left Coast Crime conference. This in and of itself is unremarkable. Before 
COVID knocked the world off its axis I could usually be found at every year’s Left Coast Crime.

This year was different for a couple of reasons.

First off, LCC 2024 was my first conference of any kind since the advent of COVID.

Secondly, this time around I helped plan the whole thing in my capacity as one of LCC 2024’s three co-chairs.

My major endeavor was to set up the panel schedule, and populate said panels with panelists/moderators.

Here's a bird's eye view:

Sixty-four panels. Three-hundred fifty panelists (give or take). Mix and match. Rinse and repeat.

A cast of hundreds!

Not a daunting task at all.

But you know what? Working on the panels for Left Coast Seattle 2024 helped bring home to me all over again why I so very much love this conference.

It's the people.

Beginning with the members of the LCC 2024 Organizing Committee: Laurie Rockenbeck, David Schlosser, Scotti Andrews, Kate Jackson, Larry Keeton and Lesley Hall. Long-time friends and colleagues, we prepped for planning and running a LCC conference by running a number of writing events over the years as members of Mystery Writers of America's Northwest Chapter board.

Over the course of the year we spent planning this event, no task went unaddressed. No request for assistance went unanswered. Rinse and repeat thousands of times.

And then there were the volunteers. Dozens of them, especially the indomitable Theresa from Texas! Talk about a group stepping up and going above and beyond!

A quick shout-out to LCC's national board, too: Stan and Lucinda, Les and Leslie, Mike Befler, and Janet Rudolph (who was unfortunately unable to attend). There is a lot of institutional here, and boy, did they pit it to good use!

And let's not forget our Guests of Honor (Robert Dugoni and Megan Abbott), Fan Guest of Honor (the Indomitable Fran Fuller), and our hard-working Toastmaster Wanda M. Morris (whose dance party was the hit of the conference!). You all showed up, shared with us, laughed with us, and make this conference such a wonderful experience for so many!

Toastmaster Extraordinaire Wanda Morris!

Circling back to the panels for a moment:

I didn't have a single interaction with a potential panelist or moderator that was anything other than pleasant. Questions proved both probing and insightful, and the conference went so much better for the input of the folks on the panels. Is it any surprise that the con went off so well and a good time was had by all, in light of the splendid contributions of these authors/editors/aspiring writers and fans? If you attended even a single panel, I think you know what I'm talking about.

We had around 550 attendees-so many old friends, and so many new faces to get to know! All in all, just a great, fun experience.

Just as we have come to expect from Left Coast Crime!

More in two weeks!


24 April 2024

Get Carter (Brit noir)


 

Another movie post, because I’m still in the geosynchronous orbit of Tarantino’s brain candy, Cinema Speculation.

Brit noir hit its stride in the immediate postwar years, just as American film noir did, but the Brits had an extra serving of world-weary.  American tough-guy pictures in the late 1940’s laid on the cynicism and corruption, with no small helping of conspiracy and nuclear paranoia (Kiss Me Deadly took the atom bomb metaphor literally); the British style was more inward and furtive, and just plain creepy.  American noir was about lost innocence, Brit noir was about losing your soul. 

Carol Reed directed Odd Man Out in 1947, The Fallen Idol in ‘48, and The Third Man in ‘49, which is three for three.  Along about the same time, Brighton Rock, with a screenplay by Graham Greene and Terence Rattigan, made Richard Attenborough a star in his early twenties.  No Orchids for Miss Blandish – called “the most sickening exhibition of brutality, perversion, sex and sadism ever shown,” a review that only baits the hook - broke box office records. 

 


They were doing something right.  This was the period that saw David Lean’s two terrific Dickens adaptions, Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, and the heartbreaking Brief Encounter.  The famous and successful Ealing comedies, Kind Hearts and Coronets, Passport to Pimlico, and Whisky Galore! – released in the U.S. as Tight Little Island – all of them did well in the States.

Crime pictures seem to come in cycles.  Heist movies are always in fashion, for example, but after the late 1940’s, Brit noir took a sabbatical, and then came back with a roar in the early Sixties.  Stanley Baker in The Criminal (why was Stanley Baker never that big a star outside the UK?), a picture Joe Losey made after he was blacklisted and left the States.  The very strange and violent Never Let Go, with Peter Sellers as the psychotic heavy – Sellers later said he was channeling Rod Steiger, but didn’t mean it as a compliment.  All Night Long, Patrick McGoohan as Iago, in modern dress, a jazz drummer.  The Mark, Stuart Whitman an accused child molester; Night Must Fall, Albert Finney an axe murderer; and Victim, a ground-breaking noir, with Dirk Bogarde a gay lawyer who allows himself to be blackmailed. 


Not to mention the beginning of Bond, with Dr. No, and spy stories suddenly in vogue.  Again, the more kitchen-sink, hard-luck, wiseguy pictures took a back seat, glamorous and exotic was in. 

And then came the ‘70’s. 

Villain, Richard Burton in a remake of White Heat, all the gay subtext upfront and center – with Ian McShane, of all people, as Big Dick’s boytoy.  The way McShane tells the story, Richard told him, “You remind me of Elizabeth.”  McShane lets a beat go by, all innocence.  “I guess that made the kissing easier,” he says.  (Burton has to be seen to be believed, in Villain: the heavy gold jewelry, the paisley loungewear, open to his navel, the chest hair and the florid jowls, it’s a gay parody, pathetic and offensive and real as a dime, in its own crazy way.)

Which brings us to Get Carter, released in 1971.  First off, Michael Caine.  Introduced to major audiences in Zulu, he slipped effortlessly through the keyhole with The Ipcress File (not to be upstaged by seasoned pros like Gordon Jackson and the impeccably reptilian Nigel Green), and Alfie made him a bankable star.  The thing to remember about Michael Caine is that he was ours, it felt like he belonged to us, that cheeky attitude, and the accent.  For a generation of a Brit kids (not that I’m one), he turned the class system – where the way you speak is destiny – inside out.  He was a bloody Cockney, and he was suddenly the new archetype, much to his own surprise.  Secondly, the source material, a hard-boiled pulp novel by Ted Lewis called Jack’s Return Home, which rocketed to commercial success, and almost single-handedly established the Brit neo-noir.  Third, there was the director, Mike Hodges.  Carter was his debut feature, and truth be told, he’s never made another movie as crackling and acid.


The story’s a revenge tragedy.  Jack, the Michael Caine character, is muscle for the London mob.  His brother Frank is killed in a car crash, back home in Newcastle.  Jack travels up from the Smoke, to go to the funeral, and once he’s back, he smells a rat.  Somebody staged Frank’s murder to make it look like an accident.  Things go downhill from there, Jack being an agent of chaos, and by far the meanest bastard in a place seething with snakes.

Two things in particular stand out.  One is that Michael Caine plays Jack without any apparent emotional affect.  He isn’t simply remorseless; he has no sympathy for anybody.  I’d never seen anything like it, and certainly not from Michael Caine.  Almost always, a name actor will play to the audience, a nod and a wink, to show you the guy’s got a heart of gold under his gruff exterior.  (There’s a moment in Sharky’s Machine, where Burt Reynolds breaks character and goes all Aw, Shucks! on you, and almost blows the whole picture.  Burt, the director, shouldn’t have allowed Burt, the movie star, to pander.)  Caine is having none of it.  He doesn’t even pretend that Jack has an ounce of pity.  There’s one moment, late in the story, where Jack is watching a dirty movie, and recognizes who’s in it – I can’t tell you who, without giving it away – but his face is impassive, while his eyes leak tears.  Amazing bit, too.  In context, it shows you that Jack isn’t in control, that his stony mask has a fatal cost, but even so, the mask never really slips.  Jack has such a tight grip on himself, he can’t see he’s let his soul slip through his fingers.

The second thing is the visual affect of the picture, the way it’s shot.  The cinematographer said later his main contribution was the lighting and the exposures, and that it was director Mike Hodges who was responsible for the camera work, the shot setups and the look of the film.  (Which might remind you of Ridley Scott, on The Duellists, working as his own cameraman.)  The visual style, in Get Carter, is foreshortened and claustrophobic.  The movie starts with a zoom in, against the London skyline, at night, and ends with a zoom out, from a lonely shingle of beach.  In between, the tight zoom shots squash you up against the lens, shot from a distance, but pulled in close.  The whole picture has a Peeping Tom feel to it, and since a major plot point turns out to be pornography and sex traffic, it follows that the visual context is voyeuristic.  The sudden, savage violence has that same pornographic quality, that we’re watching, but more disturbing because it just boils up out of the earth, the random nature of the characters, bad luck and bad genes and bad choices.  You’re too close to look away.     

Get Carter cast a long shadow.  You see its influence.  It turned a corner, and afterwards you couldn’t go back.  Probably its most direct heir is The Long Good Friday, with that other Cockney, Bob Hoskins.  That’s another column.



23 April 2024

The Magic of Malice


When Stacy Woodson offered to write a pre-Malice guest post, this isnt what I was expecting. You’ll understand why when you read it.

— Michael Bracken


The Magic of Malice

By Stacy Woodson

My first Malice Domestic was in 2018. The day of the convention I overslept. Yep—right through the alarm (which is unusual for me). I’m an early morning writer, at the computer, fingers poised by 4 a.m.

Not that day.

Stacy Woodson surrounded by other writers
at Malice Domestic.
Flustered, I dressed quickly and rushed downstairs. The first event of the morning was author speed dating. Inspired by the formalized matchmaking process, this literary version has authors rotate between tables to meet readers and chat about their latest projects. I heard wonderful things about author speed dating and was determined to attend. But when I finally arrived at the ballroom, it was well-underway, and seats were full.

And the authors were talking.

And the organizers were organizing.

And the newbie (me) was searching, from table-to-table, hoping an empty seat would magically appear. (Experienced speed daters reading this are thinking fat chance.) But that day was different. That day a seat did magically appear.

Just not at a speed dating table.

A kind author offered me a chair at a small break table—a stop on the speed dating circuit where authors sit to catch their breath for seven minutes until the horn blows, and they rotate to a new table with readers. This kind author said I may not be able to hear pitches, but sitting here still offered an opportunity to remain in the ballroom and connect with authors. He handed me a flier and chatted about his projects. Then, the whistle blew, he wished me luck, and rotated to the next table.

This was a key moment in my literary life because that kind author who threw me a speed dating-lifeline was Michael Bracken.

That was six years ago.

Since then, I’ve appeared in over a dozen of Michael’s anthologies and magazines. Three of these stories have been nominated for major awards, and one will be included in The Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2024. Today, we are also collaborating on projects, co-editing two anthologies, teaching short fiction for Outliers Writing University, and organizing ShortCon (along with Verena Rose and Shawn Reilly Simmons). If that isn’t amazing enough, Michael and I also co-wrote “Dogs of War,” my first short fiction collaboration, which is nominated for a Derringer Award this year.

The kindness Michael showed me that day isn’t rare for him, and I’m not the only author he mentors. He has a mission to elevate short mystery fiction and create opportunities for short mystery fiction writers. He does this by editing a growing list of anthologies and publications, writing columns and blogs, sharing wisdom on panels, advocating for the short mystery fiction community as a board member with Mystery Writers of America, and by creating ShortCon.

Magical moments happen when creative people gather and talk about what they love. My wish for other writers is that they attend mixers at conventions, volunteer to work at the registration desk, seek out someone new and have a conversation (maybe a lost soul in the speed dating ballroom) and create space for their own Michael Bracken-moment.

Thank you, Michael, for offering a port in the speed dating storm six years ago. I know my writing journey would be remarkably different if you hadn’t.

* * *

“Dogs of War,” co-written by Michael Bracken and Stacy Woodson, appeared in Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir Volume 4. A death letter read at a military funeral unearths a secret, and an unexpected hero ensures justice is served in this Derringer Award-nominated story.

ShortCon is a one-day conference emphasizing crime fiction short stories—how to write them, how to get them published, and how to sustain a long-term career as a short-story writer. It will be held at Elaine’s Restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia, on Saturday, June 22, 2024. Learn more about ShortCon at https://www.eastcoastcrime.com/#/.


22 April 2024

Punctuated equilibrium. Also capitalized.


I love France, and many of the French, though they can be annoying like anyone else.  I find their language confounding, even as I love the way it sounds.  One of my good friends is fluent, as is my niece, and I’ll always marvel at their achievements.  The problem with French, to me, is there are far too many vowels, which to my ear all sound the same.  Though while I understand virtually nothing French people say, I respect their determination to preserve their native tongue, to maintain it exactly as it is for all eternity.

I also think they are completely, foolishly and historically wrong in this, though you have to admire their grit. 

The term Lingua Franca means universal language, which it used to be, but not anymore.  This is because they refused to let the language evolve, and thus the world passed it by, in favor of my language, English, which almost everyone on Earth knows “a leetle.”

I learned this traveling around Europe and other continents, and working with people from all over everywhere.  I’d ask if they spoke English, and they’d all say “a leetle”, and then display a mastery of the form far surpassing most of the knuckleheads I grew up with in Philadelphia, Pa.  USA. 

The secret of this success, aside from being spoken by the predominant global military/economic powers of the last two centuries, is unlike French, we could care less about preserving linguistic purity.  If French has the moral rectitude of Mother Superior, English would embarrass the Marquis de Sade.  Anything but pure. 

So this is a good thing, overall, though the process of change can be irksome, and exhausting.  New English words are created, often pilfered from others, in such profusion you feel like you’re in a swarm of breeding may flies.  Usage is entirely fungible, and no army of authoritarian schoolmarms could ever staunch our various and sundry populations’ creative misuse, mispronunciation, garbled grammar and syntactical sin.

Though change is inevitable, you don’t have to always like it.  A favorite pastime around this household is gritching about popular degradations of proper speech.  That is, proper by our likes, but in the future these preferences will be considered archaic.  Using the noun “impact” as a verb has achieved such widespread acceptance it’s a fait accompli.  That written, to me the only correct use of impacted relates to wisdom teeth, or when Carl Sagan described a giant asteroid slamming into the side of Jupiter.

But I console myself from such fretting by thinking of language as perfectly mirroring natural history.  Both evolve relentlessly, in the same fashion.  Species arise, dominate, splinter into sub-species, some wither away, others become entirely distinct.  It’s fair to bemoan the loss of a particular dialect, or even an entire language, but realize that thousands have arisen and died off over the eons, and any field left fallow will soon be bursting with new life.  Most of New England was once farmland.  Now you can barely see the forests for all the trees.

The natural historian Stephen Jay Gould defined a phenomenon he called “punctuated equilibrium”.  This describes how a portion of a certain population becomes isolated from the main herd (which could have been in a stable state for thousands of years), and then very quickly, evolves into something notably different.  Language does exactly the same thing. 

Everyone thinks American English is a corrupted, devolved version of the genteel speech we hear on Downton Abbey.  In fact, during the Revolutionary War the British sounded pretty much like Americans do today.  We’re the ones who’ve stayed the locutionary course while the Brits have moved on.  No one had a Southern accent as defined today until sometime after the Civil War.  The South was, and still is, bursting with distinctive dialects and styles of expression, but only the flattening of mass media could bestow upon us a fully regional inflection.

There used to be an American accent called Mid-Atlantic, sort of a hybrid British/American contraption.  The most useful exemplars were FDR and William F. Buckley, though it was so common in old movies – think Katherine Hepburn or Errol Flynn (an Australian, for Pete’s sake) – that few realized Cary Grant was actually an Englishman.  Since this manner of speaking signaled a kind of aristocratic superiority, we’re well rid of it.  Meanwhile, millions of Americans were quite eager to put Bernie Sanders in the White House, and while the majority rejected his politics, no one thought his Brooklyn accent was a disqualifier. 

Disparaging how other people speak is snobbish at best, 

and at worst, bigoted, since there is no rational or scientific justification for ascribing character flaws to styles of speech.  As with any social construct, accent discrimination is used by those with the upper hand to bludgeon others they’d prefer remain in their disfavored social class. Luckily, our language itself has a way of slipping out from under these predations, dissolving advantages and disadvantages alike. 

And churning out new words like Twinkies at a Hostess factory.

Merriam-Webster added 690 new words to the dictionary last year.  And that doesn’t include thousands more candidates.  James Joyce made up seventeen words, though only “quark” survives to this day, and only because Murray Gell-Mann used it to name a subatomic particle.  Shakespeare, on the other hand, invented over 1,700 English words, most of which are still in use. 

I’m pretty sure I invented the word “rictify”, which I used to describe what happens to some people whose attitudes and beliefs become rigid and fixed in place as they age, suggesting some sort of combination of “petrify” and “rigor mortis”.  A psychologist friend of mine liked it so much, he started using it in his practice.  Haven’t seen it in the dictionary yet, but keeping an eye out. 

Your turn.   

21 April 2024

The Tintinnitus of the Bells, Bells, Bells


My parents used to rebuke us: “Enunciate!”

Humph. I didn’t think I spoke badly, but they would’ve instructed the nation with resolutely precise enunciation if they’d had their own Discord and YouTube channels.

A couple of decades later found me in France at a colleague’s dinner table talking about the weather. I mention the harsh winter in Minnesota and my French friend stopped me.

letter T

“The harsh what?” he asked.

“Harsh winter,” I said. At his request, repeated it yet again.

He said, “I don’t understand.”

“Spring, summer, autumn, winter.”

He looked puzzled. “I thought winter had a T in it.”

He was right. I wasn’t pronouncing the T. Same with ‘plenty’. Likewise, I pronounced only the first T in ‘twenty’'. Some words with an ’nt’ combination – but not all– lost their ’T’s coming out of my mouth.

Banter and canter, linty and minty seem fine, but I swallow the T in ‘painter’. Returning after a year overseas and more conscious of enunciation, I sounded like a foreigner. “I just love German accents,” said my bank teller, cooing and fluttering her eyelashes.

Language in Flux

By age 8 or so, I’d become adept at soldering and still use the skill for repairs, projects, and mad scientist experiments. Pitifully, it took me decades to realize I didn’t know how to pronounce it.

I’m not sure if it’s a Midwestern thing or an American attribute, but I leave out the bloody letter L. Most people I know pronounce that compound of tin, lead, and silver as “sodder.”

I don’t do that with other LD combinations like bolder, colder, and folder. Even with practice, solder with an L does not trip readily off my tongue.

letter L

The Apple electronic dictionary that comes with Macs shows North American pronunciation as [ ˈsädər ]. Interesting… no L. Then I switched tabs to the British English dictionary where I learned it’s pronounced [ ˈsɒldə, ˈsəʊldə ]. Okay, there’s an L. But hello… What’s this? What happened to the R? Whoa-ho-ho.

Speaking of L&R, when was the R in ‘colonel’ granted leave? Kernel I understand; colonel, not so much. What about British ‘lieutenant’? The OED blames the French, claiming ‘lievtenant’ evolved to ‘lieutenant’ but pronounced ‘lieftenant’.

Finally, what happened to the L in could, would, and should? They seem to have broken the mould. The Oxford lords giveth and they taketh away.

Sounds of Silence

I know precisely why another word gave me difficulty. I tended to add a syllable to the word ‘tinnitus’, which came out ‘tintinnitus’. I’ve puzzled an otolaryngologist or two, because I conflated tinnitus with tintinnabulation.

(Otolaryngologist? Speak of words difficult to pronounce!)

Which brings us to a trivia question all our readers should know: How does ‘tintinnabulation’ connect with the world of mystery?

Rhymes Not with Venatio

Before Trevor Noah became a US political humorist, his career began as a South African standup comic. On one of his DVDs, he altered words to sound snooty and high class, such as ‘patio’ rhymed with ‘ratio’.

Junior high, Bubbles Mclaughlin: nineteen months and three days older than me. Like Trevor, this ‘older woman’ had no idea how to pronounce another word ending in ‘atio’. For years, neither did I, but she could have rhymed it with ‘aardvark’ and I wouldn’t have minded.

letter C

C Creatures

I’ve been listening to ebooks recently. Almost all text-to-speech apps claim to use buzzwordy AI, but most don’t, not when ‘epitome’ sounds like ‘git home’. Similarly, ‘façade’ does not rhyme with ‘arcade’.

When making the Prohibition Peepers video, I altered spelling of a few words to get the sound I needed, such as ‘lyve’ instead of ‘live’. What a pane in the AIss.

I wondered if ebook programs would pronounce façade correctly if their closed captions were correctly spelled with C-cédille, that letter C with the comma-looking tail that indicates a soft C. If you stretch your imagination, you can kinda, sorta imagine a cedilla (or cédille) looking a little like a distorted S. (For Apple users employing text-to-speech, a Mac pronounces it correctly either way.)

Our local Publix grocery (when their founder’s granddaughter and heiress isn’t funding riots) spells the South American palm berry drink as ‘acai’, which meant both employees and I sounded it with a K. If they’d spelled ‘açai’ with the C-cédille, I would have learned the word much sooner.

I could say ‘anemone’ before I knew how to spell it. The names of this flower and sea creature are spoken like ‘uh-NEM-uh-nee’, which rhymes with ‘enemy’.

Bullchit

Permit me to introduce you to Rachel and Rachel’s English YouTube channel. She kindly explains we often learn words through reading and don’t learn their sound until much later. I was shocked that three of the words she led with have given me trouble including one I hadn’t realized I was currently mispronouncing– echelon. I was saying it as CH (as in China) instead of SH (as in Chicago).

Those other two words: In grade school, I became confused how to say mischievous and triathlon, requiring more careful attention.

Rachel also discusses how modern usage omits syllables. I say ‘modern’ because my teachers would have rounded smartly on us had we dared abbreviate, so I tend to fully sound out several of her examples. One she doesn’t mention is ‘secretary’, at times said as ’SEK-ruh-tree’.

When is a T not a T?

The phrase ‘can not’ has been shortened and shortened again over time:

    • can not
    • cannot
    • can’t
    • can’

What? Rachel enters extreme territory beyond my ken, explaining the ’stop-T’. Listen to what she has to say about it. That’s all for now!

 
   
  © SleuthSayers

 

Answer to trivia question: Edgar Allan Poe famously used the obscure but wonderful word ‘tintinnabulation’ in his poem, ‘The Bells’.