15 April 2024

Time to Say Adios

Okay, I haven't known Marcia Muller for 47 years but perhaps a little closer to 37 years. I'm sorta on shaky ground but reasonably sure my first Bouchercon was 1989 when I met Ms Muller. By 1992, I knew her well enough to invite her to come do an author signing at Mysteries and More bookstore, which Elmer and I owned from 1990 to 1999. Or maybe it was 1995, when she and her husband Bill Pronzini came for a duo signing.

They drove to Austin from Houston where they had done an event earlier at Murder by the Book store. It was a Saturday and our event wasn't scheduled until Tuesday as our store was normally closed on Monday. The next day happened to be Easter Sunday when we understandly were closed. It all turned out fine as they joined us at Elmer's niece's house where we had family and a delicious Easter dinner.

The next day we took them to see our beloved Hill Country where the Texas bluebonnets and other wildflowers made it a fabulous weekend. Elmer and Bill bonded then which led to visits back and forth through the years. On one trip to CA, I was able to finagle a plane ride with Marcia and her flying instructor. Another time, a drive with Marcia along the coast, led to a visit to the "real week-end getaway belonging to Sharon McCone & Hy Ripinski."

I read EDWIN OF THE IRON SHOES soon after it came out and decided then and there I'd be friends with Sharon McCone through all her adventures. I am totally thrilled she found true love and is happy with her life. Although it makes me a little sad to know CIRCLE IN THE WATER is the last Sharon McCone book, as a fan and a friend, I can totally understand. I will advise you readers and fans to get your copy on the 24th. However, I'm also sure you can pre-order now.

— Jan Grape

by Marcia Muller

Marcia Muller

Creating a long-running series –47 years– has been a pleasure. Also frustrating. Maddening. Crazy-making. All those story lines to remember. All those characters to make toe the line. All those real-life locations to check out for changes.

Story lines: many of them in my Sharon McCone series are intertwined, dating back to 1977.

Characters: they've moved residences, switched jobs, married, divorced, even– *shock!* –changed their hairstyles.

novel cover

Real-life locations: throughout California and many other areas, they're radically different from those I started out with, particularly in San Francisco.

Which all adds up to why, in my current and last McCone novel (Circle in the Water, Grand Central Books, April 23) I've written an afterword, bringing the reader up to date on where the characters are now and the good things their lives will lead them toward in the future.

I emphasize good things. After all, for 47 years they've been good to me. Why shouldn't I be good to them?

And of course, the book is dedicated in part to my readers, who have made my long career possible. Thanks to them all!


14 April 2024

Kinsey Millhone: a fantasy character with fantasies.

Recently my six-month-old Bouvier puppy mistook one of my Sue Grafton books for a chew toy. I apologize to anyone who is squeamish about crime scene photos, but this is what I had to deal with.

During her life and since her death, I cannot count the number of conversations I’ve had about Sue Grafton and her character, Kinsey Millhone.

Women detectives in novels get me every time. My bookshelf and bank account concur. Like any love affair - I’m committed, invested and have opinions.

After I taped the cover of the book, I looked at Sue Grafton’s site and found a quote from N Is for Noose about Kinsey, that reveals why she is so compelling as a character:

“Get close to someone and the next thing you know, you've given them the power to wound, betray, irritate, abandon you, or bore you senseless. My general policy is to keep my distance, thus avoiding a lot of unruly emotion. In psychiatric circles, there are names for people like me.”

It is followed by this explanation: 

“Those are sentiments that hit home for Grafton's readers. And she has said that Kinsey is herself, only younger, smarter, and thinner. But are they an apt description of Kinsey's creator? Well, she's been married to Steve Humphrey for more than thirty-five years and has three children, four granddaughters, and one great grandson.  She loves cats, gardens, and good cuisine—not quite the nature-hating, fast-food loving Millhone. So: readers and reviewers beware. Never assume the author is the character in the book. Sue…is only in her imagination Kinsey Millhone—but what a splendid imagination it is.”

There’s an old adage that writers should write what they know because readers have a nose for  inauthentic writing and there’s nothing inauthentic about Kinsey. Every woman can agree that people can wound, betray and bore you senseless. It reads as authentic and passes the sniff test. So, I argue that Sue Grafton knew Kinsey well enough to write about her. Kinsey’s rant about people didn’t even fit with the way her character lived because one of the staples of the series is her close relationship with Henry, her elderly neighbour and landlord. She even likes Rosie, who runs the local restaurant and bar, despite her serving odd and often repulsive food. If Kinsey Millhone is Sue Grafton’s alter ego, then Kinsey Millhone has her own alter ego and this is why readers felt her to be such a credible character. 

Just as writers write what they know, I suspect readers read what they know as well. I simply cannot read certain books. If a female detective (again, big fan) shows herself to be incapable of forming relationships and lacking in empathy on any page in the book, that’s the page I stop reading. This isn’t a judgement thing. It’s about reality. I have known many women as friends, as patients, heck, I even raised a woman, and I have never met one who doesn't form relationships and has no empathy. Not one. So when I read about tough women detectives (again big fan of tough women) who have no empathy, I can’t relate. Can’t read. They don’t seem real. 

Yes, there are people with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) commonly known as psychopaths or sociopaths, but they account for 0.2% to 3.3% of the population. People overestimate their numbers in part because so many crime novels feature them and also because it has become in vogue to diagnose those one dislikes as a one of these. Kinsey has many dimensions but she does not fulfil the criteria of antisocial personality disorder. As I said, I have opinions and this is one of them.

Why Kinsey is so loved as a character is that she, like many of us, has fantasies. Sue Grafton’s readers understand this. I’m fiercely protective of my husband of over 30 years and have also, when annoyed, politely asked him to find me my book of poisons so I can make him dinner. If the former weren’t true, the latter wouldn’t be funny.

Kinsey as a character is so authentic that she, like all of us, has fantasies of being something worse than she is and then, she comes to her senses and hangs out with Henry or eats Rosie’s vile food without complaint. I can relate. No matter how annoyed I have been, I have never actually added poison to my husband's food and he eats the meal I prepare with gusto because he knows this. He does occasionally feign a near death experience while eating and it's hilarious, because it's all fantasy. 

13 April 2024

Adventures In Spelling (Or, An Author Gives Up)

Words. They're kind of important in writing. Words are comprised of letters, optimally in the correct order. I'm a liberal arts major and know these things. And yet. The mind and typing fingers can struggle.

I'm actually a darn good speller, or I was. I hung in there on spelling bees as a kid, and nobody geeked out more on PSAT vocabulary than this guy. One thing the young me could've learned better was typing. My mom considered typing a life skill and made us take runs at her IBM Selectric. A sweet machine, the Selectric. The clack of keys, the thump of ball element, precision stuff engineered to sequence manual keystrokes just right, and it never stood a chance. Not with me and my pecking method impervious to parental correction.  

Not all letter combinations are kind to the pecking method. Here are the dreaded words that get me every time.


Every time. Every time I want to type camouflage, I type "camoflage." If I'm overthinking my dropped vowel, I type "camoflague." Maybe it's an extension of living in the South, all these folks in daywear camos. Maybe it's the pronunciation. Said lazily, it can come out as all different kinds of ways. Said correctly, there's no "o" in there anywhere. It's a sneaky little unstressed "uh" vowel that, ironically, blends in with mastermind stealth. YouTube has videos on this pronunciation trick. 

Or maybe lifestyle is my problem. It's not a word that comes up much. I try to live a life neither hiding from anyone nor fixing to bushwhack them, either.


This is less of a misspelling routine than willful disregard. I understand full well the English language contains both the words "farther" and my habitual "further." Farther, a grammarist will tell you, means at a greater distance or to a greater extent. Further covers that but goes, well, further. The adverb and adjectival forms denote something additionally or an additional amount, to include extents and distances. 

This distinction can become fighting stuff, but only for word nerds. Many people go through entire lives not caring about nearly interchangeable word nuance. The difference doesn't matter when writing dialogue unless the character is a fellow word nerd. I hear "further" much more than "farther" in conversation, but that could be a personal filter. "Further" sounds everyday. "Farther" sounds like Thurston Howell asking if you have Grey Poupon.


This is a simple enough word. 9 letters. Pronounced how spelled. And yet. My fingers type it "hypocrasy" or "hypocricy" or the double-up "hypocracy." I'm old enough to know when things aren't gonna get better. It wouldn't be honest to skip this on my typing issues list.


I literally just mistyped that subtitle as "manuever." Frankly, I'm not sure I'm to blame. The second syllable of maneuver (I just mistyped that, too) rhymes with true and blue. Same diacritical marks. The U before the E? Nope, and maybe just what I expected the spelling to do. Anyway, thanks spell check.


"Publically." In the hunt and peck storm, "publically" is what flows. The hodgepodge we call the English language has a rule. A rule, folks, and it says adverbs made from adjectives ending in "ic" get an "ally." A rule, specifically. Except. Oh, the exception. I give you the adverb "publicly." The real lesson is to avoid adverbs. Except in speech because people use adverbs non-stop in speech. And dialogue is done publicly. I have to edit hard, is what I'm saying.


This one is a different glitch. It's tactical somehow, like how my hand positioning gets pulled wide chasing each next letter. Whenever I hunt-and-peck any word with the prefix "semi," things go haywire. The "semi" part is fine. What comes next breaks down into stray characters. The entire remaining word plunges into babble until a rally when some vague semblance of meaning returns. But too devoid of meaning for spell check to fathom. Microsoft Word flags the babble as if a hell-if-I-know shrug. 

If anyone out there wonders who is holding natural language algorithms back from brilliant adoption of "semi" words, it's me. Not sure I can explain it. Only semi-sure I should explore it.


True story. 

Once, I argued at length that superseded was--and could only ever be--spelled "superceded." This wasn't in the spelling bee or PSAT days, either. I was then a young paid professional with a liberal arts education, and I was arguing the pure necessity of "superceded" in my workpapers. "Super," of course, meant the act of revising or replacing. "Ceded" meant the ceding of that ground. I could not have been more wrong. What has me laughing years later isn't that. It's that my boss didn't interrupt. She let me go on. 

Superseded is correct spelling. I know that now. I knew it then, too, except in the moment my better judgment was revised or replaced. The struggle is real and continues. My left index finger--the one in charge of "c"--still gets the itch. 

There It Is, Then

I crank through the typing well enough. With corrections. Sometimes, the head gets in the way, or the method. Sometimes, it's a mental thing, the misspelled word so engrained that I'm head-cased and doom-looped. But some words are writer kryptonite, and I've given up pretending otherwise. Writing is nothing if not a learning process, and that includes accepting the trick words.

12 April 2024

Paperback Writer

When I dreamed of writing a novel in high school – my goal was to be a paperback writer, like the song.

Twenty years after graduating from high school my first novel was published as a paperback original – GRIM REAPER. An early definition of a paperback book said it was of lower quality than a hardback original books and written for mass consumption. Yep, that was GRIM REAPER

I've been a paperback writer since (with occasional hardback editions of my paperbacks and lots of eBooks), so I hit the mark.

Along the way I learned how to write a short story and have had many published.

Trivia note: A Lennon-McCartney composition, written primarily by Paul, PAPERBACK WRITER was the first Beatles hit not about love. It was No.1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks in 1966. I loved growing up with 60's music (and some 70s).

With 48 books published (36 novels, 10 short story collections, 2 non-fiction books), I'm still a paperback writer (trade paperbacks now). #49 coming out this summer.

A quick word of caution to writers like me who have a number of books available for sale online. Expressing your political views can drop your sales dramatically and keep them down indefinitely.



11 April 2024

Crime Scene Comix Case 2024-04-023, Outcome

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.

10 April 2024

Speculative Cinemas

“We were just leaving the movies - Casablanca, with Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan…”  I had the idea one time to use this as the opening of a story, to signal it was alternate history.  This casting was supposedly floated, at some point, but it was a public relations stunt; Hal Wallis, the producer, later said he never wanted anybody but Bogart. 

Quentin Tarantino published a book, year before last, called Cinema Speculation, and my first thought was that he’d speculate.  For example, Howard Hawks once claimed that he was set to direct Casablanca, and Michael Curtiz was assigned to Sergeant York, but Curtiz wanted to get out of doing a picture about “hillbillies” and he, Hawks, was uncomfortable making a “musical,” (I’m not sure what he means by that, La Marseillaise, As Time Goes By?) and they switched movies.  I don’t know whether to credit this.  Hawks is clearly the right guy for Gary Cooper, and Curtiz is just as clearly the right director for Casablanca.  In 
fact, Warners kept two crews working simultaneously, so Curtiz could prep his next picture while he shot the current one: he was that efficient – or ruthless, some would say.  All the same, Tarantino is nothing if not a fanboy, you knew that, and you can imagine how entertaining he might be with What Ifs. 

Sam Peckinpah was fired from The Cincinatti Kid about a week in.  Ostensibly, because he was making a dirty movie; he did a scene with Rip Torn and a naked girl in a fur coat.  (“Oh,” Peckinpah says, “and I was shooting in black-and-white.”)  Not to mention, Sharon Tate got the boot in favor of Tuesday Weld, and Spencer Tracy was signed to play Lancey Howard, but Edward G. Robinson came off the bench when Tracy had health issues.  Norman Jewison gets the director credit, and Cincinnati Kid is a halfway decent picture – Robinson is terrific, too, he steals the movie – but you can’t help wondering.  In the aftermath of the Major Dundee disaster, The Cincinnati Kid could have put Peckinpah back on the map, Steve McQueen a brand name already, even if shooting a major release in widescreen color is the better box-office call.  McQueen and Peckinpah of course did Junior Bonner and The Getaway later on. 

Here’s a story Quint does tell.  McQueen passed on Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, after Paul Newman had been signed.  They offered Sundance to Warren Beatty, but Beatty wanted to play Butch, and he wanted Elvis as Sundance. 

A lot of people probably know that Dirty Harry started out as a Frank Sinatra vehicle - the original pitch for Columbo had Bing Crosby to star, too – but after they settled on Clint Eastwood, he brought Don Siegel over from Universal, to direct.  Siegel, at one point, wanted to cast Audie Murphy as Scorpio, the serial killer, because Audie Murphy had a baby face and didn’t look the part (although he’s credited with killing 241 enemy combatants in WWII).  Siegel had made two pictures with Audie, one, The Gun Runners, a remake of To Have and Have Not.  Also, if you think Audie can’t act, you should check out The Unforgivenhis second picture with John Huston.

*As a footnote, Andy Robinson, who
did play Scorpio, has a good hundred credits under his belt, but it took him twenty years to shake his association with the part (he’s really  that good in Dirty Harry), and even then, it was because he wore heavy prosthetics in Deep Space Nine.

Nobody but Gable was ever going to play Rhett Butler, but there are dozens of surviving screen tests for Scarlett.  Everybody wanted the part.  1400 interviews, 400 callbacks.  Katherine Hepburn.  Paulette Goddard had a good shot, but she was shacked up with Chaplin, and not married to him, which gave Selznick the jitters.  Tallulah Bankhead.  Susan Hayward, Frances Dee, Jean Arthur, Lucille Ball, Miriam Hopkins, Claudette Colbert, Joan Crawford, Loretta Young, Carole Lombard, Norma Shearer, Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner, Joan Bennett.  Bette Davis was an early favorite, but Warners wouldn’t lend her out.  She was chafing against studio discipline, and Jack Warner wanted to teach her a lesson.  She did Jezebel at Warners, which is basically the same story as GWTW, and the better picture, for my money.  The question is whether you can see her as Scarlett.  Or if you can see anybody else as Scarlett, once Vivien Leigh is in the room.  She takes up all the air.  You may or may not actually like the movie, but she surely makes it hers.

Cutting back to Quentin, he does get up to some mischief, not so much in
Cinema Speculation, but in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, you have Leo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton playing the Steve McQueen part in The Great Escape, and Damian Lewis, as McQueen, bemoaning the fact that he’s not getting into Sharon Tate’s pants. 

The question isn’t whether it’s real, but whether it’s convincing.  I personally can’t conjure up Brando or Albert Finney in Lawrence of Arabia, but they were both offered the part.  Lee Marvin walked away from The Wild Bunch to do Paint Your Wagon.  You just never know.  Somewhere out there are these ghost pictures, that never got made, or got made with the wrong talent, or somehow went off the rails. 

We’ll never get to see those movies, running in the private drive-in of our mind’s eye.  But maybe we’ve been spared. 

09 April 2024

Miami Ad-Vice

        On the day this blog posts, life takes my traveling companion and me to southern Florida. The overlapping events provided an ideal time to resume my irregular series of posts on Constitutional Tourism, a geographic review of major Supreme Court decisions on criminal law matters. For those interested in where their law comes from, today we're venturing to The Sunshine State. 

    No surprise to Crockett or Tubbs, but drugs flow through South Florida. Much of this region's Supreme Court case law deals with drug interdiction. Hopefully, the following review will provide a brief law primer as well as a guide to visiting America's thumb. What follows are a few places where your rights were more sharply defined. 

    Florida v. Bostick, 501 US 419 (1991)

    Mr. Bostick climbed aboard a bus at the Miami depot. His ride was headed for Atlanta. In Fort Lauderdale, the next city north of Miami, sheriff's officers entered the bus. They approached Bostick without any facts to articulate why he might be viewed as a suspicious character. The officers, dressed in law enforcement jackets and showing badges, asked permission to search his bag. There is some dispute about whether Bostick provided consent, but the trial court found that he had. When the deputies looked, they found cocaine in Bostick's luggage. His bus ride ended abruptly. 

selbst vektorisiert, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

    The state supreme court for Florida found that a reasonable person, under Bostick's circumstances, would not feel free to leave the bus. That court held that the search was an unconstitutional violation of Bostick's rights against unlawful search and seizure. Bus searches essentially were, per se, unreasonable. 

    As a rule, the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects against unlawful searches. Although there is a preference for search warrants, a judicial order is not always required before the police may search. History has crafted a handful of exceptions. One of those is permission. If I consented to Crockett and Tubbs searching me or my possessions, I cannot later complain if they found something. 

    But I can't be coerced into giving my okay. My rights need to be freely and voluntarily surrendered. This is a subjective question, turning on things like the words used, the display of weapons, and other facts. 

    The Supreme Court acknowledged that the police could engage in this behavior on the streets. The bus, however, presented a more challenging environment for a defendant to refuse. The path to avoid the police likely is the narrow center aisle of the bus, a route running between the two officers. If Bostick left, the bus would leave without him. He may not have a free and voluntary choice to make. 

    However, cramped spaces and tight schedules were not the result of anything the police did; instead, they were part of bus travel. The Supreme Court ruled that Florida's holding finding bus searches were automatically unconstitutional was wrong. The question wasn't whether Bostick was free to leave, the Court held, but whether he was free to decline a search. They sent the case back for the Florida Supreme Court to consider the voluntary nature of Bostick's choice. The Florida judiciary upheld the search this time. 

    Florida v. J.L., 529 US  266 (2000) 

    An anonymous caller told Miami police that a group of three young black males were at a bus stop at 183rd St. and N.W. 24th Ave. The male, wearing a plaid shirt, carried a gun. The responding officer arrived within six minutes of the tip. At the bus stop, she saw three males, including one wearing a plaid shirt. She observed no suspicious behavior. Nonetheless, she frisked the plaid-shirted J.L. and found a handgun in his pocket. 

Ed Webster, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

 Another search warrant exception is a police officer's safety frisk. (We discussed this one in an earlier blog touring Cleveland.) If an officer has articulable facts and circumstances that, based on her training and experience, lead her to believe that a crime is occurring and may pose a danger, she is entitled to frisk for weapons. Here, the suspicion arose not from the officer's observations but from an anonymous tipster calling from an unknown place. The tip provided no means for the police to test the informant's knowledge or credibility. The anonymous tip alone could not justify the stop and frisk. 

    J.L. was sixteen when this offense occurred. His youth may have been a factor in the Supreme Court's reluctance to brand him a criminal. They ruled in his favor and did not allow Florida to prosecute the case. It is also why he isn't named in the opinion. History carries his initials only, unlike Mr. Bostick. 

    As an aside, the Supreme Court left some wiggle room. They specifically noted that they might feel differently if the police were responding to an anonymous tip about a bomb or some other mass-casualty risk. 

    Miami buses came out 1-1 in the U.S. Supreme Court. 

    U.S. v. Place, 462 US 696 (1983)

    Airplane passengers always check a few constitutional rights along with their baggage. In Place, a passenger boarded a plane bound for LaGuardia in New York from the Miami airport. Detectives in Florida became suspicious about Raymond Place but decided they didn't have time to search before his flight departed. Instead, they notified DEA agents in New York. The feds detained Place for ninety minutes and drove him to Kennedy Airport. At Kennedy, a drug-sniffing dog alerted to the luggage. This happened on Friday afternoon. The DEA held the luggage until they could get a search warrant signed on Monday. Upon opening Place's luggage, the authorities found slightly more than a kilo of cocaine. 

    Here, the DEA had a tip from a known and reliable source. It was not anonymous. The Miami detectives, furthermore, investigated and found holes in Place's story. Based on this reliable information, the DEA could detain the luggage briefly to investigate. However, the Supreme Court found that the federal agent's detention exceeded the permissible limits. The authorities kept Place and his bags too long for an investigative stop. They knew he was coming: they could have staged the dog at La Guardia rather than dragging a presumed innocent passenger across New York City. As a consolation, the Supreme Court did rule that allowing a drug-sniffing dog to walk by the luggage did not constitute a search. 

    The government lost this kilo but got the Supreme Court's thumbs-up on dog sniffing. Canine searches have proved to be a powerful tool for law enforcement. 

    Constitutional law books locate this case in New York. The constitutional nugget, however, had its origin in Miami. Current Supreme Court Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson also did. She grew up in Miami and was senior class president at Miami Palmetto High School. Justice Jackson is, perhaps, Miami's most enduring Supreme Court connection. 

    Does she feel constitutionally safer in an airplane or a bus when she visits Miami? 

    Until next time. 

08 April 2024

Do not go gentle into that good night. Bring a flashlight.

I’m in my seventies, which makes me officially an old person.  In our euphemism-afflicted age, the preferable term is Senior, though I still think that label is better suited to someone in the twelfth grade of high school.

Another sop to this PC frenzy is to call someone like me older.  Okay, older than whom?  My brother is older than me, and always will be.  He was when I was ten and he was fourteen.

They say you’re only as old as you feel.  I feel like I’m in my seventies, at least with regard to aching joints and memory lapses.  The rest of the brain appears to still be functioning, surprisingly, given how I’d mistreated it as a younger person.  It’s a known fact that when one part of the body declines, or is abruptly taken offline, the other parts compensate, growing stronger.  This is a pleasant thought, which suggests I might be getting even smarter as I stagger out of bed in the morning and lose my car keys.   

I’m not sure what effect this all has on ones writing.  I’ve had the displeasure of reading some of my juvenilia, and it’s predictably callow and risible, though I can hear my voice buried in there, yearning to be free.  There’s no certainty that being on the other end of the age spectrum means your writing will improve, or decay.  But there are plenty of examples of the former, and precious little of the latter, barring critics’ mercurial tastes, not known for their discernment at any age. 

Thorton Wilder wrote my favorite Wilder work, the novel Theophilus North, when he was seventy-six, back when that age meant something.  And nothing good. 

I published my first book when I was fifty-three.  When checking Google on this subject, I noticed that people over fifty were categorized as “starting late.”  I didn’t know that at the time.  I did write about three books in the decades before, none publishable, but it was good exercise.  And I got to enjoy a blizzard of rejections, which strengthens the spine. 

Arthritis aside, the only physical demand of a starting-late writer is typing.  And staring at the computer screen through bifocals.  What we do have, as compensation, is a lifetime of accumulated knowledge and experience.  This is a quality that’s revered in Eastern cultures.  In America, it mostly qualifies you to be ignored by the middle aged and ridiculed by your children (the grandchildren instinctively know better, though they’re too young to copy edit or help you find an agent.)  However, if you’re lucky enough to not reprise your old mistakes, writing becomes a much more efficient process.  The key here is knowing more quickly when the work sucks, and much more willing to swipe it into the trash icon with little or no regret.  When you’re young, you don’t know that it’s possible to compose thousands, if not millions, of sentences.  That you’re capable of drastically revising a hundred-thousand-word manuscript.  So every line on the page is more precious, more deserving of life in perpetuity, even though they might, in a word, suck.

At writers conferences and panel events, when I look out at the audience, most of the heads are white or grey, or would be if not for hair dye.  So writing and reading are largely pursuits of the not-so-young.  We have more time, and fewer pressing responsibilities, and if fortunate, greater resources to sustain the habit.  And unlike Olympic-level gymnastics, something you can do until you face-plant into the keyboard. 

I just had a birthday, an occasion once celebrated, now more regrettable, since it marks less potential for repeat performances.  Some say it’s just a number, though these people can still count the numbers off on their hands and feet without losing track. 

As I’ve noted in prior posts, short term memory does not improve with age.  If I need to carry an item from Room A to Room B, I immediately put it in my pocket.  Then it will find its way to the destination, even though I might not remember why it should have gone there in the first place.  Long term memories, on the other hand, become seasoned over time.  Leavened by recurring recollection, burnished through sharing with old friends and family.  These may not be quite accurate – actually, they probably aren’t – but if you’re a storyteller, all the better. 

Ones life becomes a kind of artform of its own, where the rough outlines of events are curated and shaped into reflections both material and inventive, true by Hemingway’s definition, faithful and well aimed.  

06 April 2024

The Mystery of the Firebear

Firebear as seen by Indians and pioneer boy

This real-life mystery sounds like the title of a Nancy Drew / Hardy Boys novel, doesn’t it? But stay tuned.

First Nations near Flat Rock, Indiana first told of the Firebear living in nearby caves. At night, the Firebear roamed forests and fields, burning brightly at night. Seen by generation after generation of Native Americans, the creature was deemed immortal.

In pioneer times when homesteaders settled Flat Rock, they learned of the legend. Not only did they hear of the myth from local Indians, they saw the Firebear for themselves, coming out at night, flaming in the dark.

So, if I told you the Firebear was actual, factual, what explanation might you give? Historical records indicate it was real. Take a moment to ponder before we solve the mystery.

Major Works

My recent story, Dime Detective, was influenced by Booth Tarkington’s Penrod stories. Tarkington was among a number of Indiana authors wildly popular in their time, but, despite films, stage plays, and now audiobooks, are virtually forgotten by subsequent generations.

Firebear at the mouth of his cave

Along similar lines, Indianapolis attorney Charles Major took to writing, and success eventually allowed him to give up lawyering. His intensively researched historical romances became immediately popular, beginning with When Knighthood was in Flower in 1898. Three years later as Knighthood was finally giving up its bestselling status, a new children’s novel set in soon-to-be Shelby County, Indiana, The Bears of Blue River, made a hit with youngsters and adults alike. Today, the town square of Shelbyville features a sculpture of a boy with bears.

Major was certainly aware of the Firebear legend. So how would you explain the mystery of the Firebear?

See solution below the break.    ⤵︎

Ups and Downs


All of us writers, if we write a lot, experience hills and valleys in terms of acceptances, publications, recognition, etc. Sometimes there are long dry spells, and at other times (metaphors be with you!), when it rains it pours.

This past week was a flood. I had six short stories, each very different from the others, published within four days, and on top of that, I found that one of my other stories was nominated for an award. All this was fun and surprising and humbling, but since there's usually some kind of balance in the universe, that probably also means no more pats on the head for me for a while.

For now, though, I'm using my momentary good fortune (flash flood?) to rescue me from the agony of figuring out what to post here at SleuthSayers today.

My recent literary cloudburst began with the announcement that I have a story in the April issue of Mystery Magazine. (Many thanks, as always, to editor Kerry Carter.) This story was different in that it was shorter than usual, around 1000 words, and was one of those Solve-It-Yourself mysteries with the puzzle up front and the "solution" appearing later. About a fourth of the stories I've had published at MM have been those interactive-format mysteries, and they're fun to write, in their own way. Joining me in this month's issue are my old buddies R.T. Lawton and Jim Doherty.

Next, I found out my mystery/western story "The Donovan Gang" was chosen by editor Barb Goffman (thanks, Barb!) to be included in the current (#135) issue of Black Cat Weekly. This story was around 4100 words, had been previously published at AHMM, and was a Derringer finalist last year. It was different for a number of reasons: (1) it was a reprint, (2) it was a western whodunit, (3) it was sort of a coming-of-age story, and (4) most everything took place in a tiny, isolated setting (the interior of a stagecoach). Like the other five stories, though, it was just "unique" enough that it was great fun to write.

My third story published in this four-day span, "A Walk in the Woods," was released as a part of the April 1 anthology Dark of the Day, a book I've known about for a long time and have been looking forward to. The anthology was edited by the wonderful Kaye George and features tales about the much-anticipated and -publicized solar eclipse that's scheduled for April 8. My story takes place near one of the northernmost U.S. locations in the eclipse's "path of totality" that stretches from southwest Texas to Maine. The story runs about 3900 words and includes three men who set out on a mountain hike in search of the ideal spot from which to view the event, and who run into a couple of deadly foreign terrorists who've just crossed the border from Canada on a mission that has nothing to do with the sun or its moon-shaded rays. Boy did I have a good time writing this one.

The other three stories came out on Wednesday, with the release of the new Storiaverse app. Two of my featured short stories, "Sorcerer" and "A Night at the Park," are original stories, the first about a scientist using his latest project in an unscientific way and the second about a couple of prison escapees in the middle of nowhere who run into a lady full of lethal surprises. My third story, "The Messenger," is a reprint of a fantasy tale about a man who meets a modern-day "genie" who offers him a choice between two strange wishes. If you've heard anything about Storia, you know it's a new approach to short fiction, using animation along with narration and sound, that began development last year. Also along with me on this ride are my longtime friends Josh Pachter, Stacy Woodson, Bill McCormick, and Michael Bracken. 

A further thrill for me was that--also on April 1--those of us in the Short Mystery Fiction Society found out which stories were finalists this year for the annual Derringer Awards, and I was extremely fortunate that my story "Last Day at the Jackrabbit" made the list. It first appeared in Strand Magazine and had already been good to me in that it was recently selected for inclusion in the upcoming Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2024. It's about a couple of locals on the run from the mob, and it's set in a roadside diner named the Jackrabbit. Half the fun of writing this one was its many mid-stream plot twists. If you read it, I hope you'll like it.

As I mentioned, this deluge of good news about several separate stories was welcome but is the kind of thing that doesn't happen to me often. Does it to you? What good things have befallen you lately, publicationwise? What good things are coming up (accepted but not yet published, finished but not yet announced, etc.) that might serve to recharge your literary batteries? Do you--like me--need that kind of occasional validation that you seem to be doing something right?

It's been said many times at this blog that self-doubt is something most writers suffer, from time to time. Personally, I've always secretly wondered if each publication might be the last one, or if the old idea-well will one day sputter and groan and run dry. So far it seems to be bubbling along, but one never knows. And then again, maybe all the publication droughts will someday go away completely, along with the publication doubts. Maybe the occasional low spots are just disguised opportunities to learn and improve. Maybe all clouds are lined with silver. 

Meanwhile, keep writing, and may many, many successes come your way!

05 April 2024


 Monday, Cincinnati will witness something it hasn't seen in decades: A total eclipse of the sun. The path of totality, where the moon completely obscures the sun, and you get that nice corona, will pass through Butler County north of the city. Just from my back deck, we will have 99.5% coverage. So we may avoid the crowds and watch from there.

We've witnessed one major eclipse here in recent years. In 2017, Cincinnati was treated to a partial eclipse, the path of totality passing a couple hundred miles to the west. That in itself was spectacular. I thought it was great until a local pastor opted to brag, "I saw the eclipse, and the rest of you didn't." What are you, dude? Fifteen? (I don't go there anymore,)

Eclipses are amazing because the sky does something it normally doesn't do. We get at least one or two lunar eclipses every year, when the Earth blots out or reddens the full moon. I watched several as a kid and thought they were spectacular. But the moon casting a shadow on the Earth and blocking the sun? Well, that actually happens frequently, just not in the same place every time. There are several pictures from space showing a dark spot on the Earth where the moon has cast a shadow. But from the ground, it's quite rare. Why?

The Earth rotates. Both the Earth and the moon move around the sun. So sunlight is never hitting at the same angle from moment to moment. For you flat Earthers out there, this is one of those things you learn when you stay awake in science class and don't believe in conspiracy theories. 

There are two-to-five eclipses a year. You don't hear about most of them because it's really a local event. There's only so much moon to cast so much shadow. Plus, as often as not, eclipses occur over the ocean, often out of view of anyone not on a ship, airplane, or Gilligan's Island (where, we assume, the Professor will make eclipse glasses out of coconut shells and some polarized plastic that fell off a passing 737 Max.)

Eclipses have fascinated humans since prehistoric times. The ancient Chinese believed a dragon had eaten the sun and had to be coaxed to vomit it back out. Columbus used an eclipse to convince natives of his divine nature. Not bad for a guy whose navigation skills were so bad he thought it was in Indonesia. 

In literature and movies, they occasionally show up as a plot point, such as the movie Ladyhawk. In it, a curse forces Rugter Hauer to assume the form of a wolf at night and Michelle Pfeiffer a hawk by day. Only during an eclipse can the curse be broken. Spoiler alert: There's an eclipse. And a mildly befuddled Matthew Broderick.

Stephen King and director Taylor Hackford used an eclipse great effect. In the novel Dolores Claiborne, the coming eclipse is used to build tension before the titular character kills her husband. In the movie, it makes an almost terrifying backdrop to the actual murder, Kathy Bates staring down the dry well with the moon and the sun's corona over her shoulder. 

So what will happen on Monday? On Monday, my wife and I will watch (through proper eclipse glasses myself) and, hopefully, snap a photo.

04 April 2024

Warnings Don't Always Work – But Sometimes They Do

There's been a run of very important warnings given and unheeded this year, haven't there?


Bibi Netanyahu was warned about the Hamas attacks, and apparently blew it off. Much conjecture about why, but I personally start with the premise that Netanyahu was in deep trouble both criminally and politically, and there's nothing like a bloody hard war to keep someone in power. If they're ruthless enough.

Recently, the US embassy warned Putin about upcoming attacks on a large public gathering by ISIS. Apparently, he ignored it. But after the attack on the Crocus City Hall concert, Putin blasted the American warnings as “provocative,” saying “these actions resemble outright blackmail and the intention to intimidate and destabilize our society.” (CNN) And then went on to accuse Ukraine of ordering it. (Reuters) Nonsense.

NOTE: My personal theory is that the ISIS-K group or whatever that did it was based on Chechnya, based on the remarkably similar Moscow Theater attack of 2010. Afterwards, many of the Chechen rebels went off to help Isis in Syria, and then came back to Chechnya in 2018, which would give them plenty of time to plan a larger attack against Moscow. (LINK)

UPDATE! Four of the suspected gunmen are Tajik citizens and were arrested along with seven other suspects, some of whom also come from the ex-Soviet Central Asian nation [of Tajikistan]. "There are estimated to be well over three million Tajiks living in Russia, about one-third of the total Tajik population. Most of them hold the precarious status of "guest workers", holding low-paying jobs in construction, produce markets or even cleaning public toilets... Non-Slavs are systematically discriminated against in Russia, and since 2022 they have been disproportionately conscripted and sent to Ukraine to serve as cannon fodder at the front." (LINK) And now they're scrambling to get out of Russia... preferably alive...


My SECOND NOTE: Interestingly, Tajikistan, along with its neighbor Kyrgistan, are completely omitted on the Chinese made Map of the World shower curtain I own. (See HERE)

But warnings being given yet not heeded, not acted upon isn't exactly new. Sometimes there's so much chatter, or so many assumptions of threats, that of COURSE there are too many to worry about. It can't happen here. After all, Warnings abounded before 9/11 actually happened. ("Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US").


And when it comes to assassinations, well... the most famous assassination victim (perhaps) of all time, Julius Caesar, was warned repeatedly and still went to his fatal meeting with the Senate.

For the matter, Abraham Lincoln: Ward Hill Lamon said that three days before his death, Lincoln related a dream in which he wandered the White House searching for the source of mournful sounds:

"I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. "Who is dead in the White House?" I demanded of one of the soldiers, "The President," was his answer; "he was killed by an assassin."

But the day of his death, Lincoln happily told his cabinet that he had dreamed of being on a "singular and indescribable vessel that was moving with great rapidity toward a dark and indefinite shore", and that he had had the same dream before "nearly every great and important event of the War." (Wikipedia) And the rest is history...

But there are also successful warnings, and one of the most unknown came up in my Reuters' feed the other day:

The Al Qaeda plot to kill President Bill Clinton in Manila.

Back on November 23, 1996, just as Air Force One with President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton on board, was approaching Manila, when their U.S. Secret Service detail received the alarming intelligence that an explosive device had been planted on the motorcade route into the Philippines capital. Being Secret Service, they got on it, and set up a back-up route to the hotel, getting the Clintons there safely. But, according to retired agents, Filipino security officers found a powerful bomb on a bridge the convoy would have taken and an SUV abandoned nearby containing AK-47 assault rifles.

This assassination attempt was mentioned briefly in books published in 2010 and 2019, but I certainly don't remember any mention of it in the news.

Now, eight retired secret service agents – seven of whom were in Manila – have given Reuters the most detailed account to date of the failed plot. And no one stuck around to conduct a thorough investigation:

"I always wondered why I wasn't kept back to stay in Manila to monitor any investigation," said Gregory Glod, the lead Secret Service intelligence agent in Manila and one of seven agents who spoke out for the first time. "Instead, they flew me out the day after Clinton left."

"There was an incident," said Secret Service spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. "It remains classified." He declined to say what, if any, actions the United States took in response.

Clinton did not respond to multiple attempts to reach him through his spokesperson and the Clinton Foundation. And the FBI declined to comment on the Manila assassination attempt.

Former CIA director Leon Panetta, who was Clinton's chief of staff at the time, said he was unaware of the incident but that an attempt to kill a president should be investigated. "As a former chief of staff, I'd be very interested in trying to find out whether somebody put this information to the side and didn't bring it to the attention of people who should have been aware that something like that happened."

Glod said a U.S. intelligence agency later assessed that the plot was set up at bin Laden's behest by al Qaeda operatives and the Abu Sayyaf Group, Filipino Islamists widely considered an arm of al Qaeda. According to a 2022 International Crisis Group report, the group is in disarray, with only a handful of its leaders still alive.

Four of the Secret Service agents who spoke to Reuters noted that Ramzi Yousef - the al Qaeda-linked mastermind of the first World Trade Center attack in 1993 and a nephew of September 11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who had trained Abu Sayyaf militants - was in Manila days before a 1994 visit by Clinton. Yousef is currently serving a life sentence plus 240 years in a federal "supermax" prison in Colorado.

Why / how did it get as far as it did? Chatter. Multiple problems roiling under the surface: "The Philippines was battling communist and Islamist insurgencies. Police discovered a bomb at Manila airport and another at the summit conference center in Subic Bay several days before the Clintons' arrival. The U.S. State Department warned of threats against American diplomats in Manila the day before the First Couple flew in." (Reuters)

Chatter is always a problem: how much of what is heard in rumor, innuendo, and warnings is true? How much matters? And these days, what with social media, conspiracy theories from here to Saturn, and general threats from everyone who wants attention... how do you find the one almond in the peanut butter? And how do you get the people who can do something about it (like Netanyahu or Putin) to listen?

But at least there was one time when people did listen, and a disaster was averted.


Murder, Neat—our first SleuthSayers anthology—is available in both paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon and your favorite bookstores.

02 April 2024

The Murder of Mr. Ma

SJ Rozan

I'm not 100% sure when I first met SJ Rozan, but think it was while attending a Bouchercon, maybe San Diego in 1994 or '95. The night before the Shamus banquet, I had been invited to join a group, including SJ and her editor, and four or five other writers to go eat Chinese food. After we ate, everyone at the table read their fortune cookies out loud. SJ's read something to effect that she would soon be given a great honour.

The next night, at the banquet she and her book won the Shamus Award for Best First novel. I had to smile, because I had been on the committee reading for that award and knew we had voted to give it to SJ, for her first book, CHINA TRADE. Later that evening when she mentioned what the fortune cookie foretold, I said I'd had hardest time in my life to keep a straight face, knowing that she would indeed be given that award. Then in 1998, at Bouchercon in Philadelphia, when they announced Jan Grape had won the Anthony for Best Short Story, SJ found me and gave me a big hug before I even got to the stage to receive my award.

It has been 30+ years of admiration, affection and friendship as I have watched her growth from a novice into a top best-selling author.  Now she's stepping off into a new and thrilling adventure about the 1920s London along with co-author, John Shen Yen Nee. Here's a tidbit about SJ's latest title, MURDER OF MR. MA.

— Jan Grape

The Murder of Mr. Ma

The Murder of Mr. Ma, the start of a new series co-written by me and John Shen Yen Nee, comes out April 2nd. It's been suggested that it would make a good post if John and I interviewed each other. However, getting John to sit down on a schedule is like trying to nail Jello to the wall. John's strength is also his weakness: his mind is like an explosion in a Roman candle factory, ideas whizzing off in all directions. Since we began working together it's been my job to organize, thin out, augment, and write those ideas into a book.

So instead of searching for my Jello hammer, I shall interview myself.

SJR: That's ridiculous.

SJR: Why? I talk to myself all the time.

SJR: Good point. So if John's so impossible to pin down, how did you manage to write this book?

SJR: The Murder of Mr. Ma, was based on a idea John had been thinking about for awhile. During the pandemic he had time to flesh it out. In fact he fleshed it out to a sixteen page single-spaced outline. Then he went looking for a writer.

 SJR: He set out writer traps -- cups of coffee, reams of paper?

SJR: That might have worked, but no. He called his friend Alex Segura, who recommended that he call Alex's agent, Josh Getzler. Josh is also my agent. When he heard the idea for Mr. Ma he thought I might be the right writer for it. He asked if I'd talk to John. Remember, this was a few months into the pandemic. I was talking to the walls. A stranger with a project? You bet I'd talk to him.

SJR: And the rest was history?

SJR: Lots of history. The Murder of Mr. Ma, is set in London, 1924. It involves the Chinese Labour Corps in France during World War One.

SJR: The what?

SJR: Exactly. The book's detecting duo are Judge Dee, made famous by Robert Van Gulik, and Lao She, an actual Chinese novelist. I was familiar with Judge Dee, and I'd heard of Lao She, but I'd never read him. John started sending me books, and more books. Also, my knowledge of London in the 1920's was vague -- transport, neighborhoods, clothes. I needed yet more books for that.  The learning curve, on my end, was steep.

SJR: But at least John's outline was perfect.

SJR: John's original outline contained not only the kitchen sink, but also all the appliances, cabinets, and original marble counters. We had to make some, er, judicious cuts.

SJR: And then -- ?

SJR: And then, after all that reading and cutting, I was ready to write. I sent John a sample chapter. This was a fraught moment. If the voice of Lao She as it sounded in my head wasn't the voice John hoped for, I was off the project. Not that John said that, but I did, because any writer will tell you once a voice comes to you, it can't be changed.

SJR: You actually hear voices in your head?

SJR: I'm talking to you, aren't I?

SJR: Another good point. But John must have liked it.

SJR: He loved it. We'd hit the same wavelength. And thus the writing began.

SJR: But there was another big roadblock, wasn't there?

SJR: There sure was. One of the features of this book and this series is action. A lot of changes of setting, and kung fu fighting. Neither John nor I are kung fu experts.

SJR: You needed a consultant.

SJR: And we found one! One of those miracle friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend stories, New York style. We were steered to Master Paul Koh of Bo Law Kung Fu in Chinatown. He loved the project and he's been everything we could hope for. His kung fu choreography and his sense of humor are fabulous.

SJR: Okay, all this sounds great. But you speak of this as a new series. I plaintively ask, What about Bill Smith and Lydia Chin?

SJR: Bill and Lydia are fine. The Mayors of New York, narrated by Bill Smith, came out 4 December. A new Lydia-Chin-narrated book is underway.

SJR: You can do two things at once?

SJR: Haven't we just proved that?

SJR: Another --

SJR: Good point.

SJR: While we're talking about your multitudinous personalities, you also teach. Talk about that.

SJR: I love to teach. I have students in NYC who've been with me for years. I also travel to do some workshops, and for years I've done one in Assisi, Italy, as part of Art Workshop International. Now I want to get serious for a minute.

SJR: Oh no.

SJR: Here's the thing. This year's Assisi workshop is June 27 -- July 12. Every year I have people who say, "You know, maybe next year I'll come." But do you remember 2019? All the things we were going to do "next year?" There was no next year. Everything was canceled. Pretty much true of the year after that, too. I want to say: If there's something you want to do, and you have the time and the money, do it now. It doesn't have to be Assisi -- though I hope it is so we can work on your book. But whatever it is, do it. Do it now!

SJR: You make yet another good point.

SJR: You know the great thing about interviewing myself? I'm always right.