19 April 2021

Remaindrance


Our friend Josh Pachter has appeared in these pages before. He won the 2020 Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Golden Derringer Award for Lifetime Achievement. In addition to writing and translating, he edited The Great Filling Station Holdup: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Jimmy Buffett (Down & Out Books), The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell (Untreed Reads), and The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe (Mysterious Press). He co-edited Amsterdam Noir (Akashic Books) and The Misadventures of Ellery Queen (Wildside Press).

You can find Josh at www.JoshPachter.com

— Velma
A Note about Remainders
As kids, we sometimes saw comics or paperbacks with the upper half of the covers ripped off. Those were ‘remainders’, a publisher’s overstock. Likewise, bargain book tables at Barnes & Noble and Walmart are likely remainders too, excess copies deeply discounted by publishing houses. In extreme cases, publishers will ‘pulp’ books, grinding them to powder to be recycled into… books.

Remaindrance of Things Past: A Memoir

by Josh Pachter

Chapter 1: The Remainder Bind

In the Olden Days, BigFive Press would agree to publish your book. Their marketing geniuses would do the math and decide on a first printing of X copies. In principle, those copies would all sell, and BigFive would go to a second printing—and then a third, and so on ad infinitum, until you were wealthy enough to buy a little cottage on the Sussex Downs, where you could keep bees and lord it over your serfs.

In practice, though, what was much more likely to happen was that BigFive would wind up with unsold copies of your baby. Those copies took up valuable warehouse space, and if BigFive later needed that space for newer books, they would “remainder” the remaining copies of yours.

That meant that they would sell your leftovers to Wal-Mart or one of the other big-box retailers for pennies on the dollar, and Wal-Mart (or whoever) would dump them into a big bin—the dreaded remainder bin—priced higher than what they paid for them but way lower than the original retail price.

So, for example, let’s say I opened a vein and poured onto the page my magnum opus, Gone Girl With the Wind in the Willows. BigFive would slap a retail price of $20 on it and print five thousand copies. Only three thousand of those copies would sell: two thousand to liberries (remember liberries?) and a thousand to my mother, who would give them away as Christmas presents.

That meant that BigFive would be stuck with two thousand copies of a book they couldn’t sell. Those copies would sit in the warehouse for a while, until BigFive needed the shelf space for the eighth novel James Patterson “wrote” that month. At that point, they’d dump their remaining stock of GGWTWITW onto Wal-Mart for, say fifty cents a copy, and Wal-Mart would mark them up to two bucks apiece and toss them in the bin.

A win-win situation, right? BigFive got rid of some books they didn’t want to continue to warehouse, Wal-Mart cleared a three-hundred-percent profit on every copy they sold, and the customer got a $20 book for a tenth of its retail price.

Wait a second, that’s actually a win-win-win: everybody wins!

Well, almost everybody. The one loser would be me, since instead of earning a royalty of two bucks a copy (ten percent of the retail price), I’d only get a measly twenty cents a copy (ten percent of the remainder price)—and then I’d have to give fifteen percent of that to my agent, leaving me seventeen cents a copy for a book that ought to have brought in ten times that amount.

So I guess we’d have to call Remainderama a win-win-win-lose situation, with the author the one and only loser.


The Great Filling Station Holdup anthology colourful cover

The Beat of Black Wings anthology cover

Top Science Fiction cover

Top Fantasy cover

Top Horror cover

Top Crime cover
Chapter 2: Remaindeus Unbound

Those Sayers of the Sleuth who know me—or know of me—were perhaps surprised a couple of years ago when, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, I suddenly began editing anthologies.

Since 2018, in fact, I've done eight of them for six different publishers with more on the way:

  • The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell (Untreed Reads)
  • Only the Good Die Young: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Billy Joel (Untreed Reads)
  • The Great Filling Station Holdup: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Jimmy Buffett (Down and Out Books)
  • The Misadventures of Ellery Queen (Wildside Press)
  • The Further Misadventures of Ellery Queen (Wildside Press)
  • The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe (Mysterious Press)
  • Amsterdam Noir (Akashic)
  • The Man Who Read Mysteries: The Short Fiction of William Brittain (Crippen & Landru)

My emergence as an anthologist wasn’t exactly “out of the blue,” though. Forty years ago, I was living in Amsterdam, and I edited half a dozen anthologies for a midsized Dutch publisher, Loeb Uitgevers. Loeb marketed four of them—Top Crime, Top Science Fiction, Top Fantasy and Top Horror—internationally at the Frankfort Book Fair, and various combinations of the four titles sold to an assortment of publishers in Europe and the Americas. Heyne Verlag in Germany, for example, did all four books in mass-market paperback editions (TSF in three volumes and TF in two volumes.) Top Crime, Top Science Fiction, and Top Fantasy were published in England by J.M. Dent & Sons in hardcover and paperback, and Top Crime had a US hardcover edition from St. Martin's Press (with one of the worst cover designs I have ever seen in my life, featuring a silhouette of a gun without a trigger — and what did that say about the twenty-five stories in the book?!).

But I digress. A couple of years later, I was living in what was then still West Germany and teaching for the University of Maryland's European Division on American military bases. One day, I got a snail-mail letter from J.M. Dent, notifying me they were about to remainder the last thousand copies of the hardcover edition of Top Science Fiction to W.H. Smith & Sons for something like a quarter apiece—and, as a courtesy to me, they were offering me the opportunity to buy some at that price.

I remember that I was in my kitchen with this letter literally in my hand, trying to decide whether to buy twenty-five copies or fifty to give away as Christmas presents, when my phone rang. On the line was the director of the UMED textbook office: another instructor wanted to use my anthology as the text for a course in the literature of science fiction, but he wasn’t sure where to find copies and wanted to know if I could help.

“As it happens,” I said, “I own all remaining copies of the book, and I'd be happy to sell you as many as you need.”

The caller was hesitant, because (he said) he usually bought texts in enough bulk that the publisher was willing to offer him a discount.”

“How much of a discount,” I asked, “do you usually get?”

Twenty-five percent off the retail price, he said.

“And how many copies do you want to buy?”

A hundred, he told me.

“Well,” I said, “I can give you a twenty-five-percent discount, but I’ll need you to take two hundred copies.”

And I’ll be damned: he agreed!

I hung up and immediately called Dent in London. “I got your letter,” I said, “and I want to buy some copies of Top Science Fiction at the remainder price.”

How many did I want?

“I’ll take all of them.”

There was a long pause at the other end of the line. Finally, the voice asked if I realized how many copies that was.

“Yes, I read the letter,” I said. “I’ll take them all.”

Another pause. Did I realize how much storage space I’d need for a thousand hardcovers?

“Yes,” I said, “I do. I’ll take them all.”

An even longer pause. Did I realize how much the shipping charge for a thousand hardcovers would be?

“If you sell the lot to W.H. Smith,” I said, “you’ll comp them the shipping, so I expect you won’t charge me for it, either.”

And that’s the way we ultimately worked it. I bought a thousand books for two hundred and fifty dollars including shipping, having pre-sold two hundred of them to UMED for something like three thousand dollars plus shipping, making me the only person I’ve ever heard of who actually made money off a remaindered book.


Chapter 3: The Remainders of The Day

There’s a little more to the story.

Over the next couple of years, UMED reordered Top Science Fiction several times … and, each time, I told them the price had gone up. By the time I moved back to the US in 1991, I’d gotten them to buy almost all of my thousand hardcovers—and I’d also picked up the entire remaindered stock of the paperback edition.

I shipped the last of the hardbacks and several hundred of the paperbacks to the US, and I still have some of each in the attic—including one box of paperbacks that’s moved from Germany to New York to Ohio to Maryland to Iowa to Virginia over the last thirty-one years and is still factory sealed.

It’s a pretty cool anthology: twenty-five excellent stories by twenty-five of the greatest science-fiction writers alive in the early 1980s—Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Harry Harrison, Ursula K. LeGuin, Anne McCaffrey, Robert Silverberg, A.E. Van Vogt, Connie Willis, Gene Wolfe, more than a dozen others—each story selected and introduced by its author as their favorite of the stories they’d written up to that point in their careers.

Anybody wanna buy a copy? I make you good price, my friend!

18 April 2021

Florida News: Dirty Tricks


Further to the Matt Gaetz investigation…

Florida's gerrymandered 5th Congressional District
The ultra-thin district (at one time three discontiguous plots) stretches more than 200 miles (>320km).

Florida remains the seat of breathtaking corruption. I don’t even have room to discuss Florida’s legislature passing a bill requiring students to assess professors’ political beliefs and providing for teachers to be secretly recorded at any time. We’re uncertain of persistent rumors Tallahassee will be renaming our state capital the Kremlin.

We at SleuthSayers work to avoid politics, but when it’s unavoidable, we strive to be fair. Registered as an independent, I aspire to equal opportunity offensiveness, but I’m afraid America may lose a grand, old party, which even the opposition doesn’t wish to happen. To mitigate controversy, I’ll be referring to political parties as the Eloi and Morlock, and you can decide which is which.

Thanks to a halt in ballot counting of the infamous hanging chads, Florida never learned whether Bush or Gore won the 2000 election. Two years later, Sarasota County reportedly failed to record 20 000 votes. The county Supervisor of Elections explained it this way: Twenty-thousand people came in to vote, but chose not to.

On that foundation, let’s visit 2010’s gubernatorial election.

Fool You Once

Four main candidates emerged in 2010. The Eloi backed a woman, Alex Sink. The Morlocks had three. The Morlock Party was irritated at Charlie Crist (who was sidelined and forced to run as an independent Morlock) and officially backed Bill McCollum. One other candidate inserted himself into the Morlock primary, Rick Scott, who’d engineered the largest Medicare/Medicaid fraud in history, triggering a fine of $1.7-billion. That’s $1 700 000 000 for the fine alone. That should have ended his candidacy.

Naturally, Florida elected the fraudster. Millions of ill-gotten gains won the election.

That’s sealed history. What isn’t as well known is what happened to Alex Sink and her beautifully designed web site, SinkForCongress2014.com, which included a subdomain begging for donations, contribute.SinkForCongress2014.com. It had a problem. It wasn’t her web site, it belonged to the other party. Donations to her were diverted to the Morlock Party and used to fund Alex Sink’s defeat.

Turns out this isn’t illegal.

Fool You Twice

So what skullduggery might top that bit of cleverness? Fake candidates. No, I’m not talking fake voters or fake ballots, but sham candidates.

You can think of them as ghosts in the political machine. Morlock Party operatives ran sham Eloi candidates in an effort to split votes between the faux candidate and the real one. It worked in at least three elections. In one district, the true Eloi candidate would have won by 6000 votes but lost by 32, thanks to a fake candidate, Jestine Iannotti. She abruptly moved to Sweden where she can’t be extradited.

Again, these dirty tricks aren’t illegal, but dirty money is. Political manipulators have gone to great lengths to hide money, much which remains unaccounted for. When the false candidate stunt was pulled in 2012, donations were traced to lobbyists, consultants, attorneys, fake donors and secret donors.

Fool

A fourth Florida attempt ended in failure for Matt Gaetz. An extremely shady former legislator and lobbyist Chris Dorworth has separated from his Orlando firm, Ballard Partners, after his involvement was revealed.

Meanwhile, Gaetz seems to have left his girlfriend at home with her crayons and coloring book, and hopped a ganja flight to the Bahamas, courtesy of Orlando marijuana majordomo and hand surgeon Jason Pirozzolo. There they enjoyed presumably grown-up prostitutes.

Gaetz attempted to get his generous friend Pirozzolo nominated for Florida Surgeon General. When that fell through, Governor Ron DeSantis appointed Pirozzolo to another lucrative position on the board of the Greater Orlando Airport Authority.

Investigations continue. Please remember, all parties are considered innocent until the rotten miscreants are proven guilty.

Thanks to Darlene, Sharon, Cate, Eve, and Thrush for contributions to this series.)

17 April 2021

Choices and Changes


  

The other day, in a rare fit of office-cleaning, I found an old box of magazines containing my earliest published short stories--this was back in the mid- to late 1990s. Most of those stories, believe it or not, I still like. A few of them, not so much. The point is, the more I sorted through those publications, the more I thought about writing-related things I used to do that I don't do now, and vice versa.

Not that it matters, here are ten things that I noticed and/or remembered:


1. My stories used to be shorter. There were some long ones, too--one of my earliest, a 10,000-word story called "Midnight," remains one of my favorites--but a lot of my stories back then were between maybe 1000 and 4000 words. I've found that most of them now run between 3000 and 8000 or so, and I suspect one reason is that my recent plots seem a little more involved and complex than they used to be.

2. I rarely used first-person POV. I'm not sure why I didn't, because I'm fairly pleased with the way those few first-person stories turned out--but the fact is, for most of my early stories I used either (1) third-person limited (which is, admittedly, almost the same as first-person), (2) third-person multiple (especially when that was needed to build suspense), or, less often, (3) third-person detached (if I didn't want to get into any one person's thoughts, maybe for a surprise ending). These days I probably still use third more than first, but I do write a lot of first-person stories now, and I've found I enjoy it.

3. I didn't write "series" stories. At least not until after I'd been spinning tales for five or six years. I now write seven different series (which include more than 200 stories so far), and I've found them to be both fun and profitable. I still write far more standalones than series installments, but I think it's convenient to always have the possibility of using some well-known (at least to me) characters and settings, if they fit.

4. I wrote stories with no market in mind and only then tried to find places to submit them. Now I find myself writing more stories targeted for particular markets. This is something I think most writers do, as time passes and as they acquire more writing experience. And this kind of tailored writing doesn't make the stories any less fun to create.

5. I didn't write many stories for anthologies. Back then it was mostly magazines. One reason I write a lot for anthologies now is that I've been fortunate enough to get more antho invitations these past few years, and another is that I believe there are just more of those antho markets out there than before.

6. My settings were rarely "local." I wrote more stories set in other states or countries or far-flung fictional locations. Now, a bigger percentage of my stores are set here in the southeastern U.S. Again, I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because I now write a lot of series stories, most of which have southern settings, maybe it's because I don't travel the world the way I used to, and maybe it's because I'm now too lazy to want to do a lot of research. Speaking of research, I almost never wrote historical mysteries or period pieces in my early publishing years, but I now find that I enjoy writing those as well. 

7. I used way too many semicolons. Sometimes one or more per page, and for fiction that might be too many. I don't think I used any that were grammatically incorrect, but they just popped up too often. These days I try not to use semicolons unless I think they're perfect for what's being written, and even then it's hard to find them in the toolbox. I now substitute more dashes and periods.

8. I submitted my stories very soon after finishing them--something I always told my writing students not to do. These days I try to let those completed stories sit there and cool off for a few days or maybe even weeks, and by doing so I hope I've given myself time to catch a few more errors that I would've otherwise missed. (I sometimes wonder, though, if that helps. I've found (too late) several mistakes in some of my recently published stories, mostly typos or inconsistency errors, that even managed to get past the editors and into print. But I try hard to avoid those careless mistakes.)

9. I wrote more twist-ending stories. I still like plot reversals in a story, whether at the end or in the middle, or both. But it doesn't bother me anymore if I don't include a "grabber" right at the very end.

10. I never typed stories straight into the computer. When I first started writing for publication--I used a PC then, but it was an early version, and huge--I always wrote my stories first in longhand and only later transcribed them into files on a diskette or my hard drive (a process that I sometimes called a second draft). Now I just type them in and rewrite onscreen, and when they're finished I submit them electronically. I seldom print copies of my stories at all anymore.


NOTE: I've noticed that some things about my writing have NOT changed. I still create more mystery/crime stories than anything else, I never use a pseudonym, I never write in present tense, I usually start with the plot, I try to put at least some humor into every story, I use a mix of real and fictional locations for my settings, I map my stories out in my head before I start writing, and I seldom "edit as I go"--I write a fast first draft instead and then go back and rewrite. And so forth.


The question is, do these things that I do differently mean I've learned something--or anything--about writing over the past 25 years? Have I gotten better at it? I honestly don't know. All it might mean is that I now just do some things differently. What about you? Is your process and content noticeably different now, from when you began? If so, how?


Oh. Almost forgot. The main thing that's stayed the same: I love fiction writing, absolutely love it, and I suspect I always will.


Thanks for reading my stories.



16 April 2021

More About Setting


Still trying to come up with something new to say about writing that I haven't put up here on SleuthSayers.

When I read Jim Winter's post "A Sense of Setting" (April 9, 2021), I went back and saw I had posted about setting back in January 2018. Figured we have some new followers, so I want to say it again because setting is so important in fiction. Here's what I previously posted –

I was fortunate to learn early from a panel of editors:

Setting is the fictional element which most quickly distinguishes the professional writer from the beginner.

Setting is not just the name of a place or time period, it is the feeling of the place and time period. It includes all conditions – region, geography, neighborhood, buildings, interiors, climate, time of day, season of year.

Setting should appear near the beginning of a novel or story and remain throughout by answering the questions WHERE and WHEN. By using sensory details, the writer can flesh out a setting: the visual, smells, sounds, taste, feeling of atmosphere. All five sense sould be used in describing the little things – what a character sees, hears, feels, tastes and smells.

Every story takes place somewhere. Setting is more than a backdrop, it creates mood, tone and can help establish the theme of a work of fiction. Like charaters, it plays an important role in a story. Writers should not neglect setting.

When establishing a setting, get the details correct. You can't have azaleas blooming in Louisiana in December. In New Orleans, the weather is an important part of setting. We have only two seasons – STEAMY HOT (spring, summer and autumn). WET COLD (winter). There are only two mild days at the beginning of spring and two mild days at the end of autumn. Tennessee Williams said these were the only good days to be outside in New Orleans.

Go to the place you set your story (or a place like it if your setting is fictional place). Go and watch, listen, take notes. It's helped me before.

Azalea bush
Azalea bush in Louisiana, March 2021

NOTE: Do not put too much setting description in your fiction. It should not read like a travelogue.

www.oneildenoux.com

15 April 2021

Historical Bastards Revisited: Aristagoras-Tyrant of Miletus


[Today's entry is the latest in my on-going, on-again-off-again miniseries cataloging infamous bastards throughout history. For previous entries, click here, here, here, and here.]

While the cities were thus being taken, Aristagoras the Milesian, being, as he proved in this instance, not of very distinguished courage, since after having disturbed Ionia and made preparation of great matters he counseled running away when he saw these things (moreover it had become clear to him that it was impossible to overcome King Darius)...                                                                                                                        

                                                                            — Herodotus, The History

How’s this for cynical: yesterday’s tyrants becoming today’s liberty-loving embracers of democracy?  We’ve seen a lot of this during the modern era; Boris Yeltsin in Russia for example, rejecting communism out of convenience rather than out of conviction, and being catapulted to power as a result.

But it’s hardly a new story.

Take Aristagoras, Persian-appointed tyrant of the semi-independent Ionian Greek city-state of Miletus, the guy whose push for home-grown democracy touched off the so-called “Ionian Revolt” of the Greek city-states along the coast of western Asia Minor (modern Turkey) in 499 B.C.; a conflict that led to the loss of thousands of lives, and served as the precipitating event in a wider conflict between the Greeks and the Persians over the two centuries that followed.


Bastard-in-Law

Aristagoras owed his position as tyrant to his father-in-law, Histiaeus.  Histiaeus had been tyrant before him, and had done his job so well that the Persian great king Darius appointed him to his own governing council.  When Histiaeus went east to the royal court at Persepolis, he recommended Aristagoras succeeded him.  Later, when Aristagoras was attempting to foment revolt among the Greek cities of Asia, Histiaeus secretly helped him, hoping that a rebellion led  by his son-in-law would lead to his own being appointed to re-take the city and re-establish himself as Miletus’ tyrant.

The modern-day ruins of the ancient Ionian Greek city of Miletus

Hardly a born-and-bred defender of personal liberty, Aristagoras’ opportunism was born of the most instinctive of human impulses; self-preservation.  Here’s how it happened.

Naxos, with the ruins of the temple of Athena in the foreground
The Proposal & The Vig

Shortly after he’d become tyrant of Miletus, Aristagoras had been tapped to help the empire pick up some new real estate in the form of the Greek island of Naxos, a strategically placed island in the middle of the Aegean Sea.  In exchange for helping with this, Aristagoras was to receive a large portion of the anticipated loot to be taken when the island fell.

In anticipation of this, Aristagoras took out a large cash loan from the local Persian satrap (governor) in western Asia, in the city of Sardis.  With this money he hired mercenary soldiers and ships to help with the conquest.

The Crash

The only problem was that Aristagoras got into a major personal feud with the Persian admiral set to lead the expedition which became so ugly that the guy scotched the whole deal by secretly warning the Naxians of an invasion on the way.  Not surprisingly, the whole venture failed.

But, in a set-up that 20th century mafia bosses would admire, Aristagoras was still on the hook to the Persians for the money he’d borrowed, regardless of the success or failure of the invasion.  Desperate to save his own skin, Aristagoras set about quietly stirring a rebellion in Miletus and the neighboring cities, inviting such mainland Greek cities as Sparta and Athens to help their cousins across the Aegean Sea.

The Results

The Spartans not surprisingly refused (it was too far from home for these xenophobes).  But the Persian king had just succeeded in really pissing off the Athenians by baldly interfering in their internal politics and insisting that they take back the tyrant (Hippias) they had given the boot (with Spartan help) a decade previously.  So they agreed to send a fleet of ships to help.

And with that the Ionian Revolt was born.  The immediate result?  Sardis, the western-most provincial capital in the Persian Empire (and home-base of the satrap who had strong-armed Aristagoras in the first place) was sacked and burned by the Greek rebels.  The Athenians, horrified by the wanton destruction of the ancient city (and the Persians' western capital), withdrew their forces and went home.

The longer-term results: After a five-year-long campaign and the investment of much, time, effort, blood and money, the Persians crushed the Ionian rebels at the battle of Lade. Then they spent the next year picking off the Ionian cities one by one. By 494 BC, all of the Greek cities of the Ionian coast were back under the Persian yoke.

And then the Persians turned their attention toward the interlopers from across the western (Aegean) sea. As it turned out, just because the Athenians were finished supporting the Ionians, that didn't mean the Persians were finished with the Athenians.


The resulting conflict would rock the ancient world. All of the Greek cities on the Greek mainland, on the islands, and even along the Ionian coast, were drawn in. On both sides of the Greco-Persian struggle. And by the time it was over, in 479 BC, the unthinkable had happened: Persia had lost, thousands of her soldiers slaughtered, hundreds of ships sunk or captured, millions in treasure spent. All to upstart barbarians clinging to the western edge of the known world.

And Aristagoras?  Still fearing for his own skin, he relocated to Thrace, where he tried to establish a colony from which to continue the war against Persia, and was killed trying to strong-arm the locals (see how this sort of thing just keeps running downhill?).



14 April 2021

The Busted Flush


Penguin/Random House has reissued John D. MacDonald’s twenty-one Travis McGee novels in nicely-packaged trade paper, with tasteful cover art and a preface by Lee Child.

I might prefer some of the more lurid original jackets, not quite so restrained, but I admire the enterprise. Some of MacDonald’s books, Slam the Big Door, or One Monday We Killed Them All, even The Last One Left, have been in and out of print, over the years; McGee has never fallen out of favor.

I don’t think it’s any secret that MacDonald was reluctant to do a series character. It was Knox Burger, at Fawcett Gold Medal, who convinced him. MacDonald was getting along just fine, by all accounts, knocking out a couple or even three novels a year, and then McGee moved the goalposts. It took half a dozen books, but Travis McGee turned John D. MacDonald into a brand name.

This is a phenomenon that I’m guessing is particular to the time. Gold Medal was a paperback original imprint, like Ace, which put out SF titles in a double-novel format, two books back-to-back. It was the Republic Pictures of the publishing business. Paperbacks had come in big during the war, cheap editions for GI’s. Pocket Books was an early entry, and postwar, publishers realized they could expand the market to drugstores and newsstands, railroad stations and airports and hotel lobbies, and avail themselves of the impulse buyer. The books cost a quarter, in the 1950’s, and in ‘64, The Deep Blue Goodbye, MacDonald’s first McGee title, sold for forty cents. They were below the salt, mind you. The New York Times Book Review didn’t deign to acknowledge paperback originals; they were pulp, they were Poverty Row. And they were mostly generic, hardboiled noir and science fiction, women in prison or youth led astray.

Readers gobbled them up. Granted, our tastes might not have been that discriminating. I ran across The Deep Blue Goodbye at a PX newsstand when I was in the military – dating myself – and I grabbed every single book afterwards as soon as they came out.

The visceral appeal, for sure. The laid-back life, the long sunsets, ice clicking against a tall glass, the careless, carefree women. It was an adolescent fantasy. There was something darker, and more subversive. MacDonald was one of the first guys, along with Frank Herbert in Dune, to talk about the environment.

One of the constants in the McGee books (and in MacDonald’s later stand-alones, A Flash of Green and Condominium) is the greed and waste of accelerated development. No wonder that Carl Hiassen counts MacDonald as an influence.

And the deeper, yawning, reptilian darkness. The sexism was backward and Neanderthal; the environmentalism was forward-looking; the bad guys are psychopaths. McGee, by his own admission, is a throwback. If he weren’t, he wouldn’t be able to handle the bottom-feeders and predators that lurk, not on the periphery, but in plain sight.

Bad guys, in a McGee novel, aren’t ambiguous. They may be sly, or slippery, or possessed of a certain charm. Nor are they, necessarily, guys.

But there’s a clear line MacDonald draws: the luckless, the gullible, the innocent, don’t deserve to be shorn simply because they’re sheep. We protect the weakest, by reason of their very weakness.

Reading the books again, and not in order - the first one I picked up was The Scarlet Ruse. I’m struck by their economy. There’s no wasted motion.

Dutch Leonard says you should leave out the stuff the reader’s going to skip, and you don’t care about, either. You can see Leonard do it, and Hiassen, or Lee Child.

Stay with the essentials, spend your energy on the parts that matter.

In other words, if it holds your interest, it’ll show. If you’re going through the motions, you’ll bore yourself, and the reader.

The set-up for The Scarlet Ruse is relaxed but brisk. First, the rare stamps. We’re perhaps reminded of the Brasher Doubloon. “The only known vertical pair of the famous error in blue… The top stamp has one pulled perf and a slight gum disturbance.”

Then, the switcheroo. Who had access to the safe deposit box? Next, the whys and wherefores of the investor, who turns out to be mobbed up, a money launderer who’s skimming, and the stolen stamps, in demand and fungible, represent his getaway money.

For a hook, so far, so good. But this is just the bottom crust, not the filling. It isn’t the story MacDonald is interested in telling. The real story, once the broad brushstrokes are laid in, is about trusting the wrong people, and each relationship, McGee and Meyer, McGee and the damsel in distress, McGee and the heavy, for that matter, is dependent on good faith or bad.

The final trap, the ruse of the title, is in effect a pigeon drop.

The moral, as in every McGee story, is about ownership, and personal responsibility, whether the results work to your advantage or not. Once you set events in motion, you have to live with the consequences, and those consequences can be severe. McGee’s world isn’t Manichean, or absolute, and black and white are often blurred, but the choices tend to narrow toward the violent and final. You can argue this is characteristic of the genre – when you run out of ideas, Hammett tells us, have a guy come through the door with a gun - but here the violence isn’t lazy, it’s exhausting and inevitable.

He was very much of his time, let’s be honest. MacDonald and McGee flourished during the Cold War, but unlike the nihilism of Spillane and Mike Hammer, actual events don’t much impinge on McGee’s world.

There’s a sidelong look at the Markov assassination in The Green Ripper, ricin being the instrument of choice, but generally, what’s going on in the larger political atmosphere isn’t pertinent. What is, is a sense of growing malaise.

McGee seems lonelier as time passes, more isolated (excepting Meyer). The Green Ripper, actually, finds him completely out on a limb, with no support system whatsoever. Not that he isn’t the archetypal loner, in many ways, but he’s also embedded in a personal ecology, the marina, the houseboat, the culture of south Florida and the offshore islands.

This context is vital and specific. Taken without it, McGee is himself less specific. So, although contemporary events may not affect the characters directly, the place, the weather and the water, the color of the sky, the heat in the air, the pull of the tides, provides a canvas. Not as backdrop, but as a constant, the horizon line, the curve of the earth.

Do the books age well, does McGee have legs? I’m not the guy to ask. He’s a sentimental favorite. There are things that are awkward and squirmy – truth to tell, they were awkward and squirmy back when – and there are things that make you pump your fist and go, Pow! John MacDonald is as rock-solid a writer as they come. Is it pulp? Depends. It’s vigorous, and brassy, and hot to the touch. You don’t get much better.


13 April 2021

Jumping In


     Today marks my inaugural blog with the SleuthSayers. I'm honored to have been asked to pen a periodic contribution to the blog. I know a few of my fellow SleuthSayers, maintain an epistolary relationship with a few more (a fancy way, I'm told, to say that we email on occasion), and read the works of many others. I've enjoyed the thoughtful content of the blog for years. I hope that I may, now and again, contribute something of value to this page.

     My name is Mark Thielman. I work as a criminal magistrate in Fort Worth, Texas. When I tell people that I am a magistrate, they usually give me an earnest nod of the head as a sign of understanding.

    "Magistrate" sounds familiar. Yet like "comptroller" or "aide-de-camp", it is a government job whose definition hangs just past the periphery of people's knowledge. Most don't really know exactly what I do. What the heck is a magistrate? 

    A fair question. In Texas, the duties of a magistrate are defined in the Code of Criminal Procedure:

It is the duty of a magistrate to preserve the peace within his jurisdiction by the use of all lawful means; to issue all process intended to aid in preventing and suppressing crime; to cause the arrest of offenders by the use of lawful means in order that they may be brought to punishment. 

     Reading that as I type, it makes my job sound TV worthy: preserving peace, suppressing crime, bringing offenders to punishment. Maybe I don't need a robe, but rather a cape.

    The truth of course is a little more mundane. Texas magistrates are a creation of statute. What a magistrate can do in my county varies from those in Dallas or Houston. Putting aside the details, I think of myself as a substitute teacher for the criminal judges of my county. We cover the routine responsibilities of the elected judges, giving them more time for the Solomonic duties the voters expect.

    Most of my day is spent meeting the most recently arrested individuals in Tarrant County. When someone in jail turns on the crime spigot, my work begins. A steady line of individuals parade before me. I review arrests, inform defendants of their rights, determine whether they need a court-appointed attorney, and set bail. I work out of a cinderblock room in the basement of the jail; it bears more resemblance to a tornado shelter than the oak-paneled, flag-bedecked courtrooms of television. (Or I did. Since the start of the pandemic I've met my defendants through a closed-circuit television system.)

    I encounter a great many interesting people in a day. A few are frequent fliers; we know each other by name. Many are big-eyed newcomers, terrified about their circumstances. Some cry. Many are hungover. I try to speak more slowly to them, since their brains obviously take an extra beat to catch up. Many believe, despite the admonishments about their right to remain silent, that if they just explain themselves one more time, the misunderstanding in which they find themselves will just go away. (Practice tip: Generally it won't.)

    Occasionally someone gets angry about the news I'm dispensing. They are, however, the exception. I'm continually surprised at the number of defendants who are polite and respectful. If only you'd acted this way on the streets, I often think, you wouldn't be standing here talking to me now. Of course, they are mostly sober when I see them and that likely helps their impulse control. I afford them as much courtesy as I can. I always try to remember that all of them, even the guy who gave a fake name hoping to beat his parole warrant, are having a bad day. The detention officer and I are the only people in the room who awoke planning to go to jail that day. And we both get to leave at will.

    I like to think of myself as a writer with a magistration hobby. I write mostly short stories. The next one will be out in the May/June issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. I've written historicals and contemporaries, humorous and serious stories, puzzle mysteries and, occasionally a poignant tale of someone for whom life hasn't quite worked out like they planned.

    Although I suppose that I will someday, I've never written a story set in magistration court. Magistration is what I do to fill the time between sessions crafting fiction. There is, however, some overlap. Both my writing job and my magistrate hobby require me to sit in my chair and keep typing, even on days when I don't want to.

    My crack staff helps me to look smarter at both my jobs. My writing editorial assistant is pictured here.

    She taught me the important rules for writing, the two commands: "Sit" and, "Stay".  Together we keep trying.

    Until next time.