27 July 2021

An Appealing Short Story


     Following a conviction in a criminal trial, the defendant has a right to appeal. He or she
argues that errors the judge made during the original trial affected the outcome of the case to such a degree that the defendant should be entitled to a "do-over." The appellate judges do not retry the case, but rather read the court reporter's statement of facts and evaluate the defendant's claims. Appellate courts issue written opinions weighing the merits of those raised issues. 

    A common claim on appeal is the sufficiency of the evidence. The jury, the argument goes, succumbed to the passion of the moment. In a sufficiency challenge, the appellate court is asked to rule that the admitted evidence could not support a finding of guilt by a rational trier of fact. When the claim is raised, appellate courts spell out the facts. They articulate why a sufficiency claim is not supported by the evidence (or conversely why it is). Appellate opinions are often technical. They are organized around the defendant's claims of error and hash out the arguments regarding those claims. The reading is not necessarily dry, but rather it is purposeful. A sufficiency claim lets the reader get involved in the story of the case, to read what the evidence showed to have happened. 

    I came across a local case recently, Andrews v. The State of Texas. The defendant, Mark Andrews, and his wife, Doris, shared a house with another couple, Don and Amy. Andrews and Don had worked together at a local trucking company until Don quit because of health problems. Mark Andrews later left as well. He became a professional gambler. This career choice routinely had him out of the house from 3:00 am until 8:00 am. The Andrews owned three dogs, Diesel, Sparky, and Tanker. Diesel and Sparky slept with Doris. All three dogs barked at strangers. Don and Amy called them burglar alarms. 

    On January 8th, 2016, at 4:30 am, Mark Andrews burst into Don and Amy's bedroom. He screamed for them to get help. While Don called 911, Amy followed Andrews into his bedroom. She saw him beside the bed, screaming Doris's name. Doris was lying on the bed in a blood pool. Andrews asserted that someone was in the house. He searched from room to room. Then he returned and began chest compressions on Doris. Amy recognized immediately that Doris was beyond saving. Centered on a rug in the bedroom, as if on display, she saw a hammer. While her husband stayed on the line with the emergency operator,  Amy observed that the door to a safe concealed in the living room stood open. Andrews, she testified, looked overly dramatic and announced that the safe had been burglarized. 

    When the police arrived, Diesel, Sparky, and Tanker barked wildly and had to be put outside. The police found no sign of a forced entry. Further investigation revealed that Andrews had recently researched funeral costs, had finances in disarray due to gambling losses, and that Doris owned life insurance. The murder weapon, the hammer, belonged to Andrews and was normally stored in a secured shed. The police discovered the shed unlocked and the door showed no evidence of damage. 

    There were other threads of evidence in the case as well. I am skipping over them for our purposes. The jury convicted Andrews of murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment. He appealed. The court of appeals found the evidence sufficient to sustain the conviction, writing that whoever murdered Doris had: 

        -The physical strength to commit the offense (Don did not. Andrews did).

        -Access to the shed to retrieve the hammer without using force (Andrews did). 

        -Not aroused the alarm of Tinker, Diesel or, Sparky (Andrews would meet this criterion). 

    It is this last point I want to focus upon in a blog for crime fiction enthusiasts.  Sherlock Holmes readers will remember "Silver Blaze," from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes deduces that the thief of a famous racehorse was someone well-known to the stable dog. 

        "Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

        "To the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime."

        "The dog did nothing in the nighttime." 

        "That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes. 

    Holmes grasped that the nighttime visitor was someone the dog knew. The government's evidence in the Andrews trial made clear to the jury that Diesel, Sparky, and Tanker had barks that were "high-pitched" and "yippee [sic]." They did not like strangers and had to be put outside to enable the police to conduct their investigation. Yet, on the fateful evening, they sounded no alarm. The prosecutors raised the point, and the appellate judge went so far as to drop a footnote citing Sherlock Holmes.

    I worked with the prosecutor who handled the case. I called Kevin and asked him if he knew about the Arthur Conan Doyle story. He did not, but he will. We concluded our conversation by finding a PDF of "Silver Blaze" online. 

    After I hung up, I thought about all of this. As mystery fans, we have the best of both worlds on display. Seasoned trial attorneys independently found significance in the same absence of facts as Sherlock Holmes. The contemporary example of life imitating art should make the story continue to feel real and viable. Conversely, the appellate judge knew about "Silver Blaze." He recognized the parallel between the case he was deliberating upon and this hallmark of the literary canon. He purposely incorporated Arthur Conan Doyle's story into his opinion and in so doing, gave names to the anonymous stable dog: Tanker, Diesel, and Sparky. 

    Is it over the top to say that Doris got some justice because of the "dogged" work of the police and prosecution? I think it probably is. 

    Until next time.  



26 July 2021

The Impeccable Poirot


I've been treating myself to a leisurely nostalgia trip through the Art Deco settings of the early seasons of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot on Britbox. David Suchet is the embodiment of the dapper little detective with his perfectly waxed mustache, spotless spats, and compassion for the emotions of others, even though for himself he prefers to rely on the "little gray cells" of his exceptional brain.

The fact that Poirot never changes makes him tiresome to some readers. Christie herself hinted she eventually found him tedious by giving her fictional alter ego, Mrs Ariadne Oliver, similar feelings toward her own protagonist. And Poirot on the page is a flat, even cartoonish character, especially compared to the fully realized characters we write and read about today. But as Suchet inhabits this character, he brings the finicky, precise, keen-witted little Belgian to life. An émigré and an outsider in English society, sometimes lionized and sometimes dismissed, he is sensitive to slights but manages to keep his temper, his sense of humor, and a sense of irony. And in the end, he solves the case without fear or favor.

Like most mystery writers who've been dabbling in deceit and death for a while, I can usually spot a few more tricks of the crime fiction trade than I'm supposed to, whether they show up in a novel, a short story, a movie, or a TV show. Furthermore, binge watching the series is giving me a further advantage, in that neither the prolific Dame Agatha nor the producers (ITV et al), with their ambitious goal of filming the entire Poirot canon, could help repeating some of their techniques.

We know the sweet damsel in distress whom Poirot unmasks at the end as the contemptuous murderess...the disregarded maidservant...the pair who detest each other most convincingly yet turn out to be lovers in cahoots...the victim who comes back to life. We've seen them before, these most unlikely villains, as we have the cluster of murders to conceal the motive for a single death. We may even have used them ourselves.

What we mustn't forget is that these classic devices—the least likely suspect, the unreliable narrator—are familiar to us because Agatha Christie thought of them first and sprang them on a vast audience who were as truly baffled as the witnesses and suspects Poirot gathers together for the revelatory dénouement of each episode.

Fashions in crime fiction have changed. Readers no longer care about the clock set forward or back, the scrap of fabric caught in a latch, the second spoon in the saucer of a coffee cup. But in the Poirot TV series, these details still give us pleasure, because they form part of the vanished world of "society" between the two World Wars when details of dress, manners, and decor still mattered to a lot of people. Such details become clues that help Poirot solve the crime at hand.

In Suchet's interpretation, Poirot is not merely observant. He has a touch of OCD, constantly straightening table settings laid awry or ornaments on a mantelpiece. I particularly loved the moment when he realized the missing will, or was it a compromising letter, had been torn up into "spills," twisted strips of paper meant for lighting the fire, in a jar on the mantel. They caught his eye because the other objects on the mantel were out of order—and he had straightened them the day before.

25 July 2021

One Movie at a Time


2020 was a long dreary year, but partway through 2021 the future started looking brighter as more people got vaccinated and stores, restaurants and various events began to open up. And then, the D mutation flexed its muscle and put question marks on how bad the future could become.

In our little cul-de-sac of nine houses, the majority of homeowners had a hello and wave relationship with their neighbors. During the eighteen years we had lived in this small community, there had not been a single organized get-together for all the neighbors to get to know each other. It was a friendly place… up to a point, but very few of the neighbors socialized with each other. Then one evening, one of our next door neighbors and his spouse proposed an idea they had. Seems the neighbor had a DVD projector, a folding table to put it on and a movie screen he'd made out of an old white sheet.

As a trial run, he hung the sheet from his pergola in his back yard and set up his projector on the table. We brought over two sets of Bose speakers from our old sound system and we set up some canvas camping chairs on their back lawn. The next door neighbors on the other side of our house were also invited to attend the trial run.

The movie selected was Trouble with the Curve, starring Clint Eastwood as an aging baseball scout who had a rocky relationship with his ambitious lawyer daughter. Everything worked well that night, so now it was time to expand to a larger audience, but we needed a bigger venue than his backyard.

The neighbor with the initial idea made up a handbill invitation to a free movie and ice cream social night. That same neighbor and us would would supply the ice cream, bowls and spoons. Everybody else would bring their favorite ice cream topping to share.

A few days before the event, I went around the cul-de-sac ringing doorbells and handing out handbill invitations. At the time, we didn't know if the audience would be the same seven who attended the trial run or a potential high of twelve in attendance. Since the number of attendees was an unknown factor, our driveway, which had the least slope to it, was elected as the bigger venue for this showing.


The movie screen/white sheet was hung with plastic hooks from the rain gutters over our garage door, while the projector and table were located about halfway down our driveway. The ice cream table was set up off to one side on the sidewalk. Everyone brought their own chairs and found places to put them where they would have a good view of the movie. Tiki torches filled with mosquito repellant were set up off to the side in order to ward off any unwanted pests.

Amazingly, there were eighteen in attendance for ice cream and the movie. Because we didn't know how well this project would be received, we had only allowed a half hour between ice cream social before the movie was scheduled to run. But, when the ice cream half hour was up, the attendees were still engaged in on-going conversation with the neighbors they had lived side-by-side with for years with only a wave and a hello. Of course, ice cream time got extended. Finally, I had to instruct everyone to pick up some popcorn which my wife had bagged up and then to take their seats, the movie was about to start. Otherwise, we may not have wound up this party until well after midnight.

For this movie, we showed Second Hand Lions with Robert Duvall and Michael Caine. Another hit. Afterwards, surprisingly enough, everyone stuck around to take down the screen and carry all the equipment and tables back to the original owner's house and/or backyard.

There's nothing like success. For our next event, we may expand the social time by making it a covered dish supper with each family bringing something for the table. This way, they can talk with their neighbors for a longer period of time.

The question now is which movie to show. It needs to be a family friendly one, kids may attend, yet be appealing to a wide audience. Any ideas?

We're just coming together, one movie at a time.

24 July 2021

Feast or Famine


 

 Years ago on a writer web site, I wrote about doing a screenplay as a writing exercise. "What's the worst that could happen?" I said. "Someone buys it?"

A few writers who did shop screenplays piled on to tell their horror stories, but I think they missed my point. I had no interest in selling it. I just wanted to see if I could do it.

So, before the pandemic, I submitted Holland Bay to Down and Out. I did not expect an immediate response. My policy with a manuscript once the publisher asks for it is to forget it exists. I work two jobs, care for an ailing wife, and labor under the delusion I'm the next Robert Heinlein (minus the ideological pretensions.) So, in the interim, a fellow SF writer told me, "Hey, your stuff's a good fit for my publisher, but they want a long list of material because they release fast. Can you spin up an arc?" As I worked up a good rant about how busy I was and how I needed to finish my original trilogy, I went into the restroom at work before telling him off, and came back to say, I had an idea for a nine-story arc.

Um... Yeah. But I didn't expect it to overwhelm me, especially since I had nothing scheduled beyond the trilogy I was wrapping up. And come pandemic time, I discovered I can dictate. So dictate I did. But the publisher passed on all that work. Meanwhile, Down & Out pulled the trigger. No problem. I can work on revisions and publicity while I shopped this monstrosity around.

Well... No. CHBB not only took it, they work faster than Down and Out. So now I've got a scifi novel coming out next month and will have to go through final edits between now and then. Meanwhile, copy edits came back on Holland Bay. Somewhere in there, I'm taking a long-planned vacation to New England.

From the be careful what you ask for department...




23 July 2021

The Incredible Brain of a Mystery Writer


 Mike (Emergency Contact sitting in the Swedish recliner opposite me, reading my latest manuscript) said something today that really got me thinking:

"I am absolutely amazed by your mind.  How you create all these characters, make them all different, and keep them straight is beyond me."

So - being Author person first in the list of my personas, I said the obvious thing all writers would say given the circumstance: "But the thing is, YOU can keep them straight when reading that manuscript, right?"

"Oh sure," he said, to my relief.  "I'm just wowed by your imagination."



I think what he really meant was memory.  And I have to admit, I've been thinking about that a lot lately.

Writing a mystery is hard work.  I don't want to say it is harder work than most of the genres - I've written in most of the genres and each has its challenges.  But writing a mystery has specific requirements that make me wonder how long I will be able to measure up.

In fact, it requires an incredible memory.

In mystery writing, you need a large cast of characters.  

First off, you need a victim.  Check.  Probably two.  And if you're writing a Brit Mystery a la Midsommer, you probably need three.  (Emergency Contact and I joke about who will be the third person murdered in each episode of Midsommer, Brokenwood, Death in Paradise, etc etc).  This victim (or three) must be a fully drawn character.  He must have a past.  There must be a *reason* he is a victim in the first place, and that means drilling down to a life before the murder.

But we said there could be three victims.  Three characters.  Check.

We talk often about the need for five good suspects - three at the very least.  I personally try for three darn good suspects with lots of supporting material, and a couple more perhaps less drawn out.  

So five good suspects, all with believable motivation.  All with *different* motivation on why they would be the killer and take a whack at the victim for gain.  

That's eight characters so far, check.

You need a protagonist, almost always the sleuth.  And a sidekick for the sleuth.  Maybe even a love interest for the sleuth, who could be a local cop.  Three more characters.

That's eleven.

Probably there will be more than one named cop. A constable to search the grounds. Probably there will be a secondary character or two, to run the Inn, serve at the table. You know the drill.

So that's at least twelve unique characters, all with individual motivation, and personalities.  All looking different, with different histories.  All in selected places at the important times for the sleuth to keep track.

Not only the sleuth.  You - the author - has to keep it all straight.

Writing a mystery is an incredible feat of memory.  We intertwine the lives of more than a dozen people, and work them around the novel like so many pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.  I don't know any other kind of writing that requires such complex thinking and as I start my second book in the latest series (The Merry Widow Murders) I am truly shaking in my go-go boots.  Will I be up to it once more?  Will the task of keeping everything straight, creating a dynamic, exciting plot that MAKES SENSE but isn't easily solved, be once more in my grasp?

It's daunting.  And I haven't even talked about the fact that I've already used up eighty plots.  But just keeping the whole thing in motion in my mind is something I know won't be possible forever.

This year, I think I can do it.  The plot I have outlined excites me, and my agent is keen.  Next year?  Meet you back on these pages next summer for a recap.

Melodie Campbell always has a mob angle in her novels, and usually they can't shoot straight.  "Impossible not to laugh" says Library Journal about THE GODDAUGHTER.  "The Canadian Literary Heir to Donald Westlake" says Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.  The Goddaughter series and The B-Team sold in all the usual suspects.

22 July 2021

Balance: the Key to Keeping Burnout at Bay!


Fact #1: Like many other artists (musicians, scupltors, painters, actors, etc.), most writers can't subsist on what they make by writing alone.

Fact #2: Like so many other artists, most writers have either a side hustle or a full-on day gig (or both) to make ends meet.

Fact #3: Juggling the writing career and the side hustle can be draining.

Fact #4: Sometimes the day gig/side hustle can take so much from you that you've got nothing left for the writing.

Fact #5: The above four facts are a pretty good thumbnail of my COVID Year-From-Hell.

Amazingly enough, this is NOT a recent selfie.

Those of you who follow my rotation in this blog (BOTH of you! *RIMSHOT*) know that my day gig is (and has been for decades) teaching history. And I love my day job.

That said: "COVID."

Let me repeat for emphasis: "COVID."

I'm not here to gripe about my COVID experiences. Other teachers elsewhere have done a great job laying out the challenges teachers across this country faced during the past fifteen-to-sixteen months. You can read some of their stories here.

Instead, I'm here to talk about the resulting burnout, and its impact on my writing. And also about what I did to counter the effects of said burnout.

Truth is, in this case, it was a simple choice. Allow me to illustrate with a visual aid:

Just in case you needed directions.

And yes, it really is all about "Balance." 

Not THIS kind of "balance." (Crappy album, by the way. Avoid it if possible.)

So what did I do? How did I achieve this "balance"? Well, it wasn't easy. Basically, I had a four-step process:

FIRST: Commit to whatever is right in front of you.

When I was in college, I had a terrific professor. Really engaging lecturer, tons of charisma. He also happened to be assigned as my academic advisor. And in between funny stories about his time as both an undergraduate and a graduate student at a prestigious university that shall remain nameless, he gave me a single piece of advice.

"I found this great job working as a night-time security guard. I was manning a desk all night and it gave me so much time to study while getting paid."

Now, I worked a lot different jobs in college, including several that were part of the campus "work-study" program. At exactly NONE of them did I get a single opportunity to crack a book and catch up on my homework. I know there are jobs out there like this (and I believe my advisor was telling the truth about his own experience), but it has never been my experience that you can do one thing well stealing time from something else you're obligated to succeed at.

So what I'm saying is: "Lean IN." Give it your all. Leave everything you've got at whatever you're working on, on THAT particular playing field.

In a conversation with my agent the other day, she told me how she's more swamped than ever, because so many people, while cooped up during COVID, have been writing books. That doesn't surprise me.

But the day job I work isn't the type to which I would feel good about phoning in the work. It's just not a job you can do well if you're half-assing it. On top of my day gig, I have a mortgage and a marriage and a child.

So how much writing was I going to get done during COVID? I published this, and I'm pretty proud of it:


In fact, I used COVID to finish up several project I'd left in various stages of completion during the previous couple of years. I've also written and placed three short stories (so far) this year (2020-2021). Three stories, three different anthologies. Publication dates forthcoming.

And yeah, I know, three short stories in a year might sound like light output, but a couple of things:

1. I write VERY slowly.
2. If I write it, it sells, it gets published and I get paid.*

(*with the exception of my first "mistake" novel, and a few early dry runs of short stories that have really not progressed much past the "rough sketch" stage.)

How did I manage this? Simple: when I was at work, I worked. When I was playing with my son, I played with my son. When I was spending time with my wife, I spent time with my wife.

And when I wrote, I wasn't worrying about my day gig. Or my mortgage, or my family. Because, by leaning in and taking care of business on each of these fronts, I was able to clear my mind and better focus/be way more productive than I had any right to be.

Second: Find a way other than writing to keep your subconscious working on your writing.

I keep a writing journal in which I write about my creative process, into which I transcribe story ideas, snatches of dialogue or narrative as they come to me, and I make a point of writing in it three to five times per week, writing day or not.

Find your thing that helps you continue to churn. Keeping out heads in the pensieve (I know, I know, Harry Potter reference) is part of makes us successful.

Third: Be kind to yourself.

This is a tough one. It means not kicking your own ass if you don't write for a day, or a week, or a month, or even a year. There were several months while trying to teach during COVID that I was so stretch so thin and so stressed and so gassed, that I was lucky to journal a couple of times per week.

Whoever said, "Life is what happens when you're making other plans," boy, did they have that right. Beating yourself up about not writing just takes time and energy away from where it is better spent: getting your butt into that chair and getting to work. Work now. Recriminations on the way up the aisle to accept that Lifetime Achievement award.

This one is essential to combat the burnout that is an inevitable portion of most of our professional lives during the Time of COVID. You want to finish that novel? You're not gonna get it done kvetching at yourself about it. In fact, your work is likely to suffer all the more if you're playing these sorts of mind games with yourself.

Or better yet, don't!

Fourth: Build in transitions!

With the challenging day-gig year that I just wrapped up on June 25th (you read that right, June 25th!), I'll admit that I ended the school year pretty danged fried.

Which was why I cut a deal with myself: I didn't even think about writing until I'd had two weeks' distance from the end of the school year. 

I did other things: read. Organized my stuff at home. Played with my family. Slept. A LOT.

Transition time helps the brain reset itself. I've never regretted down time in my writing schedule. My work is always the better for it.

And that's it. My four step process for coping with, and transcending, burnout. What's yours? Let's hear from you in the comments!

Now that's more like it!


See you in two weeks!


21 July 2021

Weird Doings in the Manor House



I just read (well, technically listened to an audiobook version) of a novel that might quite a lot of noise when it came out in 2018.  It doesn't appear to have been mentioned at SleuthSayers and it's worth a bit of chat.

The book is Stuart Turton's The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.  (The 1/2 was added to the title in the U.S. and I think it's an improvement.)  I can describe it so it sounds like a typical Golden Age manor house mystery, but it is miles from that.

The story takes place  between the wars at Blackheath, a decrepid country estate.  There is a party going on, heaps of guilty secrets, and a threat that the daughter of the family, Evelyn Hardcastle, is about to be murdered.  Our hero hopes to prevent the killing, or, at least to solve it.

Sounds like pretty standard stuff, but don't be fooled.

On the first page our hero wakes up in the forest screaming a woman's name (not Evelyn's).  He has no idea who he is, where he is, or what is going on.  He eventually finds his way to the manor house and attempts to piece things together.  But this is far from an ordinary case of amnesia.

Remember the movie Groundhog Day?  Every morning Bill Murray wakes up on February 2nd.  Now imagine that every time that happens Bill is in the body of a different cast member.

That is our hero's fate.  Every time he falls asleep (or is knocked unconscious , or even killed!) he wakes up in the body of a different "host." But his mission remains the same: discover who will murder Evelyn Hardcastle that night.  Only then can he leave Blackheath.  Complicating things: he has two rivals, also trying to solve the mystery.  And only one of them can escape the trap...

If that sounds complicated, trust me, you don't know the half of it.  I would give a shiny new dime for a glimpse of the charts Turton must have used to keep track of what all the various characters are doing when and where.

But the cleverest part, as far as I am concerned, is this: Each of the host bodies our hero occupies has a personality of its own, and as each new event unfolds he struggles to determine if the reaction he is feeling is his (whoever he really is) or that of his host.

Clearly there are non-natural events going on here (though it turns out to not be as woo-woo as you might expect).  But there is also a genuine mystery with a non-mystical solution to be puzzled through.

Preparing to write this piece I discovered that Netflix plans to make a TV version.  I wish them luck. I don't know how they can make it all explicable to a casual viewer.

And writing about this book reminded me of another manor house mystery I read years ago: Farthing by Jo Walton (2013).  This book takes place in 1949 - admittedly a little late for a Golden Age style novel - but it has the classic elements: a manor house, a family and guests stuffed with secrets, and a killing  of a prominent figure.


So why does Walton remind me of Turton?  Well, the murder victim is the diplomat who, in 1941,  brokered the peace treaty between Great Britain and Nazi Germany, allowing Hitler to control everything on his side of the English Channel.  In other words, this book is alternative history.

Your first reaction may be the same as mine: Hitler might have signed such a treaty but there is no way he would have honored it for eight years.  But Walton can explain that: Germany is still fighting the Soviet Union and has no appetite for a second front.

Like the best alternative history, Walton's book tries to think through the consequences and repercussions.  For example: I was surprised by who winds up being U.S. president, but it makes sense.

There are two more books in the series (ironically titled the Small Change trilogy) and I look forward to reading them.

Until next time, stay out of creepy old houses.