Showing posts with label 1980s. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 1980s. Show all posts

02 January 2024

My tribute to John Hughes movies


When I think of the movies of my adolescence, the first name that pops up is John Hughes. I'd bet many Gen Xers can say the same. While Hughes's breakout movie arguably was 1983's funny Vacation, it wasn't a teen movie. Not that teens didn't like it (we did), but Vacation was aimed at a wider audience. Then in 1984, Hughes released his first movie aimed at kids my age. And we saw them in droves--in the theater multiple times and then on video over and over and over. 

Which Hughes movies? It started with Sixteen Candles in 1984. Then in 1985 The Breakfast Club came out. Hughes followed that in 1986 with Weird Science and Pretty in Pink. And in 1987, Ferris Bueller's Day Off was released. There were other Hughes teen movies after that, but the ones I've mentioned here were the movies of my high school years. The ones I remember most fondly. 

Hughes didn't corner the market on teen movies, of course. I couldn't write this column without mentioning 1983's Risky Business and 1985's Back to the Future and Better Off Dead ("Two dollars! I want my two dollars!"). And there were great movies that came out while I was in college that fall into this genre, including Say Anything and Heathers.

What do all these movies have in common? They're about high schoolers who had a lot of freedom with little to no supervision. While for some '80s kids, these movies might have been pure fantasy, for others (like me), they weren't that much of an exaggeration. I look back on them fondly.

It was with all of these movies in mind that I wrote my short story "Teenage Dirtbag," coming out January 9th from Misti Media in the anthology (I Just) Died in Your Arms: Crime Fiction Inspired by One-Hit Wonders, edited by J. Alan Hartman. I was invited to write a story for this anthology (thank you, Jay), and when I looked at a list of one-hit wonders, trying to find a song that inspired me, "Teenage Dirtbag" jumped out. The song was released in 2000 by Wheatus, and I've loved it ever since hearing it on Dawson's Creek and then hearing it again and again on the CD (remember those?) Songs from Dawson's Creek volume two. (Yes, I watched TV shows aimed at teens while in my twenties and early thirties. Sue me.) To me, the song's plot screamed 1980s teen movie. So I wrote a 1980s teen crime short story based on it.

I would've had a harder time making the story believable if I'd set it now. Today's teens often have more supervision than teens in the 1980s did, and other elements of the story wouldn't be workable if it were set now. (Sorry for the vagueness, but I don't want to spoil things.) Those of you who haven't heard the song might be wondering about the story's plot, so here's an overview: In 1985, Travis rules his high school, tormenting other kids and pushing his girlfriend arounduntil nerd Brian falls for her and devises a plan to free all the beleaguered kids from Travis's bullying ways. 

The song has a line about a gun that made it a great basis for a crime story, though even people who know the song may not realize it. That line was mixed out in versions played on radio stations, but the original version of the song can be found if you look hard enough. If you listen to the song, you'll hear some other details I worked into my story. Brian listens to Iron Maiden. Noelle wears Keds (but not tube socksthat wouldn't have happened in 1985). And Iron Maiden did play at Long Island's Nassau Coliseum in May 1985, which is why I set the story then rather than in '86 or '87.

Overall, my story "Teenage Dirtbag," based on the Wheatus song of the same name, is a crime coming-of-age story. It's an underdog story. And it's my tribute to 1980s teen movies. I hope you enjoy it, reader. And John Hughes, wherever you are (he died in 2009), I hope it makes you smile too.

As I said, the book will be released on Tuesday, January 9th, in ebook and trade paperback formats. You can pre-order it directly from the publisher by clicking here. It also will be available from the usual online sources and, hopefully, independent bookshops.

The other authors with stories in the book (and the songs they based their stories on) are, in order of appearance: Vinnie Hansen ("96 Tears"), Jeanne DuBois ("Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye"), Josh Pachter ("The Rapper"), J.M. Taylor ("Seasons in the Sun"), Christine Verstraete ("Wildfire"), Sandra Murphy ("867-5309/Jenny"), Joseph S. Walker ("Come On Eileen"), Wendy Harrison ("It's Raining Men"), Bev Vincent ("Somebody's Watching Me"), Leone Ciporin ("Life in a Northern Town"), and Adam Gorgoni ("Bitch").

Do you have a favorite John Hughes movie (or 1980s teen movie)? What's your favorite one-hit wonder song, defined (for purposes of this book) as a group's sole big hit in the United States? ("Teenage Dirtbag" meets that definition, though Wheatus has had more big hits in Europe and Australia.)

16 June 2023

The Great Satanic Scare of the 1980s



Those of us of a certain age discovered some great music in the 1980s. Before I drifted into jazz by way of progressive rock, my rock gods were Led Zeppelin and many of the bands that competed with them or followed in their footsteps. However, if you were raised in a household of a particular religious persuasion, you heard about it.

"That's devil music!"

In mom's defense, Jimmy Page was once a devotee of Aleister Crowley, whose hedonist creed used a lot of demonic imagery. Perhaps it didn't help when Zeppelin contemporary Ozzy Osbourne bit the head off a bat in concert. Or certain bands slapped pentagrams on their album covers. Eventually, I learned this was marketing, almost identical to slapping a Parental Advisory sticker on an album.

But that was not the real source of conflict. The real source came from parents watching the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Jim and Tammy Fayre Bakker. All of them pushed one of the most dubious conspiracy theories ever devised: backward masking.

For the uninitiated, backward masking was an idea that backwards messages could be baked into the lyrics of a song. Repeated playings would register these messages in the subconscious and brainwash unsuspecting teens into devil cults. The idea gained credibility when someone stumbled onto the Beatles' "Revolution #9" containing the phrase "Turn me on, dead man" when the voice repeated "Number Nine" over and over. "Oh, my God! What are they saying? Paul is dead?" (1.) No, and even Pete Best thinks those who believe that are stupid, and 2.) "Revolution #9" is so clearly the result of an LSD trip that anything being intentional in it is almost as likely as NASA proving the Earth is flat.) The most notorious culprit came from Zeppelin itself, specifically, "Stairway to Heaven."


A tape circulated purporting to prove Zeppelin's masterpiece contained several of these backwards messages designed to send your children to Satan. (Cue evil laughter.) Except the tape was so clearly faked (like it didn't sound a thing like Robert Plant), and...

Your truly bought a cheap turntable to play vinyl, which was not as revered in the advent of CDs as it is now. It had a DC connector in an attempt by the manufacturer to force one to buy their receiver to play it through. Clever boy that I was, I bought an AC adapter and spliced the wires. I accidentally discovered that, if you reversed the polarity, the turntable would play records backward. And I owned a copy of Led Zeppelin IV. Spoiler alert: There are no backward messages on "Stairway." Zip. None. Nada. "And it makes me wonder" can be sounded out to "There is no escaping it." You're likely to find more meaning in "Turn me on, dead man."

That's not to say there wasn't a kernel of truth in the Satanic scare. In 1991, before I journeyed to Cincinnati to put down roots, I lived for six months near Shreve Swamp in Ohio's Amish Country. The swamps, for some reason, attracted devil worshipers. Not the hippie hedonists of Anton Levay's Churc of Satan. These teens, out to prove who knows what, sacrificed small animals to Old Scratch. They also liked an abandoned Dutch Reform Church cemetery near a house my parents rented one summer. Cemeteries, of course, attract all sorts of off-brand fringe religions. In the case of the cemetery, they went to school with my brother and his uber-religious classmates. My brother, being a cynic at an early age, amused himself by driving his car straight through one of their black masses. One of them threatened him at school the following week, to which my brother responded by doing his best Crazy Riggs from Lethal Weapon

Warner Bros.

But threats of curses and human sacrifice? There are places where it happens, but it's rare. But what about all those heavy metal pentagrams? James Hetfield of Metallica put it best. Metallica is a decidedly non-Satanic band. Dark imagery, maybe, but the Prince of Darkness doesn't really appear in their music. He said the pentagram told them it was heavy metal, and they should probably give it a listen to learn the craft. I'd say they succeeded.

What did I believe? I honestly got annoyed. By the time I discovered Zeppelin, I had most of the catalog of their rivals, Deep Purple. Zeppelin sounded like a more polished version of Purple, more flexible in their sound, and a tighter unit. Talk of backward messages to me was silliness, something an uncle has never forgiving me for debunking. It led me to Yes, which led to King Crimson, but it also led me to grunge and the alt rock of the 90s for me. Last I checked, I wasn't praying to the devil for untold riches, no matter how charming he is on Lucifer.

28 April 2023

The Mystery at the Heart of “Masquerade”



My notes and case dossier from 41 years ago.

Buried treasures, anagrams, and complex puzzles are all tropes found in mystery fiction. They’re also elements of a delightful children’s book that spawned a sub-genre in kidlit in the 1980s.

It all started with a 1979 picture book called Masquerade, written and illustrated by a British artist and “wizard” named Kit Williams. (The book was published by Jonathan Cape in the UK, by Schocken Books in the U.S., and by publishers elsewhere around the globe. The plot of the book is simple. A sprightly hare is charged with transporting a precious amulet, a gift from Lady Moon to the aloof Sun-God. Jack Hare travels the length and breadth of England to deliver the prize, but loses the amulet along the way. Readers are encouraged to use the clues hidden in the book’s 15 hyperrealistic illustrations to find a very real sculpture, which Williams crafted from gemstones, faience, and 18k gold, and buried somewhere in that blessed plot, England.

Like some kind of latter-day Willy Wonka, Williams promised to send an airplane ticket anywhere in the world to the person who wrote him and convincingly demonstrated that they had cracked the code. He further promised to travel with the winner to the secret site and assist in the dig.

Thus ensued a colorful couple of years that saw (mostly) adult readers of the book going nuts digging up gardens, soccer fields, and other public and private lands all over the nation, in search of Williams’ jewel-encrusted rabbit. One long-suffering woman told British media that people kept digging up her rabbit-shaped topiary in search of the treasure. As the book’s fame spread, its New York publisher proudly bragged to the media that no less an entity than the FBI bought copies for their trainees to test their mettle cracking the code. They couldn’t, but with all the publicity the book sold at least 2 million copies worldwide.

While I never cashed in my childhood savings bonds and booked my ticket to England, I too became obsessed with the book, which arrived in U.S. bookstores about the time I was entering high school. I paged through the book countless times, and even “taught” the book for a time when I was tutoring kids in math and reading at a local elementary school. I was counting on the genius of little kids to help me unravel the case, because I was hopelessly stumped.

Like any good mystery, the book piled red herrings on top of red herrings. The visual clues included atomic numbers, magic squares, and so on, all designed to lead you astray. Williams actually painted a herring gull—a type of seabird—into one image. In another, he painted a goldfish whose scales appeared red where they overlapped with an underlying image of a hare. Each image featured a riddle painted in its borders. Some of the letters were red, others had barbed serifs. The barbed or red-letter clues, once decoded, amounted to a handful of innocuous and often unhelpful anagrams.

While Williams insisted in the book flap copy that no knowledge of British geography was necessary to solve the mystery, the book nevertheless touched on history, mathematics, literary references, British train schedules, astronomy, physics, botany, and the animal kingdom. For example, one clue found in the border of the very first image reads: “One of Six of Eight”—a reference to Catherine of Aragon, the first of six wives of Henry VIII.

In 1982, newspapers around the world revealed that the rabbit amulet had been found by a gentleman who sent what he believed to be the solution to Williams. Williams later published a smaller paperback in which he spelled out the solution in excruciating detail. Obsessive that I was (and still am), I rushed out to get that new version of the book and was astonished by the diabolical complexity of the puzzle.

To summarize this quickly, the key to the puzzle was drawing a line from the eyes of the living figures—humans and animals—in each of the paintings through their fingers (or paws/claws/fins) until those lines crossed and touched letters in the border. But you had to get the hierarchy of beings—men, women, children, hares, and lesser animals—in the proper order if you ever hoped to assemble the letters in the right sequence. One clue to this arrangement is found on the title page: “To find the hidden riddle, you must use your eyes, / And find the hare in every picture that may point you to the prize.” (Italics mine.)

If you do this, the marginalia spelled out the following:

CATHERINE’S
LONG FINGER
OVER
SHADOWS
EARTH
BURIED
YELLOW
AMULET
MIDDAY
POINTS
THE
HOUR
IN
LIGHT OF EQUINOX
LOOK YOU

From here, it becomes a matter of locating a monument in England dedicated to Catherine of Aragon, and waiting for the sun on the day of the vernal equinox to cast a shadow pointing to the location of the treasure. Where was the monument, you ask? An acrostic formed by the bolded letters above reads: Close by Ampthill. That’s Ampthill, Bedfordshire, where Catherine was exiled following the annulment of her sad marriage.

The two most important images in the book was one featuring Sir Isaac Newton and another depicting a woman known as the Penny-Pockets Lady. These two spell out the color-coded hierarchy of beings that solvers were intended to follow. 


In the Isaac Newton image, the barbed letters (circled in blue) spell SIR, and
the red letters (circled in red) spell ISAAC—both of which have nothing to do with
solving the final mystery. However, if you draw lines from the eyes of certain figures
through their hands, toes, paws, fins, etc, the resulting lines point to letters
that spell the secret word HOUR in the above acrostic.
Please do not ask me how to draw the lines;
I knew how when I was 16 years old, but not today.

By now I think we can agree that an American high school kid, aided only by his love of mysteries and a gaggle of second graders as his Baker Street Irregulars, had little hope of cracking the case.

Many years after the treasure’s discovery, The Sunday Times of London alleged that the finder had not played fairly. Instead of decoding the clues properly, he learned of the hare’s approximate location from an ex-girlfriend of Williams, and started digging holes until he struck pay dirt. The prize should have gone to two physics teachers from Manchester who cracked the code exactly as its creator intended, but whose letter reached Williams too late.

Scandalized, Williams apologized to the world at large. By then he had moved on to writing other puzzle books, painting more gorgeous images, and designing fanciful public clocks. As one who struggles constantly to conceive of even one or two clues to embed in my stories, I can only marvel at someone who possessed the creativity to layer such a dizzying array of clues for a book spanning a mere 32 pages. In my eyes, Kit Williams is some kind of a genius.

Masquerade is no longer in print, but you can still find reasonably priced copies online. If you’re buying for a child, you will want the 9-by-11-inch hardcover. If you want to learn how to decipher the code in the author’s own words, look for the 6-by-7.5-inch paperback version of the book “with the answer explained.”

See you in three weeks!

Joe
josephdagnese.com

05 December 2021

Lost in the 80s tonight


1980s big hair
Don't ask me.
I didn't get the 80s then or now.

Readers, writers, and viewers find anachronisms in novels, movies, and television shows vexing. TV shows and films have deployed LEDs in the 1950s. A novel set in the antebellum Deep South described slaves eating and drinking from bean cans. I annoyed an editing client by explaining his plot could not hinge upon a cell phone call in the early 1970s.

"Are you sure? Maybe you've forgotten."

Tarantino's Django Unchained contained so many time-warp errors, I gave up counting. My number was well into the dozens. And then Tarantino bragged about his research. Next time Quentin should hire an historian. Like one of my SleuthSayers colleagues.

Friends Sharon and Cate forwarded an article about words and phrases that came out of the 1980s. The 80s churned out some great music, but I didn't get leggings, Uggs, or television motorcycle cops sporting carefully coiffed big hair.

Following is a summary of the article with a few comments. Be sure to read the original.

1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989

Gordon Matthews invented the voice mail system in 1979 and formed the company VMX (voice message express). By 1980, the phrase and new technology had made its way into the English language.

The comb-over is a bald spot covering hairstyle. Since the 1980s, the comb-over has declined in popularity.

Topoisomerase is an enzyme which alters the supercoiled form of a DNA molecule, first discovered by James C. Wang. Topoisomerase breaks down and rebuilds strands of DNA molecule.

Yuppie is a slang term referring to young, educated adults with well-paying jobs. Mirroring the word hippie, the word is said to be a combination of the words young, urban, and professional coined by Dan Rottenberg.

1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989

A type of snow that has acidic properties due to environmental pollutants, used in a 1981 New York Times article chronicling acid snow.

A drug thought to lead people to abuse harder, more serious drugs, which may or may not be accurate.

A term describing the large (and often undeserved in the opinion of some) severance packages given to executives being terminated.

Sleazeball describes a dishonest or sleazy person. Other slang terms with the suffix "-ball" conceived in the 1980s and 1990s include goofball, oddball, and dirtball.

Spreadsheets are used extensively in office and lab environments. Students Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston invented the world's first electronic spreadsheet on the Apple II.

1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989

The CDC defined the disease acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, also known as AIDS, as "moderately predictive of a defect in cell-mediated immunity, occurring in a person with no known cause for diminished resistance to that disease."

Barista is an Italian word for a bartender, now used to describe someone who makes coffee or espresso drinks.

Complementary medicine includes alternative treatments like homeopathy and chiropractic medicine used alongside mainstream medicine.

After globalization and industrialization moved manufacturing overseas, the region in the US spanning New York through Michigan and Illinois became known for deteriorating, abandoned factories.

Like the term Valley girl began in the 1980s to denote girls from California's San Fernando Valley, but it later morphed into a stereotype used to describe people who go Valley talk.

1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989

Belgian mathematician Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet conceived the equation for body mass index in the 1800s, but not until the 1980s did BMI become the standard for measuring fat.

The first mobile, hand-held phone was created in 1973, but commercial use didn't become viable until Motorola made available cellular phones to Americans in 1983.

FLOTUS stands for First Lady of the United States. POTUS, the acronym for the president, first appeared in 1895 as a shortcut for telegraph operators. FLOTUS came nearly a century later, possibly a code name for Nancy Reagan.

In 1983, the TTAPS study coined the term nuclear winter to describe the extreme cold, high radiation levels, and devastating effects a nuclear war could theoretically cause.

Seasonal affective disorder is defined as a condition often associated with lack of sunlight, particularly due to shorter daylight hours during fall and winter months.

1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989

The Eggs Benedict recipe had been a staple of American brunch since the 1970s, but wasn't named as such until 1984.

Streptokinase was first used to break down blood clots in the 1930s, but it wasn't until half a century later that it was used to halt the damaging effects of heart attacks and strokes.

In September 1984, Alec Jeffreys accidentally stumbled on DNA fingerprinting while studying how illnesses transfer through families. DNA fingerprinting has revolutionized crime scene investigations.

Power walking involves walking at a fast pace, often while carrying weights.

The name sriracha is derived from Si Racha, a Thai province where the hot sauce is thought to have originated.

1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989

Frankly, I'm surprised this hi-tech language made the list. Its predecessor, the C compiler was developed in universities and at Bell Labs in the 1970s. Bjarne Stroustrup developed an object-oriented version described in the first C++ programming guide. The name is a pun, a reference to the C language ++ operator.

Cosmeceutical combines the words cosmetic and pharmaceutical, informally used to refer to beauty products with supposed medicinal benefits.

The idiom 'elephant in the room' refers to major problems people are unwilling to address.

Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) is a severe health condition that can cause depression and anxiety before a woman's menstrual cycle. Causes of PMDD remain unclear.

Tankinis combine bikini bottoms and a tank top.

1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989

The sport of bungee jumping gained popularity when AJ Hackett bungee jumped off the Greenhithe Bridge in Auckland, New Zealand.

Crackhead is a slang term used to describe a habitual user of crack cocaine, in the same vein as acidhead and methhead.

The slang word modifies the verb cringe into an adjective by adding the suffix -y. The word denotes something that causes one to feel uncomfortable or embarrassed.

A planogram is a visual floor plan used in office and store space management to optimize floor usage.

Sport-utility vehicles, large conveyances often built on truck chassis, replaced station wagons (estate wagons) popular from the 1950s through the 1970s.

1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989

The term describes the effect of alcohol making potential sexual partners more appealing. It was first used in the January 1987 edition of Playboy magazine.

An emoticon, similar to an emoji, combines the words emotion and icon. Carnegie Mellon Professor Dr. Scott Fahlman is credited with developing the first emoticons.

Off-label drugs are used to treat conditions not officially approved by the FDA, sometimes in experimental circumstances.

Shy bladder refers to a social anxiety that makes urinating in public places difficult. Other names for this condition include paruresis and bashful bladder syndrome.

Detroit electronic dance music, made with fast digital rhythms and synthesizers, became popular with U.S. electro-beats becoming a mainstay in European raves.

1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989

Boomerang children is a term used to describe young adults who return home after college or work experience to live with their family, often for financial reasons.

Emo music, short for emotional, merges rock and punk rock genres known for its emotional lyrics.

The Kuiper Belt is a region of celestial bodies in the solar system beyond the orbit of Neptune, named after Dutch-born astronomer Gerald A. Kuiper. Astronomers first discovered a Kuiper Belt object in 1930; it took another 62 years to discover the second.

A microloan is a small loan given to impoverished people or groups of people to fund entrepreneurial projects, often attributed to Mohammed Yunus.

Road rage is violent anger directed at the actions of other motorists.

1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989

Spy magazine and Science Magazine are credited with using the term air quotes, a gesture to signify the following words in quotation marks. It is said air quotes eliminate responsibility for one's actions.

Generation X members were born in the 1960s and 1970s after baby boomers and before the millennials.

HTML, or hypertext markup language, was developed by Tim Berners-Lee and Jean-François Groff in the 1980s and 1990s. While working at CERN in 1989, Berners-Lee sent a memo advocating for the use of a "hypertext system," and Groff sent a sample to colleagues in the US for comment.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, black feminist author and scholar, invented the word intersectionality in 1989 to describe the intersection of different types of discrimination including race, class, and gender discrimination.

Nightclub singer Rommy Revson invented and patented the scrunchie in the 1980s to contain her hair. The product was initially called "Scunci" before the name was changed to scrunchie.

24 February 2019

Remembering Miami 1980


The Chinese have a saying that runs along the lines of "May you live in exciting times." For a guy who was 12 years out of Vietnam and had joined federal law enforcement, for the adrenaline, 2-1/2 years after the SE Asian tour, Miami became a very exciting time.

It was late summer of 1980 and Miami was pretty much an open city. Castro had emptied his prisons and mental hospitals of those who could get someone to pick them up in boats at the Port of Mariel. Other Cuban citizens bribed their way out to join the flotilla headed to Florida. These people soon became known as the Marielitos. Some of the ones who made it to Miami ended up being held in the Orange Bowl stadium, but with the beginning of football season, they were moved to Liberty City, a tent city under an I-95 overpass inside Miami. (Think Scarface with Al Pacino as a rising drug lord in Miami.) The noise under the overpass from constant traffic was relentless and overwhelming. Plus, tent city residents had trouble finding a sponsor to get them out of the place, and those that did had trouble getting jobs because they didn't speak English. Faced with depression and a bleak future, some of them would do almost anything to survive. Like the song says, it's the lure of easy money.

Meanwhile, the go-fast boats were coming in with their loads from the Bahama banks, the Cocaine Cowboys were in full swing moving their product, mother ships were coming up from Colombia, airplanes were dropping their loads in the Florida swamps where drug crews waited to retrieve the illicit cargo, and dealers were taking grocery sacks of U.S. currency to local banks after their sales. In the beginning, dealers merely weighed their money until they got their own counting machines. If a van carrying a couple hundred pounds of marijuana got in a wreck on the Interstate, the driver and shotgun rider simply walked away and disappeared into the populace. Drug dealers were shot by rival organizations who left the drugs and cash behind to show it was just business, a territory thing, not a drug rip-off. After a while, all that left-behind money with no one to claim it became a temptation to some of the responding homicide cops. Some of that money got split up and disappeared. Later, some of the left-behind drugs also got split up and sold instead of going into evidence. Nobody was going to claim ownership of the drugs anyway was the theory. When the time came there wasn't enough drug homicides to respond to, some of the dirty cops created their own. Honest cops weren't sure who to trust. One of the honest cops came over to us and later testified to what he knew.

With all that drug money to spend, Miami underwent a building boom. Money talked and some got richer. Others got dead.

The Miami Regional Director sent one of his agent groups south on an interdiction program to the Caribbean. To replace his lost manpower, he drew from other offices for a "special." I went down to Miami on a "special" op, along with agents from Minneapolis, the Arizona border, the Texas border, New Orleans, and other offices. We took over the duties of those guys gone off to the Caribbean program. Our new group worked with the U.S. Coast Guard on the northbound mother ships laden with tons of pot. Some nights, we found ourselves off the Miami coast with Customs, hunting in wolf packs to catch the go-fast boats coming in from the Bahama banks. We ran our own go-fast boats seized from previous smugglers. We conducted surveillance on clandestine landing strips in the Keys. We escorted tons of seized pot up to the incinerators in Orlando just to get rid of the massive inventory in evidence. It's a heady time, just keep your automatic handy. Bullet proof vests weren't in vogue yet.

We ate our suppers in Cuban restaurants and did our laundry down in Miami's Calle Ocho, the Cuban district, hoping no one recognized us from some of our excursions in the city or out on the water. There's a Latin rhythm on the streets and Mambo clubs at night, with Cuban beauties escorted by macho males in high Cuban-heeled shoes. It's a style, a culture, a living on the edge. Easy money and quickly spent. Miami Vice isn't far off.

Eventually, someone in the main office got the bright idea to "sell" some of the massive pot inventory in a sting operation. A few hundred pounds (after the court case is done) was transferred to a rental truck parked inside a rented storage unit. Marijuana brokers who are unaware they are dealing with undercover agents, go out and solicited buyers for our product. The broker and the buyer show up at the storage unit, money changed hands, the pot load was taken and they leave. The broker goes his own way. He isn't bothered yet because we need him to bring in more buyers, but a few miles from the site, the latest buyers are stopped and arrested. Samples are taken from each pot bale for evidence in court and the remainder is driven back to the storage unit to be "sold" again. Naturally, the buying money is seized for court and forfeiture. The recent buyers? They're going away for a long vacation in the grey bar hotel.

Then comes the alleged time when an unmarked police car pulls up to the storage unit and two men get out. One shows a badge, identifies himself as a plain clothes cop to the undercover agents and then draws his gun. The other guy checks out the rental truck and prepares to drive away with the pot. The cop with the badge is getting ready to kill the undercover agents until they identify themselves. Then it becomes chaos and paranoia. Badge guy beats feet for his unmarked cop car, but is quickly surrounded. The other guy tries to drive off in the rental truck. Surveillance agents descend on the scene en masse. One agent allegedly steps up on the rental truck's foot board on the passenger side and empties his .45 into the rental truck driver. He then steps down and the truck crashes into a tree. That's the end of the "sale" program.

Like the Chinese said, "May you live in exciting times." Yeah, I think I did. Hard to imagine all that was almost four decades ago, and yet some scenes and faces are as vivid as if they were just last week.

So raise your glasses to those who were there in a time gone by.

A toast to the old days now faded into history.

Exciting times.

13 November 2018

To Read or Not to Read: the Reviews of Your Books


From the truth in advertising department: I did this piece a few years ago at a different blog. I think it’s worth repeating. But the main reason I’m doing that is because I’m having major computer issues and it’s hard to work on my computer. I hope we have these issues worked out over the next few days. Believe me, I’m ready to CENSORED.

And I want to say that I hope everyone had a good Veterans Day and that we actually stopped to remember what it was for.

So, how do I react to negative reviews? 

I call up my friends in the Mossad and tell them to seek out and destroy all negative reviewers in the shank of a dark and stormy night. Oh wait, no, that’s what a producer said he was going to do to me when we got in an argument about a script.

Take 2:

Some people say never to read reviews and that’s probably good advice, and probably what one should do. But it’s hard not to. Why? Because, I’m sure, we all want to have our egos stroked. And we’re looking for the positive reinforcement that says we haven’t wasted our lives working on something that nobody likes. So our expectation—our hope—is to get good reviews for that and other reasons. When we don’t our egos are shattered. And those who say it doesn’t affect them, well, let’s just say I think they’re most likely doing that stiff upper lip thing.

I’ve been gratified by most reviews, whether by professional reviewers or consumers on Amazon and the like. But every once in a while...

Even big stars like to check their reviews. I was on the Warner Brothers lot (though it may have been called The Burbank Studios at the time, now it’s back to Warner Brothers [long story]) one day and saw Bill Murray leaning against a car reading a review of his version of “The Razor’s Edge” (1984) that had just come out (and based on my tied for favorite book along with The Count of Monte Cristo). It wasn’t getting rave reviews to say the least, but as I say above, we all want to be validated and maybe also get some constructive criticism as to what went wrong. And I remember thinking even Bill Murray, with all his popularity from “Ghostbusters,” etc. still must feel the sting of a bad review like everyone else.

Hell, even Bob Dylan doesn’t like the sting of being booed, as when he first went electric and rock from strictly acoustic folk music. Check out this YouTube clip. It’s less than a minute long:



So let’s focus on Amazon reviews because they’re there, for good or ill. I don’t like reading negative reviews, but how I react depends on the review. Not everybody can like everything. I get that. Of course, one is tempted to remind some reviewers what their mommies told them, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” But that isn’t the real world, is it? So for me, it depends on what the reviewer says. Does it seem like they actually read the book? Do they have an axe to grind? Are they offering constructive comments about what worked or didn’t for them or are they just off on some kind of tangent? Did they get what I was trying to say and, if not, is that my fault or theirs?

I got a couple of one star reviews for my short story collection “LA Late @ Night”. And they did piss me off. I had gotten some lukewarm reviews on “White Heat” and lived with them. But these two reviews for “LA Late @ Night” just didn’t make sense to me. These two reviewers, who seemed cut from the same cloth (literally), both hated the book and the stories in it. But their comments made little sense.

One said: “Uninteresting, choppy writing. No plots. I wouldn't waste my time reading this series of books as they are rambling writings.”

Where do I start? With the fact that it’s not a series. Uninteresting, well, that’s your opinion. Choppy, well that’s my style on some things. But each story had previously been published in a magazine or anthology, so somebody found them interesting. No plots, see previous response. Bottom line, I wonder if they even knew what book they were reviewing—But Wait: There’s More. The Kicker is yet to come. But First:

The other crappy review:

“Not that great of stories and the writing is stilted...I didn't even finish them all!”

Oh, where to begin: How ’bout them criticizing my writing as being stilted when their sentence is grammatically incorrect? So maybe someone who doesn’t know proper grammar criticizing my grammar is actually a compliment.

Okay, here it comes. Hold your breath. The Kicker:

Being a glutton for punishment, I of course had to check each person’s profile to see why they hated my book so much. What I saw were reviews for muffin pans, muck boots, kitchen gadgets, children’s books, religious/inspirational books and very few mystery books, and no noir or hardboiled books. So I wondered why they even bought my book…if they really did? Judging from their other reviews I could have told them they wouldn’t like it and would have saved them the time, aggravation and money.

It made no sense to me why they would even read a book like mine. So I had to assume there was an agenda going on. I called this to Amazon’s attention, asking them to remove these reviews, which they wouldn’t. I still think there was some kind of agenda happening here, though I couldn’t say exactly what the motivation is and these are the kind of reviews, totally baseless, that really piss me off. And I know authors are not supposed to say that, we’re not supposed have emotions or respond, but hey, we do.

And here are some other One Star Amazon reviews for your entertainment pleasure, only the names have been removed to protect the guilty.

Reviews from Amazon – yellow highlights and purple comments have been added by me.

Reviews of The Big Sleep: 

One Star, boring 
By XXX/Reviewer’s Name Removed
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase

"The book is a big sleep." (Paul’s comment: Well, some of us who liked this book must just be insomniacs.) 

One Star 
By XXX/Reviewer’s Name Removed
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase

"Dated."

Reviews of Crime and Punishment: 

One Star 
By Amazon Customer
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase

"Very slow & plodding." (Paul’s comment: That damn Raskolnikov, why didn’t he just get it over and confess? On “Law & Order” Briscoe and Curtis would have had him spilling all in 2 minutes flat.)

Too long 
By XXX/Reviewer’s Name Removed
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase

"Long and pretty boring I don't like the old timely language they use in this book I know it's translated from German or Russian maybe but I was bored to tears and there was never any payoff really just goes on and on."

Reviews of 1984: 

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
I love a good dystopian but this was just such a ... 
By XXX/Reviewer’s Name Removed
Format: Mass Market Paperback Verified Purchase

"I have always heard about 1984 being the father of all dystopian novels... I love a good dystopian but this was just such a hard book to read because in the entire story, there is no room for hope." (Paul’s comment: Maybe Katniss from “Hunger Games” should show up and rescue Winston and Julia from O’Brien.) 

0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
...must be a book only an English teacher would like. I classify this a worse than "Catcher and ... 
By XXX/Reviewer’s Name Removed
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase

"This must be a book only an English teacher would like. I classify this a worse than 'Catcher and the Rye'" (Paul’s comment: Is that a new book, Catcher and the Rye, or is that something you get at Canter’s Deli (or Katniss’ Deli) – or maybe Canter’s and the Rye, or maybe Ham on Rye – h/t Chinaski.) 


~.~.~.

Damn! I’m hungry now. So, overall, you have to take both the good and the bad with a grain of seasoned salt, a quesadilla and some damn good and spicy hot sauce.

***



And now for the usual BSP:


I’m honored and thrilled – more than I can say – that my story Windward appears in The Best American Mystery Stories of 2018, edited by Louise Penny and Otto Penzler, which just came out this week. I wrote a blog on that on SleuthSayers if you want to check it out: https://www.sleuthsayers.org/2018/10/the-impossible-dream.html .

I’m doubly thrilled to say that Windward won the Macavity Award at Bouchercon a few weeks ago. Wow! And thank you to everyone who voted for it.



And I’m even more thrilled by the great reviews that Broken Windows has been receiving. Here’s a small sampling:

Betty Webb, Mystery Scene Magazine:  "Broken Windows is extraordinary."

Kristin Centorcelli, Criminal Element"Although it’s set in 1994, it’s eerie how timely this story is. There’s an undeniable feeling of unease that threads through the narrative, which virtually oozes with the grit, glitz, and attitude of L.A. in the ‘90s. I’m an ecstatic new fan of Duke’s."

"Duke and company practically beg for their own TV show."

John Dwaine McKenna, Mysterious Book Report:  "This electrifying novel will jolt your sensibilities, stir your conscience and give every reader plenty of ammunition for the next mixed group where the I [immigration] -word is spoken!"



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