19 September 2021

How to Speak American


This one’s for you, Anne!

When our Dutch colleague Anne van Doorn visited SleuthSayers, we discussed English competency in general, and American English in particular. Following is my own contribution, but I need to mention Wikipedia contains a surprisingly good article on the topic.

Grammar

The primary thing that’s driven me mad is the concept of mass versus collective nouns and subject-verb agreement. For example:

  • US: “Tottenham FC is expected to win.”
  • UK: “Tottenham FC are expected to win.”

When I asked a British instructor to explain, all he imparted was, “You aren’t wrong.” If you figure this one out, let me know. (Wikipedia makes a decent stab of kinda, sorta explaining it.)

In parts of Britain, articles (a, an, the) seem to disappear. In Yorkshire you might hear a construct something like, “She dropped pudding on floor.” The tendency appears occasionally in phrases such as, “I took her to hospital,” where an American would say, “I took her to the hospital.”

For some reason, North Americans don’t have a similar problem with school: “I went to school today.” To be clear, that means attending classes, whereas, “I went to school today,” more likely implies visiting the campus or schoolhouse. We might say, “I attended college,” but also confusingly say, “I attended the university.”

fanny covering (girl in shorts)
fanny
covering
fanny covering (girl in shorts)
also fanny
covering

In the US, bath is strictly a noun and bathe is the corresponding verb. In the UK, bath can be both. My ears still aren’t used to someone saying, “I’ll bath this evening,” (where it’s pronounced bawth). When I try to say it, I sound like a smartass. Er, smartarse.

Meaning

Thanks to internationalism, Americanisms have filtered into the UK and vice versa. However, a few words differ in meaning.

In North America, corn means a particular type of maize. The British use a broader sense of a cereal crop including oats, wheat, and barley.

North Americans tend to use the verb ‘mad’ when they mean angry. The British limit the word to mean insane.

How do I put this delicately: Never, ever, pat an Englishwoman on the fanny. Bad enough in America, but just… don’t… do it. In the UK, it’s probably not what you think it is.

And…

We come to one of my least favorite (least favourite) words. Feel free to skip to the next topic. I wouldn’t go into this at all, except the English insist upon inserting some derivation of the word piss in every third paragraph– more often if they’re watching a football match in a pub. North Americans lean toward two meanings, urinate and anger, but the British have come up with many, many more, confusing us poor Americans. These include:

Someone who’s ‘on the piss’ is engaging in a heavy drinking bout until they’re thoroughly ‘pissed’, i.e, drunk. ‘Taking a piss’ can refer to misleading someone, but ‘taking the piss out of’ someone is mocking them. A ‘piece of piss’ refers to something easy to do. A ‘pisser’ is someone or something funny. Telling someone to ‘piss off’ means leave immediately. ‘Piss about’ is to waste time and resources on something foolish. ‘Piss up’ means to ruin something, but plain ‘piss’ means something that tastes bad. Finally the English exhibit the word’s versatility with ‘piss on’ implying great contempt and ‘piss in one’s pocket’ meaning virtually its opposite, to ingratiate oneself.

I’m convinced a writer could invent his or her own combination in the form of piss+preposition, and people on that side of the English Channel would intuit exactly what was meant. A wiser choice might be to avoid it altogether. Now excuse me whilst I bath.

French Influence

Despite time and distance, some French spellings and pronunciations have survived in the US. When I was a child, my mother pronounced pot-pourri the French way, ‘POH-puhREE’, but thanks to television and radio, the pronunciation is shifting to ‘pot-porry’. Ugh.

We still pronounce filet mignon as ‘FEElay MIN-yon’ whereas the British say fillet (‘fill-it’) steak. We retain other words the French either seldom use (derrière, double entendre) or the meaning has altered (brassiere). In some cases, North Americans have retained French spelling, such as valor versus valour.

maths symbols

baseball, soccer ball, basketball, football

tyre by the kerb, tire by the curb

Canadians still use serviette but Americans seem to be losing this useful word in favor (favour) of table napkin.

Spelling

Math in the US, maths in the UK. Sports in the US, sport in the UK. Consistent, right? And of course US soccer = UK football.

British contrast certain nouns ending in -ce with their corresponding verbs ending in -se. For example: licence/license, practice, practise. Americans (but less so Canadians) often narrow the spelling of noun and verb to -ce endings. Outside US borders, my memory aid associates the ‘c’ ending with ‘concrete noun’.

Then we have variant spellings: kerb/curb, tyre/tire, gaol/jail. If I could get away with it, I’d use kerb and tyre all the time being unambiguous with their homonyms. We see a precedent in the word clew that retains its spelling for maritime use, but evolved to clue in the crime and mystery world.

A few authors have proposed we Americans adopt British spellings regarding two ‘writerly’ words. One is cosy (instead of cozy), which one SleuthSayer or another uses. The other is storey (instead of story) when referring to the floor of a building. For example, “She was reading a cosy on her second storey balcony.” Your choice.

Finally, the dot at the end of a sentence… the British refer to it as fullstop whereas Americans usually call it a period. That’s a clue to wrap up.

Good luck, Anne!

18 September 2021

Ten Years at SS


  

As you know from my friend Brian Thornton's post yesterday, we Sayers of Sleuth have been at it for ten years now. None of us who started the blog, way back then, knew if it would work or not, and if it would be even half as successful and as enjoyable (to us) as its predecessor, Criminal Brief, had been. All we knew for sure is that we had a good group and we all loved mystery fiction. (By the way, Brian, thanks for the kind words.)

Since I was chosen by my SleuthSayers co-conspirators to "kick off" our new blog with the first column on September 17, 2011, I've been asked to write today about what the blog has meant to me over this past decade (plus one day). The request caught me by surprise, because the anniversary caught me by surprise. Until then, I'd never thought much about how long we've been doing this. Most of the thinking I've done about the blog was probably along the lines of How in the world will I come up with something to write about for my next post?

There have been a lot of them. FYI for those of you who don't read us: I post a SleuthSayers column every first, third, and fifth Saturday, whether I have anything meaningful to say or not--and when I totaled them up the other day (not counting "guest posts" done by my writer friends), it came to 258 columns. Most of those have been on the subject of short mystery stories because that's what I write most. Others were about novels, some were about movies, and some were my random thoughts about the mystery genre or the writing life or the writing process. Looking back over the posts, I found that a surprising number were about style--punctuation, grammar, spelling, capitalization, abbreviation, sentence construction, paragraph construction, word choice, word usage, etc. The kinds of things that I hated during high school English classes but that I now realize are vitally important. At least if you want to get published regularly.

Some of the columns I most enjoyed writing: "Deja Vu All Over Again," about "writing tight"; "The Washed and the Unwashed," about literary fiction vs. genre fiction; Crime (and Other) Scenes," about favorite movies; and "Candy Is Dandy," about the late Ogden Nash.

As for what the blog has meant to me as a writer, here are a few things (besides our fantastic salary) that come to mind:

I've made friends who are now dear to me. Some only online, but many face-to-face as well. At every Bouchercon I've attended I've run into fellow SleuthSayers and "commenters," and when we meet in person it's as if we've known each other for years. Which we have, in a way, because of many, many blog posts, emails, and Facebook messages. I won't name names here because I would certainly miss someone, but you know who you are--and I will always treasure your friendship.

I've learned a lot about the craft of writing. The folks who post and guest-post at SleuthSayers read and write all kinds of fiction, not just mysteries, and many of them have great tips about how to create effective short stories and novels. Some of this stuff you can't find in the style manuals and the how-to books.

I've found out about new markets to target for my stories, as well as helpful facts about publications I was already familiar with. Some of these markets are not well known, and even if they are, the insider information is sometimes the kind they don't include in their submission guidelines.

I've discovered stories, books, and movies I would otherwise never have read or watched. All of us like to pass along recommendations based on what we've enjoyed or learned from, and when you hear these suggestions from those whose opinions you've come to trust, it makes a difference.

I've been forced to write to a deadline. When you know you have to produce an article of around 1000 words at least once every couple weeks, it keeps the writing muscles working. It's nothing like the pressure of a daily-newspaper deadline, but it's still something you're expected to create and deliver on time, and it means you can't just take long breaks from writing. I think that kind of discipline also helps in producing fiction, and is one of the reasons I've been able to turn out so many short stories.

In addition to all these things, I've had a chance to tell others about my own writing. Often that means giving them a behind-the-scenes view of my stories, and sharing whatever information I've picked up about the writing and marketing of those stories. That usually leads to a discussion, and I usually wind up learning more than I'm trying to teach. The bottom line: To be able to reach and swap views with a large number of readers and fellow writers on a regular basis is a rare opportunity, and as a member of SleuthSayers I have that.

In closing, I'd like to thank a few folks. One is James Lincoln Warren, who was the Head Fred at our Criminal Brief blog (without CB there would've been no SleuthSayers) and who was kind enough to recruit me to write the Saturday columns there, back in 2007. JLW, you might not be running the factory anymore, but you're still my hero. Special thanks also to my old friends and SS colleagues Leigh Lundin and Robert Lopresti for putting up with my foolishness and my stupid questions for ten years (fourteen, actually) and to all the other SleuthSayers as well, present and former. If you look at that list, you'll see that it includes some of the best mystery writers anywhere.

I can sense that Velma, our longtime and bossy assistant/receptionist/first-sergeant, is rolling her eyes and signaling me to wind this up, so I will. My final and most important thank-you is to our faithful readers. Your friendship and loyalty is much appreciated by us all.

I hope you'll stay with us for ten more years.





17 September 2021

SleuthSayers Tenth Anniversary: What It's Meant To Me


Ten years ago today the Great John Floyd, one of several mystery author refugees from the long-running Criminal Brief blog, became the first SleuthSayer by posting the initial Sleuthsayers blog entry, "Plots and Plans." Ever gracious, John modestly pointed out that he was not posting first in the new Sleuthsayer rotation because he was best-suited to do so, but because it was simply his turn at bat.

Today, I have the honor of posting the 10th Anniversary post for the SleuthSayers blog, and I'd like to echo the sentiment. Long-term readers of this blog will know that my own usual turn at the wheel comes not on Fridays, but on Thursdays. So why did I draw 10th Anniversary duty?

Not because of what I bring to this blog, but because of what this blog has brought to me.

In a recent late-night conversation with Fearless Leader Leigh Lundin, I expressed how much posting at SleuthSayers had helped me as a writer, how I felt the better for the experience, and how grateful I was for the opportunity to share as part of this endlessly shuffling ensemble of writer friends.

Leigh suggested I reproduce the sentiments I expressed in that conversation in this tenth anniversary post. So here goes.

A bit of background: I'm not an original SleuthSayer. My tenure with the blog dates back to February 21, 2013, when the Immortal Rob Lopresti (Leigh's co-Fearless Leader) introduced me as the freshest-minted Sleuthsayer. My baptism by fire came that very day, with my maiden Sleuthsayers post: "I Owe It All to Rilke." So, yep, I'm not an O.G. SleuthSayer. My tenure only clocks in around eight and a half years and counting.

But that's one of this blog's greatest strengths: the breathtaking diversity of the writers who share their experiences here. People have stayed a while and moved on. Others, such as old friends R.T. Lawton and Eve Fisher have been here for years (both longer than I. I'm positive R,T. is a founding member of the blog and Eve must be close to that, if not also one.). Folks have even left and returned. And the best part is that all of this endless, diverse content churns out daily, and has for 3,650 straight days.

Imagine, whether you're a writer or a fan or some combination of the two, being able to learn something new about the art and science and blood and sweat and swearing and muttering to yourself in a crowded supermarket and dancing in the parking lot when having the Eureka moment that fills that plot hole that had you muttering to yourself in the supermarket in the first place and all the depth and breadth and heights that mystery writing has, can, should, and will again reach.

Every. Single. Day.

Rob and Leigh's invitation to join this happy band came at just the right moment for me. I was recently married, with an infant son, and two years removed from the publication of my most recent book. Getting married, buying a house, combining households and having a child, all in just a couple of years, put a genuine crimp into my writing time/head space.

Turns out, SleuthSayers was a lifeline.

My wife, wise woman that she is, maintains that I work best when I'm working on a deadline. SleuthSayers really allowed me to keep my hand in, as it were, by giving me an on-going bi-weekly deadline. This was instrumental in maintaining my chops, developing other aspects of my writing voice, and outlining new projects. This was the case especially early on, when my total actual output was a single published short story over a three-year period.

These days I'm back on pace: with several completed and published projects-my three-novella collection Suicide Blonde (Down & Out Books, Octobber, 2020) the most recently published. And 2021 has been a great year writing-wise. As I've expressed multiple times over the years, I'm a very slow writer. The process for me just takes as long as it takes. And yet this year alone I've placed three new short stories, wrapped a fourth, and am nearing completion on a too-long delayed historical novel.

And I owe it all to this blog. Thanks to all my fellow SleuthSayers, past and present, to Rob and Leigh for believing in me and my writing enough to invite me to take part in this supportive and welcoming community, and especially to our readers, for taking the time and trouble to read what we lay down here for you. Without the audience, the artist is irrelevant.

So Happy Tenth, SleuthSayers! Here's to another ten!

Feels like we're just getting started!

See you in two weeks!



16 September 2021

Scott and Zelda in My Own Backyard



The Grove Park Inn is a fancy old mountain resort in my neck of the woods, Asheville, North Carolina. Each year the hotel allows visitors to wander free through adjoining rooms 441 and 443 on a weekend that falls close to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s birthday, September 24th. An English professor from one of the local universities, serving as a docent of sorts, shares with guests the unusual circumstances that brought Fitzgerald to the Inn during the summers of 1935 and 1936.


The inn’s staff always “decorates” the room with period props, conveying the impression that Mr. Fitzgerald has just stepped out. A typewriter is among the artifacts, but that doesn’t mean Fitzgerald ever got any serious writing done while here.

His life and career were tanking fast by the time he occupied these rooms. For years he’d been the darling of the big magazines. Editors paid him thousands—yes, thousands of actual U.S. dollars—for stories that might have been a subscribing family’s only weekly entertainment in the days before radio. But by the 1930s, Fitzgerald’s glittering take on society folks reeked of elitism in the harsh light of the Depression. 

On those summer visits to the Grove Park Inn, Fitzgerald was struggling to keep himself afloat financially, and to pay for his wife Zelda’s stays at a nearby Asheville psychiatric facility, Highland Hospital. While Zelda battled her demons, Scott battled his. Determined to reduce his gin intake, he switched to drinking beer. His beverage of choice were so-called “pony” bottles of beer, which contained 7 U.S. fluid ounces. The bizarre sobriety plan might have worked, if it weren’t for the fact that he consumed 50 of those bottles a day—a total of 2.7 gallons of beer.


The inn's staff always litters the suite with empty beer bottles.
(This is not a pony-sized bottle.)

You would think things could not get much worse. Then Fitzgerald broke his shoulder in a swimming pool dive, passed out in his bathroom, and was discovered by the staff the next morning. In a later incident, he nearly fired a handgun, but was stopped by a bellman. These two incidents fueled rumors that he’d tried to commit suicide. His biographers are not so sure about that. He wrestled with thoughts of suicide for the rest of his life, but especially after a scathing newspaper article about him appeared in The New York Post and ran in syndication around the nation.

The reporter, Michael Mok, had visited Fitzgerald in his Asheville rooms, and could not help notice how far the Jazz Age icon had fallen. While this trembling, 40-year-old wreck of a man tried to present himself as on top of his game, a nurse (presumably hired by the hotel) hovered and surveilled his every move, trying to limit his alcohol intake and ensure a sensible diet. Mok’s article was devastating. It portrayed this voice of the Lost Generation as a washed-up has-been.

Fitzgerald eventually moved on to other (cheaper) hotels in the region. He wrote his famous essay, “The Crack-Up,” at a hotel in nearby Hendersonville, a town about 30 minutes south that I’ve talked about in a previous post. He went to Hollywood in 1937, hoping to turn his fortunes around. The money he made there was lucrative, but he spent most of it on his wife’s medical bills and their daughter’s education. He was dead by 1940, at the age of 44, a victim not of suicide but his own ailing heart.


Brian Railsback, professor and author, shares Fitzgerald's story with visitors.

At death he no doubt considered himself a failure, and never lived to see what we now all take for granted: that at some point in every young American’s life, you’re going to read The Great Gatsby, whether you like it or not. The book Fitzgerald conceived as his sparkling masterpiece sold poorly during his lifetime, but today racks up about a half million sales a year, has been translated into 42 languages, and has sold nearly 30 million copies worldwide. That’s just one book. Perhaps more impressive is his short fiction output: 181 stories, published and unpublished, that we know of.

One of those short pieces was written with Zelda, who, I might add, survived Fitzgerald by nearly eight years. She died in a kitchen fire that swept through one of the buildings in the Highland Hospital complex in 1948. Nine women lost their lives that night.

Bus tours swing through the leafy historic neighborhood here on a daily basis to share her story with tourists. On its own, her tale is painful enough, but the full Fitzgerald Asheville saga approaches an almost crushing poignancy.


A stone marker on Zillicoa Street in Asheville marks the site.


* * *


If you can indulge me the mention of yet another alcoholic writer, Dashiell Hammett, I promise to cloak it in a more cheerful wrapper. These Nomi notebooks are fashioned from recycled paper, and are fountain pen-friendly. I couldn’t resist backing the Kickstarter as soon as I glimpsed the noir-themed endpapers. New Yorker cartoonist Shuchita Mishra created these two images as a salute to the city of San Francisco. The building depicted at the bottom is 891 Post Street, where Dashiell Hammett once lived, wrote most of his famous works, and where he sited Sam Spade’s apartment. Check out the Kickstarter for these notebooks and the hilarious video here.

See you in three weeks!

Joe



Some sources for this article:

Read excerpts from the letters of Fitzgerald’s nurse here and here.

An NPR article on Fitzgerald’s days in Asheville.

The Fitzgerald episode is also recounted in my wife’s book, The Last Castle.








15 September 2021

Today in Mystery History: September 15


 


This is the ninth in my series on the past of our wonderful field. 

 September 15, 1885.  Marcel Allain was born,  Together with Pierre Souvestre he created Fantomas, a villain who became one of the most popular characters in French crime fiction.  The authors wrote alternating chapters (I had never heard of anyone writing books that way other than Sjowall and Wahloo), producing more than 40 novels.  Fantomas appeared in movies, TV, and comic books.

September 15, 1890.  Agatha Christie was born in Torquay.  She became a moderately successful chiropractor.  Oh, all right, she became the bestselling mystery author of all time.  Happy?

September 15, 1934.  John Lawrence's "Fade Out" appeared in Dime Detective.  It was his fifth story about New York private eye Cass Blue.  Kevin Burton Smith said that Lawrence was "one of many prolific pulpsters who managed to keep cranking 'em out, logic and finesse be damned."


September 15, 1939.
  On this date Raymond Chandler finished the first draft of Farewell, My Lovely, his second Marlowe novel, and my personal favorite.

September 15, 1977.  CHiPs premiered this evening. The show about California Highway motorcycle cops lasted six years.

September 15, 1988. On this date a Calypso musician is found shot to death in Isola, starting the plot of Ed McBain's 33rd novel about the 87th Precinct.  As was often the case in his books, the title has at least two meanings...

September 15, 1981. This date saw the premiere of Seeing Things, a quirky and funny mystery series from Canada.  Louis Del Grande is the antithesis of the glamorous
detective - a balding middle-aged reporter who can't get a break.  When his beloved wife leaves him he moves into the storage room of his parent's store, refusing to consider that the split may be final.  Then he starts having visions about crimes.  Unfortunately the visions never tell him whodunit, so he has to figure that out on his own.  When it aired, it was Canada's most successful "home-grown" series.

September 15, 1989.  The movie Sea of Love was released.  Screenwriter Richard Price was nominated for an Edgar for best movie. And Al Pacino was nominated for a Golden Globe for best actor.

 September 15, 199?.  On this day sports agent Myron Bolitar had a meeting in a cemetery with a murderer.  This is the beginning of One False Move, the fifth novel in Harlan Coben's  terrific series.


September 15, 1993. 
On this date Julian Semyonovich died.  He had an interesting life, traveling the world with surprising freedom for a Soviet journalist, leading some people to speculate about his connections to the government.  "Look,'' he told a reporter, "if I tell you the truth, you won't print it. So let me tell you what you want to hear: I'm the general in charge of interrogation and intelligence for the KGB."  Probably not.  But he was the founder of the International Association of Writers of Detective and Political Novels, and one of the first Russians to have mysteries published in the west.

September 15, 2000.  Jamie Foxx starred in Bait, a cop comedy-adventure released on this date.

 


Post: Edit

14 September 2021

The Challenge of Writing Humor


In yesterday's column, Steve Liskow talked about the challenge of writing exposition. With another of my columns due today--the calendar says it's been three weeks since my last post here, but I swear it's been three hours--I decided to follow up on Steve's approach and talk about the challenge of writing humor.

As a former newspaper reporter, I know that a professional shows up when it's time to write and gets the job done. On some days, writing may flow more easily than others, but as long as you have an idea of what to write (whether a detailed outline, a high-level outline, or a jumping off point for you pantsers out there), a professional writer should be able to make progress each day with the story at hand. (Ideas can be harder to come by, at least for me. That's why I email ideas to myself whenever I get them so when I have writing time, I have lots of ideas to choose from. And of course finding that writing time can be another big problem, at least for me. But I digress ...) 

If you're sitting there cursing me out for telling you should always be able to make progress, when you know it's not that easy, you're about to feel much better. Because I have days when I can't make progress either, at least not when I'm trying to write humor.

Writing dark stories, dramatic stories, really, most any kind of crime story, I can do that on most any given day if I have an idea to work from. But if I am trying to write a funny story, all bets are off. If I'm trying to write humor and I'm not in the right mood, that sucker's not going to be funny, no matter how hard I try. You gotta feel the funny. At least I do. 

That said, sometimes when I'm trying to write a story that is supposed to be funny and it's not working, it turns out it's because my idea isn't developed enough. Take my story "A Tale of Two Sisters." (Please! Just take it! ... I know, I know, I'm no Henny Youngman.) Anyway, the story came out in May in the anthology Murder on the Beach. Writing that story was a slog. I knew I wanted to write about a wedding at which the bride's tiara is stolen, then retrieved, then stolen again, then retrieved etc. It sounded like a good idea until I tried to write it. The humor wasn't working. What I ultimately realized was my idea was too simple. A tiara being stolen repeatedly may be vaguely amusing, but to make the story funny, I had to add in more humorous situations and--most important--I needed to add in more humorous characters. 

I gave my main character, Robin the maid of honor, an overbearing mother, whom Robin reacts to in a sarcastic manner. I made Robin feel responsible for making sure her nervous sister, the bride, has a good night, then I had a dog crash the wedding. I made Robin starving but unable to get a bite of food. Basically, I kept upping the ante and setting up funny situations and amusing people for Robin to react to. Once I did that, the writing started to flow.

I faced a similar problem when I started writing "Humor Risk," my story in the anthology Monkey Business: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Films of the Marx Brothers. This book is coming out this Sunday, the 19th, and--as you can imagine with an anthology inspired by the Marx Brothers--I had to write something funny. No pressure. 

When editor Josh Pachter approached me about writing a story for this book, I told him (don't hate me) that I don't like the Marx Brothers and wouldn't be right for the anthology. Then he had an idea. The Marx Brothers' first film, Humor Risk, was never released. The history of the movie indicates that the one print of it might have been burned or stolen. There's very little detail about it. What if I wrote about that, Josh said, about the film being stolen. Maybe I could create a PI who hates the Marx Brothers but needs to find the movie. Okay, I said, I could work with that. 

Easier said than done. I came up with the idea of a PI tracking down the only print of the film to a hoarder house. The guts of the story would be this guy versus the house, with him getting hurt over and over. It sounded funny until I tried to write it. After one scene, the story became tedious. I realized I needed more characters, people my main character could react to. Once I figured that out (and changed him from a PI to a thief), the writing began to flow. I still have my main character, Dominic, searching in a hoarder house, but the humor comes not just from pratfalls but from voice--Dominic's thoughts and the dialogue of the other colorful characters. Changing the story's setup made all the difference. 

So, my takeaway from these experiences: If you're trying to write something funny, don't rely only on funny things happening in the story. You also need people reacting to the events. That's where the real humor will come in. 

One more thing: don't forget that sometimes the funniest parts of a story come from surprises. Like this one: It wasn't until after I finished writing "Humor Risk" and it was accepted that I realized I'd made a mistake. It's not the Marx Brothers I can't stand. (I don't love them, but I don't hate them.) When I told Josh I couldn't stand the Marx Brothers, the old comics I actually was thinking of were ... The Three Stooges.

Oops.

If you'd like to pick up Murder on the Beach, it's available in trade paperback and ebook. The book's in Kindle Unlimited, so if you want an ebook, you'll only find it on Amazon. Click here to go there.

If you'd like to order Monkey Business: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Films of the Marx Brothers, it's coming out in trade paperback and ebook. You'll be able to buy it in all the usual places, but your best price will be from the publisher, Untreed Reads Publishing. And if you order the trade paperback before the publication date (i.e., before this Sunday, September 19th) directly from Untreed Reads, you'll not only get a 25 percent discount but you'll also get a free ebook of the anthology in the format of your choice (Kindle, EPUB, or PDF). To get this deal, click here.

13 September 2021

The Challenge of Exposition


If you write mysteries, you need to pass information to your readers. If your protagonist is a cop or private eye, this usually involves the victim or client explaining everything at the beginning. That's easy, but it involves flat telling with no tension, which means you have to jumpstart the action after laying the foundation. It's even more urgent in plays, where a static opening scene (think Chekhov, Ibsen, or lots of Shakespeare) means the actors have to start over again in scene 2.

All those scenes depend on a particular dynamic: one character has information the other one lacks, so the informed one explaining everything is logical even if it isn't very exciting. But there are better ways to do it.

You can start with ACTION instead of telling. Don Winslow opens California Fire & Life with the fire destroying an estate and burning a woman to death. That will be the focus of Jack Wade's insurance investigation. The play Extremities opens with a man attempting to rape a woman, who manages to blind him with a can of insecticide and set up the rest of the play. These actions grab the audience's attention more effectively than dialogue would.

If you can't use such extreme action, look at other ways to present dialogue. If two people are arguing about who is going to get Dad's old Chevy, it suggests that Dad won't be driving it any more. If a woman in a wedding gown and veil is sobbing to an older douple about "that slimy jerk," it's a fair guess that she's been dumped at the altar.

In both those cases, explanation will sound artificial. "Well, Diane, now that Dad is dead/incapacitated, one of us should take his classic '57 Impala, and it should be me because I love such cars" is what we call "As you know, Bob" dialogue. The characters both know what's going on and talk only for the sake of the audience instead of resolving an issue. My wife gave me the ultimate example years ago after doing a staged reading of several new plays: "I was talking to John, who is your brother."  We couldn't stop laughing.

The car and the abandoned bride illustrate what playwright Jeffrey Sweet calls "High-context exposition." When both characters have the information, they don't explain anything. They use jargon, context, and references to people or events the audience doesn't know yet. This immerses the audience/reader in the event so they gradually absorb what they need. "Low-context exposition," where someone lacks the necessary info, like the mystery sleuth, justifies more explicit backstory and explanation.

Steel Magnolias is not a great play (although it's a great acting vehicle for six women), but we get involved as the women name over 20 characters (mostly men) who never appear on-stage. The Cover of Life refers to three husbands who have been drafted during World War II and never show up, but we know about them from their wives. David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross opens in a Chinese restaurant with two men arguing about "leads," "closing," and other terms they never explain. Eventually, we figure out that they work in a real estate office. Since they're arguing, it adds energy to the scene and draws the audience in.



I tried to use that tactic in my novels. Run Straight Down opens with a shooting in an urban high school, and the teachers use their ed-speak and in-jokes to draw readers in as they watch the chaos. We join their world in small increments. There's a student teacher for when I need a larger explanation, too. 



The Whammer Jammers takes place in the world of roller derby, and my daughter, former captain of the Queen City Cherry bombs in Nashua, helped me develop questions so I could interview skaters, coaches, announcers, and boyfriends at matches in Connecticut. Scenes in the book involve practice sessions and bouts (matches) so the reader gets involved early. That was a lot of fun, too.


Using action or high-context exposition is harder to do, but it pays big dividends. You'll find ways to create more tension early on, which gives you something to build upon later. 

Your readers will love you for it.

12 September 2021

Propositions


Fran RizerI once attended a book talk/signing by a true crime writer at a southern bed and breakfast in a beautiful old two-story, white columned house in Columbia, SC. Sitting around in the elegant parlor, the ladies chatted about literature and artsy things. Luncheon was served on pre-war (that's the Civil War) china in the formal dining room before the writer began her talk. I've read her books. They are all well-written, and, no, I won't name her because of what I'm about to tell you.

I was listening, but not totally attentive because I was off on one of my "What if?" daydreams that frequently turn into scenes in my books.

She said, "I listened at him, and he told me all about the murder."

Listened AT him? I sat up straighter and listened TO her more attentively. How could a professionally published author commit such a faux pas? I don't remember another word she said. My mind wandered to the Preposition Proposition. (Bet you thought that title was headed elsewhere, but would you really have read this far if my heading were "Prepositions?")

Back when I taught English, I dealt with parts of speech including prepositions. By definition, a preposition is, "______________________."

Prepositions are one of the few ______________________. I asked my students to memorize. Most of them could name ______________________.

How about you? How many prepositions can you list? (Do it now before you read to the bottom of this blog.)

Okay, prepositions are a part of speech; they show relationships; and their usage varies in different regions. The writer/speaker turned out to be from South Carolina's lowcountry (not a typo; it's written as a closed compound.) In that area, people listen AT instead of TO.

Proper Preposition Usage.

Pages and pages of instructions on proper usage left me with a few that stand out. Different?
The rule is that things are different FROM each other, not different THAN.

One that always puzzles me is standing ON line opposed to IN line. In the United States South, students and shoppers stand IN line, but on the news, lots of people stand ON line. Of course, nowadays almost everyone is online, but I don't think it has anything to do with waiting AT the cafeteria or to go INTO the movies.

My nosey self read her books again. Nobody listened AT anything. I decided her proofreader had edited some of the lowcountry colloquilisms from her work.

How many prepositions did you list? Here's my list. No, I didn't write it from memory. I looked it up in a fourth-grade grammar book.

• about
• above
• around
• at
• by
• for
• from
• in
• into
• of
• off
• on
• out
• over
• to
• under


Until we meet again… take care of YOU!



I met Fran at my first and thus far only MWA gathering in New York. A new author and a new member, she announced a publishing contract for her first Callie Parrish cosy. After retirement from teaching, Fran faced a choice of moving to Florida to die or starting her dream career of writing.

We became friends and occasionally chatted late at night. She was an incorrigible flirt (yes, worse than I am) and hitting her 70s didn’t slow her down.

Fran’s cousin and best friend since childhood was Linda. They’d double-dated, served as each other’s bridesmaids, and were neighbors in Columbia, South Carolina. Linda organized Callie events and underpinned the Callie fan club.

Then Linda was murdered.

During a home invasion, a robber became a killer.

Fran was devastated. She stopped writing. She stopped interacting.

We chatted every few weeks. I knew she had more writing in her and began to encourage her. I offered her a slot on Criminal Brief if she wanted to announce coming out of retirement.

It took a year, but to my pleasant surprise, Fran accepted. Not only did she announce her unretirement, she grabbed that forum to tell the world her darkest secret, that Linda was a victim of a terrible homicide.

Fran herself died on Christmas Eve two years ago. She left nearly a dozen unfinished articles in SleuthSayers development queue. Most are fragmentary, one is semi-complete but an editing mess, but she’d marked this one ready to go. Her death was such a sore spot, we held it until now. {Rob butts in to say: the three blank spots in this piece were gaps she clearly intended to fill in later.  We lave left them as she did.]  Here is Fran with grammar advice followed by her signature wrapup…

Until we meet again… take care of YOU.

— Leigh

11 September 2021

Remembering 9/11, Twenty Years Later


9-11, Twin Towers, NYC
Twin Towers, WTC, NYC © Wikimedia

Twenty years ago today, on the morning of September 11, 2001, I was at a professional education seminar. About twenty of us were in the class, including by coincidence my wife. These sessions aren't thrills a minute, mostly folks getting needed hours in toward keeping a license, so everyone settled in subdued and broke open their laptops. The speaker got going, and we were in our meeting room bubble as the terrorist attacks began.

2001 is forever ago in technology terms. If people had a snazzy device, it was those tiny Nokia phones with basic text functions and the amber screen. A few people got buzzed on a phone or pager, and others saw the breaking headlines on their computers, but it was really the facility staff that got urgent word to us. There'd been an explosion in New York City. A bomb. No, a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. I'd assumed it must've been a commuter plane off-course, a drunk or deranged pilot. Big planes coming in or out of LaGuardia or Newark wouldn't get that close. 

Wisely, the instructor had us break even though we'd barely started. It was clustered around the snack area television that we began to grasp the scale of what'd happened. We didn't know it was an attack yet, but the World Trade Center seemed no coincidence. It'd been a target before. We just watched it happen. If anyone spoke, it was a brief whispered question. A haze of trying to process events had descended, and it would stay over me long afterward. The world changed that morning. We know that now and still grapple with its consequences. In the moment, stunned, we actually tried to restart the class, one eye on the news. 

The second plane hit the South Tower.

In retrospect, it helped that my wife and I took this in together. We could see that each other was fine. Rattled, but fine. Back then, this went unspoken, an instinctive flash in a mounting confusion. And we had jobs to do.

I was a regional finance officer then, and our territory included the Eastern Seaboard from Metro DC northward. We had operations to adjust and potentially our patients to secure. We could've had people aboard any of those planes. By the time I made the building, the Pentagon attack had occurred. A co-worker asked what I thought was going on. I said, "I think we're at war."

The rest of that day was spent confirming staff whereabouts and dealing with any local needs. I had several calls with a friend and executive based in the Newark area. She was too busy for outward shock, a pro's pro nurse, but in a quiet moment she told me, "I can see the smoke."

Unlike so many other families that day, our group had no one killed. Stress and coping, but these were some of the toughest people I will ever know. We did have people stranded in various airports, with air travel grounded nationwide. We approved whatever expenses it took to get rental cars, overnight hotels, etc. and get folks home. In the evening, I went home. I sat locked on CNN, on every new report or development. I was quiet. I was angry. I wanted to fight back. We had dogs then. They probably didn't know what to make of me.

I don't remember when precisely my need-to-process fog lifted. The mind can let you hold something horrible at a distance a while, especially when you'd been lucky like me. I hadn't lost anyone. I could digest 9/11 in pieces.

Not long after afterward, I was on my own flight into Newark. It was past dark, and by chance our landing path circled us close enough over the Hudson to see the spotlights and the crews sorting through what remained of the rubble. I visit the Memorial every time I'm in Manhattan now.

I'm a flighty right-brain/left-brain mash-up, try as I might to stay organized. My thoughts run where they want, on top of each other or in mid-sentence. I don't remember this last Wednesday, let alone much from two decades ago. But I remember September 11, 2001. I remember the layout of the classroom, the looks on people's faces, the sounds of voices, everywhere I went and when. 

I should remember. We all should, to honor the good people lost that day.

10 September 2021

Ten Rules For Writing Mystery Fiction



1. Write fiction.

2.  Include a crime or the threat of crime as a major element.

3. Keep the reader interested to the end.

4. Leave the reader wanting to encounter more of your work.

5. Optional.

6. Optional.

7. Optional.

8. Optional.

9. Optional.

10. Optional.

09 September 2021

Dying Drunk and other Victorian Habits


I read an article a while back called "Time to Reread 'Anna Karenina'" on (of all places) The American Conservative, just to see what their take on it was and it was:

"The reader watches as Anna, a brilliant socialite with a respected husband and a smart young son, falls from grace: she nearly dies in childbirth of her illegitimate daughter; is cast out of all polite society; is isolated from her son, family, and friends; drives herself mad imagining her paramour is in love with other women; and, ultimately, commits suicide. Through all this, Anna refuses to repent her decision to be unfaithful. If there’s one idea Tolstoy wants you to come away with, it’s that affairs have consequences."  And then goes on to blame feminism because reasons.

Now yours truly, a/k/a Every Volume Eve, knows that almost every author who has ever written about  adultery generally comes to the conclusion that affairs have consequences.  Even Casanova occasionally knew he went too far.  She also knows that Tolstoy had enough issues with sexuality to keep generations of Freudians on 24/7 therapy alert, but the essayist apparently didn't.* 

Nor, apparently, did he know that Anna Karenina was no feminist, but she was a drug addict.  He certainly didn't mention it. Specifically morphine. When she gave birth to that illegitimate daughter, which almost killed her, the doctor gave her morphine because that's all they had back then for pain, etc. As the novel progresses, so does her addiction, until she can't sleep, go out, or do anything without morphine.  Other people in the novel (such as her sister-in-law Princess Oblonsky, a/k/a Dolly) notice her addiction, and warn Vronsky, who knows already, but no one can figure out what to do. And the night before her suicide, Anna pours her "usual dose" of opium, and the next morning, takes a little more, and goes out and hurls herself under a train.  (Sorry if I spoiled the ending for you.)

Basically, Anna Karenina is a damn good portrait of addiction in action. True, the references are brief, often subtle, sometimes euphemistic, but they would have been perfectly clear to a Victorian audience.**  I think some of it is that most modern readers don't think in terms of Victorian ladies - even Russian Victorian ladies - being drug addicts. (Somehow humans always think sex, drugs, and wild music are modern.) But they were.  

For example, a common event in Victorian literature and memoirs is someone's illness and death.  Along the way, they're generally given either a cordial or an elixir. Both were primarily alcohol, mixed more or less with opium (whether it was called morphine or laudanum) or cocaine (Sherlock Holmes wasn't the only one on "a seven-per-cent solution"). Laudanum, "a tincture of opium mixed with wine or water" that's been called the 'aspirin of the nineteenth century,' was the primary painkiller available. It was recommended for a broad range of ailments from cough, diarrhea, rheumatism, 'women's troubles', cardiac disease and even delirium tremens. (VictorianWeb) When Oscar Wilde said, "I am dying as I have lived: beyond my means," he was drinking champagne on his deathbed by prescription. In fact, cordials for the sick and dying are mentioned in so many Victorian novels that I've decided most Victorians died drunk and/or high.  

Cordials were also given to babies, especially when they were teething, colicky, etc.  Godfrey's Cordial (a/k/a "The Mother's Friend") contained one grain of opium per two liquid ounces, and those two ounces were mainly alcohol.  It was notorious for being responsible for infant deaths, but it was just so handy, and it did shut the little darlings up.  So it got used.  A lot.  (Citation)  


Then there were tonics.  Most children, adolescents, and women were given and/or took tonics to "build up their strength" and/or keep them "regular":  the most famous of these, of course, is Lydia Pinham's Vegetable Compound, which was made up of an almost modern recipe of herbs (including black cohosh) suspended in alcohol.  (see here)  ("Just a spoonful of whiskey makes the medicine go down...")

And of course, there was paregoric (camphorated opium tincture), widely used to control diarrhea in adults and children. This is what Beth March takes in Little Women (it's referred to solely as "camphor" there but everyone at that time would have known it was paregoric) when she suspects she's caught scarlet fever from the Hummell family.  She also takes some belladonna (on doctor's orders!), which is a tincture of deadly nightshade, and can do everything from blind you to kill you.  All things considered, I'm amazed that Beth lived as long as she did.  

Calomel (mercury) was used to treat everything from mumps to typhoid fever, and all of women's gastrointestinal troubles. Since mercury softens the gums, it was also given to babies for teething.  In real life it cured nothing, but it caused a lot of mercury poisoning, which had long-term consequences, especially in the babies.  Part of the reason you rarely read of a man being treated with calomel in a novel is that it was also used for syphilis, so to mention it as a treatment was to basically declare that he was an immoral rake, and pity his poor wife.  (In real life, see Lord Randolph Churchill, Winston's father.)

Cocaine lozenges were recommended as effective remedies for coughs, colds and toothaches in the Victorian era, not to mention indigestion, melancholia, neurasthenia.  Holmes was not the outlier that Dr. Watson would have us think.  

With all that laudanum, cocaine and alcohol floating around, the list of Victorian addicts is long.  Besides Anna, there's Anne Bronte's Lord Lowborough in the The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (she apparently studied brother Bramwell and copied his addictions with microscopic accuracy) to Dracula. (Addiction is addiction, folks, and Dracula certainly has all the symptoms, including using everyone and everything around him to get his next fix of that sweet, sweet stuff.)  Wilkie Collins used opium to good effect in both The Moonstone and The Woman in White).  

And in real life, there's Elizabeth Siddal, Gabriel Dante Rossetti's wife, who died of an overdose of laudanum in 1862, while Rossetti himself became a chloral hydrate addict. 

Samuel Taylor Coleridge also got high, which should surprise no one who's read Kubla Khan:

"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea."

Elizabeth Barrett Browning started taking laudanum for pain when she was 14 years old, and only managed to give up her addiction 30 years later, after her marriage to Robert Browning, when she realized that otherwise she would never have children. 

And none of this was considered illegal or particularly immoral, as long as you could earn a living, have children, carry on in society, etc.  

Today we live in a world in which the demarcations are clearly marked:  legal / illegal drugs; prescription drugs / illegal drugs.  But in the Victorian world those markers didn't exist.  You could buy anything, use anything legally.  The Victorians might be tightly buttoned when it came to sex, but with drugs and alcohol, there were no limits, other than morality and social standards, and to be honest, those were also much more fluid than ours.  Except for a few cranks like Bronson Alcott, everyone drank.  (For one thing, only a madman would drink Thames or Potomac or any river water.)  And when it came to pain and sickness, everyone took drugs.  Hard drugs.  It was all they had.



* Proof? The Kreutzer Sonata, Pierre's first marriage in War and Peace, and the fact that Tolstoy sired 13 children while declaring the swinishness of carnal love and the institution of marriage.  But then Rousseau had 4+ children and put each and every one of them in an orphanage, while writing the 18th century classic on permissive child education, Emile. So there's was a lot of hypocrisy around.  BTW to those who believe Mrs. Tolstoy was entirely to blame, just a reminder that Sophia copied and edited the manuscript of War and Peace (1,225 pages) seven times from beginning to end at home at night by candlelight after the children and servants had gone to bed, using an inkwell pen and sometimes requiring a magnifying glass to read her husband's notes.  

** They also often miss the rather plain reference to birth control in Ch. 23.

08 September 2021

Battle Fatigue


Still thinking about A Song for the Dark Times, the Ian Rankin book I talked up a couple of weeks ago, I realize that it’s effectively the first COVID story I’ve read, although not self-consciously so.  Rankin tells us in an afterword that he began the novel before the pandemic got legs, but the quarantine caught up with him.  Suffice it to say that while COVID doesn’t make a literal appearance, it makes itself felt.  The characters all seem to be overtaken by tremendous weariness, utterly exhausted, savage and strung out and wired, their default mechanism an unprovoked strike at soft tissue.

I also mentioned PTSD in reference to A Song for the Dark Times.  I can’t be the first person to suggest we’ve had a national psychotic episode over the last four years, and that toxicity hit a boiling point in 2020.  There’s a marked difference, though, between Carl Hiaasen’s Squeeze Me, a venomous (excuse the pun) satire of a public con artist known to the Secret Service as Mastodon, and the Rankin book – not least because Hiaasen is laughing through tears of despair, but because of the timing.  Hiaasen got his book to press before COVID, although it came out in 2020, and Rankin broke the tape just a hair after, when the pandemic had begun to tighten its grip.  The full effects weren’t known, of course, but fatigue was clearly manifest already.  We were so sick and tired of the unending vomit skit, that when we actually realized how unprepared we were for genuine political respiratory failure, it fell on us like the Plagues of Egypt.  It was absolutely biblical, you couldn’t help feeling we didn’t deserve it somehow.

All in all, it meets the clinical hallmarks of escaping an abusive relationship.  (Except the guy is still out there haunting us, absent Van Helsing and the stake.)  Looked at in context, it could just as readily be combat stress, or alcoholic parents, the gaslighting husband, predatory manipulation, emotional or sexual, the entire vocabulary of passive-aggressive, narcissistic grievance.  The betrayal of trust, the loss of faith.  You could perhaps survive the death camps, but then be consumed by survivor’s guilt. 

A lot is going to be written about this shitty, corrupt, and incompetent Administration, and history won’t be kind, but I’m wondering more about how we approach the dry heaves and the hangover.  Reading, for example, Jackie Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs books, which take place between the wars, they lean on the horror of the trenches.  Her grandfather, we learn in her memoir, This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing, was a shell-shocked veteran of WWI.  (We don’t often get this kind of objective correlative with a writer; in this instance, we get the smell of the hops, and the scent of class difference, nothing if not quietly poisonous.)  Our own history is instructive, how we’ve dealt with race, for example, in literature, or popular culture.  You could make a good argument that Chester Himes writes with more vigor or honesty than some other literary lights, but he wrote in a genre that was below the salt.  Blind Man with a Pistol isn’t a title that conjures up the Pulitzer.  So how do we engage the age of Coronavirus and the collapse of political conversation? 

We can look at Latin American literature, in the shifting squalls of dictatorship and social reform, or perhaps Spain, after the Civil War, the country constipated by Franco.  Socialist Realism.  I’m not joking.  Some animals are more equal than others, Orwell reminds us, and at the moment the Right is squealing, but the Left has played the victim card to similar effect.  Don’t get me wrong, I think the Right is weeping crocodile tears. 

I’m asking a different question, which isn’t about our political sympathies.  What happens when our sympathies are exhausted? 

I remember the AIDS epidemic.  I happened to be living in Provincetown in the 1980’s, and gay guys were dropping like flies.  Some of them were close friends, like Howard Gruber, who owned Front Street, some of them were simply people I knew or worked with, friends of friends.  It was about the math.  Your odds were bad.  You fucked a guy you met at Tea Dance, and you didn’t use a rubber?  Personal liberty, I guess.  Like not wearing a seat belt.  The crazy thing is that it took so long to penetrate.

Elvis Presley posed for his polio shot before he went on Ed Sullivan, in 1956.

How will we address these plague years?  Not so much the crazy, the QAnon and that crap.  There was a time when the John Birch Society told us that fluoridation in the water supply was a Commie plot, and Stalin was in our toothpaste.  How do we make this not seem completely nuts?

On the other hand, how is it not completely nuts? 

07 September 2021

Maps


author Mark Thielman
Mark Thielman

     When my wife and I got married 30+ years ago, our friend Kathy gave us the Complete Atlas of the World as a wedding present. The book is an oversized coffee table volume with a jet-black cover. The blue marble of the world as seen from space adorns the front. It was intended as a metaphor for our new life. Kathy challenged us to explore and to dream of the places we'd go. We thought it was a cool gift at the time. We still do.

    What's interesting about pulling out that old atlas now is to see the changes written across the pages. The book seems heavy, fixed, and permanent. But there on page 50 is the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, one solid band of unified color spanning a huge piece of Eurasia. Or on page 98, the Africa map with its hard, unchanging boundaries for Ethiopia and Sudan. I could go on but you get the idea.

atlas

    I've been thinking a great deal about travel lately. This was supposed to be my first SleuthSayers blog after Bouchercon. I had assumed I'd jot down some observations about the conference, congratulate the winners, reference the people I'd been able to meet in person, and intersperse those thoughts with the smells, tastes, sights, and sounds of New Orleans. That blog will have to be postponed until after the 2022 conference in Minneapolis. (I anticipate different tastes and smells.)

    I've been looking forward to traveling. I've missed waking up someplace different, knocking about exploring and discovering. I've missed seeing sights and trying foods. A couple of weeks ago in this blog, Robert Lopresti mentioned a bit of a conversation he overheard at a previous Bouchercon. Those lines made their way into a story. Let me add that to the list. I've missed collecting dialogue souvenirs. Not only have I missed going away, but I've also missed returning home to my familiar, and the simple joy of knowing where the things I use to construct my daily life are located.

    Although my wife and I haven't been hermits since the COVID onset, we have limited our venturing out to new places. The question, "where should we go?" as often as not has been replaced by "should we go?" Although the answer has sometimes been yes, spontaneity has seen an additional hurdle placed in its path.

AHMM

    The September/October issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine includes my story, "The Map Dot Murder." The tale is set in a small west Texas town. The high school's social studies teacher is murdered. His classroom is map festooned. Yet, most of the town's inhabitants are people who haven't gone anywhere. They've lived their lives within the town's boundaries. Some residents like it that way. Others resent it. A few have never bothered to think that they might have options.

    Just as I should have been finalizing my plans for Bouchercon– circling topics on the schedule of events, composing snappy answers to questions for my panel, and sending final emails to arrange get-togethers– comes my story about staying put. You know the timeline for stories. Tapping out the story on your keyboard takes a while. Rewrites, edits, and polishing add some more time. Then you send it off, drumming your fingers while waiting for an acceptance email. Finally, the movement to publication requires another chunk of time.

    The story should have come out as I was preparing to travel. Instead, it was published as I was sitting at home, folding my map from the journey I didn't take. Like the Complete Atlas of the World, perhaps it serves as a reminder about the illusion of fixedness.

    I hope you enjoy the story. And, whether you're at home or on the road, stay safe.

    Until next time.

woof

06 September 2021

The Lewis Trilogy



Recently I caught up with Peter May's Lewis Trilogy, three mysteries published in the twenty-teens featuring sometime Edinburgh detective inspector Fin Macleod. May, a Scottish author and TV screenwriter, learned a good deal about the Isle of Lewis while working on the first-ever drama series produced in Scots Gaelic, a language Great Britain once proscribed as uncivilized and liable to promote sedition.


 The Gaelic (like a clan leader, the language has its own article) is the native language of almost all the characters, English being the subtly alien tongue of  school and foreign officialdom. It is The Gaelic, the mother tongue, combined with the harsh and isolated life of the Hebrides, that encourages the clannish intimacy of the island and lends a distinctive touch to May's three novels.

What is even more unusual is the structure of the books. Each one contains a criminal case, investigated, officially or not, by Fin Macleod. This procedural is wrapped around another story, Fin's childhood and youth in The Black House and The Chess Men, and Tormond Macdonald's in The Lewis Man. These are not just the familiar flashbacks to ancient and exciting crimes but nearly full dress novels within novels, Tormond's being a real tour de force, given that the old man suffers from dementia.

Reading the trilogy, even out of sequence, has made me think about mysteries' relationship to time. Romance and science fiction are forward looking genres, and arguably most thrillers, too. Will they marry? Will the explosion, assassination, loss of the formula be prevented? Will this be our future or some variant of what comes next?

Mysteries, like archeology and history, are backward looking and have been backward looking from their very earliest appearance. Genesis takes pains to elucidate the jealousy Cain felt for Abel, while the unfortunate Oedipus has to go back to events before his ill-fated birth. Clearly from very early on, people have felt that the violence of real life – so often impulsive, unpremeditated, and frankly stupid – was deeply unsatisfactory.

The quest for justice, for revelation, for the unveiling of secrets, especially those protected by hypocrisy or power, requires roots in the past, and the deeper the roots, seemingly the more gratifying the solution. With The Lewis trilogy, May found a fertile literary field for deep and entangled causes and effects.

The island population is so small and the communities so isolated, that everyone's business is a communal affair. Such secrets as there are – like the events on the grim gannet harvesting expedition to one of the dangerous rookeries – gnaw at everyone. What really happened, people ask Fin, but he doesn't remember – although he will.

And who was the now-senile Tormod Macdonald and what is his relation to the man found in the peat bog, the man preserved like the famous bog mummies but sporting an Elvis tattoo? And how did a pop star's plane wind up in a disappearing loch? Those are real secrets, and although their unraveling cannot comfort Fin, who has lost his small boy in a hit-and-run accident and, with him, his whole mainland life, the island with his own language and his old friends is home without a doubt.

Fin Macleod finds that he can go home again but he can't recover the raptures of careless youth or the boundless optimism and confidence of adolescence. That's a relationship to time that the now ex-detective inspector Macleod may find more difficult to reconcile than even the tricky history of old alliances, rivalries, loves, and hatreds that make up his community.

My Madame Selina mystery stories about a post Civil War spiritualist medium in New York City have been issued as an ebook on Kindle. Ten mysteries and a novella featuring Madame Selina and her useful young assistant Nip Thompkins are available on Amazon.