Showing posts with label Brian Thornton. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Brian Thornton. Show all posts

11 July 2019

The Long Overdue Revenge of the Customer Service Representative

by Brian Thornton

Aloha from Maui!

Every time I've driven past the signs for Kihei in the past week, I've thought of old pal and fellow Sleuthsayer R.T. Lawton, and his better half, Kiti. (And they know why!).

As I sail toward the end of the first real vacation my family has taken in years, my thoughts have been on an amazing and amusing thing that happened to me during the final week of the school year a couple of weeks back.

One of my students (hard-working, charismatic, a real leader, just a fine young lady) informed me that her mother works for the credit union where I and my family do most of our banking. "Oh," I think to myself, "Small world."

Turns out there was more.

"My mom finally remembered where she recognized your name from," this amazing kid went on.

"From the credit union?" I said, still not quite getting it.

"Yep. She sees your name quite a bit there."

These are vacation pics and having nothing to do with this post: that's the island of Kaho'olawe across the bay.
Casting back in my memory to try to recall whether I had any recent NSF fees (Hey–no judgement. Most of us have been there at one time or another, after all.), I asked, "What does your mom do at XXXX Credit Union (Not its real name)?"

"She's Quality Control for Customer Service."

This information sends my thoughts in a new direction. Have I complained about the service I've received lately? Nope. Does that mean someone's complained about me? Is that even a thing customer service folks even do?

I asked myself this last question because a few decades back, I was one of those people working in a variety of entry-level customer service jobs. It was some of the hardest and least rewarding work I've ever done. I worked in food, in hospitality, in transportation, all while working my way through college so that I could embark on a different–yet–not–all–that–different type of customer service: teaching.


Back in those days (and we're talking the early '90s here) one customer complaint could mean the end of your employment (I didn't have a union job until I started teaching, everywhere I worked was a one-counseling session and you're fired kind of place.). I know this because at least once I got fired because of a customer complaint.

Well, that and the fact that the guy who fired me (someone who really put the "ass" in "assistant manager.") was a real piece of work.

But that's another story.

These and other memories were washing over me during my conversation with that awesome student of mine. So I said: "Quality Control, huh? She fields complaints, things like that?"

"Yep," Awesome Kid (not her real name, but it might as well be) said.

"Does she like her job?"

"She does. And she likes you."

I cudgel my brain trying to recall whether I've ever met Awesome Kid's mom. Nope. I'm pretty sure I'd remember. She didn't come to conferences, and I didn't see her at Open House. So that surprises me.

"She likes me?" I ask, all intelligence and awareness, now.

"Yes. You're one of the highest-rated customers they have."

I blink at her, not comprehending. "They rate customers?"

She nods. "And the customer service reps all really love you. You get high marks all the time and you're near the top of their list."

And just like that, with this small kindness, Awesome Kid made my year.

The island of Lana'i (left) and the West Maui Mountains (right) framing a spectacular sunset

My early experiences with the downside of customer service (being the one to catch the irate call, or get someone's order wrong, or commit one of thousand small errors) have informed my interactions with the people who work in those positions ever since my own days in customer service, lo those many moons ago.

In the years since I've striven to be patient, to be polite. To be courteous and respectful, even when I'm pretty pissed off about something.

Because, nine times out of ten, it's not the fault of the person I'm talking to. They're there because they picked up the phone, took the chat request, what-have- you.

I've never forgotten what it's like to be on the other end of that call, and I hope I never do.

So it did my heart good to know that customer service reps are getting a chance to rate their interactions with clients: getting a voice in how that back-and-forth went. Because, hey, it's a hard job. And it usually doesn't pay all that well.

Plus, I gotta admit, I like that someone on the other end of that phone call notices how I try to treat them well.

After all, Couldn't we, each and every one of us, use a little more humanity in our daily interactions?

This is why I've been tipping people left, right and center (something I do religiously anyway) over the last week, and will until we head for home.

Like I said before, it's a tough job, and people don't get paid a whole lot to do it.

And that's all I've got for this go-round. I hope you're all having a wonderful and productive July.

Mahalo, and see you in two weeks!




21 March 2019

"That's Fertile Ground": The Glen Erik Hamilton Interview

by Brian Thornton


One of Seattle's favorite prodigal sons is in town this week on his way to Left Coast Crime in Vancouver. and graciously made time with me for an interview. (And for those of you who have never made it to Left Coast, what are you waiting for? Or maybe you're one of those people who doesn't want to TOO MUCH FUN at any one time–in which case you should defimitely STAY AWAY!).

All Glen Erik Hamilton has done so far in his writing career has been to win Anthony, Macavity and Strand Critics Choice Awards for his debut novel Past Crimes, in addition to receiving Edgar, Barry and Nero nominations!

This friend of the blog is a seriously righteous dude. But don't just take my word for it: he's appearing at the University of Washington Bookstore (directions here) next Wednesday, March 27th, beginning at 7 PM, to discuss his newest book, Mercy River. Stop in and say hello!

And on that note, on to the interview!

I've heard it said that the great film director John Ford worked hard to make the setting for any of his films, "another character in the story." (Regular readers of this blog–both of them!–will recall my own thoughts about setting as character getting an airing like a million internet years ago, here.) You set the Van Shaw books in and around Seattle (with side trips around the PNW), and as a resident of the region, I have to say that Seattle as another character in the books comes through loud and clear. What led you to write a series set in the Emerald City?

Moving away from it.  In our first couple of years living in Southern Cal, I would return home to Seattle for visits, and every time I was astounded by how much had changed in just a few months.  It was finally seeing the forest instead of the (mossy, needle-dropping) trees.  I liked the idea of a character returning after years away, and all those changes to the city coming as a surprise and reflecting his personal transformation while he'd been gone. 

Plus, Seattle is a great town to inspire crime fiction.  Shipping, international travel and immigration, technology, biotech, loads of old money and new, and a national border just hours away.  That's fertile ground.

Great points, all. Was there any particular reason you chose Irish immigrants and their descendants for this narrative? I mean, Seattle isn't exactly famous for its Irish connections.

I wanted Van and the man who raised him to have a remove between them despite their blood connection.  That's part of the reason I made Dono Van's grandfather rather than his father -- for a deeper generational gap -- and giving Dono a radically different childhood offered even more possibilities.  Plus, we have a good friend who is a speech therapist in Galway in both the English and Irish languages.  The notion of Van and Dono communicating in Irish when they wanted privacy was too much fun to pass up.

As for how Dono wound up in Seattle rather than in eastern cities with larger Irish communities -- we'll get into THAT history in another book...

Of course Van Shaw is a literary creation, and not a real person. How much of you is in Van, though? How alike/different are the two of you?

Setting aside the obvious differences in age, toughness, military skills, and readiness with a snappy comeback -- Vans aces me on every front -- there's a lot of my personality in Van.  We're both sardonic, we prefer to stay a little outside of polite society (or at least prefer to think of ourselves that way), we tend to be abrupt and obstinate when pushed, and neither of us can stand bullies of any sort.  The one advantage I have over Mr. Shaw is the wisdom of experience.  Van didn't have the benefit of loving friends and family, and he's still figuring out how to be a whole person.  My mantra for Van is that he's an expert at surviving, but not so great at living.

Sounds like you just laid out Van's arc Trying to find his place in the world, build a family, or at least a group where he feels he belongs. Is that close?

That's right.  Without consciously intending to, Van has become part of an patchwork family, a foundation I'm building on right now in Book Five.  Finding his place -- his purpose -- is harder.  He's really good at crime, at violence, at getting himself into tough situations while trying to protect others.  None of those traits endear him to society.  Or often to himself, when he's forced to bend his own hard-won principles.

Van's facial scarring (and at least in the first book his still mending left arm/hand) play a very big role in how the rest of the characters see/react to him. Can you walk us through your decision to use that facial scar as part of his character?

There were a few useful outcomes, some of which I only realized after the fact.  It started from my wanting Van to suffer a significant wound early in his Army career, and for him to have made the decision to move past that and continue in the regiment.  I didn't want that injury to permanently reduce his physical abilities or require frequent care.  And then I hit on the idea of an injury that's more socially impactful than physically.  It makes Van more obtrusive, and adds to his already intimidating presence, which is not always in his best interest.

And although he's largely recovered from it, the damage done to Van's face when he was twenty years old was a significant psychological blow to him.  He believed it made him hideous and that any hope of a normal life was destroyed.  I've only glanced toward that topic in previous books, but it's something I'll explore in some detail in the next adventure.

Yep. Facial scars are a very effective way of "otherizing" a character. And with our all-volunteer military, Americans have by and large been shielded from the evidence of the physical costs paid by some of its military personnel and the psychological costs paid by all who serve. So it can be all the more jarring to people when they come into sudden contact with evidence (like Van's scars) of said cost.

Is that why Van has stayed in the military (at least up until the action of the first book)? Looking to belong? I recall him mentioning that he makes a difference there.

Yes.  Van had intended to make a full career in the Army, having found a place where his abilities were both accepted and needed.  It was home.  Fate had other plans.  And in any event: serving in Special Operations, especially the uncompromising Rangers, is a little like being a professional athlete.  It's a young man's game.  At twenty-eight with about nine years in the Regiment at the start of the series, Van was probably facing the downslope of his active deployments.

And what was researching the army ranger angle like? Can you take us through that?

I sort of backed into having Van be a Ranger.  I wanted him to be far from home for a long time -- not just moving away, but really gone -- and the military seemed a logical route for a tough young guy with no prospects or money.  I was talking with a friend who had served in the Special Forces for many years about different branches of SpecOps, and he described the Rangers as (in polite terms) "knocking down doors and blowing stuff up".  That sounded exactly like what Van would be drawn to at age eighteen. 

I'm not a veteran, so I started by reading whatever I could get my hands on -- a shout-out to Dick Couch's excellent book Sua Sponte, about the selection process of the Rangers -- and by interviewing active and former members of the 75th Regiment.  The more I learned about the Rangers, the more I knew it was the right choice for Van.  They are shock troops, raiders, going anywhere in the world within eighteen hours to accomplish a specific objective.  Mercy River gave me a chance to go deeper into Van's own journey into the Regiment and the mindset of that brotherhood.

You make your home in Southern California these days. What are the challenges of writing about a place you now live a thousand miles away from?

The biggest challenges are the small ones -- remembering what a particular street is like, getting the proper feel for the current incarnation of neighborhoods, all that stuff where Seattle Times and Google Maps aren't going to be of help.  I sometimes scout new places when I'm in town with an idea toward using them later.  I also keep a list as I'm writing of Things-to-check-next-time-I'm-in-town.  In a pinch, I've sent out friends to photograph locations or FaceTime with me while they do the legwork.  The twenty-first century offers some advantages to the writer.

For the new book Mercy River, my daughter and I took a long weekend to drive around central Oregon and look at volcanic rock fields and ghost towns.  If all location scouting was that much fun, I'd never get around to actually writing the books.

Was it tough taking Van out of Seattle? I mean, this is the fourth novel, right? Seems like sooner or later he's going to have to expand outward. It also sounds like you're far from done having him travel beyond the Emerald City.

It's fun, and I think important, to flex new writing muscles with every book.  I could have placed Mercy River and the gathering of Ranger veterans in a real town in Oregon, but after three books set within easy driving distance of Seattle, it was a treat to create the town and the fictional Griffon County from scratch.  Plus, there's the advantage of making up whatever geography and jurisdictions is required to make the best story.  Van will continue to stretch his legs and visit new places.  At least enough to keep the dust off his passport.

What are the easiest things for you to write? 

Easy is a relative term, as every writer knows.  But I usually find that writing from Van's perspective as a child comes out pretty well-baked on the first drafts.  And scenes where he's exercising his skills in burglary and other illicit objectives.  I'm sure a shrink could have a field day analyzing why those two aspects of Van's mindset come naturally to me.

How about the hardest?

The hardest scenes in fiction are the hardest in life: when Van's figuring out the right thing to do, or say, or feel.  Sometimes I don't even know how I feel about a situation until I let Van wrestle with it.  I push him out there to do the emotional heavy lifting.

And there's a hybrid answer to your question:  Action scenes.  I love writing action sequences, and sometimes they even have the proper gut-punch feel I'm aiming for on the first attempt.  But to get them right, I probably make at least a dozen more passes depending on the complexity and length of the set piece.  Considering geography, character blocking, reaction times, perspectives and moods, sensory impact, and all the rest. The faster the scene, the longer it takes.

Yeah, writing action is a blast. And having your character in his own head can take quite a bit of layering of the writing.

But what about writing the likes of Van's grandfather Dono and cronies such as Hollis and Jimmy Corco? I'd think they'd all be a hell of a lot of fun to write.

Hollis's voice in particular comes easy.  If there's one character who sits down at the table with me and hands me his dialogue wholesale, it's Hollis.  He's a gregarious fellow.  And Jimmy C. is so sour, I just think of the meanest thing someone might say at a particular moment and half the time that's Jimmy's take on it too.

Okay, last question: can you give us a hint what's next on the horizon for Van Shaw and Company?


Van’s mother Moira died when he was only six years old, so his memories of her are very limited.  His grandfather closed himself off from the pain of losing Moira, and subsequently never shared much about her with Van as he grew up.  Neither of them ever learned who Van’s father was.  It’s high time that Van discovers more about his family, perhaps more than he’d truly like to know. 

And that wraps it. Thanks to Glen Erik Hamilton for taking the time to sit for this interview! And if you're in the Seattle area, consider dropping by the U Bookstore to say hello and talk thriller stuff with him next Wednesday, March 27th!

And for those of you planning to attend Left Coast (including you, Glen!) see you in Vancouver!


Prodigal Son & Thriller Writer With Hometown In View

04 September 2018

Prolific Slacker

by Michael Bracken

When Brian Thornton described one project for which he wrote an average of 1,425 words/day (“La Joie de l’Écriture,” my heart palpitated with anxiety. That’s almost 2.5 times greater than my production rate during the best year for which I have records.

In 2009 I wrote 216,310 words, an average of 593 words/day. In 2017, my worst recorded year, I produced only 130,600 words, an average of 387 words/day. Neither average comes close to Brian’s assertion that “most of the working writers” he knows “cite a thousand words per day as a healthy goal.” My writing production isn’t healthy; it’s anemic.

That’s because I’m a slacker, never producing near as many words on any given day as I know I’m capable of producing. I allow myself to get sidetracked—by research, by other story ideas, by Twitter tweets, by Facebook posts, by blog posts, by new online forms of solitaire—and I look up later to discover I’ve only produced a paragraph or two.

And yet, I wrote 75 short stories in 2009 and 32 in 2017, so even my least productive year resulted in a significant number of completed works.

SKEWED NUMBERS

Maybe the way I track word counts skews my numbers. I don’t track words as I produce them; I only count the words in completed, submission-ready manuscripts.

In any given year I produce an ungodly number of partial manuscripts, stories I’ll finish one of these days, if I live long enough.

I set the stories aside for a variety of reasons. Some are beginnings without endings. Some are story doughnuts, missing the all-important middle that gets readers from beginning to end. Some are rough outlines. Some are stories beyond my current ability to write. Many, though, are stories without markets. For example, I continue generating story ideas for confessions, even though the last two confession magazines ceased publication more than a year ago.

SETTING GOALS

As a short-story writer (and, likely, as with any other kind of writer), what matters most are finished manuscripts, so I’ve never set writing goals that involve number of words or number of pages or amount of time spent at the keyboard.

My annual goals, ever since setting them many years ago, are 52 acceptances and 52 new stories each year, or an average of one of each per week. Reprints carry the same weight as originals when counting acceptances, so the six reprints I placed a few weeks ago brought my total acceptances for the year to 32, which put me exactly on schedule as I write this. My production of new stories this year to date totals a paltry 13.

I have several stories near completion, but even were I to complete them all before month end, I would remain behind schedule. There are several reasons for the reduction in output, some of them, perhaps, the subjects of future posts, but the net result is that I am unlikely to meet my writing goals this year.

As a prolific slacker, I don’t chide myself for failing to meet my productivity goals nor do I allow myself to slip into a woe-is-me funk that further erodes my productivity. Instead, I do my best to deal with the things that sap my creativity or keep me away from the keyboard. Then, like now, when I am at the keyboard, I spend a little less time playing solitaire and a little more time stringing words together.

I may never join the ranks of the thousand-words-a-day working writers Brian cited—heck, this post won’t even reach a thousand words!—but I’ve found that my slacker’s approach allows me to produce an ever-growing body of work.

So, no matter how you set your goals—by the word, by the page, by the manuscript, or by the length of time at the keyboard—realize that you may not always meet those goals.

Whether you do or you don’t, the most important thing you can do is to keep pressing forward. As my youngest son recently said, you don’t fail until you quit.

Released at the end of August, Blood Work (Down & Out Books), edited by Rick Ollerman, celebrates the life of Mystery Writers of America Raven Award-winning Gary Shulze, long-time owner of the legendary Once Upon A Crime bookstore in Minneapolis. Gary left an indelible mark on the crime fiction community across the world before he passed away in 2016 due to complications from leukemia. The anthology includes my story “Backlit.”

If you’ll be at Bouchercon in St. Petersburg this week, stop in on “This Ain’t Your Mama’s Orange Juice—Writing Pulp,” a panel in which I’ll join Frank De Blase, Kate Pilarcik, and moderator Steven Torres. We’ll start squeezing oranges at 4:00 p.m., Saturday, September 8.

And I’ll be speaking about “Short Stories: From Concept to Sale, How This Form Can Satisfy,” at the noon MWA-Southwest luncheon, September 15, at Carraba’s, 1399 South Voss, Houston, Texas.

14 December 2017

How Not to Collect and Edit an Anthology

by Brian Thornton

Two weeks ago I related the story of how an anthology which never got off the ground helped launch my fiction writing career. Since my initial foray into Anthology World I have gone on from my role of "contributor" to that of "collector/editor."

Twice.

Although both projects involved the experience of collecting and editing the content for an anthology of short pieces, the two experiences could not have been more different. And not just because one anthology was nonfiction in nature and the other involved crime fiction.

In this week's entry, I'm going to deal with the first anthology, the one which taught me several valuable lessons about what not to do when editing an anthology.

My initial crack at editing an anthology came about in large part because of my day gig (I'm a teacher). This was also the case with the first book, I published, 101 Things You Didn't Know About Lincoln. In the case of the Lincoln book, I earned my MA partially in 19th century American history, and knew a fair bit about Lincoln. I'd networked with the acquisitions editor (we're both crime fiction writers), and she knew I was a trained historian. So she approached me about writing that book.

It turned out to be a terrific first experience, so when she approached me the following year about collecting and editing an anthology of "uplifting true stories about inspiring teachers," I thought, "What the heck?" The money was good, and I negotiated a healthy lead-time on the project in order to help ensure I'd have plenty of time to see the project through to completion.

It didn't turn out that way.

I beat the bushes looking for teachers/former students with great stories to tell, posted calls to submit all over the web. And I got a pretty fair number of responses.

What I hadn't taken into consideration was the fact that most of these people were not, in the strictest sense, writers.

There were several natural-born storytellers in the lot. Their work I barely touched. In a couple of cases I accepted the story as was. No suggested edits. Both of those writers were a pleasure to read from start to finish and are still friends to this day.

Then there were the rest of them.

I spent months going back and forth with several members of the original group of contributors whose work I'd agreed to publish. Some of them just couldn't polish their story enough to make the final cut. (And not for lack of trying!).

Part of the problem was that although I served as the collection editor, I didn't have final approval on the content. That lay with the editorial team at my publisher. I would accept changes to several of the stories in need of rewriting, and pass them along to my publisher's editorial team, only to receive them back with requests for more changes.

On top of that, I was also tasked with handling all contractual correspondence with contributors. This was before the days of e-signatures. I had to print up each individual contract, get it sent out in duplicate, ride herd on some of the contributors who were tardy getting their contracts back to me, all while teaching a full load, working on the anthology, and doing research for a different writing project I had negotiated with a different editor (same publisher), to commence just as soon as I wrapped up the anthology.

It...just..seemed...to...drag...on....

In fact there's one guy who sent back his signed contract copies, but who never got paid by the publisher because he moved without leaving a forwarding address. And then he never responded to any of the many follow-up emails I sent to him after his check and contributor's copies of the anthology came back to the publisher marked "Return to Sender."

when I eventually sent off the final draft of all thirty-three entries and had them all individually accepted by the publisher, I was pretty gassed. And not for nothing, but I was also a solid month behind on my next writing project.

And that second editor? Neither as professional nor as easy to work with as my friend who steered me toward writing the Lincoln book. Turned out I'd been spoiled in my initial foray into writing nonfiction for fun and profit.

The result? I wound  up writing eighty thousand words in eight weeks on a ridiculously tight deadline on that next project. And I did it during the months of September and October: the first two months of the school year. Not exactly a couple of months when teachers have a whole lot of extra time on their hands.

But hey, I got paid, and this was before I met my wife/got married/bought a house/had a kid, so it was more instructive than traumatic (at least in the long-term. Short-term? Well...).

Let me begin to wrap this object lesson up by pointing out that this all took place back in 2007. I like to think that I've put all of the following to good use in the years since.

So What did I learn?

1. That soliciting writing from amateurs opens you up to a whole lot of rewriting. And rewriting. And rewriting.

2. That collecting and editing an anthology is a shit-ton of work, and if you're going to undertake it, you should make damned sure that it's on a subject near and dear to your heart, and that you've got something close to final approval on what the content looks like.

3. That creative control is worth taking less money for.

4. Don't work with a publisher who makes you do all of the contract wrangling in an age before DocuSign.

5. That part and parcel of being a good editor is being a good listener.

And on that note Happy Holidays to all who celebrate them. See you in two weeks when I'll talk about at least one time when I definitely put these lessons to good use: when collecting and editing West Coast Crime Wave a few years later, in 2011!

08 October 2015

The First Cartel

by Eve Fisher

Well, probably not the first, but back in the 18th and 19th centuries, the main drug cartels were selling opium to Asia, and shipping the money home to Britain and the United States and the Netherlands.  And I'm not talking about little dribs and drabs:  in the mid-1800's, the opium trade provided one-third of British colonial revenues, and those millions of pounds (trillions in today's money) were just what actually made it home to the Crown.

The East India Company was the major player in India, where the opium was grown and processed. It was a private British joint-stock venture that effectively ruled India from 1757-1858.  Raw opium was processed into the smokeable stuff for the China market (in Western Europe, people preferred drinkable laudanum) - chests weighing about 133 pounds each, which went for $1,000 dollars (about $25,000 in today's money.)  The East India Company established a trading post in Canton, China in 1699, but leased out the trading rights to the trading companies, or hongs, which took the opium from Canton and smuggled it into China (via rivers, etc.).  The major players were:

Jardine and Matheson
  • Jardine, Matheson and Company, a/k/a The Honorable Company, was founded in 1832 in Canton with the partnership of William Jardine and James Matheson, both University of Edinburgh graduates. They were always the biggest trading company, or hong, and (having diversified heavily in the 20th century) are still going strong in Asia, even though they're incorporated out of Bermuda.  (Their official website is interesting: http://www.jardines.com/  NOTE: Jardine-Matheson was fictionalized - and I would say cleaned up to the point of unrecognizability - by James Clavell in Tai-Pan.)  
  • Dent & Company, another British smuggler under Thomas Dent's leadership.
  • The Dutch East India Company, about which I know tragically little.  
  • And the Americans:  Russell & Company was the major player.  One of the senior officers was Warren Delano, grandfather of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  (In case you're wondering where some of the Roosevelt money came from...)  The other officer, Samuel Russell, was filthy rich and left a Russell Trust, which (among other things) is the original source of endowment funding for the Skull & Bones Society at Yale.  
Jardine-Matheson, Dent & Company, and Russell & Company all began - unofficially - as agents of the East India Company, and then for the British government.  They also took on more "official" jobs. James Matheson was the Danish consul for years, Thomas Dent the Sardinian consul, even though neither were from either country.  And they became hugely rich.

You see, up until the early 1800s, there was a major trade imbalance with China (and you thought that was a modern phenomenon!).  There were a lot of reasons:  China wasn't particularly interested in trade, they kept the British and other merchants hemmed into specific treaty ports and didn't let them into the rest of the country, 90% of their population was too poor to buy anything, and finally, the British didn't have much that they wanted.  Except silver.  So, for 130 years, China sold the West silk, porcelain, navigation equipment, firecrackers, and above all, tea.  And since in those days trade involved either hard goods or hard cash, the British were being drained of silver at an alarming rate. And then someone got the bright idea to sell them opium.


Charles Elliot 
The fact that opium was illegal in China didn't matter.  The British smuggled it in, as much as 1,400 tons of opium a year.  And, as the opium flowed in, the silver flowed out (in 1800's dollars, $21,000,000 a year; in today's terms, multiply that by about 25,000, making it $52.5 trillion a year), destabilizing the Chinese economy, not to mention creating a huge number of hopeless drug addicts.  Eventually even the Imperial Court - locked up in the Forbidden City in distant Beijing - launched a war on drugs. The Emperor sent an imperial commissioner Lin Zexu to Canton, where he seized 2.6 million pounds of opium and burned it.  (A lot of boats sailed and held themselves downwind of that fire...)

Now the British charge d'affaires in Canton was Brian Thornton's and my favorite 19th century British agent, Captain Charles Elliot, R.N.  He basically said that that opium (despite being illegal) was the property of the British crown and the Chinese needed to reimburse the merchants.  They wouldn't, Elliot seized Hong Kong for starters, and the war was on.

There aren't too many wars which have been fought for the specific purpose of requiring the losing nation to legalize drugs.  The Opium Wars were about the only ones I can think of.  And, in terms of size and wealth disparities, it was the equivalent of the Colombian government aligning with the Colombian drug cartels to declare war on the United States in order to legalize cocaine in the 1970s. And winning.  And, getting the following results:
Sir Robert Hart
  • China had to open more treaty ports to foreigners.
  • China had to give Britain Hong Kong permanently.
  • China had to pay a $21,000,000 indemnity for all the costs of the war.  (In today's terms, $52 trillion.)
  • China had to give the British the right to set, control, and collect its own tariffs.  NOTE:  The Imperial Maritime Customs Service was manned by British officers from 1854-1950.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Look, it takes a long, long time to extort $52 trillion from any country, much less the additional revenues that Britain consistently expected. Over time, besides collecting maritime trade taxes and managing domestic customs administration, the IMCS collected maritime trade taxes, managed domestic customs administration, postal administration, harbor and waterway management, weather reporting, and published monthly Returns of Trade.  The most famous Inspector-General was Sir Robert Hart, who held the post from 1863-1911.  
  • All foreigners got the equivalent of diplomatic immunity (called extraterritoriality back then); the right to be tried only by its own consul (i.e., whichever Jardine-Matheson-Dent was there). What really stuck in the Chinese craw was that this was extended to any Chinese employees of foreigners, making them suddenly beyond Chinese law.
  • China had to allow foreigners to travel freely into the Chinese interior and live in Beijing.
  • China had to legalize opium.
  • China had to legalize Christianity.  (You may wonder why China was upset about this.  I'll talk more about that, and the one and only Karl Gutzlaff, missionary and opium trader, in another post.)
Opium Den, unromanticized by Hollywood

Imagine the United States having to submit to Colombian rule.  Or any other...  Imagine having a foreign power in charge of our taxes and tariffs for almost a hundred years.  Imagine having our country carved up into "spheres of influence", until there's hardly anything officially Chinese left. And now wonder why the Chinese have viewed, and still view, the West with suspicion.  We think we have excellent reasons to distrust China.  I'd say that if we do, it's called revenge.

14 May 2015

Play Ball!

by Brian Thornton

 It's mid-May, and we are five weeks into baseball season. Last night I was thinking about what I wanted to write for this week's blog entry while watching my hometown Seattle Mariners extend their longest winning streak of the season–four games–at the expense of the San Diego Padres, and it occurred to me that baseball and writing have a lot in common. Such as:

You can't be afraid of striking out.

In baseball a lifetime batting average that reflects getting a base-hit three times out of every ten at-bats is a hallmark of a successful career. This is also true of success in fiction writing. Most books published by "traditional publishers" these days rarely, if ever earn out. Most make their author nothing beyond their initial advance.

Every once in a while you'll hit a home-run.

When books do take off, earn out for their authors, they can be career-makers. And they don't have to be pretty (Fifty Shades of Grey, for example), they just have to leave the yard.

You're only as good as your last game.

Even E. L. James has had to get past striking the home-run pose, move on, run the bases, and figure out what she'll do next. You can't rest on your laurels (unless that last game was the final game of the world series, with you bringing in the winning run…).

The art of the pitch.

Baseball is a sport that emphasizes the importance of mastering the "fundamentals" of the game through constant repetition: fielding drills, batting practice, etc. Writing is much the same. Most "overnight sensations" have worked at the craft for decades. So write everyday as if you were working on the cut-off move on a throw from the outfield, and do it every day over, and over…

And have fun out there!

Yes, like playing ball, writing at its best, is an awful lot of fun. Otherwise why would we bother with such a maddening process and so many arcane arcane rules?

See you in two weeks!

19 February 2015

The Murder of Sir Thomas Overbury
Part III: the Killing

by Brian Thornton

(This is the final installment of a three-part series on a notorious murder during the reign of King James I of England [James VI of Scotland]. For the first part of this post, with general historical background as well as a fair bit about the victim, click here. For the second part, which deals mostly with the conspirators, click here.)

When is an "honor" not really an honor?

Everyone knows that sometimes an "honor" is precisely that. A great occasion for the honoree, and the sort of thing to be welcomed–if not outright eagerly anticipated– when it comes your way. Oscar nominations. Getting named to the board of a prosperous Fortune 500 company. Making the New York Times Bestseller list (I should live so long!).

Not always easy to quantify, but like the late, great Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart once said of pornography, "I know it when I see it." The same is also true of the kind of thing frequently called an "honor" when it really isn't.

Here's one example


And even worse than this type of infamous "non-honor honor" is the sort of honor that could be
Colonel Robert Gould Shaw:
Dead Honoree
hazardous to your health. In an example from American history, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, first black regiment in the United States Army, received the "honor" of leading the charge during an attack on rebel fortifications at Fort Wagner, South Carolina.

Led by their heroic commander, one Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the 54th did itself proud, spearheading the Union charge into the teeth of murderous cannon fire, in an attempt to take the strategically important fort situated on an island in Charleston Harbor.

But the net result? The 54th Massachusetts Infantry numbered six hundred men at the time of the charge. The regiment suffered nearly a fifty percent casualty rate in this single action alone (two hundred seventy-two killed, wounded or missing)! Among the dead was Shaw, the colonel who led the way.


When it's an offer to serve as ambassador to Russia!

While not necessarily a death sentence, a 17th century example of an "honor" along these lines was
This guy. Nice boots, huh?
serving as an ambassador to Russia. Especially during the early part of the century, when Russia was pretty much the "Wild West" (without the "West" part) of Europe. Anarchy. Lawlessness. A devastating famine that began in 1601 and lasted for years afterward. Invasion and extended occupation by Polish armies, culminating in a teen-aged Polish-Swedish nobleman briefly taking the throne in 1610!

By February of 1613, things had gotten a little better, with the Russians kicking the Poles out and electing a new (Russian-born) tsar, Mikhail, who established the Romanov dynasty. Barely twenty, Mikhail faced a long, grinding battle getting Russia's nobility to mind their manners and unite behind him in anything other than name. So even though there was a new sheriff in the Kremlin (and if his coronation portrait is any indicator, one with superb taste in spiffy red boots!), there was still plenty of lawlessness, crime, war, famine and pestilence to go around.

Even with the Poles gone, Russia was an impoverished, backward country on the periphery of what most Europeans considered civilization. For government functionaries such as Overbury, it was the type of diplomatic posting where careers went to die.

So how did he come to be the recipient of such a signal "honor"?

What's left of Red Square and Kremlin when the Poles turned Moscow back to the Russians,
August 1612
What happens when you piss off a rival and that rival has the queen's ear.

As mentioned previously, Overbury seems to have consistently overestimated his own cleverness, and systematically underestimated that of nearly everyone around him. He had expended a great deal of time and effort steering his pretty boy puppet Robert Carr into King James' orbit so as to profit by a successful pulling of Carr's strings. When the king began to entrust Carr with a number of duties involving fat salaries attached to a slew of confusing paperwork (Carr was pretty but not too bright), of course Carr relied heavily on his friend and mentor Overbury to help out with the details. Overbury in turn took his own considerable cut. Pretty standard stuff, where court preferment was concerned.

James I
All that changed when the king's favorite minister Robert Cecil, earl of Salisbury died, and a power vacuum opened close to the throne. Salisbury oversaw James' foreign policy, and with his death the king saw an opportunity to begin to set that policy himself, as long as he had someone along for the ride who could handle the intricacies of diplomatic language (and paperwork). He decided that his favorite Robert Carr was perfect for the gig.

Of course Carr was not remotely suited for such work. But his mentor Overbury was.

The bed-hopper
With Carr's elevation to his new role there were people lining up to try to win influence with him, and through him, with the king. This included members of the already powerful and well-connected Howard family. Namely Henry Howard, earl of Northampton and his niece, Lady Frances Howard, already married in a teen-aged and allegedly never-consummated hate-match with the young earl of Essex.

As Overbury had done with Carr, placing him in King James' path, now Northampton did to Carr, placing his still-married and barely into her teens niece in Carr's. Her tender years notwithstanding, Lady Frances had already acquired a reputation for bed-hopping, and while Carr seemed capable of wrapping a king around his little finger, he seems to have been no match for Frances' feminine wiles.

The two were soon openly consorting, and there was talk of marriage after first seeking an annulment of Frances' marriage to Essex, on the grounds of non consummation. (The earl detested his new bride nearly from the moment he met her and fled on a tour of the continent rather than sleep with her. And he stayed away for a good long while afterward!).

Overbury was furious at being frozen out of the lucrative gig of pulling Carr's strings, and published a  widely-read poem pretty effectively slandering Lady Frances. He had made a powerful enemy.

Lady Frances' catspaw: Queen Anne
What's more, this enemy was a favorite of the queen. She managed to prevail on Queen Anne to convince her husband the king to offer Overbury the "honor" of serving as His Majesty's man in Moscow.

Now Overbury found himself outfoxed. If he accepted the posting, he'd be away from court, with no influence and no money. To the people of Jacobean England, Russia was only slightly closer to home than the New World, which was to say one step closer than the moon!

However, to refuse such an offer of appointment was flat-out dangerous. Such refusal could be taken as an insult, and history is replete with examples of how well royals tend to take insults from those ostensibly in their service. (Newsflash: it ain't lying down!)

Overbury's thoughts along these lines are not recorded. And there's no way of knowing whether he seriously considered the possibility that the choice before him could possibly wind up being between a trip to Russia or a trip to the Bloody Tower. Regardless, he chose to refuse the "honor" of serving as English ambassador to Russia, and apparently managed to come off as so high-handed that in April 1613 an infuriated King James had him tossed into the Tower for his trouble.

Yep, same tower was the one where Richard III killed his princely nephews. Same room, too, apparently.
By September, Overbury was dead.

Ten days later Lady Essex received her wished-for annulment, over Essex's protestations that he was
Robert Carr
later in life and no longer pretty.
not, in fact, impotent, as the papers requesting the annulment claimed. Within a couple of months, Lady Frances and Robert Carr, now no longer earl of Rochester, but "promoted" to an even more plumb title with vastly more substantial holdings as earl of Somerset, were married.

That might well have been the end of the story. But Robert Carr was an idiot, and it quickly became clear that he was now as much the Howards' puppet as he had earlier been Overbury's. Plus, the king was fickle in his affections where his favorites were concerned, and apparently within a year or so, Carr began to lose his hair and his looks. James soon tired of his pet earl, and let it be known to certain influential members of his inner circle that he would welcome an excuse to be shut of him, so he could focus his attentions elsewhere (namely George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham).

And that was when rumors began to surface about Carr's frequent visits to the Tower to see his erstwhile friend and mentor Overbury in the months preceding his death. And of Carr's possible connection with the gifts of possibly tainted food and drink a certain jailer pressed upon the unfortunate man.

The Investigation

Whispers of "poison" were nothing new during the reign of James I. Invariably when anyone of any importance died quickly and without violence, some gossip, somewhere began to murmur in the ears of friends that the circumstances certainly seemed suspicious. And as much as James wanted to be rid of Carr, the last thing he wanted was a scandal. So he set his two brightest advisors to work on the investigation, ensuring it was handled right from the start.

These two were none other than the greatest legal minds of the age. Two great names that survive even today: Sir Francis Bacon and Sir Edward Coke.

The first thing they did was have Overbury's corpse exhumed and subjected to an autopsy. He was indeed found to have been poisoned. Not by food, or drink, it turns out, but by a combination of emetics and enemas.

Overbury's jailer and the lord lieutenant of the Tower were immediately confined and questioned. It all came out in their confessions and the confessions of those they named as co-conspirators.

Apparently Lady Frances and her uncle the earl of Northampton dreamed up the scheme to have Overbury dispatched in a manner which might not look suspicious, and pressed her dupe of a husband into service, getting him to visit his "friend" Overbury regularly, and impress upon him the only way out of the Tower was through touching the heart of the king and moving him to pity at Overbury's lowly state.

Ann Turner: Poisoner by enema
Confinement did not agree with Overbury, and he was already ill. But a combination of emetics and enemas would help make him seem even more piteous and enfeebled, certain to prod James into an act of clemency, Carr argued. Overbury, desperate to escape the Tower, agreed to this course of action.

In furtherance of the Howards' plan, the Tower's lord lieutenant (the government official overseeing the operation of the Tower) was removed in favor of a notably corrupt one named Helwys (recommended by none other than the earl of Northampton, to whom he paid a customarily hefty finder's fee), who in turn assured that a jailer named Weston agreeable to Lady Frances' plan was placed in position to oversee Overbury's "treatments."

Lady Frances' connection to the plot was laid bare by the confession eventually wrung from her "companion," a seemingly respectable physician's widow named Anne Turner. In reality Turner was anything but.

While her husband was still alive Anne Turner carried on a prolonged affair with a wealthy gentleman, and bore him a child out of wedlock. After her husband's demise she "made ends meet" in part by running a secret red light establishment where couples not married to each other could go to have sex. She had also served as her deceased husband's assistant on many occasions and possessed some skill with chemicals–especially poisons. She quickly developed a black market business selling them to many of the "wrong people."

So when her employer Lady Frances came to her seeking help, Anne Turner was more than willing to assist. Together with an apothecary she knew and worked with, Turner came up with several doses of emetics and enemas laced with sulfuric acid. Weston in turn administered these to an unsuspecting Overbury, who soon died.

The Outcome

Possessing not much in the way of either money or influence, the quartet of Turner, Weston, Helwys and the apothecary (whose name was Franklin) were quickly tried, convicted, condemned and hanged.
Henry Howard, the well-timed earl of Northampton

The earl and countess of Somerset, who did possess both money and influence, were immediately arrested and thrown into the Tower. The earl of Northampton only escaped a similar fate by having had the good timing to die the previous year.

The resulting scandal, far from merely ridding the king of a tiresome former favorite, caused James no end of embarrassment. He repeatedly offered to pardon Carr in exchange for a confession to the charge of murder.

For her part, Lady Frances quickly admitted her part in Overbury's murder. Carr, however, insisted ever afterward that he knew nothing of the plot (given his demonstrated lack of smarts, hardly difficult to believe that he was little more than the dupe of his extremely cunning wife). The earl and his wife were tried and eventually convicted on charges of murder and treason. Obviously concerned that Carr might implicate him in the murder and no doubt also nervous about what Carr might say about the nature of their personal relationship, James let them languish in prison for seven years, eventually quietly pardoning both the earl and the countess, and equally quietly banishing them from court.

Apparently the bloom came off the rose for this star-crossed couple during their long confinement, and their burning passion cooled into a dull hatred. If Carr's protestations of innocence are true, it stands to reason that the revelation of the part she played in killing his friend and mentor Overbury may have had something to do with his seeing her in a different light.

The next ten years after they were pardoned in 1622 were spent quietly loathing each other on Carr's estate in Dorset, far from the pomp of James' court in London. Lady Frances died aged 42 of cancer in 1632. Carr followed her to the grave in 1645.

05 February 2015

The Femme Fatale and Her Pimp Uncle:
The Murder of Sir Thomas Overbury, Part II

by Brian Thornton



(Due to mysterious and unforeseen technical difficulties with the second installment post about Sir Thomas Overbury's murder-by-enema a couple of weeks back- Blogger literally ATE my blog posting! - I am re-posting Part II in its entirety today. For the first part of this post, with general historical background as well as a fair bit about the victim, click here.)
Overbury: schemer and murder victim

A Quick Recap:

When last we left off we were talking about the court of English king James I (originally James VI of Scotland), about the allocation of power, his appreciation of pretty young men, and how those who throve at the center of his court and those who lurked on the fringes shared an appetite for advancement and a willingness to trade on James' predilections in pursuit of said advancement. We also discussed the victim of this post's titular crime (Sir Thomas Overbury, a born schemer if ever there was one), as well as the instrument of his proposed advancement (Robert Carr, eventually earl of Rochester–one of the aforementioned "pretty young men").

So what happens when two guys, one smart, the other handsome, have a good thing going, working an influential "relationship" with the king (which in turn allows them to peddle their own influence to others looking for their own positive outcomes, a "royal ripple effect," if you will), and the eye-candy half of this dynamic duo suddenly falls ass-over-tea-kettle in love?

With a woman, no less?

(Note that I said "woman," not "lady".)

Let's find out!
Robert Carr after he began to lose his looks. 

The Conspirators:

Who would want to kill this guy Overbury?

As it turns out, lots of people. In his decades spent enriching himself in royal service he had managed to alienate nearly everyone with whom he came in contact. This included members of the large and powerful Howard family, and most especially one of the great femmes fatale of the 17th century, Frances Howard, daughter of the Earl of Suffolk, and initially wife of Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, and son of infamous 2nd earl (executed for treason by Queen Elizabeth in 1601).

 

The Femme Fatale: Lady Frances Howard
"Lady" Frances Howard: With a Neckline Like This...

Married to the wealthy earl of Essex at age 12 (he was 13), Frances Howard apparently never consummated her married to the earl, in part because he left not long after the nuptials for a tour of the continent (common for young men at the time), and also in part because the "happy couple" apparently quickly came to the realization that they could not stand the sight of each other.

As reported in her family's suit to annul the union Frances Howard reportedly "reviled [Essex], and miscalled him, terming him a cow and coward, and beast." On top that, also according the "lady" in question, Essex was impotent.

Essex disputed this assertion, insisting that he was quite capable of performing in the bedroom with any number of ladies, just not with Frances Howard, whose virginity he very much doubted.
The Earl of Essex in happier times (Post-annulment)
In a nutshell, Frances claimed Devereux couldn't get it up, and Devereux's defense was that he could, just not with a slut like the one he'd married.

The annulment was eventually granted in September, 1613. By this time Lady Frances had already taken up with  our old friend Robert Carr, earl of Rochester, and favorite of the king. They were married soon afterward.

The Pimp: Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton

As discussed in our previous entry there were any 
Nice Hat, Redux: the Earl of Northampton
number of hangers-on at court interested in advancing their own fortunes and willing to exploit the king's "interest" in pretty young men to their own advantage. Overbury was one of the most successful of this type, but he was hardly the only one.

One other such rank opportunist was Henry Howard, earl of Northampton. The scion of a large and powerful family, Howard was wealthy and connected. But he wanted to be better connected, and he wasn't above prostituting his own niece in order to get what he wanted.

With the Earl of Rochester exercising so much influence over King James and Overbury in turn exercising so much influence over Rochester, it occurred to Howard that Rochester, who was clearly not the sharpest knife in the drawer, might be pried away from Overbury, and, simpleton that he was, would then need a new "good friend" to tell him what exactly to whisper in the king's ear during those long, late-night tuck-in sessions.

Whether the earl decided to use his niece Frances because of her damaged reputation (you know, her first husband calling her a whore, and all), or because that reputation might be closer to the mark than the family was comfortable with, nevertheless placed her in Rochester's path with the aim of seducing him.

Rochester never stood a chance. He fell. Hard.

The Conflict

Overbury was  understandably livid. He did everything in his power to block his protege/stooge's budding romance, telling his erstwhile only friend that his new love was "noted for her injury and immodesty." Rochester would not be swayed. The only thing keeping him from making Frances Howard the new Countess of Rochester was the formalization of her impending annulment.

But Overbury wasn't finished. While the young lovers awaited the moment when they might marry, Overbury wrote and published a poem entitled A Wife. In this poem Overbury (a bachelor) laid out the characteristics a young man ought to look for in a spouse. It quickly became clear to Lady Frances Howard that in Overbury's opinion she possessed none of these qualities.

Thus was born a rivalry that would culminate in murder...

By enema!

In our next and final installment, palace intrigue, imprisonment in the Bloody Tower, the use of an 
astrologer to further a murder plot, emetics, and poison!

See you in two weeks with the conclusion of our sordid little tale!
Who is THIS mysterious figure? Find out in two weeks!

Posted by DoolinDalton at 01:32