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

04 February 2021

Setting as Character


In my previous Sleuthsayers post I promised that with this post I would leave off talking about politics and get back to talking about the craft of fiction writing. I'm returning to this topic by dusting off one of my first posts on this blog, wherein I explore the use of setting as another character in your story. This originally ran in 2013. I think it holds up, and hope you get something out of it.



Setting. Everyone knows about it. Few people actively think about it.

And that's a shame, because for writers, your setting is like a pair of shoes: if it's good, it's a sound foundation for your journey. If it's not, it'll give you and your readers pains that no orthotics will remedy.

Nowhere is this more true than with crime fiction. In fact strong descriptions of settings is such a deeply embedded trope of the genre that it's frequently overdone, used in parodies both intentional and unintentional as often as fedoras and trenchcoats.

Employed correctly a proper setting can transcend even this role–can become a character in its own right, and can help drive your story, making your fiction evocative, engaging, and (most importantly for your readers) compelling.

Think for a moment about your favorite crime fiction writers. No matter who they are, odds are good that one of the reasons, perhaps one you've not considered before, is their compelling settings.

Just a few contemporary ones that come to mind for me: the Los Angeles of Michael Connelly and Robert Crais. The Chicago of  Sara Paretsky, Sean Chercover and Marcus Sakey. Boston seen through the eyes of Robert B. Parker. Ken Bruen's Ireland. Al Guthrie's Scotland. Carl Hiassen's Miami. Bill Cameron's Portland.

And of course there are the long gone settings highlighted in the gems of the old masters. These and others read like lexical snapshots from the past.Who can forget passages like:


The city wasn't pretty. Most of its builders had gone in for gaudiness. Maybe they had been successful at first. Since then the smelters whose brick stacks stuck up tall against a gloomy mountain to the south had yellow-smoked everything into uniform dinginess. The result was an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was a grimy sky that looked as if it had come out of the smelters' stacks.

                                                       —Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest


Or this one from Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely

1644 West 54th Place was a dried-out brown house with a dried-out brown lawn in front of it. There was a large bare patch around a tough-looking palm tree. On the porch stood one lonely wooden rocker, and the afternoon breeze made the unpruned shoots of last year's poinsettias tap-tap against the cracked stucco wall. A line of stiff yellowish half-washed clothes jittered on a rusty wire in the side yard.



And no one did it better than Ross Macdonald:

The city of Santa Teresa is built on a slope which begins at the edge of the sea and rises more and more steeply toward the coastal mountains in a series of ascending ridges. Padre Ridge is the first and lowest of these, and the only one inside the city limits.

It was fairly expensive territory, an established neighborhood of well-maintained older houses, many of them with brilliant hanging gardens. The grounds of 1427 were the only ones in the block that looked unkempt. The privet hedge needed clipping. Crabgrass was running rampant in the steep lawn.

Even the house, pink stucco under red tile, had a disused air about it. The drapes were drawn across the front windows. The only sign of life was a house wren which contested my approach to the veranda.

                                                 — Ross Macdonald, Black Money

In each of the passages excerpted above the author has used a description of the setting as a tip-off to the reader as to what manner of characters would inhabit such places. Even hints at what lies ahead for both protagonist and reader.

With Hammett it's the stink of the corruption that always follows on the heels of a rich mineral strike. With Chandler, it's a life worn-out by too much living. And with Macdonald, it's a world and its inhabitants as out of sorts as those hedges that need clipping.

Brilliant thumbnail sketches each. If you haven't read them, you owe it to yourself to do so. And each of them was giving the reader a glimpse of a world they had experienced first-hand, if not a contemporary view, then at least one they could dredge up and flesh out from memory.

With the stuff I write it's not that simple.

In his kind note introducing me to the readers of this blog, our man Lopresti mentioned that when it comes to fiction, my particular bailiwick is historical mystery. In my time mining this particular vein of fiction I've experienced first-hand the challenge of delivering to readers strong settings for stories set in a past well before my time.

How to accomplish this?

It's tricky. Here's what I do.

I try to combine exhaustive research with my own experiences and leaven it all with a hefty dose of the writer's greatest tool: imagination.

"Counting Coup," the first historical mystery story I ever wrote, is about a group of people trapped in a remote southwest Montana railway station by hostile Cheyenne warriors during the Cheyenne Uprising of 1873. I used the three-part formula laid out above.
  1. While pursuing my Master's in history, I'd done a ton of research on the western railroads, their expansion, and its impact on Native American tribes in the region, including the Cheyenne.
  2. I've visited southwestern Montana many times, and the country is largely unchanged, so I had a good visual image to work from.
  3. Imagination!

An example of the end result:

Wash and Chance made it over the rise and and into the valley of the Gallatin just ahead of that storm. It had taken three days of hard riding to get to the railhead, and the horses were all but played out.

The entire last day finished setting their nerves on edge. What with the smoke signals and the tracks of all the unshod ponies they'd seen, there was enough sign to make a body think he was riding right through the heart of the Cheyenne Nation.

Stretching away to north and south below them lay the broad flood plain of the Gallatin. The river itself meandered along the valley floor, with the more slender, silver ribbon of rail line mirroring it, running off forever in either direction. The reds of the tamarack and the golds of the aspen and the greens of the fir created a burst of color on the hills that flanked the river on either side, their hues all the more vivid when set against the white of the previous evening's uncharacteristically early snowfall. 

"Suicide Blonde," another of my historical mystery stories, is set in 1962 Las Vegas. Again, the formula.
  1. I did plenty of research on Vegas up to and including this time when Sinatra and his buddies strutted around like they owned the place.
  2. I lived and worked in Vegas for a couple of years and have been back a few times since. I am here to tell you, Vegas is one of those places that, as much as it changes, doesn't really change.
  3. Imagination!
Which gets you:

Because the Hoover boys had started tapping phones left and right since the big fuss at Apalachin a few years back, Howard and I had a system we used when we needed to see each other outside of the normal routine. If one of us suggested we meet at the Four Queens, we met at Caesar's. If the California, then we'd go to the Aladdin, and so on. We also agreed to double our elapsed time till we met, so when I said twenty minutes, that meant I'd be there in ten. We figured he had a permanent tail anyway, but it was fun messing with the feds, regardless.

The Strip flashed and winked and beckoned to me off in the distance down Desert Inn as I drove to Caesar's. It never ceases to amaze me what a difference the combination of black desert night, millions of lights, and all that wattage from Hoover Dam made, because Las Vegas looked so small and ugly and shabby in the day time. She used the night and all those bright lights like an over-age working girl uses a dimly lit cocktail lounge and a heavy coat of makeup to ply her trade.

Howard liked Caesar's. We didn't do any of the regular business there, and Howard liked that, too. Most of all, Howard liked the way the place was always hopping in the months since Sinatra took that angry walk across the street from the Sands and offered to move his act to Caesar's. Howard didn't really care to run elbows with the Chairman and his pack, he just liked talking in places where the type of noise generated by their mere presence could cover our conversations.

You may have noticed that in both examples used above I've interspersed description of the setting with action, historical references and plot points. That's partly stylistic and partly a necessity. I rarely find straight description engaging when I'm reading fiction (in the hands of a master such as Hemingway, Chandler or Macdonald that's another story, but they tend to be the exception), so I try to seamlessly integrate it into the narrative. Also, since I'm attempting to evoke a setting that is lost to the modern reader in anything but received images, I try to get into a few well-placed historical references that help establish the setting as, say, not just Las Vegas, but early 1960s Las Vegas. Doing so in this manner can save a writer of historical mysteries a whole lot of trying to tease out these sorts of details in dialogue (and boy, can that sort of exposition come across as clunky if not handled exactly right!).

So there you have it: an extended rumination on the importance of one of the most overlooked and powerful tools in your writer's toolbox: setting. The stronger you build it, the more your readers will thank you for it, regardless of genre, regardless of time period.

Because setting is both ubiquitous and timeless. Easy to overdo and certainly easy to get wrong. But when you get it right, your story is all the stronger for it!

21 January 2021

I'm Not Gonna Let It Bother Me Tonight


 Last go-round I talked about New Years' resolutions and the domestic terror attack on our national capitol

Today I'm writing on another banner day, but this time the occasion is a much happier one: the orderly (can't say "peaceful") transfer of power between one presidential administration and its successor.

A hopeful note sounds in the middle of a world consumed with chaos, disease, and misery.

We have the pandemic, a sluggish economy, three million jobs lost, and millions going hungry, or on the verge of losing their homes. Or both. Or all of the above.

No I'm not...no I'm not...
We've got our work cut out for us. And that's saying something in light of how hard so many of us are already working just to try to hold everything together.

But—with apologies to the Atlanta Rhythm SectionI'm not gonna let it bother to me tonight.

I'm just not. Tonight is for celebrating. In fact (sorry, have to do it) at Casa Thornton it's already shaping up to be an outright Champagne Jam.

On the National Mall. In New York. In Florida. In St. Louis. In Denver. In Chicago. In Los Angeles. All across the nation, and definitely in our living room!

Beginning with my next post in a couple of weeks I will be back to posting strictly about writing (at least for a while). Right now, I am giddy with visions of not waking up to embarrassment tomorrow morning; no more wondering "What did the object of our national shame do or say to humiliate, belittle or scorn whole swaths of our people today?" 

Nope. Tomorrow morning I'm going to wake up and not worry about what the most powerful man in the world is up to. Same the day after that. And the day after that. And the day after that...and...and...

Because we have a new president! And a new vice-president! A good and decent man partnered with a good and a formidable woman. And married to a woman better educated than he is (and according to him, the "smart one" in their marriage).

So we have as president a man who respects women. A man who respects traditions. A man who respects precedent. A man who respects alliances (and allies!).

Now, if you'll excuse me, that champagne ain't gonna drink itself!


See you in two weeks!

24 December 2020

A Christmas Eve Retrospective


 Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

And so we find ourselves at the terminus of 2020. 2020, the year that seemed like it would never end.

Nearly a year into a raging pandemic, nine solid months into a waxing and waning quarantine, and yet the end seems to finally be in sight. Not just of the year, but of the pandemic. A vaccine is on the horizon, and from here we can see a potential return to a fully functioning society.

Is it the Beginning of the End, or the End of the Beginning?

I suppose it all depends on your point of view.

I for one am hopeful. Then again, I'm the mid-fifties father of an eight-year-old son, and I teach middle school, so, as I've said before in this space, I'm in the business of hope.

And so, in this time of hope, this season of generosity, I'm here to glean a few positives from the detritus of 2020. After all, the Yuletide is also the Tide of "End-of-the-Year"lists, so let me give a brief recap of mine.

So this isn't a post about COVID. I'm going to recap my writing goals for the year, and how I did with them.


Goals

I started 2020 determined to wrap up several half-finished writing projects. I had a rough draft of a novel, two partially-completed short stories, and a dead-line for expanding three previously published short stories into novella length for publication as a three-novella collection.

At the beginning of 2020 I was riding the tail end of a streak where I'd collected and edited two companion crime fiction anthologies. This endeavor had consumed the better part of a year, and my publisher had released both of them within the previous six months.

So 2020 was going to be the year I finished things.

So This Happened
Results

I succeeded in finishing all of the above save the novel, which is half-completed (second full and final draft). And even with the novel, I can see the end of the road out on the horizon. I will definitely be putting this one in the can and sending it off to my agent before Summer begins.

My short stories are completed and off with the editors who requested them, and that includes revisions based on requested changes. And my three novellas were published by Down and Out Books just last month!

So I'm going to end of this hopeful note. I wish us all the best and only good things in the coming year of 2021.

Happy New Year, and See You In Two Weeks!



29 October 2020

So This Happened....


It's always gratifying to be able to announce the publication of a new work. We writers work damned hard, and as a rule we toss more than we publish. So, yes, it's nice when you can add something new to your existing body of work. It's even nicer when you can announce the publication of something on which you've toiled for a long, long time, and of which you're (hopefully justifiably) proud.

So it's with no little pleasure that I announce that on Monday, October 19th, 2020 Down and Out Books published my three-novella collection Suicide Blonde. It was the culmination of an insane amount of work over a roughly eighteen-month period, during which time I also collected and edited a pair of crime fiction anthologies inspired by the music of jazz-rock legends Steely Dan: Die Behind the Wheel, and A Beast Without a Name.

Each of the novellas in my new collection started life as a short story. Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine published the original "Suicide Blonde" way back in November of 2006. The short version of "Paper Son" found a home in the Akashic Books anthology Seattle Noir in June, 2009. And "Bragadin's Skin" was commissioned by the upstart webzine The Big Click (that rarity of rarities: a webzine that paid, and well, too!) in 2013.

So I guess you could say that these characters have lived with me for a while.

Each of these original stories managed to garner many variations of the same feedback from my loyal first readers: "I wanted to know more." "I didn't want the story to end." "I would have liked to learn more about this (or that) character." "You ought to expand it into a novel."

I decided to start smaller.

It's a long story
Crime fiction has a long tradition of writers publishing stories in the shorter form, only to expand them at a later date. The most famous example of this is probably that of Raymond Chandler, who developed his early writing chops by publishing in the pages of the storied Black Mask, the same magazine which helped launch the career of Chandler's idol (and mine), Dashiell Hammett. Chandler later cobbled several of these stories into longer novels which became The Big Sleep and The Lady in the Lake. In 1929 Hammett himself wrote his first novel Red Harvest as a collection of  four related novellas ("The Cleansing of Poisonville," "Crime Wanted — Male or Female," "Dynamite," and "The 19th Murder") for initial serialization in Black Mask before appearing in book form later that same year.

So I resolved to try my hand at something similar: turning short stories into novellas. 

I've written in this space before about the process of expanding the first of these, the title story, into a longer work. I was (and am) quite pleased with the final result. And Down and Out publisher Eric Campbell liked it too, and agreed to publish it. He just wanted more word count in order to be able make the production costs balance out. So one novella became three.

Like Hammett I also initially intended to generate several related novellas which could be read together as a single long work. I talked about that idea here. However, I eventually abandoned the notion of expanding "Suicide Blonde"'s initial premise that far. I wanted to enhance the story, not pad it. And I was concerned padding it would be precisely what I'd have wound up doing.

And that's when I decided to give "Paper Son" and "Bragadin's Skin" the "Suicide Blonde" treatment. And a lot of writing and rewriting, sweating, proofing and swearing and starting over ensued. And now, lo these many months later, you see before you the cover art of the end result.

And I gotta say, as was the case with my other two recently published long-term crime fiction projects, it's really satisfying to finish something this long in the works. The sense of completion is hard to put into words, but tangible and no less enjoyable in spite of remaining hard to quantify.

I've got other irons in the fire: a really long-term project (a novel) I'm putting the finishing touches on; and a couple of short stories due soon to the editors who've asked for changes to them. Got a couple of other projects in the early drafting stages. And I'm going to get rolling on them pretty quickly.

But not before I take a little time and savor this achievement.

See you in two weeks!



15 October 2020

Why I Don't Read or Write True Crime, Part Three


This is Part Three of a three-part series. For Part One, click here. For Part Two, click here

I have a jack-in-the-box in my desk, at work (for those of you who don't remember, I teach middle school history). It's not a traditional jack-in-the-box. It's an Iron Maiden (the British metal band, not the torture implement) jack-in-the-box, and it's got Eddie, Iron Maiden's ghoulish mascot, as the jack-in-the-box. It's still in the box.

This particular jack-in-the-box was a gift from a former student. And the kid who gave it to me was one-of-a-kind. As a seventh-grader he'd gotten himself into a remarkable amount of trouble, and by the time I got him as an eighth-grader his parents had tossed out all of his black clothes, his guy-liner, every piece of studded black leather, all of the things that he had worn or used to drive them crazy before the final time he'd gotten himself kicked out of school. When I met him, he dressed like a preppy, because his parents picked out his clothes and insisted he shut the door on the black leather and the emo music.

So when I mentioned that I had first seen Iron Maiden in concert as a high school senior in 1982, he decided I was alright. One thing I've learned in all of my years of teaching is that people can connect over the smallest of things. British metal band Iron Maiden was my point of connection with this young man.

His family moved out of state at the end of the year, and right before he left, he gave me the aforementioned jack-in-the-box. I was really touched by the gesture, and by how happy his family was with how much better this very intelligent young man was doing in school. So when his parents sent me a Facebook friend request before they left so we could stay in touch, I was happy to agree to it.

Three years later he killed himself. Over a girl.

I had another student once who robbed a guy in a parking lot drug deal after the guy (who was his dealer) showed him the big bag of money he had made from selling pot. So my former pulled a pistol, took the money, and jumped into a waiting car (driven by another former student of mine). The robbed dealer gave chase on foot. The robber used his gun and shot out the window as they drove off. He killed the the guy.

Both he and the driver are still in jail.


Just a few years ago I had a student who had been diagnosed with O.D.D ("Oppositional Defiant Disorder"). He spent his days at my school acting out, cussing out teachers, and doing no work. Once again I got lucky. I knew who Tupac Shakur was, and had seen him in concert when he was just starting out (how that came about is a long story in itself.). This kid loved Tupac.

So we got along. 

But I wasn't very successful at convincing him to cut other people (students, staff, you know, everyone) any slack. So he was always in trouble. It was shame too, because he was a big, funny, goofy kid. A talented athlete, too. He played basketball on a really good AAU team. He just had no common sense and a get-out-of-consequences-free (for the moment) card.

He went off to high school and I wondered whether he was going to be able to stay out of jail. 

He wasn't. 

He's been busted several times in the intervening years for a string of burglaries, and recently tried to rob a convenience store late one night. The clerk he tried to rob was armed and the two exchanged gunfire. Both were hit. And my former student ran off. He has since turned himself in to police.

These are real stories. This is literally "True Crime." I find it in no way entertaining. There's a human cost here that is painful to recall. And for me there's no escaping it.

And that's why I neither read nor write True Crime.

01 October 2020

Why I Don't Read or Write True Crime, Part Two


This is Part Two of a three-part series. For Part One click here.

When I was a boy in elementary school I lived on a rural bus route far enough from school that if I missed the bus, it was either a long walk or a briefer, but not insignificant, bike ride to school.

Both my parents worked jobs that got them out of the house early, so if I did miss the bus, I was indeed on my own. My mother used to set the timer on the kitchen stove before she left for work every morning, and I knew that when that timer went off, it was time for me to go out to the stop in front of our house.

This was our system from the day I started 2nd grade until I moved on to junior high school several years later. In all those years I only missed the bus a couple of times.

And yet for a stretch of several months in fifth grade, I began riding my bike to school. I did it because another boy in my grade suggested we do it together.

His name was Greg, and we had been in the same class a few times, although that year we weren't. We occasionally played Foursquare or on the monkey bars at recess, and we were briefly in Cub Scouts together, but I wouldn't say we were exactly "friends." We just did things together, at school, and riding to school together. 

Greg was a nice enough guy. Not really ebullient. Not flashy. He talked about how he already knew how to make French toast and how he made it himself for breakfast most days. As someone who had yet to move past mastering cold cereal, I was duly impressed by that. Greg was just "handy," or at least seemed so, in ways where I felt deficient. 

Best of all, Greg wasn't mean. We didn't have a lot of "mean" kids at school. Don't get me wrong, every kid has it in them and we all channeled that regularly, and even with people we may have actually liked. But that was mostly kids trying things on, figuring out who they were and how they were going to get through their days. You know, "growing up." Most of the kids I grew up with weren't that kind of "mean," the sort of person who takes joy from actually making someone else miserable. Certainly not mean like Peter, the kid who stole my dad's stocking cap off of my head while my class was lined up waiting to get on the bus one afternoon in 5th grade. Boy, do I remember that guy.

I started riding to school with Greg because of Peter. On that day when Peter stole my dad's hat I missed the bus home because I stayed behind looking for it. None of the other kids admitted to seeing who had taken it, and I was afraid to leave school without trying to find it.

Bear in mind, this took place during the mid-1970s. Teachers were around, but it wasn't like it is now, when you can't walk three feet in an elementary school parking lot during morning drop-off or afternoon pick-up without having two or three staff members cross your line of sight. And it didn't even occur to me to ask a teacher for help.

So the bus left without me.

Within fifteen minutes I had given up the search, resigned to walking home and hoping my dad would forget about his stocking cap, and maybe never ask me about it. And all of a sudden, there was Greg, unlocking the combination lock on his bike chain, getting ready to ride up the long, steep hill that made up the first one-quarter of my coming walk home.

We started talking. Him asking me why I missed the bus, me telling him (I didn't yet know it was Peter who took my cap.). Me asking why he was leaving school so late, him telling me (getting help with math.).

Without either of us so much as suggesting it, we went up Stone Road to the top of that long hill together, Greg riding in slow circles around me as I walked. And then we also took the straight-as-a-preacher's-back, mile-and-a-bit stretch of Tieton Drive together until we reached my house.

As he was riding off, he said, "You should ride to school with me tomorrow."

So I did.

And I continued to for most days after that. And this went on for weeks.

And then one day, Greg didn't show up at my house, so I rode to school by myself. Greg wasn't at school either.

It wasn't something I questioned. I didn't find it odd. I didn't even give it too much thought. Like I said, Greg and I weren't really "friends." We rode to school together. And I liked him. He was a part of my day, but I didn't think of him as a "buddy." 

Looking back, Greg was clearly something of a loner. During those rides we rarely talked, and never about his family. He never mentioned his parents. When he did talk about home, it was always about something he was doing, a project he was working on. But mostly we just rode together. Greg seemed pretty comfortable with long stretches of silence.

And that's what set us apart. I was a blabbermouth (there are some who would say that hasn't changed). I wasn't comfortable with silence. I didn't have "projects." In the afternoons before my parents got home (my mom bringing my two-year-old brother from daycare), I read Hardy Boys books and Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard, and played in the big empty barn on our acreage and fortified it as if I were the U.S. Cavalry fighting off the Sioux. I rode my horse. I changed sprinklers if it was the right season (and sometimes not even then.).

And I watched a lot of Star Trek. Okay, and Gilligan's Island. It was the '70s. We had three broadcast channels and PBS.

But Greg didn't show up the next day. Or the day after that. I thought it was odd, but wasn't really concerned. After all, I was ten.

And no one said a word about his absence at school. I knew something was up, but like I said, I was ten, and I didn't really know what to say or do about it. I just did what everyone else around me did: went about my day. I even rode the bus again a couple of times.

About a week went by before my mom told me that Greg had died. Now, this was in 1975 or so, and memory is an imperfect thing. I honestly don't recall how my mom found out about Greg's death, whether it was in the paper, or whether she heard about it from a neighbor, or even at work (she worked at a hospital), and I haven't asked her about it before sitting down to write this blog entry, so I can't really say how she knew, she just did.

I asked if she knew how Greg died. She said he'd hanged himself from the banister in his house. He'd used his own belt. I remember thinking at the time, "That's handy." It wouldn't have even occurred to me to use one. Being ten, I kept that part to myself.

I did ask my mother whether it was an accident, maybe he was just goofing around? Nope, she said. He'd climbed up there meaning to kill himself.

I remember wondering why he'd done it. I remember asking my parents why he might have done it. They both supposed there were problems in Greg's home, but no one seemed to know for sure.

Mostly I remember just being baffled.

In my quiet moments (yes, I had them. Not a lot of them, but I did have them.), especially when riding my bike to school, I would occasionally think about riding with Greg. I didn't possess the perspective or vocabulary to ask myself these questions then, but I have often in the forty-five years since: were we actually friends? Was Greg just sad, and kept it bottled up? I didn't really know the word "depression" then, and I certainly wouldn't have understood the concept to the extent to which I've come to comprehend it in the decades since. 

But I did wonder. I still do.

And I'll never know. And neither will Greg's parents, or the rest of his family, or any of the other kids he went to school with, now well into their mid-50s. I wonder how many of them even remember him? Does Ralph? Does Jack? Does Sheri? Does Terri? Does Rhonda? Does Brett? Does Gina?

I moved to Spokane a couple of years later and lost track of the kids I went to elementary school with, so I have no idea.

I'd had encounters with death before this. A cousin died of leukemia when I was six. Various great aunts and uncles passed away in the years before I turned ten.

But these relatives were ill for a long time before passing away. Greg just died. One day he was there, and the next he was gone. Snuffed out. And no one talked about it.

I didn't talk about it at school, and none of the other kids mentioned Greg's passing.  I have no idea why not. Of course that sort of thing would never happen nowadays. Now, the school district would put out a statement about the sad news of a student's passing, and mention that grief counselors were on-hand to help the deceased's classmates cope with his death, should they require the support.

And I don't think that's a bad thing.

We might currently be a society that loves to talk a problem to death, but there are times when being open with kids about what's going on, encouraging them to ask questions and helping them make sense of the senseless isn't some scene out of a Woody Allen movie: it's a kind and humane thing to do.

But there is a line. Had Greg been murdered instead of taking his own life, would he be better remembered? Would his passing be more interesting to the public? If unsolved, would his death be fodder for message boards and true crime podcasts? Would there be a latent profit motive to discussing his last moments? Would speculating about them allow someone who knew him—maybe "rode to school with him, except for that final, fateful day..."—to cash in with the sort of "hybrid true crime memoir" one of my writer friends mentioned in my previous entry in this series?

I don't know. 

I just know that's a book I could never write.

And I damned sure wouldn't read it.

In two weeks: the final installment of my "Why I Don't Read or Write True Crime" series, complete with Russian Roulette, a parking lot drug deal gone horribly wrong, and the goofiest criminal I've ever met.

17 September 2020

Why I Don't Read or Write True Crime, Part One


I don't read or write True Crime. At least not anymore. And not for a long time. Given the popularity of the genre, and the subject matter of this site, I do not expect this to be a popular opinion.

But bear with me. Let me explain.

I grew up in Spokane, Washington. During my early teens the city was terrorized by the "South Hill Rapist," a serial rapist who focused mostly on the aforementioned South Hill, an affluent walking suburb of the city. When he was finally caught and convicted, the South Hill Rapist turned out to be Frederick Harlan {"Kevin") Coe, the son of the managing editor of the one the city's two major newspapers, Gordon Coe. In a twist right out of a Hollywood movie, Coe Sr. was responsible for monitoring a tip line set up by his paper, The Spokane Daily Chronicle, intended to help find the rapist who turned out to be his own son.

By the time the Spokane police caught up with him, Kevin Coe had been running amok for the better part of three years, and brutally raped dozens of women. His parents were socially prominent, "pillars of the community," and his mother was also a whack-job (who first tried to give her son an absurd alibi, and then went to jail herself for trying to hire a hitman to kill both the presiding judge and the prosecutor in her son's court case), so his trial, where the brutality of his rapes was put on lurid display, was a regular media circus.

As such it is unsurprising that Coe's crimes, capture and subsequent trial attracted the attention of one of America's great True Crime writers, Jack Olsen. Olsen, who had famously written for publications from Sports Illustrated to Vanity Fair, and everything in between, spent eighteen months researching and writing a book about Coe, the critically acclaimed Son: A Psychopath and His Victims.

I was sixteen when Coe was caught and convicted, working my first real job, at a hospital which sat right at the foot of the South Hill. And my parents bought and read Son when it came out a couple of years later. And once they had finished it, I did too.

Olsen, a Washington state transplant who passed away on Bainbridge Island at the age of seventy-seven in 2002, was a hell of a writer. I was transfixed by Son, both recognizing and not recognizing the setting as my own hometown. This monster, Kevin Coe, drove the streets where I drove, ate where I ate, hung out in the parks I and my friends frequented, shopped where I shopped, and raped a whole bunch of innocent women along the South Hill's High Drive, where I dated a few girls and attended more than my share of parties.

It was not the start of a lifetime spent reading True Crime books though. And it wasn't until years later that I even gave much thought to the question of why. I found the story compelling. The setting, Spokane, was a place I thought I knew well, and yet I learned a lot about it I might have otherwise never learned, simply by reading Olsen's book. And, as I said above, Olsen could tell a story.

I just didn't find anything particularly compelling about the psychopath at the heart of the story. As I got older this proved to be the case with the relatively few other well-written, exhaustively researched True Crime books I read: Vincent Bugliosi's superb take on Charles Manson and his cult in Helter Skelter. A compelling account, and horrifying in the details of the things those hippies did on Manson's orders. And it's a story rendered all the more remarkable because it was written by the man who brought the whole lot of them to justice (Bugliosi prosecuted Manson and his followers for their killing spree). And yet Manson? A career petty criminal who never killed anyone himself, but somehow managed to convince others to kill for him. I was no more interested in him than I was in Coe.

The guy who prosecuted Manson and then wrote one hell of a book about it.

I started Ann Rule's classic The Stranger Beside Me, which dealt with her collegial relationship volunteering at a Puget Sound suicide hotline with eventually convicted and executed serial killer Ted Bundy, but didn't finish it. Something about the way Rule both documented her relationship with Bundy and also excused herself for profiting from that relationship, which she continued to cultivate for her own ends long after Bundy had been arrested and sentenced put me off. I just found it gross. All of these poor women who suffered at Bundy's hands, terrorized, tortured, and brutally murdered, and Ann Rule's giving the guy publishing advice while he's in jail awaiting sentencing on kidnapping charges. 

Did Rule have any inkling what Bundy had done? She mentions earlier in the book that she discussed with a police detective the possibility of Bundy being the killer the police were searching for who had identified himself as "Ted" to a potential victim at a popular Lake Washington park where another woman disappeared that same day. But after his kidnapping conviction she withheld opinion (at least for the time being), and even offered to co-write something about his experiences and split the profits with him.

I stopped reading not long after that.

And in this particular profit motive, Rule was something of a trailblazer. Nowadays you have popular podcasts such as "My Favorite Murder," which bills itself as a "true crime comedy" podcast, and boasts thousands of fans ("Murderinos," in the show's parlance). I thought it only fair to sample this podcast before mentioning it in this post, so I listened to a few of its episodes. Definitely not my thing.

And then I mentioned in passing that I was writing about both True Crime and the current True Crime podcasting craze during a conversation with a friend and fellow writer who once harbored ambitions of writing within the genre (he has since moved on to other genres). His response was worth quoting, so here it is, with his permission:

I especially dislike the hybrid true-crime memoir. If I’m immersed in a compelling story of murder, I don’t want to see the storyteller run the camera on themselves and tell us all about their relationship problems or their ailing grandparents or their struggles to get into grad school unless they have a direct and compelling connection to the people, places and events of the murder story.  (And “she was my second cousin, two twins over, we hung out a couple times at summer camp” doesn’t cut it.) It is cognitively dissonant in the extreme; it is the bait-and-switch technique of a literary used-car salesman. “Murder, grief, loss, community impact ... but let’s talk about my ex-boyfriend for the next fifteen pages and then weave in the fact that I lived in the murder town for a few months.” Who decided there was an audience for that?

The comfort food of a literary non-snob
Now let me be clear: I have things I love to read that would likely make you laugh out loud. I am not above diving in to pure escapism strictly for escapism's sake. I am many things: but a literary snob is not one of them. And I'm not slagging people who like to read this stuff, or enjoy these podcasts. I just don't, and I figured if I was going to broadcast this opinion, I really ought to deeply examine why. 

When I was in college I took a philosophy class in which the professor had us read M. Scott Peck's People of the Lie, and Hannah Arendt's stunning Eichmann in Jerusalem wherein she explored the seeming ordinariness of fugitive Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann, an architect of Hitler's "Final Solution" (extermination of the Jews), had fled Nazi Germany shortly after the end of World War II, and successfully evaded capture in South America for nearly two decades until Israeli intelligence agents tracked him down and captured him outside Buenos Aires, Argentina in May, 1960. Then they smuggled him out of Argentina, to Jerusalem, where the Israeli government put him on trial for war crimes. For her portrait of Eichmann, who was soft-spoken, slightly built, balding, near-sighted, and possessed of the demeanor of a clerk, Arendt coined the phrase, "The banality of evil."

Which takes me full circle: Coe, Manson, Bundy.  A hundred naked meth addicts running from the police in a variety of episodes of "COPS." Banal, bland, uninteresting monsters, not worth giving a second glance or a moment's attention.

Why should their willingness to visit untold misery and pain on innocent people profit them in the slightest? What is it about their innate viciousness that renders them worth my time and attention? Again, if you find this sort of thing compelling, you want to know what makes serial killers tick, I can understand and respect that. It's just not my thing.

But that's only half of the reason why I don't read or write True Crime.

The other half I'll expand upon in my next post in a couple of weeks, when I talk about my day gig, and how it's brought me into close contact with a variety of criminals and their victims.

See you in two weeks.

06 August 2020

When Writing Historical Fiction: It's Better to Travel



[Elmore] Leonard was originally no more a man of the West than was the Ohio-born dentist Zane Grey. While a kid in Detroit, Westerns enthralled him as they did most people in the 1930s and 40s. When he grew interested in writing during college Western fiction seemed a promising genre he could work in part-time. Unlike many writers then selling Western tales to pulps, though, Leonard insisted on accuracy, and kept a ledger of his research over the years, later crediting his longtime subscription to
Arizona Highways magazine for many of his authentic descriptions. All had to be genuine: the guns, Apache terms and clothing; the frontier knives, card games, liquor, and especially the horses.

                            — Nathan Ward, from "Elmore Leonard's Gritty Westerns," in Crime Reads

It's certainly never a bad idea to follow the writing advice of the great Elmore Leonard. His Ten Rules For Writing are rightly famous as terrific advice for any writer of fiction. 

The Great Elmore Leonard

In those instances where Leonard's advice isn't readily available, it never hurts to follow his example, if at all possible. Take the one in the quote above from Nathan Ward's Crime Reads article on Leonard. For years Leonard apparently leaned heavily on the content of Arizona Highways magazine.

It's a fine notion. Now, don't get me wrong: it's always better to travel. There is no substitute for actually going to and spending time in the place you're writing about. But, if you're writing about someplace and you can't afford to go, read travel writers. For that matter, even if you can afford the investment in both time and treasure to visit the region where your work is set, read travel writers. No one can help you get a feel for a certain place like people who make their livings helping their readers get a feel for a certain place.

Take William Dalrymple. The British-born-and-raised son of a Scottish baronet, Dalrymple these days is best known for his recent run of riveting books on the history of the subcontinent: India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Dalrymple is a terrific writer and a first-rate historian who splits his time between a farm just outside Delhi, in India and a summer home in London.
William Dalrymple

But before he began to make a name for himself with books such as White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India, The Last Mughal: the Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857, The Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-1842, and The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence and the Pillage of An Empire, Dalrymple began his writing career as a travel writer, taking readers on a tour through the Eastern Mediterranean and the Holy Land (From the Holy Mountain: a Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East), and of course, chronicling the early days of his life-long love affair with India. With his first book In Xanadu, published in 1989, Dalrymple chronicles his modern retracing of the journey of Marco Polo from Jerusalem in the summer palace of Kublai Khan in China. But it was with his second book, 1994's City of Djinns: a Year in Delhi, a memoir of his first visit to the city which has had such a tremendous impact on his adult life, that Dalrymple really began to make his mark.

And there is so much to this memoir which can be of use to the writer reading about the city. Here's an early excerpt laying out his introduction to Delhi and to India:

I was only seventeen. After ten years at school in a remote valley in the moors of North Yorkshire, I had quite suddenly found myself in India, in Delhi. From the very beginning I was mesmerized by the great capital, so totally unlike anything I had ever seen before. Delhi, it seemed at first, was full of riches and horrors: it was a labyrinth, a city of palaces, an open gutter, filtered light through a filigree lattice, a landscape of domes, an anarchy, a press of people, a choke of fumes, a whiff of spices. Moreover the city—so I soon discovered—possessed a bottomless seam of stories: tales receding far beyond history, deep into the cavernous chambers of myth and legend. Friends would moan about the touts on Janpath and head off to the beaches in Goa, but for me Delhi always exerted a stronger spell. I lingered on, and soon found a job in a home for destitutes in the far north of the city. The nuns gave me a room overlooking a municipal rubbish dump. In the morning I would look out to see the sad regiment of rag-pickers trawling the stinking berms of refuse; overhead, under a copper sky, vultures circled the thermals forming patterns like fragments of glass in a kaleidoscope. In the afternoons, after I had swept the compound and the inmates were safely asleep, I used to slip out and explore. I would take a rickshaw into the innards of the Old City and pass through the narrowing funnel of gullies and lanes, alleys and cul de sacs, feeling the houses close in around me.

Now, I ask you. Can this guy set a scene, or what? Really helpful for drinking in the flavors, colors, scents and sounds of what on the face of it comes across as a truly unforgettable place. Really not a bad guide if you're interested in writing about modern-day India.

But what if, like me, you're a writer of historical fiction?

In Leonard's case, as stated above, he exploited a modern magazine to help give him local flavor not just for another region of the country, but for that region in another era. No mean feat. It's a testament to Leonard's talent, coupled with his singular vision that he was able to "world build" (to borrow a phrase from our friends who write speculative fiction) using these building blocks for his foundation.

So sure, you can (and should) definitely use your imagination to fill in the cracks. There is certainly no substitute for imagination in the fiction writer's tool kit. That said, you need more than one tool in order to get the job of writing fiction done. I've often felt like our "tool kit" as fiction writers should be more aptly called a "tool warehouse." And of course, another way to use travel writing as one of those tools, to help get the feel for a city or street, or region or state or county or what-have-you during a bygone time is to go and find travel writing from the time in which your work-in-progress is set.

I have a writer friend whose current work-in-progress is set during World War II. One of his major characters has a back-story in which he lived in Germany during the 1930s, in the run-up to the war. I referred him to A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube, the first volume in a superb three-volume memoir of a trip on foot across Europe, from Holland all the way to Turkey by travel writer, war-time British commando (the account of his part in a successful kidnapping of a German general in Crete is not to be missed), bon vivant, and (some say) one of Ian Fleming's models for his literary creation James Bond, Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Leigh Fermor set out for Constantinople (Istanbul) in December of 1933, less than a year after Adolf Hitler and the Nazis had come to power. His narrative is replete with rich details about German life during that period, laying out how the Nazis had both a heavy and in some ways, a negligible impact on the country they would eventually drive to absolute ruin. Here is Leigh Fermor's initial impression of Cologne, the first major German city he visited:

After a first faraway glimpse, the two famous steeples grew taller and taller as the miles that separated us fell away. At last they commanded the cloudy plain as the spires of a cathedral should, vanishing when the outskirts of the city interposed themselves, and then, as I gazed at the crowding saints of the three Gothic doorways, sailing up into the evening again at close range. Beyond them indoors, although it was already too dark to see the colours of the glass, I knew I was inside the largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe. Except for the little constellation of tapers in the shadows of a side-chapel, everything was dim. Women knelt interspersed with nuns and the murmured second half of the Gegrüsset seist Du, Maria rose in answering chorus to the priest’s initial solo; a discreet clatter of beads kept tally of the accumulating prayers. In churches with open spires like Cologne, one could understand how congregations thought their orisons had a better start than prayers under a dome where the syllables might flutter round for hours. With steeples they follow the uprush of lancets and make an immediate break for it. Tinsel and stars flashed in all the shops and banners saying Fröhliche Weihnacht! were suspended across the streets. Clogged villagers and women in fleece-lined rubber boots slipped about the icy pavements with exclamatory greetings and small screams, spilling their armfuls of parcels. The snow heaped up wherever it could and the sharp air and the lights gave the town an authentic Christmas card feeling. It was the real thing at last! Christmas was only five days away. Renaissance doors pierced walls of ancient brick, upper storeys jutted in salients of carved timber and glass, triangles of crow-steps outlined the steep gables, and eagles and lions and swans swung from convoluted iron brackets along a maze of lanes. As each quarter struck, the saint-encrusted towers challenged each other through the snow and the rivalry of those heavy bells left the air shaking. Beyond the Cathedral and directly beneath the flying-buttresses of the apse, a street dropped sharply to the quays. Tramp steamers and tugs and barges and fair-sized ships lay at anchor under the spans of the bridges, and cafés and bars were raucous with music. I had been toying with the idea, if I could make the right friends, of cadging a lift on a barge and sailing upstream in style for a bit.

Again, this is quite a scene the writer is setting! So much good material, such a solid feel for the place. Leigh Fermor wrote the memoir some forty years after the trip, based on large part on the deep and thorough entries he made in his journal as an eighteen year-old looking for adventure in a rapidly changing world. And then he goes on to talk about his attempt to "make friends" in that timeless way young people have from time immemorial: he went to a bar:

I made friends all right. It was impossible not to. The first place was a haunt of seamen and bargees shod in tall sea-boots rolled down to the knee, with felt linings and thick wooden soles. They were throwing schnapps down their throats at a brisk rate. Each swig was followed by a chaser of beer, and I started doing the same. The girls who drifted in and out were pretty but a rough lot and there was one bulky terror, bursting out of a sailor’s jersey and wearing a bargeman’s cap askew on a nest of candy-floss hair, called Maggi—which was short for Magda—who greeted every newcomer with a cry of “Hallo, Bubi!” and a sharp, cunningly twisted and very painful pinch on the cheek. I liked the place, especially after several schnapps, and I was soon firm friends with two beaming bargemen whose Low German speech, even sober, would have been blurred beyond the most expert linguist’s grasp. They were called Uli and Peter. “Don’t keep on saying Sie,” Uli insisted, with a troubled brow and an unsteadily admonishing forefinger: “Say Du.” This advance from the plural to the greater intimacy of the singular was then celebrated by drinking Brüderschaft. Glasses in hand, with our right arms crooked through the other two with the complexity of the three Graces on a Parisian public fountain, we drank in unison. Then we reversed the process with our left arms, preparatory to ending with a triune embrace on both cheeks, a manoeuvre as elaborate as being knighted or invested with the Golden Fleece. The first half of the ceremony went without a hitch, but a loss of balance in the second, while our forearms were still interlocked, landed the three of us in the sawdust in a sottish heap. Later, in the fickle fashion of the very drunk, they lurched away into the night, leaving their newly-created brother dancing with a girl who had joined our unsteady group: my hobnail boots could do no more damage to her shiny dancing shoes, I thought, than the seaboots that were clumping all round us. She was very pretty except for two missing front teeth. They had been knocked out in a brawl the week before, she told me.

And that's just a taste. Leigh Fermor's three volumes here truly form a treasure trove: a window into a long-vanished world, and a feel for both the time itself and the timeless humanity of its cast of thousands. Well worth a read whether you're writing something set in Middle Europe during the 1930s, are a student of human nature, history, great writing, or (most likely) some combination of all of the above.

Patrick Leigh Fermor (Right) in Crete, 1943

And that's all for now. Tune in next time when I break out the work of a Flemish diplomat and show how his long letters home from his posting in the court of the Turkish sultan helped inform the writing of a couple of my published works.

See you in two weeks!






09 July 2020

Fine! If He Can't Be Treasury Secretary....


"The pure ermine of the Supreme Court is sullied by the appointment of that political hack."
The New York American, March 17th, 1836


The bust in question.
Today's post kicks off with a quick reference back to Monumentgate: namely, the debate on whether or not to remove the bust of former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney from its current perch in the U.S. Capitol building. And then I'm going to try to tie all three posts together with the theme which clearly connects them.

First: Taney (pronounced "Tawny"), who served as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1836 until his death at age eighty-seven in 1864. The current debate is whether to remove the bust of him which resides on the old Supreme Court chamber in the U.S. Capitol, and replace it with a bust of the first African-American justice, Thurgood Marshall.

Like a number of the men memorialized in those statues currently causing such a commotion both here and abroad, Taney was a Southerner (born and raised in Maryland). Also like so many of them, he was a member of the planter aristocracy (Taney's family holdings produced mostly tobacco). There can also be little question that Taney believed, as did so many of these other men, that slavery was the bedrock on which "Southern culture" rested, and therefore must be protected.

However, unlike most of these other monumental (see what I did there?) subjects, Taney freed his slaves. Also unlike so many of his fellow Southerners occupying positions of authority in the United States government, Taney did not resign his position when secession came (as one of his fellow Supreme Court justices did). And like fellow slave-holders such as Thomas Jefferson, he seems to have had mixed feelings about slavery, however important he may have felt it was to the Southern way of life. 

Now bear in mind that Taney's home state of Maryland never actually seceded from the Union. What's more, Taney was in his eighties by the time hostilities broke out in December of 1860. It's not like he was going to join the army. What's more, his public writings and statements during the Civil War make clear Taney's opinion that the Southern states possessed the inherent right to secede from the Union, and what's more, he also clearly blamed Abraham Lincoln for said secession in the first place.

Chief Justice Roger B. Taney
It makes you wonder how, if given the chance, Chief Justice Taney might have ruled on the myriad court challenges to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and the constitutional amendments which eventually enfranchised all native-born Americans and granted them both citizenship and the right to vote.

It shouldn't.

Because the existing record of Taney's legal work both as a trial lawyer and as a federal judge paints a pretty clear picture of how Taney felt about the legal status of both slavery and of enslaved peoples of African descent. Let's look at this record.

Taney famously stated in open court in 1819 that slavery was "a blot on our national character." Of course, he was defending an abolitionist against a charge of incitement to riot at the time. So does that statement really count? 

After all, Taney, wasn't just a lawyer. He was also a politician. And, as the quote which kicks off this blog post notes, something of a political hack, at that.

Initially a Federalist, Taney changed his party affiliation in 1828, in the middle of a four-year term as State Attorney General for Maryland. This was in coordination with his support for the presidential candidacy of Democrat Andrew Jackson of Tennessee. When Taney left office as Maryland's attorney general in 1831 he quickly found himself filling a succession of positions in Jackson's cabinet.

Jackson lost most of his cabinet over the "Petticoat Affair."
First he spent six weeks serving as acting Secretary of War, replacing John Eaton, who resigned as part of the infamous "Petticoat Affair." Then Jackson gave Taney plenty to do as Attorney General of the United States. 

Jackson had come to power at the head of a coalition of Southern and Western state interests intent on curbing federal overreach and asserting states' rights. Taney supported the view that local governments (in the form of the states) were the bedrock of good government, and that these institutions were more inherently aligned with the direct will of "the people."

Of course, "the people" did not mean all people. In a May, 1832 court appearance in his capacity as U.S. Attorney General Taney argued in support of a South Carolina law stating that free black sailors who came ashore while their ships were in South Carolina ports could be imprisoned. Taney reasoned that:

The African race in the United States even when free, are every where a degraded class, and exercise no political influence. The privileges they are allowed to enjoy, are accorded to them as a matter of kindness and benevolence rather than of right...And where they are nominally admitted by law to the privileges of citizenship, they have no effectual power to defend them, and are permitted to be citizens by the sufferance of the white population and hold whatever rights they enjoy at their mercy. They were never regarded as a constituent portion of the sovereignty of any state... They were not looked upon as citizens by the contracting parties who formed the Constitution.

How do you think the guy who wrote that would have viewed the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments? Remember these words. More on them below.

After a couple of years of representing the Jackson administration's interests in court, Taney found himself in line for an even more powerful position when Jackson fired his Treasury Secretary over a difference of approach in getting rid of the Bank of the United States. Jackson believed the Bank was illegal and wanted to destroy it. Taney supported the notion of independent "State" banks, and was more in line with Jackson on this than his predecessor. So Jackson named Taney as his new Treasury Secretary.

The only problem was that the Anti-Jacksonian ("Whig") party controlled the Senate, and Taney would need to be confirmed by the Senate in this new position as Treasury Secretary. Partly because of his (and Jackson's) stance on the Bank of the United States, and partly because of their loathing for Jackson personally, the Whigs managed to block Taney's confirmation. He bears the dubious distinction of being the first executive branch nominee on the history of the United States to fail to gain Senate confirmation.
Was Jackson EVER really this placid?

Furious, Jackson attempted to appoint Taney to an open position on the U.S. Supreme Court. Again, the Whig-controlled Senate blocked his appointment. But Jackson, not known for being either forgiving or a quitter, wasn't done.

It should be noted that during his eight years in office Andrew Jackson succeeded in completely remaking the Supreme Court, with an unprecedented five appointments. How this came to pass I intend to address in my next blog post. For now, suffice to say that the next time a position on the Court came open, it was that of the Chief Justice, on the occasion of the death of the long-serving John Marshall.

Third time was a charm, mostly, because there had been an election in the interim and Jackson's Democrats now controlled the Senate, so he got Taney on the bench in March of 1836. The quotation that leads off this entry was published in response to Taney's appointment.

Taney quickly developed a reputation for careful, nuanced reasoning during his tenure on the Court. He might have come up as a political hack, but he was also clearly very concerned with being taken seriously as a legal theorist. His rulings in landmark cases throughout his first two decades on the Court won him respect on this front. 

They also constitute a clear-cut record of Taney's thinking on the issue of slavery and the role of both it and of African slaves in American society. Time and again Taney and the Jackson-appointed Southern majority on the Supreme Court ruled to support what Southerners termed their "peculiar institution."

This all came to a head with the historical event for which Taney is probably best known: his authorship of the Supreme Court's notorious majority opinion in the federal case of Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857). In this sweeping ruling, dealing with the question of whether a slave taken by his owner into a state or territory where slavery was outlawed was to be considered free, Taney went far beyond the narrow scope of the question before the court, and attempted to settle the broader questions of the legality of slavery and the role of African-descended peoples, be they slave or free, in American society.

As he had argued twenty-five years earlier in the South Carolina port case quoted above, Taney maintained that because their status had not been expressly spelled out by the framers of the Constitution, African Americans had no legal status in the American legal system, and thus, were inherently barred from becoming citizens (never mind that when the Constitution was drawn up in 1788 five of the original thirteen states already afforded free blacks the right to vote). As a result blacks–free or slave–were legally disqualified from bringing suits in federal courts. Under the Constitution, Taney ruled, blacks possessed "no rights which the white man was bound to respect."

You probably know what happened next. Rather than settling the slavery question "once and for all," Taney's decision brought down a firestorm of criticism on his and the Court majority's heads. If anything the Dred Scott  decision helped bring about the violent sectional conflict so many–including Taney's political benefactor Andrew Jackson–had worked so hard to forestall. 

In the words of historian Daniel Walker Howe: "Taney's blend of state sovereignty, white racism, sympathy with commerce, and concern for social order were typical of Jacksonian jurisprudence...
Ironically his devotion to state sovereignty and white supremacy in the long run contributed to the dissolution of the Union Andrew Jackson loved."

So should that bust of Taney in the U.S. Capitol come down? Should it be replaced with one of fellow Marylander, the Baltimore-born, brilliant lead attorney in the ground-breaking Brown v. the Board of Education civil rights case, and eventual first African-American Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall?

Of course.

But don't just take my word for it. Ask the Maryland State Assembly and the Baltimore City Council. Both entities removed bronze statues of Taney from their grounds back in 2017.

Tune in next time when I take on the question of how Andrew Jackson managed to get five of his own hand-picked justices placed on the Supreme Court in a mere eight years.

See you in Two Weeks!

11 June 2020

Some Thoughts on Monuments


Art certainly doesn’t need to be pure. But public statues invite public admiration, and if we can no longer admire them, it’s right to wonder if they should remain.

— Bendor Grosvenor, PhD, art historian, and presenter, The Art Detectives, on BBC4

So monuments have been having their moment in the news this week. Well, to be honest, they've been having their decade.

And not in a good way.

More in this kind of way:


Yep, that's a pic of a statue of Iraqi "strongman" Saddam Hussein toppling, shortly after Hussein himself was toppled from power way back in 2003. But in reality it could have been any of hundreds of "great" men (and it's nearly always men, the likes of Evita Peron notwithstanding.) whose day of reckoning eventually came: Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. Hitler. Mussolini. The list of the leaders of failed regimes, brought low by their own hubris and overreach.

And close on their heels: the monuments they erected, testaments of their enduring power. So many of the iconic moments surrounding the end of a regime involve the destruction of the talismanic physical testaments of that regime's power. It's a cycle as old as human history, and has been memorialized time and again by great artists, such as the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, in his immortal poem Ozymandias:

Percy Bysshe Shelley
  I met a traveller from an antique land,
  Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
  Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
  Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
  And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
  Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
  Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
  The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
  And on the pedestal, these words appear:
  My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
  Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
  Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
  Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
  The lone and level sands stretch far away.



The point, of course, being, that all such sacrifices on the altar of human vanity are doomed to eventually come crashing down.
Of course it goes without saying that where there's a rule, there's an exception. And not surprisingly, with the way Americans tend to view themselves as an exceptional people, the exception I'm thinking of to this particular rule is definitely an American one.

So let's talk about all of these Confederate monuments arrayed throughout (but not limited to) the American South. You know, the ones we've seen recently being pulled from their pediments by protesters, when they're not being removed by public workers at the order of local municipalities or state governments.

The ones that were mass-produced for profit not in the South, but in New England. Heads special ordered and matched to a previously cast body, either standing, or mounted on horseback. Losers of a brutal war which left over half-a-million Americans dead, memorialized over a thirty year period, beginning a generation after the end of that war. And all as part of a largely successful, long-running attempt to stave off many of the long-term impacts of that war: a movement romanticized as preserving the memory of a glorious "Lost Cause."

...and Ron Reagan too!?!
Whoever said, "The winners write the history,"never read anything by the likes of two-time Pulitzer Prize winning Historian Douglas Southall Freeman. The defeated secessionists of the American South might have lost the war, but for over a century afterward, they and their spiritual descendants worked diligently at winning the peace. And they got terrific press for it.

Think Gone With The Wind, or Hollywood heartthrob Errol Flynn playing future Confederate cavalry leader J.E.B. Stuart, in the top-grossing 1940 western, Santa Fe Trail. Or go back further, to (Southerner) D.W. Griffith's ground-breaking 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, the first film shown in the White House for President Woodrow Wilson: Southern-born and raised, progressive in most things save race relations, single-handedly responsible for reversing the racial integration of the federal bureaucracy which had been carried out by his predecessors.

Not like they were trying to hide anything.
The film was truly innovative in its approach (first use of close-ups, a musical soundtrack, and "a cast of thousands") and utterly antediluvian in its subject matter. Based on a novel called The Clansman: a Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (And you can guess how the Klan comes across in that one.) by a former Baptist minister and life-long bigot named Thomas Dixon, Jr., the film paints the Klan as the Good Guys, preserving the virtue of their swooning (and utterly helpless) women by wresting them from the clutches of a number of ridiculously drawn racial stereotypes of underintelligent, overly sexual blacks played by white actors in black face.

So, you know. Pretty much an early example of spin-doctoring, in service of white-washing (pun very much intended) the despicable practice of lynching.

This is the background against which the statues currently being pulled down or placed in storage across this country were financed, constructed, shipped, mounted, raised and dedicated. Art as propaganda, in service of a monstrous composite lie: the notion that the Civil War wasn't fought over slavery (it was), that the South didn't really lose (it did), and that society did not need to change in order to reflect the status of newly-freed former slaves.

As a nation we are still wrestling with that last part. And the conversations being sparked by the current round of protests are long overdue. Either we as a people will address the wounds inflicted by the vile practice of slavery and the on-going systemic oppression which sprung up in its wake, or we may well find ourselves in the same position as the great and powerful Ozymandias.

Feet of the Colossus of Ramesses II, Ramesseum, Luxor (Thebes) Egypt, the Ozymandias of Shelley's poem.