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

23 September 2022

Black is the Night


 BLACK IS THE NIGHT

Stories Inspired by Cornell Woolrich


Just received my copy of BLACK IS THE NIGHT. Haven’t read it yet, so this is not a review. I’ve read and admired the writing of Cornell Woolrich since before I started writing nearly forty years ago. Too many favorites to mention but I have read his excellent NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES four times. Worked hard to get a story included in this anthology and happy as hell to have succeeded.


Editor/Writer/Critic Maxim Jakubowski and long time owner of Murder One Bookstore in London, the UK's first specialist crime and mystery bookstore has brought together some cool writers in BLACK IS THE NIGHT. Fans of Cornell Woolrich, hell all mystery readers and writers should check this out.



Here is some of the promotional information on the anthology:


A gritty and thrilling anthology of 30 new short stories in tribute to pulp noir master, Cornell Woolrich, author of 'Rear Window' that inspired Alfred Hitchcock's classic film. 


Featuring Neil Gaiman, Kim Newman, James Sallis, A.K. Benedict, USA Today-bestseller Samantha Lee Howe, Joe R. Lansdale and many more.


An anthology of exclusive new short stories in tribute to the master of pulp era crime writing, Cornell Woolrich. Woolrich, also published as William Irish and George Hopley, stands with Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner and Dashiell Hammett as a legend in the genre.


He is a hugely influential figure for crime writers, and is also remembered through the 50+ films made from his novels and stories, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear WindowThe Bride Wore BlackI Married a Dead ManPhantom Lady, Truffaut's La Sirène du Mississippi, and Black Alibi.


Collected and edited by one of the most experienced editors in the field, Maxim Jakubowski, features original work from: 

  • Neil Gaiman
  • Joel Lane
  • Joe R. Lansdale
  • Vaseem Khan
  • Brandon Barrows
  • Tara Moss
  • Kim Newman
  • Nick Mamatas
  • Mason Cross
  • Martin Edwards
  • Donna Moore
  • James Grady
  • Lavie Tidhar
  • James Sallis
  • A.K. Benedict
  • Warren Moore
  • Max Décharné
  • Paul Di Filippo
  • M.W. Craven
  • Charles Ardai
  • Susi Holliday
  • Bill Pronzini
  • Kristine Kathryn Rusch
  • Maxim Jakubowski
  • Joseph S. Walker
  • Samantha Lee Howe
  • O'Neil De Noux
  • David Quantick
  • Ana Teresa Pereira
  • William Boyle



Can’t wait to read it.



01 September 2022

A Loose Compendium of the Worst Writing Advice Ever


So I recently watched a video by Paul Davids,  a musician I follow on YouTube, with the intriguing title: "The WORST musical advice ever given." Davids, an accomplished musician in his own right, went to a trade show in Anaheim, and recorded a number of musicians, well-known and obscure alike, to respond to the prompt question in no more than thirty seconds. 


The results were pretty entertaining (If you have the time, go take a look. It's not very long, and wellworth your investment), and surprisingly not far off from some of the advice I received when starting out as a new writer. And that got me thinking: what would the responses to this sort of prompt be from writer types?

So I put it out there, and got a lot of interesting responses. I've posted them below, with attribution of at least the name of the writer giving the response, with more if I knew it/could find quickly. So let's take a look, and once we've worked our way through these responses, I'll top it off with my own take on "The worst writing advice I've ever received."

Here we go!

***********

Worst for me? “NEVER EVER use exclamation points.”

I say, what about “Help. I’m drowning.” versus “Help! I’m drowning!”?

For sure, don’t overuse them, but sometimes they’re appropriate.

 – James W. Ziskin ANTHONY, BARRY, & MACAVITY Award-winning author of the Ellie Stone Mysteries. Finalist for the EDGAR, AGATHA, and LEFTY Awards.

Syd Fields in his screenwriting book says avoid bummer endings. And that killed humanist film making in the US per screenwriter/producer Kirk Ellis (John Adams, Into the West). And it wasn't just films that suffered, in my opinion.

 – David Corbett Recovering Catholic, NYT  Notable author of THE ART OF CHARACTER, six novels, dozens of stories, numerous scripts, and too many poems.

Show Don't Tell. In reality it should be Show AND Tell.

 – Robert Gregory Browne, Bestselling author of  the TRIAL JUNKIES series and the FOURTH DIMENSION THRILLERS. Co-founder and Creative Director at Braun Haus Media, LLC.

Over my career as a playwright, a few have suggested I end a play with a “button.” But I’ve learned how hollow those throwaway tags can feel. It’s better to leave the audience with an open loop (some mystery, a question) so they are still “activated” long after “end of play.”

 – Audrey Cefaly, Calicchio Prize-winning and Pulitzer-nominated playwright.

I did a whole presentation on this at @WCSUWritingMFA...but, basically, any "viral" writing rule is horseshit...there is only ONE rule..."does it work?"

 – Matthew Quinn Martin Author of the NIGHTLIFE series, and sometime screenwriter.

I was told early on to get a fall back job.  I disliked the advice and ignored it.  By my mid-20s I was making a living writing freelance, getting grants and being paid to write a feature film.  You cannot retreat if you have a fall back position.  Always go forward.

 – Richard Vetere Author of the novels THE WRITER'S AFTERLIFE and CHAMPGAGNE AND COCAINE. 

"Write what you know." Bad because it's so limiting, and destroys the joy of discovering and exploring worlds (or stories rather) that you don't know...yet.

 – Robert Alexander Wray, Marc A. Klein Award-winning playwright of over a dozen works, including LOOKING GLASS ELEGY and MELANCHOLY ECHO.

There is a great deal of bad advice on Pinterest. Some of the worst is never use big words, do not use adverbs or adjutives, keep all sentences to three words.

 – Art Rickard

You can’t edit till you finish a novel. I get why, but it’s just not my process and I lost time trying to do it this way.

 – Robin Lemke

Any writing advice that tells me I MUST do this or that - whether it's writing an outline, zero draft, or whatever. Leave me alone, I'll write my own way, thank you.

 – Marty Wingate

"Bad" advice: Any pressure or encouragement to plot/outline.

Reasoning: Outlining demotivates me, creates extra work that isn't useful to the process I follow, and (for me specifically) it removes some of the humor/zing/unexpectedness from my work.

 – Kate Baray

Worst advice ever: “Do as much research as possible before you write even one word.” For years, I wasted months on research before writing “even one word.” It was a way to procrastinate and we writers are experts at procrastination. When I finally actually started the writing, I’d often discover that because the plot wasn’t working or the characters didn’t come alive, I’d have to start all over, often not needing or using any of the material. In a workshop facilitated by Elizabeth George, she advised to FIRST spend time & energy on character development/exploration and plotting because readers connect with characters, second with plot, and lastly with the areas that need research. “Focus your time and energy on the actual craft of writing,” she advised, “and not the technical stuff.”

 – Shannon Walker

Write what you know. If that advice had been followed we'd never have had Tarzan, Conan, and many others.

 – Bob Napier

Any absolute rule. Never do prologues or flashbacks

 – Leslie Hall, writing instructor and author of the Kaitlyn Willis Roadsigns Mysteries

"Never use any dialog tag other than 'said'" pisses me off every time. "Said" is too narrow and bland for sarcasm, fury, pain, desperation, or fear.

 – Kat Richardson, author of the bestselling GREYWALKER novels.

Any advice that begins with the words "always" or "never."

 – J. R. Sanders

Two pieces of contradictory advice: 1. If you want to sell a manuscript, read what editors are currently publishing and write something like that. 2. Don't chase trends. By the time you write your story, the editors will be sick of it and switch to a new trend.

 – Thomas P. Hopp, scientist and author of such modern day disaster epics as RAINIER ERUPTS! and THE GREAT SEATTLE EARTHQUAKE.

"Spend more than your advance on promo." Bad, BAD advice. Took me years and cashing in an old IRA to pay it off.

 –Jeri Westerson, author of the Crispin Guest medieval mystery series.

Not me, but a friend was told by his high school English teacher to always use as many qualifiers as possible, that way no one can ever prove you wrong.

 – Larry Cebula

Senior year of college, "First Novels" class teacher: "You seem to be using humor to hide from true emotion." Almost ended me as a writer, took nearly twenty years to recover from.

 – Cornelia Read, author A FIELD OF DARKNESS and THE CRAZY SCHOOL.

"Get a real job."

 – Bill Fitzhugh, former radio comedian, DJ, and author of HEART SEIZURE, HUMAN RESOURCES, and THE ORGAN GRINDERS. 

"Write what you know." Makes for a very boring book.

 – Michael W. Sherer, author of the Blake Sanders thriller series.

"Write what you know." Should be: "Write what you know or can find out."

 –Ed Goldberg

Write what you loathe.

 – Michael Fowles

"Write better."

 – Justin D. Park

"Keep your day job."

 – Elizabeth Sims

"Write while you hold down a job." I wrote a little, but it wasn't very good because I have to do rewrites and "rethinks."

 – Marilyn Holt

"Write what you know."

 – David B. Schlosser

Last, but not least, I received the following from my old friend and fellow Sleuthsayer R.T. Lawton, who has been under the weather lately, and to whom I am wishing the speediest of recoveries. Too good not to share in its entirety! Thanks R.T.!

The worst writing advice I received, came from two different university English professors.

The first professor gave me a D in his creative writing class and told me I would never learn to write. Finding that I had other talents which would serve me well in a subsequent career, this final grade never appeared on my graduation transcript. Don’t ask.

As for the second professor, I had returned from my two years, nine months, twenty-nine days with the army, having been granted a sixty-day drop in order to go back to college. Shortly after arriving on campus, I took some of my war poems to the English Department and conversed with a professor. He read the poems and politely did not encourage me to continue in this endeavor. His point was made, so be it.

This does not mean my current published work is anything close to literary. Let’s just say it is commercially bent and that the two professors merely had a different view on the subject at that point in time as they looked down from their ivory towers.

It was about five years after graduation from university that I read a short story in a biker magazine, told myself I could do better and sat down to write. The process was longhand on a yellow legal pad with many scissor cuts and subsequent joining with Scotch tape, so that no two pages were the same length. The original cut- and-paste method. And, yes, I did hunt-and-peck the manuscript out on an electric typewriter before submitting by snail-mail. The biker magazine bought and published the story. I was on my way.

Had I taken the advice of those two professors, then I would never have had the pleasure of meeting at conferences, chaptermeetings, critique groups and readings all those wonderful people who write. A very interesting group. I would not have had over160 published short stories. I would also not have had the privilege of Edgar setting on my writing desk, nor of being nominated for a Macavity.

Work hard, learn and follow your dreams.

 – R.T. Lawton, Edgar Award-winning short story writer.

***********

And how's that for a last word? 

Thanks to all who chimed in. And if you've got a good piece of bad writing advice, feel free to weigh in in the comments section below.

See you in two weeks!

18 August 2022

The Pastry War


 Stop me if you've heard this one before.

Strong nation seizes on a historically unremarkable event as an excuse for a war declaration on a weaker nation, with the actual intent of bullying the weaker nation into agreeing to a political/economic settlement advantageous to the strong nation.

"Sure," you say. "History is rife with these sorts of examples. Take the Opium wars between Great Britain and China, as just one such example."

Good example, however, the one I'll be writing about during this week's turn with the blog took place in the Western Hemisphere.

"Well," I hear you say, "The United States intervened throughout the Caribbean islands, Central and South America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries."

I'm thinking of one such intervention that took place further north and west. And earlier.

"Oh," you think. "Mexico. The Mexican-American War?"

Mexico is definitely involved, but this was even earlier.

And the inciting event, according to the bully nation in this instance, was the vandalism of a pastry shop. If we're thinking in stereotypes, which county do you think most likely to get all worked up over pastry?

You read right. Pastry.

Stuff like this.

Now I hear what you're thinking? Can't be, right? Which country has elevated the making of pastry into high art? Why, France, of course.

Yep. We're definitely talking about France. The simple (and by "simple," I mean, "In no way, shape or form, 'Complete.'") answer is that the French government actually started a shooting war over a pastry shop.

A French pastry shop.

Obviously not the French pastry chef in question.

Owned and operated by a French citizen.

In a nice suburb of Mexico City.

Here's a quick overview of the rest of the story: after Mexico won her independence from Spain in 1821, the forces which had ousted the Spanish failed to unite behind any one leader for long, and quickly turned on each other. Thus the 1820s and 1830s in Mexico tended to be violent, unsettled times. One of the many results of this state of affairs was the frequent looting of locally owned businesses.

Usually these business owners had little recourse in such situations. Crime was rampant, the central government hopelessly corrupt and weakened by factionalism, and in no position to either crack down on rioters and looters, political or otherwise, or to make meaningful compensation to those whose businesses suffered as a result of these frequent outbursts of public violence.

One such victim of one such riot was a French citizen whose family name has come down to us, unaccompanied by a first name. This "Monsieur Remontel" cited an 1828 riot in the fashionable "Parian Marketplace," which occupied a bustling corner of the tony Mexico City suburb of Tacubaya, at that time a getaway playground for Mexico's richest where they could escape the heat and dust of neighboring Mexico City.

In Monsieur Remontel's complaint requesting compensation from the Mexican government for damage done to his pastry shop during the Parian Marketplace Riot, he was quick to point that the rioters who trashed his shop were in fact Mexican Army officers in uniform. And only had these officers destroyed Remontel's property, they had eaten ALL of the unfortunate man's pastries!

Remontel's shop was valued at roughly 1,000 pesos. He insisted on being compensated to the tune of 60,000 pesos.

Not surprisingly Remontel's efforts went exactly nowhere with the Mexican government, and so he turned in frustration to the French government. He submitted the same outlandish number (60,000 pesos) to the government of King Louis-Philippe. And in this, Remontel had company. Plenty of French citizens had advanced claims against the Mexican government in the years since 1821.

So the French started throwing their weight around. Their ambassador got laughed out of the Mexican legislature when he presented his government's demands for compensation. French newspapers took up the drum beat demanding satisfaction, and Remontel's little pastry shop captured the country's imagination. In no time at all the French navy was blockading Mexico's busiest port, Vera Cruz.

Of course there was more to the French aggression than merely seeking reparations. France wanted economic concessions.

During the years since Mexico won independence, the French had built a robust trade with the country, coming in third behind only the United States and Great Britain. Unlike the other two, though the French still paid taxes on both imports and exports moving through Mexico's ports.

During the next year the French navy seized dozens of merchant vessels attempting to leave or enter Vera Cruz, bombarded and eventually took the massive fort defending the harbor, and did immense damage to the already teetering Mexican economy. Add in that the war the French termed the Guerre des Pâtisseries and the Mexicans called the Guerra de los pasteles gave the eternally troublesome General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (of "Alamo" infamy) the opportunity to get back into the national spotlight, losing a leg in battle with the French, and giving him a platform to make more mischief in pursuit of his never-waning ambition.

In 1839 the British (who, along with the Americans were losing money because of the on-going French blockade) succeeded in negotiating an end to the hostilities. In exchange for an end to the blockade, Mexico agreed to compensate French citizens (including the much aggrieved Remontel) to the tune of 600,000 pesos, and to lower taxes on French trade.

With the ink still dry on the treaty, the Mexican government once again fell, and the one that replaced it reneged on the promised payment, as did every succeeding government for the next two decades.

With the United States consumed by its own civil war, the French saw an opportunity to collect on this war debt, and used it as a pretext to invade Mexico again, this time conquering the country and installing an Austrian nobleman as the puppet "emperor" of Mexico. This "empire" lasted (at considerable expense to the French government) until the recovered United States threatened an invasion in support of the ousted Mexican government in 1867, and the French withdrew, with little to show for their second intervention in Mexico.

And on top of all of that, Monsieur Remontel never saw a single peso of his much-longed for compensation.

And that's it for me this time. See you in two weeks!

04 August 2022

Some Writing How-To Links


Earlier this week, R.T. Lawton, fellow Sleuthsayer, Edgar Award winner and one of my oldest and dearest writing friends, mentioned in a blog entry that he had recently taken on the challenge of writing his first ever P.I. story, and that he was naming both his protagonist and the P.I. firm he works for after Yours Truly.

To say I was touched by the gesture would be an understatement. What an honor!

But that's not why I have linked to said blog post. It's because in it he pulls aside the curtain and shows how the sausage gets made. I find these sorts of "where writers get their ideas"/"how to do XYZ in your writing" posts fascinating. And having done a fair number of them myself (including most recently the one about seeing the Buddhist monk playing the Lotto.).

So I got to thinking that it might be helpful to post a few of my own favorites here as a resource for fellow writers. And on that note, here they are in no particular order:

Three Tips For Organizing Your Writing










And I think that will do it for this go-round. I hope these links are half so instructive for anyone browsing through them I found the writing of them to be.

See you in two weeks!

21 July 2022

Do Buddhist Monks Play The Lotto?


 As frequent readers of my rotation in this blog (BOTH of them!*rimshot*) may recall, last time around my post was about the broader subject of writing believable fiction based on unlikely-yet-actual real life events. The more immediate subject was my long and on-going adventure in sharing a name with someone in my area whom I've never met, but whose path and my own continue to cross.

For this week's blog post I planned to expand on the broader subject above, but up until around Noon today, I had not gotten much traction. At the time I was driving home from running an errand, and since it was a hot, clear day, I stopped to get a couple of bottles of water. And then....well....

Let me write it as if it's the opening scene of a novel.

*******

The Buddhist monk who had smiled as he graciously held the Quik-E-Mart door open for me now stood in front of the convenience store's Lotto machine pumping in money like a retiree does coins at the nickel slots in an Indian casino.

*******

Yeah, so that's pretty much what happened. Something you don't see every day (or, in my own case, ever before). I walked up to the convenience store's front door, and the smiling man in saffron who got there right in front of me held it for me. I thanked him, went to get a couple of bottles of water, paid for them and left.

As I hit the door the distinctive color of the monk's robes drew my eye, and that was when I noticed him playing the Lotto. I slowed down to watch as I passed the glass walled front of the building. And this monk wasn't just playing the Lotto. As I said above, he was dumping money into the machine.

And I marveled at the incongruity of it as I walked back to my truck, thinking, "Do Buddhist monks actually play the Lotto?"

As I drove home I played out in my head the possible explanations for what I had just seen. Some of the ones I came up with:

"Secret gambling problem?"

"Gambling problem the reason for joining the Brotherhood, and what I witnessed was some sort of relapse?"

"Lotto an investment in the state's infrastructure?"

"Performing an act of kindness for a constituent who is too ill to pick up their weekly supply of Lotto tickets?"

And then I circled back to the notion of a secret gambling addiction being given an outlet by playing the Lotto and I asked myself, "What if he wins?" I tried to picture the man I had just seen smiling for the cameras, saffron robes, oversized Lotto check and all.

This thought led me wonder whether such a man, having won, possibly being unable to publicly claim his reward, might need to find someone else to claim the check, what that might look like, and how many different ways were there for it to go sideways?

And then another thought struck me out of the blue: "What if the gentleman in question wasn't a monk at all, but someone who, for some reason, simply dressed as one?" Which question in turn led to another: "What was this non-monk-in-monk's-clothing doing that he need to disguise himself as a monk in the first place? And why not change before heading home? Or was he stopping to hit the Lotto on his way to do this as-yet-unknown-thing-which-required-him-to-dress-like-a-Buddhist-monk?"

Which, of course, led to more questions and still more questions and more, and more, and more....

A rough approximation of where it all began.

And just like that I've got the beginnings of a plot. And at least one awfully compelling character. Beginnings are wonderful things. And the rest? It'll be a ton of fun to work the rest of it out.

And all because I stopped for a couple of bottles of water on a hot, clear day.

See you in two weeks!


09 June 2022

A Classic Misdirection


I was still with Jordan Baker. We were sitting at a table with a man of about my age and a rowdy little girl who gave way upon the slightest provocation to uncontrollable laughter. I was enjoying myself now. I had taken two finger bowls of champagne and the scene had changed before my eyes into something significant, elemental and profound.

At a lull in the entertainment the man looked at me and smiled.

"Your face is familiar," he said, politely. "Weren't you in the Third Division during the war?"

"Why, yes. I was in the Ninth Machine-Gun Battalion."

"I was in the Seventh Infantry until June nineteen-eighteen. I knew I'd seen you somewhere before."

We talked for a moment about some wet, grey little villages in France. Evidently he lived in this vicinity for he told me that he had just bought a hydroplane and was going to try it out in the morning.

"Want to go with me, old sport? Just near the shore along the Sound."

"What time?"

"Any time that suits you best."

It was on the tip of my tongue to ask his name when Jordan looked around and smiled.

"Having a gay time now?" she inquired.

"Much better." I turned again to my new acquaintance. "This is an unusual party for me. I haven't even seen the host. I live over there—" I waved my hand at the invisible hedge in the distance, "and this man Gatsby sent over his chauffeur with an invitation."

For a moment he looked at me as if he failed to understand.

"I'm Gatsby," he said suddenly.

— The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

"Subverting expectations."

That's the flashy new phrase all the cool kids are using these days, when in truth what they're referring to is your basic old-fashioned misdirection. And it's been with us at least since the Greeks invented drama.

So. You know. Thousands of years.

The excerpt above highlights one of the best examples in modern literature of this sort of thing. And linked here is a mashup of this very scene from the novel portrayed in five different film adaptations done between 1926 and 2013. And each of them plays the scene a bit differently. The best of them build up the anticipation of the first appearance of the novel's mysterious titular character.

And when Gatsby does make his first appearance, it's practically anti-climactic. In person Gatsby is so unassuming as to be nearly forgettable, at least at first blush. The mundane reality crashes hard into the soaring fantasy of the Gatsby of rumor, of myth, of legend.

With the advent of Summer, Gatsby has been very much on my mind. This happens with me every late Spring. Maybe it's because Gatsby is in so many ways the ultimate "Summer Novel."

As such, I'll be reading it again, as I have done every Summer for the past twenty-five years. Every reading brings me delight.

A large part of the enjoyment I get out of Gatsby is from the way the reader's expectations are continuously "subverted."

Gatsby, while nothing like the legend which had grown up around him, is ironically the most honest person in the novel. Furthermore, every other character takes a cue from Gatsby in one regard: none of them is as they initially seem.

Not Gatsby's lost love, Daisy. Not her husband, Tom. Not her cousin, Nick. Not her friend Jordan Baker.

So here's my question for you, the reader: which novel have you found to most consistently subvert expectations? Give your response in the comments. and let's get to talking about it.

Next time around I talk about real life subverted initial impressions of real life individuals, how those worked out, and how these real world experiences informed my fiction in the best possible ways.

See you in the comments, and in two weeks!

12 May 2022

More Questionable Choices: Roman Emperor-Style


 Last time around we discussed some of the stupid things some of the most powerful men in the world–Roman emperors– done (and by which they were in turn then UNDONE). You can find that post here. In today's installment, we continue the fun.

Vitellius

Let's begin this installment with another of the emperors from the tumultuous "Year of the Four Emperors" (68-69 A.D.). We profiled the folly of the martinet Galba in our last installment. In this one let's take on the story of one of his successors, the wicked, gluttonous Vitellius, of whom no less a worthy than Roman senator and historian Tacitus wrote: "Seldom has the support of the army been gained by any man through honorable means to the degree to which [Vitellius] won it through his worthlessness.

Vitellius came from a noble family and before taking the throne had a long career as a government official, serving several of the previous emperors, including Caligula (who once famously ran him over with his chariot) and Nero, who Vitellius actually seemed to really like.

An aristocrat with no real military experience, Vitellius found himself in command of the critical legions defending the Rhine river border of the empire at the beginning of Galba's reign. Galba himself had appointed Vitellius to the position, in part because he thought Vitellius' military inexperience would keep him from doing as Galba himself had done: bribe his troops to proclaim him emperor and march on Rome.

Vitellius the Glutton
Turns out Galba underestimated Vitellius. After all, how much military experience do you need to offer a large cash bribe to your legions in exchange for proclaiming you emperor? And Vitellius had been taking bribes himself for so long as corrupt imperial official and toady to a variety of emperors before, him, that bribing his own soldiers came naturally to him.

By the time Vitellius had swatted aside yet another emperor-general (Otho, whose former wife was the pregnant bride the emperor Nero had kicked to death in a homicidal rage) whose troops had proclaimed him emperor and arrived in Rome. Galba was dead at the hands of the Praetorian Guard- because he was too cheap to pay them the bribe he had promised in exchange for their support.

Vitellius learned from his predecessor's example and made sure all promised bribes were paid. That wasn't enough, though. Vitellius had other problems.

Like the fact that his unsavory reputation, rapacious greed, venality and cruelty made him intensely unpopular. And then there was the fact that there was a more attractive option out there on the horizon. Vespasian, the general in command of the defense of Rome's eastern borders.

Vespasian's troops had proclaimed him emperor and he had begun his own march on Rome at around the same time as Vitellius. Because the Rhine is closer to Rome than the Syrian desert is, Vitellius got there first.

And that really seems to have been the extent of his good luck. Popular support swung in favor of the ever closer Vespasian. Vitellius panicked and unleashed a reign of terror intended to quell dissent and shore up public support for him. Thousands of citizens were butchered in the streets. 

Vespasian the No-Nonsense
And still Vespasian made his way mostly unchallenged, toward Rome.

Once Vespasian's troops had entered Italy, he sent word ahead for his elder brother, a respected lawyer, to negotiate a transfer of power with Vitellius. Vitellius agreed to meet with the brother, only to have him arrested and put to death–all with Vespasian's legions only a few days' march away.

Vitellius' remaining military support melted away after that point, and with Vespasian's troops entering the city, the all-but-deposed former toady attempted to flee Rome disguised as a a day laborer, his clothes stuffed with precious gems intended to help him make good his escape.

These gems proved his undoing–halted and searched by Vespasian's troops, Vitellius was caught out when they found his escape fund sewn into his clothes. Vitellius was duly dragged into the Forum where he was publicly tortured to death, his lifeless corpse then unceremoniously dumped into the Tiber (a common fate for condemned criminals at the time).

For his part, Vespasian, a hard-headed, no-nonsense career soldier who came from a middle class family, has no place thematically in this collection. He was far too smart, honesty and capable to commit the sorts of blunders enshrined herein. His second son Domitian, on the other hand....

But we'll talk about HIM next time.

See you in two weeks!

31 March 2022

The Murder of Sir Thomas Overbury Part III: the Killing


(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 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 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 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, andsystematically 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.

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.

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.

What's more, this enemy was a favorite of the queen. She managed to prevail on Queen Anne to convinceher 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.

By September, Overbury was dead.

Ten days later Lady Essex received her wished-for annulment, over Essex's protestations that he was 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.

Confinement did not agree with Overbury, and he was already ill. But a combination of emetics andenemas 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.

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.

06 January 2022

Who Talks Like This? (Reader Participation Fiction Edition)


Happy New Year! 

Just this week I ran across this in The New Yorker: "Movie Dialogue That Nobody Has Ever Actually Said in Real Life," by Jason Adam Katzenstein, and it reminded me of any number of conversations I've had both with fellow writers and with fans over the years, marveling at the disconnect between real life and the artistic treatments of real life situations intended to closely resemble them.

It's a quick read, really a series of single panel cartoons handily illustrating the author's point (example: two women running together, with one of them saying to the other: "As your best friend for the last twenty-five years..." and another, one man saying to another-who is facing away from him: "You know what your problem is?").

So, of course, I began thinking about seeing this sort of thing in the fiction I've read. Everyone who has read even ten novels has likely run across this sort of thing. And I'm interested in hearing examples from our readers here at the Sleuthsayers blog. I'll start, but would really like to see some lively responses in the comments.

Here we go!

My example: the use (or overuse) of names

You've seen it. We all have. Dialogue that goes something like this:

"Well?"

"Well, what, Bill?"

"You know what, Carmen."

"No I don't."

"Come on, Carmen. Out with it!"

******

So, who talks like this?

Nobody.

There are great authors out there, masters of dialogue (Megan Abbott, Elmore Leonard, Sue Grafton, Walter Mosley, Peter Temple) whose work is a collective master class in writing dialogue that's so realistic it leaps off the page. And this is the sort of mistake that authors of this caliber never seem to make.

I think every writer goes through a phase, hopefully early in their career, where they commit this sort of blunder. I know I could dust off my first, never-to-be-published "mistake" novel, and find no end of examples of this sort of writing.

But hey, this is all intended be both light-hearted and instructive. So what examples can you  bring to the conversation? Looking forward to seeing them in the comments!

23 December 2021

It's Better to Travel (Or IS It?)


With apologies to Swing Out Sister...
 It is better to travel well than to arrive.

       – Siddhartha Guatama (The Buddha)

This story has a happy ending. Going to say this up front, because it will be important to remember while you read the following.

Funny story: this past Summer no less than TEN people I know took vacations in Hawaii. My wife, son and I had taken a vacation there three years ago, pre-COVID, during one of the hottest Julys on record.

So rather than join the Summer Vacation exodus, we decided to delay gratification, and book something for Winter Break. We got a smokin' deal on a hotel on Wailea Bay, booked it, and began dreaming of a week-long respite from a dreary Puget Sound December.

And then August rolled around, and my day-gig started up again. Full return to school, no remote learning options in my district.

A colleague who sat next to me during the first day of staff meetings upon our return tested positive later that SAME DAY for COVID. She wound up having to isolate and quarantine for the next two weeks. She had just returned from a week at her time-share.

In Maui.

We tried not to consider this a bad omen.

Somewhere around this time the State of Hawaii clamped back down hard on COVID travel restrictions. We heard from a variety of sources (including the owner of my wife's favorite coffee stand) that the paperwork involved in just getting to Hawaii had become many-layered, complex, and confusing.

On top of that, we had TSA-Pre memberships that were about to expire, and we needed to either renew them or upgrade to an even more exclusive pre-screening service, CLEAR. We opted for the latter. 

Around this time COVID boosters became available for people in our age group, so my wife and I signed up for the booster. While we were waiting for our appointments for that, the under-12 vaccine became available for children, and we signed our son up for that, as well.

With all of the above combined with the level of documentation in quintuplicate required by the State of Hawaii, it turned out to be something of a logistical nightmare.

It started with CLEAR.

We provided all of the documentation required for our application, paid all of our fees, with a single final step remaining: a trip to the airport, where we would have our retinas and fingerprints scanned at one of the CLEAR kiosks. Required time, approximately ten minutes apiece.

If. Only.

We went to the airport. We found a CLEAR kiosk. We attempted to finalize the process ourselves. No dice.

Just as we began to look around for help, a young lady wearing a CLEAR badge hustled up to us, appearing seemingly out of nowhere, and breathlessly asked whether we needed help. Relieved, we said we did, and laid out for her what we needed to accomplish.

"Oh!" she exclaimed, "I can help with that! Please wait right here! I will be right back!" And with that she high-tailed it through a rail gate with the CLEAR logo prominently displayed on it.

We did as we were told and waited. Right there. On that spot.

And waited.

And waited.

And....

After at least twenty minutes of this type of waiting, we came to the conclusion that this enthusiastic young CLEAR employee and had somehow gotten side-tracked. Maybe she was new? Maybe she got lost?

So we chanced passing through the rail gate with the CLEAR logo so prominently displayed, and after a fairly lengthy trek down easily a quarter of the terminal, we came upon another CLEAR employee, this one with an impressive man-bun which threatened to eclipse the CLEAR ID tag he wore.

"Oh, I'm sorry," he said in a tone that bore not the slightest whiff of apology, "we can't process your applications here. You have to go," he pointed vaguely back in the direction whence we had come, "down to the next kiosk and Gate Whatever..." and  then without another word he went back to being completely unhelpful.

After retracing our steps and traversing half of the terminal, we came to the aforementioned kiosk and found a very helpful employee, who quickly set about helping us get our CLEAR memberships finalized.

HUZZAH!

Total time spent running around the airport on this "ten minutes, tops" errand? An hour-and-a-half.

With the above accomplished, we got our boosters, got our son vaccinated as soon as was remotely possible, and settled in to upload all of our vaccination documentation to CLEAR. That proved a breeze. All that was left was to go through the  State of Hawaii's online travel tracking service ("Hawaii Safe Travels") and provide exactly the same documentation we had provided to CLEAR. Over and over and over again. And that doesn't include the number of times the site crashed and we were required to start over from scratch.

It took about six hours of submitting, swearing, sweating and more submitting followed by ever more swearing, to get all of our documentation uploaded.

*phew!*

Fast-forward to the day of our flight (middle of last week) - we arrived at the baggage check for our airline (name redacted to protect the guilty). After a fairly substantial wait in line to check our baggage, we finally got to the front of the line, and were waited on by the single most unhelpful gentleman I have ever encountered in the hospitality industry, anywhere. 

We checked our bags, provided all of our documentation, including vaccination credentials, booster credentials, the whole nine yards. The entire time this "gentleman" spoke to us in a soft, warm, sunny, "ALOHA" voice, asking for this, and then this, and then that, and then this, and then that, never flagging, never sounding the least bit officious or tendentious in his tone.

But the wringer he put us through insisting we provide everything short of a pint of blood or our first-born (he was there with us, but no way were we giving him up!)? Breath-taking. All the while he continued to sound delighted in a way so consistent it would have been the envy of any game show host anywhere, ever.

And then we hit "The Snag."

"You don't have your son's vaccination information uploaded to the Hawaii Safe Travels site," the "gentleman" exclaimed gleefully.

"We didn't think we were required to," my wife said. "The website was unclear on that. Plus, we have CLEAR, and CLEAR says it's not required for travelers under age 18."

"Safe Travels Hawaii requires it," said Mr. Gleeful. 

My wife presented our son's vaccination information. Mr. Happy shook his head, his smile wide. "No-no-no-so-sorry. It must be uploaded to the site." And with that he dismissed us out of line because, and I quote: "That takes a while."

So there we stood in the middle of the terminal, struggling to get our son's vaccination documentation uploaded using my wife's phone. A good fifteen minutes later we got it uploaded, received confirmation, and my wife went back to Mr. Sunshine, where he confirmed we had uploaded our son's information, and then said, "Ohhhhh you have CLEAR!" His smile widened as though he had just won the lottery. "You're all good. Just go to the CLEAR kiosk in front of your gate and you are ready to go. Mahalo!" 

We left him in our wake convinced he would have delivered the news, "You've been poisoned and have thirty minutes to live!" in exactly that same tone.

Once we'd traversed half the terminal to get to the same CLEAR kiosk where we'd waited so long for help a few weeks, previous, a CLEAR employee greeted us, checked our names on her list, and informed us that with the level of CLEAR we had, we could go through TSA Pre, which was a whole other level of CLEAR, and way easier to get through.

She sent us back the way we'd come. "It's just around the corner to your right," she said.

Sure.

It turned out to be about a hundred feet past where Mr. Happy-Happy-Joy-Joy was still loudly plaguing would-be passengers in that gleeful tone of his. 

He hadn't bothered to tell us.

He just let us waste time heading in exactly the opposite direction.

TSA-Pre was, as always, great. Quick, professional, no-nonsense. Worth every nickel. The CLEAR employee who greeted us and squired us through TSA-Pre was like the employee who helped us finalize our memberships: just great. Knowledgeable, professional, courteous and helpful.

And then we got to the gate.

No sooner had we seated ourselves to await boarding, than I got called to the gate. 

Yep.

Turned out I was all set. But the airline officials needed to confirm my wife's ID. And then they looked at our son's vaccination information, and sent us to a second desk, where yet another airline official who informed us that because our son's second vaccination had come less than two weeks prior to our flight, and we had not gotten him a COVID test within the previous 72 hours, it was possible that he might need to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival in the Aloha State.

My wife and I looked at each other. Then she turned and said slowly and clearly to this airline official the exact same words she had used repeatedly with Mr. Cheer-and-Sunshine: "We have CLEAR. On the CLEAR website it states that we didn't need to register the information of any children under 18. And it said nothing about testing."

This time it worked the first time. The response: "Oh, you have CLEAR? Let me talk to my supervisor." Three minutes later: "You are all good to go."

Just in time to board.

Is it any wonder THIS happened:


Less than one minute later....


Hey! Don't judge me!

I said to my wife as we settled in for take-off, "I feel like Hawaii really made us earn a trip there this year!" 

She agreed.

But like I said, this story does have a happy ending! See below. Best vacation we've had as a family. 

Worth all the considerable trouble!

Just remember: if you're planning a trip to Hawaii, get started early on all that paperwork!

Happy Holidays, and see you in two weeks!




25 November 2021

Thanks!


Well, it's that time of year again. 

Time to take a few moments and reflect on the blessings we have received, and to give thanks for same.

Some highlights:

First and foremost, I'm grateful for my family and friends. Furthermore, I'm grateful that they have remained healthy during this pandemic. And of course I'm grateful to have my health as well.

I'm grateful for the vaccine. Doubly grateful for the new one for children (our nine-year-old got his first shot just last Saturday).

I'm grateful for the love of my wife and son. I'm grateful that my wife is my best friend. I'm grateful that my son seems to be developing "my" sense of humor.

I'm grateful for my writing (of course). I'm grateful that 2021 has been for me, the "Year of Finishing Things," so many half-finished writing projects (and several new ones) wrapped up, sold and placed for publication. I'm grateful to have a number of new projects on the horizon for 2022. 


I'm grateful for my day gig, the people I work with, and the students I serve. I'm grateful for public employee unions (especially my own). 

I'm grateful for President Joe Biden, his amazing wife, his family, and the same goes for Vice-President Harris, her husband and family, as well. I'm grateful for my country, and for everything it represents, the positive and the negative- for America as a whole.

I'm grateful to live in a gorgeous part of this country. 

I'm grateful for books. All of them. Every last one.

I'm grateful for the Seattle Mariners (World Series 2022! This is our year!).

I'm grateful to have healed up from my cascading series of leg injuries last Spring.

I'm grateful for my son's unflagging and continually escalating excitement about the impending Christmas season. And I'm grateful to be here for it!

I'm grateful to be member of this community, for my fellow Sleuthsayers, and for my regular turn in the rotation. And of course, I'm grateful for all of you, our readers.

Lastly, I'm grateful for the opportunity to be grateful, today of all days, and to get to share it with my family. How about you? What are you grateful for? Feel free to share in the comments!

See you in two weeks!