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

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!



11 November 2021

Working With A Timeline


I have written before about the importance of a believable timeline to your work-in-progress, especially to your longer pieces. The rule of thumb I have consistently followed is "the longer your piece, the more detailed your timeline needs to be."

There is an inherent logic to this maxim. The longer your piece the easier it is to lose track of pieces of your plot, either details or entire subplots. It's easy for things to get away from you over the course of a 90,000 word novel. And while it's also possible to lose the thread in a short story with a length of a few thousand words, you're less like to do so because you're juggling less words, less scenes, less characters, and less action.

Author Nancy Christie lays out a lot of great guidelines for getting the most out of your respective timeline in a blog post on her website. You can read it here.

For today's blog post I am going to offer up a detailed timeline of actual events as they occurred during a pretty emotionally charged (for myself, and my family, at least) event: my nine year-old son's recent surgery. Okay, here goes.

Tuesday, September 28th:

Doctor's appointment with a specialist regarding my son's persistent health condition. Discussion of options, including surgery to correct the condition. Decided on surgery and scheduled a call from the specialist's support staff.

Every day for the next two weeks:

Played phone tag with the specialist's support staff, who seemed unable or unwilling to call on our primary number (my wife's cell) rather than our home number. Calls to the support staff's number in response to the messages they left on our home voicemail went unanswered, requiring the leaving of multiple voicemails consisting of detailed requests for information/guidance on our part.

Tuesday, October 12th:

Finally made contact with specialist's support staff, Scheduled surgery for Tuesday, November 2nd. received instructions for pre-surgery preparation, including a flu shot and a COVID test for our son on the Sunday before his surgery. Also informed that contact via our HMO's website could sub in for actual phone contact going forward.

Every day for the next three weeks:

Played another round of phone tag with the specialist's support staff, who, yet again, seemed unable or unwilling to call on our primary number (my wife's cell) rather than our home number. Calls to the support staff's number in response to the messages they left on our home voicemail went unanswered, as did repeated email requests for information/clarification as to what other information the specialist's support staff required in addition to everything we had provided thus far. This again required the leaving of multiple voicemails consisting of detailed requests for information/guidance on our part.

Friday, October 29th:

Finally made contact with the only member of the specialist's support staff able to understand the phrase, "Please contact us on our primary number, rather than the secondary one listed in our patient profile." Very knowledgeable, and very helpful, EXCEPT when it came to setting the actual time of the surgery on Tuesday, November 2nd. Knowledgeable support staff member assured us that these schedules tended to firm up the day before said scheduled surgery. And that "someone from this department will definitely called you on Monday, November 1st, with your son's scheduled surgery time, as well as with detailed instructions for when/how to get there."

Sunday, October 31st:

Our son receives both his flu shot and his COVID test. Went trick-or-treating that night as planned. Still wading through the pile-o-candy he plundered from the willing hands of our very generous neighbors.

Monday, November 1st: 

Waited all day by the phone for the promised final call from specialist's support staff. No call was forthcoming. Finally at 3 PM called support staff number and waited on hold until after 5 PM. Finally hung up and called the 800 consulting nurse service. The consulting nurse got into the HMO's system and looked up our son's scheduled starting time for the next. Said that according to the system, our son was scheduled for surgery at 7:40 AM the following morning. We asked whether that was when he went in to surgery, or when we needed to have him there. Consulting nurse assured us that according to the information available in the H MO's system, 7:40 was when we needed to have our son there. We also received pre-surgery dietary instructions (no food after midnight, etc.).

Tuesday, November 2nd:

6:45 AM: Putting on my shoes preparatory to driving our son to the hospital, we received a call from specialist support staff. Luckily this time the call came on my wife's cell, and she was able to catch it before it went to voicemail. "Where are you?" the caller demanded. "Surgery is in an hour, and you're supposed to be here an hour before!"

My wife explained that we never received the promised call from specialist's support staff on Monday, and further how we called the consulting nurse service just to get his surgery time at all. "Nevermind that!" the caller fairly shouted. "You need to get here NOW!"

7:25 AM: After breaking the sound barrier to get to downtown Seattle in heavy early commute traffic and in the middle of a driving rainstorm (I know, heavy rain in Seattle, in November? Who'd have thought?), my wife directed me into the first available parking structure labeled with the name of the hospital where our son was scheduled for surgery. Wrong building. After several wrong directions from well-meaning employees, found the right building, and trudged 5 long blocks to it in a pouring rainstorm.

7:38 AM: Checked in at surgery front desk.

7:50 AM: Checked in by surgery staff, escorted to pre-op prep room. Quick side point: everyone on this hospital staff was friendly, professional, kind, and compassionate. From the point we checked in we were in the best of hands. In fact, the exact term we heard over and over again from the staff who took part in our son's surgery was, "We'll take good care of him." And they were as good as their word.

8:25 AM: After meeting the anesthesiologist, the surgery nurses and meeting again with the specialist who would perform  the surgery, our son was wheeled into the surgical station and placed under anesthesia. We adjourned to the waiting room to do just that.

Wait.

And wait.

And wait.

(The surgeon had assured us that the operation would take anywhere from an hour to to two hours, based on when she found when she made her incisions. Two days after this surgery, a voicemail from the surgical staff with date/time stamp of 11/2/2021 at 9:32 AM popped up on my iPhone. In it the staff member who called-my phone never rang- stated that our son was fully anesthetized and going in to surgery at that time.)

11:25 AM: My wife's cellphone battery dies. She returns to the car to both charge her phone and move the car to the parking garage for the building where our son actually had surgery.

11:28 AM: Surgical staff come find me in the waiting room after being unable to raise my wife on her cell. I go upstairs to where my son is coming out of surgery.

11:32 AM: I get a seat next to the bed where my son is being brought out of anesthesia. The specialist informs me that our son did very well and we talk about follow-up procedures and scheduling, etc. The anesthesiologist enters and begins to remove the tubes connected to my son as he's coming out of anesthesia. She and the attending nurse anesthetist cheerfully dodge my son's flailing arms as he's beginning to be aware of his surroundings, all while deftly removing every tube connected to him. It's clear that this is not their first rodeo.

12:15 PM: My wife meets us in a recovery room on the 9th floor, where we're informed that our son will need to eat something and keep it down before we can take him home. When asked what he would like to eat, our nine year-old repeatedly responded: "Nothing, I just want to go home."

2:00 PM: After repeated attempts to order food for our son (no reply to several calls to the dietary department), the recovery room nurse succeeded in contacting our specialist, who told her what she had told me when our son was coming out of anesthesia: he didn't need to eat. He could just go home. I had assured the nurse of this, but she did her job properly and, since it apparently wasn't recorded that way in our son's chart, she followed protocol until able to contact our specialist for confirmation.

2:30 PM: Our specialist, thinking she was doing us a favor, arranged for our son's post-surgery medication to be available at the busiest downtown Seattle pharmacy our HMO runs. We parked there and forty-five minutes later my long-suffering wife emerged from the building with our son's prescription in hand. At this point we realized none of us had eaten that day.

3:10 PM: After making our way out of downtown Seattle during early rush hour traffic, we pull in to a Burger King to get something in our stomachs.

3:17 PM: We order.

3:20 PM: We pay at the window.

3:35 PM: We FINALLY get our order. Which all three of us wolf down.

4:00 PM: We arrive at home.

4:03 PM: It stops raining for the first time all day. Because of COURSE it does.

4:15 PM: Our entire family crashes. Thank God for California King beds!

*************

And that's it for this particular timeline. See? If it's detailed enough, the resulting story will be the richer for it, am I right?

And on that note, that's all for me this time around.

See you in two weeks!

28 October 2021

Setting As Character: Coda


Two rounds back in the rotation, I trotted out some notions about "setting as character," and shared a few examples of my personal favorites from the writing of writers such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald.

This time around I'm including other examples, suggestions from writer friends which have struck me as wonderfully diverse in their collective approach. I'm posting them here in hopes of giving tangible examples of the ways in which setting is all too infrequently employed to do some of the heavy lifting of getting the author's story out there.

So read on. Hope you enjoy them!

++++++++++

“Living in Seattle is like being married to a beautiful woman who’s sick all the time.” 

— G. M. Ford, Thicker Than Water

"The blacktop road stretched empty in either direction, the sky hazy and the air heavy as a sodden sponge. The heat of the late-morning sun amplified the autumn scent of drying cornstalks, the putrid sweetness of persimmons rotting in the ditch. Insects swarmed the fermenting fruit, buzzing like an unholy plague. Sarabeth brushed away a sweat bee. She walked the long, twisting path from the house to the roadside stand alone, pulling a wagon with one bad wheel, her legs sweating beneath her heavy ankle-length skirt.

"Her little sister, Sylvie, sometimes worked the family's produce stand with her, but today she was home in bed with a fever and vicious sore throat. Their mother had spent the early-morning hours praying over Sylvie and coaxing her to swallow a concoction of garlic, cider vinegar, and honey. Mama was piling more quilts on the bed when Sarabeth left, aiming to sweat out the sickness, shushing Sylvie when she cried that she was too hot. Mama said fever was nothing compared to the fires of Hell, and maybe God liked to remind us. She said to Sylvie, but Sarabeth knew it was meant for her."

— Laura McHugh, What's Done in Darkness

"Dust when it was dry. Mud when it was rainy. Swearing, steaming, sweating, scheming, bribing, bellowing, cheating, the carny went its way. It came like a pillar of fire by night, bringing excitement and new things into the drowsy towns—lights and noise and the chance to win an Indian blanket, to ride on the ferris wheel, to see the wild man who fondles those rep-tiles as a mother would fondle her babes. Then it vanished in the night, leaving the trodden grass of the field and the debris of popcorn boxes and rusting tin ice-cream spoons to show where it had been."

— William Lindsay Gresham, Nightmare Alley

"When Chili first came to Miami Beach twelve years ago they were having one of their off-and-on cold winters: thirty-four degrees the day he met Tommy Carlo for lunch at Vesuvio's on South Collins and had his leather jacket ripped off. One his wife had given him for Christmas a year ago, before they moved down here.

— Elmore Leonard, Get Shorty

''I stared at the plaster Negro and felt a little embarrassed....Even in Cincinnati, that sort of thing had gone out with the Civil Rights Act, although I'd have been willing to bet that there were thirty thousand little Negro jockeys sitting in dark basement corners from Delhi to Indian Hill, like a race of imprisoned elves, waiting to be returned to daylight. . . . Racial prejudice didn't die in this city; it just got stored in the basement.''

— Jonathan Valin, Day of Wrath


''There's Treasure Street, and Abundance and Benefit....Humanity, Industry, and Pleasure Streets - all these in the midst of hopelessness and squalor and stone meanness....Maybe some fool put names like that on those miserable streets to give us black folks inspiration. Or to make fun of us.''

— John W. Corrington and Joyce H. Corrington (writing about New Orleans in) A Project Named Desire


"The wetlands dedication ceremony was a resounding success until the gunman showed. Alex Carter had felt happy, blinking in the bright sunlight, gazing out over the green marshy area. The gold and scarlet of fall touched a handful of trees. Where the blue sky reflected in patches of visible water, a great blue heron stood vigil, gazing down for a glimpse of fish. It was sunny now, but huge cumulus clouds were building on the horizon, and she knew that a thunderstorm would descend over the city before the day was out."

— Alice Henderson, A Solitude of Wolverines

"The sky had gone black at sunset, and the storm had churned inland from the Gulf and drenched New Iberia and littered East Main with leaves and tree branches from the long canopy of oaks that covered the street from the old brick post office to the drawbridge over Bayou Teche at the edge of town. The air was cool now, laced with light rain, heavy with the fecund smell of wet humus, night-blooming jasmine, roses, and new bamboo."

— James Lee Burke, In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead


"The sun on the grass was dry and hot. So in plunging into the wood they had a cool shock of shadow, as of divers who plunge into a dim pool. The inside of the wood was full of shattered sunlight and shaken shadows. They made a sort of shuddering veil, almost recalling the dizziness of a cinematograph. Even the solid figures walking with him Syme could hardly see for the patterns of sun and shade that danced upon them. Now a man's head was lit as with a light of Rembrandt, leaving all else obliterated; now again he had strong and staring white hands with the face of a negro. The ex-Marquis had pulled the old straw hat over his eyes, and the black shade of the brim cut his face so squarely in two that it seemed to be wearing one of the black half-masks of their pursuers. The fancy tinted Syme's overwhelming sense of wonder. Was he wearing a mask? Was anyone wearing a mask? Was anyone anything? This wood of witchery, in which men's faces turned black and white by turns, in which their figures first swelled into sunlight and then faded into formless night, this mere chaos of chiaroscuro (after the clear daylight outside), seemed to Syme a perfect symbol of the world in which he had been moving for three days, this world where men took off their beards and their spectacles and their noses, and turned into other people. That tragic self-confidence which he had felt when he believed that the Marquis was a devil had strangely disappeared now that he knew that the Marquis was a friend. He felt almost inclined to ask after all these bewilderments what was a friend and what an enemy. Was there anything that was apart from what it seemed? The Marquis had taken off his nose and turned out to be a detective. Might he not just as well take off his head and turn out to be a hobgoblin? Was not everything, after all, like this bewildering woodland, this dance of dark and light? Everything only a glimpse, the glimpse always unforeseen, and always forgotten. For Gabriel Syme had found in the heart of that sun-splashed wood what many modern painters had found there. He had found the thing which the modern people call Impressionism, which is another name for that final scepticism which can find no floor to the universe."

— G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

"I parked the Charger in the first available space, halfway down the block from the house. Roy Street was steep, like every other street running east-west this side of the hill. Before I got out, I turned the wheel so that the tires were wedged against the curb on the steep grade. Habit.

"I looked at my old neighborhood for the first time in over a decade. Unlike downtown, it didn't seem to have changed much. Two-story homes packed close together on small lots. Most of the cars were a few years old, but none of them showed signs of being permanent fixtures along the curb.

"It was cold enough that the dew had turned to frost on the thicker lawns, and condensation formed on my lips and jaw as I walked up the hill. Damp leaves made the sidewalk slick."

— Glen Erik Hamilton, Past Crimes

++++++++++

And that's it for this round! There are lots more wonderful examples out there. If you have a particular favorite, please share it in the comments.

See you in two weeks!

14 October 2021

A Very Special Character Study


Dear Readers:

As you may recall, last time around I dropped some thoughts on "Setting as Character," and promised to expand on them this go-round. I'm going to make good on that in two weeks, because I've got the perfect idea for this current turn at the wheel. So instead of talking about "Setting as Character," Let's talk about "character."

******

Sooooo....character.  It's not plot. It's the only other thing aside from plot that can drive a story. And what makes for interesting characters?

Realistic (and often contradictory) personality traits.

I've been thinking about this very thing quite a bit lately, as I wrap the final draft of a long-delayed novel that will be finished and off to my agent before the end of this year!

Of all things, it was a vacuum cleaner commercial that gave me my own particular epiphany about how to write great, interesting, realistic characters. This one, to be exact:

Smoothies!

A biker who's a neat freak? Another who does needlepoint?

Interesting characters because they subvert expectations. Just like real life.

I have a cousin who is outdoorsy as hell: hunting, fishing. Sells cars for a living. A real man's man.

And for relaxation, he taught himself to crochet.

Interesting, right? Unexpected?

And even better because it's real life.

The best fictional characters mirror real life. Let's talk about one.

A woman, mid-seventies, married over fifty years, outgoing, friendly, caring, compassionate. A good friend, great sister, terrific mother and grandmother. Unironically loved Barry Manilow back in the '70s.

Once won enough money playing the slots on a visit to Vegas that she was able to buy herself a new floor for her kitchen (Including what it cost to have it installed). Not an isolated occurrence. This woman has a system. Every time she goes to Vegas, she wins thousands.

Enjoys gardening. LOVES Bruce Springsteen's music.

Was the queen of her high school's "Senior/Junior Ball" during her senior year.

Is strictly a social drinker. And yet, once, as a young woman, she stayed up late with her in-laws, drinking. By morning she had matched her father-in-law drink for drink, and the two of them had drunk every other adult member of the family under the table.

Slipped on the ice getting the morning paper one New Year's Day, and broke her ankle. Was able to laugh about it that same day (there's a "great pain meds" joke in there, somewhere!).

While in her thirties, once drove across the Columbia Basin from Yakima to Spokane with her eldest son, then in his teens. Drove for an hour shortly after sunset with the domelight in her car on so her son could finish a book he was reading.

Loves the color yellow. Hates surprises. Has a very close relationship with her daughter-in-law.

Started taking piano lessons last year. (That's all you get on this one. There's a ton of backstory there that the reader doesn't need to know for this tidbit to work, especially with the writer keeping it in mind while writing about it).

Possesses one of the most subversively bawdy sense of humor you'll ever encounter.

Is one of the kindliest souls I've ever known.

Okay: confession time. This character is a real person. My mother, Berniece. And it's her birthday tomorrow. Please join me in wishing her a happy one!

Love you, Mom! Hope this is pleasant surprise!






17 September 2021

SleuthSayers Tenth Anniversary: What It's Meant To Me


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every. Single. Day.

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

Turns out, SleuthSayers was a lifeline.

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

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

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

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

Feels like we're just getting started!

See you in two weeks!



19 August 2021

More Fun With Plagiarism — Led Zeppelin Edition


In case you were wondering what this post will really be about.

On August 2nd, fellow Sleuthsayer Steve Liskow posted a wonderful piece on plagiarism (Take a moment and go read it here.). And like all of Steve's well-written pieces on this platform, it really got me thinking.

As a fellow writer with a long tenured day-gig teaching at the secondary level, I too have a ton of stories about plagiarism. And with the advent of the internet, the instances of student plagiarism that pop up and slap me in the face when reviewing their work have, if anything, increased tenfold. 

And half the time these days, kids don't even bother to change the font of what they lift from other sources. It's literally just a search/highlight/double right-click deal.

Part of my job (I teach 8th grade) is to help students wrap their heads around the notion of original versus plagiarized work. And in their defense, they start my class aged around thirteen. Most of them have rarely, if ever, heard the "P" word before. So I spend quite a lot of time working on it with them. And as I point out over and over and over throughout the year: I am MUCH more interested in reading their original, unfiltered thoughts on what we're studying than those of someone they copied and pasted (usually wildly out of context).

After using his experiences catching out plagiarizers as a teacher for an introduction, Steve pivots and does a terrific job of laying out the case that former First Lady Melania Trump heavily (and notoriously) plagiarized a speech from her predecessor, former First Lady Michelle Obama. 

Robert Plant (left) and Jimmy Page (right) of Led Zeppelin

From there he moves on to rock band Led Zeppelin and the case for their having plagiarized the intro to their most famous song, "Stairway to Heaven" from "Taurus", an instrumental piece by American rock band Spirit, who toured with Zeppelin right before they recorded Led Zeppelin IV, the album on which "Stairway to Heaven" appears. Spirit these days is probably best known as the band that produced singer/songwriter Jay Ferguson, who went on to compose the theme music for hit TV comedy The Office.

Did Spirit steal from The Duke?
Steve is convinced by the argument that Zeppelin ripped off Spirit. I have to respectfully disagree, and I cite music producer and YouTube giant Rick Beato, who does a better job than I ever could of defending the notion that while the two pieces are written in the same key, if Zeppelin stole their intro from Spirit, then Spirit stole from a whole bunch of writers who came before, including the Beatles and Duke Ellington. You can hear his argument here. It's worth watching. Beato even makes the case that employing this standard across popular music would mean insisting that Eric Clapton stole from bluesman Robert Johnson, who in turn stole from Mozart.

As a long-time fan of Zeppelin’s work, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Steve charitably neglected to mention many of Zeppelin's other cases of outright thievery, both proven and unproven. There's no question that musically (and especially lyrically) these guys were thieves. Just a few of the more egregious cases:

1. “Whole Lotta Love”/“You Need Love” by bluesman Willie Dixon who gets co-writing credits on the song after suing in 1985 (The linked version above is Muddy Waters' classic version of Dixon's song.).

2. “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” - this one is Joan Baez’s fault. The folk-singer covered it on a 1962 live album (I think her version is too showy, with her voice on it too high and "bright." If you'd care to judge for yourself, you can listen to it here), and rather than crediting the original author Anne Bredon, Baez credited it as “traditional.” So Zeppelin did too. Years later, when Bredon got wind of the cover (apparently she didn’t listen to hippie psychedelic blues-rock in 1969) she and Zeppelin agreed to splitting the royalties 50/50. I like to think she got a nice fat royalties check when Pink released her own scorching live cover of the song. Bredon only just recently passed away (aged 89 in 2019).

3. “Dazed and Confused” - Steve cited this one, and rightly, so, but I feel like it needs expanding upon. Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page clearly stole this song from folksinger Jake Holmes after Holmes opened for Page’s then-band the Yardbirds in 1967. The lyrics were reworked, but it was clearly Holmes’s song. And what's more Page stole it twice. Here's an earlier version he did with the Yardbirds live on French TV shortly before they broke up. Listening to both versions in order makes it painfully clear how much Robert Plant's voice is an upgrade over Keith Relf's. Holmes never bothered to seek damages or a co-author credit. He repeatedly said that he enjoyed their new take on his original.

English folk singer Roy Harper
4. "Hats Off To (Roy) Harper" - Where to begin? The final song from Led Zeppelin III is a bouillabaisse of lifted influences. It's intended as a tribute to English folk singer and friend of the band, Roy Harper. Harper is probably best known either for serving as a frequent opening act for Zeppelin, or for subbing in for Roger Waters and singing lead on Pink Floyd's classic song "Have a Cigar", from their 1975 album Wish You Were Here. According to Jimmy Page in an interview with Melody Maker, "This came about from a jam Robert and I had one night. There is a whole tape of us bashing different blues things. Robert had been playing harmonica through the amp, then he used it to sing through. It's supposed to be a sincere hats off to Roy because he's really a talented bloke, who's had a lot of problems."

Bluesman Bukka White
But the song itself is a hodgepodge of bits and pieces lifted from country-blues classics, mostly Bukka White's "Shake 'Em On Down", (from which Plant pulled the majority of the lyrics) and another version of the song (same name, similar refrain, different verse lyrics and different melody) by Mississippi Fred McDowell, whose melody Page used for the bottle-neck guitar part he played for this song. Other influences include a verse from Sonny Boy Williamson's "Help Me", and two verses lifted verbatim from "Lone Wolf Blues", by Oscar Woods.

5. "In My Time of Dying" - Zeppelin's longest studio recording, and the centerpiece of its masterpiece Physical Graffiti, this song is pretty much another case of outright theft. The website for the psychedelia-based podcast "Turn Me On, Dead Man" lays out the least confusing lineage for this blues classic, including Zeppelin's crediting the song to its four members as the writers:

Led Zeppelin’s recording of “In My Time of Dying” bears all of the hallmarks of the band’s best work and it stands out as one of their greatest moments. The problem here is that the songwriting credits on this track are listed as “John Bonham/John Paul Jones/Jimmy Page/Robert Plant”. While Led Zeppelin may have recorded a great arrangement of this tune, “In My Time of Dying” is not an original song. It has long been common practice to list songwriting credits of songs from the folk tradition as “Traditional, arranged by…”. “In My Time of Dyin'” is credited as “arr. Bob Dylan”, the credits on the Fear Itself LP read “adapted & arr. by Ellen McIlwaine”, and [Lovin' Spoonful frontman] John Sebastian cited [Bluesman] Josh White as the arranger of his 1971 version of the song, entitled “Well, Well, Well”. But, of course, there were others took full songwriting credit for their recordings. Guitarist Robbie van Leeuwen took songwriting credit for Shocking Blue’s version of “In My Time of Dyin'”, and though Harry Belafonte listed a few songs on Ballads, Blues & Boasters as traditionals, arranger Bill Eaton claimed songwriting credit for “Tone the Bell Easy”.

The legendary Robert Johnson
The above examples (and there are many others) demonstrate that, as with many popular music acts during the mid-to-late 20th century, Led Zeppelin indulged in the all-too-common mindset of it being "easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission." And the notion that "everyone was doing it" doesn't really wash. 

Again, I say this as an unabashed fan of the band's stuff. They did amazing work. I just wish, as someone who generates original ideas, writes them down, and (occasionally) gets paid for them, that they had gone about crediting where credit (and dollars) was due in the right way.

What's most frustrating is that Zeppelin was not incapable or, in some cases, unwilling, to credit their original sources. Their scorching 1969 BBC Session live cover of Robert Johnson's "Traveling Riverside Blues", carries the correct credits. Many of their other songs, which ought to, do not.

And now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go watch Celebration Day, the concert film of Zeppelin's one-off reunion at the O2 Arena in London back in 2007. Hey, they're thieves, but I'm still  a fan!

John Paul Jones, Robert Plant, Jason Bonham (original drummer John Bonham's son), Jimmy Page–2007

Thanks again to Steve Liskow for the inspiration for this post!

See you in two weeks!