Showing posts with label Christmas. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Christmas. Show all posts

24 December 2018

The Christmas Spirit

by Steve Liskow    



"Brown Eyes Crying in the Rain," my take on the Ghostly Hitchhiker legends, appears in the upcoming issue of Occult Detective Quarterly. It didn't occur to me until a few days ago how appropriate that is. Tomorrow is, of course, Christmas Day.


The British have told ghost stories as part of the holiday celebration for centuries, apparently because the winter solstice is only a few days earlier and the Christians co-opted December 25th to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and overshadow the Pagan Saturnalia. Ghosts presumably walk more freely on the longest night of the year, which celebrates the death and re-birth of the sun.

Oliver Cromwell, never the life of the party, didn't want Christmas celebrated as a holiday. He wanted the workers to labor for another long and underpaid shift. During his tenure as ruler of the Commonwealth, he even banned Christmas carols. Barrel of laughs, that Ollie.

But the ghost story is still alive and well (Is that an oxymoron?), and it may have reached its peak of popularity in the Victorian era, when Charles Dickens published short novels for the season, many of them ghostly tales. His most famous is A Christmas Carol. Does anyone even know how many films and theatrical adaptations of that one work exist? My wife and I attended a stage version at the Hartford Stage Company this year, where it has been an annual event for twenty years. It still sells out the thirty performances.

Other British writers have offered ghost stories, too. In Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale (1611), Prince Mamillius says, "A sad tale's best for winter. I have one/ Of sprites and goblins." We never hear the tale because Mamillius dies before intermission. Mary Shelly Wrote Frankenstein when Byron challenged her and others to write a ghost story, and she dated the beginning of the book in mid-December. Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell revived the faltering tradition along with Dickens. Algernon Blackwood, Conan Doyle and M. R. James carried it on.

I don't remember Poe setting any of his stories at Christmas (I can't find my copy of "The Devil in the Belfry" on my shelf. Is that set at yuletide?), but Henry James sets the telling of The Turn of the Screw around the fire during a Christmas celebration.

Remember the popular (Well, in my day...) Andy Williams song, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year?" The third verse ends with "...There'll be scary ghost stories/ And tales of the glories..."

I seldom set stories around a holiday, the only exception being "Santa and the Shortstop," which appeared in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine a few years ago.

But who knows? A little more eggnog and maybe I'll be in the spirit to write another ghost story for next year...

In the meantime, Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good fright.

23 December 2018

A War on Christmas?

by Leigh Lundin

When I was a wee lad with a jolly red nose (‘jolly’ = ‘drippy’), radio evangelists fumed that Xmas was disrespectful and probably blasphemous. Campaigns raged: “Help keep the Christ in Christmas.”

Good Sunday school teachers like Barbara Ritchie, Phyllis Miller, and my own mother quietly debunked the notion Xmas was sacrilegious. A War against Christmas sold radio spots and little more. But wait… Xmas? It does sound irreligious.

X, symbolically used by early Christians, referred to the first Greek letter of Χριστός or Christós, ‘the anointed’. See how easily you can read Greek?

Christ(os) in Greek
Ch Χ chi
r ρ rho
i ι iota
s σ sigma
t τ tau
o ό omikron
s ς sigma

Baby, It's Cold Outside record
And yet…

A battle against Christmas may not be waging at the city gates, but a war against up to a dozen Christmas songs comes as no hoax. This present day problem derives from humor-deficient, history-challenged, literal-minded Scrooges bereft of feeling of an era. Such misery misers seem prone to misconstrue meanings of phrases used at the time they were written… and understood.

A current target is the Academy Award winning ‘Baby, It's Cold Outside,’ overshadowed by the spectre of rape. Peculiar because Frank Loesser wrote the song to sing with his wife, Lynn Garland, to wrap up at parties in their flat in New York City’s Navarro Hotel, and suggest to guests it was time to depart into the night.

Once upon a time, it was de rigueur for a lady to protest. It wasn’t becoming for a woman to openly desire s-e-x. As World War II entered its final awful year in 1944, audiences understood the playful ‘call and response’ nature of the song, dialogue that would guide modern couples through a relatively repressive era, and help society understand sensuality, passion, and sexuality are healthful and natural. Loesser and Garland sang the song to hint they’d like romance time alone. The song made it into the 1949 MGM movie, Neptune’s Daughter.

I saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus record
The so-called date-rape drug slipped into her drink? Eleven years after Prohibition, it’s almost certainly whiskey in the eggnog, Irish in the coffee. Sheesh, get a life.

While we’re on the topic, let’s deal with another maligned song. The ‘Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’ isn’t carrying on an affair with Father Christmas. He’s the daddy, see, her husband who… Oh, never mind. If one has to explain it…

And yet…

Speaking of songs on the hitlist, ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ offends some people with claims of sexism and animal cruelty and, according to at least one blog, slavery.

The lyrics published in England date back to 1780. They probably derived from a considerably earlier composition in France. The arrangement we hear today, including the drawn-out “five gold rings,” was written in 1909 by British composer and baritone Frederic Austin.

Twelve Days of Christmas record (Como)
The ballad tells us a few things seemingly forgotten in an urban world. For one thing, a-milking is not the same as a-lactating. C’mon, get a life. Households often kept chickens or geese, and a cow, goat, or even sheep.

The song reminds us Christmas once encompassed twelve days plus the Feast of the Epiphany. I’ve discussed this before: The twelve days doesn’t culminate on December 25th, it commences. In other words, the 25th of December begins the twelve days of Christmas, which ends on the 5th of January. ‘Little Christmas’ follows on 6 January, also called Three Kings Day. Yay! That means it’s okay to leave your decorations up until at least the 6th of January.

The Twelve Days of Christmas
date day gift per day totals
Dec 25 1 st 1 partridge pear tree 1 1
26 2 nd 2 turtle doves 3 4
27 3 rd 3 French hens 6 10
28 4 th 4 calling birds 10 20
29 5 th 5 gold rings 15 35
30 6 th 6 geese a-laying 21 56
31 7 th 7 swans a-swimming 28 84
Jan 01 8 th 8 maids a-milking 36 120
02 9 th 9 ladies dancing 45 165
03 10 th 10 lords a-leaping 55 220
04 11 th 11 pipers piping 66 286
05 12 th 12 drummers drumming 78 364
06
Feast of the Epiphany 364 total

Victorian angel
The Twelve Days carol includes a little mathematical curiosity. The count of gifts each day is cumulative. The recipient doesn’t merely receive two turtledoves on the second day, but two doves plus an additional partridge. On the third day, six presents arrive– 3 hens, 2 doves, and 1 more partridge. Thus for the season, a total of twelve partridges are handed over, as are twenty-two doves, thirty French hens, etc.

When all the gifts are counted, the grand total comes to 364… one for every day of the year minus one. What day came up short? I have no idea.

A war on Christmas? Tis a season of giving, a season of sharing, and a season of singing. Christmas can be enjoyed by anyone, no matter your religion.

Help keep the ❤︎ in Christmas.

15 December 2017

Suicide Season

by
O'Neil De Noux

Well, it's here. Christmas decorations going up, retailers luring people to sales, snow coming, holly jolly stuff all around - and suicides.

As a detective, I remember storming into the squad room and kicking my trash can. The others waited for it as I slammed my briefcase down on my desk and huffed and growled, then finally come out with it.

"Goddamn radio!. They're playing BELLS WILL BE RINGING and ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS YOU, the day after Thanksgiving."

Oh, yes. Suicide Season had arrived.

It wasn't long before we got the first call. Around Christmas more women commit suicide. Letting the depression overwhelm them so they take the only way out to relieve the pain.

"But she seemed almost happy yesterday," a teary-eyed relative would say. "She gave me the necklace our mother gave her. Said it should be shared."

Almost happy because she made up her mind to end her problems. She gave you the necklace to make sure  you got it. Said it should be shared.

"Has she seemed depressed?"

"Yes, ever since (fill in the blank here - broken heart or losing a job or money problems or health problems). But she was coming out of it."

Men are not immune. Depression is an equal-opportunity affliction.

"If this is a suicide, why two gunshots? Why did he shoot the coffee table?"

Answer - "Hesitation shot. He wanted to make sure the gun worked."

The problem is we're human and humans get depressed and humans know how to end it. Do lame animals jump off cliffs to end it all? Do birds fly into fires when their mate flies off with another chick?

Few, if any animals hear Christmas music. Good for them. Thankfully, they couldn't understand it anyway. Although my wife insists our cats understand English and just ignore what we say because - they are cats.

Here are two examples to pick y'all up after reading this depressing post.


Banjo in Christmas tree. That's right. My daughter named her cat Banjo. I keep forgetting and calling it Bicycle. Who names a cat Banjo?



Jessie photobombing Oliver in our tree.

I hope y'all have a good, safe holiday season. Watch out for runaway reindeers when you cross a street.



www.oneildenoux.com

28 October 2017

Uses for a Kindle (from a book addict) (Okay, Bad Girl)

by Melodie Campbell

Kath: Have you got a Kindle?

Me: Of course I have a Kindle!

Kath: Do you like it?

Me: It’s very pretty. It has a pink cover. And it makes a great paperweight.

Kath: But do you actually use it?

Me: I used it once as a flashlight during a power outage. Everyone should have one.

Kath: Why not get a flashlight for that?

Me: Flashlights make lousy paperweights. They roll off the table.

I am a Dinosaurette. In spite of that, I have a Kindle. It wasn’t my idea. People keep foisting them on me at Christmas. It’s the 21st century version of fruitcake.

Not only that, they multiply. The first died within months, probably from neglect (I didn’t kill it – honest.) The second was a prize from my publisher for top sales. I also have a Kobo. It was a Christmas present. It’s around here somewhere.

As you can see, I am not addicted to my Kindle. In fact, it is my opinion you have to be barking to be emotionally attached to a slab of machinery that displays words. That would be like being addicted to a printing press.

But Lord Thunderin’ Jesus, how I am addicted to books! Real books, that is. I see a pile of books on my bedside table, and I get excited. (Men, take note.)

Oh, the delight of holding a real book in your hand. The tactile feel of the paper, the visual lure of the cover… And the smell of the glue that binds each little paper together…(minty is best)

Bliss.

The trouble with an eReader is that every story you are reading on it looks and feels exactly the same. And that changes the experience for me.

I realize that a lot of people love to read on Kindles. I might even like some of them (people. Not Kindles.) But I highly suspect they are the same sort of people who actually like salad.

Thankfully, there are alternate uses for eReaders. (If you like salad, stop reading NOW.)

BAD GIRL’S USES FOR A KINDLE:
  1. Kindling. (okay, not really, despite the similar sounding name. Probably not the best way to start a fire. A Samsung phone is much better.)
  2. Murder weapon. (Whack the cheating bastard over the head with it. Continue whacking and alternately reading from 50 Shades. That should do it.)
  3. Frisbee. (see Murder weapon above.)
  4. Hockey puck (I live in Canada, eh.)
  5. Dog Toy (leatherette covers works best for this.)
  6. Fly-swatter (editor’s note: works great on spiders)
  7. Plus all the obvious uses: flashlight, paperweight, hot pad, furniture shim, bookmark, ruler, rolling pin, cutting board, door stop.
Finally, I would like to point out that you can’t decorate with Kindles. “Oh look at that beautiful bookcase of Kindles, Gladys!” said no one, ever.

Melodie Campbell got her start writing standup. People usually sit down to read her funny books. Sometimes they fall down. The latest:

25 December 2016

Christmas Past & Present

by R.T. Lawton


Since this is Christmas Day and many of you will be busy with friends and family, I will merely use today's blog to share some Christmas cards with you. The following are custom made Christmas cards based on some of my short stories published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine for certain years, one card a year for fifteen years. These cards are created by a friend of mine (Mike) with some great artistic talent, but then Mike can also fly a Huey over, under or around things while using a delicate touch on the stick. Each card is then mailed to Linda Landrigan in AHMM's office in Manhattan during the month of December for that year as part of my marketing plan. Hopefully, these cards will keep me in the editor's mind, remind her that she published at least one of my stories that year and then prompt her to think kindly of me when she reads my next story in her slush pile.

So, here's the artwork part of the card for this year. It's based on the escape of The Little Nogai Boy and The Armenian from the Chechen leader's mountain fortress in "The Great Aul," AHMM July/August 2016 issue. Santa doesn't appear in the story, just in the card to give it a seasonal flavor. Part of the mystery in the story was where the rope came from for the escape.




























This one is the artwork from last year's card featuring "Ground Hog Day" from the Holiday Burglars in AHMM May 2015 issue in which Yarnell and Beaumont tunnel into the mansion of a crime lord to steal a painting. Naturally, nothing goes the way they planned.
































Here's one from "False Keys" in my 1660's Paris Underworld series (AHMM December 2006 issue) involving a young orphan who survives as an incompetent pickpocket in a community of criminals.










And, here's "Across the Salween" (AHMM November 2013 issue), from my Shan Army series set in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia in a time of opium warlords and mule convoys with armed guards to protect them from rival warlords. The Chinese on the card is supposed to say Merry Christmas, but then I neither speak nor write Mandarin, Cantonese nor Simplified Chinese.


Well, hopefully Santa will find you and yours, wherever you happen to be during these special holidays.

In any case, regardless of your religion or personal feelings for this winter time period, I wish you Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Feliz Navidad, Joyuex Noel or whatever else you choose to celebrate at this time.

Have a good one !!!

22 December 2016

The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain

by Eve Fisher

As I happened to mention last year ("Ghoulies and Ghosties"), ghost stories were one of the key features of a Victorian Christmas.  And Dickens wrote more than one of them for the holidays:

One thing "The Haunted Man" shows is how obsessed Dickens was with memory, and his analysis of how memory fits in/creates who we are.  From the opening scene, where he describes a portrait with the motto, "LORD, KEEP MY MEMORY GREEN", to the very last moment, it is a novella about memory.  It has what is perhaps the first experiment in memory erasure in literature, which makes it a forerunner of Charlie Kaufman's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind".  Although in this case, it isn't love that makes our self-induced amnesiac go for the darkness.  Mr. Redlaw, brilliant professor of chemistry, comes back from his overflowing lecture halls to his lonely abode and sits and broods among his beakers about the endless, unbearable wrongs that have been done to him.  Depressive, full of resentments, letting his mind feed and fester on them like rats in the walls, Mr. Redlaw is ripe to the point of rotten for any promise to get his own back. And what comes, well - here's Dickens:

Christmas Eve!  (No chains clanking, no wailing in the hallways - but on the wall, where Milly Swidger (his landlady) put it), "the healthy holly withered on the wall, and dropped—dead branches."

Image result for the haunted man dickensThen, "As the gloom and shadow thickened behind him, in that place where it had been gathering so darkly, it took, by slow degrees,—or out of it there came, by some unreal, unsubstantial process—not to be traced by any human sense,—an awful likeness of himself!"
[This Spectre, this Phantom, listens to Redlaw's litany of woe, and, finally, offers him a solution]:
“Hear what I offer!  Forget the sorrow, wrong, and trouble you have known!”
“Forget them!” Redlaw repeated.
“I have the power to cancel their remembrance—to leave but very faint, confused traces of them, that will die out soon,” returned the Spectre.  “Say!  Is it done?”
“Stay!” cried the haunted man, arresting by a terrified gesture the uplifted hand.  “I tremble with distrust and doubt of you; and the dim fear you cast upon me deepens into a nameless horror I can hardly bear.—I would not deprive myself of any kindly recollection, or any sympathy that is good for me, or others.  What shall I lose, if I assent to this?  What else will pass from my remembrance?”
“No knowledge; no result of study; nothing but the intertwisted chain of feelings and associations, each in its turn dependent on, and nourished by, the banished recollections.  Those will go.”
“Are they so many?” said the haunted man, reflecting in alarm.
“They have been wont to show themselves in the fire, in music, in the wind, in the dead stillness of the night, in the revolving years,” returned the Phantom scornfully.
“In nothing else?”
The Phantom held its peace.  But having stood before him, silent, for a little while, it moved towards the fire; then stopped.  “Decide!” it said, “before the opportunity is lost!”
“A moment!  I call Heaven to witness,” said the agitated man, “that I have never been a hater of any kind,—never morose, indifferent, or hard, to anything around me.  If, living here alone, I have made too much of all that was and might have been, and too little of what is, the evil, I believe, has fallen on me, and not on others.  But, if there were poison in my body, should I not, possessed of antidotes and knowledge how to use them, use them?  If there be poison in my mind, and through this fearful shadow I can cast it out, shall I not cast it out?”
“Say,” said the Spectre, “is it done?”
“A moment longer!” he answered hurriedly.  “I would forget it if I could!  Have I thought that, alone, or has it been the thought of thousands upon thousands, generation after generation?  All human memory is fraught with sorrow and trouble.  My memory is as the memory of other men, but other men have not this choice.  Yes, I close the bargain.  Yes!  I WILL forget my sorrow, wrong, and trouble!”
“Say,” said the Spectre, “is it done?”
“It is!”
It is.  And take this with you, man whom I here renounce!  The gift that I have given, you shall give again, go where you will.  Without recovering yourself the power that you have yielded up, you shall henceforth destroy its like in all whom you approach.  Your wisdom has discovered that the memory of sorrow, wrong, and trouble is the lot of all mankind, and that mankind would be the happier, in its other memories, without it.  Go!  Be its benefactor!  Freed from such remembrance, from this hour, carry involuntarily the blessing of such freedom with you.  Its diffusion is inseparable and inalienable from you.  Go!  Be happy in the good you have won, and in the good you do!”
Image result for row of holly  Image result for row of holly  Image result for row of holly

In case you can't guess, this does not end well.  Mr. Redlaw finds that, as he goes out into the world, he does indeed have the power to transmit the power of complete oblivion of all memories of wrong, hurt, sorrow, trouble of any kind:  and the results are horrific.  
He goes to the deathbed of Milly's brother-in-law, a man dying of alcoholism and vice, who calls to his father (old Mr. Swidger, Milly's father-in-law) “Father!  I am dying, I know.  I am so far gone, that I can hardly speak, even of what my mind most runs on.  Is there any hope for me beyond this bed?” 
But just then Redlaw touches him, just to help...  With the result that the man closes his eyes; puts his hands over his face, and then emerges, and shouts out, scowling, “Why, d-n you!  what have you been doing to me here!  I have lived bold, and I mean to die bold.  To the Devil with you!”  And dies, unrepentant, unreconciled, unloving and unloved...
And it spreads - touching the dying/dead man makes old Mr. Swidger and Milly's husband, William Swidger quarrel over the deathbed as to which of them is the more selfish, old Swidger for still being alive or young Swidger for not giving him enough, i.e., everything.

And it spreads - to everyone Redlaw touches, even with his shadow, all lose all sense of gratitude, goodness, charity, hope...  until finally even Redlaw knows that he is an infection, and he is horrified by himself.  He flees back to his lonely room, withdrawn from everyone - from the Swidgers, from a poor student he was meant to help, from Milly...  But he can't escape himself, and the worst is, perhaps, when he realizes that he destroyed all the good within himself when he sent his memory away with the Phantom. 
Redlaw and the BoyThe only one he cannot hurt is a homeless orphan off the streets who Milly Swidger took in:  "A bundle of tatters, held together by a hand, in size and form almost an infant’s, but in its greedy, desperate little clutch, a bad old man’s.  A face rounded and smoothed by some half-dozen years, but pinched and twisted by the experiences of a life.  Bright eyes, but not youthful.  Naked feet, beautiful in their childish delicacy,—ugly in the blood and dirt that cracked upon them.  A baby savage, a young monster, a child who had never been a child, a creature who might live to take the outward form of man, but who, within, would live and perish a mere beast."  
This boy never changes.  Hard, starving, snatching, growling, snapping from beginning to end. Redlaw's touch makes no difference to this feral beast:  and, when the Phantom returns, Redlaw begs to know why.  
“This,” said the Phantom, pointing to the boy, “is the last, completest illustration of a human creature, utterly bereft of such remembrances as you have yielded up.  No softening memory of sorrow, wrong, or trouble enters here, because this wretched mortal from his birth has been abandoned to a worse condition than the beasts, and has, within his knowledge, no one contrast, no humanising touch, to make a grain of such a memory spring up in his hardened breast.  All within this desolate creature is barren wilderness.  All within the man bereft of what you have resigned, is the same barren wilderness.  Woe to such a man!  Woe, tenfold, to the nation that shall count its monsters such as this, lying here, by hundreds and by thousands!” 
Only one creature can touch the boy; only one creature can save the people whom Redlaw has damaged and destroyed; only one creature can (perhaps) heal Redlaw himself:  Milly Swidger.  Milly, the angel in the house, whose only child died immediately after birth, who has the answer that Redlaw has never even thought of as to why humans need the memory of trial and trouble:  
Read "The Haunted Man" and find out what that answer is.   
‘LORD!  KEEP MY MEMORY GREEN!’ 

14 December 2016

Dickens and His Ghosts

David Edgerley Gates


One of my co-workers asked the other day, Which is your favorite Christmas story? I said, the original, meaning the Nativity. I've always loved the Christmas Eve church service, the lessons and carols. The narrative from Luke, "Now it came to pass in those days, there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed."

Thinking about it, though, I realized that there's a lot to choose from, and the chiefest of these is A CHRISTMAS CAROL. It was a personal favorite of Dickens, and he performed it both publicly and for his family year after year, playing all the parts, taking all the voices, acting out every flourish. He was quite the spell-binder, by most accounts - his children loved it - and it must have been something to see. The story itself has amazing durability, and survives almost any adaption. (One of my own personal favorites is the animated Disney version.) What accounts for its staying power?

Well, first of all, it's a ghost story. There are four of them, remember. Most of us would say three. But the first to visit is Scrooge's dead partner, Marley, and he sets the tone, foretelling the spirits who are to come, past, present, and future. Dickens, then, shows his hand, he lets us know what to expect, even if he doesn't reveal all his cards, Like any skillful conjurer, Dickens uses a succession of reveals, each effect providing a shiver of recognition.

And it's a story of redemption. We suspect Scrooge will save himself, of course, but most of the fun comes from his adventures along the way, not his getting there. It's his resistance to the pull of his own feelings that gives the story its tension. If we were absolutely sure he'd give in to his better nature, we'd be looking behind the curtain. We pretend to be surprised, every time. It's more satisfying that way.

I think there's also a hidden force behind A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Dickens was always very aware of social injustice, and his age saw a lot of it. Children at risk, from poverty, from sickness, is one of the currents in the story. Dickens' own humiliation, when he was a boy, his father in debtors' prison, and the hated blacking factory (which experience figures in both COPPERFIELD and OLIVER TWIST, too), his long-lasting sense of victimhood. A CHRISTMAS CAROL is sentimentally effective because it's at first terrifying.

Lastly, the story's subversive. We sympathize with Scrooge, in some sense. Christmas has become a sort of pathology, all that crappy music on the radio, and the cheesy sales promotions. Who isn't a little gleeful to see it disdained? On the other hand, Dickens had a big part in making Christmas what it is today. It was the Victorians who created our Christmas, although they emphasized a generosity of spirit and the "context of social reconciliation" (the historian Ronald Hutton), not its commercial aspects.

So, in keeping with the season, let's say God Bless Us, Every One, and a Merry Christmas to you all.




10 December 2016

The Twist

by B.K. Stevens

At this time of year, it seems appropriate to focus on a short story that would make almost anybody's list of Christmas favorites, especially since that story offers valuable lessons to mystery writers. O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" isn't a mystery, but it does a brilliant job of pulling off something many mysteries strive to achieve. I'm talking, of course, about The Twist. An excellent twist, like an excellent gift, reflects both generosity and good judgment. An expensive gift that doesn't suit the recipient probably won't delight, and a suitable but stingy gift isn't likely to inspire much gratitude. By being generous with the reader but exercising good judgment as a writer, O.Henry gives "The Gift of the Magi" the perfect twist.

It's hard to imagine that anyone reading this post hasn't already read "The Gift of the Magi." But if Scrooge-like middle-school teachers and the perversity of fate have conspired to rob you of that experience, please read the story here before going on. It will take you only a few minutes, and I can almost guarantee you'll enjoy it. If you can't spare those few minutes, please don't go on. For I'm about to spoil a classic ending.

It's fairly easy to surprise readers with a twist that pops up out of nowhere. A bomb explodes without a trace of foreshadowing, or the murderer turns out to be a minor character who makes only two brief appearances in the novel, never saying or doing anything that could arouse rational suspicion. It's much harder to create a surprising twist if we shower readers with all the evidence they need to see the ending coming.

That's exactly what O. Henry does in "The Gift of the Magi." From the opening paragraphs on, it's clear Della and Jim have little money to spare for Christmas gifts. It's also clear they love each other. True, the story emphasizes her love for him, not his for her, but her devotion is so sweet and unreserved we assume, rightly, it can't be a tragically unrequited passion. We also learn, in the first two pages, that Della and Jim each have one treasure. Della has long, magnificent hair, and Jim has a fine gold watch he inherited from his father and grandfather. O. Henry spends a long paragraph explicitly comparing these treasures: Della's hair would put the Queen of Sheba's jewels to shame, and even King Solomon, with all his wealth, would envy Jim's watch.

That's all we need to know. No writer could be more generous with helpful information--and O. Henry is so completely generous that he also doesn't try to distract us with the easy tricks of red herrings or irrelevant details. He is utterly open and fair. If he cheats at all, he cheats with his title. "The Gift of the Magi"--singular, not plural. But the magi gave more than one gift, and there's more than one gift in this story. By using "gift" and not "gifts" in his title, O. Henry may be trying to trick us into thinking Della's gift for Jim is the only one that matters. It's a tiny trick, though, and a clever, subtle one. I think we can forgive him.

At any rate, O. Henry gives us all the evidence we need to figure out his crime-free mystery, and he gives it to us early. Less than halfway through the story, when Della sells her hair so she can buy a chain for Jim's watch, we should be able to conclude, "Well, Della and Jim love each other, neither has much money, and each has one treasure. And it's Christmas. If Della sacrifices her one treasure to give Jim something to enhance his watch, I bet Jim will sacrifice his one treasure to give Della something to enhance her hair. No doubt about it--there are some ironic twists coming."

But I don't think many readers do see the twists coming. (And if they do, chances are they first read the story so long ago that they no longer remember how prescient they were--unlike those irritating people who say, "Really? You were actually surprised by the ending of The Sixth Sense? Not me. I figured it out halfway through the opening credits." I can't stand those people.)

How does O.Henry keep us from predicting his ending? I think we can ascribe his success to his good judgment as a writer. First, he wisely chooses to make "The Gift of the Magi" a short story, not a novel. I don't think the plot would work nearly as well if we couldn't read the story in one sitting. First of all, O. Henry would have to destroy its focus by filling pages with extraneous subplots and details. And if we took a break before reaching the last page, if we put "The Gift of the Magi"" down to go for a walk or drive to work, we'd have time to think things over, and we might figure out what the ending will be. (I've read plenty of mystery novels that would have worked better as short stories, that might well have sneaked their twists past me if I hadn't had time to analyze the evidence while folding laundry or letting my mind wander during a boring meeting.)

But "The Gift of the Magi" is a very short story, and also a very absorbing one--I'd guess few if any readers can put it down before reaching the last page. The action pushes us forward without pause, and the protagonist is so lovable and so troubled that she instantly wins our sympathies and our full attention. That's another example of O. Henry's good judgment. He keeps us so intent on Della's dilemmas and decisions that we don't stop to think about what Jim might be feeling or doing.

O. Henry accomplishes that, partly, by not letting us see Jim until the final pages. Imagine how different the story's effect on us might be if O. Henry had begun with a scene of the couple at breakfast, had let us hear Jim make some gloomy remark about Christmas gifts, or let us see him holding his watch in his hand and gazing at it moodily. Instead, O. Henry begins his story after Jim has gone to work, when Della is alone in the flat, counting and recounting her pitiful hoard of coins. Jim gets mentioned often, but we see him only as the reason for Della's despair, not as an independent character who might be grieving over similarly meager stacks of coins and contemplating desperate measures of his own.

Instead, we focus only on Della, and there's plenty to keep that focus constant and sharp. Della's misery touches us, and so does her admiration for Jim--we're moved by her capacity for affection. (By "we," I mean readers capable of being moved by sweetness and innocence. A Grinch would think Della's being silly. If you are a Grinch offended by any story tainted by sentimentality, you don't like "The Gift of the Magi," and you won't like anything I'm going to say about it. Perhaps you'd rather go read some Sartre.) When Della looks in the mirror, turns pale, and abruptly lets down her hair, we wonder what's going on in her mind. Moments later, when she quickly puts her hair up again and hurries out of the flat, we get a glimmer of what she plans to do. Before we can think it through, we come to the quick little drama of her encounter with the horrible Madame Sofronie, memorably characterized in four well-chosen words--"large, too white, chilly." After only a few lines of dialogue, the hair is gone, and Della leaves clutching her twenty dollars. We may feel torn between conflicting emotions, impressed by Della's ingenuity and courage but appalled by the harshness of her sacrifice.

We have no time to dwell on those emotions, though, because the story rushes on. Now we're caught up in Della's search for the perfect present for Jim. She never pauses to wonder about what Jim might be giving her for Christmas, never takes a moment to gaze into a shop window and sigh over the tortoise shell combs on display. That's consistent with Della's character--she's so selfless that she thinks only about Jim's present, cares only about his happiness. It's also further proof of O. Henry's good judgment. If it ever occurred to Della that Jim might be shopping, too, we might start speculating, and that might spoil the twist. By making Della's quest so single minded, O. Henry keeps our thoughts from drifting off in dangerous directions.

And he never lets the pace slow. Della's two-hour search is described in three short sentences. Then, for one paragraph, we share her joy when she finds the perfect watch chain. But the next paragraph plunges us into new anxieties as Della gets busy with her curling irons and frets about how Jim will respond when he sees her shorn. We ache for her as she hears Jim's steps in the hallway and whispers a quick prayer: "Please, God, make him think I am still pretty."

Jim's reaction, we think, will provide the story's climax, and we wait to see what it will be. The nastiest-minded noir addicts among us may hope Jim will respond with rage, may hope the story will end with a nice little murder-suicide demonstrating the cruel absurdity of human existence. Most of us probably expect Jim to be dismayed and perhaps angry at first but then to embrace his wife, declaring that he now loves her more than ever, that in his eyes she's now more beautiful than ever. This is, after all, a Christmas story.

Few of us, I think, expect any climax beyond Jim's reaction. O. Henry has done such a masterful job of ensnaring us in Della's thoughts and emotions that we don't see any further ahead than she does. When Jim stares at his wife, stunned into speechlessness, we think, as she does, it's because he can't adjust to the change in her appearance. As she pleads with him, it doesn't occur to us that there might be a deeper reason for what O. Henry describes as Jim's "trance." Not until Jim pulls a package from his pocket, not until Della opens it and sees the combs Jim bought for her to wear in her long, beautiful hair, do we realize why he was so paralyzed by surprise. We don't see that twist coming until Della does.

It's a clever twist, an ironic twist, a satisfying twist--and not an utterly devastating one. Della weeps when she first sees the combs, but she recovers quickly. "My hair grows so fast, Jim!" she says, and we share her relief. Soon, Della will be able to wear the combs. What a nice climax.

But it's not the climax. There's one more twist coming--a twist we could have foreseen but probably didn't. When Della assures Jim that her hair will grow back soon, it probably doesn't occur to her to wonder about how Jim paid for the combs. Since we share her perspective so completely, it probably doesn't occur to us, either. And when she remembers the watch chain, we may, like her, think Jim's delight in it will erase any lingering regrets about Della's hair.

Then we get the final twist, and everything makes sense. Of course, we think. Earlier in the story, Della says only "something fine and rare and sterling" would do as a gift for Jim, and anything she offers him must reflect his "quietness and value." Just as someone as selfless and loving as Della would give up her most prized possession to buy a present for her husband, someone as "fine and rare and sterling" as Jim would give up his most prized possession to buy a present for his wife. Della has told us everything we need to know about Jim. We should have seen this twist coming. But we probably didn't, because Della didn't. So the final twist hits us as hard as it hits her, and it's even more devastating than the first one. Della's hair will grow back, but the watch Jim inherited from his father and grandfather is gone forever.

Now O. Henry's good judgment as a writer comes into play again. He didn't begin his story too early by letting us see Jim brooding at breakfast, and he doesn't extend it too long by letting us see Della's reaction to the news that Jim has sold his watch. We've already seen Della weep when Jim gives her the combs. We don't need to see her weep again. So when she gives Jim the watch chain, he demonstrates his "quietness and value" by smiling, telling her he sold his watch, and suggesting they sit down to dinner. That's our final glimpse of Della and Jim. The last twist has fallen into place, and its impact is profound. No need to drag things out by belaboring the irony, or by showing us their dismay and recovery. I think O. Henry ends his narrative at exactly the right moment.

He does, however, add one paragraph of commentary, and I suspect many modern readers will criticize him for that. In this last paragraph, O. Henry is teaching us how to interpret his story. He is making its moral explicit. He is--horrors!--telling and not showing. We sophisticated modern readers know how wrong that is. We know writers must let their stories speak for themselves and leave the work of interpretation to the reader. Writers must never sermonize, must never end their stories with paragraphs such as this one:
The magi, as you know, were wise men--wonderfully wise men--who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise, let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are the wisest. Everywhere they are the wisest. They are the magi.
I'll admit it--I'm not sophisticated enough to despise this paragraph. Schmaltzy as it is, I love it. I choke up every time I reread it. I enjoy the quiet humor of the suggestion that the original magi may have given gifts "bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication," enjoy the juxtaposition of different uses of "wise." I'm moved by what the paragraph says about true wisdom, and about how some kinds of foolishness rise to become wisdom of the highest sort. And I appreciate the help this paragraph gives me, for I'm not completely confident I would have seen all the story's implications on my own.

I may be wrong. This paragraph may in fact be merely clumsy and inartistic. (I'd definitely never write a story ending with a similar paragraph. Old fashioned as my own tastes may be, I'm savvy enough to know almost any modern editor would reject a story containing such a paragraph, and almost any modern reader would condemn it.) In any case, this paragraph drives home the point that the best twists are more than clever bits of plotting. The best twists illuminate both character and theme. They express ideas. Informed by the writer's generosity and good judgment, they can transform a story into a delightful, perceptive gift to the reader.

Happy holidays to all!

17 December 2015

Christmas is Almost Always Murder

by Eve Fisher

Seriously, Norman Rockwell has a lot to answer for. All those pictures of Mom and the turkey, the family gathered around... All those "Old Home Folks" stories about the perfect Christmas, and how sweet it was when children were grateful for a penny, and grownups didn't get anything, but they all ate like horses and loved it. All those Hallmark Channel Christmas movies (I mean, really, 24 hour a day Christmas movies starting on THANKSGIVING??????) Okay, back to those, where it's all about love, love, love, love, love, with red and green and what is the deal with all those movies about a "Prince/Princess for Christmas"?

I really am turning into a grinch, right?

Wrong.

We're No Angels - 1955 - poster.png I love a good Christmas movie or story, but I take my entertainment with a little salt, thanks. Or at least a shot glass. And a little murder just adds to the fun.

Here's a list of my favorite Christmas movies, the ones my husband and I watch every year, and yes, we know the lines by heart:

We're No Angels, (1955), Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov, Aldo Ray, and Basil Rathbone. For my 2012 take on this movie, complete with synopsis and begging everyone to go to Netflix and get it immediately, see here: http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2012/12/were-no-angels.html

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), Monty Wooley, Bette Davis, Jimmy Durante, and more. The worst house guest in the world is also the most erudite, witty, arrogant, and popular man on the planet. Sheridan Whiteside was Kaufman and Hart's masterpiece (especially as played by Monty Wooley), based on (of course) the Algonquin Club's founder, leader, gatekeeper and spoiled child, Alexander Woollcott.
Jimmy Durante, Mary Wickes (in her breakthrough screen role), and Monty Wooley
The play - and the movie - are chock full of characters who were based, almost libellously, on real people. Banjo = Harpo Marx. Beverly Carlton = Noel Coward. Lorraine Sheldon = Gertrude Lawrence, of whom Beverly Carlton says, in my favorite movie line of all time,
"They do say she set fire to her mother, but I don't believe it."
And Mary Wickes as Nurse Preen, who has to nurse the impossible Sheridan Whiteside:
"I am not only walking out on this case, Mr. Whiteside, I am leaving the nursing profession. I became a nurse because all my life, ever since I was a little girl, I was filled with the idea of serving a suffering humanity. After one month with you , Mr. Whiteside, I am going to work in a munitions factory. From now on , anything I can do to help exterminate the human race will fill me with the greatest of pleasure. If Florence Nightingale had ever nursed YOU, Mr. Whiteside, she would have married Jack the Ripper instead of founding the Red Cross!"
Reborn (1981). Directed by Bigas Luna, originally titled Renacer, "starring" Dennis Hopper as the snake-oil selling Reverend Tom Hartley, Michael Moriarty as Mark (a thickly-veiled Joseph), and (I kid you not, spoiler alert!) a helicopter as the Holy Spirit. While it has horrible production values, and was obviously made (in Italy, Spain, and Houston, TX) on rather less than a shoestring (I think all the money was spent on the helicopter), this still may be one of the most interesting versions of the Nativity that's ever been done.
"You're going to have a baby? I can't have a baby! I can't even take care of myself, much less a baby!" Mark.

The Thin Man (1934). William Powell and Myrna Loy. Machine-gun dialog, much of it hilarious. A middle-aged peroxide blonde and an incredibly young Maureen O'Sullivan. More drinking than anyone would dare put into a movie today, at least not without a quick trip to rehab for somebody, especially Nick Charles. And mostly true to Dashiell Hammett's plot.
"Is he working on the case?" "Yes, a case of scotch!"

Okay, a quick break for myself and the grandkids: A Muppet Christmas Carol (with Michael Caine), A Charlie Brown Christmas, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (narrated by Boris Karloff). Love, love, love them ALL.




Okay, back to more adult fare:

Listed under secret pleasures, Love Actually (2003), mostly because I start laughing as soon as Bill Nighy starts cursing. (What can I say? I'm that kind of girl.)
"Hiya kids. Here is an important message from your Uncle Bill. Don't buy drugs. Become a pop star, and they give you them for free!" Truer words are rarely spoken in a Christmas movie...

Totally NON-secret NON-guilty pleasure: Blackadder's Christmas Carol (1988). Rowan Atkinson (Blackadder), Tony Robinson (Baldrick), Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Miranda Richardson, Jim Broadbent and Miram Margolyes as Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, and Robbie Coltrane as the Spirit of Christmas...
"Mrs. Scratchit, Tiny Tom is fifteen stone and built like a brick privy. If he eats any more heartily, he will turn into a pie shop." God bless us, everyone.
Scrooge (A Christmas Carol) (1951). Alistair Sim. This is my favorite version, mostly because it feels like Dickens to me, because I love Fezziwig's sideburns, because of the hysterical charwoman, but mostly because Mr. Sim's Scrooge really ENJOYS being a hard-hearted miser from hell. Which makes his delight, after coming back from his Christmas travels among the spirits, more believable. Or at least I always find myself grinning from ear to ear...



"I don't deserve to be this happy. But I simply can't help it!" Hit rewind, while I make another cup of tea and pull out the Christmas cheer…
Merry Christmas, everyone!

15 September 2015

Nothing Like Holidays to Prompt Joy ... and Murder

by Barb Goffman

Today is the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.  (Happy new year to my Jewish readers!) So it seems a perfect day to consider how often crime stories are set during holidays.

82 days until Hanukkah begins!
Crime on holidays? Particularly religious holidays? How blasphemous, some of you may be thinking. But the rest of you, admit it, you're thinking that holidays involve family, and family members not only know each other's buttons, but they love to push them. Of course there's crime during the holidays.

But how much crime? If you follow Janet Rudolph's Mystery Fanfare blog, www.mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com, you'll have an inkling. Janet loves holidays, and on every one, she posts a list of mystery books/stories she knows about that are set on that day. But reading these  lists piecemeal won't give you the full picture. That's why I've reviewed all her lists from the past year (you're welcome!) and learned that the most dangerous holiday is ...

Drum roll ...
Christmas! Yes, the culmination of the season of joy is the most crime-ridden day of the year, at least according to mystery-fiction writers. Last year Janet listed nearly 600 novels with Christmas crime. That's enough to make Santa go on strike.

What was the next most-dangerous holiday? Take a guess. It's kind of tricky. Ha! It's ... Halloween. The holiday of ghosts and goblins and children begging for candy is perfect for moody, scary stories. Janet's list last year had nearly 200 Halloween mysteries.
Far fewer mysteries have been set on today's holiday, Rosh Hashanah, but there are some. My Macavity Award-winning story "The Lord is my Shamus" references both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement), thought it's not set on either of these holidays. Last year Janet's blog listed eight novels and two short-story anthologies set during Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the days in between (the Days of Awe). I'll be heading over to her blog today to see if she's added any new books or stories to the list this year.

I've always been a fan of holidays myself. It's fun to dress up in costumes or to torture my dogs by dressing them up. (Check out the photos on the side.) I've written a number of short stories set during holidays, too, with Thanksgiving and Christmas being used most often (four stories each). (My website, www.barbgoffman.com, has a complete list of my published stories.) It's really a no-brainer: family in close quarters with lots of food and drink? Call the cops, baby, 'cause you know what's coming.

Indeed, knowing how ripe holidays can be for inducing murderous thoughts, a few years ago, authors Donna Andrews, Marcia Talley, and I decided that it would be fun to make holidays the theme for the seventh volume of the Chesapeake Crimes series (which we edit). We envisioned an anthology with short stories set on the standard big holidays, but we also hoped for stories set ones used less often in crime fiction. Our authors came through. The resulting book, Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Holidays, has stories set on Groundhog Day (my story), Valentine's Day, Presidents' Day, St. Patrick's Day, Halloween, Christmas, and (out of chronological order), Talk Like a Pirate Day. Arrr. Author Cathy Wiley gets mad props for coming up with a story set on this fabulous holiday, which occurs annually on September 19th. That's this Saturday, folks.

And in honor of this holiday, on this Saturday afternoon, five authors with stories in Homicidal Holidays--Donna Andrews, Clyde Linsley, Shari Randall, Cathy Wiley, and I--are scheduled to appear on a panel at Kingstowne Library in Alexandria, Virginia, to talk about using holidays in crime stories. The free event is open to the public. If you're in the Washington, DC, area, we hope you'll attend. You can get more details and register here: http://tinyurl.com/oh2h2kv. (The link will take you to the Fairfax County library website. The link was super long, so I shortened it.)

Cathy Wiley at our launch party.
We've had good luck with this book. My Groundhog Day story, "The Shadow Knows," is a finalist for the Anthony and Macavity awards, and it was a finalist for the Agatha Award in the spring. (You can read it here: www.barbgoffman.com/The_Shadow_Knows.html). Our own Art Taylor also has an Agatha Award-nominated story in the book ("Premonition," a Halloween story), and Cathy Wiley's pirate story ("Dead Men Tell No Tales") was up for a Derringer Award last spring.

So if you like holidays--and who doesn't?--I hope you'll attend this Saturday's panel to learn about using holidays in mysteries. It will be fun for readers and writers. And word has it that Cathy Wiley will be dressed as a pirate. Shiver me timbers, you can't get more fun than that.

Do you like reading mysteries set on holidays? If so, which is your favorite and why?