Showing posts with label Dale C. Andrews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dale C. Andrews. Show all posts

28 June 2015

Magic?


Rationality, that was it. No esoteric mumbo jumbo could fool that fellow. Lord, no! His two feet were planted solidly on God's good earth. 
                                                           Ellery Queen 
                                                          The Lamp of God
[W]hen you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
                                                          Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle) 
                                                          The Sign of the Four
Oh, oh, oh it’s magic, You know -- Never believe it’s not so!
                                                          Pilot 

       There's an unavoidable tension between logic and magic -- both in the real world and in fiction. In the realm of Science Fiction novels tend to fall on either side of a great divide -- fantasy (where magic reigns) and classic sci/fi, where logic and science rule. The same riven appears on the mystery side of the ledger -- magic and the inexplicable may be the rule in ghost stories and tales of the paranormal, but in the area of classic mysteries there is an unspoken compact between the author and the reader -- all must, in the end, be explained in logical terms. And for the hard-core mystery reader, the joy of the story is derived in large measure from attempting to discern the answer, the logic behind the madness, the man behind the curtain, before the author reveals not only whodunit, but how. If the room is locked, we expect to know how the crime was accomplished; if there was a dying message, well, it better be explained in the end. 

       Sometimes, however, there are occurrences in real life, let alone fiction, that defy logical analysis. And often that is what we brand as magic -- a conundrum that has yet to be cracked by science. So viewed, magic is a place-holder, utilized while we figure out what is actually going on. And, as Arthur C. Clarke wrote, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” 

       In one of Ellery Queen’s eeriest and most atmospheric stories, the novella The Lamp of God, a house in the forest disappears overnight.  Of all of the Ellery Queen mysteries, with the possible exception of And on the Eighth Day, Lamp of God is, in my view, the strangest.  The setting is other-worldly, the characters a bit surreal and the mystery itself seemingly inexplicable,  Right up until the end the reader suspects that there may be something supernatural going on.  But since this is an Ellery Queen story, we also know going in that a logical solution, “however improbable,” will eventually be served up.

       Other writers have crafted logic-based mysteries that also deal with the inexplicable and that sometime leave those aspects of the mystery, well . . . unexplained. In Tana French’s recent novel The Secret Place, the chief mystery is logically solved, but an underlying supernatural sub theme is explored but never resolved. In Sue Gruen’s latest At the Water’s Edge, we again have a mystery that is solved but we are still left to grapple with the possibility of of a real-life Loch Ness monster.   And just who, or what, is "the little stranger" in Sarah Water's book of that title?

      So, what about those troubling aspects of the world that we can’t quite explain? Well, in the "real"world that’s where the argument between logic and the paranormal escalates. Take for example Extra Sensory Perception. In a “How Stuff Works” article author Tom Harris frames the ESP debate succinctly:  
When all is said and done, we simply don't know whether ESP exists. Given what we do understand about the way physics operates in the universe, ESP doesn't make any sense, but this is not a valid reason to rule it out. In the history of mankind, thinkers have reevaluated their model of the universe many times in response to new evidence. The scientific process is never about deciding what can't be; it's always about figuring out what is.
Joseph Banks Rhine testing for ESP at Duke University
        But applying scientific principles and logic to determine whether ESP exists -- and how it works -- has proven to be a daunting task. Back in the 1930s a Duke University Professor, Joseph Banks Rhine, teamed with Zenith Radio Corporation in one of the earliest large scale tests of ESP ever conducted. Zenith assembled a panel of individuals who had arguably demonstrated some degree of psychic ability, and directed those "experts" to agree on a sequence of five Xs and Os that they would then collectively attempt to mentally transmit to the radio audience. The audience was then instructed to write down what they thought the sequence was and to send their answers to Zenith.

       Amazingly (or so it seemed) the largest block of listener responses identified one of the precise sequences agreed upon in advance by the Zenith panel. Based upon this Zenith issued a press release trumpeting that it had proven that ESP exists since the number of correct responses was far greater than that which could be attributed to coincidence. 

       So -- it’s magic! Ahh, but not so fast. It is at this stage that the story’s detective makes his entrance. Not Sherlock Holmes, nor Ellery Queen, but instead a young psychologist named Louis Goodfellow. Not content with leaving the answer “inexplicable,” Goodfellow undertook his own study aimed at determining whether there might be a logical explanation for the results of the Zenith experiment. And, as it turned out, there was a credible scientific explanation for the those results. 

       The string of Xs and Os sent out “telepathically” by the Zenist panelists that was most successfully “identified” by the radio audience was “X-X-O-X-O”.  But when Goodfellow tested responses from the general public he found that when asked to provide a random array of five Xs and Os over 30% responded with precisely that sequence. (Indeed, fully 78% of responses always picked “X” as the first choice in the string).  So the sequence identified had nothing to do with the sequence "transmitted."  From this Goodfellow surmised that the largest number of respondents picked the sequence for reasons that had nothing to do with ESP. Rather, the results simply reflect a universal inability of humans to generate truly random responses, a fact that has led to the formulation of a number of theories aimed at explaining the otherwise inexplicable. One such theory is The Law of Small Numbers, which posits that in our quest for randomness we incorrectly are driven by the supposition that small sets of numbers will be as random as larger sets. This leads us to expect an array that is shuffled. 

       As an example, it is a safe bet that in a test such as that administered by Louis Goodfellow virtually no one, when asked to choose a random sequence will select “O-O-O-O-O” or “X-X-X-X-X,” even though these possibilities are as randomly-likely as any others.  Instead, we approach the question with pre-determined prejudices, and therefore simply find it hard to believe that such a sequence will occur randomly even though, as Goodfellow pointed out, the likelihood that five seriatim coin tosses would all be heads is only 1 in 32.  In other words, statistically it would not be all that unusual, and should in fact occur roughly once every 32 times such a sequence of tosses is attempted.  In short, a large number of people will always gravitate to the sequence X-X-O-X-O because that sequence “feels” random. 

       So logic prevailed -- the response by the audience to the Zenith experiment varied not on the ESP abilities of the listeners, nor on the psychic abilities of the panel, but rather based upon whether the specific sequence chosen by the panel matched one that most people were likely to choose as “random” on their own.  And since the bias of both the panel and the recipients, all of whom were human, are shared, it is only logical that the same percentage of each group would pick sequences that feel random.

       Science fiction writer William Poundstone, in his book Rock Breaks Scissors explores some of the ramifications of Goodfellow’s findings: “It basically demonstrated that a lot of the little everyday decisions we make are incredibly predictable, provided you've got a little bit of data to work from.” A real life example from Poundstone’s book -- if you are playing “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” and your opponent is a male, try choosing “paper.” Why? Well more times than not men have been shown to choose “rock.”

       Magic? Nope. Just observable, predictable and documented, human behavior. According to Poundstone “it's not so easy for a person to make up a random sequence. . . . When people try to do that they fall into certain unconscious patterns, and these patterns are really very similar for everyone." Anyone who watches the pop-up ads on their laptop knows there are some sophisticated deductions being made about what each of us might be interested in purchasing.  As Poundstone also observed, Goodfellow’s conclusions on predictability have “become a very big business today, needless to say.”

     Here is another predictability trick, one that I first encountered 50 years ago when I was in junior high. On a piece of paper write the following: “Why did you choose carrot?” Fold the paper so that the writing cannot be seen and then hand the paper to someone, telling them not to unfold it. Then do the following: 

       First pause, then slowly say “Listen to me carefully, do not ask questions.” Pause again and then ask “What is 5 plus 1?” Wait for the answer. Then ask “What is 4 plus 2,” “What is 3 plus 3,” “What is 2 plus 4,” and “What is 1 plus 5.” Each time wait for the answer and then immediately proceed with the next question. 

      Then immediately ask your subject to say the number “6” 10 times, as rapidly as they can. 

       After they have said “six” for the tenth time immediately ask them to “Name any vegetable.” 

       Nine out of ten times your subject will say “carrot.” When (if!) they do, tell them to unfold the paper in their hand and read it. 

       Magic? Likely not. There is some predictable and shared mental attribute that triggers the same response in a large number of us. Okay, (the mystery reader asks) but how does it work? Apparently no one is really sure. A check on the internet reveals a lot of pondering spread over the 50 years since I first encountered this trick, but no reliable theories. It has been speculated, for example, that perhaps the answer “carrot” is prompted by the fact that the word contains six letters. But apparently the vegetable that is picked the second most is broccoli, so go figure. 

       Swinging back to where we started, how does all of this relate to magic versus science in mysteries? Perhaps it comes down to this: In our choice of fiction are we looking for certainty or the inexplicable?  Do we read fantasy, or do we read science fiction?  When we read Stephen King do we like The Stand, The Shining, or It, where the paranormal reigns, or do we like Mr. Mercedes or Finders Keepers, where none of that resides.

       The Zenith ESP experiment is explainable enough that it fits into the closed world that usually comprises the mystery genre. One can picture Ellery, Sherlock or Hercule offering up the Louis Goodfellow explanation, even though that explanation also leaves some questions unanswered. 

       But I’m not sure about that carrot. I’m still sitting here, years later, waiting for a credible explanation for why that one works. 

       Abrakadabra!

                                  *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

       The foregoing text was intended to be my entire article for today.

       I usually avoid wading into the political arena, but after the events on Friday, played out in rainbow hues throughout Washington, D.C., I am going to succumb to temptation.  Hence, this postscript.

       Those keeping track of my articles over the years may have noted my penchant for beginning many with set-up quotes. (See, e.g., above!) This time I’d like to also end with two quotes. 

       The theme today has been the distinction between magic and reason, and the phenomenon that often that which is beyond our abilities to explain is labeled “magic” as an expedient for the fact that we can’t otherwise explain what is happening in the world around us. Sometimes things are inexplicable even when we exert diligent analytic efforts. But sometimes we just allow things to be inexplicable out of sheer laziness, or because we would rather not take the time to figure out what is really going on. So, in honor of that latter group, those who self-contentedly label something “magic” and then move on without further inquiry, I offer the following quote
I have to admit that I’m one of those people that [sic] still thinks the dishwasher is a miracle. What a device! And I have to admit that because I think that way, I like to load it. I like to look in and see how the dishes were magically cleaned.
      Thank you, Justice Clarence Thomas, for explaining so clearly the intellectually myopic wherewithal you bring to the task of analyzing the world around you.  And here is the latest example of Justice Thomas' reasoning, taken from his dissent in the gay marriage case:
[H]uman dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.
       What????

       This is what you get when someone who thinks dishwashers are magic is given the job of determining the Constitutional protections that are to be accorded to all others.  I am always heartened when the views of Justice Thomas (or Scalia or Alito, for that matter) concerning the reach of the Constitution are consigned to dissenting opinions.

Colin Black Andrews and Kyle Hartwig
At the White House -- June 26, 2015




02 June 2015

Best Of Times/Worst Of Times (Writing)


Linda Landrigan, Editor of AHMM, Me, and Janet Hutchings, Editor of EQMM at FUN Dell Party
The best of times

I'm very happy to announce that the current (July) issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine carries a story of mine. It's titled "The Walking Path" and demonstrates how exercise is not always conducive to good health or a long life. As is common in many of my tales, the protagonist misreads events unfolding around him which leads to a surprising, though not very pleasing (for him, at least) end to his outdoor pursuits.

The theme of missed opportunities and misunderstood relationships also features in the following month's issue in a story called, "Mr. Kill-Me". The poor fellow conjured up in this tale cannot for the life of him understand why he's being stalked. His antagonist, a shabby cyclist who keeps showing up at unexpected moments, offers him no threat of violence, but is insistent that our hero kill him.

The month following (yes, it's been a very good year– see first half of blog title) I change pace with a police procedural in which a detective must come to terms with his own actions of nearly fifty years before. This novella is titled "Happy Valley". Counting "Her Terrible Beauty" that was in the March issue, that makes four stories in EQMM in a single year– a first for me. Still, I pose no threat to the late, great Ed Hoch's prolific output, or that of our own Edgar-Nominated John Floyd. Speaking of whom, I had the pleasure of meeting John, and his lovely wife, at the Dell soiree in New York this year. The only fault I could find with the man was his overbearing height, other than that he was just as charming and intelligent as we've all found him to be through his SleuthSayers articles. Still, I'm disappointed with his insufferable tallness.

A Less Fun Party
The worst of times

Since the fall of 2012 I've had three novels published, none of which have thrived. If I called a summit meeting of everyone who had read any of them I could probably forego renting a hall and just have them convene in my living room. Even there, I'm not sure that anyone would have to stand during the meeting. I find this a little distressing. My intention in writing the novels was that someone would read them. You can see my frustration here.

Part of the problem is that none of them have received very much publicity. Small indie presses have no funds for advertising it seems. The big corporation boys do, but only if you're already famous, which presents a conundrum for such as the likes of me. The other part of the problem (and this is the part I like even less than the first) is that I may not be very good at writing novels. I especially don't like this possibility because it doesn't allow me to blame anyone else. When I was occasionally asked what I did as a chief of police, I would always fire back, "I find out who's to blame and pin it on them. Now get out of my office!" My wife claims that I still do this as a private citizen. I tell her that it's paramount to blame those responsible for any faults I may possess, then tell her to get out of my office. She does not comply. I find this distressing as well.

So there you have it, the best and the worst. In case I've raised anyone's hopes that I will never write another novel, you must not know me. I'm already taking another stab at the beast and am on page 125 after only a year's labor. It's titled, The German Informant, and is coming along, though I doubt it will fare any better than the others. On the days I find the going tough, I blame the neighbors for all the distractions. If it weren't for them it would be done already!

In closing, and in order to refill the glass to half-full, I want to take a moment to thank a number of fellow writers who have been particularly kind and supportive in recent months: Brendan DuBois, Doug Allyn, Joseph D'Agnese, Don Helin, Lou Manfredo, Art Taylor, Fran Rizer (whom I miss from this site) and my fellow SleuthSayers, Dale Andrews and Eve Fisher. Each of these extremely talented and busy writers have taken the time, and in some cases, expended considerable effort, to aid or support me in my literary pursuits. I am in your debt, my friends, and honored to be so. Below is a copy of the aforementioned EQMM issue. You will find my name next to that of Joyce Carol Oats, a pretty good writer who I think shows real promise. I hope this fortunate pairing boosts her career.

31 May 2015

Not quite Forgotten: Todd Downing and Mexico


The forces of Evil have always been present in this strange country of Mexico, watered though it has been by the blood of saints.
                                                          Todd Downing 
                                                          Vultures in the Sky 

       The “golden ages” of both mysteries and Mexico are pretty much behind us.

       As to mysteries, diligent readers can still, at times, stumble onto the occasional forgotten trove of golden age “fair play” mysteries, where the plotting is stylish, the murders are relatively free of gore, and where all of the clues are handed to us yet we still reach the last page (or, perhaps, the penultimate page) befuddled. But today these are rare finds indeed. Agatha Christie remains in print, almost single handedly defying Professor Francis Nevin’s rule that the books die with the author. But most of the other golden age mystery volumes that once populated the library mystery shelves have, along with those authors, long since disappeared. 
 
Todd Downing pictured
on the cover of Clues and
Corpses by Curtis Evans
     Every once in a while, however, a surprise still drops into our laps. This recently happened to me when I read about the works of Todd Downing.  I confess that I had never heard of Downing, much less forgotten him, when I stumbled onto a Facebook post by mystery buff Curtis Evans sometime back reporting that Downing’s mystery novels had recently been re-issued. Evans, as it turns out, is a true Todd Downing scholar, and has written extensively concerning his works.  Downing, as Evans reported, had his heyday in the 1930s when he wrote a series of “fair play” mysteries usually featuring his recurring crime solver Hugh Rennert, a United States Customs Service agent. Rennert, in some respects, is like my old friend Ellery Queen. Both have a knack of invariably finding themselves dropped into a group of people one of whom is about to be murdered. But unlike Ellery, Rennert’s problems of deduction all involve the same setting: 1930s Mexico.

      Based on Curtis Evans’ Facebook recommendation I promptly ordered Downing’s Vultures in the Sky from Amazon. (An added bonus -- Vultures begins with a biographic sketch of Todd Downing written by Evans.)

       Vultures is set on the Aztec Eagle, the Mexican train that for many decades provided daily rail service between Nuevo Laredo and Mexico City. The novel’s sense of claustrophobia and mounting terror is heightened by the constricted setting of the first class accomodation of the Aztec Eagle as it meanders its way along its 1,100 mile day-and-a-half journey from the Mexican border to the capital. Think of Vultures in the Sky as a sort of Mexican analog to Murder on the Orient Express. And from the moment I began reading I knew that I was on familiar ground.   

       So -- why did Vultures speak personally to me? Well, although I am still young enough (thankfully!) not to have experienced Todd Downing’s Mexico of the 1930s, I am very familiar with the Aztec Eagle. It is the same train that I rode, on my own, during the summers of 1967 and 1968 -- my 17th and 18th years. (What were my parents thinking? I would have locked my kids in their rooms if they had proposed undertaking such an unchaperoned adventure in their teens.) 

My (ancient!) copy of
Mexico on 5 Dollars a Day
       Mexico was in a sleepy national siesta between Downing’s 1930s and my 1960s. Very little, including the trains, seemed to change. Throughout those years travelers moving south from the border depended on the Aztec Eagle, or more properly, La Aguila Azteca, the pride of Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México.  The train at one point in the early 1950s was made up of rail coaches specifically built in Switzerland for this flagship service, but those cars, due to a design defect, proved unreliable and were eventually replaced with the 1930s retired rolling stock from the New York Central Line that was first used in the 1930s. But for that one interlude, the same New York Central rolling stock therefore was in continuous use on the Mexican rail line for over forty years. So the cars comprising the train I traveled on in 1967 and 1968 were the same ones that provided the setting for Vultures in the Sky

       My teenage adventures in Mexico were momentous for me in many respects; so much so that I could never bring myself to part with the guidebook that was my bible throughout my five weeks of riding the rails each of those summers -- Mexico on 5 Dollars a Day, by John Wilcock. Here, in words that could have been taken from Vultures in the Sky, is the description of the Aztec Eagle from pages 22 and 23 of the 1966 edition of 5 Dollars a Day:

       The Mexican Railroad’s pride and joy is the glittering Aztec Eagle, which leaves the border town of Nuevo Laredo at 6:15 p.m. daily. Once you have boarded this and sat down to dinner, all kinds of exciting things happen. Take a look at the railroad company’s own brochure:
       “During your trip south, from an easy chair in the lounge, you may watch the dramatic panorama of Mexico unfold. On either side of the train stretch desert plains studded with dwarf and giant cacti. Suddenly, as though spun round on a revolving stage, the landscape changes to tree-dotted valleys. The train passes the Tropic of Cancer. Inside the air-conditioned cars there is no indication that the train has entered tropic territory.
       The train trip in itself is an introduction to Mexico -- to its rich agricultural areas, cacti-covered desert stretches, valleys and highlands. At times the train winds over giddy peaks, clings to sheer rock walls, looks down into steep ravines, crosses mineral-laden land, rushing mountain streams and great irrigated fields. Along the way there are small, typical Indian villages of adobe huts, processions of burros laden for market, Indian families dressed in regional clothes, serapes and rebozos. Whenever the train stops, they gather outside the cars offering for sale food, fruits, candy, drinks, bright woven basketry, serapes and other local handicrafts.” 
Typical Pullman Sleeper Car
       The Aztec Eagle that Todd Downing knew in the mid-1930s and the train I rode in the late 1960s was comprised of numerous second class cars and then, at the end, a fleet of first class accommodations. The first class cars, which were inaccessible to the second class passengers, included sleepers (both bedrooms and cars containing those Pullman seats that folded into bunks at night, remembered in the United States only from movies), a diner with a tuxedo maitre d', a club car, and a separate observation lounge car at the end of the train, which featured an elegant rounded art deco observation area where first class passengers could watch the track streaming out behind the train as we barreled through the deserts, jungles, and mountains of Mexico. 

Interior of typical Observation car
       The cost for all of this if you traveled first class? Well, according to Mexico on 5 Dollars a Day, (and consistent with my penciled expenses still tabulated in the margins) in the summers of 1967 and 1968 I shelled out 135 pesos for the trip. That worked out to $10.10. Of course, I had to pay for meals. If memory serves the steak dinner, accompanied by a glass of wine, was $2.30. A pre-dinner scotch highball (what fun! I was still years away from 21!) set me back 28 cents. 

The observation car at the
end of the Aztec Eagle
       Although The Aztec Eagle had staked its claim as flagship, a strong argument could be made for the proposition that that honor should at least be shared with the nightly train from Mexico City to Guadalajara. That train, all first class, was comprised of 18 Pullman sleepers, two diners, two club cars and two observation lounges. The train was so long that it left Mexico City’s Buena Vista station nightly in two sections, each propelled by its own set of engines. The trip itself was leisurely -- the train left at 8:20 each evening, and arrived in Guadalajara (under 300 miles to the north west) at 9:00 a.m. the next morning. Accommodations on the train sold out almost every trip -- prospective passengers had to reserve their tickets days in advance. The cost? According to Mexico on 5 Dollars a Day I paid around $6.00 to travel first class between Guadalajara and Mexico City. 

       It is a hard battle for any series of golden age mysteries to remain in publication (almost as hard as it has been for rail passenger service to survive). Mysteries run the risk of becoming dated, and the tastes of the reading public is apt to change. But that battle likely was a particularly difficult one for Todd Downing’s series, I suspect, since the series is set in the unfamiliar Mexico of his era.  That Mexico has simply ceased to exist. That era, and the Mexican trains as well, are gone. 

       When I was a child, before I discovered Mexican rail transporation, my father’s favorite vacation was a driving trip from St. Louis, Missouri (our home) to Mexico City. Part of that drive was along Mexico’s Route 101, which stretches from Matamoros, Mexico (across the Rio Grande from Brownsville) to Ciudad Victoria. One should question our sanity in undertaking this 3,400 mile round trip in the constraints of a two week vacation back then, but there is no question at all as to the the lack of sanity of someone attempting a road trip through central Mexico today.  And that is particularly the case along Route 101.  The Washington Post has this to say about present conditions along that highway: 
Mexico Route 101 -- The Highway of Death
       Highway 101 through the border state of Tamaulipas is empty now — a spooky, forlorn, potentially perilous journey, where travelers join in self-defensive convoys and race down the four-lane road at 90 miles per hour, stopping for nothing, and nobody ever drives at night.
        . . . .
       As rumors spread that psychotic kidnappers were dragging passengers off buses and as authorities found mass graves piled with scores of bodies, people began calling this corridor “the highway of death” or “the devil’s road.”  
     For a fictionalized (but I suspect accurate) view of what traveling through central Mexico is like today, try Michael Gruber’s latest book, The Return, and compare the horrors depicted there with the Mexico that I knew and that is depicted in Vultures in the Sky.  As The Washington Post also reported, even convoys traveling together down “the devil’s road” -- the stretch my family rolled along in our station wagon -- are not safe. Several years ago one such convoy failed to arrive in Ciudad Victoria. The charred bodies of 145 drivers and passengers were eventually found by the Mexican police in a desert fire pit. Even numbers did not buy safety, and facing a convoy meant nothing to the Mexican drug cartel.

       I read these news reports of current Mexican horrors, I remember the Mexico that I traveled through as a child with my family, and that I later traveled through alone as a teenager, and I am bewildered and saddened by the change that 50 years has wrought. 

       The Aztec Eagle and the nightly train from Mexico City to Guadalajara, in any event, are long gone. Except for two tourist lines -- one servicing the Copper Canyon, another running to and from a popular tequila distillery -- all Mexican inter-city passenger service is currently a thing of the past.  All of the other Mexican passenger trains were discontinued in 1995. We can't even blame the drug trade for this.  The decision pre-dated much of Mexico’s current descent into warring drug cartels. 

       For several years I taught a graduate course for the University of Denver that traced the history of transportation regulation in the United States. The gentleman who taught the course immediately following mine was an official of Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México. While visiting with him once I asked him about Mexico’s 1995 decision to abandon its popular passenger rail service and his response was a simple one: The railroad realized it could make more profit running one full boxcar of cargo between Mexico City and Guadalajara than it could running that 50 car first class passenger service between those two cities. 

       One could, of course, question that logic. Rail passenger service is subsidized virtually everywhere, including in the United States. The need for the service is not, necessarily, susceptible to a strict profit and loss analysis. It also requires a balancing of public transportation needs. But all of that is a different issue for a different article. The point here is also a simple one: the Mexico that Todd Downing knew in the 1930s, and that I knew in the 1960s, including The Aztec Eagle, is no more. Segun dicen en español -- Ya se fue. 

       But, then again, nothing stands still. Where we are today is not, necessarily, where we will be tomorrow. And sometimes you might, if lucky, get to go home again. Or, for our purposes, perhaps back to Mexico. 

High Speed Rail:  Still an Option for Mexico?
       Todd Downing’s books are already back, re-published in quality paper editions by Coachwhip Publications. And there may still be hope for a re-birth of Mexico as well. While the jury is still out on the outcome of the wars against the Mexican drug cartels that have laid siege over central Mexico, even with that there is at least some hope and some progress.

      And a renewed Mexican passenger rail system is also not beyond the realm of hope. The first fitful step -- and it would have been an enormous one -- has been the attempt by the Mexican government to build a high speed inter-city passenger rail system connecting the cities of Mexico.   In 2014 Mexico entered into a contract with a Chinese consortium to construct such a line but, in light of budgetary problems and continuing governmental scandals, the project was put on indefinite hold this past February. When and if that services is finally begun it is estimated that the trip from Mexico City to Guadalajara (that 12 hours overnight trip that I took as a teenager) would then take just over two hours.

       Two hours!  That’s hardly enough time to settle into your seat with a highball and a good Todd Downing mystery.


26 April 2015

David Dean's Starvation Cay


Take yourself out of this island, creeping thing . . . . Your voyage here was cursed by heaven! 
                                        Homer
                                        The Odyssey Book 10, lines 82-5
Little islands are all large prisons.
                                        Sir Richard Francis Burton
for whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it's always ourselves we find in the sea. 
                                        e. e. cummings
                                        100 Selected Poems 

       The sea has has always sung a sirens’ call. There is something about it -- that strange enfolding of tranquility nestled beside the threat of death -- that charms, tantalizing while terrorizing at the same time. Homer’s warnings are as apt today.  When you venture forth among the islands it is not all about beauty and tranquility.  The sea, after all, has the same salinity as our tears.  And blood, too, is an uncomfortably close cousin.

       For all of its promise of gentle breezes, coral reefs, and turquoise depths, the sea can turn on you in an instant; for all of its beauty it is still a most unforgiving mistress. Perhaps a more modern quote from Dave Barry needs to be added to the above list: There comes a time in a man's life when he hears the call of the sea. If the man has a brain in his head, he will hang up the phone immediately.

       Dave Barry’s warning could aptly have been whispered into the ear of Brendan Athy, the protagonist in Starvation Cay, David Dean’s latest thriller. David, too, has heard the sirens’ call, and understands that Caribbean islands and passages are not defined by travel brochures. His new sailing shanty, Starvation Cay, is quite a ride -- a yarn spun both in the light of the Caribbean sun and the dark of what can unexpectedly lurk in those waters, in that next ship closing in on you on a broad reach, or perhaps on that island lying low on the horizon ahead.

The islands of the Bahamas
       Starvation Cay finds Brendan, an unlikely hero for a sea yarn, on his own odyssey into the Bahamian seas of the Caribbean in a quest to rescue his sister, last heard from on a sailboat plying those waters. Brendan neither knows, nor suspects, what lies ahead.  He is an east coast small time New Jersey gangster, at home in streets and alleys, but completely adrift among Bahamian tides and reefs.

       Brendan is lucky enough, however, to stumble into a symbiotic alliance with Devereaux, a gnarled Haitian captain, and the challenges that lie ahead are left to this largely unwitting partnership to master. Devereraux knows, full well, that the beauty of the Caribbean is no Disney ride. The rules that govern the islands are few, and those that govern the waters between those islands are virtually non-existent. Brendan does not understand any of this.  But he will learn.

       But why take my word for it?  Starvation Cay can speak for itself just fine:
       Staggering out of the salon into the brilliant sun, Brendan raised a hand to shade his eyes. The sea stretched out from their vessel in all directions, rolling away in gray and, sometimes startlingly blue, hummocks of water…more water, it seemed to Brendan, than the world could hold; the horizon, a broken chain of barely visible green hillocks wavering in the distance. But for their presence, he thought, it might have been the first day of creation.
       When they had been within easy sight of shore, he had seen their journey as an exhilarating, if urgent, lark, but now, cast out upon this endless, heaving expanse of sea; it assumed epic proportions, grand and terrifying. In [his home back in] Elizabeth [New Jersey], man ruled the environment unchallenged, with only other men to fear; out here, he understood instinctively, man ruled nothing…and controlled little. 
       This bit of prose is but a small sample of what lies ahead. Starvation Cay is a tightly tooled well written adventure that deftly pivots between our vacation dreams and our midnight terrors. And that, as David Dean demonstrates, is the formula for a page-turner.

David Dean (right) and yours truly
       David, my long-time partner in crime here at SleuthSayers, brings to his tale a wealth of practical and writing experience. As a former New Jersey police chief of the beach-side town of Avalon, he knows all too well the criminal underbelly that has always been Brendan’s world. And David has also sailed the Bahamian water of Devereaux’s world, and therefore also understands full well the beauty and the dangers, always in tension with each other, that those waters hold.

       David is a master teller of short stories who, in 2007, won the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Readers’ Choice Award  for his story "Ibrahim's Eyes", (a fact that I remember very well since he pushed my story, "The Book Case", into second place that year!) David's stories have been nominated for the Shamus, Barry, and Derringer Awards. His story “Tomorrow’s Dead” was a finalist for the Edgar for best short story of 2011. And just last year EQMM readers rated three of his stories in the top 10 mystery short stories of 2014. David’s accomplishments in longer mystery formats include his chilling ghost story The Thirteenth Child, the Yucatan thriller The Purple Robe, and now Starvation Cay.

       I don’t like spoilers, and I have worked hard to ensure that you will find none here. Just suffice it to say that David has delivered an excellent Caribbean adventure in Starvation Cay. If you are looking for a poolside read this summer, look no further. You might also be tempted to take this thriller along as a beach-side read on that Caribbean vacation you have been contemplating. But if that is the locale where you settle into chapter 1, under a beach palm and with your rum punch beside you, well, a word of fair warning is in order: Don’t be surprised, as you read, if (notwithstanding that gorgeous beach and the swaying palm) you begin to experience a growing trepidation, a creeping unease followed by that un-ignorable need to frequently glance back over your own shoulder. And, as Brendan learns -- that might just be a good idea.

       Starvation Cay is bargained priced, and, in keeping with quickly evolving reading habits, is an e-publication, available now for downloading on Amazon.  

29 March 2015

Rejection


       For the first half of his college career our younger son Colin majored in Theatre. My wife and I had some misgivings over this, but we are pretty well trained, so we kept quiet. Then one Friday Colin called us to say that he had decided to change his major to pre-law. He explained that he had gotten rather used to eating well, and to having some assurance as to how his life would progress, all of which (he feared) would be lacking if he pursued an acting career. What Colin had realized was that his first-chosen career would have been one rife with the likelihood of repeated rejections.
      
       Writers know that feeling. While all of us here at SleuthSayers love to write, and while each of us is published, very few of us have managed to carve out a profession from it. Certainly the days of O. Henry, when short stories alone could bring in enough to live on, are behind us. The market dwindles, the competition increases, and even a story lucky enough to get published only garners a few hundred dollars. Although writers of novels can still strike it rich, like actors a lot of them simply strike out. And continuing to swim against the current of repeated rejections can prove pretty tough.

           How true is all of this?  Let’s take a selective look at the record. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was rejected 20 times before it was published. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind collected 38 rejection letters. Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl was rejected 15 times. Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie -- 30. Frank Herbert’s Dune -- 23. J.K. Rowling’s first work Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone -- 12 (initial printing was 500 copies).  And Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, collected an incredible 121 pre-publication rejections. When John le Carre submitted The Spy who Came in from the Cold he was advised that “it hasn't got any future.” Sanctuary by William Faulkner was deemed “unpublishable.” In response to his submission of Jungle Book Rudyard Kipling was advised to give up any writing ambitions since he clearly did not have the requisite command of the English language. And Agatha Christie, cherished in these environs and one of the best selling authors of all times, suffered four years of repeated rejections before her first mystery, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, found a willing publisher. 

        All of the foregoing examples are, of course, “success stories.” Perseverance won out.  And the process, however grueling and depressing, in each case ended well with the publication of a well-received work; an “ahh-ha” to those earlier rejections. 

        But appreciate what the process is like not at the end, but in the middle, when the matter is still in doubt.  Before each new submission the author invariably asks himself or herself, is my work really bad? Is it the publishing house that has missed the point, or is it me? And it is hard to answer those questions objectively, evaluating what one has subjectively created. Certainly editors and publishers are the keepers of the gate, the arbiters charged with the objective task of sorting wheat from chaff. But chaff still gets through, and sometimes wheat does not.  Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, John Grisham’s A Time to Kill and Beatrix Potter’s The Tales of Peter Rabbit, to name but three, first reached the reading public only as a result of the authors’ exasperated decisions to self-publish. 
     
       So, how long should a writer persist in his or her advocacy in the face of the negative views of others? There can be no universal answer to that question since there is no prototypical rejected manuscript. But while the above examples are heartening, sometimes even ultimate success can be marred tragically by the disheartening submission process. There is probably no better example of this than the publication history of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. 

      Toole, by all accounts, was a brilliant professor of English at Hunter College in New York and at various Louisiana colleges. He completed A Confederacy of Dunces in 1963 after his discharge from the army. Dunces tells a picaresque tale of the travails of its hero Ignatius J. Reilly, an obese, self-styled intellectual who pursues employment while disdaining actual labor, lives with his mother, and constantly bemoans a horrific bus trip he once was forced to make to Baton Rouge. Toole submitted the manuscript to various publishing house, gaining some middling interest but absolutely no success. As an example, Simon and Schuster's rejection was premised on the articulated conclusion that Dunces was “essentially pointless.” Eventually, in the face of rejection, Toole gave up and basically withdrew from life, embracing a paranoiac view that the world was aligned against him. He lost his teaching positions and eventually, on March 26, 1969, at the age of thirty-one in Biloxi, Mississippi he inserted a hose through the window of his car, turned the vehicle on, settled comfortably into the front seat and waited peacefully until carbon monoxide took its course. 
       
       Toole had left the manuscript of Dunces on the top or the armoire in his bedroom in his mother’s house. Some years after his death his mother re-read the manuscript and decided that she would begin, again, the attempt to market it. Like Toole, she suffered through numerous rejections. Finally, with little left to lose, she undertook a crusade to persuade author Walker Percy, then a visiting professor at Tulane University, to review the manuscript. Her persistence led Percy initially to complain to family and friends about the apparently deranged woman who was stalking him peddling a manuscript. Eventually, in an act of desperation, Percy agreed to take a look. This is what he said in what eventually became his introduction to A Confederacy of Dunces:
       [T]he lady was persistent, and it somehow came to pass that she stood in my office handing me the hefty manuscript. There was no getting out of it; only one hope remained—that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther. Usually I can do just that. Indeed the first paragraph often suffices. My only fear was that this one might not be bad enough, or might be just good enough, so that I would have to keep reading.
       In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good.
With the backing of Walker Percy A Confederacy of Dunces was finally published by LSU Press in 1980. In 1981 it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. 

       So this ending is a happy one only in the most limited way. A Confederacy of Dunces found its publisher, its audience, and its accolades.  But the rejection process that preceded all of this contributed to the untimely death of John Kennedy Toole. And as grim as this may be, well, at least Dunces eventually reached the reading public. Not so for many works that, good or bad, never find their own Walker Percy. 
       
       The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, edited by C.D. Rose, is a compilation of 52 would-be writers whose work never saw the light of day nor the white of page. None of the authors ever got beyond rejection, but some “lost” works had even stranger back stories. Stanhope Barnes travels to London to discuss his novel Here Are the Young Men only to leave the only copy, never seen again, on an adjacent seat of the train. Veronica Vass, a cryptologist in England during World War II, wrote five novels in a devilish code, which she died without revealing, and which was never cracked. And perhaps saddest -- since it is a lesson on the folly, at times, of trying to overcome repeated rejections by relying too much upon the advice of others, is the case of Wendy Wedding, a budding minimalist who worked diligently editing what those who reviewed it described as a “huge” first draft of her novel The Empty Chair. Like many of us she was counseled to cut words. What happened? Here’s what C.D. Rose reports: 
She removed every adjective from her book. Once that task was completed, she turned back to the beginning and started again. Relative clauses went next, then the passive voice. Metaphor, simile, symbol. All felt the knife. None were spared. 
 In an ending befitting of O.Henry, Wendy Wedding was ultimately left with one blank page. 

       Lessons to be learned?  The Washington Post’s Michael Dirda, in his review of The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure (Washington Post, November 5, 2014), points us to Chekhov for guidance.  Chekhov concluded that in judging the merits of literary works "[o]ne must be a god to be able to tell successes from failures without making a mistake."  

03 March 2015

Her Terrible Beauty


The title of this piece just happens to be the title of my latest story in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.  This is not a coincidence.  I am utilizing my God-given right to promote my work in lieu of the huge monthly check I would normally receive from our generous paymaster, Leigh Lundin.  But I will not just promote, but educate as well, sprinkling tidbits of information throughout that cannot possibly be found on the internet.  For instance: Saint Patrick's Day is two weeks from today.


Yes, only a few hundred million of us woke up knowing this today.  What the devil does it have to do with my latest groundbreaking literary effort?  Very little, actually, but since this auspicious occasion just happens to be coming up, I thought I'd smoothly weave it in.  Just watch my handiwork.

My story takes place in antebellum Alabama, circa 1831, within the diocese of Mobile and concerns a brother and sister, murders and miracles, duels and deceptions.  It ends with a hanging.  St. Patrick has nothing to do with any of it.  Yet, if you go to Mobile, as I have, and visit the magnificent Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception you will discover a small, unique statue of him situated to the right of the altar.  If you look up, and you should, you will find a ceiling exquisitely rendered in gold leaf patterns of alternating fleur-de-lis and shamrocks, heraldic symbols of both France and Ireland.  Mobile, like most of the Gulf Coast, was originally colonized by the French and, in fact, it was here that the first Mardi Gras was celebrated in North America; not in New Orleans.  This was in 1703--another fun fact.  It is celebrated in Mobile to this day. 

How did St. Patrick sneak into this decidedly French environment, you may ask?  The answer lies with all the Irish priests and bishops entombed in the vault beneath the Cathedral.  In those days, the Irish were mighty and prodigious evangelizers of the Catholic faith and were forever charging into the breach.  It appears that they charged into the Mobile colony.  The French and the Irish have a long relationship actually, as both have found themselves squared off repeatedly with their mutual enemy, the English.  One happy result of this alliance was Hennessey Cognac; another the breathtaking ceiling of the Cathedral.  More fun facts as promised.

My protagonist opens the story with a request for one of these priests (French or Irish, it doesn't matter).  He wishes to prepare himself for his impending exit from this perplexing world of ours.  A rider is sent to Mobile to fetch one.  Thus begins our tale of madness and murder.  It's in the March/April issue along with many fine tales by such notables as Doug Allyn, Dave Zeltserman, S.J. Rozan, Loren D. Estleman, Marilyn Todd, and more!  I hope that you will get a copy of this issue, and that if you do, you find your visit to L.A. (Lower Alabama) interesting.

P.S. During my time here the news broke of Harper Lee's impending book release.  This was big down here as Monroeville, a nearby community, is both Ms. Lee's home and the setting for "To Kill A Mockingbird."

P.P.S. Oh yes, almost forgot, our fellow SleuthSayer, Dale Andrews, vacations yearly in nearby Gulf Shores, Alabama--a final fun fact.

22 February 2015

Songs of the South


Please not yet. Those are the three eternal words. Please not yet.
                                                John D. MacDonald
                                                A Deadly Shade of Gold

       As usual the month of February finds me on the gulf shore of Alabama, making a good on a promise my wife and I made to ourselves back when we were still in the work-a-day world: once we retired February would never again find us in Washington, D.C. So we have again traveled south to a rental on the shore. Not the tropics, but also not the frozen east coast of the past several weeks.

Harper Lee
     Alabama is a sort of exciting place for anyone interested in literature to find themselves this February. Only a few weeks ago, and a scant 100 miles north, Harper Lee, the now 88 year old author of the American Classic To Kill a Mockingbird announced to a stunned world that, after 55 years of literary silence, this summer a sequel to her Pulitzer Prize winning story of Scout, Atticus and the travails of small town life in Alabama will be published.

       Whether we should feel some trepidation as we await the return of Atticus and Scout in the long-withheld Go Set a Watchman has already been the subject of numerous articles. Far be it from me to add another. But aside from such speculations concerning the ultimate merit of the Mockingbird sequel, an interesting sidelight to the pending publication of Harper Lee’s second novel is the reaction of the reading public, which had become resigned to Lee’s oft-articulated position that she would never publish a second work. This had been both accepted and hard to get over -- we had fallen in love with Mockingbird -- and Lee’s resolve to leave it at that had left us feeling a bit like a child allowed but one toy. The anticipation has been overwhelming with the possibility of another now on the horizon. 

Arthur Conan Doyle
       A writer’s decision to not follow up on a popular book, or to end a popular series of books, often invites a public outcry. Famously, Arthur Conan Doyle found himself unable, in the face of such clamor, to leave Sherlock Holmes sprawled at the bottom of the Reichenbach Falls. Doyle (and now Lee) ultimately bent, in some degree, to the clamor. Doyle took up the pen again, and Lee's attorney discovered that previous manuscript. And just yesterday Arthur Conan Doyle had his own last laugh -- a similarly "lost" Sherlock Holmes story was discovered in an attic after lying there unnoticed for the past 111 years.

       But what happens when the series ends for reasons beyond the author’s ability to remedy; when the author is gone but nothing is left behind?  Since, as noted, I am gazing out toward the Gulf as I type, what could be more natural than to allow my gaze to linger off toward the east, where 17 miles away Florida beckons? And what is more “Florida” than John D. MacDonald and his iconic literary sidekick Travis McGee?

John D. MacDonald
       Okay, okay. I know there what you may be thinking. Does he intend to offer up as a premise a column that lumps Harper Lee -- a Pulitzer Prize winning (and beloved) artist -- with John D. MacDonald, the erstwhile paperback king who wrote almost 80 books over the course of a career that began in pulp fiction?  In a word:  Yep. But I'm not the only one who places MacDonald on a pretty high pedestal.  Back in 2003 Jonathan Yardley, literary critic for the Washington Post, went back to re-read MacDonald and came away incredulous, concluding that the body of work revealed the author as "one of the great characters in contemporary American fiction -- not crime fiction; fiction, period."  Yardley went on to explain:
This man whom I'd snobbishly dismissed as a paperback writer turned out to be a novelist of the highest professionalism and a social critic armed with vigorous opinions stingingly expressed. His prose had energy, wit and bite, his plots were humdingers, his characters talked like real people, and his knowledge of the contemporary world was -- no other word will do -- breathtaking.
       This is not the first time that I have offered up thoughts on MacDonald and McGee in this space. Unlike Harper Lee, who wrote but one book (now, two), John D. MacDonald (like Doyle) was prolific. He wrote almost 80 works of fiction and nonfiction, and 21 McGee novels before his sudden death in 1986. But he still left us hanging.  In the last of the Travis McGee series, The Lonely Silver Rain, McGee is confronted with several revelations (no further spoilers here!) but then, given MacDonald’s demise two years later, McGee’s fans are ultimately left to ponder where these revelations might have led.

       Like Harper Lee, whose sequel to Mockingbird was known by some friends to have existed, at least at one time, MacDonald, too, was rumored to have a final Travis McGee novel under lock and key.  I remember reading as much in a 1975 interview with MacDonald, and Stephen King has stated that before MacDonald's death he had discussed with King the backbone of what would be the final McGee adventure.  But all rumors of that final work, usually conjectured to bear the title A Black Border for McGee, were apparently baseless. MacDonald’s heirs have asserted that no such work exists, and have steadfastly refused all requests by other authors -- most notably one from Stephen King -- to continue (and properly end) the series. One caveat, here:  there is a little-known novel, The Black Squall, by Lori Stone, which sneaks around the heirs' prohibition by offering a final adventure clearly addressing what might have happened to Travis McGee and his friend Meyer, but doing so without ever using their actual names. But other than that, barring a Harper Lee, or Arthur Conan Doyle-like denouement -- a final work miraculously discovered -- that is it for McGee.

       So aside from The Black Squall (which, I admit, I have not read) the many fans of Travis McGee have had to look elsewhere over the last thirty years for a fix. And that has sparked a bit of a literary cottage industry among authors seeking to re-capture, and then offer to the reading public, the essence of McGee. 

       So, pause with me here. What, at base, is the Travis McGee formula?  What do readers look for in a Travis McGee novel?  The series evolved over time, but viewed in its entirety it seems to me MacDonald's McGee adventures are comprised of the following base elements: 

The Busted Flush, as imagined
       First, the series is centered around an “off the grid” protagonist with an off-beat lifestyle and home. McGee is a self-described beach bum who occasionally comes out of his “installment” retirement to take cases as a “salvage consultant,” working for 50 percent of the value of the property recovered. He lives in his 52 foot cabin cruiser, The Busted Flush, won in a poker game. His detached and unburdened lifestyle, and his luxury to observe the world around him as an objective critic, captures the reader. He narrates his own stories with spot-on observations and critiques of the world in which we live. We, as readers, nod in agreement and become wannabes. 

       Second, there is the “best friend” buddy who provides an intellectual counterpoint, someone with whom the protagonist can spar during the course of the narrative. This companion must be colorful in his own right, intelligent, and equally detached, but must in some respects stand in independent contrast to the protagonist. McGee’s “buddy” is Meyer, an erstwhile economist, who lives on his nearby book-packed ship, initially The John Maynard Keynes, later (after The Keynes fails to survive an adventure) The Thorstein Veblen. 

     Third, the stories, at their heart, focus on the strengths, and the largely man-made weaknesses, of the state of Florida. Even when they do not take place there, each Travis McGee adventure displays a love of the natural Florida ecosystems, a disgruntled horror as to what is happening to them, and a matching disdain for those who are “developing” the state out of existence. A kind word is never said about a double wide, a condominium, a jet ski or a Hawaiian shirt.  As Florida author Carl Hiassen has written: "Most readers loved MacDonald's work because he told a rip-roaring yarn. I loved it because he was the first modern writer to nail Florida dead-center, to capture all its languid sleaze, racy sense of promise, and breath-grabbing beauty." 

       Fourth, the adventures must be well written.  MacDonald often criticized what he viewed as "hack" writing, and his own works set a high bar with his clean and spare prose, his eye for detail, and his ear for dialog.  

       With these elements in mind, for those craving a Florida fix, or, more specifically, a Travis McGee fix, there are at least two series that work pretty hard to deliver: The Doc Ford series written by Randy Wayne White, and the Thorn series written by James W. Hall. 

       Doc Ford, a retired NSA agent and marine biologist, has been the hero of 21 mysteries written by Randy Lee White, with a 22nd, Cuba Straits, due out this March. The similarities to the McGee stories are striking. Ford is decidedly “off the grid,” living in a stilt house above the water on the gulf coast of Florida and ostensibly making his living by peddling marine specimens to collectors and scientists. His best friend and sidekick (like Meyer, always referred to by a single name) is Tomlinson, a frequently stoned philosopher who lives nearby on a Morgan sailboat (also, in a direct nod to MacDonald, named The Thorstein Veblen).  And the Doc Ford stories invariably contain impassioned takes on the delicate Florida eco structure and the angry rants of a frustrated environmentalist protagonist as he witnesses what is happening to it. 

       Another take on the formula is James W. Hall’s series, featuring the loner Thorn. Thorn is also an environmentally-aware protagonist who lives in a Florida shack built above the water and makes his living tying fishing lures. He is an orphan and a maverick, and is usually aided by his (again, one-name) sidekick Sugarman, a Florida policeman (and, eventually, ex-policeman) who serves as Thorn's verbal sparring partner as they fight various injustices, including the abuses rendered to the Floridian land and sea. 

       Each of these series has its faithful followers, and each is well written. Randy Wayne White has authored over fifty books, fiction and non-fiction, under his own name and several aliases. James W. Hall is both a novelist and an accomplished poet. The reader expects well written prose from these gentlemen and the authors deliver. But having read most of White’s series and the first third of Hall’s, there is still something missing for a reader, such as myself, in search of Travis McGee. Maybe it is the fact that Doc Ford, and (I suspect) Randy Wayne White, at least for me, is a little too right wing for a steady diet. Maybe it’s the fact that entirely too many of the characters in Hall’s series end up dying, and in gratuitous ways unnecessary to the logical progression of the story. 

       But lets face it: criticism is easy. And, by the same token, concocting a riveting tale and telling the tale as well as MacDonald, by contrast, is hard.  It takes a real hand to pull off a Florida series that can be read as a steady diet.  I can’t even do that with Carl Hiaasen's novels. When I have read a few I feel the need to come up for air.  These books, and other Florida capers, are fine as far as they go, but they still pale when compared to the works of John D. MacDonald, in the words of Stephen King “the great entertainer of our age, and a mesmerizing storyteller.” 

The last Travis McGee novel
        It looks like those of us who wondered what ever happened to Scout and Atticus will get our answer this summer, fifty five years after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. And now we also have a new Sherlock Holmes story, thanks to that lost Arthur Conan Doyle manuscript.  MacDonald’s fans, of course, arguably have little to grouse about by contrast. The available MacDonald library is far greater than Harper Lee's two books, and McGee, on his own, weighs in with 21 installments. But, still, that has not stopped fans from wishing, and from searching out and then gobbling up similar Florida adventures.    

       For fans of these authors it is not so much how many books were written as it is facing the prospect that there will be no more.  It is that prospect that leaves us overjoyed at the unexpected promise of Go Set a Watchman or that final Sherlock Holmes story, and despairing over the fact that McGee's tale is apparently done.  The response of many of us to the fact that it is all over is a rift on McDonald’s three eternal words:

       “Please, not yet.”

25 January 2015

Slip Sliding Away?


[The Doctor] gave me the route map: loss of memory, short- and long-term, the disappearance of single words -- simple nouns might be the first to go -- then language itself, along with balance, and soon after, all motor control, and finally the autonomous nervous system. Bon voyage!
                                                                       Atonement: A Novel 
                                                                       Ian McEwan 

       Over the holidays I read several mystery novels, each set in Florida or the Gulf Coast, all in a row. I don’t know why I did this -- maybe the gray skies over Washington, D.C. and the promise (threat?) of more winter on the horizon had something to do with it, or maybe it was just a simple reaction to my impending return to SleuthSayers and the prospect of sharing space on a new day with my friend and inveterate Floridian Leigh. More on those Florida books later -- perhaps next month.

       But after that steady southern diet I started to feel a little swampy, which led me to Ian McEwan’s Atonement in search of something different. A great book, by the way. And in it the above quote, from an author character who, near the end of Atonement, confronts the onset of dementia, struck a chord. Confronting and dealing with dementia in the context of mystery novels has been a recurring theme, both lately and historically. 

        In an earlier article discussing first person narration I referenced Alice LaPlante’s debut novel Turn of Mind, where the central character and first person narrator, Dr. Jennifer White, is an Orthopedic surgeon suffering from Alzheimer's disease. LaPlante skillfully allows the reader to know only what Jennifer knows, and the story progresses only through her distorted view. As readers we are imprisoned in her mind, a mind that Dr. White herself describes as:
This half state. Life in the shadows. As the neurofibrillary tangles proliferate, as the neuritic plaques harden, as synapses cease to fire and my mind rots out, I remain aware. An unanesthetized patient. 
       Another recent mystery utilizing the same technique -- a narrator disabled by dementia -- is Emma Healing’s ambitious mystery Elizabeth Is Missing. Here, too, the first person narration is by the central character, Maude, who speaks through her dementia, and all we know of the mystery at hand, and the clues to its solution, are told to us through her filter. 

       Tough stuff, writing a mystery under such constraints. But what about the tougher task -- writing a mystery when it is the author who is struggling with the real-life constraint? That may be precisely what Agatha Christie did when she penned her last mysteries. 

       I began to read Christie late, after I had exhausted all of the Ellery Queen mysteries that were out there. And that early obsession with Queen tripped me up a bit as I approached Christie. With Queen I found that I liked the later mysteries best, those from the mid-1940s on. I particularly liked the final Queen volumes, beginning with The Finishing Stroke. And that led me to a mis-step. I began reading Christie by starting with her most recent works, specifically, Postern of Fate and Elephants Can Remember. Oops. 

       Postern of Fate, the chronologically last book that Christie wrote, features Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. This, on its own, is a sad way to end things -- they were hardly Christie’s best detective characters. But that is not the real problem. The reader uncomfortably notes from the beginning of the book that conversations occurring in one chapter are forgotten in the next. Deductions that are relatively simple are drawn out through the course of many pages. Clues are dealt with multiple times in some instances, in others they are completely ignored.  The Cambridge Guide to Women's Writing in English, tags the work as one of Christie’s "execrable last novels" in which she "loses her grip altogether." 

       Elephants Can Remember, written one year earlier, fares no better. The Cambridge Guide also ranks this as one of the “execrable last novels.” More specifically, English crime writer, critic and lecturer Robert Bernard had this to say:      
Another murder-in-the-past case, with nobody able to remember anything clearly, including, alas, the author. At one time we are told that General Ravenscroft and his wife (the dead pair) were respectively sixty and thirty-five; later we are told he had fallen in love with his wife's twin sister 'as a young man'. The murder/suicide is once said to have taken place ten to twelve years before, elsewhere fifteen, or twenty. Acres of meandering conversations, hundreds of speeches beginning with 'Well, …' That sort of thing may happen in life, but one doesn't want to read it.
       Speaking of reading, are we perhaps reading too much into all of this? Could it just be that Christie had run out of inspiration? Younger writers (Stephen King comes to mind) display peaks and valleys in their fiction output.  Could Christie have just ended in a valley?  Unlikely.  There is almost certainly more to Christie’s problem than just un-inspired plots. 

       Ian Lancashire, an English professor at the University of Toronto wondered about the perceived decline in Christie’s later novels and devised a way to put them to the test. Lancashire developed a computer program that tabulates word usage in books, and then fed sixteen of Agatha Christie’s works, written over fifty years, into the computer. Here are his findings, couched in terms of his analysis of Elephants Can Remember, and as summarized by RadioLab columnist Robert Krulwich:
When Lancashire looked at the results for [Elephants Can Remember], written when [Christie] was 81 years old, he saw something strange. Her use of words like "thing," "anything," "something," "nothing" – terms that Lancashire classifies as "indefinite words" – spiked. At the same time, [the] number of different words she used dropped by 20 percent. "That is astounding," says Lancashire, "that is one-fifth of her vocabulary lost."
         But to her credit, Christie was likely battling mightily to produce Elephants and Postern. Lancaster hypothesizes as much, not only from the results of his computer analysis of vocabulary, but also based on a more subjective analysis of the plot of Elephants.
 Lancashire told Canadian current affairs magazine Macleans that the title of the novel, a tweaking of the proverb "elephants never forget", also gives a clue that Christie was defensive about her declining mental powers. . . . [T]he protagonist [in the story] is unable to solve the mystery herself, and is forced to call on the aid of Hercule Poirot.
"[This] reveals an author responding to something she feels is happening but cannot do anything about," he said. "It's almost as if the crime is not the double-murder-suicide, the crime is dementia."
In any event Christie likely should have stopped while the stopping was good, which she did after Postern. Her final mysteries, Curtain and Sleeping Murder, while published in the mid-1970s, were in fact written in the 1940s. 

       Christie’s plight is a bit uncomfortable for aging authors (I find myself standing in the queue) to contemplate. But thankfully Christie’s road as she reached 80 is not everyone’s. Rex Stout still had the literary dash at about the same age to give us Nero Wolfe slamming that door in J. Edgar Hoover’s face in The Doorbell Rang.  There, and in his final work Family Affair, written in 1975 when Stout was in his late 80s, there are certainly no apparent problems. Time’s review of Family concluded "even veteran aficionados will be hypnotized by this witty, complex mystery." I recently read Ruth Rendell’s latest work, The Girl Next Door, written during Rendell's 84th year, and it is, to use Dicken’s phrase, “tight as a drum.” Similarly, the last P. D. James work, Death Comes to Pemberley, a Jane Austen pastiche written when James was well into her 90s, received glowing reviews, most notably from the New York Times, and has already been adapted into a British television miniseries. And when James’ works were analyzed by the same computer program to which Christie’s novels were subjected, the results established that James’ vocabulary, even in her 90s, was indistinguishable from that employed in her earlier works. 

       So if you are both writing and contemplating the other side of middle age, watch out! But on the other hand don’t needlessly descend into gloom. Keep your fingers crossed and remember the advice of Spock, as rendered by Leonard Nimoy (also in his 80’s): Live long and prosper!