Showing posts with label David Edgerley Gates. Show all posts
Showing posts with label David Edgerley Gates. Show all posts

10 October 2018

XPD

David Edgerley Gates


XPD is a usage coined by Len Deighton, in his terrific 1981 thriller of that title, an acronym for Expedient Demise.



A week ago Wednesday, the Russian Prosecutor General's Office confirmed that senior deputy prosecutor Saak Karapetyan had been killed in a helicopter crash outside of Kostroma. A town on the Volga, dating back to the 12th century, if not earlier, Kostroma is one of the so-called Golden Ring cities, a favored retreat of the Grand Dukes of Moscow, the Romanovs, and Soviet nomenklatura. There are conflicting reports. Local officials said at first it was an unauthorized flight, this was contradicted by Moscow. Stanislav Mikhnov, an "experienced" pilot, apparently took off under "adverse" conditions. The third man aboard was also killed. Aviation emergency services are investigating the incident.

Russians are of course total gluttons for conspiracy theories, hidden protocols, and labyrinthine paranoia, so they're all over this one, faster than you can say Vince Foster, but maybe they know something we don't. This guy's handwriting covers a good many pages.

Saak Albertovich Karapetyan was a member of the security apparat. He made his bones in Rostov, as a state prosecutor, and after serving in parliament, he was appointed to the office of Prosecutor General. He headed the Main Directorate for International Legal Cooperation for ten years, and it was in this capacity that he ran interference on at least two major criminal investigations, the Magnitsky case and the Litvinenko poisoning.

The which? you ask. As well you might.

Sergei Magnitsky was a tax auditor, representing an investment firm, Hermitage Capital. Investigating financial irregularities, Magnitsky exposed a widespread fraud, involving the police, the courts, tax agents, bankers, and the Russian mob. Although his accusations later proved out, the immediate result of his going public was his own arrest. He was held for eleven months, and died in custody, under what might be called clouded circumstances. It's a complicated story, and not least because the official Russian version is completely contrary to the known facts.

In the U.S., the eponymous Magnitsky Act was passed to allow for sanctioning individuals responsible for human rights violations. Putin has been working to overturn the Act for the past six years, and it was apparently part of the conversation with Michael Flynn and at the Trump Tower meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya.

Veselnitskaya - wait for it - wrote the supporting brief for her then-boss, senior prosecutor Saak Karapetyan, when he stonewalled U.S. inquiries into the money-laundering case against the Russian real estate company Prevezon. Another complex financial tangle, but it leads back to the tax fraud Magnitsky blew open, and the dirty money that was never recovered.

A footnote, here. Magnitsky's boss at Hermitage, the American entrepreneur Bill Browder, has been continually targeted by the Prosecutor General's Office, through Interpol arrest warrants. Most jurisdictions seem to hold the warrants without merit. Browder was instrumental in getting the Magnitsky Act onto the books. A second footnote. Nikolai Gorokhov, a Magnitsky family lawyer who was scheduled as a witness in the Prevezon case, fell out a Moscow window before he could testify.

Alexander Litvinenko. If you're reading this, you probably know who he was. The polonium poisoning? London. 2006. Scotland Yard sent a team to Moscow, the Russians welcoming transparency and all that, but the British cops got sick - they thought somebody slipped them a Mickey - and guess who was in the room? Our senior prosecutor, Saak Karapetyan.

He more recently went out of his way to accuse the Brits of yet more Russia-bashing, in reference to the Novichok attack. Karapetyan put Sergei Skripal, Litvinenko, and Boris Berezovksy (another latterly dead Putin critic) in the same sentence, calling them provocations, which in this context means a false allegation for political gain.

The connection between Karapetyan and Veselnitskaya came out of the closet because of a blown recruitment, this past year. They've been close for a long time, Karapetyan her mentor - The Daily Beast, for one, has been using the more suggestive term handler. Anyway, the two of them had actively compromised a senior Swiss official, whose day job was monitoring the Swiss accounts of Russian oligarchs and mob guys. You notice how, more often than not, it seems to be about the money?

All of this is no more than a chain of circumstance. There's nothing to indicate Karapetyan was less than a loyal soldier, no reason to think he'd be better off dead. There is, however, a later and uncorroborated story that the helicopter pilot, Mikhnov, had two bullet holes in him. The question you have to ask is, Cui Bono - Who Benefits? I don't have a ready answer. It could simply be one of those weird juxtapositions, where the sinister meets the convenient. It could be an untidy intrigue, something domestic, a private grudge. But maybe the guy had sold his soul to the Devil, and it came time to collect. 

*

Best American Mystery Stories 2018, edited by Louise Penny and Otto Penzler, is out from Houghton, Mifflin.  Included are SleuthSayer authors Michael Bracken, John Floyd, David Edgerley Gates, and Paul D. Marks. 


26 September 2018

Sharky

David Edgerley Gates


Burt Reynolds made his share of dogs, which he'd be the first to admit, but in 1981 he released Sharky's Machine, a rock-solid cop noir about dirty money and easy virtue.

John Boorman was originally signed. It had been nine years since Deliverance, the first picture anybody took Reynolds seriously in. But post-production on Excalibur ran long, and Boorman stepped away, telling Reynolds he should direct Sharky himself.

Burt Reynolds in mid-career, the early 1970's to the early 1980's, was Top Ten box office. He leveraged this into directing his first feature, Gator, in 1976. His second picture, The End, came out in 1978. Reynolds had optioned Sharky's Machine when it was published. He knew he had the chops. Now it was time to ante up.


This is a movie that begins with the first frame of the opening credits. Actually, it begins before the opening credits, because there's an eerie musical echo behind the Orion studio logo, then a fade to black, and then the first fade-in. A freeze frame, the color desaturated. An urban skyline, a tall glass-high-rise. The aerial shot tilts and opens up. Solo saxophone, bluesy, a little wistful. The string section, in a low register. Randy Crawford, her voice smoky, comes in slow, with the opening lyrics of 'Street Life:' "I still hang around/Neither lost nor found - " The single long shot keeps going, dipping closer to the ground, the camera in tighter, traveling left to right, picking up detail. Railroad tracks, a guy with a long, purposeful stride. Jump edit, with a simultaneous music cue, blam! the rhythm section kicking in, the horns. Cut to a sudden reverse, looking back up from a low angle, the camera now moving right to left, keeping pace with the guy's motion, his silhouette against the sky, the glass high-rise on the horizon behind him, distant, a world apart from his. And yes, the opening introduces Burt Reynolds.

First off, it's a virtuoso shot, done in the day before CGI. Secondly, it sets up - formally - a repeated visual effect, from high to low, from low to high. You're not at first aware of it. Then you begin to notice. Early on, there's a wonderful tracking shot, inside a stairwell. Sharky's been taken off Narcotics, and reassigned to Vice, below the salt. In fact, Vice is literally in the basement of the building. The camera backs down the stairs, below Sharky and his partner. A couple of flights down, his buddy tells him, This is as far as I go, people don't come back, and Sharky goes on alone, but the camera turns behind him, so it's hanging back, looking over his shoulder.

Sharky's Machine has very conscious echoes of Laura, and Rear Window, but its deeper influence is the legend of Orpheus, themes of descent and ascending. The journey into Hades, the rescue of the beloved, once lost. The whore Dominoe is an innocent, and the tarnished Sharky the one in need of redemption.


Not that the movie's perfect, by any means. There's one near-fatal mistake, when Dominoe finds Sharky carving a rose into the wood trim of a window seat in the old house he's renovating, and Reynolds has one of those patented Aw, shucks moments that just makes you want to vomit. It almost breaks the spell entirely. Another incident, when Sharky confronts Hotchkins, the crooked candidate whose run for governor can be compromised by Dominoe, loses most its effectiveness because it's played in long-shot, and you don't hear what they say to each other.

Let's look at the strengths. Music supervision by Snuff Garrett. The score's orchestrated by Doc Severinsen, who goes uncredited. But we have both Chet Baker and Julie London doing 'My Funny Valentine,' not to mention incidental tracks by Sarah Vaughan and Joe Williams. The cinematography. William Fraker. Rosemary's Baby, Bullitt, Tombstone. The entire cast. Charles Durning. Brian Keith. Bernie Casey. Richard Libertini. Earl Holliman. Vittorio Gassman. Henry Silva. Not to forget Rachel Ward, either.

What characterizes the picture, in a curious way, is restraint. Considering how much of it is over the top, and how repellent the material could easily be, Reynolds gives it a genuinely human dimension. When he does dial up the shock, it's all the more chilling for not seeming forced or calculated so much as necessary and immediate.

Sharky's Machine was Burt Reynolds' high-water mark. He tried again with Stick, and the movie tanked. It was his last major picture as a director. He later admitted he thought he could always come back to it - he directed a number of episodes for his series, Evening Shade - but time had passed him by.

In one of his last interviews, he said he didn't have any regrets left. I think he meant, not that he had none, but that he'd used them all up. He didn't need to spare any over Sharky's Machine. You could take that guy to the bank and get change back.


12 September 2018

In The Corner

David Edgerley Gates


Ever painted yourself into a corner? Writers obviously set targets, like a page count or a due date, or decide on a specific setting or circumstance, maybe a card game, or Elizabethan London, or a child's narrative POV - and then of course we move the goalposts. I'm thinking more particularly of stepping into a snare of your own devising, creating a problem you didn't know you had.

Writing's an obstacle course. And one of the things you learn early on is that you can't leave stuff out, you can't skip something because you think nobody will notice. This is obvious if we're talking about forensic detail, say, but less so when it requires us to bring more to the game. We all play to our strengths, and have lazy habits of mind, or avoidance mechanisms. It's about the comfort zone. 

For example. I first blocked out my spy story "Cover of Darkness" a very long time before the end result saw print. We're talking years. Partly, it was cold feet. I wasn't even entirely sure I wanted to write about the Cold War, and my time in Berlin, and I had a handy alibi, because I knew I was crossing the line between inside information and actual classified material. But the real stumbling block was my own skill level. The set-up for the story - the rainy tarmac, the stuffy car, the security, the briefing - was all very fluent. The  problem was, once the story really starts, once McElroy makes the dive into the icy river, everything takes place underwater. It was claustrophobic, there was no dialogue, it was all physical description. I broke it up a little, of necessity, but the basic story is one long action scene. It was a toughie.

Another story, "Winter Kill," stopped me a third of the way in, because I'd written myself into an impossible box. I had a murder victim, a cold case, skeletal remains, but no ID on the victim. How do you pin it on somebody? Doyle claimed that the Holmes stories were written back to front, he knew going in what Holmes would deduce, so it was a matter of reversing the plot. In my case, I don't think I've ever known going in how a story would turn out. The work-around, in "Winter Kill," is that I blinked. I realized it couldn't be made to happen, and I came up with a way to narrow the possibilities, and put a history to the bones. In other words, I fudged it.

I've talked before about the sex scene in my novella Viper. This is an example where there wasn't any work-around. I put my head in the lion's mouth. I hadn't planned it that way, by any means, but as the story took on shape and momentum, the inevitability loomed. And it had to be full-frontal, it couldn't happen off-stage. I've speculated previously that I did this accidentally on purpose, just to see if I could navigate the rapids.

I'm wrapping a Benny Salvador story now called "Second Sight," and I've hit a snag right at the end. The question isn't what happened, but how to explain it - more exactly, how not to explain it, how to paper over the details because the truth will do more injury than a comforting lie. There's the moral issue involved, Benny being pretty much a straight arrow, and a part of him knows he owes an honest account, but the lie will own him. And then we have the actual mechanics. How do I manage this convincingly?

This last is a different kind of obstacle from the ones I've outlined above, and of course that's the point, that each of them presents a new, and individual, difficulty. The specific, not the generic. I'm perfectly ready to entertain the notion that we're testing ourselves, pushing the boundaries, raising the bar. That it's a contest, or even a contact sport, hand-to-hand combat, wrestling an intransigent syntax to a weary draw. Or is it simply the quiet satisfaction of getting it right? No. There's more to it than that. There's that place we all know, where you get to say it out loud. Gotcha, you bastard.



22 August 2018

Losing It

David Edgerley Gates


Trump's recent revocation of former DCI John Brennan's security clearance has generated a lot of heat and not much light. Let's see if we can read the entrails.

To begin with, access to confidential information is authorized on a Need-to-Know basis. You need to know this stuff to do your job. Moving into the upper atmosphere, information gets classified at higher levels, Sensitive and Compartmentalized. In my own case, as an analyst working with intercepted military communications, my clearance level was Top Secret/Crypto [CODEWORD Material] Handle Via COMINT Channels Only. The primary purpose, here, was to protect sources and methods. As the intelligence was passed on to consumers, those specific sources and methods were edited out, and only referenced to indicate provenance and reliability - even then, in sanitized euphemisms.

At policy level, the upper reaches of the chain of command, the National Security Council, say, the inner circle, CIA and NSA, State, the Pentagon, these people are breathing thinner air. Compartmentalization isn't an issue, access is across the board. Still, the habit of secrecy, the gnostic power, that Special Knowledge, held in trust by the initiate, is a drug. It's the crystal meth of statecraft. Losing the privilege, going cold turkey, is being cast into the outer darkness, with weeping and gnashing of teeth.

I remember being processed out of Berlin. They terminated my clearance, and red-badged me. I was redundant. It was both exhilarating and depressing. Release is second cousin to exile. But at the same time, it was clearly explained that I was to take their secrets to the grave with me, and the alternative was Leavenworth. There was also a two-year travel restriction. I was prohibited from going to Eastern Europe, for example - which made perfect sense, since our resources targeted Group Soviet Forces and the Warsaw Pact. They might have liked to pick my brain.

More to the point, if you spend a significant period in your life locked into a mission, you can't shift gears as easily as you change your socks. We were on the edge of the Cold War. It's not an exaggeration to suggest we played some small part in preventing it from turning hot. And almost everybody I know from back then kept their hand in. How not? You read between the lines, you hear an echo where other people hear empty air. You miss the high.

It's long-standing convention, going back to Eisenhower, that senior figures keep their secure access through successive administrations. The tradition of the Wise Men, somehow above the fray. Think of Dean Acheson, or Clark Clifford, or James Baker. You can call on these guys in a crisis. And they, of course, are all too ready. What, you think Henry Kissinger's shy?

In the case of Brennan, specifically, I'm hearing that a fair number of people in the intelligence community, both former and currently serving, don't care for the guy. They regard him as self-serving, and his version of his own bio leaves out the unwary he's thrown under the bus. Be that as it may. It's all the more interesting, then, that seven former DCI's and six former Deputy Directors, along with two former Directors of National Intelligence, have put their names to a letter supporting Brennan and challenging Trump. Not challenging Trump's authority to refuse Brennan access to secure materials, but the grounds for it.

Brennan is clearly being punished for shooting his mouth off. He's made no secret of his disdain for Trump, and Trump has seemingly conflated Brennan's animosity with the Mueller investigation. (This is just one of those odd distortions that appear at random in the Trump alternate ecosystem.) What the signatories to the protest letter take issue with is the chilling effect. It's probably safe to say they don't all agree with Brennan, and if they do, they think it's better to keep it to themselves. Gen. Michael Hayden has not, he's been extremely critical of Trump, but Hayden has an honorable track record, in my opinion - a lot better than Brennan's. Bob Gates, Porter Goss, and Leon Panetta. They've kept their own counsel, and I think they must feel duty-bound to speak up. Tenet and Petraeus, on the other hand? Tenet went in the bag for WMD's. Petraeus, damn it, put Little Elvis at the wheel. 

It's naive, or willful ignorance, to think intelligence isn't politicized. We have only to go back as far as the late 1960's, when it was pretty widely known in certain closed circles that the field reporting out of Viet Nam was being massaged as it went up the food chain, to present an acceptable wisdom. But by and large, intelligence professionals try to present a realistic approximation of a shifting and ambiguous world. The run-up to Iraq is in fact a pretty good example. Feith and Wolfowitz tried to use their weasel shop at the Pentagon to discredit the CIA reporting, and Nigerian yellowcake made it into the State of the Union, but the Agency kept pushing the least dishonest assessments they could, even though Tenet was afraid he'd lose both the argument and the confidence of the only client who mattered. This is of course the actual bottom line. You want the president's ear, and his trust. If he stops listening, you've lost the fight. You still do your best to give good weight.

What we're seeing here isn't disloyalty, or a mutiny by the palace eunuchs. It's not the Deep State, either, although you might call it the deep bench. I don't imagine these guys have any hope of changing Trump. Maybe this is no more than a symbolic gesture, a decent respect. I have to wonder if they're not looking past public opinion, which seems pretty rigid, either way, and the bluster and cowardice of Congress, and speaking to their still-serving peers. It's not about the man, whether Brennan or Trump. That's small potatoes. It's about the mission. It's about something larger than parochial self-interest.

Trump already has an adversarial relationship with his national security staff. He's got the attention span of a fruit-fly, for one, which means his briefers have learned to use block lettering and bright colors. Secondly, he refuses to admit Russian disinformation efforts in the election, and the possible benefit to him. And of course third, he uses every opportunity to malign the integrity of his own agencies, particularly CIA and the Feebs.

You have to wonder how this plays as a team-building effort and management message. Obviously, the personnel still in place aren't sharing. But in the 48 hours after the big guns went public, another sixty former CIA senior staff added their names, and now an additional seventy-five have signed on. That's a fair amount of disgruntlement, and we're not talking about a bunch of starry-eyed innocents, either. These are career intelligence officers. They know where the bodies are buried. They've buried a few.

I can only hazard a guess, but this appears to be an engaged support group. Professional courtesy. Commitment. I think it's a show of hands.  


08 August 2018

Munich 1938

David Edgerley Gates

Robert Harris has written a dozen compelling and thoughtful thrillers, beginning with Fatherland, in 1992. The first novel was alternative history. Then he went with the real thing in Enigma, about WWII code-breaking at Bletchley Park, and Archangel was a little of both, Stalin's ghost as metaphor, but with an all-too-physical legacy.

Further along, we've had the Cicero trilogy - ancient Rome - and An Officer and a Spy, the Dreyfus affair. Not to mention an acid take-down of Tony Blair. Mostly the books take place at a safe remove from the present, not that they lose any of their ominous immediacy.  



What lies now in the past once lay in the future. This is the epigraph, slightly paraphrased, from his most recent book, Munich. In late September of 1938, the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain flew to Germany to meet with Adolf Hitler, and try one last time to prevent the outbreak of a general European war. The price agreed to would be the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, and the repatriation of the ethnic Germans in the Sudeten. Chamberlain has been much ridiculed since (thanks in no small part to the writings of his longtime political rival, Churchill, and the benefits of hindsight), but it's worth remembering that he was much honored at the time.



We might remember too that in 1938, the Armistice had only been signed twenty years before. Everybody in political office had direct experience of the Great War, and so did the voters. Chamberlain's dread of another generation going to slaughter wasn't stage piety, and his peace policy ("appeasement") had significant support - and not just in Great Britain. He was widely admired on the Continent, as well. A second point, not so well-recognized, is that Chamberlain was playing for time. Britain had its Navy, but the air forces and ground defense were completely underequipped. If they'd gone to war with Germany in 1938, they'd almost surely have gone down in defeat.



This is where the Robert Harris method pays off bigtime, with the What-Ifs. We know the world went to war. We know Hitler wasn't to be trusted. But we didn't know it then. Chamberlain isn't a fool, some doddering fuddy-duddy. He's got a misplaced hope that Hitler might feel the slightest sense of shame, but he's pretty clear-headed, and certainly cold-blooded. You could ask the Czechs.

The device Harris uses is to represent the larger canvas in small. The major actors all take the stage in turn, but the attributes of national character are on display in the brick-and-mortar of the fictional cast. Two (invented) lower-ranking foreign service guys, Legat on the British side, Hartmann on the German, were classmates at Oxford in the 1930's, and meet again at Munich. More to the point, Hartmann arranges for them to meet, so he can pass Legat a stolen document. In the event, the former friends can only talk past each other, which mirrors the larger context. Hartmann, a conspirator in the still-scattered Hitler resistance, is frustrated by Legat's obstinate insistence on matters of form. Legat thinks Hartmann is being too operatic and emotional. The doomed Romantic can't dent the stiff upper lip.



The point of all this is something I've spoken about in previous pieces, namely, what's now in the past was once in the future. This is an active dynamic in Robert Harris' books, as it is with Alan Furst or Joseph Kanon, or anybody else who writes about a shared recent history, just barely past the horizon of personal memory. WWII vets are dying off, and people who were simply alive at the time are falling by the wayside. In other words, we're losing a window into their experience. A novelist can reimagine it, or allow us to reimagine it, and a large part of that is inhabiting the time those people lived in. To us, it's old news. To them, it was the present.

Chamberlain at Munich was trying to stave off - or at best, delay - a huge, devouring calamity. Nobody actually realized how huge it would be, how calamitous, but Chamberlain was haunted by the diplomatic collapses of August 1914. He felt an enormous responsibility. In the end, the collapse came, a year later. 'Munich' is now shorthand, for weakness, for retreat, for collaboration, even. This does Chamberlain a cruel disservice. He made the mistake any reasonable man might. He thought the other guy was reasonable. 

25 July 2018

An Upstart Crow

David Edgerley Gates

Bernard Cornwell's newest book, Fools and Mortals, is a romance about Elizabethan theater, in particular about Shakespeare and the first production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. A lot of Cornwell's books are swashbucklers, the Sharpe novels, the Last Kingdom stories, and this one has its share of derring-do and hair's-breadth escapes, but much of it is theatrical in the literal sense, how a play was staged in 1595, thirty-seventh year of Elizabeth's rule.



Shakespeare isn't uncharted waters. He's had leading parts and cameos before. The yardstick is the Anthony Burgess novel Nothing Like the Sun. Burgess himself calls the period "a word-drunk age," and his novel is a headlong rush of language, told in Shakespeare's own voice, both confident and sharing confidences. (One of my personal favorites is Bitter Applesa novel within a novel, John Crowley's reimagining of that tiger's heart, wrapped in a player's hide, in the first book of his Aegypt quartet, The Solitudes.)


Cornwell gives us a convincing and fully-realized world, the rivalries between the acting companies, the politics of religion, the sexual opportunism, and the internal dynamics of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, onstage and off. In their petty intrigues and their generosity, their authenticity and pretense, a mirror of their betters, and the audience.  Cornwell does his homework, and his careful detail pays off. He always gives it flesh and bone, smoke and odor and tallow. It smells, and not of the lamp.


Which leads to a different question. Using real people in fictions. It's one thing if they're a walk-on (Hitler overheard in the next room, say), and we've likely got more freedom of invention the further off they are from us in history, but whether in the wings or front-and-center, they still have to ring true.

Gore Vidal in Burr, to take an example, confounds our expectations of the Founding Fathers. It's a poisoned-pen letter, but a salutary corrective to the hagiography of Parson Weems. Mary Renault, The Last of the Wine. Socrates is entirely plausible, and no doddering old fart or department store Santa, either. Cecelia Holland. Robert Harris. Philip Kerr. Janice Law's sly mystery series featuring that unapologetic dissolute Francis Bacon. Here lurks a clue, perhaps.


If we don't know for certain what Francis Bacon was doing on a particular Monday morning (although we know he was an air raid warden, during the Blitz), we can make it up. The same goes for Shakespeare or Socrates. Or if we do know, we can fit that into the timeframe and fabric of the story. The trick, it would seem, is putting them in a plausible circumstance. I've used real people, although not in the lead, as a rule. Gen. Leslie Groves has a bit part in "The Navarro Sisters," which is about the Manhattan Project. Owney Madden makes an appearance in a couple of the Mickey Counihan stories, and so does Bumpy Johnson. It's local flavor. I've even hired Elfego Baca as a lawyer, once upon a time, to get a kid off a murder rap in El Paso.

You don't spoil a good story for lack of the facts. Then again, you can't bend the facts to suit yourself. The best case is when you can fill in a few cracks in the existing narrative. There's a famous deleted scene in Ford's movie Young Mr. Lincoln, when Abe Lincoln first rides his mule into Springfield. Another young man steps out of a doorway, onto the plank sidewalk overlooking the street. There's a playbill on the wall next to him, advertising an upcoming theater performance. The two young men make eye contact briefly, and then glance away from each other. The second guy is of course the actor John Wilkes Booth.

*

Best wishes and Godspeed to Art Taylor, who's taking a sabbatical from this forum, picking up the reins of the blogsite First Two Pages, as well as becoming new assistant director of creative writing at George Mason University.  

11 July 2018

Wet Work

David Edgerley Gates


The Russian security services are well-practiced at what's known in the trade as Active Measures: Mokrye Dela, which loosely translates into "Wet Stuff." They've been doing it for a long time now. 

The assassination of Trotsky in Mexico in 1940, or the suspect suicide of defector Walter Krivitsky in a Washington hotel room in 1941. They used an ice axe on Trotsky. Krivitsky was found with a hole in his head and a .38 revolver in his hand.

The methods get more sophisticated. Georgi Markov in London, and Vladimir Kostov in Paris, were targeted by the Bulgarian DS, under KGB discipline. This was 1978. The vehicle was a tiny metal pellet containing ricin. A dose equivalent to a few grains of table salt is fatal. The delivery system was the by-now-notorious poisoned umbrella tip. Markov died, Kostov survived, but due only to a technical failure. The special protective coating on the pellet dissolves at human body temperature and releases the toxin; in Kostov's case, the coating was compromised.

2006. London. Alexander Litvinenko. An unstable polonium isotope. It took him three weeks to die, excruciatingly.

2018. Salisbury, UK. Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. A nerve agent in the Novichok family. Both victims survived. (But two British nationals suffered Novichok poisoning symptoms four months after the Skripals, and one died. How they came in contact with that specific toxin is unknown, as of this writing.)

This is by way of prologue, for those who may be skeptical of blaming the Russians for God knows what, or imagine it's some variation on Red-baiting. They've been practicing disinformation for a very long time, as well. If you didn't know, for example, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a forgery cooked up by the Czarist secret service, the Okhrana. You might have guessed which road I'm going down, here. Disinformation and the 2016 election.

Let's dispense with the denials. Facts don't matter, in matters of belief. We know that. Only faith counts. If you want to think Hillary Clinton ran a pedophile ring out of the basement of a DC pizza parlor, you're not going to doubt your convictions when you find out the pizza joint in question doesn't have a basement. It's obvious I'm only trying to throw sand in your eyes, distract you with inessentials, because the essential is the Deep State, the interlocking conspiracy of - ah, Jesus. I don't have the patience. You can insert [BLANK] here, fluoridation, alien abductions, or whatever the latest grievance is.

Stop me if you've heard this. Let's talk means, motive, and opportunity. Actually, motive doesn't need to take up much of our time. It's obvious the Russians are enjoying terrific benefits at our expense. The minimum damage is a widening mistrust of American political institutions, along with the collapse of a common language and our failure to engage in a national conversation. We've turned a deaf ear to any voices but our own.

Now of course this is a self-inflicted wound, and we didn't need the Russians to help, but why should they stand idly by when the opportunity was  offered to them?

People, understandably, get stuck on the means. Social media seems so transient, and shallow. How can a platform that gives us the internal monologues of Kanye and Kim have such a fatal effect? How can it be so consequential?

The penetration of social media in the everyday, its ubiquity, and the Internet presence generally, is too big a mouthful for me. That's cultural anthropology, or maybe sociopathology, if such exists. I'm just taking a look at the mechanics. If you can fix a horse race, how do you fix the Internet, in that same sense?

There's a tool content providers use called Search Engine Optimization - SEO. It's similar in a way to product placement, in a movie or on TV, a shot of the Apple logo, or a Dos Equis label on a bottle of beer. You want to draw web traffic to your sites, your sponsors, your content. A lot of web content masquerades as information. When you search for 'dental implants,' for example, or 'Mini-Cooper replacement wiper blades,' very often the top result is a tutorial. It appears as information, but it's a stealth sales pitch. The way to get Google's filters to feature this result is with trigger phrases, which optimize the search. The trick is to second-guess which keywords are most likely to be entered as search parameters, which games the system.

Search algorithms provide the closest match. You can load the dice. The higher the frequency of your triggers, the higher your SEO, and the higher results you'll return. It's pretty much an article of faith that most people won't scroll past the first ten results of any given search, and if you could weight the results, it might appear there was consensus on, say, the efficacy of dental implants.

We can apply this lesson in virtual marketing to any kind of content. Suppose we could leverage Benghazi to mean not simply a place on the map, but a leadership failure of the Obama presidency and the personal responsibility of then Secretary of State Clinton. If every web search generated six or eight results that followed this narrative, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was the received wisdom.

Stories like this can be placed using private blog networks or dummy websites. These are the robocall centers of the Internet. One will sell space on 900 sites for twenty bucks a pop. Another publishes on a network of 2,000 sites for $225. These sites aren't curated, not in the sense of being checked for accuracy. Their purpose is to maximize search hits, and boost traffic volume, which multiplies the hits exponentially,  and so on. It's circular.

It's not as dramatic as a daylight terror attack, and it doesn't have the same deterrent effect as throwing a turbulent priest or muck-raking journalist off the top of a forty-story building, but the fact that it's so pedestrian actually recommends it. It's basically a data-driven model of what's long been known as Black Propaganda.

The question isn't why would the Russians want to poison the American political well, the question is why wouldn't they? They're playing the long game. This isn't some anti-Bolshevik hysteria, this is geopolitics, the place of nations, the uses of power. Clandestine warfare is no less real or violent for being hidden.

*

And some BSP.  David Edgerley Gates and Eve Fisher are both featured in the July/August 2018 double issue of ALFRED HITCHCOCK. 


27 June 2018

The Big Sleep

David Edgerley Gates


If not the most celebrated of noir private dick pictures, The Big Sleep is a pretty tall stick on the way there. Right from the get-go, you know what country you're in, the leads in silhouette, Bogart lighting Bacall's cigarette, behind the titles, the foreboding Max Steiner score. The mansion, the butler, Carmen with her up-from-under look, the general in the hothouse full of orchids, "nasty things, ...like the flesh of men." Not a lot of wasted motion.


It was shot in 1945, right after To Have and Have Not, but Warners didn't release it until '46. In the meantime, they did some reshoots - the famous horse-racing exchange, for one - and Hawks re-cut the picture. The first edit actually makes more sense, and there isn't much difference in the run-times, but the finished product is paced so fast you never get a chance to catch your breath.

People complain the story's too hard to follow. Fair enough. Did the Sternwood chauffeur drive himself off the pier or was it staged? It's a dropped stitch, there's more than one, and nobody gets that worked up over it. Some of this is because of the Production Code. There was stuff they were never going to get away with. The biggest for instance is that Carmen can't have killed anybody, at least not and walk away, so they have to blame it on Eddie Mars. (In the book, Eddie lives to fight another day, and Marlowe even respects him on certain levels.) The book dealer, Geiger, sells pornography to a very select client list that he also blackmails, and the Lundgren kid is his boy-toy. That didn't make it into the picture. Big sister Vivian of course wants to help Carmen out of a jam, but she's not an accessory to murder. And so on. The problem being that if you subtract a key piece, the puzzle falls apart.

On the other hand, it mostly doesn't matter. The movie's all misdirection. It's character, and dialogue. How many pictures have so many amazing bits of business? The script is credited to William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman, with an uncredited assist from Philip Epstein. More than a little comes straight out of Chandler. Can you beat it?

The cop, Bernie Ohls, describing Sean Regan: "The ex-legger Sternwood hired to do his drinking for him."

"I don't like your manners."
"I don't like 'em, either. I grieve over them, long winter evenings."

"Is he as cute as you are?"
"Nobody is."

"You know what he'll do when he comes back? [Canino] Beat my teeth out, then kick me in the stomach for mumbling."

"You're a mess."
"I'm not very tall, either."

Hawks later said the picture proved something he'd already suspected, that with enough foreground razzle-dazzle, you didn't have to worry about narrative logic. "I never figured out what was going on," he told an interviewer, and at the end of the day, nobody else could, either.

Bacall gets the last word, right before the fade-out, after Bogart hangs up on the cops.
"You've forgotten one thing," she says. "Me."
He looks at her. "What's wrong with you?" he asks.
"Nothing you can't fix," she tells him.

13 June 2018

Guilty Secrets

David Edgerley Gates


I was invited by my Santa Fe pal Johnny D. Boggs, a terrific Western writer, to post a list of ten favorite movies on Facebook, one a day, in ascending order from #10 to #1, with the title and an original theatrical poster, if possible, but without explaining the choices. Every day, nominate somebody else to follow your lead. Sort of like a movie fan chain letter.

Now, this is a serious responsibility - no irony intended. For example, Johnny's choice for his Number 7 was The Grapes of Wrath, and he attached my name to it. (When we got to his Number 1, it was The Searchers.) My point being that you couldn't risk being frivolous. I had to really think about it. My first instinct was to follow Johnny's lead, and do Classics, my personal Ten Best list. The Wild Bunch, Seven Samurai, Letter From an Unknown Woman. But then I thought, No, wait. Why not Guilty Secrets? What if the criteria were, you're sitting down to dinner, you're gonna watch a movie, and saying you had the DVD on your shelf, or you could stream it live, which pictures would be your defaults? Any night, or every night?

So here's the list, which is utterly arbitrary. The only unifying conceit is that I've watched these movies over and over, and would again, tonight or any other night.

[NOTE: I put these upon Facebook without explanation, per the rules. I've added my own little cheats.]


Red Dawn (1984)
Ridiculous, knuckle-dragging claptrap, of the highest order. Then again, if you stop for a minute and consider that Milius meant it as a metaphor for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Wolverines as mujahideen, it actually makes sense. Ravishingly shot, in New Mexico locations, by Ric Waite. Powers Boothe steals the movie.


Juggernaut (1974)
It's been suggested that we're fascinated by the nuts and bolts of how to do things. Heist pictures, Rififi, or here, an ocean liner in the mid-Atlantic wired with high explosive, the bomb disposal team parachuting in, the clock winding down. Dick Lester directed. Enough star power to sink the Poseidon. Clifton James and Roy Kinnear blow them all out of the water.


The Lady Vanishes (1938)
The opening shot, as the credits fade. The camera dollies down, past the snowbound railway platform, and then a car drifts by, at ground level. You can almost see the string pulling it along. The fact that the entire scene is a model only ingratiates it to me. It's an innocent artifice, an invitation. When you catch sight of Charters and Caldicott in the waiting room, you can't help but smile in anticipation. You fall into the familiar rhythms.


In Harm's Way (1965)
Enormous, clunky, overwrought. All of the above. It gets a terrific, muscular punch from Wayne, who delivers a thoughtful, considered character that the other people in the movie seem to think is easy to read. The dramatic mechanics of the picture are pure Preminger, the formal checks and balances, but Wayne demonstrates a gravity of purpose that subverts it. You're all too aware of the labor involved, the engines and devices, the undertaking itself. Wayne doesn't struggle to be convincing. he gives his guy weight, without ever being ponderous.


The Train (1964)
Frankenheimer. What else do I need to say? The disorienting montage of Manchurian Candidate, the pulled focus of Seven Days in May. An integrated technique in this picture. The inertial, iron force of the locomotives. The fact that there's no CGI (oh, and Burt Lancaster does his own stunts). The truly amazing dolly shots, Labiche crossing the freight yards to the boat moored by the canal towpath; the colonel at Wehrmacht headquarters in Paris, the camera finding him in the chaos; the scene with Labiche casting the damaged engine part. I bow to genius.


Charade (1963)
Please. I can't imagine I have to say anything at all.


Two Rode Together (1961)
You knew there was going to be a Ford, right? This is here. of course, because of the scene by the river. "I thought she had something stuck in her teeth." For all its comedy - and 'comedy' isn't really the right word, it's burlesque - Two Rode Together is terrifically dark, much more so than The Searchers, which for all its darkness ends on a note of hope. Two Rode Together is despairing.


The War Lord (1965)
Meditative, although on paper it must have been pitched as a swashbuckler. A guy whose devotion to duty is inflexible throws it all away for love, both carnal and idealized. A very old-fashioned conceit. Terrific art direction. I love the fact that the keep is nothing like the castles in Ivanhoe, say, but a brute stone tower, damp, smoky, the horses stabled below. Guy Stockwell gets all the good lines. Richard Boone's forlorn devotion to Heston commands genuine heartbreak. Haunting score.


The Night of the Generals (1967)
Not much of a mystery, not when the biggest headliner in the cast is twitching like he's got St. Vitus' Dance. but the way they tell the story, the fractured narrative and the unreliable narrators. And the main device, a murder in wartime, where killing is every man's trade. In a movie top-heavy with brand names, the lively presence of Charles Gray in support is like a whiff of ammonia, piercing and astringent, a master class in the pursed lip and the cocked eyebrow. You want supercilious? This is ur-supercilious.


The Duellists (1977)
Ridley Scott's first feature. You're joking, right? Nope. He'd done commercials and TV, but The Duellists is his first movie. People talk about Ridley's eye. The cinematographer on The Duellists is Frank Tidy (and it was his first feature film), but Ridley is his own camera operator - he's the guy looking through the lens. Think about it. The next picture is Alien. Where did this astonishing, feverish, specific gaze come from? It seems to have simply sprung into being, already fully found. The Duellists is hallucinatory, but transparent as glass.

*

Ten runners up.
  The Professionals
  On the Beach
  Night Train to Munich
  Ronin
  Extreme Prejudice
  The Dogs of War
  Rio Bravo
  Midnight Cop
  Hour of the Gun
  Casablanca

23 May 2018

Overload

David Edgerley Gates


Information overload is an established phenomenon in the intelligence trade. You can never know too much? You can listen in on way too much, and understand far too little. Former spy chief Gen. Michael Hayden (director of both NSA and CIA) once remarked that his analysts actually managed to process something like three to five per cent of intercepted traffic, if that. This in the wake of the surveillance scandals, his point being that your eyes - or ears - are bigger than your stomach. One recent estimate is that NSA collects 1.7 billion communications a day. The volume is paralyzing. You can't get a grip on it.


I ran across a quote from a guy named Herbert Simon. "What information consumes is obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. ...[A] wealth of information creates a poverty of attention." Which is where metadata techniques come in, pattern recognition, indexing metrics, some kind of Dewey Decimal system. You're not even trying to catalogue content. At this juncture, the best you can hope for is an address book, a directory of unlisted numbers.

This information paralysis of course applies to the assorted dishevelments of the Trump administration. The signal-to-noise ratio is deafeningly high, which makes it hard to identify actual targets. NORAD used to have a similar problem, on the Distant Early Warning line. Are those incoming Russian bombers, crossing the Arctic circle, or a flight of geese? Their radar couldn't discriminate. It created an anxiety threshold, a constant. You had to be on the alert all the time, checking your perimeter.

We also know there are disinformation procedures, decoys and deceptions. A famous example is the phantom invasion force built up around Patton before the launch of D-Day, to mislead the Germans into thinking the attack would come at the Pas de Calais, not Normandy. Any career intelligence professional would have to wonder, how much of the chaos in the Trump world is deliberate, or diversionary?

Basically, what I'm suggesting here is a coping mechanism. If you treat the Trump experience, or episode, as an intelligence exercise, an assessment, the way old Russia hands at CIA and State used to game out the Kremlin's intentions, or Sinologists would read the runes about Mao and the Chinese - as if, in effect, it were a foreign country, an alien culture - you can attempt a penetration, a covert operation in a Denied Area. You don't try and deconstruct every utterance, you think in terms of deeper grammar. The volume of traffic is a distraction. You look for signifiers, the moss on the north side of the trees.  

Take the Stormy Daniels imbroglio. At first glance, it's a sideshow, nothing to do with the main event. But then it develops that Cohen banked Vekselberg's front money in the same account he used to pay Daniels? OK, time out. Cohen's a moron. He's as likely a consigliere as I'm likely to ghost a series of Stormy-branded thrillers, Money Shots.

In other news, with everybody focused on the Russians, we have the embargoed Chinese telecom ZTE back in the US market, hand in glove with an announced 500-million-dollar Chinese government loan to jumpstart construction on an Indonesian theme park that includes - wait for it - a Trump golf course and hotels. Soybean futures are safe again?

Lest we forget, there's Erik Prince, late of Blackwater, whose mission appears to be clandestine comms and advance man. He's also floated the notion that the combat presence in Afghanistan and Iraq could be taken private. We're now hearing about a meeting between Prince, George Nader, and a guy whose name is new to me, Joel Zamel, pitching a social media manipulation campaign to Donald Trump Jr., that would be bankrolled by the Saudis and the Emirates. Wait, what?

Not least, the Aztec Two-Step that seems to characterize Trump himself, an inconsistent struggle with cognitive dissonance. It's still not entirely clear whether Trump is playing with a full deck.

Enough already. We have a surfeit of detail. How do you give it any coherence? I'm suggesting you could diagram it out. In the intelligence world, this is known as an Order of Battle. Suppose, for the sake of argument, we were talking about the Warsaw Pact and its offensive capacity in an attack on NATO and Western Europe. At one time, this was a very real intelligence target, and we devoted a lot of resources to it. You begin by developing a baseline, infantry, aircraft, and armor, re-supply and support units, communications, chain of command. Then you monitor their activity. What compromises routine? This gives you background, so you can identify a break in routine, a heightened alert status or ready condition, any significant change in the threat posture.

Applying this to the Trump world, there's an immediate benefit. You distance yourself. You don't let it suck all the air out of the room. You don't take it personally. Establish a baseline, cultivate context. Don't miss the forest for the trees. For all its ambiguities and improbabilities, its fabrications and false flags, it's not that impossible a tangle. Messy, yes. Impenetrable, no.

Spycraft is mental discipline. It's not proof against hysteria, and it can't remedy willful ignorance, but it's a compass heading, possibly even an exit strategy.  

JUSTIFY: the Old Spook and the Flowerspy at a rainy Pimlico, Preakness 2018



09 May 2018

What They Ate

David Edgerley Gates

Not on the subject of crime, but partly on writers, more particularly on food - and the relationship of women to food - and simply because it's an utterly fascinating book, I might suggest Laura Shapiro's latest, What She Ate.

We were briefly colleagues at The Cambridge Phoenix, in what might have been a more innocent time, and then Laura moved on to Newsweek. She published Perfection Salad in 1986, which took as its baseline the late 19th century Fannie Farmer cookbook, and then took flight. It was a meditation on America's relationships with food, a social history, a political document, an attitude, a conversation with the reader. It was an eye-opener. I gobbled it up, and argued back the whole time I was reading it. It turned what was familiar and comforting inside out.  


Food writing has undergone an enormous change, and I think a lot of the credit goes to M.F.K. Fisher, although it's condescending to diminish Fisher as merely a 'food writer,' although maybe it's the reverse - we shouldn't diminish food writing as something suspect and domestic and below the salt. For sure, this is true of Laura Shapiro, whose eye, like Fisher's, is drawn to the telling detail, and how food is a reflection of our desires, carnal and otherwise. (Her second book, Something From the Oven, picks up the themes of Perfection Salad, but it's rather about the food industry than the community of the kitchen, and she wrote a lively and gracious portrait of Julia Child as well.)

What She Ate is a sort of group portrait. An approach to the canvas, so to speak, looking at six women through what they brought to the table. It appears to circle in, from the peripheral, but that's inexact, or even demeaning. As if to say, food is peripheral, or food is women's work, the kuche in between kinder and kirche. In other words, that this most basic of human activities is somehow less than serious. It's very much lose-lose. If the table is central, though, to family, to tribal instinct, to our sense of commonality, if it nourishes us in both express and literal ways, as well as the unexpressed, then what we sit down to is celebration. The breaking of bread is by no accident sacramental. How To Cook A Wolf, indeed.

The six women we're invited to sit down with are, in order of appearance, Dorothy Wordsworth, the poet's sister, the famous Brit hotelier and caterer Rosa Lewis, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun (!), the novelist Barbara Pym, and publisher and master of self-invention Helen Gurley Brown. It's enjoyable company, for the most part, although we don't quite imagine a dinner party with all six of them in the same room. We can, on the other hand, imagine being seated next to each of them on turn. The exception being Eva, who doesn't come across as being particularly interesting in her own right, and the guest list puts you off your feed, but the reason Eva's in the nearest chair is that this was likely her only means of self-expression. 

"Extraordinary circumstances produce extraordinary women," Shapiro remarks in her introduction, "food makes them recognizable." The point here being the intimacy of food, how we prepare it, and serve it, how we take it into our mouths. That we digest its nature, whether that be its earthiness, or meaty sinew, or leafy crunch. That it's in fact very much a domestic pursuit, homely in both sense of the word, does it no discredit.

The voice in What She Ate is companionable. Engaging, a little skeptical at times, but sympathetic. She seems to coax her subjects into the light, or encourage them to reveal themselves, and they can be not always self-aware. The mix is a challenge, and a bit of a puzzle, but it works. Mostly because the author is curious, and generous, open to surprise, sly and funny. What it is, is chewy.


25 April 2018

Trouble (Ben Affleck's "The Town")

David Edgerley Gates


In between his two Dennis Lehane adapations, Ben Affleck made a picture called The Town, which feels like a Lehane story, but it's based on a book by Chuck Hogan, yet another Boston guy.

I admit I've never been a big Ben Affleck fan. I liked him in support, Good Will Hunting, Shakespeare in Love, didn't like him in leads, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor. (Reindeer Games is Frankenheimer's last feature, so I'd overlook Troy Donahue if he were in it.) But then he surprised me as a director, with Gone Baby Gone. Very solid picture. Lehane was well served the first two times around, with Mystic River and Gone Baby. He wasn't third time lucky: Live by Night went flat. I think Ben Affleck miscast his own film. He wears the clothes beautifully, the drape's to die for, but his character's an empty suit. And after Brendan Gleeson exits the first act, the pacing limps to the finish line in cinderblock shoes.


So, that being said, I didn't have the highest expectations going in, but The Town is a knock-out. It begins with a bank job in Harvard Square, which is my old stomping ground (Ben Affleck was raised in Cambridge), and that got it on my good side. Speaking as a local boy, too, there's an interesting visual consistency in the movie, not strictly necessary, but reassuring - they'll use an establishing aerial shot, and then drop into the neighborhood, and they match. This isn't always the case, and it's obvious that Ben the Director, as distinct from Ben the Actor, is going the extra distance. Fenway Park from a chopper, Fenway Park backstage, under the stands. Bunker Hill Monument? On the ground, the streets around Monument Square. From above, the Old North Church. The chase after the armored car robbery is in the North End. They don't fake it. They don't fake it when they could, when most people wouldn't know the difference between Coolidge Corner and Savin Hill. It shows a genuine appreciation for the right landscape.



There's a vocal landscape they get right, as well, the cadences. And easy to get wrong. It's not just Ben Affleck, who slides familiarly into the voice, but Jeremy Renner and Blake Lively, not a Valley Girl locution between them. Not that she gets a lot to do, but she does a lot with what she gets. Renner seems to do even less, with more. It's not the accent, quite, as much as it is usage and speech patterns, the mouth feel of the language. He's got the St. Vitus Dance, ants in his pants, a delivery that's one step behind, as if he's puzzling out his own train of thought. He stretches his hesitations and clips his words short, the silences are eloquent and threatening.



Speaking of Jeremy Renner, the two serious relationships in the picture are between Renner's Gem and Affleck's Doug, and between Doug and Rebecca Hall's Claire. Gem is a silent partner in Doug and Claire's relationship, besides, not that she knows about it, because if there's the slightest chance of Claire ratting out their crew, Gem will cap her without a second thought.



Which brings us to what Jon Hamm's FBI guy calls, "Your fuckin' Irish omerta." The Town is a heist picture, and the town in question isn't Boston at large, but Boston in small, specifically Bunker Hill, Charlestown. It's a movie about clannishness, about class loyalties, about family in the larger sense, of immersion, of race memory. It's specific about place, and place experienced as density. A sudden phrase beings it back, a sharp smell, a retinal afterimage. The place of heart's desiring. The fact that these guys are a criminal family, a crew, a marriage of convenience, misses the point. This is the air they breathe. This is what they know. This isn't something you can change out of, like a pair of pants.

The robberies themselves are set pieces, kinetic and tense, adrenaline and endorphins, wound up tight. The personal scenes have a dark energy, what's said, what's held back, a dangerous edge. Here's a for instance.
Doug goes to see Gem. "I need your help. I can't tell you what it is. We're gonna hurt some people."
Gem waits a beat, looks up. "Whose car we gonna take?"

Ray LaMontagne's Jolene plays over the final credits. It's a killer.
  Held you in my arms one time
  Lost you just the same

11 April 2018

The Hillerman Prize

David Edgerley Gates

The past ten years I've been a reader for the Hillerman Prize. (They in fact call it a 'judge,' but that inflates my influence or importance.) The contest is for the best first mystery in a Western setting, in the spirit of the late Tony Hillerman, and what it comes down to is reading up to half a dozen manuscript submissions. Each year's winner gets a book contract with St. Martin's. It's a blind test, because the authors are anonymous at the time I see the manuscripts.  

I think the process is pretty fair. There are obviously quite a few of us, spread out across the mystery community, writers, readers, and editors, and I don't imagine any of us have a particular axe to grind. I might prefer hard-boiled to cozy, myself, but if it'd good, it doesn't matter. Tie goes to the runner. You have a responsibility to give good weight.

Having said that, there's the Yes, But factor. Basically, you're a gatekeeper. You're triaging the slush pile. It's the inside of the transom. You want to know why those interns at publishing houses were ready to slit their wrists, back in the day? Now you know. Now, on the other hand, no such job exists. The big trades don't accept unsolicited. Agented only. Which makes agents the gatekeepers, and they don't accept unsolicited, you have to pitch. Which means the Hillerman's a throwback.

You see where this is going. Think about your own stuff that got turned down, even by a sympathetic editor. After a certain amount of heartbreak, you begin to harden your heart, but let's be honest, you always take it personally, because it's personal. How not? This is something you made out of whole cloth. You bled on it, laid awake nights, washed it in your own tears. And some oblivious bozo sends it down the slop chute with a dismissive comment or two.

So, yes. It's a stacked deck. It does none of us any credit to claim otherwise. Then again, to be utterly brutal about it, you think what's being published is crap? You ought to look at what doesn't make the cut. Some of it's just numbingly bad. As if these people had never picked up a mystery in their lives, or paid much attention. You give in to terminal aggravation, sad to say.

A very well-regarded agent once explained to me that editors read for rejection, meaning they wait for the first stumble, and spike the book. It's an unforgiving process. Maybe we all make the same rookie mistakes, and learn by doing, but surely by now, with all the practical advice available - Larry Block, Stephen King, David Morrell, Anne Lamott, just off the top of my head - is the learning curve really that steep? The fifty-page flashback. The serial killer first-person prologue. The indecipherable clue, held up to a mirror or over a candle flame, and blindingly obvious to Aunt Hezekiah, who does acrostics, or the insufferably precocious sixth-grade computer savant. Not that you can't get away with devices like these, but it takes a practiced hand, and cute wears out its welcome in a hurry. Tonstant Weader Fwows Up.

You want to respect the work. You know how much work it is. That first year, I read all six manuscripts front to back, and it was a real effort, because two of them were terrible, but I thought I owed it. Two of them were marginal. One of them was better than okay, and one of them was really good. I strongly recommended a second read for the two I liked.

In subsequent years, I'm loath to admit, I've had less patience. It's not something you really want to cop to, but the plain fact is, if it's a shitty book, you can tell pretty quick. Once or twice I haven't even lasted thirty pages, and that only because I felt obligated to go further than page two, knowing from the outset it was road kill.

On the upside, out of some sixty-odd books, I've found at least one to like every year, or something to like, a solid lead character, the evocation of place.  I've never picked a winner. I've picked a couple I thought might go the distance, but not, in the end. I hope they're heard from, down the road. I know of one guy who submitted, and didn't actually win, and got a three-book contract out of it. 

If there's a lesson in this, it's humility. Good, bad, or indifferent, these people laced on their sneakers, and came out ready to play. You gotta keep faith with them.