Showing posts with label Elizabeth Zelvin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Elizabeth Zelvin. Show all posts

24 June 2024

SleuthSisters, Movies, and the Bechdel Test: Part II

The last time our beloved SleuthSayer buddy John Floyd, who everyone agrees watches way too many movies, listed his favorites, fellow SleuthSayer Melodie Campbell and I both commented, "You are such a guy, John!" What did we mean? What does John's love for Casablanca, The Godfather, and The Big Lebowski have to do with gender? Aren't they all great films? Yes, but. Melodie gave me the best way yet to explain why many women may admire these films but not necessarily adore them when she told me about the Bechdel Test.

The Bechdel Test, created by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who now says she was only kidding at the time but thinks it's cool that it's worked so well and come to mean so much to women who love movies, is a simple three-part measure to apply to any movie.

Does the movie have at least one scene in which (1) two women characters talk (2) to each other (3) about a subject other than a man (or men)?

I grew up in a household in which the women—me, my mother, and my sister—outnumbered the lone man, my dad. Add in a gaggle of loquacious aunts, maternal and paternal, on holidays—I've recently learned that the linguistic technical term for the constant interrupting in any New York Jewish gathering is called "overlapping" and is a feature of our "dialect"—and the men could barely get a word in edgewise. At age 92, my mother, who by then called herself "the oldest living lawyer," made friends with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was twenty years younger. The first time they had lunch together, we asked Mom, "What did you talk about?" "Everything!" she said. And that's what I want women in movies to talk about too.

In Part I, my SleuthSister Melodie discussed why it's important for all of us to have movies that pass the Bechdel test: for some, characters that we can relate to and admire; for others, frequent reminders that women have more interesting things to talk about than men, men, men.

If you missed Melodie's post, you can read it here.

Now, here are some examples: 26 (a double baker's dozen!) wonderful movies that pass the Bechdel Test (in no particular order):

1. Enchanted April
Four women seeking respite from their lives in dreary post-World War I London are unexpectedly transformed by a month in a castle in Italy.

2. Hidden Figures
Black women's work as mathematicians at NASA was crucial to America's success in the Space Race; their story is finally told.

3. The Help
The women who work as maids to the young white wives of Jackson, Mississippi just before the Civil Rights movement risk their jobs and their safety to tell a woman journalist the truth about how they're treated.

4. Nyad
A woman in her sixties comes back from repeated failures to swim from Cuba to Florida, with the support of the woman friend who coaches her.

5. Fried Green Tomatoes
Two pairs of women form enduring friendships: a modern housewife in need of empowerment with an old woman in a nursing home and an independent woman in the 1920s with an abused wife in need of an escape route.

6. Little Women
Four sisters share dreams and ambitions in Civil War-era New England. Seven movies have been made of the novel that more American women still read for pleasure than men read Moby Dick or Huckleberry Finn.

7. Erin Brockovich
A single mother fights environmental crime and corporate greed in a small community.

8. Norma Rae
A millworker finds her voice when she leads a fight to unionize.

9. Made in Dagenham
Women strike for equal pay at a Ford plant in Britain.

10. Songcatcher
A woman in the 1930s goes to Appalachia to collect folksongs and learns more than she expects to.

11. Beaches Two very different women's lifelong friendship begins and is renewed on beaches.

12. Marvin's Room
A dying woman seeks a bone marrow transplant from members of her dysfunctional family.

13. Howard's End
Two Edwardian sisters devoted to each other, culture, and their independence diverge on issues of class and how to use their privilege for good.

14. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
A group of aging British women and men relocate to India in hopes of a more satisfying life in their later years.

15. Still Alice
A brilliant woman facing early onset dementia struggles to connect with her daughters while she can.

16. Monsoon Wedding
The prospect of a wedding stirs up secrets in a prosperous Indian family.

17. National Velvet
A little girl with an eccentric but loving family dreams of winning the Grand National on a horse she won in a raffle.

18. Nine to Five
Three women friends plot revenge against their abusive boss

19. Girl, Interrupted
Two girls in a locked psychiatric institution become friends.

20. After the Wedding
The birth mother and adoptive mother of the bride meet, and their complicated history is revealed.

21. Calendar Girls
A group of respectable British women raise money by posing nude for a calendar.

22. Bend It Like Beckham
Two girls from different backgrounds become friends after being rivals at football (soccer to Americans).

23. Boys On the Side
Three young women join forces on a road trip that becomes a trip on the run.

24. Julia
The writer Lillian Hellman tries to help her friend Julia, who works against and is ultimately killed by the Nazis.

25. Outrageous Fortune
Two actresses who hate each other become friends in a mashup of buddy, spy, and caper movie.

26. Steel Magnolias
The women in a small Louisiana town shares their joys and sorrows at the local beauty salon.

How many of these have you seen?

27 May 2024

Yikes, I'm History!

I turned 80 last month, and it's a quarter century since I first heard part of my lifetime categorized as "historical" (literary) and my age as "geriatric" (medical). I was outraged by both at the time. While I prefer the term "aging," I have come to appreciate the fact that I can remember times and experiences that are vanishing quickly or already lost in our throwaway digital age.

I dreamed one night that I was hanging out with Robert Downey Jr and Leonardo DiCaprio. I raved about Downey's Oscar-winning work in Oppenheimer as Werner Heisenberg, and to get over the awkward moment with DiCaprio (not nominated), I said one reason I enjoyed Oppenheimer is that I lived through that era and understood the context.

I asked if they knew who Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were. Leonardo, who'll turn 50 this year, had never heard of them. And I was off and running with the whole story as known to the child of a Jewish family growing up in Queens in the 1950s, in a family very much like the Rosenbergs except not so far to the left, though I had aunts and uncles who were. That, as much as the rush to judgment, was what made the Rosenberg execution so shocking.

"I knew kids who knew their kids," I told the movie stars. True. 

The dream ended with bureaucratic types coming in with paper files and old-fashioned fingerprinting apparatus. This suggests that like the Rosenbergs' story, my mother's dictum, "Never sign a petition—it could ruin your life!" is still kicking around in my unconscious. Like most young people, I ignored my mother's advice. The state of the world today demonstrates how much good signing petitions did, so my mother was right about that. But my life was never ruined, and I hope it's too late now.

I'm two years older than the oldest Baby Boomer. My family lived without a car till I was nine, without a TV till I was ten. I first rode in a plane when I was sixteen. As an adult, I didn't have a computer in my home till 1984 (a Commodore 64), when my son was in high school, and I didn't learn to use one (a Mac Classic II) till I was forty-seven. I still have dreams about using an old rotary phone and having to dial over and over because for some reason my finger can't make it all the way around. I remember when you couldn't get pecan pie, maple sugar candy, or croissants in New York. If you wanted them, you had to go to Florida, Vermont, or Paris.

I remember when a college-educated girl (not woman) had to start in any field, including publishing, as a secretary and had to wear a skirt to work. The skirt had to be rehemmed, up or down, every year as fashion dictated. No such thing as wearing whatever length suited you until about 1970. I remember pantyhose, and before pantyhose, stockings and a garter belt. I even remember the dreaded girdle back in the mists of time.

Like the Boomers, I remember where I was when John F. Kennedy was shot: at college, in my off-campus apartment waiting for a friend who was due for a visit. She arrived two hours late. When I opened the door, she said, tears streaming down her face, "Oh, Liz, the President is dead."

Until that moment, I'd never been touched by assassination. No terrorism. No school shootings. Beheadings happened back in the sixteenth century, in Tudor times. Tsunamis happened on a distant side of the world, when there was a distant side of the world. Earthquakes happened only in Japan and San Francisco. Tornados happened only in Kansas, and they led to the Land of Oz.

On the one hand, we're not in the Land of Oz any more. On the other, I remember the Suez Crisis in 1956. On a rainy afternoon when I was twelve, I heard that the British and French had bombed Cairo. Once World War II (which we still called "the War") was over, the British weren't supposed to go to war. I was afraid that World War III was about to start. I remember thinking, "I'll never get to go to college." Wrong.

If you keep going even when nothing turns out the way you expect, I've found that every wall you hit turns out to be another bend in the road. And if you live long enough, you get to be history.

01 April 2024

K-Drama on Netflix: A Not-Guilty Pleasure

The abundant supply of South Korean TV series available on Netflix, like chocolate or ice cream, is only a guilty pleasure if you overindulge. The majority of them are romcoms and historical dramas, occasionally venturing into fantasy or threading a social issue through comedy and romance. There's always some kind of intrigue, whether it's dynastic power politics in the historicals or cutthroat business in the contemporary shows. There's plenty of action for martial arts enthusiasts, witty dialogue (with subtitles that range from excellent to comical, the latter adding to the fun), and an enthralling education in the culture, history, and scenery of Korea.

Extraordinary Attorney Woo The cream of the crop. This show about a brilliant, adorable young woman on the autism spectrum who struggles to make a place for herself as a lawyer has endeared itself to everyone to whom I've recommended. It's funny, touching, clever, and inspiring. The machinations of Woo's fellow lawyers and family members provide plenty of plot twists. The Korean judicial system is fascinatingly different from its Western counterparts. And there's just enough romance. There are a number of dramas on TV with neurodivergent protagonists now, including the excellent French series Astrid, but this one, the first I saw, remains my favorite.

Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung This feminist historical drama has ranked No. 1 in Best of K-drama lists. The determined heroine surmounts obstacles of gender and class to win a place as a scribe at the royal court of Joseon, the kingdom that preceded modern Korea. She meets and clashes with an isolated royal prince who is secretly the bestselling author of steamy romances. Then the lies and secrets, murder, usurpation, and rebellion that swirl around the throne become entangled with the quiet life of the scribes.

Crash Landing on You North and South Korea meet in this combination of romcom and suspense when a workaholic young businesswoman goes hang-gliding, gets caught in a storm, and is stranded north of the 38th Parallel. A straight-arrow North Korean soldier hides her against his better judgment. Complications ensue. It seems gossip, jealousy, and dysfunctional families thrive on both sides of the DMZ. There's a thriller plot involving political corruption and murder and a rare and evidently quite accurate look at some aspects of North Korean village life.

Alchemy of Souls This fantasy drama has fabulous special effects in both the magic and fight scenes as well as good acting and a lot of humor, although things go badly for the hero and heroine and their friends along the way in an imaginary kingdom where mages rule.

Flower Crew: Joseon Marriage Agency This historical didn't make the Best of lists, but I thought it was a lot of fun. Three guys who can't make it into the civil service run a matchmaking agency in the Kingdom of Joseon. Romance and royal intrigue abound.

Any fans of K-drama out there?

04 March 2024

So an alcoholism treatment therapist walks into a bar...

I'm a lifelong writer who started talking about it at the age of seven and dreamed of becoming a bestselling novelist in my twenties. That didn't happen. So in my late thirties, when my sole published output consisted of two poems (payment in copies), I started looking around for something else meaningful to do.

I emerged from Columbia University in 1985 with a master's degree in social work and a desire to work with recovering alcoholics and their families and partners as well as the usual clinical social worker's ambition to practice as a psychotherapist, or as I prefer to call myself, a shrink. I've just come across a blog post I wrote in 2007, right before my first mystery, Death Will Get You Sober, came out. Titled "Recovery and Transformation," it's still spot on about why I wanted to do what many considered an oddball kind of work.

It’s simple: recovery is transformational.

I once knew a nursery school teacher who had her class do a butterfly project every year. They’d watch the caterpillar form its chrysalis and wait for the brightly colored butterfly with its glorious wings to emerge. At the end of the term, she’d take them to the park so they could release the butterflies and see them fly free. Sometimes it’s kind of like that when an alcoholic finds recovery.

Before two drunks started Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935, alcoholism was truly a hopeless illness, whose outcomes were inevitably “madness” (depression, delirium tremens, irreversible dementia) and death. AA offered another choice: stop drinking for just one day, admit you need help, find some kind of spiritual path, get rigorously honest about your own shortcomings, make amends for the harm you’ve done others, and help another alcoholic. In other words, all you have to do is stop drinking and change your whole life.

While I was running alcohol treatment programs—the one up in East Harlem, the one down on the Bowery, the one for women at Coney Island Hospital—I would occasionally find myself bellying up to the proverbial bar on a social evening out. I would twirl around on the bar stool, grin at the bartender, and say, "Ask me what I do for a living!"

So my reaction may not have been quite the same as that of the rest of the SleuthSayers gang when I heard that we were doing an anthology whose theme was bars. My Bruce Kohler mysteries, both the novels and the short stories, are a lot of fun. But once Bruce gets sober in the first book, they're not about bars and drinking. The challenge was to join in the fun of Murder, Neat without being unfaithful to my expert knowledge that out of control drinking is not ho ho ho hilarious, but a recurring disaster that leaves shattered lives in its wake.

To write "A Friendly Glass," I turned back to a time when I myself was young and ignorant, knew nothing about alcoholism, and did think wild drinking could be hilarious. I set my story in a fictional village in the South of France. It was loosely based on a village where I'd spent a week in 1962 and a month in 1966. I drank numerous cups of café filtre on the picturesque terrasse. I sang and played the guitar in a boîte I can't remember anything about. I made two treasured women friends who, sadly, are no longer with us, and two artist friends, a Frenchman and an Englishman, who are still my friends today, sixty years later.
The village was St Paul de Vence, then completely unspoiled, a maze of narrow cobbled streets that wound up stairs and through stone arches, surrounded by a medieval wall. Alas, it's now a tourist destination with luxury hotels and high-priced shops with plate-glass windows. It's still considered artsy, but it's more of an artfully packaged artsiness. I'm glad I didn't miss the real thing.

Oh, and the fictional murderee is based on someone I thought deserved it back in the 1960s.

05 February 2024

The Fine Art of Collaboration

For some writers, collaboration is a fact of life; for others, it's a rare gift. I’m in the second category. I’m awestruck at the harmonious working relationship of writing duos who turn out seamless works, whether they’re bestselling series like the historical mysteries of Charles Todd and his mother Caroline (the other half of author Charles Todd until her death in 2021) or one-offs like the Edgar-nominated short story "Blind-Sided" (2021) by SleuthSayer Michael Bracken and James A. Hearn.

I've participated in a number of musical collaborations, starting in high school, when a friend and I achieved fame for presenting our parody of Hamlet to the tune of folksong "Putting on the Style," with guitars, in numerous English classes. For years afterwards, when I met someone who'd attended my very large high school, they'd say, "Ohh, you're the one who wrote "Hamlet!"

In the noughties, as Brits call the first decade of the present century, I took part in several songwriting workshops led by legendary singer-songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore, whose work defies classification, though he's received a couple of Grammy nominations in the contemporary folk category. Jimmie and the other members of his original band, the Flatlanders, hail from Lubbock, Texas, along with Buddy Holly and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks. In a long career, he's learned a lot about creative collaboration. In his workshops, he makes songwriters work in groups. He believes the creative group process mirrors the process in the individual writer's head. As he put it, the dialogue in one case and the monologue in the other both go, "That's brilliant! No, that's stupid!" In my case, since I didn't get to pick the people, the group process ended in tears a few times. But I think he's right about how the process works.

Between 2010 and 2012, I had the great joy of collaborating with my friend Ray Korona on an album of songs that I'd written over the course of half a century. It's called Outrageous Older Woman. I produced the album, Ray co-produced and acted as sound engineer, and we collected a tremendously gifted array of backup singers and musicians to create an album of my music that sounded the way I'd heard it only in my wildest dreams. We spent many, many hours in Ray's basement recording studio in New Jersey, and every hour was a happy one. Ten years after Ray's untimely death from cancer, I still cherish a moment when we got exactly the sound we wanted for a solo passage from a fingerstyle guitarist (think Chet Atkins or Ricky Skaggs) after auditioning four different musicians for the descriptor "a git-tar picker who had lightning in his hands" in a song about a country music band. Ray and I exchanged a look of delight and perfect satisfaction that still warms my heart when I remember it. There's nothing like that "Got it!" moment in a good collaboration.

I've never collaborated on a pure writing project, as opposed to lyrics. Like the late Parnell Hall, I would have sold out and said yes to big bestseller Stuart Woods, if I’d gotten the call, or to James Patterson, like everyone else. Bestsellers aside, I’d do my best if invited to collaborate with a writer I respect and trust on a publishable project. But no one’s ever asked. I've had a handful of brilliant editors and quite a few bad ones, and I tend to trust my own judgment over that of most other writers. I hate writing by committee, and while I may dream occasionally of the perfect writing partner, I'm unlikely to encounter one.

My most recent collaboration was with fellow SleuthSayer and multi-talented writer, graphic artist, tech wiz, etc, my friend Leigh Lundin. After reading my post on my adventures checking out my DNA, Leigh had the bright idea of creating a cartoon that riffed on them. He thought it up and did all the work. I got to critique both the artwork ("My complexion isn't green." "Can you make the angry woman thinner?") and the text ("It's funnier if you mention the DNA." "No hyphen in storyteller.") as Leigh patiently produced one version after another. We were both busy with other projects, so it took more than a year, but we finally achieved our "Got it!" moment. Here's the result:

08 January 2024

I laughed the first time I heard...

I've been thinking about the changing pace of change as the new year rolls in. Before the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840 or thereabouts), the pace of change was glacial. From then until World War I, the pace was leisurely. Since World War II, it's increased exponentially, and the paradigm shift those of us born in the twentieth century have lived through to the digital age have sent it supernova.

My Aunt Hilda, who was still alive and kicking ten years ago, was born the day the Titanic hit the iceberg (ie, the day before it sank), so a lot of this change has taken place in my own lifetime. I've been thinking about how absurd the new and different can seem to us until it arrives and we have a chance to process and get used to it.

I remember a friend's shtik, many years ago now, about the difference between Godzilla movies and American monster movies (neither of which I ever watched). According to her, in the Godzilla movies, the populace of Japan wasted no time before they screamed and ran for their lives. In contrast, it took up to fifty percent of American movies for the hero or scientists who knew the monster was real and on the way to convince the government, the military, and/or the public. Since I still don't watch monster or any other horror movies, I don't know if this is still true. My guess is that the whole world runs when they hear that zombies are on the move. And when catastrophes are reported in real life these days, we'd all better take it seriously.

My point is that I have vivid memories of laughing the first time I became aware of what in several instances turned out to be a culture-changing moment.

I laughed the first time I heard, "The fall production at the New York Public Theater will be Hair, A Tribal Love Rock Musical."

Actually, the whole audience at Shakespeare in the Park in Central Park that summer evening laughed at that announcement on the loudspeaker at intermission. It was 1967, and sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll would never be the same.

I laughed the first time I heard the phrase, "fashionable Columbus Avenue."
I'd lived on Columbus Avenue since 1967, moving in with my first husband to the building on West 86th Street where I still live. When I said I lived on the Upper West Side, people said, "Oh, yes, West Side Story." To them, the West Side was mean streets infested with rival gangs, presumably not dancing Jerome Robbins choreography to Leonard Bernstein music. Remember that Lincoln Center, the great cultural mecca a twenty block walk down Columbus, wasn't completed till 1969. My first husband used to park his ancient Jaguar XKE on the street off Columbus on West 84th, informally known as the Murder Block. There was at least one bar on every block and derelicts we didn't yet call the homeless or expect to see in residential neighborhoods sprawled on the sidewalk. By 1972, fashionable Columbus Avenue was in its heyday. Street performers abounded. I remember a string quartet that specialized in Mozart. None of the early upscale restaurants, where a special-occasion dinner cost an astronomical $20, have survived, but I remember Ruelle's at 75th Street, which was furnished in 1890s bordello, all dark red velvet and naughty black and white photos, and the Museum Café at 77th Street, with its glassed-in outdoor dining area overlooking the Museum of Natural History. That was when I stopped taking the bus or subway. Unless I have to go south of 59th Street or several long blocks east of Central Park (say, to First or Second Avenue), fifty years later, like so many New Yorkers, I still walk everywhere.

I laughed when I heard, "Filipino revolutionaries say they couldn't have conducted their last two revolutions without cell phones." Also, "They're doing online counseling successfully in Japan. The client and counselor are in the same room, but they type instead of making eye contact and talking to each other."
In this case, context is needed. At the turn of the 21st century, I became one of the second wave of pioneers of online mental health. I belonged to the International Society of Mental Health Professionals (ISMHO), along with many of the true pioneers, theoreticians, researchers, and clinicians, mostly psychologists but also some psychiatrists, counselors, and clinical social workers, who had been around since the mid-1990s. This was before everybody had a cell phone. Before we used the term "texting." When I got a lot of flak, sometimes contempt, when I told traditional psychotherapists I worked with clients online. That continued all the way up to the pandemic, when they jumped on board and became the competition.

What innovation did you laugh at—and live to see the innovation have the last laugh?

11 December 2023

The Sheer Pleasure of Writing

What is the moment of greatest satisfaction for a writer? What's the carrot, the prize, the gold at the end of the rainbow? I’m not talking about the lottery win that most of us never get, like an Edgar or the New York Times bestseller list. Some will say it’s the moment when they get an acceptance letter or when they see their work in print. For others, it’s the magic of holding in their hands a book or a prestigious journal with their name on the cover. But I’m talking about a moment long before that, when we're actually plying our craft.

For me, the rush comes at the end of a session when the writing is going well. When I lift my hands from the keyboard after an intense few hours working on a piece of fiction, a poem, or even an inspired blog post, I feel suffused with satisfaction. It’s a physical feeling of delight that runs along my arms from my fingers to my shoulders and down my legs all the way to my toes. It’s a marvelous feeling. Often, it comes as a surprise. And it reminds me why I go on writing.

I’ve heard many times about the athlete’s high. Although I ran for many years and still walk every day, no sport or exercise has ever left me flooded with endorphins. I used to call myself the slowest runner in New York, and I wasn't kidding. No, it's writing until the wave subsides that leaves me tingling all over and ready for a nap with a big smile on my face.

Most of us know we'd be idiots to claim we do this for the money or the fame. So tell me, writers, what is it about our métier that turns you on?

13 November 2023

How do I kill thee? Let me count the ways

  • Do you know how to pierce the heart when you stab someone from behind?
  • Know three commonplace items you can substitute for a silencer?
  • Have a list of slow-acting poisons you can buy without a prescription?
  • Have you ever discussed such things with friends over dinner at a restaurant?

You must be a mystery writer.

Mystery writers run neck and neck with murderers themselves in preoccupation with ways to kill. Unlike actual assassins, for whom discretion is both a tool of the trade and essential to staying alive, writers love to discuss these matters with their peers. Before the pandemic, when convivial dinners were the high point of monthly meetings of my local Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime chapters and I went to mystery cons all over the country, I looked forward to such discussions and participated with great relish. If they took place in public places, so much the better. It was great fun to imagine the party at the next table wondering what you were plotting, a real-life crime or just a story. I admit to a tad of vestigial adolescent exhibitionism, what I call a Look, Ma! element in keeping eavesdroppers guessing.

One of the most beloved figures in the mystery community is Texas pharmacist and toxicologist Luci Zahray, universally known as the Poison Lady. When I sat down to write this, I found a note in my files, Poison Lady—arsenic (Walmart story). I probably jotted it down as she spoke at a Malice Domestic a decade before. I remembered the gist of it but wanted to get it right, so I emailed her. The Poison Lady’s own words reflect how not only writers but mystery lovers in general think.

The year arsenic became illegal to sell in stores, I was walking through Walmart and they had a grocery cart full marked down to 50 cents a box. I naturally, as one does, started pushing the cart to checkout. Then I realized I didn't actually need that much arsenic or even have a good place to put it. So I picked out several, quite a few, boxes and bought them. I still don't need that much arsenic and don't have a good place to put it, but I sometimes regret not buying the whole cart full.

We’re equally interested in likely settings for murder and places to bury the body. For example, what's buried in the garden? My son recently told me that the sale of his in-laws’ house in New Jersey was held up because they discovered an oil burner buried in the backyard. I was charmed. An oil burner is dull, but what if there were a body in an oil burner? Even better—hold the oil burner.

Back in the Golden Age of mysteries, cleverness was valued more than it is today. John Dickson Carr was the king of the locked room puzzle, which depended on unexpected murder methods. Sherlock Holmes solved one case in which the lock was breached by a poisonous snake slithering through a pipe in the wall, if I remember correctly.

Roald Dahl’s short story, “A Lamb to the Slaughter” (1953), in which the murder weapon is a frozen leg of lamb, later cooked and served to the unwitting detective, is often cited as the best murder method in mystery fiction.

In Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café (1987)— the novel, on which the movie was based— Fannie Flagg rang a change on this. The murder was a simple skillet to the head. But the body disposal took place in the kitchen, and once again, the detective dined on the results.

Do we still relish ingenuity in the means of our fictional murders, or have we become so jaded that it doesn't matter any more?

To some extent, it varies according to subgenre. If it’s a cozy, the murder may be death by wedding cake or the victim stitched to death into a prize-winning quilt. If it’s Kellerman or Cornwell or their ilk, there’ll be a lot of gore, maybe torture described more lovingly than I want to read about. If it’s a technothriller, we’ll hear all about the gun and its accessories.

The best place to look for the far-out murder weapon these days is video. In shows like Midsomer Murders and Brokenwood, the giant cheese and unattended vat of wine are alive and well and killing people with enthusiasm. I get a kick out of watching and talking about these tricks. But in my own work, I like to knock the victim off quickly— bang on the head, push over the ramparts, car off the road— and get on with the story. For me, it’s not about the props. It’s always about the people.

16 October 2023

Central Park in My Life and Stories

Like many New Yorkers, I have a lifelong love affair with Central Park. I've been watching, fascinated, as its iridescent pigeons court, its sleek sea lions leap for fish, and riding its classic merry-go-round since childhood. I pushed my son, now in his fifties, in a stroller many miles along its walking paths and now walk or run myself around the Great Lawn or the Reservoir almost daily. I may take a break to sit on a park bench reading while watching ducks and rowers on the Lake, listening to jazz, or enjoying the sound of birdsong, the drift of cherry and apple blossoms in spring, or the changing color of autumn leaves.

Writers of fiction have found Central Park an irresistible setting. Among the best known are J.D. Salinger, whose Holden Caulfield, in The Catcher in the Rye, meditates on where the ducks in the Pond go in the winter; and E.B. White, whose Stuart Little in the eponymous book wins a race on the model sailboat pond, formally known as the Conservatory Water.

Crime fiction writers have also used Central Park as a setting. Anne Perry's A New York Christmas gives readers a glimpse of the Park in 1904. In Linda Fairstein's Death Angel, the victim of a serial killer is found at the foot of the Bethesda Fountain, one of the Park's best known landmarks.

I’ve strewn a few dead bodies in Central Park myself. In the short story, “Death Will Help You Imagine,” Bruce Kohler and his friend Barbara, finishing an early morning run in Strawberry Fields, the John Lennon memorial, find a corpse flung across the Imagine mosaic, the Park’s most beloved tourist attraction. In “Death Will Finish Your Marathon,” the winning runner stumbles across the finish line and trips over the body of a New York character known as the Ancient Marathoner. In “Death Will Give You A Reason,” Bruce’s girlfriend, NYPD detective Cindy, and her partner fish a body out of Harlem Meer, the artificial lake at the north end of the Park.

“The witnesses know nothing,” Natali said. “Coupla dog walkers. The dogs all started barking when the body bumped up against the bank.”

“Photos?” Cindy asked. Some bystander always had an iPhone.

“Professional dog walkers,” Natali snarled. “Six leashes in each hand. Labs, beagles, terriers, dachshunds. Two dozen witnesses. If we had someone who spoke Bark, we might have eyewitnesses instead of shit. By the time anyone else realized the circus had come to town, the leashes were all tangled up in each other and doggy legs and corpse’s arms.”

“What did you do, arrest the dogs?”

“I was tempted,” Natali said. “The idiots tried to pull him out—without letting go of the leashes. They seemed to think I’d give them a medal for obeying the leash law. By the time the uniforms arrived, the scene was already compromised.”

“Let’s see the deceased,” Cindy said.

“Go ahead. I already looked. I sniffed him up and down too. The pooches inspired me.”

“Anything of interest?”

“Alcohol and weed.”

“Lake or marijuana?”


The aroma of marijuana in the Park has increased from occasional to omnipresent since legalization. The dogs have always been there. I read recently that there are more dogs in New York City than there are people in Cleveland, and I believe it. Even though most people obey the leash law except in designated areas, the Park’s a paradise for dogs and a perfect meeting place for dog lovers. It also allows drop-in admirers like me to learn, for example, that Australian shepherds are In this year. I see a dozen of them within a week tugging different people along. Maybe one of those shaggy, alert gray-and-black-spotted dogs with brown legs will participate in an investigation one day.

Central Park is only half a mile across, and New York is a walking city. Since Bruce lives on the East Side and Barbara and Jimmy on the Upper West Side, they are constantly crossing the Park to visit each other. Bruce and Barbara run around the upper and lower loops formed by the East and West Park Drives and the 79th Street Transverse and around the Reservoir track. In the novel, Death Will Help You Leave Him, Bruce’s early love interest Luz was almost run down by a bicycle crossing the Park West Drive. This could still happen, and the offender doesn’t have to be a possible murder suspect. Cyclists—not the tourists on Citi Bikes, which didn’t exist back then, but the experts on fancy bikes with fancy gear—have a great sense of entitlement. On the other hand, today I couldn’t write the scene in which the horses that had shed their riders came galloping along the bridle path and out of the Park, where they stopped for the light at Central Park West and trotted with docility back to the Claremont Stable on West 93rd near Amsterdam. Only occasional mounted police now ride the bridle path, and the Claremont is no longer a stable—but it still was when I saw that happen in real life.

My biggest set piece in the Park was Barbara and Jimmy’s wedding near the end of Death Will Pay Your Debts, which I wrote as “under the gazebo near the lake.” I was thinking of a cross between the Ladies Pavilion, very popular for weddings, and the Hernshead Boat Landing, where a jazz band often plays, both on the west side of the Lake, south of the Ramble. So I didn’t want to be tied down to real-life details, although the “big rock” that Bruce and Cindy sit and talk on at the end of the party is the real-life Hernshead Rock. That’s the beauty of writing fiction about a real-life magical place you’ve known forever.

18 September 2023

What Is A Hack

The answer, like the answer to so many questions, depends on how old you are. If you were born before the Flood, or even before the War (what Flood? what War? see what I mean?), a hack is a New York taxi cab. If you're a Boomer, a hack is an uninspired writer, for example, a journalist, who churns out derivative or formulaic drivel without inspiration, passion, or creativity. If you're a millennial, it's an illegal but brilliant incursion into the best guarded secrets of cyberspace. If you're Gen Z, apparently, a "hack" can be anything.

Because I was born before the Flood (okay, before the start of the Baby Boom), I remember the old game "coffeepot," in which you replaced any chosen word in a sentence with "coffeepot" and the other players had to guess from context what you were talking about. I also read Alice in Wonderland, in which Humpty Dumpty says, "There's glory for you!" He explains to Alice that when he says it, glory means, "there's a nice knock-down argument for you," because "when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean."

If I thought that Gen Z were emulating Humpty Dumpty, I'd have no quarrel with them.

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "Which is to be master---that's all...They've a temper, some of them---particularly, verbs, they're the proudest---adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs---however, I can manage the whole lot!"

I doubt the Gen Zers who use "hack" to coffeepot language can explain what Humpty Dumpty means. I've seen a video of an "omelet hack" displayed on the wall of my local subway station. An article in the Harvard Crimson, of all places, referred to another online article about "life hacks every student should know" that led to articles on such important coffeepots as "hacks for DIY manicures, hacks to survive delays at the airport, and even hacks for what to do when you just can’t finish those last three pieces of sushi." Remember real language, when we used such terms as "life skills" and "recipes?" And when you didn't send your kids to Harvard to figure out what to do with the last three pieces of sushi? Oy gevalt.

If these kids think Chatbot is going to let them relax while they let it write their term papers and emails and still take over the world with their Harvard degrees and sublime sense of entitlement, they're deluding themselves. They're clearing the field for Chatbot and the more sophisticated AI that's sure to follow it to take over the world. And AI doesn't drink the water or breathe the air, so don't expect its goals to be the same as ours. It's not there yet by any means. I was reassured to see on a giant bus shelter a digital poster that claimed, "Montrealers are non-stop festivals!" It was lousy copywriting, and I understood why when I read the fine print: "AI-generated review of Montréal, based on thousands of visitor comments." AI will learn. Will human kids? Not if they lose the skills to hack language before time coffeepots out. There's glory for you!

21 August 2023

Pet Peeves and Anachronisms

Do readers under forty remember the sound of chalk squeaking on a blackboard? Moreover, do they care if characters living in the Sixties, World War II, Tudor England, or the Roman Empire speak as if they lived in 21st century America? If anyone in that demographic reads this post, those questions are not rhetorical. I'd like to know, because I remember, and I care.

"I have feelings for you." I recently watched a TV episode set during World War II in which one character declared to another, "I have feelings for you." In 1980, when my current husband moved in and I went off the love market, that wasn't what people said when they felt emotionally attracted to someone. They didn't say "into you" or "not that into you" either, not for another three or four decades.

"I'm sorry for your loss." I remember the first time I heard this, on an episode of Judging Amy, a courtroom/ family drama that ran from 1999 to 2005. Before that, if you couldn't find something spontaneous and personal to say, you said, "My condolences." When I offer sympathy to bereaved strangers, or if I didn't know the deceased, I go with, "I'm so sorry," letting my tone of voice express my concern. The addition of "...for your loss," to my mind, distances the speaker, conveying, "I'm all right, Jack."

"passed away" for "died" I was brought up to say "died" and "dead." I don't know when the euphemism "passed away" took such universal hold, but it's ubiquitous these days, and as both a writer and a shrink, I believe it's a big mistake. Death is a fact for all of us, and being mealy-mouthed about it doesn't help. We're not skittish about anything else these days. Young women rock stars' favorite stage move seems to be writhing around on the floor in costumes in which they look almost naked. We're living in the run-up to either World War III or an unlivable planet without reaching a consensus about doing whatever it takes to stop it. But "dead" is too raw to say aloud.
If an analogy helps, it reminds me of a 1972 Luis Buñuel movie, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, in which using the toilet is a social activity but eating is done in private.

The present tense is used so frequently these days to tell a story that there's no point in rejecting it. If you're a fiction lover, it would be like throwing every third spoonful into the trash every time you eat a bowl of ice cream. No, what gets to me when some authors use the present tense is what a hash they make of the past tense. The transitions ought to be simple, smooth, and consistent.

I follow the trail of blood into the kitchen, where it drips from the rim of the sink and pools on the floor. The tiles were clean when I entered the room last night.

Instead, too many of them write:
I follow the trail of blood into the kitchen, where it drips from the rim of the sink and pools on the floor. The tiles had been clean when I entered the room last night.
or worse:
The tiles had been clean when I had entered the room last night.

I learned from submissions to the late Marvin Kaye of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine to keep "had" to a minimum. It's a small word, but I've come to agree with Kaye that it's hardly ever needed.

Then there's the twenty-first tendency to use nouns as verbs, creating awkward phrases to replace perfectly good existing locutions. Nero Wolfe couldn't stand the use of "contact" as a verb. The erudite detective (who our own Eve Fisher has suggested might have been a descendant of the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson) once burned a dictionary for allowing "imply" and "infer" to be used interchangeably. "Gifted with" instead of "gave" or "given" would have made him reach for the matches, and "tasked with" instead of "assigned" or "ordered to" would have driven him crazy. I don't like it in a contemporary work of fiction or video. But I go bonkers when a Roman centurion declares, "The legions have been tasked with destroying the Druids."

24 July 2023

The Bowery — A Vanished World Revisited

The protagonist of my long-running Bruce Kohler mystery series got sober at the beginning of Death Will Get You Sober, written in 2003 and published in 2008 by St Martin's (back before the birth of Minotaur), on Christmas Eve in detox on the Bowery. I wrote the following in a SleuthSayers post called "Down on the Bowery" in 2012.

The Bowery in lower Manhattan, along with Seattle’s Skid Row and its namesakes in Los Angeles and other cities, had long been synonymous with down-and-out chronic alcoholism. The area was famous for its bars and flophouses as well as the “Bowery bums” who came from all over the country to drink cheap Thunderbird and sleep it off in the gutter. I first went down to the Bowery in 1983. I was not yet a fiction writer, much less a clinical social worker with a master’s degree or a psychotherapist. For a seminar connected with getting my alcoholism counseling credential, I had a choice of places to intern. My professor urged me to pass up the expensive private clinic and go down to the Bowery. “You’ll love it,” he said, and he was right.

I caught the very end of the era before the homeless spread out all over the city. There were only a few bars and two or three genuine flophouses left. But walking down the Bowery from Astor Place, you entered another world when you crossed Fifth Street. The program was housed in the notorious men’s shelter on Third Street, still a scary place at that time. To reach the elevator, you had to breast your way through crowds of not too sweet-smelling men who stood around in a fog of cigarette smoke. The elevator had no buzzer. To get to the program on the fourth floor, you had to pound on the scarred elevator door with your fist, and eventually Wisdom the elevator man would bring it creaking down to get you. (His name was Winston, but no one called him that.) You took your life in your hands if you used the stairs.

My first day as an intern, the last of the cops who’d formed the first “rescue team” in 1967 to bring “Bowery bums” to detox instead of just throwing them in jail took me out with him. It was Check Day, when all the guys on any kind of public assistance or veteran’s benefits got their monthly check. So nobody was lying in the gutter. The cop said we’d find them in the bars. It was 10:30 in the morning. I remember the sun slanting down across the bar, the dust, the bartender polishing a glass, and the row of heads that turned toward us in unison.
They all knew the cop. They knew why we were there. The bartender sounded like an elevator man in Bloomingdale’s. He said, “Fourth floor! fourth floor! who wants to go?” They knew exactly what he meant. They’d all spent many nights in the shelter. Some of them had been in detox 60 times.

The shelter was cleaned up by the time I went back in 1993 as program director of an outpatient alcohol program. The building also housed a drug therapeutic community. I once walked up the formerly dangerous stairs in a Santa Claus hat and a red feather boa to help sing Christmas carols in the detox. During the later 90s, chi-chi restaurants and fern bars started moving onto the Bowery. A block east, blue recycling garbage cans stood neatly in front of the Hell’s Angels clubhouse. Their stretch of Third Street curb was painted yellow. The city had put up a sign: “Parking reserved for Hell’s Angels motorcycles only.”

Today, the building has been thoroughly renovated, though it still houses social service programs.
There’s a chic restaurant on the corner and a boutique hotel beyond it, with an outdoor patio bar looking onto the 18th century graveyard hidden behind the facades of the buildings that form the square between Third and Second Streets and the Bowery and Second Avenue.
When I left in 1999, it was still a secret wilderness of spiky grasses, wildflowers, and a gnarled old tree or two, its silence broken only by birdsong and the occasional yowls of mating cats. Now it looks like a park.

Ten years after I wrote this—the blog post, not the novel—Project Renewal still runs programs for the homeless out of the old Men's Shelter. I've heard they bought the building from the City for a dollar. It's been thoroughly renovated, and the word PUBLIC in faded, giant letters, with the L missing, is no longer visible on its side to give passersby a smile. At the Bowery Hotel, as of July 2022, you could book a room for Christmas Eve ("room only") for between $515 (queen) and $1,281 (suite) a night. If you imagine yourself facing south at Astor Place and the point where the north end of the Bowery (it is a street) meets Lafayette Street as the prow of a ship, its figurehead is the Cooper Union, in whose Great Hall Abraham Lincoln gave the speech that propelled him to the Presidency. That's still there. It's a landmark building. But the Bowery as a neighborhood with a flavor of its own, even a changing one with fern bars overtaking the dereliction, is gone. The buildings, glass and steel and chrome, were built in the twenty-first century, after I left my job and finally had time to write Death Will Get You Sober, which I'd been talking about for years.

26 June 2023

Déjà Lu: I've read this book before

This post was inspired by author Carolyn J. Rose, who wrote on the mystery lovers e-list DorothyL: "Firmly in the category of things I hate is not realizing I've already read a book."

I agree that it's annoying to spend money on a book—alas, among our vanished pleasures in the electronic age is "plunking money down"—only to find that it's familiar because I already own it. Sometimes, as in Carolyn's example, I forget I've read the book until it starts to seem familiar. I've made my peace with my aging memory. I'm seriously ticked off, however, with publishers who reissue a book under an alternative title without a warning label that's accessible before purchase.

On the other hand, there are many circumstances in which I reread books deliberately. They fall into several categories.

Mystery and suspense to which I can't remember the solution In this case, failing memory is my friend. The mystery unfolds as a surprise that is as fresh the second time as it is the first. Unfortunately, my decades of mystery reading and twenty years writing crime fiction have started to work against this convenient reading trick. I can no longer forget the solution to many fictional crimes, including some fiendishly clever ones that were original in their day: Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent, Dorothy L Sayers's Unnatural Death, Josephine Tey's To Love and Be Wise, Agatha Christie's The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side, Colin Dexter's The Way Through the Woods, to name a few classics.

Comfort reads, subcategory guilty pleasures These are books I reread when I'm feeling so tired and lazy that I have to get into bed and turn my brain off, but I'm not ready to turn out the light. I inherited a complete set of Georgette Heyer's Regency romances, printed in the 1950s and now crumbling past readability, from a maiden aunt who died at 96, and they were already well worn with use. These days, Heyer is damned with faint praise as the author to read "if you like Bridgerton." In fact, you read Heyer if you liked Jane Austen and Heyer inspired a whole genre of romances and romance-laced mysteries with Regency settings, spirited heroines, and a leaven of humor. I seldom read them any more, partly because I've finally tired of the masterful heroes and partly because I know them by heart. I've also stopped rereading Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver mysteries because I already know them line by line.

Comfort reads, subcategory old friends While I've outgrown apologizing for my guilty pleasures, there's a separate category for rereads for which no one need apologize. I've written many times about my very favorite series, Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga. After many reads, I don't need much energy to slip once again into the Vorkosigans' familiar and intriguing world. Make that worlds. Martha Wells's Murderbot series now belongs to this category. What makes such well written books comfort reads? Superb storytelling and exceptionally lovable protagonists.

Series in order In the age of Kindle, it has become easy and convenient to binge on a whole series of mystery novels, in the same way that we binge on TV series. Perhaps my favorite mystery subgenre is the police procedural with a hefty dose of the detectives' personal lives and character development. One of the best is Deborah Crombie's Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James series, now up to its nineteenth installment. I have some of the earlier books in hardcover, some in paperback, and some on Kindle, and I may have given a couple away in a burst of shelf-clearing a few years ago. I thought I'd read them all.

But after reading the new one, when I checked the titles, I found there were some gaps. A glimpse of Kincaid and James's current domestic status made me curious to remind myself how they got there. So I started over, one book at a time. Not only did it feel, as I read the books in order, as if I never really knew Kincaid and James at all, but also that I now have a deeper appreciation of what an excellent writer Deborah Crombie is. This is partly due to the fact that I gave her work a closer reading and partly to the fact that I'm an experienced mystery writer myself. I read the first ten books before I published any fiction at all. This time around, I savored each book as a mystery and as a complex novel, and I thoroughly enjoyed the series as the vehicle for Kincaid and James's story. It's a great example of the essence of a good reread: there's always something new.

29 May 2023

How much of a misfit can a writer be?

I have never been able to write harmless fiction. My characters, their backgrounds, and their motivations keep drifting outside the lines. And by "harmless," I don't mean just harmless cozies with cupcake-baking divorcees trading quips with hunky police chiefs over the latest corpse. I also mean harmless noir: PIs in Humphrey Bogart hats slouching in out of the mean streets and trading quips with femmes fatales with "legs out to here" and four-inch stiletto heels. ("Out to here," if you want an exact measurement, is twice the length of an average Ashkenazic Jewish woman's legs, ie my kind of legs.)

In today's publishing, there are a lot of rules based not on literary values but on the marketplace, as the industry tries to predict the unpredictable and control the uncontrollable. The underlying rip current is fear, determined by neither art nor business but by the chaotic politics of the moment. How far outside the lines am I allowed to color? As far as I want? Or only up to a limit defined by others?

In recent years I've become interested in writing from a Jewish perspective in my fiction. But anti-Semitism is on the rise globally. Jews are not getting a clear message that we're included under the sheltering umbrella of "diversity." So can I tell as many stories as I want, or just a token number? When will I be told that it's enough?

I've recently become interested in writing about trans people. I'd like to see trans characters integrated into crime fiction the way they are in speculative fiction. I have had one such story published, but I was disappointed when the editor allowed my preferred title to be vetoed by a low-level staff member who was trans. My 62-year-old nonbinary nibling (formerly my niece) commented: "I loved your title. The word police are mostly under forty."

How careful am I supposed to be with titles from now on? Will I be free to inform the development of all the characters I write with the full measure of my empathy and imagination? Does the publishing industry realize that the younger generation doesn't know anything? I remember trying to tell a young woman that the derogatory term "boujee" came from the word "bourgeois," for middle class. "No it doesn't," she said. "It's just itself." I didn't argue. People believe what they want to believe.

At this point in my life, I'm happy writing short stories. If I ever wrote another novel, it might be about two lifelong friends, a Jewish girl with Communist parents and a Black girl from Harlem with roots in what she calls a "good family" in the South, who first meet in the early1950s. But I have no incentive to write it. I wonder why not?