Showing posts with label Joseph D'Agnese. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Joseph D'Agnese. Show all posts

16 October 2020

The Macabre (True) Story of the Sunshine Lady, with an Appearance by Mr. Poe


It’s my unfortunate predilection to use my wife’s speaking gig and book tour absences as opportunities to eat and drink inappropriately. That alone can explain why and how I found myself a year or so ago in the darkened back bar at the Poe House in Hendersonville, North Carolina, a “quaint” town not far from where I live. The Poe House is an Edgar Allan Poe-themed tavern that is part wine bar, part music venue, part cocktail joint.

Poe and alcohol did not mix...well. Eight years before his death, Poe wrote a letter hoping to clear himself after W.E. Burton, a former employer whom Poe despised, circulated rumors of Poe’s drunkenness.

“I am temperate even to rigor,” [Poe wrote.] “At no period of my life was I ever what men call intemperate…. My sensitive temperament could not stand an excitement which was an everyday matter to my companions. In short, it sometimes happened that I was completely intoxicated. For some days after each excess I was invariably confined to bed. But it is now quite four years since I have abandoned every kind of alcoholic drink—four years, with the exception of a single deviation…when I was induced to resort to the occasional use of cider, with the hope of relieving a nervous attack.”

Whatever the truth, it has certainly not stopped barkeeps from using his lugubrious mug to decorate various drinking establishments. I’m getting good at ferreting out such places, and I’ll get to them all someday.

Red Death. In a glass.

On this occasion, as I sipped my Mask of the Red Death*—a beverage containing Tito’s, pomegranate juice, grilled lemon, rosemary simple syrup, with a rosemary sprig—I continued to peruse the Poe House cocktail menu**, which featured drinks with names like Amelia, Absinthe Drip, Virginia Clemm, Poe-a-Tree, Tales of Mystery, That Girl, Insanity, and Brewed Nevermore (your basic coffee and bourbon concoction).

“You don’t have a Sunshine Lady cocktail?” I asked the bartender. 

“Is that a Poe story?”

“No,” I said. “It’s a Hendersonville story.”

If you spend time poking around the Oakdale Cemetery just off Hendersonville’s main drag, you will eventually encounter the most boring tomb imaginable. A rectangular, above-ground sarcophagus covered on all six sides with concrete. This is the final resting place of one Lelia Davidson Hansell***, who endures in local legend as the Sunshine Lady.

Charlotte Oberver, 1926.

She was born in 1861, and hailed from a wealthy family whose name graces a nearby college. She and her husband, Judge Charles P. Hansell, lived in Thomasville, Georgia, but resided in our mountainous region 18 months before the end of her life. Judging from Mrs. Hansell’s death certificate, I suspect that her relocation was in order to avail herself of the region’s “breathing porches.”  This is where one came to sit, and to breathe mountain air, theoretically extinguishing toxins lodged in one’s lungs. In this case both air and porches proved insalubrious. In December 1915, Mrs. Hansell expired at the age of 54 from pulmonary tuberculosis.

Then things got seriously weird. Edgar Allan Poe weird.

The story goes that Mrs. Hansell abhorred the notion of being confined to a tomb for eternity. She  extracted from her husband a promise to bury her in such a way that the sun would always shine upon her face. Acceding to her request, he entombed her in a sarcophagus topped with blocks of prism glass. This is the glass you find embedded in sidewalks of great American cities. “Vault lights” allowed daylight to illuminate the basements of major buildings in the age before electric light. Prism glass was clear when installed but turned purple as its manganese content aged.

I lived in Hendersonville—aka Hendo, aka Hooterville—for a year when we first moved to the South. The Sunshine Lady became one of my brief obsessions. I’d poke around the web whenever I had a spare moment, looking for specific details, and wrote a short story inspired by the tomb.****

I learned that for decades the Sunshine Lady became Hendersonville’s most morbid attraction. I found mentions of the grave in 1930s-era WPA Guides to North Carolina. I read accounts of children selling cups of water outside the cemetery gates, instructing tourists to rub a few drops with their fingers on the scuffed glass blocks in order to better peer at the tomb’s occupant. And I’ve found articles in which longtime residents swore that when they were children themselves they’d still been able to gaze upon the corpse’s skeletal countenance, framed by a beautiful mass of auburn hair.

I have no idea if that’s true or even possible, though Mrs. Hansell’s obituary praised “her character of unusual beauty.” The examples of prism glass I’ve seen are very opaque, but admittedly I’ve only seen aged specimens.

Eventually, the town fathers got tired of this hideous spectacle. A local historian writes, “Many people expectorated on the glass and for sanitary reasons the top will be covered.”

Guess they got tired of buying water from the local kids.


The San Francisco Examiner, 1927.

But I’m sure there were other reasons they altered the tomb. If I may be permitted to speculate, wise Appalachian soothsayers probably foresaw that one day this sleepy Southern town would be a mecca for people seeking microbrews, homegrown apples, quilted handbags, homemade country pickles and preserves, antiques, and cute carvings of black bears. Hooterville could no longer be known as the place where people came to gaze upon the grinning face of death.

In 1937, the tomb was refurbished. It looks to me like a couple of thick skim coats of concrete did the trick, but it’s entirely possible they replaced the glass blocks with cinderblock. Who knows.

I do know that it’s the creepiest thing we’ve got around here, and I could not sleep the night I first heard the story in a local coffee shop. How much of the tale is true? How much embellished? I suppose at this point it does not matter. What does matter is that an enterprising bartender simply must dream up a suitable drink to honor the city’s most morbid resident—and fast. My nerves are so shot I might be forced to guzzle cider.

* * *

* “Mask” was used in the title when Poe’s tubercular nightmare first appeared in Graham’s Magazine in 1842, a month after he quit his post as the magazine’s editor. It’s been “Masque” since 1845 on.

** Alas, no Amontillado on the menu.

*** I’ve seen her forename spelled as Lela, Lelia, and Leila. The obit says Lelia, but the death certificate says Leila. I hate history.

**** My short story treats the whole legend as a ghost story. Download it free 'til the end of the month right here. And Happy Halloween!


See you in three weeks!


25 September 2020

Wooden-legged Playboy Bequeaths America a Cherished Ideal


Hey, did you all have a rockin’ Constitution Day last Thursday? A great American day off, complete with outdoor grilling, parades, flags, and late-night fireworks? Yeah, me neither. And not because of the pandemic.

Constitution Day (Sept. 17th) is the federal holiday Americans don’t know. Two hundred thirty-three years ago, 74 men were invited to Philadelphia to consider replacing the weak Articles of Confederation that was proving disastrous for the new American states. The nation was bankrupt and had no treasury or military to speak of. Despite this, citizens were deeply suspicious of a plan to hammer out a new system of government. Only 55 men answered the call. After nearly four months of debate, only 40 (39 representatives and the convention’s president George Washington) signed the resulting document on September 17, 1787, and embarked on a campaign for ratification.

It’s sort of like the story of the Declaration of Independence, only more forgettable. The Fourth of July has everything going for it. A rag-tag band of rebels overthrew a king! In contrast, the Seventeenth of September presages an ugly, querulous slog to durable nationhood. Americans argued about the Constitution in 1787. And they argue about it today.

Jefferson fatuously declared that the men of the Constitutional Convention were “an assembly of demigods.” Yeah—they weren’t. But sometimes imperfect people can conceive a more perfect union. Let’s take, for example, my favorite Constitution signer, Gouverneur Morris.

Gouverneur Morris
(Courtesy Library of Congress)

He hailed from a rich New York family whose family seat was located at Morrisania in the Bronx. Six feet tall, Morris was witty, fit, and imposing, and once served as a body double as the French sculptor Houdon shaped marble into the form of George Washington. There’s just one limb Houdon had to dream up out of his own imagination: Washington’s left leg.

You see, in his twenties Gouverneur Morris lost his left leg in a carriage accident. He wore a wooden prosthesis for the rest of his life. (The New-York Historical Society preserves the pegleg in a glass case next to FDR’s leg brace.) A rumor at the time held that Morris had really lost his leg while leaping out of a window to escape an angry husband.

Morris’s bedroom exploits are legendary. In his diaries, Morris recounted steamy encounters with numerous women in passageways, carriages, even a Parisian convent. He did not discriminate. He dallied with young and old, married or single. He once hooked up with a pair of sisters. He did it in the Louvre, which then served as an apartment complex for nobles. The author of the best Morris biography, Richard Brookhiser, reveals that the language in Morris’s diaries are loaded with euphemisms.
“They performed ‘the rites’; he conferred ‘the joy’; they did ‘the needful.’ They ‘sacrificed to the Cyprian Queen [Venus]’; they ‘performed the first commandment given to Adam, [i.e., be fruitful and multiply] or at least we used the means.’ Over and over, Morris boasted, like a teenager (or at least, like a teenager who knows Latin), that he was suaviter in modo, fortiter in re—gentle in manner, resolute in the deed.”
At one point Morris exclaims of a woman: “What fine materials for seduction!” In another passage, he writes that he and his partner “brightened the chain together.” (Brookhiser explains that one brightens a chain by, ahem, rubbing it.) After spying Dolley Madison in a low-cut dress, Morris wonders if she is “amenable to seduction.” Yes, Dolley was happily married, but Morris dismissed fellow signer James Madison, architect of the U.S.’s three branches of government, as “shriveled.”

So that’s the hormonal side of the man. Like a peripatetic Zelig, he also popped up at key moments in history and used his brains to set things to rights. During the American Revolution, he traveled to Valley Forge to check on Washington’s troops, was gob-smacked at what he found, and lost no time describing to Congress the “naked, starving condition” of their army. He developed the U.S.’s decimal-based monetary system, employing the word “cent” to replace the British “penny.” Living abroad after the war, he bore witness to the horrors of the French Revolution and lent money without expectation of repayment to nobles fleeing their homeland. He was at Alexander Hamilton’s bedside when the man died of the bullet lodged near his spine, and later delivered Hamilton’s eulogy. Pressed into service for his hometown, Morris laid out a scrupulously logical street plan for New York City, which satisfied his apparent love of precision and mathematical order, and playfully mocked the European design of Washington, DC.

When in his teens, Morris knocked over a kettle of boiling water and scalded off most of the flesh from his right arm. The nerves were most likely damaged, and the limb remained scarred and impaired for the rest of his life. Considering his double blow—the loss of a leg and the disfiguring of his arm—one would expect Morris to be a bitter man. On the contrary, he was generally happy and took pains to write letters consoling friends and acquaintances in their times of need. And while his father, mother and family all owned slaves, he held no enslaved persons of his own, and in one of the 173 speeches he made at the Constitutional Convention (the most of any signer) he railed against the institution, calling it a “curse of heaven.” Late in life, the old bachelor shocked his family by marrying a woman twenty-two years his junior who had been implicated in the murder of her illegitimate child by another man, her adulterous brother-in-law.

Morris was indeed colorful, but why bore you with his exploits? History is filled with the deeds of dead white men. We certainly don’t need more of them, even if they are accomplished, wooden-legged scoundrels.

If you must know, my thoughts fly to Morris because of one paragraph he wrote. One single graf. He’s remembered as the “penman” of the Constitution, and for translating passages in the founding document from dreadful legalese to normal English. In a famous example, he cut 61 words down to 36. The original preamble read, We the people of the states of … and proceeded to name each of the states in attendance at the Constitutional Convention. Morris retooled the first paragraph, throwing in a few of his own masterful touches:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
His stylistic choices are significant. During the debates, Morris had insisted that the president should be chosen not by Congress but by the citizenry. (The Electoral College is the vestigial compromise the framers made on that point.) Nevertheless, Morris arguably exacted his revenge. In one stroke, he wrenched the power of government from the states and bestowed it upon the people.

When the document flew to those states for ratification, the Virginian Patrick Henry—who declined to attend the Constitutional Convention, famously saying that he smelled a rat—pounced on the three words Brookhiser dubs Gouverneur Morris’s “greatest legacy.”

“What right had they to say ‘We, the People’?” Patrick Henry demanded.

Sigh. Nothing changes.

* * *


See you all in three weeks! If you can forgive a little BSP, I hope you’ll check out the trailer my wife created for our own book about the Constitution signers. I append the video here more for its cheerful animation and comedy than anything else. We were just learning how to use the software back then, and wanted it to sound like a modern-day political ad.

And yes, while I am the perpetrator of two books on the signers of two U.S. founding documents, I’d be the first to admit that they are works of political humor and wiseassery. For a serious look at Morris’s life, see historian Richard Brookhiser’s Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution (Free Press, 2003).

04 September 2020

Horses, Booze, and the Great Mint Julep Cup Conspiracy


Athlete with a taste for water only.

(Photo by Sheri Hooley via Unsplash)

It never fails that in the presence of galloping horses, human beings become parched and feel the need to drink heavily. At least, they do in the South, birthplace of the legendary icy-sweet mint julep. The julep is the official drink of the Kentucky Derby, which is normally held in May but was postponed to September 5—tomorrow—because of the pandemic. Historically, 120,000 juleps are mixed, served, and drunk at the Derby each year. This year, the horses will run without the presence of fans, so the legions of thirsty humans will have to fend for themselves.

Drink me.

(Photo by Adam Jaime on Unsplash)

As it is mixed today, the cocktail calls for four essential ingredients: a heaping mound of crushed ice, simple syrup, bourbon, and mint. And that cup. Without the cup, the drink is tasty but unremarkable. A kind of Slushee, or snow cone, for grownups who favor bowties, seersucker suits, and wacky hats. But when that sprig of mint is tucked into the top of a copper, pewter, or silver cup frosted with condensation, suddenly we’re in food porn heaven.

A few years ago, I went looking for a (cheap) pair of those cups at the local mall, but struck out at every store I visited. I did find many of those copper Moscow mule cups that are all the rage these days. Finally, after searching in vain amid her employers’ stock, a very nice sales woman shook her head and told me, “You know, I think mint juleps are a really Southern thing, and we’re just not very Southern here in Asheville.”

That would be Asheville, North Carolina, the so-called “Paris of the South,” and the Appalachian hometown of Thomas Wolfe.

But I received her meaning. There’s South, and there’s SOUTH.

Compelled to take my investigations elsewhere, I was surprised to find that there was an entire body of lore surrounding the beverage, not to mention the cup. Ponderous food encyclopedias informed me that “julep” is derived from a Persian word, gūlab, meaning rosewater, and refers to a syrup made from that infusion. One must always endeavor to hold one’s julep cup by the bottom or top rim, never the sides, lest your sweaty mitts hasten the drink’s inevitable melting.

Since the 1940s, the quintessential Derby accoutrement has been a pricy sterling silver cup made by Wakefield-Scearce Galleries, out of Shelbyville, Kentucky.

How it came about: Times were tough because of WWII. Seeking a way to make his particular Derby cup irresistible, Mark J. Scearce the Elder hit upon the idea of producing ones marked on their undersides with the initials of the current U.S. president. He got the idea from a tradition that dates to 1300 CE and the reign of Edward I, when British silversmiths were required to stamp an official “hallmark” on the bottom of their pieces to indicate the degree of the silver’s purity.

True, at the time Scearce was developing his cups, FDR may have seemed like he’d been appointed for life, but most presidents had only served eight years, max. On that basis alone, Scearce’s cups would theoretically be limited edition items—and thus highly collectible.

LBJ so loved this tribute that he bought tons to give as gifts.

The first ones Scearce offered for sale were stamped with an American eagle and the initials of one HST. From that moment forward, each new White House occupant received a Shelbyville cup of his own. If an incumbent was reelected, Scearce added the Roman numeral II to that president’s initials.

Roman numeral II, indicating Clinton’s second time at bat.

The Scearce family continues the tradition to this day, and other firms such as Tiffany have gotten into the act. A new Scearce sterling silver presidential cup will currently set you back $850. (A $65 pewter option bears the initials of the current governor of Kentucky.) People collect Scearces and trot them out—see what I did there?—for their own annual Derby parties. Scearce cups that show up in estate sales or on eBay are often a few hundred dollars cheaper, and are snapped up quickly by people starting their own collections. The most desirable ones are those whose sides are not monogrammed with the initials of the previous owner. The least desirable are ones that are dinged, tarnished, or no longer watertight, possibly due to julep-induced fracases.

I’ve never seen an HST online, but DDE, LBJ, and JFK are surprisingly common. I have a theory about this. The older the cup, the more likely its first owner has sipped his or her last julep, and the lonely cup is seeking a new quaffer.

When it comes to “collectibles,” I typically follow a look-don’t-buy approach that has served my wallet well. But, based on my bourbon-infused research, I can say that if you’re a big spender and spy a RMN or JEC or GRF, grab it. For some reason, they are scarcer than RWR or RWRII. Right now it’s tough finding an GHWB, WJC, or GWB. I presume the original guzzlers are still knocking those back.

Of course, since this is 21st-century America, even innocuous things such as mint julep cups have become heavily politicized. I’ve read stories about people who will only collect cups denoting presidents of a particular party. Or, if their host is an equal-opportunity collector, a reveler will pounce on the president who aligns with their politics, even if that president espoused policies the current party would disavow. The more recent the president, the hotter the emotions. Thank goodness the mint julep is a cold drink.

Now. Everyone needs a conspiracy theory, and this is mine: I believe some heavy-hitter eBay vendors occasionally obscure a certain president’s name, possibly for fear that 50 percent of their potential American buyers will not consider buying the cup on offer. I have no proof of this. I just find it odd that a seller will occasionally explain that the initials on the bottom of a particular cup stand for Better Hold On. If someone is buying a vintage Scearce cup, wouldn’t they know better?

Better Hold On, my horses fanny.

I look forward to the day when the second-sip market is rife with cups paying tribute to Don’t Just Tipple, Daily Jowls Tremble, Dastardly Joke Tool, or something equally clever. That would be sweet, gūlab-flavored justice, indeed.

As summer’s days wind down, I wish you all the frostiest of cocktails. Let us depart on the words of author Frances Parkinson Keyes, whose most famous book, Dinner at Antoine’s, was a mystery set in New Orleans. Elsewhere in her oeuvre, she wrote:
“I have heard it said that the last instructions which a Virginia gentleman murmurs on his deathbed are, ‘Never insult a decent woman, never bring a horse in the house, and never crush the mint in the julep.’”
Go and bruise gently, friends.


(Photo by Ari Augustian via Unsplash)

* * *

See you all in three weeks.


14 August 2020

I Miss My Summers With Mr. Poe


“Whenever I go back to Charleston, I think of Poe,” Pat Conroy’s narrator says in the opening to The Lords of Discipline, and I sorta, kinda know how Will McLean feels. Edgar Allan Poe was a fellow who was constantly on the move—evading creditors, chasing gainful employment, trying to get his sorry ass paid—but he doesn’t immediately spring to mind whenever I am in cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, or Baltimore.


But on those hot, humid summer days when Denise and I have escaped to the South Carolina beaches which are closest to our home in Western North Carolina, I cannot help think of Poe. He was barely 19 years old when he signed up for a five-year enlistment in the army, and ended up transferred from Boston to Fort Moultrie, on the very tip of Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina. The fort was built in 1776 to defend Charleston from British attack, and wasn’t decommissioned until 1960, 184 years later. Moultrie is famous for being built out of felled palmetto trees (South Carolina’s beloved state tree). Those truncated trunks were so spongy that British cannonballs bounced right off ‘em.


My pet whelk, Lawrence.

Poe was on Sullivan’s for all of 13 months, from 1827 to 1828, before finagling a way out of his five-year commitment to attend West Point. At Moultrie he worked as a clerk. They needed a man who could read and write, and that was certainly our boy Eddie’s wheelhouse. Though he managed to rise in rank from a private to a regimental sergeant major, the highest post a non-com could attain, he never answered to his real name. See, while in the army, he called himself Edgar A. Perry. By one biographer’s estimation, it was his fifth such alias, donned to ditch creditors he’d left behind in Richmond (where he’d gambled away $2,000 he didn’t have) and Boston (where he’d just self-published his first book of poems), and heaven knows where else.


Boat-tailed grackle.
Lovely, iridescent, thieving birds that I hope to see Nevermore.


Years later, the time he spent in the Charleston area blossomed into three different stories. The most famous of these three pieces—and the most celebrated in his lifetime—was “The Gold Bug,” first published in three installments in 1843. It’s often lumped in with his detective stories because the main character treats us to feats of ratiocination, but don’t get hung up on that. It’s a buried treasure/secret code story, complete with long discussions of alphabetic frequencies, references to Captain Kidd’s gold, a mysterious gold-winged beetle, and a Black sidekick who speaks in what today reads as racially offensive dialect.

In 1840, while an editor at Alexander’s Weekly Messenger in Philadelphia, Poe challenged readers to stump him by submitting their best cryptograms to the paper. Cryptographic puzzles were a hot genre at the time. He promised to decode each and every one, no matter the difficulty. Of course, you’d have to keep buying the paper to see if the editor picked your code, and if he had been able to “unlock” it. Week after week, Poe always did. Either he was a genius, or he banked on the fact that most semi-literate Americans of the 1840s were only capable of one type of code: the substitution cipher of the A=1, B=2 variety. “I have lost, in time, which to me is money, more than a thousand dollars in solving ciphers,” he would later gripe.

In the story, he describes Sullivan’s Island this way:
“This island is a very singular one. It consists of little else than the sea sand, and is about three miles long. Its breadth at no point exceeds a quarter of a mile. It is separated from the mainland by a scarcely perceptible creek, oozing its way through a wilderness of reeds and slime, a favorite resort of the marsh-hen... 
Near the western extremity, where Fort Moultrie stands, and where are some miserable frame buildings, tenanted, during summer, by the fugitives from Charleston dust and fever, may be found, indeed, the bristly palmetto; but the whole island, with the exception of this western point, and a line of hard, white beach on the sea-coast, is covered with a dense undergrowth of the sweet myrtle so much prized by the horticulturists of England.”
“The Gold Bug” was insanely huge in its day. The Dollar Newspaper paid Poe $100 ($3,400 in 2020 dollars) for the piece, the most he likely ever made from any of his stories. The tale was printed at least five times by the paper, was spun off into a terrible play, sparked a quickie pamphlet of Poe tales, and launched its author on a brief speaking career. Alas, pirated versions sold 300,000 copies—none of which profited Poe a cent. Because of course they wouldn’t. Our Eddie had a date to keep with poverty, misery, and the gutter.

Modern Sullivan’s Island is pristine, pricey, and popular with beach-trekking fugitives from nearby Charleston, Mount Pleasant, and from anywhere up and down the East Coast, really. Nearby Gold Bug Island is the site of fancy lowcountry weddings. Beachfront property sells in the millions. Fort Moultrie is a National Historical Park whose gift shop sells Poe paperbacks and tedious nonfiction about the outpost’s strangest literary resident. Summer parking on “SI” is near impossible, but maybe you’ll get lucky and get to park your rental car or golf cart on Goldbug Avenue, or Raven Drive, or the main drag, Poe Avenue.


You might be moved to browse the books at the Edgar Allan Poe Branch of the Charleston County Library, housed in a four-gun military battery that dates to the Spanish-American War. Perhaps you will buy your sweetheart something shiny at the jewelry store called Goldbug. Or else you will wait until they call your name and seat you inside or on the sunny porch of Poe’s Tavern, on Middle Street, where the walls are decorated with the most massive collection of Poe art, movie posters, and old magazine ads imaginable. (Who knew that the cousins behind Ellery Queen did Poe-centric ads for Ballantine Ale back in the day?) The tavern’s owners operate two additional locations in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, and Atlantic Beach, Florida.


Hark! Methinks I hear the clogging of my tell-tale heart!

There are no fewer than 10 burger or chicken sandwich varieties on the menu, ranging from the Raven to the Gold Bug, the Gold Bug Plus, the Pit & Pendulum, the Amontillado, the Annabel Lee, the Hop Frog, the Black Cat, and the Sleeper. I usually go with the Tell-Tale Heart: a big-ass burger with a fried egg, bacon, and cheddar. I wash it down with a Poe lager, and we do not depart those shores until I have bought yet another Poe’s Tavern T-shirt. What does it say about me that most of my clothing these days has originated in bars? Perhaps Poe is not the only one destined for the gutter. But, ahem, I digress.


The only Edgar I
ll ever really need.

If Poe saw his little sand spit today, and beheld his twitchy face painted onto the bricks above the fireplace in the tavern, he would probably threaten a lawsuit—for slander, libel, copyright infringement—as was his wont. In distant realms now, he probably confers daily with recently departed licensing attorneys.


Perhaps some summer when our own hideous bug becomes less horrific, I will meet you all on Eddie’s not-so-forgotten island. Until then, I leave you with a touch of Conroy’s poetry on the subject. The Lords of Discipline passage concludes thusly:
“I like to think of [Poe] walking the streets of Charleston as I walked them, and it pleases me to think that the city watched him, felt the shimmer of his madness and genius in his slouching promenades along Meeting Street. I like to think of the city shaping this agitated, misplaced soldier, keening his passion for shade, trimming the soft edges of his nightmare, harshening his poisons and his metaphors, deepening his intimacy with the sunless wastes that issued forth from his kingdom of nightmare in blazing islands, still inchoate and unformed, of the English language.”

* * *

I’ve been on a Poe kick recently because one of his longtime editors, the self-described editress of Godey’s Lady’s Book, Sarah Josepha Hale, is the subject (along with the Civil War, Lincoln, and the creation of the Thanksgiving holiday) of my wife’s next book.

The book doesn’t pub until November, but Dutton just released the cover this week. In the months to come, I’ll share more about what I’ve learned about Mrs. Hale’s strangest contributor.

See you all in three weeks! Until then, you can find out more at Denise’s website.






24 July 2020

Live from the Basement: My new book!


One of the most challenging aspects of publishing a book is promoting the darn thing. I am told that in the days when triceratopses took long three-martini lunches, publishers did most of the heavy lifting to get a book noticed by its target audience. But as long as I’ve been dealing with book publishers—an appalling twenty or so years now—books have sunk or swum primarily based on the efforts of their authors.

Call me nuts, but I feel that as authors have learned to do more of the publicity and marketing, the more professional publicists and marketers at various houses have unlearned their jobs. A few years ago I was stunned to hear a freelance publicist—someone one of my ghostwriting clients had hired to help him promote his new book—say with utter seriousness that it was hard to get a journalist to return her phone calls. If you’re charging an author $100 a hour, you shouldn’t be telling them how hard it is to do your job, nor raising the faint possibility that other professionals don’t take you seriously.

But that’s the world we live in. Twenty years worth of publicists in the book business believe that they have fulfilled their responsibilities once they have fired a press release into the ether. They never need to get a response to succeed at their job or collect a paycheck. They just have to email it. Which is wonderful, if you have been trained to do your job without ever picking up the phone.

Now, thanks to the crazy apocalyptic world situation, the world’s book publicists and marketers are about to unlearn even more of their jobs. Authors of all stripes are trapped at home, unable to do even the most basic of book tours. They can’t visit bookstores or libraries. They can’t do those book lunch things that local authors are always being invited to do. (“We can’t pay you, but you can sell copies of your books—and we give you a boxed lunch!”)

So authors are turning to the next best thing. It was already fairly easy to do Skype visits with far-flung book groups. Now virtual events via Skype, Zoom, or Crowdcast are becoming the norm. I had my doubts that a virtual event would bring in crowds, but I realize now that I’m jaded, and prejudiced in favor of live bookstore events. When my wife recently told a friend in Boston about a virtual bookstore chat an author friend of ours was doing for her nonfiction book, Boston Pal became excited to share this with her friends via social media. “Everyone’s crawling the walls,” she said, “and they are desperate for things to do while the kids are watching TV.”

This is probably something I don’t appreciate since I don’t have kids. But virtual bookstore visits and chats are really helping book lovers right now cope with the weirdness of enforced family time.

Here’s what I’m also realizing: The potential is there for authors to reach an even bigger audience than they ever could before. Back in the day, when my wife’s publicists put together her book tours, they’d be very selective about which stores they sent her to. Some stores could be relied upon to sell lots of books, but they didn’t have the floor space to host a visiting author. Every Big Five publicist who books authors knows which stores have the space or the resources to book a larger one, and they steer their top authors to those stores almost exclusively.

But these days, literally any entity—big, small, or in-between—can host an author if they have access to a Zoom account. So book tours in 2020 are limited only by the patience of the author. How many days, afternoons, or nights are you willing to sit in front of your computer and talk about your book? Can you team up with other authors to present an hour of readings, à la Noir at the Bar?

Here is what these authors are learning: They’re learning how to present themselves in front of a camera, which is a different animal than doing a live performance. Some are learning how to set up a camera, and record and edit videos on their own.

I saw two videos recently—from well-known authors in the mystery genre—that showed me just how much the publishing world is changing. The first one appeared in my Instagram feed, marked “Sponsored,” which is code for advertising.

Who was this author who was advertising on Instagram? John Freaking Grisham. I’m linking to his videos here, in case Blogger decides to stop embedding Instagram videos. In the one I’m sharing here, Grisham talks about his writing shed from the backyard of his home in central Virginia. In subsequent videos, he’s speaking to us direct from his garage. And he’s openly telling his fans that he’s “hiding on the farm.”

The videos are not high-tech, not slickly produced. And why would they be? Like everyone else confined to their home these days, Grisham cannot risk having an army of filmmakers traipsing through his house and yard. He’s shooting these chats himself, and possibly passing the footage on to someone else to edit them for him. But I kinda doubt it.


David Hewson, author of the Nic Costa mystery series and other books, has always impressed me with his technical skills. Two of his self-pubbed books teach writers how to use the word-processing software, Scrivener and Ulysses. One of the videos on Hewson’s recently launched YouTube channel employs slick animation to discuss the principles of storytelling.

Recently I stumbled upon this video of Hewson’s, promoting his newest book, Shooter in the Shadows, and found it utterly delightful.


That’s all I’ll say about it. I don’t want to spoil it for you.

“Tough times in the writing business,” Hewson told me via email from the UK, “but my feeling is you have to do what you can to stay out there. It’s a real problem how to keep in touch with people at the moment...”

Just watch a few minutes of Hewson’s video, and see if you aren’t charmed at the notion of a writer walking around his neighborhood in Kent, wielding a selfie stick and talking about his book. Notice how the humorous asides break up his monologue, and how he manages to make his protagonist’s dilemma feel compelling. He knows his plot well, and he knows just how to hit the points that will resonate with mystery fans. This is a book I would definitely read. And I’m not too sheepish to say so. Pun intended.

Bottom line: If Hewson and Grisham are doing it, maybe I gotta try it too. Stay tuned.

03 July 2020

“I am Murdered!”


Tomorrow popularly marks the 244th birthday of the United States. By far, the most popular myth about the Fourth of July is that the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence were universally persecuted, hounded to death, and otherwise had their lives ruined for signing that document. Yes, some lost their homes and property in the Revolutionary War. Some saw family members jailed; some were themselves captured and/or briefly held by the British. But no signer died at the hands of the British government.

Only two signers died by violence. Button Gwinnett, a Georgia signer, became embroiled in a spat with a military rival and died in a duel about a year after he signed the Declaration.

Another signer, George Wythe of Virginia, died by poisoning. In a life that spanned eight decades, Wythe was a judge, classics scholar, and the nation’s first law professor. (The law school at the College of William and Mary, where he taught, today maintains an online encyclopedia dubbed Wythepedia, of course.)

Wythe had learned the law the old-fashioned way: by reading and clerking for an uncle who was a lawyer. Many years later, in the 1760s, one such clerk would work five years in Wythe’s practice. His name was Thomas Jefferson, and for years later he would have nothing but praise for his old boss. “My second father,” Jefferson called Wythe. “My faithful and beloved mentor in youth and my most affectionate friend through life,” and “my ancient master, my earliest and best friend.”

Both men had lost their fathers at a young age, which may explain their bond. Besides Jefferson, Wythe mentored Chief Justice John Marshall, House Speaker and Secretary of State Henry Clay, and possibly President James Monroe, among numerous others.

George Wythe
(National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)
Sent to Congress in 1774, Wythe contributed significant legal arguments that shaped the American response to Britain. First, he suggested that America could become a separate but equal nation within the British Empire. (That is to say, a “commonwealth nation.”) When this didn’t fly, Wythe and another signer, the Virginian Richard Henry Lee, insisted that Congress must hold the King, not Parliament, accountable for the colonists’ complaints. If the King refused to remedy their grievances, then the colonies were legally entitled to sever all relations with the crown. Hence the conceit of the Declaration of Independence, which is a laundry list of complaints for which the colonies held the monarch directly responsible.

Despite his great influence, Wythe was not in Philadelphia on July 2 (the day of the actual vote for independence), and he did not sign the document on August 2, 1776, when the largest number of Congressmen signed. For many years it was assumed Wythe signed the Declaration when he returned to Philadelphia in the fall. But some scholars now suggest—horrors!—that Wythe may not have signed the Declaration of Independence at all, but authorized a clerk to act as his proxy. (Wythe typically signed his name “G. Wythe,” but on the Declaration his name appears as “George Wythe” and looks nothing like his usual signature.) This theory is unconfirmed, and Wythe is the only signer for whom this question has been raised.

Wythe left Congress early to help Virginia set up its new government and revise its legal code with Jefferson’s help. Wythe would later draft the state constitution and design the state seal.

Wythe married twice. No children. He and his spouses boarded students attending the College of William and Mary, and may have paid for some of the poorer students’ education. Wythe loved the classics so much that he freely tutored anyone who was down for Greek and Latin. In the late 1780s, he persuaded Virginia’s legislators to ratify the U.S. Constitution, and thus credited with helping Virginia become the tenth state.

But did anyone say murder?

When Wythe’s second wife, Elizabeth, died, he relocated from Williamsburg to Richmond. Giving up his classes and students, he took on the role of chancellor, the top position in Virginia’s Court of Chancery. Though he and his relations had long owned slaves, Wythe had become an abolitionist. (The list of the enslaved people, and what historians know of them, is carefully examined here.) In his old age, Wythe’s household consisted of his cook and housekeeper, Lydia Broadnax, a former enslaved woman whom Wythe had freed, and Michael Brown, a young biracial man who had never been enslaved. Wythe liked the young man and was tutoring him. Both were set to inherit part of Wythe’s estate when he died.

Into this surrogate family came Wythe’s own flesh-and-blood, George Wythe Sweeney, his sister’s 19-year-old grandson. Sweeney was a troubled youth, a heavy drinker and gambler, but Wythe generously designated his grand-nephew to inherit the larger portion of the estate. But should Brown and Broadnax predecease Wythe, Sweeney would get everything.

You can see this one coming a mile away.

Accounts of the deed differ. The one I’m going with goes like this: One morning Broadnax observed Sweeney drinking his coffee from the kitchen coffee pot, then tossing a slip of white paper into the fireplace. Sweeney left the house. Later, the entire household drank from the same coffee pot. All were seized with violent cramps. Broadnax recovered, but young Brown died. Wythe fell fatally ill. Aided by Broadnax, investigators pieced together what must have happened: Sweeney dumped arsenic in the pot, then tossed into the fire the flimsy paper with which apothecaries commonly wrapped rat poison in those days. Wythe lingered in painful agony for two weeks, but was lucid enough to instruct officials to search Sweeney’s room for poison, and to swear out a new will that disinherited Sweeney completely. Groaning, “I am murdered,” Wythe died June 8, 1806 at the presumed age of 80. (His birth date is unknown.)

Sweeney was charged with the two murders and the forgery of some of his uncle’s checks. Broadnax’s damning eyewitness testimony was inadmissible under Virginia law because at that time black people could not bear witness against white men. Sweeney was acquitted of murder. He was convicted of forging the bad checks, but somehow won a new trial, which the prosecutor declined to pursue. Sweeney walked out of the courtroom a free man, and vanished into history.

The final biting irony of Wythe’s story is that the man who spent so much of his life crafting legal statutes in his home state probably wrote the very law that allowed his murderer to go free.

* * *


BSP: You might enjoy one or both of the books I’ve co-authored on the signers of significant U.S. documents, entitled Signing Their Lives Away or Signing Their Rights Away (Quirk Books, 2009 and 2011). Those interested in delving specifically into the murder of signer George Wythe will want to investigate I Am Murdered: George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson, and the Killing That Shocked a New Nation, by Bruce Chadwick (Wiley, 2009).

12 June 2020

Where Have You Gone, Edgar Sengier?


Edgar Sengier was a Belgian engineer who operated a mine in the then-named Belgian Congo at the early 20th century. His employers, the Union Minière du Haut Katanga, initially mined copper, but at some point the firm discovered a vein in a settlement called Shinkolobwe that yielded two substances of astonishing purity. One was radium, a radioactive element which was so infamously used in the dials of wristwatches, with horrifying results. The other? Well, let’s just say that when Sengier’s people informed him how Substance #2 could be used, the world was on the brink of World War II. French scientists wanted Sengier’s ore, but then France was swallowed by Germany. Sengier quietly packed half his stock—about 1,000 tons of this mysterious ore—in barrels and had them shipped to a warehouse in Staten Island, New York. The barrels sat idle for two years. Nine months after Pearl Harbor, Col. Kenneth Nichols—No. 2 in command of the Manhattan Project—paid a visit to Sengier’s New York office, asking if it was true the firm had located ore that could be processed into U-235. The Belgian engineer smiled. “I’ve been waiting a long time for your visit!”

"Where can I get U?" — Actual text message from Col. Kenneth D. Nichols, circa 1940.
(Atomic Energy Commission file image)
That, in a nutshell, is how the US and not Hitler ended up with a critical stockpile that ensured its success in the race for the bomb. Sengier, a man who went down in history simply by waiting for others to catch up to his foresight, popped into my head this week when I interviewed someone about the US’s medical preparedness for our protracted Covid future.

The fellow on the phone was an exec at a major international firm that manufactures medical supplies. (Yes, I am intentionally being vague.) Not ventilators. Not masks or gowns. But nearly everything else a medical office or hospital needs to do its job. By one estimate, this firm produces more than half of a specific medical tool used on the planet.

The corporate headquarters are based in the US, but operates factories over the globe. The execs have been largely quarantined at home for the last three months, but the firm has been running their assembly lines the whole time, tweaking how they do business to keep employees safe and the endless stream of supplies coming. In some cases, they have actually re-routed employees from areas of the business with low demand—making, say, kits for various types of elective surgeries—to areas with high demand.

Moving employees like this is easier said than done. For example, they arranged visas for employees to travel 100 miles from their homes and places of work in one Asian nation to another nation across a border. “ Commuting” was deemed impractical, so the firm is putting these folks up in hotels in the second nation so they can work in shifts. Anything to meet demand.

“First, every hospital in the world needed supplies,” the exec told me. “So we ramped up production to meet that demand. And when we caught up with that, then the federal governments of various countries started contracting with us directly to beef up their national stockpiles. So now we’re doing that.”

For another writing project, ages ago, I interviewed a former military doc who told me that most military stockpiles he’d seen were always in need of upgrading or replacement. Supplies expire and go bad. Medical tech, especially, becomes obsolete or deteriorates sitting unserviced in warehouses, waiting for a use date that never comes. No one wants to have product sitting around in a warehouse. But it’s what you do if you want to be prepared. You rotate in, you rotate out. If you're organized, that is.

But what was troubling our biotech executive the day we talked?

“There’s one country that hasn’t asked us to stock their national stockpile yet,” he told me, his voice dropping. “A big one. Can you guess which one that is?”

I didn’t have to guess. Both of us are Americans, and we both chuckled awkwardly at the same time. And then the naive little man inside me piped up: “Couldn’t you do it on your own? Just make ‘em and store ‘em somewhere?” Even before the words were out of my mouth, I felt stupid. This is why I’ll never be a businessperson; I cling too much to hope.

“Can’t,” the exec said. “We have enough trouble keeping up with demand as it is. And we’re sure as hell not gonna do it for free.”

Duh. Logical me understood that completely. But naive me, writer me, fought against it. And my brain kindly coughed up the name of that Belgian engineer.

To be sure, Sengier’s firm was paid. So far as I’ve been able to determined, they supplied the US with 4,200 tons of uranium, and plutonium as well. (The price for the uranium was $1 a pound. I have not located a price for the plutonium, enriched at Hanford.) After the war, Sengier received the Medal of Merit from the US, its highest civilian honor, and other accolades—Honorary Knight Commander, OBE, from the UK, the Legion of Honour from France, five distinct medals from Belgium alone—from nations grateful that he’d kept that uranium out of the hands of the Nazis.

Sengier (center) receives his medal from Manhattan Project director General Leslie Groves (right).
(Atomic Energy Commission file image)

And yes, we can spend days debating the wisdom of creating those first nuclear weapons. I have had those conversations. My wife spent seven years writing a nonfiction book about the Manhattan Project, and for seven years the faces and voices of the few surviving chemists, engineers, and rank-and-file workers she interviewed were in my mind nearly every day. We can also spend an equal amount of time talking about the exploitation of Africa’s natural resources and its people by centuries of colonizers.

But...

Those bombs, and the ones that followed them, were tools of death, but medical supplies are tools of life. Call me crazy, but US stockpiles have been known to dwindle. And it dismays me to learn that Sengiers are apparently in short supply.

22 May 2020

Sleuth$ayers Government Loans Are Here!*


Gosh, uncertain times are destroying main street businesses the world over, aren't they? But here in the United States, the spectacle of the public and private sector working together has been downright heartwarming. In recent weeks, the U.S. federal government has made available a giant pool of money that “small” businesses can tap into to pay their payrolls and stay afloat.

Boy howdy, the first round of money went fast! The feds kicked in some more. The pot now stands at $660 billion, give or take a few billion.

And excitingly, the definition of what constitutes a "small" business is refreshingly fluid. If you follow the rules, the "loans" don't have to be paid back. (Among the rules: Please do not buy a Rolex or lease a Rolls Royce.)

But where does that leave you, the professional or semi-professional mystery writer? You might be left asking such questions as, “Gee, America, I don’t operate a multi-million-dollar chain of overpriced steakhousesI am not the owner of a major basketball franchise. Nor am I a scrappy up-and-coming private equity firm, hedge fund, publicly-traded software firm, international cruise line, or globally-known high-end resort chain. What if my business is too small to be considered ‘small’? Who do I turn to for my bailout?”

You’re in luck. SleuthSayers Bank & Trust has joined forces with the U.S. federal government to develop a series of exciting loan instruments for the small-town American mystery writer. Loans are backed by the full faith and credit of the American government, and allow crime fiction writers the same flexibility as the package offered in recent weeks to “small” American businesses.

Loans are only available to those proposing to create a work of mystery fiction, defined as “a literary work in which a criminal act or the threat of a criminal act plays a major role in the plot.”

Please refer to the following before contacting our staff via email or phone. Our bankers are burning the virtual midnight oil to help writers complete their online applications swiftly and collect their sweet, sweet bags of cash.
We are hard at work printing your money.Photo by Celyn Kang on Unsplash

* * * 

FAQ

I’m currently writing my first book, a cozy mystery about a plucky amateur sleuth who operates a bed and breakfast AND bookstore AND antique shop in an adorable town in rural Maine, within sight of the roaring sea. Does this subject matter qualify me for a small “small” business loan?

Sweet monkeys, yes! This is exactly the sort of project the SleuthSayers Bank & Trust hopes to fund. However, there are some concerning issues. Since this is your first book, we’re afraid we cannot be encouraging about your chances of receiving a dime unless your protagonist is a cat owner. Please indicate on your application your willingness to tweak your content in this fashion, and we are sure we could back this project for the modest sum of $1 million. If you satisfy the U.S. government’s requirement to use 75 percent of the funds for your payroll, the money does not need to be paid back.


I am a single American male entrepreneur who has led a robust, exciting life, resulting in some unfortunate issues with the SEC and U.S. Department of Justice. While I feel certain that all the fines have been paid, there may be some unflattering mentions of me on so-called “white-collar-crime” watchdog sites. Will this jeopardize my ability to get a loan? On the upside: I hope to make a clean break with my past, and pen a dark, sobering noir in which things go from bad to worse.

My good man, the U.S. federal government cares not a whit if you have had financial issues in your past, or have run into trouble with various government agencies. In fact, your business acumen may qualify you for our top-tier, $1.8 million loan package, which ensures you will not run afoul of pesky federal auditing issues. Please be certain that the finished work does not appear to glorify the criminal lifestyle. Noir it up! Rewatch Double Indemnity and you should be good to go. Kindly inform your banker if you will be requesting a check, or bound bricks of small, unmarked bills.


I’m a Canadian writer, and—

Let me stop you right there. $500,000 in U.S. dollars. Take it or leave it. And yes, you will have to pay it back over 97 years at the tune of 1 percent interest. Unless you marry an American. The above applicant is available.



I’m actually a writer of science fiction and fantasy. I was turned down for a small small business loan offered by the Bank of Interminable Series Fiction, and am now hoping I can find a home in the mystery community since my as-yet-unfinished 200,000-word sci-fi space opera devotes 30,000 of its words to a shocking series of corporate murder-and-reanimation experiments at a penal colony on a moon of Dendur 57-X-Bleu. Do I qualify?

Unfortunately not. To satisfy our requirements, your plot must be overtly perceived to be part and parcel of the mystery genre. At the present time, we are urging all our SFF would-be clients to consider adding a robot (i.e. “mecha”) who wears a trench coat and fedora, and speaks exclusively in crackling, snappy repartee. This will increase your chances, but please remember that cross-genre fiction is a tough racket. We will only consider funding such a work up to $800,000.



I am an artisanal practitioner of highbrow-cum-lowbrow literary fiction. My current WIP is a tome that posits that the “solution” to so many of life’s “mysteries” result in subversive sops to the long-suffering proletariat. To prove this theory, I am in part deconstructing a public domain work of Agatha Christi’s and purging all instances of the letter “e” from her work. The result will be a mash-up of locked-room meets commercial domestic suspense. Is this an acceptable project under your program?

You had us at commercial domestic suspense. Stick an unreliable femme fatale narrator in it, and the million’s yours.


* * * 

* The foregoing does not constitute a bonafide offer of a single damn thing. There is no SleuthSayers Bank & Trust. But Double Indemnity is a cool movie, and you should really, really check it out if you haven’t already. Alas, there are no government loans for mystery writers, but isn't it pretty to think so?

01 May 2020

Our Flitcraft Moment


I think there’s an argument that we’re all turning into Flitcraft. You remember him, don’t you? He was the everyman character mentioned briefly and so enigmatically about a third of the way into The Maltese Falcon. Flitcraft was at the center of a missing person job that stayed with Sam Spade long after the job tied up.

Spade shares the tale from his past with Brigid O’Shaughnessy in Chapter 7, while the two of them are waiting in a hotel room for Joel Cairo (aka Peter Lorre) to come over. It’s a story that has delighted and puzzled mystery lovers for ages, since the anecdote seemingly comes out of nowhere and doesn’t dovetail neatly with the rest of the plot. Hammett is known for being such a spare, tight writer, so he must have had a reason for sticking this bit in. So goes the argument.

I’ve read dozens of articles, academic or otherwise, about the so-called Flitcraft Parable over the years, and the analyses differ greatly, depending on who’s doing the thinking. That’s part of the Parable’s charm. It’s like Melville’s white whale—overdetermined as hell, and deeper, richer, fuller in nuance than any of us can imagine. Mostly, the Flitcraft Parable gets you thinking about how humans react to mortal peril, which, call me crazy, sorta kinda fits the zeitgeist.

Flitcraft left his real-estate office in Tacoma one day and disappeared. When Spade finally tracked him down, the poor sap confessed why he suddenly abandoned his job, wife, two kids, new Packard, and country club membership in Tacoma. All it took was a brush with death. A near miss.

Out on that street in Tacoma, Flitcraft narrowly missed being squashed flat by a falling beam from a nearby construction job. The beam took out a chunk of sidewalk, and sent a concrete chip into his cheek, leaving a scar. If I may oh-so-melodramatically surmise, in a flash Flitcraft saw that the life he was living was a pathetic sham. He was not the man he ever wanted to be. If life could be snuffed out so unpredictably, well, damn it, he was going to Stop Living the Lie! From this moment forward, he was going to do things differently. Get back to his roots. He was going to shake things up.



Sort of the way I was going to do six weeks back when my wife and I decided to grow our own food in the garden. Supermarket shortages be damned! We didn’t need to play the industrial food game! We’d fill our bellies with nutrients coaxed from the earth by our own two hands. That was right before we learned that the nation was facing a shortage of garden seeds.

No problem! We’d bake our own bread. Guess what? Remarkably, the nation is facing a shortage of flour and yeast. Well…okay, maybe we’d raise chickens the way we’d always talked about doing. Henceforth, we former big-city types were going to transform ourselves into rustic homesteaders! We’d gorge ourselves silly on golden-brown frittatas while we played jigsaw puzzles at night, mended our frayed garments, and exercised obsessively. Oh, and the whole while I’d grow myself a luxurious lockdown man-beard.

Well, you can imagine how that all played out. For every single thing I contemplated doing as an expression of my highly personal, spanking-new creative identity, everyone else on the planet was thinking of doing exactly same thing, causing runs on everything from backyard chickens, to jigsaw puzzles, to sewing supplies, to exercise equipment. And experts were reminding newbie beard-growers to disinfect their new scruff before they hugged loved ones.

Don’t get get me wrong. This pandemic is radically altering many people’s lives and careers. My state has never seen so many unemployment claims, as is yours, I’m sure. Businesses in our lovely mountain town have been devastated by the lack of tourists who were historically their biggest class of clientele. Brewers, tour guides, chefs, bartenders, and baristas are out of work, and desperate. Already I’ve heard of a local businessman, a dear friend, who is considering shuttering his shattered business and moving to Europe with his young, EU-born wife, especially if a certain politician is reelected in the fall. People like my friend are going full frontal Flitcraft: disaster sparks change.

The rest of us are flirting with Flitcraft Lite. Near disaster sparks change of a sort. Change, I might add, that may not outlive the pandemic. After all, the final biting irony of Hammett’s parable is that after resolving to change his life, Flitcraft ended up replicating exactly the same life he left behind. In his new life in Spokane, Flitcraft had set himself up in a successful car dealership, with a lovely new wife who was expecting their first child. Spade’s assessment of the outcome is marvelous:

His second wife didn’t look like the first, but they were more alike than they were different. You know, the kind of women that play fair games of golf and bridge and like new salad-recipes. He wasn’t sorry for what he had done. It seemed reasonable enough to him. I don’t think he even knew he had settled back naturally into the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma. But that’s the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.

I’m probably distorting the crux of Hammett’s parable, but the beams sure are falling big time right now. And I think there’s some truth to the notion that we humans are binary creatures. We are at heart either changing, or not. From an evolutionary perspective, true behavior change is time-consuming and dangerous. If you’re a Neanderthal hunter of big game, the tribe will go hungry while you learn how to hook and land your first coelacanth.


Look up, Mr. Flitcraft.Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash

In the wacko HBO sci-fi series Westworld, based on the old Michael Crichton film from the 1970s, nefarious engineers conspire to implant the behaviors of real-life people (“guests”) into robot doppelgängers (“hosts”). Imagine! Your body dies, yet your brain lives on in a robot. A chance to live forever! A chance to live the life you were always meant to have. A chance, dare I say, to Shake Things Up!

Thing is, late in the second season, the mad geniuses discover to their horror that the zillionaire they brought back to life makes the same boneheaded decisions he made in life. Conclusion: Humans don’t change.

I understand the instinct of the individual to revert to previous behavior. I totally get that. I’ve made and abandoned far too many New Years resolutions not to. But what I am finding fascinating is the herd instinct toward sameness even in what is theoretically a very personal and trying moment of change. Somewhere in our DNA, the survival code is apparently written thusly: <alone:same> and <species:same>.

In a million lifetimes, a million simulations, O’Shaughnessy will always double-cross Spade, and while the thought of it probably makes our antihero a little sad, he’s expecting it.

In a million pandemics, a million Americans—hell, a million urbanites, suburbanites, Canadians, Minnesotans, D’Agneses, or genetically-enhanced, intelligent rutabagas—will all tend to make the same choices when their world is upended. They will panic-buy jigsaw puzzles and toilet paper. They will resolve to be better people. They will hug their children close, and privately wish theyd go back to school.

I’m sure that in one of those robot simulations, O’Shaughnessy is wearing a homemade shift dress and collecting free-range eggs out of a nesting box. But not for long. When the beams stop falling, she will revert to form, snatch up a gat, and come gunning for some unsuspecting sap. No wonder Spade drinks, and why I need one too.

***

Postscript: Mexico and Canada recently ratified the USMCA, a new pact the cheeky are calling NAFTA 2.0. I am not an attorney, but it appears that this joint legislation goes into effect in June 2020. When it does, I believe this means that Hammetts book, currently in the public domain in Canada, will no longer be. (I am waiting for someone with actual expertise to weigh in on the matter. Lawyers, please speak up.) However, dedicated mystery fans should bear in mind that because of the public domain declaration, countless crappy paperback and ebook versions of this classic novel are flooding the Interwebs. Most of these versions were poorly produced; their “publishers simply scanned copies of the paperback, and uploaded them to various retailers without bothering to proofread them. Please dont buy these editions; if the reviews are any indication, you’ll be greatly disappointed by the quality. The only authorized editions are the ones published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard (ie, Penguin Random House). This page will direct you to the correct edition at the retailer of your choice. And of course, the official prices of the authorized book are much higher than the bootleg editions. But come on. Did you really think you could grab the Falcon for 99 cents? Don’t be a palooka.