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

02 December 2022

Sherlock's Kid Sister Returns!


Boy, have the marketing geniuses in the back room got us pegged. They know that we are positively nutty for our Holmes. Just in time for Thanksgiving, Netflix released the long-anticipated sequel to their 2020 film, Enola Holmes 2 about the adventures of the younger sister of the Great Detective.

I discussed the first film last year. Edgar-winning author Nancy Springer wrote the (now) eight-book series from which the concept sprung. For two years, Enola fans whispered the rumor that the second film would draw inspiration from The Case of the Left-Handed Lady, the second book in the series. Not so! I’m afraid that I’m a bit of an author snob. The plot here is fun and clever, but I prefer film franchises to adhere as closely to the source material as possible.

As our tale opens, Sherlock’s teenaged sister has opened a detective agency of her own. Yes, at 16 or 17 years of age, she does strike one as a bit young to be doing such a thing in Victorian London, but as Mother Holmes says in a flashback: “Too many people make it their sole purpose in life to fit into the world around them. This is a mistake!”

Business at the agency isn’t great, but dear brother Sherlock fares no better. The banking scandal he’s investigating has proved “vexing,” his sister reports. After a number of potential clients decline to avail themselves of Enola’s services—“Are you you sure we can’t get Sherlock?” says one—she takes the case proffered by a young matchstick girl whose sister has gone missing. Before long, Enola is disguising herself to gain entrance to upper crust balls, employing the womanly arts of pugilism and bartitsu to dispatch malefactors, and the game is soooo afoot.



Millie Bobby Brown returns as Enola. Henry Cavill is back as the devilishly handsome Superman—er, I mean Sherlock. The actor who played Mycroft in the last outing was unable to join us this time around, but Helena Bonham Carter returns as the free-spirited Mrs. Holmes, mother of the brilliant three siblings.

The sets and production values all look appropriate, delightful, and convincing. Many of the things I liked the first time around caught my eye again. Enola breaks the fourth wall to address viewers. Back stories are filled in via a fun assortment of animated black-and-white photo sequences. And the plot is advanced through the use of secret codes, wordplay, poems, and clues referring to flowers that young viewers will have no trouble following.

I was intrigued to find that the plot was drawn from a real-life labor action at a Victorian match factory. And I was glad that the story had such a strong feminist leaning, since that is the central thematic interest of the Springer series. That said, the ending still struck this adult as a little pat.

That was not my biggest quibble with the film. Without giving too much away, I might mention that the ultimate villain of this saga turns out to be a certain professor of mathematics who will vex Sherlock for decades to come. It’s fun to see the Napoleon of Crime—and this is by far the most original incarnation of the character I have ever seen—but I couldn’t help thinking, “Really? You’re only on your second film and you play the Moriarty card? Most vexatious, indeed!”



But what do I know? This film debuted on the streaming network in early November and quickly hit Netflix’s No. 1 in 93 countries.

I promise you that if you gather around with the family to watch, adults and kids alike will have a blast, though not for the same reasons. Serious Sherlock geeks will enjoy the specter of a drunken Sherlock. They will admire the pluck of a screenwriter who dares give us Lestrade’s first name for the first time on film. And they will probably snort aloud (as I did) when Enola turns to the camera and quips, “The game has found its feet again!”

Sweet Diogenes! Thank goodness we have Holmes for the holidays.

* * * 

Please note: If you are thinking of starting a young reader on the books this season, bear in mind that there are currently eight in the series. Some online retailers confuse the number of titles because Springer has more than one publisher. See the bibliography here.  

See you all in three weeks!

Joe

11 November 2022

The Curious Case of Mr. Poe & Mrs Hale


The centerpiece on our dining room table this month was inspired by three recent books my wife did on the subject of Thanksgiving. One figure is our old pal, Edgar Allan Poe. The limited edition Bobblehead depicts Sarah Josepha Hale.

Together, they and the turkey add up to an interesting tale with a connection to the mystery genre. In the 19th Century no editor was more powerful than Sarah Josepha Hale. For fifty years she edited the most-read periodicals in the nation, Godey’s Lady’s Book, published out of Philadelphia.

For $1 to $3 a year, Hale’s readers received monthly magazines that brought the world to the farflung homes of a growing nation, delivered by stagecoaches, steamboats, and pony express riders. In each issue, readers found sheet music, clothing patterns, blueprints for Victorian home designs, recipes, news, editorials, literary reviews, and works of fiction.

When Hale spoke, readers listened. When she suggested young ladies wear white dresses when they married, they did. When she described the curious European custom of erecting a Christmas tree in one’s home, Americans followed suit. Fifty percent of the nation blushed when she shared this exciting French word with her readers: lingerie. Hale drew the line at bloomers; she did not weigh in on that controversial bit of clothing until someone had invented a free-flowing garment women could wear when taking outdoor exercise.

Hale was a consummate crusader, but not in the way we think. She never warmed to the notion of giving women the vote. But every issue celebrated the idea of women’s education and important causes to which she urged her readers to contribute a few cents here and there. Micro-funding, in other words, as a way of making a big difference.

She ushered in the novel practice of paying professional writers for original work, instead of simply stealing copy from other publications.



Godey’s welcomed writers we would all recognize today: Emerson, Longfellow, Hawthorne, Stowe. Hale’s review section sang the praises of the young Louisa May Alcott. And then, one month in 1830, Godey’s celebrated the work of another young writer no one had ever heard of:
“It is very difficult to speak of these poems as they deserve. A part are exceedingly boyish, feeble, and altogether deficient in the common characteristics of poetry; but then we have parts too of considerable length, which remind us of no less a poet than Shelly [sic]. The author, who appears very young, is evidently a fine genius; but he wants judgment, experience, tact.”
The poetry collection was Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems, the second volume of work ever published by—yes, you saw this coming—Edgar Allan Poe.

Scholars find it strange that Hale asked one of her regular contributors to cast a glance at one of Poe’s more forgettable works, and that the review appeared so quickly after publication. In order for the review to appear in this volume, she (or her reviewer John Neal) would have had to have received galleys months before the book came out. How did a 21-year-old self-published author with little clout or pocket money pull that off? We find something of a clue in a letter Hale received from her son, David E. Hale, Jr., a few years later:


I have communicated what you wrote to Mr. Poe, of whom perhaps you would like to know something. He ran away from his adopted father in Virginia who was very rich, has been in S. America, England, and has graduated at one of the Colleges there. He returned to America again and enlisted as a private soldier but feeling, perhaps a soldier’s pride, he obtained a cadet’s appointment and entered this Academy last June. He is thought a fellow of talent here but he is too mad a poet to like Mathematics.

Turns out, Hale’s son attended West Point, where he made the acquaintance of Poe. Did Poe cozy up to David, knowing David’s mother was the nation’s most influential editor? Who knows. We do know that nearly everything in David’s letter about his friend is a lie, but that’s how Poe rolled.

Poe later became a regular in Godey’s pages, contributing 22 pieces from 1834 to 1849—a mix of short stories, poems, essays, and literary gossip. The latter attracted the most notice. His column, “The Literati of New York City,” skewered his contemporaries to such a degree that New York writers complained, and Louis Godey—the magazine’s publisher—insisted on inserting a disclaimer that the opinions expressed in these articles were those of Mr. Poe’s, not Godey or Hale’s.

It’s hard to tell what Hale actually thought of Poe. One of Hale’s biographers suggests that she grew fond of Poe’s small, impoverished household, when they were living in the same city, Philadelphia, and may have helped the family with groceries and other necessities. While the magazine lavished praise on his later work, continuing to celebrate his “genius,” she’s on the record as having paid him pitifully for his work—50¢ a page for a story that appeared in her Christmas annual. (In this case, he would have pocketed $5 for a 10-page story.) That is not terribly bad, if that was all her budget allowed, but at the same time, Nathaniel Hawthorne demanded (and got) $25 a story from Godey’s. Hawthorne famously argued that if he held out for better pay, he’d be able to support his family writing only 12 stories a year. Can’t really blame him.

I have to wonder what Godey’s genteel readers made of the most famous story of Poe’s to appear in the magazine, the one in which a wealthy nobleman entombs his enemy alive in a basement crypt. A modern Hale biographer suggests that “The Cask of Amontillado” fit neatly within Hale’s worldview. She saw the world of men as hopelessly corrupt, goes the theory; women were the only hope for decency in such a world. (That particular issue goes for astronomical prices online.)

Cute story. But why is this unlikely pair decorating our Thanksgiving table in 2022? Because besides giving America white wedding dresses, Christmas trees, and the outlet for one of our most macabre authors, Hale also became the Mother of Thanksgiving. She was obsessed with the holiday her entire life and lobbied five US presidents to make Thanksgiving a national holiday that occurred on the same day every year. At that time in history, the holiday was declared by governors and lesser officials for whatever day they thought reasonable. George Washington had proclaimed a Thanksgiving for the last Thursday in November, 1799. John Adams did so too, but Jefferson maintained that the separation of church and state prevented a president from declaring a religious holiday. Later presidents whom Hale approached trotted out similar objections.

So it went until the depths of the Civil War, when Hale’s letter landed on the desk of Abraham Lincoln. His proclamation for the last Thursday in November 1863 was mocked by Confederate-leaning newspapers, but nevertheless observed by the Union. The holiday didn’t become official until an act of Congress in 1941.

I for one remain eternally grateful that Mrs. Hale lobbied presidents on behalf of this holiday. I shudder to think what we’d all be consuming at our bountiful holiday tables if Mr. Poe had been the one with the holiday obsession. I don’t think I could stomach carving the Thanksgiving raven.




I learned about this story and other connections from my wife's nonfiction books:

We Gather Together: A Nation Divided, A President in Turmoil, and a Historic Campaign to Embrace Gratitude and Grace, by Denise Kiernan (Dutton, 2020).

Giving Thanks: How Thanksgiving Became a National Holiday, by Denise Kiernan. (Philomel, 2022.)

21 October 2022

The Marvelously Inventive Mr. Hicks


When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the books of a children’s book author named Clifford B. Hicks. Among other books, he wrote a series of books about a kid named Alvin Fernald, who was sort of the MacGyver of the kid world. With a toothpick, a piece of string, and leftover jelly sandwich, Alvin could build a contraption to save the world.

Each book was constructed around a central mystery that took place in Alvin’s small town in the American midwest. Alvin tackled issues that seem grown-up in retrospect, but Hicks somehow managed to make them seem “safe” and accessible to kids: corruption in city hall, kidnapping and extortion, stolen industrial plans, and water pollution. Always, in the end, Alvin managed to save the day with the help of his pal Shoie, his kid sister Daphne (aka the Pest), and an arsenal of kooky inventions.

These books enchanted me. More than anything, they seemed to radiate a gentler, more affectionate tone than many of the other books I was reading at the time. The Alvin stories were longer and more sustained than the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries.

Alvin’s world of the ‘60s and ‘70s seemed more modern and realistic than the world of the Hardy Boys. Unlike the Hardy and Nancy Drew books, the Alvin series was written by a single, real-life author, not a committee of ghostwriters. Hicks seemed to care deeply about the little town of Riverton, Indiana, he’d created, and even cared about the quite serious issues he was writing about. The Wonderful World of Disney, the old Sunday night TV series, adapted one of the books and brought Alvin to a wider audience.

These were the first books I ever asked a local bookstore to special-order for me. After locating the first book in the series, The Marvelous Inventions of Alvin Fernald (1960), I set about creating my own inventions just the way Alvin did, using items from my carefully assembled “inventing box.” You’ll be relieved to know that nothing I created ever made it to the U.S. Patent Office. There’s a reason I’m a writer and not an engineer.


Once, in the mid-1970s, I wrote to the author in care of his publisher. “Can you send me the plans for a Sure-Shot Paper Slinger?” I inquired. I told him that my brothers and I had a newspaper route, just like Alvin, and that we would love to be able to shoot rolled-up newspapers from the rear of our bicycles onto a customer’s lawn.

“You’re crazy,” my father said when he heard about my note. “If you can shoot something, you might kill somebody!”

Yes, Dad, with a rolled-up newspaper.

To my delight, Hicks wrote back from his home outside Chicago:
“Gosh, Joe, I’m sorry I can’t tell you how to build one… When I was a kid, my friends and I made up almost all the other inventions, but I just dreamed up the Paper Slinger without ever building one. If Alvin is clever enough to build it, I’ll bet you are too, Joe! Let me know when you make it work. CBH”
I know it sounds like a carefully crafted brush-off, but I was over-the-moon-amazed to receive a response from Hicks. It was the first time I’d ever gotten a letter from an author. I have carefully preserved it all these years.

Years later, when I myself was working as an editor at Scholastic, I tried to locate fresh copies of the books and was surprised to find that they were out of print. That bowled me over. If kids were flipping over Harry Potter, why wouldn’t a publisher like my own employer reissue books that followed in a similar vein, about plucky kids with unusual talents who saved the day?

A little digging revealed that the Alvin series ended abruptly in the mid-eighties with the publication of Alvin Fernald, Master of a Thousand Disguises. Sales of used books proliferated on the Internet, with diehard fans rhapsodizing in reviews about how much they enjoyed them. Clearly, I was not alone in my affection. Here are some of the tributes I located online:
“I am 45 years old... my 44-year old-brother came over and talked about how this book changed his life. He read it as a kid and became an inventor of sorts himself... a perpetual tinkerer.”

“The Alvin books were my favorites as a kid. I checked them out from the library repeatedly and devoured them. As a 10 year old, I wanted to hang out with Alvin and Shoie. The books are full of laughs, adventure, and great storytelling. They take us back to small-town America, before kids had to deal with grownup problems. If you have a kid, buy this book for him. Buy it used, buy it on eBay, buy it at a used bookstore!”

“When I was about 11 years old, I read many of Alvin’s adventure stories. This book in particular inspired my imagination. I have vivid memories of trying to copy Alvin
s inventions! One summer while staying at my grandparents’ camp, I rigged a security device similar to the one in the book so that no one could enter my bedroom. I have been looking for this book for a very long time, as I seem to have lost my copy. It thrills me that these books are listed [online]. This book is without a doubt my favourite and I would love to share it with my daughter.”
Some years later, I read that two small publishers were beginning to bring out the old books. I found a website put up by the author’s son and discovered that Clifford Hicks, a former science journalist turned author, was not only alive and well—now in his late eighties—but living not far from where I’d had briefly lived in the mountains of North Carolina!

I wrote a second fan letter—thirty years after the first one. I told Hicks that I’d lived for a short time in his neck of the woods, but had moved away, and was now thinking of moving back. A few weeks later I received an email in my inbox. The voice was the same as I remembered from childhood: warm, avuncular, friendly.

Hi, Joe:
What a lift your letter gave me! I’m delighted, and proud, that you liked my Alvin books so much that you were inspired to become Alvin Fernald. 
When I was about 12 years old I became enamored of the Tarzan books, and quite definitely made up my mind to run away from home, go to Africa, and learn to swing from the trees. My three sons have known of this dream for years, and a few days ago one of them gave me a copy of Tarzan of the Apes that he located on the Internet. With some regret I turned the last page of that book this afternoon, just before writing this note to you. The book was just as exciting as it was the first time I read it. A magnificent story—but badly written!
...
In any case it’s incredible that you kept my letter all these years, dragged it to college with you, and still have it.
In a way, I’m flattered that you went into journalism, Joe. You can’t keep me hanging like this... Here we are, our paths crossing at least twice in our lives, yet separated by only 20 miles.


Come back to Hendersonville, Joe, so we can actually meet…I’ll never answer another reader’s letter without thinking of you!
I finally did move back. Hicks and I exchanged a few emails but kept postponing our meeting. He was ill for a little while, then entered rehab. He phoned one day to apologize for not being able to meet. And then, before I knew it, he passed away in September of 2010. I was deeply saddened to hear of his passing. He was 90 years old.

Clifford B. Hicks


I see that you can still link to his old website via the Wayback Machine. I bought a couple of the newly reissued books for one of my nephews, who loved them. The Alvin books marked a turning point in my life as a reader. They were among the last kids’ books I read before making the switch to predominantly books written for adults. In a sense they were the literary dividing line between the adult and the kid world. Hicks’s stories whetted my appetite for mysteries in general. And you could say that when I was through reading his books, I was well prepared for the larger world of adult mystery fiction.

But, as it turned out, I was not through with Alvin Fernald. The year before he left us, Hicks published a brand-new Alvin Fernald book, entitled Alvin Fernald’s Incredible Buried Treasure. That title rounded out the Fernald books to a perfect 10. I thought of it as a parting gift from the magical Mr. Hicks.



* * * 

Note: Frankly, the books are still a challenge to find. Amazon and other retailers carry four or five of the new reissues, but you need to dig for used copies to read the others.

Bibliography

Wired magazine: The Geekly Reader: Danny Dunn and Alvin Fernald

Mystery Scene: The Magnificent Brain of Alvin Fernald, Clifford B. Hicks' Charming Kid Crime-Solver








30 September 2022

The Secret Inside You


If you grew up within driving distance of New York City during a particular period in history, you and your classmates would inevitably be bundled up at some point in your academic career and dragged en masse to the Museum of Natural History, so you could while away the hours peering at creepy dioramas of Neanderthals frozen in time, or rampant dinosaurs recreated from their fossilized remains, or a giant life-size blue whale dangling precariously from the ceiling.

When the time came, I too made the trek to that museum, but I didn’t have to like it. By the time I was in fourth grade, the only New York museum worth my time was the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and all because of a book.

This is the actual book. I’ve kept it all these years. It’s called From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg, who died in 2013 at age 83. I’ve never read any other books by her except this one. Mixed-Up Files was enough to carry with me all these years. And only a few years ago did I realize the debt my writing owes to it.


The story doesn’t sound terribly remarkable. Feeling unappreciated in her white-bread Connecticut household, a young girl named Claudia decides to run away from home. She knows herself well enough to know that she requires money and comfort to pull off this caper. She enlists the help of her brother Jamie, a master card cheat, who has the princely sum of $24 to his name. The two run away to New York City and move into the Metropolitan Museum of Art. By day, they educate themselves by tagging along with school groups. By night, they swipe pocket change as they bathe in the museum’s fountain and sleep in Marie Antoinette’s bed.

While living in their magnificent digs, Claudia becomes obsessed with nailing down the provenance of a mysterious statue of an angel, which the museum has recently acquired. Some evidence identifies the statue as the work of Michelangelo, but the experts beg to differ, as they always do. Claudia and Jamie spend the remainder of their money to travel to the home of the statue’s last known owner of record, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, who just might know the truth. Eccentric, witty, rich, and marvelously perceptive, Frankweiler offers the children a challenge: The truth is hidden somewhere inside her Mixed-Up Files, a long bank of file cabinets in her office. If they are clever enough, they can find the answer. The children accept the wager, and what they discover in their search makes me want to cry like a baby forty years later.

I like two things about this book. It just took me until adulthood to figure out what they are.

One is that the book is written in first person by Frankweiler herself, who appears at the very beginning, writing a letter to her attorney, and saying that she feels compelled to explain the changes she is about to make to her last will and testament. She tells us that since she’s interviewed the two children extensively, she feels qualified to present this unbiased account. This narrative framework seems dodgy, but I’m currently using it with a book I’m writing. It seems to be working.

With that intriguing intro, she leaps into the story, though she will not appear as a character in the main action until the last quarter of the tale.

I think you should read Mixed-Up Files if you haven’t already, so I won’t give any spoilers. (If nothing else, see if it is suitable for the child in your life.) Suffice to say that Claudia and Jamie solve the mystery, and Frankweiler—a proxy for Konigsburg herself—manages to save one last satisfying secret for the book’s final pages.

The second reason the book charmed me is that it’s remarkably wise. The author understands that all children—young and old—want to feel special, and solving a mystery is one of the best ways to arrive at that specialness. This may partially account for the mystery lover’s addiction.

Here’s the quote that sells it. Frankweiler, in a conversation with Jamie, says:
Claudia doesn’t want ad­ven­ture. She likes baths and feeling comfortable too much for that kind of thing. Secrets are the kind of adventure she needs. Secrets are safe, and they do much to make you different. On the inside, where it counts.
Yes. Yes. Absolutely true. Konigsburg, throughout her long career, became known for spouting similarly profound gems in her writing. I sometimes like reading quotes people have pulled from her books. She was that good. Here’s another:
Some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up and touch everything. If you never let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you.
When I was still working at Scholastic, one of my office mates was lucky enough to interview Konigsburg about one of her new books. Like me, my friend loved Mixed-Up Files and so she was tempted to ask a few questions about that book. One too many questions, I might add. Konigsburg bristled, saying Mixed-Up Files was her second book, it was old, and puh-leeze, she was trying to promote the new book.

Today I know in my heart how she must have felt. But Mixed-Up Files won the Newbery Award in 1967 and has touched millions of readers since. E.L. Konigsburg wrote 21 great books, and I’m sure that in time I’ll read them all. But if I never do, all I need is this one. It is that special.

* * *

See you in three weeks!

Joe

09 September 2022

In the MidJourney of Our Life


On a recent trip to the west coast I spent an afternoon immersed in one of my nephews’ latest obsessions, an app called DALL-E. It’s a program that uses artificial intelligence to (fairly instantly) generate works of art suggested by a simple caption written by the user.

For example, if the user types the prompt, “an armchair in the shape of an avocado,” they are rewarded with several images like this:

Avocado chair.

The AI scours the internet in search of inspiration, and reconstitutes its findings into the images you see here. The prompt “an illustration of a baby daikon radish in a tutu walking a dog” generates the following images.

Walking daikon.

You can imagine how a couple of teenaged boys who are addicted to pop culture might use this immediate-gratification brain to conjure up images juxtaposing Jedis and Jesus, Captain Marvel and pizza, and so on. I don’t have access to any of the images I saw on my nephew’s phone that afternoon, but from that brief crash course I had the impression that the software had a long way to go. Most of the human faces it generated were…off. Even the images we asked it to generate—of pop culture icons such as R2D2, Ernie & Bert, Spider-Man—were suggestive of the thing being asked for, not flawlessly clear.

So that was my experience of the hot new thing all the cool kids were playing with about a month ago. The thing could barely draw. If it got lucky, it would turn out a nice picture of a radish. Cute, but so what?

Cut to this week, when a professional book cover designer I follow and whom I have hired to create covers of some of my self-pubbed titles sent around a newsletter in which he sang the praises of MidJourney, yet another AI art app that also debuted about a month ago. When the designer typed the following prompt: “jack the ripper hiding in a smog filled london alleyway with red eyes,” the AI thought a moment before generating the following four images.


I think we can agree this is pretty stunning. And when the designer asked the AI for variations, he got increasingly stunning images of an atmospheric landscape.





Again, this is a machine surfing the internet, gleaning from it how things look, and then spinning off tweaks of its findings as quickly as possible in a new form. Compare the Ripper images above to, say, a the cover of an old issue of The Strand Magazine, or the cover of a book of Sherlockian pastiches. 





Both of these covers were taken from works of art created by humans and licensed by the publishers. The MidJourney images were made by software that can be yours for $10 a month, or $30 a month, depending on the number of images you think you’d like to create.

As a writer, I have zero need for such software, but I can absolutely understand why the book cover designer who sent these around to his clients was excited about this brave new world of art. Most designers I know lament how hard it is to find usable, abundant, or appropriate images on stock photo agency sites. It takes an endless amount of clicking page after page to assemble, say, five good images, from which you knit together a composite image and layer in enough special effects via Photoshop or Illustrator to make it look beautiful. That can be hours of work, for which you can charge an author, perhaps $700-$800, tops, for the resulting cover image. Imagine instead being able to type, click, create, and tweak an image in seconds—and charge your client for the AI’s results.

My last sentence is a bit of a fantasy. The designer told his followers that, actually, it still takes him a long while to coax the appropriate image from the machine—as long as it does when he’s searching stock agencies for photos—but what the AI produces is wholly original, one-of-a-kind art.

From the handful of articles I’ve read, people are already up in arms, in the same way they were when programmers started teaching AI programs to write like human writers. Some of the criticisms I’ve heard:

  • These art programs are racist and/or sexist. If you don’t specify the type of person you want them to generate, inevitably they’ll return a white male. When women are depicted, it’s often in demeaning or violent settings. (Software engineers say they are correcting this tendency.)
  • This means the end of decent paying careers for artists! (I don’t think so; not just yet.)
  • If you write, draw, or create science fiction, fantasy, and horror, you’ve come to the right place. The rest of the creative world has no need for this type of crap. (If you have a strong stomach, you can check out some images intended for horror fiction here.)
  • If indeed the AI is “borrowing” references from other images online, will it not inevitably infringe upon the work of a living artist? (I suspect not, but the monkeys have only begun to bang away on the typewriters.)
  • An art director who hires many artists to create book covers recently waded into the fray, reassuring artists that they are not being replaced, and pointing out that the US Copyright Office does not permit art to be copyrighted unless it was created by a human being. You will probably already know this if you remember that story a few years ago about a photographer who wanted to copyright a photo that was taken by, yes, a monkey who stole, operated, then abandoned the photog’s camera.
  • Already, AI work has won art awards, and human artists are pissed.
So, in other words, we are once again immersed in a kind of moral panic over something very smart people have dreamed up. I think it probably can’t be said enough that if a computer program is sexist, racist, or whatever, and it’s using as its creative input the freaking Internet, then we are truly reaping what we have sown. To the extent that images look lovely or appealing to our eye, that too is on us as a species.

That all said, I created a free MidJourney account and had a look around the communal chatroom where the bot is fed its prompts and where users can download the results of their queries. (You’re allowed 25 free uses before you are asked to subscribe.) I could immediately see that I was in the virtual presence of users who had a distinctly artistic mind. With experience, many of these users had come to know exactly how to word their requests. To get the bot to spit out an image in a particular style, they used buzzwords such as “unreal” or “hyperrealistic” or referenced specific artists or designers. Here are two highly specific prompts I encountered:
  • Ethereal humanoid sphinx, Art by Peter Mohrbacher + h.r. giger + Zdzisław Beksiński + Tsutomu Nihei , unreal engine render , intricate details , hyper details —stylize 5000
  • post-apocalyptic cebu city unreal engine cinematic digital art
Little ol’ unartistic me stepped up to the plate, and fed the AI the following prompt: “a detective named sleuth sayers who says sleuthy things.” Within seconds, I had these (admittedly male-seeming) images:


When I asked the AI to generate variations  on this theme, it returned the following:


Was it something I said?

* * *

See you in three weeks!


Joe
josephdagnese.com

19 August 2022

Filling the Blank Walls in My Life


One of the joys of genre fiction is that it reliably generates cool art. While writers are probably best known for staring at the blank page, we occasionally struggle with blank walls as well. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed seeing how writers decorate their offices and living spaces with enlarged, framed images of the covers of their books, anthologies to which they’ve contributed, and magazine covers sporting a mention of their name.

I want to discuss another source of art that many of us have never considered. I need to step back slightly in time to 2012, shortly after I’d sold my first story to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Back then, I had Google alerts set to ping me anytime someone reviewed one of my books. (I have since ceased the practice. At the time I was obsessed with collecting any mention of my titles and immediately bringing them to the attention of my publishers, so they could be sure to get in their requisite number of daily yawns.)

Imagine my surprise to learn one morning that one Tom Pokinko blogged about reading and enjoying my AHMM story, “Button Man.” This struck me as weird, since the story hadn’t been published yet. Turns out, Mr. Pokinko, then based in Ottawa, was an artist commissioned by AHMM to illustrate the story. He posted a “pencil” sketch of the image he intended to create, and later posted the final “pen and ink” drawing. (You’ll learn in a second the meaning of these quote marks .)

“Button Man” (AHMM, March 2013) was a historical set in the late 1950s in New York’s Garment District. It was fun to see how Mr. Pokinko illustrated rolling racks of clothing and period dress that brought the scene to life.


Copyright © Tom Pokinko

Five years later, my wife and I had moved to a new house. Our office was larger than the previous one we’d shared. Finding myself staring at a fresh set of blank walls, I suddenly thought of Tom’s drawing. I wrote and asked if he would be willing to sell me the “original” drawing—that is, if he still had it and had no further use for it.

Tom gently informed me that there was no original drawing to speak of, since he (and most artists working today) create digital images, which they can more easily edit and transmit to their art directors. He offered the next best thing: a high-quality digital print on acid-free paper and archival inks that will not fade over time. He would matte the image, and sign it prior to shipping.

His only advice was to stick closely to the size of the image as it had run in the magazine. Any larger, and we’d sacrifice print resolution. Digest-size magazine pages appear stubby, but the images that run on them are necessarily designed to be somewhat tall and thin to stay out of the gutter and margins. We settled on a 8 1/2 x 11-inch print, fitted to an 11 x 17-inch matte. That’s a fairly standard frame size, by the way, which held down costs on my end.

A few years later, the cycle repeated itself. AHMM hired illustrator Tim Foley to create an image for my Sherlockian story, “A Respectable Lady” (AHMM, July/August 2017 ). If you’re a regular reader of the magazine, you will recognize Mr. Foley’s cross-hatched style immediately. He’s a longtime contributor to many publications who is over-the-moon proud of his AHMM work, which has allowed him to illustrate the work of everyone from Leo Tolstoy to Rob Lopresti! Mr. Foley maintains a running tally of all his AHMM pieces on the website, and is trying to amass a hard copy collection of all issues in which his work appeared. (That’s where you come in, author! See below for details.) I had a sense of déjà vu when I contacted Mr. Foley. He was happy to sell me a signed digital print, and offered the same advice on sizing I had heard from Mr. Pokinko. In less than a month, after a visit to his local copy shop, I had another piece for the office wall.


Copyright © Tim Foley

I enjoy collecting art this way because, in a sense, the pieces were custom-made for me, or at least for whichever story of mine they illustrate. In the process, I learned that the magazine sends artists a copy of the story, which they read to conceive their image. Predictably, Dell Magazines are not high-paying illustrator’s markets, so artists are usually delighted to re-sell existing work at a reasonable price to the writer who inspired it. (Think of it as the artistic equivalent of story reprints.) In total, I spent $170 acquiring the two pieces.

If you’re thinking of acquiring AHMM or EQMM art, look for the credit line as it appears under the published image. Chances are, the artist can be easily contacted via their website.

I have not made a careful study of this, but it appears that not all digests commission art for stories. In some cases, they simply download images from stock agencies. I’ve also learned that it’s worth asking yourself if you enjoy the image in question before contacting the artist. There’s one AHMM picture that will never appear on my wall. If you don’t love it (or even like it), you’re probably better off continuing to stare at that blank wall until something desirable comes your way.

* * * 

Help out an artist! Tim Foley wants to locate paper copies of all the AHMM issues that have featured his work. If you’re like me, you probably have more copies on your shelves than you know what to do with. Tim’s list is here; the dates of the missing issues are indicated in BOLD. Contact him if you have a copy you can spare. You will probably also discover that he illustrated some of your stories well!


See you in three weeks with yet another story about mysterious art!


Joe
josephdagnese.com

29 July 2022

You Should Totally Tweet About This


You are totally a winner, dude!


Photo by Japheth Mast on Unsplash



Everyone always said he was a genius, and finally the proof had come. After being quoted in some very important newspapers and magazines, after doing a couple of TEDx talks, he had landed a Big New York City Agent. He had worked with a ghostwriter who crafted a superb nonfiction book proposal, putting some of his most abstruse ideas on paper for the very first time. So many Big New York City editors raved about the proposal and these ideas of his—ones that would radically transform the worlds of finance, politics, economics and culture—that the agent chose to hold an auction to sell the book.

When the smoke cleared, our genius walked away with a $100,000 book deal from what was then a Big Six publisher. Colleagues at his firm were envious, but such success had always been in the cards for our boy. Everyone knew he did great PowerPoints. The firm always sent him to the big conferences because he always knew just what to say. At hotel bars after those sessions, he was the flashy dresser ordering obscure cocktails, schmoozing with the local journalists, and sharing his theory about how this One Single Factor was underlying various disciplines.

So certain was our man of the book’s success that on weekends, he and his spouse took long rides into the New Jersey countryside, looking at grand, multi-acre estates that they might very possibly upgrade to when the book hit the bestseller lists and even bigger money came pouring in.

He and “his” book writer slaved over the tome for a year. Through first drafts, second drafts, the dreaded editorial letter, the copyedit, the galleys, and so on. When the publisher’s catalog came out, the author humble-bragged his way around the office, showing the book’s cover and the lovely blurbs to his colleagues. The book was “front-list,” singled out for a major push by the marketing and sales forces. “We know how to make bestsellers,” the editor had said in one of those early phone conferences when rounds of editors had vied for the chance to bid on his book. Front-list placement proved it! In the parlance of the industry, his was a “Big Think” book. It would out-blink Blink, topple The Tipping Point, and drown The Black Swan.

During the long slog to publication, the agent managed to lock in a movie option from a television development company. This was admittedly strange, since the book had no characters, no plot, no setting—just ideas. Nevertheless, some obviously brilliant people had perceived the book’s inherent genius, and planned to make a movie, TV show, or possibly a cable channel show about those concepts.

His agent urged the author to do a podcast, but the author didn’t really have time for that. He didn’t want to give away his ideas for free. Besides, he was busier than ever these days. In addition to reviewing the galleys, he was now fielding calls from “his” Hollywood writer. (The young screenwriter had read the galleys, and was at a loss for how to turn this mishegoss into a workable pitch and treatment for her bosses. But since the development company was paying her to turn the material into something saleable, she was not about to reveal her misgivings.)

The author could almost taste that multi-acre estate now. He could practically smell the grass! He could hear the horses whickering in the stables. He could hear the thump of his sweet children’s tennis balls on the clay courts.

Eagerly he looked forward to the Big Marketing Call when the Whole Team would talk about the book launch. He waited. And waited.

The call came on a Friday, four days before the book launch. The person on the other end was a harried, twenty-three-year-old publicist who was juggling the release of 18 other books that month. They spoke for forty minutes, mostly about how excited the Team was about the author’s book. Editors in the book world were supposed to be great wordsmiths, but no one seemed to be able to reach for any other word to convey their excitement. They were always over-the-moon, freaking excited.

“Are you on social media?” the publicist said. Our author wasn’t. He never bought into that crap. His wife did Facebook, but he’d ignored his account for years. He had a mortgage, a car loan, three kids in private schools, a briefcase full of never-ending work, and no time for anything else. “You totally should be,” the publicist said. “Twitter is probably best for a book like yours. Very intellectual content. You should totally Tweet about it.”

Thus ended the Great Marketing Call. The author felt unsatisfied…puzzled…confused. He could not shake the feeling that something was a little…off. Where was the book tour? Where was the appearance on MSNBC he’d dropped hints about in those early conference calls with his editor?

He worked the phones for a few days to get his agent on the line. She did some digging and returned with an explanation. In the months leading up to the book’s launch, the sales staff of the business imprint had mailed postcards to everyone on their list to gauge interest in the book. The response was robust from one very specific demographic: university librarians.

This made sense; our author’s deep, profound thoughts were going to change the world someday. Librarians at university business management schools were interested in those ideas—and apparently no one else. The marketing, sales, and publicity plans dried up immediately. There was not even a conversation about this, because every person in trade publishing knows that a book that appeals solely to business school librarians is the kiss of death. Big Six peeps know this so deeply in their bones that they do not feel it necessary to articulate it.

“But it was front list!” the author said. “They paid me six figures!”

Yes, the agent said. But there’s no point in throwing good money after bad. You get that, right? You’re a business dude.

“They’re willing to lose all that money?”

Yeah. They are. Because that’s what big companies do. They lose money all the time on books like yours. They’ve gotten very good at cutting their losses. A hundred thousand dollars is chump change to them. A “big” advance guarantees nothing.

“But there’s a movie deal!”

Well, there’s an option, which is very different, and maybe one of these days a movie or TV show will get made. That is, if the producer chooses to renew the option when the contract expires in 15 months. Until then, keep cashing the $1,800 check they’re contractually obligated to send you every six months until the term expires.

Our author’s world was spinning out of control.

Take heart, the agent said. Hollywood responds to success. They really do. So do publishers. In a year, if the hardcover and ebook do well, maybe they’ll even do a paperback.

“You mean to say that there might not even be a paperback?”

I believe in you, the agent waxed on, deflecting. I know the kind of go-getter you are. You will promote the living sht out of this book. You will never give up. Because that’s the kind of winner you are.

Our man didn’t feel like a winner. He had spent the advance after splitting it three ways with the ghostwriter, the agent, and the tax man. Yes, he made a hefty salary as a big-city exec, but that money was spoken for. Even if he could convince his wife to throw some money at the book, he had no idea where to begin. He had no clue how one propelled a book to the top of the bestseller list. In that respect, publishing was so…opaque. Yes, he could ask the bookstore in his Jersey suburb to carry the book, but he’d never set foot in the place. What about all the others? There had to be hundreds, thousands, of such mom-and-pop entities in the nation. Even if he could crack them, how would he convince people who didn’t know him to buy the damn book? Such a thing was well outside his realm of expertise.

Having a “big” one-off book published by a “big” publisher was beginning to feel like a fruitless exercise in vanity. Like getting some very expensive business cards printed up. He was known to be a genius! But now he felt like an ordinary dude with some very interesting ideas. Somewhere in the distance, a breeze kicked up in the horse stables, bringing with it the scent of manure.

 

***


Joseph DAgnese is a professional ghostwriter who occasionally writes fiction. He wishes the foregoing were fiction.


08 July 2022

The Detective in Your Mind


I rarely read new books, by which I mean the hot books of the moment that everyone is raving about. There’s an argument that I should not buy more books because I have enough unread ones to last me to the end of my days. But I buy new ones anyway. They assume their place in the rotation, and if they are lucky, are sometimes read within a year of publication.

Don’t be like me. If you write short stories, read A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders now. Read it in paper, so you can scribble notes or highlight as you go. Depending on your years immersed in the craft, you will either a) learn things, or b) find fresh ways to think about the gift for creation you have so carefully nurtured.

For 20 years, Saunders, a MacArthur Fellow, has taught creative writing to MFA students at Syracuse University. His favorite class is one he teaches on 19th-century works of Russian fiction in translation. His book is a crash course on that class. We read seven short stories by four writers—Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gogol, and Turgenev—and Saunders walks us through them. What he teaches his students, he teaches us.

Before I sprung for the book, I listened to a podcast Saunders did with Ezra Klein at the New York Times, and I was struck by the professor’s marvelous gift for conversation. I envy anyone who can speak articulately, with nuanced vocabulary, about complex topics at the drop of a hat. I cannot do that. In fact, I am certain that the reason I write is because I can’t speak well. His comments on revision, especially, about managing the writer’s “monkey mind,” are spot-on. As I read the book, I was pleased to see/hear/feel that same voice on the page. I found myself highlighting things as I read. Here are four disparate observations he makes in the first few pages of the book.

“Notice how impatient your reading mind is or, we might say, how alert it is… Like an obsessed detective, the reading mind interprets every new-arriving bit of text purely in this context, not interested in much else… One of the tacit promises of a short story, because it is so short, is that there’s no waste in it. Everything in it is there for a reason…”

*** 

“When I’m writing well , there’s almost no intellectual/analytical thinking going on. When I first found this method, it felt so freeing. I didn’t have to worry, didn’t have to decide, I just had to be there as I read my story fresh each time…willing to (playfully) make changes at the line level, knowing that if I was wrong, I’d get a chance to change it back on the next read.”
*** 
“We have to keep being pulled into a story in order for it to do anything to us…. Would a reasonable person, reading line four, get enough of a jolt to go on to line five? Why do we keep reading a story? Because we want to. Why do we want to? That’s the million-dollar question: What makes a reader keep reading? …. A story (any story, every story) makes its meaning at speed, a small structural pulse at a time. We read a bit of text and a set of expectations arises…. We could understand a story as simply a series of such expectation/resolution moments.” 
*** 
“(A)story is a system for the transfer of energy. Energy made in the early pages gets transferred along through the story, passed from section to section, like a bucket of water headed for a fire, and the hope is that not a drop gets lost.”
I’m sure the writers among you were nodding as you read these few selections. His biggest global observation or piece of advice is what I call the Big Duh: stories are about escalation. Three times in the book he offers his rule: “Always Be Escalating.”

Professional writers practice this intuitively because they’ve learned the lesson the hard way. Young writers don’t. When Saunders reads student work, his eyeballs smack into expositions that drag on forever. The writers are talented young people, or else they wouldn’t be in this program, but at this stage in their careers, good writing means pretty sentences. They bog down in a recitation of opening splendors.

Saunders.
(courtesy Penguin Random House)

This is nothing new. When Saunders was a student at the same institution, his professor—Douglas Unger—compelled everyone to stop and tell a damn story, verbally, as if around a campfire. If you do it that way, human instinct takes over. Your story cannot help but have a beginning, middle, and end. The story may not be great, but it will be real. That instinct falls to pieces when you attempt to put it down on paper. Which is why you must keep writing.

When revising, Saunders says, you’re engaging in a useful charade. You make minuscule changes along the way, all the while pretending that you’re reading the piece for the first time. Why do you make this change or that one? You probably don’t know. Instinct guides your hand. If you’ve done this countless times before, you will make the story incrementally better, and you will naturally know when to stop. Some piece of you knows that if you press on, you’ll blow it.

The last short story in the book is “Alyosha the Pot,” by Tolstoy. Only after we’ve discussed it at length does Saunders reveal that Tolstoy himself was not pleased with the piece, and never returned to it after that first pass. Saunders nails the problem: the ending is ambiguous, and thus unsatisfying.

I thought Saunders would stop there. Class dismissed! But no—he shows us how the ending has been rendered in English by several translators. Then he asks some Russian friends how they would interpret the passage. Looking over his shoulder as he conducts this analysis, I could not help admire the man’s patience and dedication. It has been a long time since I’ve scrutinized a story that way. Typically, if the story works for me, great. If not, I shrug and move on. But as a writer, it’s enormously helpful to know how subtle changes alter one’s perception of a piece. To think about the problem correctly, you must put yourself in that imaginary state of Never Having Read This Before.

I heard the SFF writer Mary Robinette Kowal once remark on the podcast Writing Excuses that genre writers really ought to be reading some literary fiction, if only to understand how ambiguity can make, break, or enhance your writing. Her remark has stuck with me for years, but I didn’t fully appreciate why until I read Saunders’ skillful treatment of the topic.

This book now occupies a spot on a shelf of writing books that mean something to me. The next time I feel the urge to don my ushanka and pour a shot of vodka, it will be waiting. Thank you, Professor Saunders. Za zdorov’ye!


***


To explore further:

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life by George Saunders (432 pages, Penguin Random House, 2021)

LA Review of BooksConvo with Saunders

New York Times: Review of the book

New York TimesTranscript of the Klein/Saunders interview. (Search for “monkey mind” if you want to read a small snippet.)


See you in three weeks!


Joe


17 June 2022

Five Things That Convinced Me to Dump Social Media


I recently deleted the last two significant social media accounts I used for years, Twitter and Instagram. I have plenty of reasons for taking that step, but rather than dwell on those, I think it might be more interesting to share with you some of the resources and examples that inspired me to take this step. I’ll devote a future post about reasons, feelings, and choices I’m making going forward.


Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, by Jaron Lanier (Henry Holt and Co., 2018).
Lanier is a virtual reality pioneer and technologist. I met and interviewed him while writing an article for Discover magazine in 1999. He impressed me then as a profound thinker, but not until I read this book did I perceive him to be a decent, compassionate person and father who is concerned about what social media algorithms are doing to our brains. As he explains it, Silicon Valley has a very high opinion of its social media software, but it is still quite crude, designed primarily to hook us and enrich its creators. Apps distort politics, promote bad behavior, cultivate binary thinking, stoke triggering behavior, and make us cranky. Before reading the book I thought I could simply delete the apps from my phone and just take a break from social media. (I did this one year and was impressed.) An optimist, Lanier believes that the software can be written to be more decent, but he argues that the firms involved won’t change their game until a significant number of people delete their accounts. Big difference. 




The Social Dilemma (Netflix, 2020).
The most compelling thing about this documentary is that all the talking heads are people who worked for major firms like Facebook, Google, Twitter, and came to see how destructive their products were. It’s fascinating to hear their arguments for why social media must change—and their fears. The line that gets repeated often: “If you're not paying for a product, you ARE the product.” If you could take back some of your own autonomy, agency, and privacy, wouldn’t you? I also recommend the documentary Fake Famous (HBO, 2021). Journalist Nick Bilton chooses three young people at random and tries to see if he can transform them into Instagram influencers overnight. The secret of his success? Buy them a bunch of bots! It feels like a trivial project and film (lots of fun, lighthearted moments) but it’s scary how many millions of people are playing this pathetic game for real.



Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport (Portfolio, 2019). Georgetown University computer scientist Newport is probably best known for his book Deep Work, which I’ve discussed before. The newer book helps professionals put technology in its place. He recommends reducing your online and screen time to the bare minimum for, say, a month, then only add back what you really need. If you need Twitter in order to do your job effectively, then you need to carefully set up a system that allows to you get in, get out, without turning your brain to mush. (And yes, there are such people, like the scientist who analyzes language on Twitter to track epidemics.)


Stolen Focus: Why You Can't Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again, by Johann Hari (Crown, 2022).
I wish I had a dime for every time I’ve heard someone say that they just can’t read or finish books anymore. This comment usually comes from longtime readers, who are surprised that they can’t sit still, focus, and blow through a book in a matter of hours, the way they once did. They profess shock and shame, but British-Swiss journalist Hari says none of us are to blame. Our attention spans have been steadily eroded and fractured by 12 forces in modern life, which he carefully distills by interviewing a phalanx of scientists who are studying various aspects of the phenomenon. Yes, he says, social media and smartphones are one reason, but it’s not as simple as deleting your apps or depositing your phone in a time-locked safe. You might enjoy this brief interview with Hari in which he says:
I went away without my smartphone for three months. I spent three months in Provincetown, Mass., completely offline, in a radical act of will. There were many ups and downs, but I was stunned by how much my attention came back. I could read books for eight hours a day. At the end of my time there, I thought, “I’m never going to go back to how I lived before.” The pleasures of focus are so much greater than the rewards of likes and retweets. 
Then I got my phone back, and within a few months, I was 80 percent back to where I had been.



The example set by Wiley Cash.
Wiley is not a resource, he’s a New York Times Bestselling author of dark literary fiction, a two-time Gold Dagger award winner, and an Edgar finalist. He’s also a friend here in North Carolina. (At the 2015 Edgars, Wiley—far right—had the distinction of wearing a tux more handsomely than Stephen King!) A longtime Twitter user, Wiley deleted his account a couple of years ago, even though he previously enjoyed using the platform to comment on books and the politics of our day. He is in the process of de-platforming entirely from social media, seeking ways to engage with readers via a new creative program, This is Working, launched on his website. I’ve always admired his writing, and his principles. For years, he was the guy we knew who dared to give up his iPhone. Sensing that he was becoming distracted by the device’s bells and whistles, he “down-teched” to an older model flip-phone. I don’t think I could do the same, but I understand the logic behind it.


See you in three weeks!


Joe


josephdagnese.com

27 May 2022

The Lambs Will Never Stop Screaming


Conventional wisdom says that books are sold on the basis of word of mouth. This rule of thumb is usually interpreted to mean the spoken word. Your friend tells you about a book that they loved, and you rush out to get it, or at least put it on your to-be-read list. A harried buyer dashes into a bookstore looking for a “good book” that they can take on a beach vacation, and a quick-thinking bookseller presses a book into their hands that does not disappoint. Good booksellers are part-clairvoyant, part-psychologist, but I digress.

Sometimes the sale happens exactly the way that the book industry wishes it would. A prominent critic writes a glowing review in a major newspaper—and people buy it on the strength of those few words alone. There’s even a school of thought that says reviewers must carefully choose the right buzzwords that will tell readers if the reviewed content is right for them. After all, even if the reviewer hates the book or movie, the reader might perceive it to be their cup of tea, if the review is crafted correctly.

In 1988, I was that mark. I read a review in the New York Times then bought the book, even though it was still only available in hardcover. I was 23 years old, working a crappy editorial job out of college, and I didn’t buy many hardcovers. I was all about paperbacks back then, mostly used. But there was something about that review that made the book sound irresistible. For some reason I cannot explain, it’s the only review of a book that has stuck in my mind. The reviewer happened to mention that he liked a specific quality of the author’s skill set. It was only last week that I tracked down the review to nail down the paragraph that spurred me. Here it is:

“[Mr. Harris] knows about strange things, like the life cycle of lepidoptera, the legal spacing of fishhooks on a trotline, moths that live only on the tears of large land animals, and the amount of brain matter it takes to tan a hide. The scene where Clarice Starling explores Dr. Lecter’s tip by forcing her way into a storeroom and investigating the back seat of a vintage Packard is a tour de force of descriptive economy.”

Cover of the first edition.

The book, of course, is The Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris, which was published 34 years ago this month. (I assure you that I too am appalled by the passage of time.) The book spawned an Academy Award winning movie, and a media franchise that has included four books, five films, a TV series, and, horrors, a musical.

I don’t consider myself to be a Hannibal Lecter fan. Nor am I a Thomas Harris fan. Nor do I actively seek out serial killer fare. Cannibals? Yuck. I believe Silence just hit me at a formative time in my career, and I proceeded to read Harris’ first two thrillers, Black Sunday, about a terrorist plot to detonate a bomb at a Super Bowl game, and Red Dragon, the first novel to introduce Lecter. Dragon was made into a 1986 movie by Michael Mann, called Manhunter, which went straight to VHS. 


I’d forgotten that I’d seen that movie on the strength of a recommendation by a college roommate—word of mouth again!—and I loved it, more so than the 2002 remake starring Edward Norton. And I also loved the Foster-Hopkins film.

Lately, I’ve been trying to understand why I like the books and media that I like. Is it the writing? The plot devices? What the hell was I hoping to glean from an author who “knows about strange things”? Why did I bring a notebook to the theater on my second viewing of Silence and take copious notes on its structure?

Well, besides the fact that I’m a kook, I think there are some boxes in my crime fiction interests that those early books and movies ticked.

I’m a sucker for psychological elicitation scenes, where a brilliant (or insane) shrink gets at the heart of the protag’s issues with a couple of quick questions. The Lecter/Starling relationship, which was hinted at in Christopher Lehman-Haupt’s Times review probably hooked me. Besides analyzing Starling, Lecter nutures her career, asking questions that prompt her to crack the case: “How do we begin to covet, Clarice?” Foster and Hopkins make the movie, but their onscreen time together amounts to a mere four scenes. If I dig deeper into my mystery fiction background, I was probably cued to enjoy shrink scenes from my early reading (and re-reading) of Ellery Queen novels, particularly Cat of Many Tails.


Cover of the first edition.

I’m a sucker for the hurting/wounded protagonist who is still remarkably competent. Starling and Will Graham, the Red Dragon protagonist, both fit the bill. Jonathan Demme, the director of Silence, said in interviews that he went out of his way to portray the FBI as competent. Graham’s problem-solving thought process, as portrayed in both the book and film, is fascinating. I still get chills when the Manhunter Graham announces ruefully that he must visit Lecter in prison to “recover the mindset.”

I don’t want to gloss over the franchise’s issues. More than any other author, Harris put serial killers on the map, for better or for worse. I’d argue the reason so many crime writers don’t want to do serial killer POVs is because Harris’s imitators did ’em worse. I too don’t care for those kinds of books, although I did enjoy an early Tony Hillerman novel that brought us inside the mind of a hired assassin, making the guy seem poignant. Silence caught flak for its homophobic/transphobic content, and the later Hannibal books are just…well, don’t get me started.


That all said, I did really admire Harris’s writing in those early books. It’s clear that he is a reporter-turn-novelist, like Michael Connelly, and a lifetime of shoe-leather research ends up on the page. He really did interview FBI profilers, visit their offices, and meet trainees at Quantico. One scene I draw inspiration from is the very opening of Red Dragon.
Will Graham sat Crawford down at a picnic table between the house and the ocean and gave him a glass of iced tea.

Jack Crawford looked at the pleasant old house, salt-silvered wood in the clear light. “I should have caught you in Marathon when you got off work,” he said. “You don’t want to talk about it here.”

“I don’t want to talk about it anywhere, Jack. You’ve got to talk about it, so let’s have it. Just don’t get out any pictures. If you brought pictures, leave them in the briefcase—Molly and Willy will be back soon.”
The “descriptive economy” that Lehman-Haupt praised in that old review is clear. One sentence and we know where the scene is taking place. By the third graf we know that we’re in the presence of two men with a history. We sense Will’s reluctance to return to the work of profiling; his regard for his family is urgent, palpable. The single, mysterious word “it” says what the two men don’t say. It is the horrific darkness at the center of the novel. All told, a simply wonderful scene that I reread from time to time, just to recover the mindset.

* * *

See you in three weeks!

Joe