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

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 Mini√®re 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 doppelg√§ngers (“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.

10 April 2020

The Hands of Erik Larson


Back in February, before things went horribly, horribly wrong, I was sitting in the auditorium of a North Carolina university, amid a crowd of about 400 people. Remember those days? Wait—it gets worse. It was an audience filled with book lovers.

They had come that night to hear the author Erik Larson speak about his latest book, The Splendid and the Vile, about the leadership of Winston Churchill during the Blitz of 1940-1941. Larson, as you probably know, is the acclaimed, bestselling author of numerous works of narrative nonfiction, probably most famously The Devil in the White City, but also Isaac’s Storm, Dead Wake, In the Garden of Beasts, and so on.
Erik Larson in conversation with Denise Kiernan.
Narrative nonfiction is modern book publishing code for “nonfiction that doesn’t bore you.” Larson is arguably the form’s most famous current practitioner. I once listened to an editor at a Big Five house assert that Larson invented the technique, and that everyone else who did it today was merely copying him. We were in a publishing office at the time, and I half-expected author David McCullough to leap out from behind a potted palm and gut this person with a Revolutionary War-era bayonet, if the ghost of Evan S. Connell didn’t get there first, wielding General Custer’s firearm.

When I studied journalism in college, my professors sang the praises of such New Journalism writers such as Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Jimmy Breslin—writers who were reporters first, yet used the techniques of fiction to make their true stories read as engagingly as made-up ones. I admired all those writers when I was in my late teens, and even today I never tire of hearing how they organize their information.

That’s why I was there to hear Larson. Well, that’s not precisely true. My wife, Denise Kiernan, an acclaimed, bestselling narrative nonfictioneer herself, was interviewing Larson that night, and she insisted that a) I attend, b) sit in the front row, and c) take lots of pictures. In our small city, Denise does a lot of “in conversations with” various authors, and as a result I’ve become the world’s worst photographer of book events. In my defense, authors hardly move when speaking about books, so how can we expect the resulting photos to be dramatic? I happily found that Larson does love to gesture. Look at those hands!



Some takeaways from that night, and from his book, which I’m currently reading.
  • Unlike novels, nonfiction books are sold on the basis of a book proposal, which can run anywhere from 25 to 100 pages. This is primarily a sales document, meant to convince editors to act now! and buy the book already! With 9 million books sold worldwide, Larson can now probably get a book deal on the basis of a 30-second phone call to his editor. But he insists on writing a full proposal, to be absolutely certain the book he’s proposing has a beginning, middle, and end.
  • Just before Larson's The Devil in the White City was published in 2003, Larson was absolutely convinced that his career was over. Why? He didn't think people would like/understand/appreciate the new book because there was no true link between the two different components of the story. That is, on one hand you had the diabolical machinations of Herman Webster Mudgett (aka H.H. Holmes), a serial killer. On the other hand you had the grandeur, innocence, and raw American promise of the 1893 World's Fair. Both true-life stories happened at the same time in Chicago. Larson thought they would make a good combo, but he was worried that readers (and perhaps critics) wouldn't accept the premise of a story that leaped between the two. He needn't have worried. So far as I'm able to determine, that book remained on the New York Times bestseller list for at least 366 weeks.
  • Over the years, Larson has developed a sixth sense about the telling details that he and lay readers love. Just as we learned in The Devil in the White City that the Ferris Wheel, which first debuted at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago had “consumed 28,416 pounds of bolts in its assembly,” we learn that Churchill—at heart a government employee whose personal income did not permit him to spend extravagantly on alcohol for his guests—nevertheless ensured that Chequers, the government-funded estate he used for his weekend retreats, was in turn amply stocked at government expense. One liquor order, Larson tells us, consisted of 36 bottles of Amontillado, 36 bottles of white wine, 36 bottles of Fonseca port, 36 bottles of claret, 24 bottles of whiskey, 12 bottles of brandy, and 36 bottles of champagne. The rules imposed by the British government were that Churchill could only serve this booze to foreign dignitaries, and his staff had to keep strict details on who had consumed what. Records would be audited every six months. 
  • Speaking of big numbers: In the history of WWII literature, there have been approximately 18 quintillion books written about Churchill. To ensure that he was coming up with something fresh about the man, Larson initially limited himself to reading only a few biographies about Churchill. Then he carefully set aside those volumes, and dug into the archives firsthand to find “his”—that is, Larson’s—Churchill.
  • When he’s researching in archives, Larson will photograph records, if permitted, with his smartphone. Images of primary sources, especially letters written in a spidery hand in fountain pen ink, are often hard on the eyes. But digital images can be later adjusted on a computer, shifting, say, the color contrast, and thus making them easier to read.
  • Before he writes, Larson spends countless hours slotting all the dates of each piece of data—official reports, personal letters, etc.—he’s found into a timeline of sorts that allows him to craft more dramatic scenes. Thus: When Churchill was here doing this, his daughter was here doing that. Those timelines might run 80 pages in length. 
  • The writer in me especially loved reading how Churchill insisted his underlings learn to write better reports. Quoting from the book: 
    “Let us have an end to phrases such as these,” [Churchill] wrote, and quoted two offenders:
    “It is also of importance to bear in mind the following considerations…”
    “Consideration should be given to the possibility of carrying into effect…”
    He wrote: “Most of these woolly phrases are mere padding, which can be left out altogether, or replaced by a single word. Let us not shrink from using the short expressive phrase, even if it is conversational.”
    The resulting prose, he wrote, “may at first seem rough as compared with the flat surface of officialese jargon. But the saving of time will be great, while the discipline of setting out the real points concisely will prove an aid to clear thinking.”
  • Lastly, Larson observes that Churchill’s wartime speeches to the British public adhered strictly to a kind of formula. First, he transparently laid out the dilemma all Britons were facing in clear, unvarnished terms. Then he enumerated reasons for hope, reasons for citizens to keep fighting the good fight, and why their efforts might actually turn the tide. And he always closed with a memorable, rhetorical flourish that stirred the hearts of all listeners and moved them to action.
Hearing Larson speak of this, and later reading his descriptions of Churchill’s speeches in the book, moved me deeply and left me longing for such a leader, should such dark times ever leap to the fore again.



Postscript:

A few nights after we last saw Larson, he texted my wife to say that the remainder of his book tour had been canceled, as had the tours of so many authors. Larson's book still shot to No. 1 on the NY Times bestseller list for hardcover nonfiction, as many of his previous books had, but the independent bookstores that were planning to host him no doubt lost out on many of those sales. This is the current crisis facing countless authors and bookstores.

To that end, my wife is on the lookout for ways to conduct her previously scheduled "in conversation" book events virtually. What software are people using to do this effectively? We've heard people sing the praises of everything from FB Live to Zoom to Crowdcast, and so on. Kindly let me know your experiences in the comments. Be well, and take care of yourselves.

04 November 2017

Old Friends and Old Castles




by John M. Floyd


In our columns at this blog, we Sayers of Sleuth try to stick to the subject of mystery writing. I'm often guilty, though, of wandering off topic (especially to things like movies and TV), and sure enough, my focus today is on a book of narrative nonfiction. But today's post is also vaguely connected to the mysterious, because if I hadn't become acquainted several years ago with fellow mystery writer Joseph D'Agnese, he probably wouldn't have recently offered me what turned out to be an interesting opportunity.

Here's what I mean. Back in early September Joe emailed me from his home in North Carolina to tell me his wife, Denise Kiernan, was about to do a nationwide tour for her new book, The Last Castle. In fact I had already heard about the book, and had even pre-ordered it from Amazon a month or so earlier, partly because my wife Carolyn and I had so enjoyed Denise's previous book--a New York Times bestseller called The Girls of Atomic City--and partly because The Last Castle is a narrative history of the Biltmore House, an attraction in Asheville, North Carolina, that we've visited several times over the years.

Anyhow, Joe also explained in his email that one of the stops Denise would make on the tour was Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, and that Denise usually prefers not to do a solo reading/signing; when possible, she asks someone she knows to come and appear with her at the event, and in effect interview her about the book in the popular "a conversation with the author" format. And since I'd met Joe and Denise a couple of years ago in Raleigh and we've swapped several books and emails since then, he asked if I'd like to appear with Denise at the event in Oxford, which is only about three hours' drive from my home near Jackson.

So that's what we did, on the afternoon of Wednesday, October 25. I drove up there, met with Denise beforehand to strategize and catch up a bit, and then she and I spent an hour or so discussing her book in front of an audience of readers and writers. She was of course a better interviewee than I was an interviewer, but I think we all had a good time, and everyone (except Denise, already an expert) learned a great deal about the famous Biltmore estate, the Vanderbilts who constructed it, and America's Gilded Age. Afterward she signed a bunch of books and we all stood around and chatted until seven or so, at which point I headed home and Denise drove to Memphis to catch a flight the following morning to New York, her next stop. (She'd spent the previous two days in Seattle and L.A. I remember once being told that national book tours are like attending Epcot Center in Florida: Every Person Comes Out Tired.)

I should mention here that Square Books is one of several excellent and widely-known independent bookstores here in Mississippi--others include Lemuria in Jackson and Turnrow in Greenwood--and that the bookstore staff there in Oxford showed both of us an incredibly warm welcome. Many thanks to Richard Howorth, Alissa Lilly, Toby Morrison, and everyone else at Square Books. Denise had been to Oxford twice before, to speak at Ole Miss, and my most recent trip there was as one of the signers of Mississippi Noir a year ago, but we both agreed that this trip was the most fun.


A final note. Like The Girls of Atomic City (subtitled The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II), The Last Castle is a fascinating book about a fascinating place and time in our history. Many of you probably know that the Biltmore House is the largest private residence in America, a sort of giant French Renaissance chateau constructed by George Vanderbilt in the late 1800s. What you might not know is that the house is 175,000 square feet (larger than the castle where Downton Abbey was filmed), with 250 rooms, 33 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces, located on an estate of around 125,000 acres. And the people involved in its history are no less interesting than the setting. According to the description/subtitle on the front cover of Denise's book, The Last Castle is "the epic story of love, loss, and American royalty in the nation's largest home." I couldn't have said it better myself. And by the way, this book also made the New York Times bestseller list, as soon as it was released.


If you've read The Last Castle already, you know what a literary achievement it is. If you've not read it, I hope you will. It's a marvelously entertaining and eye-opening look at not only an American landmark but at America itself.

To Joe D'Agnese and Denise Kiernan: Thank you for allowing me a small connection to all this. I had a great time.




02 June 2015

Best Of Times/Worst Of Times (Writing)


by David Dean 

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

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

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

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

A Less Fun Party
The worst of times

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

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

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

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