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.

08 February 2020

Why The Detective Stopped By


Somehow I managed to get a fantasy tale into the Jan./Feb. 2020 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. “The Detective Who Stopped by Bedford Street” tells the story of an unnamed New York police detective who uses an unusual method to crack stubborn cases. When he’s stumped, he visits a quaint vintage shop in Greenwich Village and listens to a beat-up old radio that the proprietor has vowed never to sell. When tuned correctly, the radio broadcasts critical moments in a case. The clues are often vague, but our detective is a clever sort, isn’t he? With the mysterious radio and the unstinting support of the shop’s mysterious proprietor, our nameless hero closes an impressive number of cases, and becomes a legend in the department, to his everlasting embarrassment.
 I can remember the exact moment the idea popped into my head. It was right when I was trying to finish another story that was resisting easy closure. Two years later, I can see that the few strands of the radio story—what Robert Lopresti wisely calls a “magical shop” story—were inspired by two different things.
The first is a famous John Cheever story called “The Enormous Radio.” It first ran in the New Yorker in 1947, but I first came upon it in 1981, when a paperback collection of the writer’s work (The Stories of John Cheever) was published and became a huge hit with people like me who’d never heard of Cheever. I bought my copy off a mass paperback stand at K-mart.
You owe it to yourself to check out the story. Current subscribers can read it at the New Yorker website, but for some reason you can also find the entire text online. In the piece, a New York couple discovers that their brand-new radio picks up conversations of people living in their apartment building. And so ensues the kind of sordid middle-class drama that Cheever was famous for. I don’t want to say more because it’s not my place to do so. It’s bad enough I swiped Cheever’s premise; I’m not going to give his ending away.
Back to our cop and his magic radio. I was probably a few hundred words into my story when I realized my biggest plot challenge: I needed to come with as many different audio clues as possible for our detective to grapple with. As I quickly figured out, it’s tricky to do that. For example, the most obvious clue is having a victim mention the name of his or her murderer. You can only trot that one out once.
Here, two classic movies were instructive, if only to remind me just how slight audio evidence can be. In the 1974 Coppola film The Conversation, everything hinges on the various shades of meaning of a recorded chat between two people. We know exactly what the two people say, but the meaning is unclear because we aren’t privy to the subtleties of context. In DePalma’s 1981  Blow Out, the critical sound of a car tire blowing out isn’t fraught with meaning until our hero finds audio of the sound that immediately precedes it.
In my story, I dispensed with the long-hanging fruit first, then worked my way up the ladder of audio complexity. The detective’s greatest triumph comes when he identifies a murderer based on the killer’s strange tic.
And now, since I’ve annoyingly danced around the plots of three, no, four creative works, I should probably be more forthright about the origins of the second big element in this story: the so-called magical shop itself.
Weirdly, I have always been a sucker for such shops, ever since I was a kid. For few years in my youth my father rented an office space above an Italian deli in the New Jersey town where I grew up. The office building was strangely trapezoidal, which meant that one window in my Dad’s studio jutted out like the bow of a ship, overlooking the main drag of my hometown.
My hometown’s business district, as depicted in an old postcard, long before I arrived on the scene. (The Blue Onion not pictured.)
I used to like sitting in that window and drawing pictures of the impossible cute gift shop across the street. If I’m not mistaken, it was called The Blue Onion, and its blue-painted, shingle roof and gable were anomalies in an otherwise boring Jersey town filled with pizza joints, strip malls, sanitized stucco buildings, and yes, that Kmart I mentioned earlier. I must have sketched dozens of versions of the Blue Onion, in all seasons, but its Christmas appearance—two front windows decked out with twinkling lights and faux snow—was probably my favorite.
In the 1990s, I lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, and took the train across the Hudson to New York City each morning to go to work. From the PATH station to my job at Scholastic, I walked past a charming shop on Bedford Street. It was the sort of place that sold antiques and “vintage” objects side-by-side with beautiful new objects carefully curated by the proprietor. I never went in, but I imagine that everything in it was ridiculously expensive.
 (credit: Denise Kiernan)
Later, when I went freelance, I conned my way into writing a twice-monthly “destinations” column for the now long-gone New Jersey section of the New York Times. All I did for these pieces was chase down places in the state that trafficked in, as my gruff editor once put it, “quaint shit.” I know it’s got a gritty reputation, but Jersey has lot more of these sorts of places than Tony Soprano would like to admit.
I now live in a town in North Carolina that has quaintness in spades—shops and entire barns devoted to relics from another time. Emporia like these always seem to promise a hell of a lot more than they deliver. But foolishly, if I have a few minutes, I still go peek inside them. I don’t know why. I can’t afford anything in them half the time, but still I browse. I suppose, like my detective, I go looking for the magic.
 josephdagnese.com


02 December 2019

Patio Writer


As I recall, I first encountered Joseph D'Agnese when I read his first story in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and rated it the best story I read that week.   We had a chat and later shared a lunch with our editor Linda Landrigan.  Yes, that was name-dropping. Suffer.

Joe has a new book and I asked him to tell us about it. But first, let's talk about the man himself.  

Joseph D'Agnese is a journalist, author, and ghostwriter who has written for both adults and children alike. He has won a Derringer Award for his short mystery fiction, and one of his stories appeared in the Best American Mystery Stories 2015 anthology. D'Agnese lives with his wife in North Carolina. Joe has been called “The Meryl Streep of Short Fiction,” but prefers to think of himself as The Susan Lucci. Visit him at josephdagnese.com  -Robert Lopresti



PATIO WRITER

by Joseph D'Agnese

Once upon a time I wrote a novel, and it was awesome. At least my parents and I thought so. And why wouldn’t we all think that? I was all of 15 years old.

My parents did not actually read the book, and never would. Neither of them had finished high school. They were, as people are fond of saying, not big readers.

But for some reason, they thought it was wonderful and perhaps a little strange that their son preferred sitting on the patio banging away on a manual typewriter, instead of doing things his brothers or other kids did. All summer long, when it came time for dinner, my mother would scoot me off our picnic table in the Jersey suburbs so we could fire up the grill and eat dinner al fresco. She would say things like, “You’re gonna ruin your eyes!” “What is this, your office?” and “How long is this thing going to be?"

The story in question had something to do with a bookseller who solved mysteries in his spare time. He had a bookshop in New York City, and a nephew who was a professional gumshoe who helped investigate. The nephew narrated; the uncle solved the mystery. A complete Nero Wolfe rip-off—er, dynamic. Aside from the fact that I’d never set foot in a Manhattan bookstore in my life, I figure the story was about as clever as a kid my age could make it. A kid who obsessively read mysteries, that is.

In my defense, I also had a summer job of sorts. When I wasn’t reading or writing, I worked for my dad, who was a pattern maker in New York’s Garment District. (Astute readers will recall that my very first story to appear in AHMM was set in that world.) Dad brought home extra work to make a little money on the side, and I helped him out nights and weekends in his shop in the garage.

I used my meager earnings to make two photocopies of the manuscript, which I presented to my parents. I have no idea what my mother did with her copy. My father tucked his into the plastic gray briefcase he took with him to work every morning, and showed it off to friends when they lunched in greasy spoon diners that catered to the men of New York’s Fashion Avenue.

School started up and I had tucked away my Olivetti until my next big writing season. My father returned home from work one night and announced with utter seriousness, “Next week, you’re coming to the city with me. An editor wants to talk to you about that book of yours!”

What the hell was this now?

If you’re looking for tips on how to break into the competitive literary market, pay attention. Apparently growing tired of lugging around the MS, my father had slipped it to the ladies coat buyer for Montgomery Ward, a woman whose sister happened to work as an assistant to an editor at some publishing house in New York City. A firm my father kept calling The Bantam.

Was I familiar with The Bantam? I was, Dad, highly freaking familiar. I had a ton of paperbacks published by them.

This news took me aback. This was not supposed to happen. The book was for private consumption only. My youngest brother, for example, had recently announced he might just read this book of mine, if he could squeeze it in between homework and clarinet practice.

I was simultaneously terrified and elated at the prospect of real-life editors reading my book. When that day arrived, I donned an ill-fitting jacket and tie and ascended an elevator with my dad at The Bantam offices at 666 Fifth Avenue.

The editor was lovely, and told me just what a kid who thought he sorta, kinda, maybe wanted to write needed to hear. My work was wonderful for a writer my age. My characters fun and funny to be around. Oh sure—there were a few implausibilities that made the book unsalable, but I had to keep plugging away. I should read widely and keep writing. I should learn what I liked. And learn how to edit myself. Learn the difference, if I could, between commercial and literary work. The editor’s name was Linda S. Price, but the hour she gave me that afternoon was absolutely priceless.

As I rode back to Jersey with my dad on the bus, a shopping bag of Bantam books at my feet, I felt the world had opened up just a bit. Although those of you who are writers will understand that I ignored all the positive things she said to me, and dwelled only on the negative. What the hell was an implausibility?

That manuscript went into my bedroom closet and was joined by others I cranked out on the patio over the remaining summers I was in school. Then, one day, when I was out of college and working in publishing in New York, I dug out the bookshop mystery and read it.

Guess what? The characters and scenarios were delightful, but the thing was positively riddled with implausibilities. The savvy 26-year-old me—who now worked in cosmopolitan Manhattan—snickered at the stupidity of 15-year-old me.

Still—I liked the characters. And the plot could work. I became convinced that I knew just how to fix it. So I rewrote the whole thing and shopped it around to the very same editors I’d met during my first big job hunt. No takers.

Versions 1 and 2 disappeared into a file cabinet, where they stayed thirty years, until I dug them out earlier this year.

Did I really want to do this again?

I did. So much so that I scanned those brown pages to make a modern digital file to work from.

This time, 54-year-old me stood up for the 15-year-old in ways that the 26-year-old could not deign to. In the course of the third rewrite, it became completely obvious to me that my amateur sleuth was never intended to be a man but a woman. In fact, the sleuth spoke just like an old elementary school principal of mine. She was the first Italian-American woman I’d known who’d completed college. She used words like unmitigated gall and enunciate. The 15- and 26-year-old writers had been blind to this connection, but I like to think the 54-year-old appreciated this truth for what it was—another gift from the grown-ups in his past.

My mother is no longer with us, but my father who is knocking on 90 had little trouble recalling our visit to The Bantam when he called to say he’d gotten the proof I’d dropped in the mail to him.

“What the hell am I going to do with this?” said the man who spends most of his day watching NCIS reruns and not-so-terribly historic programs on the History Channel.

“You could try reading it,” I suggested.

“Yeah, right,” he said. “You got a clear head, kid.”

So after three rewrites and 40 years, Murder on Book Row is finally out in the world. I reserve the right to clear up any lingering implausibilities when I rewrite it at age 80.