Showing posts with label Lopresti. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lopresti. Show all posts

15 August 2018

Time Warp

by Robert Lopresti

Stephen King has a new novel out, which will no doubt make a lot of people happy, and probably terrify them as well.  But what inspired this column was a review of the book by Karin Slaughter in the Washington Post.

She liked the book a lot but she spoke of "the underlying fugue of displacement.  Readers should take warning: The characters in the mirror are younger than they appear."

What she means is that King's people, although by no means old, never text and don't seem to realize that their phones have cameras.  "A woman in her early 40s wonders whether John Lennon, who was murdered 38 years ago, was still alive when she started living with her husband."

It is an easy trap for writers to fall into: Making characters of different ages think/speak/act like people you are familiar with, rather than people they would be familiar with.

And it's more than just whatever age the writer happens to be.  It has to do with the time period the writer thinks is his.  John Knowles wrote in his novel A Separate Peace: "Everyone has a moment in history which belongs particularly to him.  It is the moment when his emotions achieve their most powerful sway over him, and afterward when you say to this person 'the world today' or 'life' or 'reality' he will assume that you mean this moment, even if it is fifty years past.  The world, through his unleashed emotions, imprinted itself upon him, and he carries the stamp of that passing moment forever."

Quick!  Answer this off the top of your head: Twenty-five years ago was what year?

If you had the right answer, good for you.  But many of us would guess further back, lost between the present and the moment "that belongs particularly to" us.

Back in the eighties a friend told me about a woman in her writing group whose contemporary novel-in-progress featured a young veteran just back from Vietnam.  In the 1980s.  I suspect that she had been thinking about the plot for a decade and hadn't remembered that the real world had drifted by while her soldier boy hadn't aged a day.

When I created my character Shanks I was 40 and he was 50.  I am some 20 years older but through the Miracle of Author's Convenience, Shanks remains in his early fifties.  The problem is that in some ways his attitudes are those of a man born in the forties instead of the sixties.  I have to fight that but how much can I change such things without changing the character?

It is a constant fight to stay out of the sweet land of anachronism... 

09 August 2018

Early Early EARLY Mysteries

by Robert Lopresti

If I asked you what was the first mystery story, what would you say?

Edgar Allan Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue?"  Sorry.  Published in 1841, that's practically current events.

How about Shakespeare?  There was that whiny prince trying to figure out who killed his father.  Uh uh.  Hamlet only goes back to 1600.

Well, there was the story of Susannah, which appears in some editions of the Book of Daniel.  The prophet solves a crime by using a technique known to every modern police force.  But that only dates back to around 200 BC.

How about Sophocles' play about a king interrogating various witnesses to discover the murderer of his predecessor?  Nice guess, but no.  At 400 BC, he's still an Oedipus-come-lately.

Enough suspense.  Here is the true answer, courtesy of those brilliant British comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb.


18 July 2018

The Big Neurotic meets the Big Easy

O'Neil De Noux and I at the Cafe Abyssinia for lunch
by Robert Lopresti

In June my wife and I visited New Orleans for the first time.  It was great fun and quite a change from  my Northwest home where we were still celebrating what we call Juneuary.  (As I write this it is Febjuly.  The temperature is 64 degrees and it is drizzling.)

One of the highlights was meeting O'Neil De Noux in person for the first time after years of digital friendship.  O'Neil was kind enough to take us on a tour of the city where his family has lived for hundreds of years.  Boy, was that great.  He is quite a raconteur.

But here was the best part.  O'Neil stopped the car in front of one building and announced that this is where Lucien Caye had his office.  Caye is one of O'Neil's series characters, a post-war private eye.

Just beyond the building there is a park and I immediately remembered the beginning of O'Neil's Shamus-winning short story "The Heart Has Reasons."  Lucien Caye looks out his window and spots a girl sitting in the park.  And that was the  park.

I actually shivered.  It is weird how fiction can do that to us.  It explains why fans have put up marking locations of Baker Street, West 35th Street, and the Reichenbach Falls.

Several friends assured us that the best thing about New Orleans was the music so when my wife and I had a free  evening we decided to see what was on offer.  I'm not a big fan of jazz or Cajun (sorry) but there was one performer listed as folk.  Through the miracle of Youtube we were able to check her out and I would say she was more Bonnie Raitt than folk, but that was fine.

So we strolled over to the French Quarter to the bar where she was playing.  There was nobody and nothing on the stage.  Not so much as a piccolo.  We were greeted by a man at the end of the bar who appeared to be the owner.

"When is the music supposed to start?" I asked.

He smiled.  "Eight thirty."

"And what time is it?"

"Eight thirty."

"But she's not here yet, huh?"

"Nope."

So we strolled about the Quarter for half an hour.  No sacrifice, I assure you.  Coming back at 9 PM we found the stage was still empty.

I looked up the singer's Facebook page and found a notice to her fans that the gig had been cancelled.  I showed it to the apparent-bar-owner who was quite astonished by the news.

So, on the whole, I was not that impressed by the music in New Orleans.

Resident of the Audubon Zoo
I have to get serious now.  That weekend was the 45th anniversary of a famous crime in the city: the UpStairs Lounge arson.  A gay bar was burned and thirty-two people died horribly.  While no one was ever convicted, it is considered pretty certain the culprit was a gay man who had been thrown out of the bar earlier.  (He killed himself a year later.)

A tragedy without doubt.  But the main reason it might be of interest today to those who knew no one involved was the response.  The news media generally ignored that it was a gay bar.  Radio shows made jokes about it.  No government officials mentioned the death of thirty-two citizens.

Many churches refused to hold funerals for the victims.  One Episcopal priest did and was criticized by his parishioners and bishop.  (Unitarians and Methodists stepped up too.  More power to 'em.)  Some families never claimed their deceased's remains.

If there is a positive side to that story it is comparing it to how the nation reacted to the Pulse massacre of 2016.  Looks like we had matured a little since then.

I haven't mentioned the actual reason we were in New Orleans, which was the American Library Association conference.  That's the topic for next time.



04 July 2018

Patriotic Gore


by Robert Lopresti


This being the Fourth of July I would like to say a few words about one of our country’s most successful exports. We didn’t invent it, but we have certainly helped spread it around.

In fact, this product has become so popular that even countries which objectively seem to be lacking in it will claim to be rolling in the stuff.


I am referring to democracy.

You may be thinking: well, sis boom bah, but what does this have to do with mystery fiction?

A lot, as it happens. I’m not the first to say this but it bears repeating: mystery fiction only becomes popular in democracies.  (Ahem.  Jeff Baker pointed out that ancient China, not known for its polling stations, brought us Judge Dee.  Okay then.)

I think I know why this is the case. If you live in a country where the laws themselves are secret (as used to be true in the Soviet Union) or the King/Ayatollah/Dear Leader can arbitrarily decide who is guilty, then what’s the point of reading about detectives? If trials are just public theatre to reveal what has already been decided behind the scenes, what use are crime novels?

The author of a cozy mystery believes (or pretends to believe) that he is describing a society in which justice can be done, and therefore investigation matters.

The hardboiled hero lives in a more cynical world, but even she believes that there is some possibility of justice that is worth fighting for. And the hardboiled author believes that she lives in a society in which she can get away with writing so cynically.

One of the earliest proto-detective stories is Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. (It has a detective, a Watson character, interrogation of suspects, and a most unlikely killer.) And it is a product of Athenian democracy.

Yes, I know Athens wasn’t such a great democracy, allowing only male citizens to vote. On the other hand, ancient Athenians might argue that a country that only votes every few years and lets representatives decide all the specific issues is a funny kind of democracy, too.

Another play from that era is Aeschylus’ The Eumenides, which shows the punishment of crime moving from the realm of direct vengeance or divine punishment to the decisions of impartial juries.

I wrote most of what you see above a decade ago and it appeared then at Criminal Brief.  I can't say I have as much faith in democracy as I did back then.  Terms like collusion, emoluments, and interference may have something to do with that.

The last few years have shown us so many things that no fiction writer would dare to put in a novel.  As someone said authors have to be believable but God doesn't.  

Have sales of paranoid thrillers been rising while crime novels have dropped? Expand this to 300 pages and you can get a Ph.D.

But in the mean time, go ahead and wave a flag if you feel like it. It’s the mysterious thing to do.

26 June 2018

Welcome to my Universe

by Robert Lopresti

I recently read two books of the same subgenre which appeared within a month of each other.  Nothing odd about that, except the only other book I have ever encountered of that type I read decades ago.

Thekind  of book I am referring to a shared universe collection of mystery stories.  The concept of a shared universe is a group of authors writing about the same world with perhaps overlapping plots and characters.

To be clear I am not referring to:
* Authors co-writing a book (e.g. Ellery Queen)
* People merely writing new stories about an existing character (e.g. ten million post-Doyle Sherlock Holmes adventures.
* An author inheriting some earlier writer's franchise (e.g. Anne Hillerman).
* A single author writing a novel in stories, (e.g Art Taylor's On The Road With Del and Louise)
* A serial novel, in which each chapter is written by a different author (e.g Naked Came The Stranger, and several other books with titles starting with those first three words. Or The Floating Admiral, created by the Detection Club in 1931. By the way, Mark Twain hilariously described the writing of one of these in  Chapter 51 of Roughing It.) 

No, I m referring to an author deliberately setting up a playground and inviting other authors to play in it by creating tales of their own.

Shared universes are pretty common in science fiction and in fantasy.  Charles L. Grant even created one in horror.  (Greystone Bay is a lovely New England village, but I wouldn't recommend it to tourists.)

I read a mystery of this type back in the early eighties and if someone can remind me of the title and main author I would be grateful.   In the first story a private eye is hired to find six paintings that have been sold to different cities.  He subcontracts the job to different private eyes, and each story tells of a different hero's adventures in pursuit of the artwork.

And as I said at the beginning, that was the only example of the type I had read until this year, when Culprits appeared.  It was edited and conceived by Richard Brewer and Gary Phillips.  It's a caper novel and would appeal to fans of Richard Stark's Parker novels.

The first story, written by the two editors, describes the planning and the heist.  There is a double-cross (surprise!) and the old gang breaks up.  Then the remaining authors (Zoe Sharp, Gar Anthony Haywood, and David Corbett, to name a few) follow various members of the pack on their post-caper adventures.  Some tales are tightly connected to what you might call the main story line (hunting for the traitor) and some float free.

A week after Culprits was released Night of the Flood arrived.  The editors are E.A. Aymar and Sarah M. Chen.  This book takes place in the small fictional town of Everton, Pennsylvania.  A woman named Maggie Wilbourne is executed for murdering the men who raped her.  A group of women calling themselves the Daughters promised that if that happened they would blow up the dam, destroying the town.  The stories take place on the night they carry out their threat.

As in Culprits, some of the stories adhere to the main plot (the Daughters) and others have no connection except that they take place during the flood.  My favorite story in the book is an example of the latter.  In "The Curse," by Mark Edwards, a couple think they have been chased all the way from Britain by a demon who has attacked them with several plagues including, yup, a flood. 

Both books are enjoyable, and bravo to everyone involved for trying something different.

Have you read any similar books?  Whatcha think?

06 June 2018

Holding tight or Letting Go


by Robert Lopresti 

Warning: I am going to quote/paraphrase a lot of authors from my own memory.  You are hereby warned that such lines may not be reliable.

Let's pretend that you are an author.  For some of you that will be easier than others.

Congratulations!  A big Hollywood studio just called you.  They are interested in one of your books.  They are excited, even.

And now you're excited too.  Large checks with many zeroes are magically floating over your head.  You tell them you are eagerly awaiting their contract. 

Wonderful, they say.  And then they happily tell you about their plans for your masterpiece.

Remember your main character, the brilliant Native American nuclear physicist?  Well, in the movie she will be a Swedish man who makes balloon animals for a living.  And the cancer cure everyone is hunting for?  In the flick it will be a box of honey-glazed donuts.  It's a creative thing.

Are you still eagerly waiting for that contract?  Will you sign it when it arrives?

Different authors take different views on this, naturally.

Sue Grafton (herself a reformed screenwriter) refused to let Hollywood take a shot on her Kinsey Milhone books and claimed that, for that reason, she was highly respected in that town.

J.K. Rowling allowed movies of her books but, as I understand it, kept a pretty tight leash on Warner Brothers.  The studio wanted to combine her first two books into one movie. and she refused.  Considering how much money they made off those flicks they should send a million dollars a year to her favorite charity.

At the other extreme you have James M. Cain.  Supposedly someone tried to sympathize with him about what Hollywood did to one of his novels.  He replied: "They haven't done anything to my book.  It's right there on the shelf."

On a similar note Elmore Leonard once complained about the film version of one of his novels and his friend Donald Westlake asked: "Dutch, did the check clear?"

The problem with Westlake's philosophy, alas, is visible on his IMDb page.  A lot of the movies  based on his books are terrible.*

One more author example.  When William Gillette was preparing to write a play about Sherlock Holmes he asked Arthur Conan Doyle what he was allowed to do with the character.  The author repled: "You may marry him, murder him, or do anything you like to him."

And the mention of murder brings up our next topic.  How would you feel about someone writing new adventures for your character after you have passed on to your reward? 

When asked that question by his biographer, Rex Stout famously said, "Let them roll their own," meaning other writers should come up with their own characters. 

Lawrence Block said: "I’d prefer not having anybody mucking about with my characters after I’m gone, but when I’m gone it’ll no longer be any of my business. And, in the unlikely event that there’s an afterlife, I can’t imagine it’ll involve my caring much one way or the other."

On the other hand, we have the science fiction great Connie Willis, who said: "Other people have 'Do Not Resuscitate' orders.  I have 'No One Edits My Manuscript.'"

And that brings us to Charles M. Schulz who, arguably, is the teller of the longest single tale in known history.  He never let anyone so much as ink or letter the Peanuts strip, which was intensely personal to him.

When he was a wealthy old man his children gave him one gift money could not buy: the promise that once he chose to put down the pen no one else would ever write or draw the Peanuts comic strip.  And they stuck by their word.  The cartoons that have been running since his death are repeats, all straight from the master's hand.

And that's enough to make Snoopy do his happy dance.

*Yes, two movies Westlake wrote, The Grifters and The Stepfather, were very good.  But they weren't based on his books.

30 May 2018

Wake-Up Call

by Robert Lopresti

I bicycle to work most mornings, on one of the busiest streets in my small city. At one point there is a highway overpass and sometimes apparently homeless people stand there with signs, begging for money from the people leaving the Interstate.  Usually this is not a problem, except that sometimes they leave piles of trash.

This morning,  I saw what appeared to be such a gentleman.  He was bald, in his thirties, and wearing a leather jacket.  He carried a black plastic trash bag which appeared to be stuffed with something the size of an exercise ball.

He was in the vicinity of a couple I had seen before, a woman walking her daughter to the elementary school.  The bald man was trying to talk to the mother and she was trying very hard to ignore him as they approached a traffic light.

I watched this and thought: Oh, crap.  Because if it got worse I was going to have to get involved.  I haven't been in a physical altercation in about fifty years, and my win-loss record back then was not great.

Now the mother and daughter were waiting for the red light to turn.  I was on the other side of the intersection, also waiting.

The  bald man turned and walked away.  Good.

And then he was back, talking over the woman's shoulder.  The light changed.  I thought: If he follows them I will have to interfere, right in the middle of the street.

But he turned and walked off.  Was he influenced by my presence?  I doubt it.  I don't know if he even saw me.

Riding the rest of the way to work I wondered what I would have done if action had proven necessary.  My thought at the time was to go straight into a verbal confrontation but I now think the better choice would have been a system I have heard about several times in recent years: Ignore the aggressor and come up to the victim with a big smile, acting like you know them.  "Hey there!  Can I walk with you to school?"

If it happens (again) I'll try that.

But let's consider a couple of other options.  I had a cell phone with me.  When I saw what was shaping up I should have pulled the phone out, started the phone app (whoever uses that?) and dialed 9-1-1.  Then if I felt I had to step into the scene I could have hit SEND.

You don't have to speak, by the way.  If you dial 9-1-1 and say nothing the cops will trace your phone and come to see what's going on.  At least they do here.  (Don't ask me how I know; that's another story.)

I checked.  It takes me fifteen seconds from reaching for the phone to being ready to hit SEND.  Next time, and may there never be one, I'll go do that first.

Now let's talk about guns.  I don't own one.  Never have.  But it occurred to me to wonder, what would have happened if I had had one with me this morning?

I certainly would have thought about getting it out.  Or at least getting it ready.  Knowing human nature (at least my human nature) as well as I do, I think I would have seen this as an opportunity to get my money's worth out of the gun, not by shooting it, but by attempting to scare the man off.

If I did that I figure one of four things would have happened.

1.  I would have shot the guy, which would have been bad.

2.  I would have dropped the gun, which would have been, at best, embarrassing.

3.  He would have taken the gun away from me (see comments above on my record with physical confrontations,) which would have been at best embarrassing and at worst tragic.

4.  He could have decided to walk away, which would have been good.

And that means the best result that could have occurred from showing a gun was the same as what happened without one.  Your mileage may vary.

So, that was my morning.  How was yours?






16 May 2018

Five Red Herrings, Tenth School


by Robert Lopresti

1.  Derringer Days.  Yesterday the Short Mystery Fiction Society announced the winners of the Derringer Awards and I couldn't help but notice that I was one of them, specifically for Best Short.  "The Cop Who Liked Gilbert and Sullivan" appeared in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine #23.  You can read what I had to say about it here and here.  Congratulations to my fellow winners, Brendan Dubois, David H. Hendricksen, and Earl Staggs.  But let's have a big round of applause for the winner of this year's Edward D. Hoch Memorial Gold Derringer for Lifetime Achievement.  That went to our own John M. Floyd!  Well deserved, too.

2. Free pictures!  It's always nice to find a new source for public domain illustrations.  (We bloggers love them, anyway.)  The Library of Congress very kindly sorted out the pictures on their website that are free for the taking.  (See the one below.)  Enjoy.


3. Underpaid through the ages. The University of Missouri Libraries has done a great service for anyone writing historical fiction.  Prices and Wages by Decades links you to actual government publications from the 1700s forward reporting on how much things cost and how much people were paid.  

4. Man With The Axe.  Last time I did one of these gather-alls I mentioned Lowering the Bar, which talks about the odd side of the legal biz.   I have to point out the story above which informs us that in a single incident a man in New York was charged with:
driving while ability impaired by drugs, driving while ability impaired by the combined influence of drugs, no license plates, unregistered motor vehicle, uninspected motor vehicle, operating without insurance, no front windshield, and no safety glass.

But on the bright side for him,  it turned out there is no law in the Empire State against driving around with an axe embedded in the roof of your car.


5. Shanks does Japan. According to an automatic translation app, the title of the book at the right is Sunday Afternoon Tea With Mystery Writer.  Could be, but in English it's Shanks on Crime. First time I have ever appeared in Japanese.  I wish Shanks a long and happy visit there.



02 May 2018

A Close Shave

by Robert Lopresti

I'm going to ramble a bit today on the subject of logic. (We will see how often I can tie it to the subject of crime fiction.) I am doing this because I just heard, for the millionth time, someone define Occam's razor incorrectly. Specifically, the person claimed that Occam's razor says that the simplest explanation is probably correct.

It doesn't say that.

Occam's razor is, of course, a principle for scientific research, and it is usually attributed to a thirteenth century monk named William of Ockham (Ockham is an English village. Occam comes from the Latin translation). Actually, we owe the most famous famous version of the rule ("entitles must not be multiplied beyond necessity") to John Punch, several centuries later. The principle, in one form or another, goes back at least to Aristotle. I recently realized that it also hides within one of my favorite quotes of Albert Einstein: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." (And speaking of things, not being simple, Einstein apparently never said that.)

One of Ockham's more distinguished, if fictional, students.
In his famous quote above John Punch (what a great name!) warned us to watch out for unnecessary entities, as in someone or something that played an active part in causing an action. Punch means that if you walk outside and something knocks your hat off, you don't start out by assuming there is  a malevolent invisible demon in the vicinity. It might have just been a breeze.

But my point is that Punch/Occam is not saying that the simpler explanation is the most likely one. It is simply the one you should examine first. Not because it is the most likely to be correct, but because examining it is the fastest way to reach the truth.

Let's take an example from our own field. The police are called to a building. They find that the store on the ground floor has been robbed, and that a man has been murdered on the third floor. Should the robbery squad be called to one crime scene and the homicide team to the other? Or are we looking at a single event?

Brother William made no specific recommendations about police personnel matters, but his principle advises treating this as the "simpler" situation, i.e. one event. If the cops do that, and if they do their job properly, they are more likely to find something wrong with their solution, than if they start at the other end. 

Perhaps the two crimes happened at the same time, or maybe the robber was right-handed and the killer was a southpaw. But if instead they begin by assuming there were two separate criminals - and there was only one - it is going to be harder for them to realize that one of their proposed culprits is imaginary (an unnecessary entity).

You may remember the TV series House, MD, which was a medical detective show, about a diagnostician (whose name was a tribute to Sherlock Holmes, by the way). In an episode called (surprise!) "Occam's Razor," the physicians are unable to explain all of a patient's symptoms with one disease, so House suggests that there are two illnesses present. His team is not buying it.

Foreman: Occam's Razor. The simplest explanation is always the best.

House: And you think one is simpler than two.

Cameron: Pretty sure it is, yeah.

House: Baby shows up. Chase tells you that two people exchanged fluids to create this being. I tell you that one stork dropped the little tyke off in a diaper. You going to go with the two or the one?

Foreman: I think your argument is specious.

House: I think your tie is ugly.

Leaving aside House's maturity issues, he is making a point about Dr. Foreman's misunderstanding of the 'ol razor. And that brings us, naturally, to Asimov's elephant.

Isaac Asimov was, of course, a great science fiction writer. He also wrote devilishly clever mystery stories, and was a brilliant explainer of science. One of his contributions was the concept of unexplaining. He said that pseudoscience typically unexplained more than it explained. Consider his little parable:

Imagine you are strolling through a park and see a tall tree split right down the middle. Cut asunder. You begin to seek an explanation.

So you could say: there was this elephant, flying through the sky, whistling a happy tune. It decides to have a little rest and lands SHEBANG! onto the poor tree, which breaks in two. The elephant falls to the ground, swears 'Oy vay!' and flies off again.

Now that is one explanation of why the tree is broken. Trouble is it unexplains everything you previously thought you knew about elephants. So, instead, using Ockham's Razor, you say simply, the tree was hit by lightning!*

I love that 'Oy vay!' Clearly a Jewish elephant.  Of course, Asimov has pointed out the problem with Dr. House's obstetrical stork.

So one issue about the razor is that people will disagree as to which explanation is simpler, and what 
is left unexplained. Therefore I am going to end with my favorite quotation from the philosopher 
Ludwig Wittgenstein. (And by the way, Ludwig was a huge fan of crime fiction; not the logic puzzles of the golden age, but the messy thinking of hardboiled tales.)

Supposedly he asked a friend: "Why do people always say it was natural for man to assume that the Sun went round the earth rather than that the earth was rotating?"

"Well, obviously because it just looks as though the Sun is going around the Earth."

"Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as though the Earth was rotating?"

*I found this parable in Asimov's Elephant, edited by Robyn Williams. It is a collection of essays from an Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio program called, yup, Ockham's Razor.

18 April 2018

Five Red Herrings 9

by Robert Lopresti

1. Little gun, big noise.  This weekend saw the announcement of the finalists for the Derringer Awards, presented by the Short Mystery Fiction Society.

Once again, it was a good year for the Notorious SleuthSayers Gang.  In the Flash category Travis Richardson was shortlisted for "Final Testimony," which appeared in Flash Fiction Offensive (ed. Hector Duarte, Jr. and Rob Pierce, July 10, 2017) and Elizabeth Zelvin scored for "Flash Point,"  in A Twist of Noir (ed. Christopher Grant, March 20, 2017).

Paul D. Marks is a finalist for the Novelette zone with "Windward, from Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea  (ed. Andrew McAleer and Paul D. Marks, Down & Out Books, January 2017)

And I made it into the  Short Story category with  "The Cop Who Liked Gilbert and Sullivan"  Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine #23, (ed. Marvin Kaye, Wildside Press, October 2017)

Congrats to all my fellow finalists, SleuthSayers or not!  


2. A Nonfutile, Nonstupid Gesture.  I recently watched the Netflix original movie, A Futile and Stupid Gesture.  Some of you may recognize that title as a line from Animal House.  The movie tells the story of Doug Kenney who (with others) created National Lampoon, Animal House, Caddyshack, and a hilarious little book-length parody called Bored of the Rings.  The flick is narrated by Martin Mull playing an older version of the main character.  ("I'm a narrative device," he explains.)

The reason I bring this flick up is that at one point Mull points out something in the movie that is not true to life and then announces that they are going to provide a list of other inaccuracies.  It rolls up the screen quickly in tiny print but you can go back at the end and read them all.  They range from "Characters A and B met in a party, not in a bar," to: "Everyone was much more racist and sexist."

I loved this.  Whenever I see a movie based on true events I wind up going to the web to see what was real and what wasn't.  (I knew that tube scene in The Darkest Hour  was fake.)  Bravo to the folks who made Gesture, which, by the way, is definitely worth seeing.

3. You call that Justice?  Lowering the Bar is a wonderful blog about the quirks of our legal system.  The most popular piece last year was the true story of a lawyer whose pants literally caught fire while he was summing up the defense of his client, who was accused of arson.  This is the sort of thing that drives fiction writers to despair, because you couldn't put it in fiction.

But I want to tell you about this piece  which has everything for the SleuthSayers audience: a mystery, law, grammar issues, snark, and Sherlock Holmes.  The main topic is this portrait which resides in the Massachusetts Supreme Judiciary Court, but no one knows who it is.  That's the mystery.  The rest comes from the newspaper quoting the Chief Justice urging the public to "put on their Sherlock Holmes’ hats " and try to figure out who is pictured.  Kevin Underhill, who runs the blog, is outraged:

So. “Sherlock Holmes” is not a plural noun—unless you’re talking about several men named “Sherlock Holme.” If such men exist, and they have hats, and you collected the hats of more than one such man, then, my friend, you would have in your possession “the Sherlock Holmes’ hats” (that is, the hats of the men named “Sherlock Holme”). “By Socrates’ beard,” you could say then, “I have here all the Sherlock Holmes’ hats!”

4. Comic Sans and Brimstone.  This is a public service announcement. I just want to warn you do not go to the website Clients From Hell.    It is a hilarious time suck.  Anonymous people (mostly graphic designers)  report on horrifying encounters with horrifying customers. Here are some of the main categories (as judged by me).
The vague: "Make it more modern and traditional."
The clueless: "I can't find the ENTER button on my screen."
The Arrogant: "My friends  at NASA says this is a terrible website design."
The Holy: "We won't pay you but you will be working for God."
The Unholy: "Take out the pictures of Black people.  Our customers are White."
The Crooked: "Just copy it off our competitor's website."
The Greedy: "You're a freelancer.  I thought that meant you worked for free."

Stay away from this page, I beg you.  It will consume many hours of your life.

 5. Stop the Presses!  Do you remember how in newspaper movies they would announce that they had to stop everything and tear out the front page because of breaking news?

I had to throw out the last item I had set up today because it was just announced that my book WHEN WOMEN DIDN'T COUNT has won the Lane/Saunders Memorial Research Award.  That's the big prize for scholarship in government information.  The Government Documents Round Table said a bunch of nice things about the book here.  I would be happy to say some nice things right back.






04 April 2018

Who Do You Trust?


by Robert Lopresti

If you haven't charged through the March/April issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine yet, I encourage you to get off the proverbial dime and do so.  You will find many good stories including appearances by three SleuthSayers: Michael Bracken, R.T. Lawton, and your humble (oh, shut up) reporter.

It was R.T.'s story that inspired my sermon today.  (And if you missed it, you can read his own thoughts about the tale here.)

What I want to talk about is something much beloved of literary critics: the unreliable narrator.  The concept has appeared in literature for thousands of years but the phrase comes from William C. Booth in 1961.  It refers to a piece of literature with a first-person narration which the reader, for whatever reason, would be unwise to trust.

To my mind there are four varieties, all of whom can be found in mystery fiction.

The Lunatic.  This one goes all the way back to Edgar Allan Poe.  (Hint: When a character begins by insisting that he is not crazy you would be wise to doubt him.)

The Liar. Agatha Christie did the most famous version of this, infuriating many readers.  Decades later something happened that I imagine went like this:
Critics: Of course, having the narrator secretly being the murderer is a one-off stunt, and no author could use it again.
Dame Agatha: Is that so?  Hold my tea.
And to everyone's consternation, she did it again.

I mentioned this a long time ago, but: One of my favorite examples of this category was The Black Donnellys, a short-lived TV series about Irish-American criminals in New York (2007).  The framing device is Joey Ice Cream, either a hanger-on or the Donnelly brothers' best friend, depending on who is telling the story.  Joey is in prison and he is being interrogated by the cops about the Donnelly's career.  And he is a compulsive liar, happy to change his story when they catch him fibbing.  YOu can see the brilliant pilot episode here. 

The Self-Deluded.  Not crazy and not deliberately lying.  This character is just so wrapped up in himself and so devoted to defending his actions that his views can't be trusted.  Think of Jonathan Gash's Lovejoy with his endless stream of explanations for his failures and dubious decisions.  I remember one book in which  he casually mentions breaking a man's arm "practically by accident."  My private eye character Marty Crow is quite trustworthy - unless he is talking about his gambling problem.  Problem?  What problem?

The Innocent.  This narrator describes accurately what he saw, but fails to understand it.  A famous example is Ring Lardner's classic story "Haircut."  The barber describes a crime, and doesn't even realize it.

And that brings us back to R.T. Lawton's story.  "The Left Hand of Leonard" is part of his series about the criminal underground during the reign of Louis the Fourteenth.  His narrator is a young pickpocket, not very skilled and not very clever, who is sent by the king of the criminals to help steal the bones of a saint.  Things go wrong and then seem to go right and the boy can't figure out what happened.  Ah, but the reader will, just as R.T. intended.

Do you have any favorite tales with unreliable narrators? And if you say you do, should we believe you?

21 March 2018

Get Off the Premises

Fairy Glen, Isle of Skye, Scotland
by Robert Lopresti

There is a comedy adage  attributed to Johnny Carson: If you buy the premise, you buy the bit.

I translate that as follows: If the audience accepts the underlying concept of the joke, they will laugh at the punchline.

In fiction we call that the willing suspension of disbelief, which comes from the well-known stand-up comedian Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

This is on my mind because I recently watched (or tried to) a TV movie called Bright, on Netflix.  I gave up halfway through because I couldn't buy the premise.  It takes place in a world in which elves, fairies, and orcs live side by side with humans.  Will Smith plays an L.A. cop partnered with the first orc police officer.

And none of that is the part I have a problem with.  In fact, I was excited about it because it reminded me of a TV series I  loved, Alien Nation, which also featured an L.A. cop, this time in a world adjusting to the arrival of half a million extraterrestrials.

But therein lies the problem I had with the premise of Bright.  It suggested that humans and faerie folk have knowingly  lived side by side for thousands of years, and yet we ended up with a society essentially the same as our own.  And that's what made my disbelief go splat on the floor.

See, Alien Nation took place just a couple of years after the Newcomers landed.  It made sense that our society would be changing as we got  used to them.

Now, compare this to a TV series from New Zealand I have recently been watching.  The Almighty Johnsons is a dramedy with another far-out concept.  Axl is the youngest of four brothers living in the modern N.Z. city of Norsewood.  On his 21st birthday his siblings inform him of the family secret: they are all Norse gods and are about to find out which one Axl is.

Far-fetched?  Of course.  But so far (I'm nine  episodes in) the premise works.  These incarnated gods are weak shadows of their former selves so the society they live in looks just like the reality we know.  Of course, there is a quest and if Axl completes it successfully they will gain their full powers.  If he fails they will all die.  "So, no pressure," he says dryly.

Have you ever given up on a book or a show because the premise went to far?  Tell me about it in the comments.  And watch out for Thor's hammer, because that dude is crazy.