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

20 January 2021

2020 Was A Big Improvement


I had better explain that title before you send for the nice folks with the strait jackets.  2020 was better than 2019 only in the sense that more stories made my Year's Best list.  Last year, my eleventh, 12 stories made the list.  This year it's 16, a 33% increase.  Am I just feeling generous as the world dips into chaos?  Who knows?

For the second year in a row the big winner was Akashic Press, with three stories.  They send me their anthologies for free, by the way.  Following with two were Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, LB Productions, Mystery Writers of American, and Superior Shores Press.

That last one requires a bit of explanation.  Publisher Judy Penz Sheluk asked if I would read an advance copy of Heartbreaks and Half-Truths and give it a blurb if I thought it worthy.  I did so and was happy to write said blurb but, since I read the stories long before the book came out, I didn't feel I could list one as my Story of the Week.  Therefore this is the first time since I started reviewing at Little Big Crimes that tales make the year's best list without appearing there first.


Ten stories are by men; six by women.  Five are humorous; four are historical; and two have fantasy elements.  

Ready?  Let's go.

Barlow, Tom, "Honor Guard,"  in Columbus Noir, edited by Andrew Welsh-Huggins, Akashic Press, 2020.

The narrator is the only child of Tommy, a former navy man turned plumber. The old man's dementia is turning him violent, profane, and racist  On Veterans Day there is a violent confrontation with tragic consequences.  Some stunning surprises follow.

Cody, Liza, "My People,"  in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November/December 2020.

This is Cody's second appearance on my list.

Shareen Manasseh is  a Jewish woman whose family came to Britain from India.  She joined the police force and, without much training, was assigned to infiltrate the climate change activists - she calls them rebels.  Her work her rethinking her allegiance.  Did she become a cop to get "black-and-white certainty" or because it was better "to be with the bullies than against them?"

Dixon, Buzz.  "Tongor of the Elephants." Heartbreaks and Half-Truths, edited by Judy Penz Sheluk, Superior Shores Press, 2020.

Here, lemme show you something you've never seen before.  The nameless narrator has film of an actor called "J. Cecil Revell, the Million Dollar Profile," being smashed to death by a grumpy elephant while filming a very bad serial.  It's a charming tale of villainy, revenge, and, of course, elephants.


Foster, Luke, "Seat 9B,"  in Mystery Weekly Magazine, June 2020.

The narrator  is an investigative journalist, covering true crime for TV news shows.  On a flight from Los Angeles he suddenly realizes that the man he is sitting next to is the unknown serial killer the country's cops have been looking for.  And since he has "the world's worst poker face," the killer immediately knows he knows...

"Goon #4," by Tod Goldberg, in The Darkling Halls of Ivy, edited by Lawrence Block, LB Productions, 2020.

Goon #4 (his mama named him Blake) is an ex-military thug, now specializing in high-risk assignments.  Having made enough money to retire he decides to go to college and winds up, more or less by accident, in a class on radio performing.  He has some abilities there, it turns out, but more important is the attitude he brings from his previous profession.


Grafton, Sue, "If You Want Something Done Right...," in Deadly Anniversaries, edited by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini, Hanover Square Press, 2020.

Lucy Burgess has reason to think her hubby is planning to get rid of her.  So she plans a preemptive strike, so to speak.  A lucky mistake puts her in touch with a hit man, and this fellow's way with words is a good deal of the charm of the story.

"Keeping my remarks entirely famatory, every matrimonial association is defeasible, am I right?  ...So what I hear you saying is that you and him are engaged in a parcenary relationship of which you'd like to see his participation shifted to the terminus."


Guthrie, C.C., "Cahoots,"  in Cozy Villages of Death, edited by Lyn Worthen, Camden Park Press, 2020.

Alan Peterson is a banker, and son of the wealthiest man in a small East Texas town.  The story opens with him running into Beulah's diner in a panic because his beautiful wife TeriLyn has disappeared.  

But things don't seem to add up.  She's only been gone a few hours.  And isn't Alan supposed to be out of town?  And why is he claiming she has been having mental problems?

Henderson, J.A. "The God Complex," Heartbreaks and Half-Truths, edited by Judy Penz Sheluk, Superior Shores Press, 2020.

Turns out you can't time travel exactly, but you can view time.  The problem is you tend to see what you expect to see.  And quantum physics is right: observation  changes the thing observed.  That means the ideal observer of the past is someone with no emotions. What's the other term for someone with no emotions?  Oh yeah: sociopath...


"Borrowed Brains," by Alaric Hunt, in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, May/June 2020.

Daniel McLaren, an aging West Virginian rumrunner, is happy working as a messenger in New York City, but when he gets beaten and robbed of a half-million dollar package the cops decide that the ex-convict is obviously guilty - or at least convenient to blame.

Fortunately McLaren has a buddy in the city, a fellow native of the Mountain State named Clayton Guthrie.  And Guthrie is a private eye.  Together they start to unravel a complicated fraud scheme that is going badly wrong, with possibly deadly consequences.


McCormick, William Burton.  "Night Train to Berlin,"   Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2020. 

This is McCormick's third appearance here.  It is 1939 and Stalin and Hitler are playing footsie.  As part of their nice-making the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany are exchanging prisoners.

Moller is a German-born Communist.  He has lived in the USSR since its origin but is now  being shipped back to his homeland in exchange for some unfortunate Russian the NKVD wants to get their hands on.  He knows that the vehicle he is about to board "might as well be my funeral train."  But there are plots within plots  and an unlikely ally might  help him out.


Moore, Warren, "Alt-AC,"  in The Darkling Halls of Ivy, edited by Lawrence Block, LB Productions, 2020.

This is the second appearance here by Warren Moore.  It ranges between the amusing and startling.

Roger  possesses a newly minted PhD. in medieval English.  He is desperate for work in a crowded  market but he has a plan to avoid teaching at "the Swamp County School of Mortuary Science and Transmission Repair,"

Oltvanji, Oto, "Underneath it all Runs the River of Sadness,"  in Belgrade Noir, edited by  Milorad Ivanovic, Akashic Press, 2020.

Ranko and Kozma are neighbors and old friends.  Kozma is the troublemaker.  As a cop he did little but paperwork and now, in retirement, he is desperate to actually solve a crime for once.  His attempts to find villainy where there may be none has gotten him into hot water with the police and the neighborhood.

But now, just maybe, he could be onto something.  There's a man on the fourth floor who keeps bringing young women to his apartment.  Nothing wrong with that, except they never come out...


Read, Cornelia, "The Cask of Los Alamos," in Santa Fe Noir, edited by Ariel Gore, Akashic Press, 2020.

The thousand injuries of Richard Feynman I had borne as best I could. But when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.

It is World War II.  The Manhattan Project is toiling away in New Mexico and Thurston has taken a deep grudge against his fellow physicist.  Read draws details from Feynman's real life into the fictional  plot which is, of course, modeled on Poe's.  

Rozan, S.J., "Chin Yong-Yun Sets The Date,"  in Deadly Anniversaries, edited by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini, Hanover Square Press, 2020.

This is the third appearance here by my friend S.J. Rozan and the second by the formidable Chin Yong-Yun, mother of  Rozan's private eye Lydia Chin, and quite a character herself.  She notices that Chu Cai, the son of a friend, seems unhappy, even though he has just gotten engaged.  She cleverly arranges for him to come to her apartment to tell his problem to Lydia -- who, alas, is not there.  Perhaps, Mrs. Chin says, she can do the groundwork, although she is not quite sure what ground has to do with the detection business...


Simon, Clea, "No Body,"  in Shattering Glass, edited by Heather Graham, Nasty Women Press, 2020. 

Before she even spoke she knew her body was gone. It had been a struggle, losing it. 

At first I thought the protagonist was a ghost, but no, she is a person in trauma experiencing, as some people do in such a situation, the sensation of being outside her own body. In fact, she was drugged and is being raped.  This story is so much about style that I was not expecting the very clever ending.                                                          

Wishnia, Kenneth.  "Bride of Torches,"  in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery magazine, March/April 2020.

My friend Ken Wishnia has  retold a story from the Book of Judges.  He does a lovely job of showing the Hebrews at war with an enemy who has superior technology. Ya'el  commits the crime (?) which is the centerpiece of our story.  The main thing Wishnia adds to the Bible tale is giving her a motive.  In fact, he offers two, one of which feels very modern without being anachronistic.

06 January 2021

When History Went Up In Smoke


 

 
Anniversaries are interesting things.  Sometimes you see them coming, but sometimes they sneak up on you.  I have known for decades about a historical event that affected tens of thousands of people, but I just learned last month that its centennial is this coming Sunday.

It was the evening of January 10, 1921, in Washington D.C.  An employee of the Commerce Building saw smoke in an elevator shaft.  No one ever figured out how the fire started - although it led to the first rules against smoking in federal buildings.  the firefighters poured water into the basement for hours, even after the flames were out.

What was in the basement?  Only the records of the federal Census.

There are two kinds of data associated with the decennial Census of Population.  The statistics are published as soon as they can be crunched; they are widely available.  But the individual data - those forms you fill out - are stored safely away, kept strictly confidential, until seventy-two years have passed.  Then they are available for scholars, historians, and genealogy buffs.

It was those forms that were locked in a fireproof vault in the Commerce Building.  Alas, the forms from the 1890 Census did not fit in the vault and were sitting on wooden shelves outside.  They burned up in the fire.

And that is why, as any genealogist knows, the data from the 1890 Census is a big gaping hole in American family history.

Except, the full story  is a lot more complicated than that.


First of all, there were actually two fires.  Way back in 1896 some of the records from the most recent Census were being stored in Marini's Hall and the rear of that building caught fire on March 22.   What was damaged then were the so-called special schedules with data on mortality, crime, philanthropy and poverty, and transportation.   

So the general schedules survived until they were destroyed in the fire of 1921, right?  No, it's still more complicated than that.  Only 25% of the records burned in 1921.  However, the rest were too water-damaged for current technology to salvage.  Sometime in the early 1930s the government gave up and destroyed the unreadable pages.

One more layer of complication: That fireproof vault, as it happened, was not water-proof, and some of the records from other censuses that had been stored on the lowest shelves essentially drowned. 

If there is a positive result from the disaster it is this: it forced the government to change the way it dealt with our precious records.  The day after Congress authorized the destruction of those damaged files, the cornerstone for the National Archives building was laid. 

But if you  wanted to trace your family history and wondered why you run into a huge hole in 1890, it all goes back to a fire that took place one hundred years ago this Sunday.

30 December 2020

Which Came First? The Title or the Egg?


 I belong to the Short Mystery Fiction Society. In fact, I am the current president.  I imagine you can figure out what we discuss there. (And, hey, if you want to join, go to this page and look for Subscribe.  It's free.  But do it by tomorrow or you have to wait until the spring when the Derringer Awards have been decided.)

Recently I sent the following note to the Society's list:

I am about to do something that truly irritates me: starting to write a story with no idea what the title will be. 

How about it?  Do you need a title before you start writing?

And that started quite a discussion.  I am going to reduce a lot of interesting comments to four generalized categories:

Inspiration.  Writers who said their stories were often inspired by titles.

Start. Writers who usually know the titles before they begin.

Later. Writers who don't know the titles until the story is mostly or completely finished.

Varied.  Writers who are all over the map.

And speaking of maps, this chart shows the results.

A number of people agreed with me that it is annoying to start without knowing the title, if for no other reason than: what do you call the file?  When I started the story I was complaining about I called the file "Tunnel," which I absolutely hated.  The next day I changed it to "Underpass," which I like so much it may wind up being the actual title.  A subtle difference, perhaps, but huge to me.

I can think of only two times when the title inspired the plot:

"My Life as a Ghost." This was the first story I sold to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  They changed it to "The Dear Departed."  They have never changed another title on me, even when I invited them to do so.

Too Dead For Dreaming. I was listening to "Mr. Tambourine Man" one day and that line leapt out as a perfect title for a crime novel. So I wrote a book set in Greenwich Village during the Great Folk Scare of the early sixties.  Alas, Bob Dylan's publishing company wouldn't permit me to use the line as a title so it became Such A Killing Crime, a line from a traditional song, long out of copyright.  

My story about the Plainfield, New Jersey riots was originally called "Bullets in the Firehouse Door," but before I finished it I changed to "Shooting at the Firemen," which covers the same ground but is shorter and more active.  First readers suggested I drop the "the" so it appeared in Hitchcock as "Shooting at Firemen."  

Do you need a title before you start?  Do they stay the same or change their identity mysteriously?

25 December 2020

A Guest of Christmas Past


On the 13th of December 2009, the predecessor of SleuthSayers, Criminal Brief, launched a Christmas puzzle unique to the web. With all seven CB members contributing, it ran for a week… and a bonus eighth day, with clues appearing every in every article. The solution to the puzzle would reveal a holiday message.

Clue or red herring?

At first, we feared the puzzle would be too easy, that flocks of readers would solve it. Then after the 8th day when solutions didn’t flood in, we became concerned it was too difficult. What we initially concealed was that any one day could have revealed the answer, although we dropped numerous hints along the way.

In an unusual turn, one of our readers kept a diary of her efforts. She was dealing with annoying issues at the time, and picked up puzzle solving as a respite. She shared the notes after the solution was announced, and quite an epic struggle it was. A few times she thought she was on the right track, but wasn’t satisfied and the days ticked away.

And then… and then…

If you’d like to take a shot at it, visit the clues in the series of articles on Criminal Brief. Congratulations if you happen to solve it, but be sure to read the amazing journal of the solver herself, CJ Dowse.

In the meantime, I hope you had a happy Chanukah and are enjoying a safe and happy Christmas. But wait. Below find a charming tiny tale that appeared on the 8th day.

16 December 2020

Today in Mystery History: December 16



This is the seventh in my occasional series on the history of our illustrious field.  I chose this date for an entry because of a couple of weird coincidences.  Read on and be illuminated.

December 16, 1927.  Peter Dickinson was born on this date in Livingstone, Zambia. He won prizes for children's books and mysteries such as Skin Deep (1968) and A Pride of Heroes (1969). Two of his crime novels, beginning with King and Joker (1976), were set in an alternative timeline in which Prince Albert Victor (sometimes suspected of being Jack the Ripper) lived long enough to become king.

December 16, 1930. William Brittain was born on this date in Rochester, New York.   He wrote two successful series of short stories: one about science teacher Mr. Strang, and a very odd set connected by only one element: each tale features a character whose actions are directed by their fondness for one famous mystery author.  The first was "The Man Who Read John Dickson Carr."  (1965)

December 16, 1933.  Louis Joseph Vance died on this date in New York City, having fallen asleep while smoking.  His rogue-turned-crimefighter, The Lone Wolf, appeared in eight books and 24 movies, plus radio and TV shows.


December 16, 1951.
  We just want the facts, ma'am... Today the classic cop show Dragnet premiered on NBC TV.  It had started on radio in 1949 and kept going until 1957.  The TV show lasted until 1959 and, like the proverbial bad penny, returned in 1967.  All versions starred the creator, Jack Webb.

December 16, 1965.  The movie The Spy Who Came in From the Cold premiered on this date.  Based on John Le Carre's great espionage novel, it collected two Oscar nominations, including Best Actor for Richard Burton.    Who can forget that last scene?  By the way if you want to win a trivia point: Who was the first actor to play Le Carre's master spy, George Smiley?  Rupert Davies, in a small role in this flick.


December 16, 1965.
  As the spy was coming in from the cold, William Somerset Maugham was exiting this world of trouble.  He wrote tons of famous novels and plays but the important one for us is Ashenden, a collection of short stories based on his own experiences as a British intelligence officer.  Two of those stories were reworked into Alfred Hitchcock's movie Secret Agent.

December 16, 200?.  This date begins the plot of The Girl Who Played With Fire, Stieg Larsson's second runaway hit novel about Lisbeth Salander.  

December 16, 2011.  Remember William Brittain, who I mentioned near the top of this page?  He died on his birthday.

 December 16, 2015.  And so did Peter Dickinson. Spooky, huh?

 

02 December 2020

Stepping Down With Jane



 I wrote a few months ago about enjoying Libby, the service provided by some libraries that allows you to listen to books.  Recently I couldn't find any books on Libby I wanted to listen to so I searched their Humor category and was surprised to find Pride and Prejudice listed.

I must admit I have reached the age of mumbly-mumble without reading a Jane Austen book or watching a movie based on one.  But I figured I would give it a shot.

And, what do you know?  I enjoyed it a lot.  Although it was published in 1813 I found it much easier to read than, say, James Fenimore Cooper or Herman Melville who came a bit later.  

Since I came to it from the Humor category I was naturally interested in how well this comedy of  manners worked for me.  I found Mrs. Bennet  and Cousin Collins were not nearly as amusing as I think Austen expected me to find them, but I delighted in the company, and very odd mind,  of Mr. Bennet.  Favorite example: When his wife complained about the entailment which meant she would be forced from her home when he died, Bennet offered the comforting thought that she might die first.  Somehow this failed to console her.

Another point of interest was that everyone seemed to know the exact income of every eligible man.  "He has 2,000 a year," or whatever.  Was there a list posted on a bulletin board someplace?  In our society talking about such things is considered terrible manners.

I was also fascinated by Austin's use of certain words.  Amiable and agreeable appear constantly, and seem to be about the best thing you could say about someone.


But the most fascinating word of all is condescending.  The odious and unctuous Mr. Collins describes his patron Lady de Bourgh as "all affability and condescension."  He means it as a compliment.  It indicated that she was willing to be gracious to her inferiors.

Today, of course, the mere implication that you think you have inferiors is what makes the word an insult.  (And by the way the word comes from "stepping down with," and originally meant compromise.  English is, as they say, a living language.)

The Grammarphobia  blog has an interesting piece on  Austen's use of the word.  


I have also been reading In The Hurricane's Eye, one of Nathaniel Philbrick's excellent books about the Revolutionary War.  In it he quotes George Washington, early in the fight, instructing his new colonels: "Be easy and condescending in your comportment to your officers, but not too familiar."  The same usage as Austen, I believe.

And speaking of presidents...  Not to get political but this reminded me of  something Donald Trump said at a rally in March 2019: "You know, I always hear 'the elite, the elite.' Well, I always said… 'they are the elite, I'm not.' I have a better education than them, I'm smarter than them, I went to the best schools, they didn't.  [I have a] much more beautiful house, much more beautiful apartment, much more beautiful everything. And I'm president and they're not, right? And then they say 'the elite, the elite.'"

He seems to be claiming that some group is bragging of being elite, but in this country elite is generally an insult thrown at intellectuals.  The only person who seems to be hinting that he himself a member of the elite is Trump himself.   

Which seems pretty condescending.  See what I did there?


18 November 2020

You Can't Say That


 


I seldom review books, but I'm making an exception today.  This little (and I do mean little) volume has nothing to do with crime or writing directly, but it has a lot to do with language.

Adam Smyer's new book is You Can Keep That To Yourself: A Comprehensive List of What Not to Say to Black People, for Well-Intentioned People of Pallor.  I'd describe it as a novelty book, meaning it's small enough to fit in your pocket and probably only takes an hour to read.  But you are likely to think about it for much longer.

It is written from the viewpoint of Daquan, "the black coworker you are referring to when you claim to have black friends."  Daquan lists a lot of words or phrases and explains why a white person should not say them to a person of color.

Take, for example, Conservative.  "Stop describing your Cousin Brett as a 'conservative' to us.  That's normalizing bullshit, and you can keep it to yourself.  Conservative is choosing bonds over stocks, or wearing pantyhose in the summer.  That's conservative.  Your Cousin Brett is a nazi."

As you can see the book is terse, pointed, and (to this Middle Class White boomer) vulgar.  It is also extremely funny.  

For me the words fall into three categories.

* Terms I know enough not to use, like Purple.  "It amazes us how often you still break out the old saw about not caring if someone is green or purple.  You realize, you are likening me to some nonexistent purple alien to show that you recognize my humanity.  You could try to keep that to yourself."

* Terms I know better but still use occasionally.  Articulate.  Ouch.

* Terms that were news to me.  Yowza!  That comes from minstrel shows?  I had no clue.

There is another word that Smyer objects to which I have given a lot of thought to: Dark. As in "Recently the show's humor has turned dark." I understand his complaint but what other word covers the same territory?  Grim?  Serious?  Morbid?  None really handle it.

I suspect I will get complaints about political correctness for writing this.  So be it.  I don't want words to be forbidden or people who use them to be "cancelled."  But people judge us, in part, on the words we use, so it is worth thinking about them.  Someone once asked the folksinger Fred Small if he was ever politically incorrect.  He replied: "Do you mean am I ever intentionally rude?"

The irony, of course,  is that a book whose avowed purpose is to stifle discussion is likely to spark many interesting conversations.


13 November 2020

Mitchell and Webb versus Holmes and Watson


We've had some fun here with those great British sketch artists David Mitchell and Robert Webb.  Here they are shedding an unfamiliar light on two well-known detectives.


04 November 2020

Table for Eight?


 


Writers talk a lot about inspiration, that miraculous moment when you get an idea for a book, or a plot twist, or a bit of dialog.  And those moments are amazing.  The writer's mind is a strange and wonderful thing.

But what I want to talk about today is something different: the moment of insight, when a writer sees their own work differently.  I actually wrote about one of them a few months ago.  And here we are again.

Back in 2012 I won the Black Orchid Novella Award with "The Red Envelope."  It was set in Greenwich Village in October 1958 and starred an eccentric beat poet named Delgardo.  The narrator (Archie Goodwin/Watson character) is a coffee shop owner named Thomas Gray.

I had always hoped to write a sequel but it took me damn near a decade to finish it. But fictional time is a different phenomena so "Please Pass The Loot" takes place only a month later, during November 1958, and is rooted in actual events from that time.  Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine accepted it in August.

And that happy event caused me to get serious about Delgardo #3, which I had been tinkering with for years.  I had known for a while that it would take place in December 1958 (are you seeing a pattern here?) and involve a dinner party.

But after AHMM bought Delgardo #2 I suddenly figured out the murderer and the motive.  Progress!

When I started writing the key scene I realized that the arrangement of personnel was too complicated to keep in my head.  So using my vast graphics skills  I drew this diagram of the dinner table:


Perhaps not the most exciting bit of art you have seen today.  But it had an electrifying effect on me.  I suddenly had a tangible, palpable sense of the place and people I was writing about.

And that got me thinking about other times that an image made my own fiction more real to me.  When I was writing Greenfellas, I wanted to have illustrations of my major Mafia characters.  And I found photos of them, but oddly enough they were in The Sixth Family, Lee Lamothe's book about the mob in Montreal.  How did those Canadians get to look so much like my New Jersey mobsters?
 
I am working on another story which may or may not get finished.  The working title is "Underpass," and it was inspired by the trail under a major highway in the city where I live.  So I went and took some pictures of it, which are now installed in my draft for inspiration.

Do other writers use these physical cues in their writing?
The novelist Diane Chamberlain is my sister (or should I say my sister   is the novelist Diane Chamberlain?) and she gave me permission to tell you the following story.  

Diane started writing her first novel back in her thirties.   Most of the characters in Private Relations  lived in a house in Mantoloking on the New Jersey Shore.  As part of the writing process she went there, found an appropriate house, and took some photos, which she used for inspiration.

Later, at our parents house, she found this photo of herself, age sixteen, sitting on the beach in front of the same damned house.

Like I said:  The writer's mind is a strange and wonderful thing.

So, how about you?  Do you use images or objects to make your fiction more real?







21 October 2020

Crow's Life


 The special all-private-eye issue of Black  Cat Mystery Magazine is out and I am delighted that my story "The Charity Case" is in the lead-off position.  (And by the way, I just realized that this is my seventh published story this year.  I believe that breaks my previous record by two.)

The story features Marty Crow and he has been hanging around my life for thirty years.  Here is how he came to be.

I was born and raised in New Jersey. Every fall we would go down to Atlantic City for the teacher's convention Dad always attended.  Being a shore town, A.C. was not at it's best in late autumn.  

Like a lot of shore resorts it fell on hard times and in the seventies someone had the brilliant idea that the solution was legalized gambling.  None of the tacky slot-machines-in-every-diner like they do it in Nevada.  No sir.  Gambling was only allowed in casinos which also had to be hotels.  The first such house opened in 1978 and I have not liked the place as much since.  Casinos, full of bad luck, bad judgement, and bad air, depress me.


My reaction was to create Marty Crow.  He is an Atlantic City native, a private eye, and he has a gambling addiction.  That would be bad enough but what makes it worse is that he is firmly in denial, which is like having one short leg and refusing to use a cane.  A police sergeant friend called him the fourth best private eye in the city and Marty replied that he was the third best, because one of the others had gone back to parking cars.

The first three stories about Marty appeared in P.I. Magazine in 1989 and 1990.  Amazingly that journal is still going, although it gave up on fiction long ago.  Probably the best thing that came out of that for me was meeting S.J. Rozan, whose first private eye stories appeared in some of the same issues as mine.


In 1991 Marty leapt to the big time with the first of two appearances in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  Two years later "Crow's Feat" showed up in a British anthology called Constable New Crimes 2.  That got me one one-and-only Anthony Award nomination.

When Michael Bracken announced a collection of P.I. stories related to food I sent him "Crow's Avenue," in which a bottle of soda is the main clue.  It appeared in Hardbroiled, and yes, that is spelled correctly.  (Alas, reviewers and readers assumed it wasn't.)  


Even cooler, it was one of two of Marty's adventures which the Midnight Mystery Players adapted for radio.  The Players have vanished, but thanks to James Lincoln Warren, the dramatization of "Crow's Avenue" can still be heard at Criminal Brief.

Marty then took a decade off until Criminal Element proclaimed what they hoped would be a new series title Malice Occasional. The first (and, alas, only) volume was titled "Girl Trouble," and I knew "Crow's Lesson" would be a perfect fit.  It was inspired by a story in the New York Times about a school board hiring private eyes to follow certain students home to make sure they were living in the district.   What could possibly go wrong with having strange men following little children through the streets?  I figured Marty could find out.

Not all the stories involve gambling, although I always try to mention it.  Most dramatically, in "Crow's Feat" Marty blows a bodyguard assignment because he can't stay away from games of chance.



But what about his latest appearance?  In "The Charity Case" Marty is hired by a  hardware store owner, in the City for a conference, who has given eight hundred dollars to a beggar on the street and now regrets it.  Why did he do that?  Well, read it and find out.

I suspect that this will be Marty's last dance.  I am a long way in time and space from his origin and we don't seem to connect anymore.  But I wish him well, the poor fool




07 October 2020

The Inspiration Panel


Next week was supposed to be the Bouchercon in Sacramento.  Alas, it had to had to move to virtual  due to you-know-what. Some of you are no doubt mourning for all the panels you won't get to attend in person, the bars you won't get to close, etc.

I can't help you with the bars, but maybe I can cause you to miss the panels a little less. Last year I wrote a play inspired by many panels I attended at mystery, science fiction, and library conferences.    I present it here for your amusement.  (And by the way, if anyone wants to perform it... contact me.)

Jewish Noir panel, Raleigh Bouchercon*

THE INSPIRATION PANEL

The stage is set for a typical conference panel: two tables together lengthwise, covered with black tablecloths.  Water pitchers and five glasses.  Three microphones.  Five chairs behind.

EVE walks onto the stage, with a great sense of purpose. She is forty, dressed flashily, but not expensively.  She carries five name tents which she carefully places on the tables.  From left to right they read: EVE BROCKHURST, CHARLES LEMMON, DEBORAH DRAKE, BILL FONTANA, AMY KITE. 

As EVE is going around the table to her seat DEBORAH arrives. She is in her thirties, dressed in business attire.  She reads the tents, stiffens, and then switches her tent with CHARLES’.  As she comes around to her seat the others arrive, read the tents, and take their places.

After a beat EVE looks down the line, nods at the panelists and then smiles at the audience.

EVE
Welcome, everyone!  Have you been enjoying our annual writer’s conference?  Good, good!  This is the Inspiration Panel, just in case you boarded the wrong flight.  (She laughs at her own joke.)  My name is Eve Brockhurst and I am the author of six books of poetry, including The Falling of the Dew, which our local newspaper called “remarkably sincere.”  The fact is, I was surprised to be asked to moderate a panel, even one as distinguished as this.  I figured the committee would need me to speak on the Poetry Panel, or the Nature Panel.  Or even the Marketing Panel.  (Brightening by sheer will power.)  But Fraser, our dear director, told me that what he needed most was a strong personality who could keep these ferocious characters in line!
Readers Recommends panel, Toronto Bouchercon

She gestures at her panel.

DEBORAH looks irritated. 

CHARLES is slumped in his seat. He is sixty years old and wears a sports coat with no tie. 

BILL is all coiled energy. He is in his thirties, dressed in business casual. 

AMY is glowingly happy.  She is in her late twenties and dressed younger.

EVE
But that’s more than enough about me.  It’s time to introduce our wonderful panelists who will inform and, dare I say it, inspire you today.  First on my left is Charles Lemmon.  He is-

She looks left and realizes for the first time that DEBORAH is sitting next to her.  She does a quick check down the line to see that everyone else is there.

EVE 
Whoops!   My mistake. Someone did a little shuffle on me.  (She sorts her notes.)  First in line is Deborah Drake, the author of the new romance novel—

DEBORAH
Women’s fiction.

EVE
Excuse me?

DEBORAH 
Women’s fiction.  It’s about real-life problems.  Not the kind you can solve by going to bed with a man whose chest size is higher than his IQ.

EVE
O-kay.  I can see you have a lot on your mind today.  Deborah’s woman’s fiction -- Woman’s?

Short story panel, Bouchercon 2017
DEBORAH
Women’s.

EVE
Thanks. It’s about a woman suffering from Reynaud’s Syndrome and it’s called The Girl With Cold Fingers.  The first time I met Deborah was at a conference just like this three or four years ago.  She came up after a panel to tell me how much she had enjoyed my book The Dancing of the Leaves, and I complimented her on her taste.   It’s so wonderful to see a person one has mentored becoming a success.  Deborah, our subject is inspiration.  In general, what inspires you?

DEBORAH
Great question, Eve.  I find that there are sparks all around if you know how to look for them.  I’m thinking right now that my next book might be about a woman with a stalker, maybe a former lover who is too self-centered and frankly too thick to take no for an answer.

BILL is getting more and more agitated.

EVE
Well, that is certainly the sort of real-life problem many of us women have had to face.  Is this based your personal experience or something you’ve heard about or…

DEBORAH
As you said we all face this sort of thing from time to time.  Men who think they have a right to your attention, who don’t understand when they are not wanted—

BILL
What about the men who have been led on?

DEBORAH
Sometimes a man simply refuses to—

EVE
Just a moment, dear.  Bill – this is Bill Fontana, everyone – You had something to add?

BILL
I just think a writer needs to look at all sides.  Modern readers don’t want set pieces with cardboard characters where one person is all right and the other is all wrong.  If you’re writing for grown-ups characters need to be nuanced.

DEBORAH
In your latest book the villain tried to strangle a kitten. How nuanced is that?

EVE
Bill, you’ll have your chance.  Deborah, do you want to finish your thought?

DEBORAH
That would be nice, wouldn’t it?

EVE
I’m sure.  Our next panelist (DEBORAH does a doubletake.) is my dear friend, one of our most distinguished, most senior, a veritable elder statesman-

CHARLES
Please!  I’m not dead yet.

EVE
Of course not.  I just wanted to point out that you have written so many books.  Even more than my six volumes of poetry.  Charles Lemmon, your most recent book is historical fiction, The Battle of Sattleford Creek.  What’s it about?

CHARLES
(Pause.) It’s about the Battle of Sattleford Creek.

EVE
I might have guessed that, I suppose.  So many titles are ironic these days, don’t you think?  My book The Fire Sonnets contains no sonnets, and never mentions fire!  I suppose that’s why the critics found it so surprising.  One of them said “Eve Brockhurst has-”

CHARLES
Eve?

EVE
Yes?

CHARLES
How are we doing on time?

EVE
Good point.  Charles, at this place in your long career, how do you still manage to find inspiration?  What moves you to keep writing?

CHARLES
The credit card companies.  Something moves them to send me bills.

EVE
Oh, come now.  Do you really mean you are only writing for the money?

CHARLES
I’d better not be, because there’s precious little of it.  And security, don’t make me laugh.  You teach English at the college, don’t you?

EVE
I do.  I have the honor of opening up the minds and hearts of—

CHARLES
You can get tenure.  Then you have work for the rest of your life if you want it. What I wouldn’t give for that.  A publisher can kick you out in the snow after you give them the best years of your life.

BILL
Wow, that is one bad cliché.

CHARLES
Shut up, Bill. 

DEBORAH
I’m glad I’m not the only one he interrupts.

EVE 
Actually. I’m an adjunct professor.  No tenure, I’m afraid.

CHARLES
Then you’re in the same boat as us professional writers.  I don’t know how a publisher can sleep at night, when they fire an editor you’ve been working with for – well, a long time, and suddenly you’re an orphan and no one wants to promote your book because the last guy picked it.

EVE
So do you find that—

CHARLES
No ads.  No tours.  No publicity.  And you know damn well that when the book doesn’t sell, they’ll say it’s the fault of the writing.  Never the publisher’s, oh no.  I might as well give up on quality and start self-publishing crap.

EVE
Now, come on, Charles!  That attitude is very old-fashioned.

CHARLES
Don’t call me that!

EVE
Some of the best, most original work coming out today is self-published.  My fourth book--

BILL
And a lot of the worst stinkers, too. 

DEBORAH
You’d know about that.

BILL
Oh, I’d forgotten.  Men aren’t allowed to talk at this panel.  Go right ahead.

EVE
Come on, Bill.  We value everyone’s opinion.

BILL
Hell of a way of showing it.

DEBORAH
Bill isn’t very good at taking cues, I’m afraid.  At understanding what people are trying to tell him.

EVE 
All right, Bill.  Since you’re so eager to talk, tell us.  How do you find inspiration?

BILL
That’s a stupid question, Eve.  Isn’t it really just the old cliché: how do you find your ideas?
Short stories panel at Left Coast Crime, Vancouver

DEBORAH
See?  He doesn’t listen.

BILL
Not so, Deborah!  A good writer, a great writer, is always listening.  That’s how he comes up with dialog that sounds true. 

EVE
So you get your inspiration from the people around you…

BILL
That’s right.  And I get so much more.  Like insight into personality.  How a person will say one thing and mean something completely different.  For example, maybe they’ll claim for months that they want to leave their husband and start a new life, but when their lover offers to take them up on it, it turns out they were just teasing him along—

DEBORAH
And this is your idea of honest observation?  No wonder Kirkus hated your last book.

CHARLES
Kirkus hated everybody’s last book.

EVE
You know, I think we’ve been neglecting one of our panelists.  Amy Kite is a fresh new face on our city’s literary scene.  She is the author of The Dragons of Zanzanook

AMY
(Correcting the pronunciation) Zanzanook.

EVE
Sorry!  Her book is a fantasy novel which has attracted major support from the publisher.  There’s an ad in the Times.

CHARLES
Oh my God.

EVE
An author’s tour.

CHARLES moans.

EVE
And I believe you are booked on one of the morning shows next week.  Is that right?

AMY
Two, actually.

CHARLES
Jesus.

EVE
Sorry.  I must have missed one.  Let’s talk about what inspires you…

AMY
Thank you so much, Eve.  I just want to say how inspired I feel simply by being here with all of you today.  What an honor!  This is my first time at a writer’s conference, you know, and here I am with Charles Lemmon!  I’ve been reading his books since I was a little girl.

CHARLES
Well, that’s wonderful.  You young whippersnapper.

AMY
And Deborah, what was the name of your novel about the girl with Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

DEBORAH
Twists and Turns.

AMY
Yes!  My mother loved that one!

BILL
Oh, I can hardly wait.

AMY
Mr. Fontana.

CHARLES
Here it comes.

AMY
When I needed a break from writing my book I would read your novel in which the psychotherapist turns out to be the serial killer.

BILL
Which one?  I wrote two of those.

AMY
Three actually.

BILL
I didn’t…  Oh yeah.

CHARLES
And there it is.

Setting as Character Panel, Left Coast Crime, Vancouver, 2019
Setting as Character panel, Left Coast Crime, Vancouver
AMY
I’m afraid I don’t remember which one I read most recently.

CHARLES
Boom.

BILL
Let’s not forget our moderator, Amy.  What do you think of Eve’s poetry?

AMY
I’m afraid I haven’t read it yet.

EVE
You probably don’t read poetry.  So few young people do these days.

AMY
Oh, but I do!  I must get around to yours.

BILL
Yes.  Do get around to it.

EVE
Well, that’s very sweet, Amy.  Let’s start another round.  Deborah, what is the inspiration for the book you’re working on now?

DEBORAH
We covered that, remember?  Stalker?

EVE
Oh.  Right.  (Checking her notes.)  Well, what inspired you to start writing in the first place?

DEBORAH
I’d say it was Greg.  My darling husband.

BILL
Oh, brother.

DEBORAH
He is my biggest cheerleader.  He knew from the moment we first met that I was a creative soul and he has always encouraged me to—

BILL
Point of order.

CHARLES
Point of order?  Is this a congressional hearing?

EVE
What is it, Bill?

BILL
I’m just wondering if this is the same husband you told me hasn’t opened a book since he got his MBA.

DEBORAH
I never said any such thing.  And frankly, I resent you constantly interrupting me.

EVE
Well, Fraser was certainly right about this group needing a strong hand, wasn’t he?  Deborah, I think it’s wonderful that you have such a supportive husband.

Ecology Panel Audience, Left Coast Crime, Toronto, 2019
Ecology Panel, Left Coast Crime, Vancouver
DEBORAH
 I can’t imagine how I could go on without him.  We truly are soulmates.

BILL
I thought you didn’t write romance fiction.

DEBORAH
You know, Bill, I think I know why you model all your villains on your psychotherapists.

EVE
I think we’re running out of time, so we had better move along.  Charles, can you tell us a little about what inspires your current work in progress?

CHARLES
I’m not sure I have one, Eve.  I write historical fiction and that means two or three years of research for each book.  By the time my next one is ready my publisher will probably have burned through five or six editors, and all that any of them care about are the latest trends.  The new expert, straight out of some Ivy League day care center, wants me to write a Civil War novel with zombies.

BILL
You’re kidding.  Zombies are like five years past their sell-by date.

EVE 
And Bill, you already talked about your plans, so any other thoughts about inspiration?

BILL
Great question!  As a thriller writer I’m concerned with revealing the truth of the human heart.  By which I mean that people are totally and remorselessly evil. 

CHARLES
Jesus.  I thought zombies were depressing.

BILL
That goes doubly so for the female heart, of course.

CHARLES
And publishers.

EVE
Moving right along.  Amy.

AMY
Yes, Eve?

EVE
Let’s get back to your debut novel, The Dragons of Zanzanook-

AMY
Zanzanook.

EVE 
Thank you so much, dear.  Would you say you were more inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin?

AMY
(Laughing.)   Neither one, Eve.  My starting point was my doctoral dissertation on late medieval monasticism in a military context.  I just threw in dragons to make it commercial.

CHARLES
(Inspired.) Damn it, girl, we have to talk!

Short Story Panel, Left Coast Crime, 2015
Short Story panel, Left Coast Crime 2015
AMY
I’d love that!

EVE
Now we have time for a few questions from the-- Oh, I’m told we don’t.

BILL stalks off in disgust.

EVE
Please join us in the vendors’ room, where all the authors will be happy to sign their books for you, and I will be happy to take pre-publication orders for my seventh book of poetry, Life, Be Not—

The microphone is shut off.  She frowns at it.

*Photo by Peter Rozovsky

30 September 2020

A Data Point in Maryland



I don't think I have ever placed a trigger warning on this page before, but I will make an exception here.  This piece is about true crime.  No humans die but two perfectly nice animals are killed.  Use your best judgment. By the way, I've read a number of articles about what follows, but the best is this one, by Radley Balko. -Robert Lopresti

On the evening of July 29, 2008, a group of home invaders entered the house of Cheye Calvo, the mayor of Berwyn Heights, a small town in Maryland.  His mother-in-law, Georgia Porter, was cooking artichokes when she saw masked men on the porch, carrying guns.

She screamed.  They smashed the door, ran in, and shot to death the family's two Labrador retrievers, Payton and Chase, one of whom was trying to run away.  Then they bound Porter's hands behind her back, put a gun to her head and screamed: "Where are they?"  She had no idea what they wanted. The intruders placed her face-down next to Payton's body, where she lay for several hours.  

Mayor Calvo was upstairs changing for an evening meeting.  The intruders  ordered him to come down the stairs backwards, in his underwear. "I was fearful that I was about to be executed," he said later. They bound his hands behind his back and knelt him on the floor.  They questioned him for two hours about a cache of drugs they thought he had.

So who were these brutes?  Antifa?  Some Mexican gang?  A right-wing militia?  Al-Qaeda?

Nope.  It was a SWAT unit from the Prince George's County Police Department.

You might say it's wrong for me to call them home invaders since obviously they must have had a warrant.

Yeah, no.  That turns out to be a little squishy.  The mayor naturally asked to see their warrant but it took them three days to produce it.  



After the event hit the fan the Department told the press that they had a no-knock   warrant, then later admitted that such warrants were not legal in Maryland.   (Actually such warrants had been legal for three years, but apparently the cops   specializing in drug raids did not know that.)  They argued that the police had  the right to enter because Georgia Porter had seen them.  They had to kick in the door to prevent the inhabitants of the home from grabbing weapons or  destroying  drugs.  

Neither of which, as it happened, were found. 

But what about the police force of the town of Berwyn Heights?  Why didn't they warn the sheriff that this was the Mayor's house?  They had no chance because, in spite of an existing agreement to alert the locals before engaging within the city's borders, the SWAT team had not done so.

As Berwyn Heights' police chief noted later, it was very lucky that no one spotted heavily armed men in civilian clothing breaking into the mayor's house and called 911.  That might have led to a bloody shoot-out between two law enforcement agencies.  Also, according to the police chief, the officer in charge of the assault gave him an inaccurate report on the event, claiming the mayor had refused to let them in.

So how the hell did this happen?

Well, it started thousands of miles away in Arizona when a Drug Enforcement Agency officer with a drug-sniffing dog located a package containing 32 pounds of marijuana.  It was addressed to Trinity Tomsic, the Mayor's wife.  They notified the Sheriff's office who checked that a car in the driveway of the addressed house belonged to Tomsic.  They never bothered to find out who else lived there.

On the day in question a cop dressed as a deliveryman dropped off the carton on the Mayor's porch.  When Calvo returned from walking the dogs he brought the carton inside.  A few minutes later, all hell broke loose.

During the interrogation, Calvo (still handcuffed in his underwear) told them that he was the mayor.  They didn't believe him and refused to check. (One called him a crazy man.)  Even when they realized he was the mayor and found nothing incriminating they told him he was lucky he hadn't been arrested, partly because his reaction had not been "typical." What would constitute a "typical" reaction to this goat rodeo is beyond the depths of my feeble imagination.  (And the implication that this sort of thing happens so often that there is a typical reaction is horrifying beyond words.) 

Four hours after they arrived the cops left and the family was able to start cleaning up the blood of their pets, which the cops had tracked  through the house.

But at least we know who the culprit is!  The Mayor's wife (who came home during the raid and assumed the cops were stopping a robbery) had caused this disaster by purchasing that illegal marijuana.  

Yeah, no. Tomsic knew nothing about it.

What actually happened was that a criminal in Arizona had arranged to ship packages of the stuff to random houses in Maryland where an accomplice who worked for FedEx dropped them off and another accomplice picked them up, hopefully as soon as they were delivered.  Tomsic and the other recipients knew nothing about it.   

You are probably thinking: Well, everyone makes mistakes.  The important thing is to apologize, make amends as best you can, and learn from your errors so they won't happen again.

Yeah, no. The Prince George's County Police Department seemed to take great pleasure in announcing that they would learn nothing from the event.    When the county chief called the mayor a few days after the raid to tell him his family was in the clear he specifically said that this should not be interpreted as an apology.  He told the press that his men showed "restraint and compassion" by not arresting the mayor's family for, beats the hell out of me. The sheriff said, two years later: "Quite frankly, we'd do it again. Tonight."  The officer who incorrectly stated that no-knock warrants didn't exist was promoted to county police chief three years later.

An Internal Affairs team found the officers innocent of all wrongdoing.  One of the people on that team  was the man who wrote the warrant application, so you know everything was on the up and up.

Mayor Calvo proposed a reform bill to the Maryland state legislature.  He asked that every agency with a SWAT unit be required to report quarterly on how often the team was deployed, to do what, and whether shots were fired.

Not exactly defunding the police, but every police agency in the state opposed the bill.  It passed anyway, with minor revisions.

What brought this incident to my mind was memes I have seen recently on social media that read like this: "Have you noticed that the police don't bother you if you don't do anything wrong?"

I'm not sure Mayor Calvo noticed that.  Nor Breonna Taylor.  Nor James BlakeNor Pastor Leon McCray Jr. Nor Charles Kinsey. Nor Maximo ColonNor Robert Julian-Borchak Williams...

 




16 September 2020

Today in Mystery History: September 16


This is the sixth  in my occasional series on Great Events in Mystery History.

September 16, 1849.  Robert Barr was born in Scotland.  His family moved to Canada, where he grew up.  He was best known as an author of short stories, especially about crime, and wrote the first published Sherlock Holmes parody, in 1892.

September 16, 1874.  This day saw the premiere of the play Colonel Sellers, based on The Gilded Age, the novel Mark Twain wrote with Charles Dudley Warner.  The play concentrates on one aspect of the book: the trial of Laura Hawkins for the murder of her married lover, which was itself based on a true crime.  In a  decidedly post-modern touch, on some evenings she was found guilty, on others she was not.

September 16, 1927.  On this date Peter Falk was born in New York City.  He got his first Oscar nomination in 1960 for Murder, Inc.  His other crime-related movies included Murder by Death, The Cheap Detective, and The In-Laws.  But let's not beat around the bush: his great contribution to our field was of course Lieutenant  Columbo.  Did you know that they originally wanted Bing Crosby for the part?  Did you know that a kid named Steven Spielberg directed the first episode?  I'll stop now. 

September 16, 1961.  On this date The Defenders premiered on CBS.  Starring E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed as father and son attorneys, it has been called the first modern lawyer series.  The Defenders did not shy away from controversial subjects, with the heroes working on cases that dealt with abortion, neo-Nazis, capital punishment, and jury nullification, etc.

September 16, 1966.  Does anyone else remember T.H.E. Cat? It began on this night and lasted one season.  A half-hour show starring Robert Loggia as Thomas Hewitt Edward Cat, former circus performer and ex-con, now a cat burglar who prowled for good.

September 16, 1967.  The show that premiered this evening was much more successful.  Mannix starred Mike Connors as a Los Angeles private eye.  In the first year he worked for a large security firm, but for the rest of the show's seven years he was an independent operator with a secretary, played by Gail Fisher.

September 16, 1970.  A lot of TV premieres on this date, aren't there?  Dennis Weaver starred in McCloud, a Deputy Marshal from New Mexico who found himself working for the cops in New York City.  Surprisingly, they acknowledged taking the idea from Don Siegal's film Coogan's Bluff.

September 16, 1975.
  On this date a panic-stricken young woman runs through the streets of Isola, covered with blood.   That's the beginning of Ed McBain's Blood Relatives, featuring the detectives of the 87th Precinct.

September 16, 1984.  The premiere of Miami Vice, creating a national fad for pastel suits and cigarette boats.  Anyone remember this Sesame Street sketch?

September 16, 1987.  Yet another terrific TV series previewed on this date.  Wiseguy followed the adventures of an undercover cop, Vinnie Terranova.  It was ahead of its time in that each season consisted of a few "arcs," several episodes in which Vinnie wormed his way into an organized crime group and then betrayed them - which weighed on his conscience more with each season.  Among the guest stars: Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Jerry Lewis, Ray Sharley, Patti D'Arbanville, Tim Curry, Paul Winfield...

September 16, 2016.  On this date the Private Eye Writers of America gave S.J. Rozan the Eye for lifetime achievement.