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

14 March 2023

Do You Taboo?

 I have a story in the March/April issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, my 38th appearance there, I believe. 

It involves a group of criminals discussing a crime one of them has committed.  If you want to know why I chose that premise, you can find out in a piece I wrote for Trace Evidence, the magazine's blog.  What I want to write about today is a little different.

You see, I had to decide what sort of crime my characters would be discussing.  And as I have said before, plotting (as opposed to premise or character) is the hardest part for me.  

But I had recently come up with a plot device I thought would work: a nifty method for kidnappers to retrieve a ransom payment.  I had a problem with using that, although I'm not sure whether to call my dilemma an ethical issue or an artistic one (if I can use a great big grown-up word like art to describe my stuff).

I have written about kidnappings before.  In fact I have invented so many tales about swiped children that a co-worker of mine said he wouldn't let me near his offspring.  He was kidding.  I think.

But those tales had always been told from the viewpoint of the good guys (well, at least good-ish), trying to catch the kidnappers.  The premise of this story would require the kidnapper to be the protagonist.  And I was not comfortable with giving the main role to someone doing such a heinous deed.  Especially since I was hoping this would be a funny story.

On the other hand, a ransom demand doesn't necessarily require a human victim, does it?  And so my bad guy swipes a rare orchid plant and demands a hefty payment to return it.  

Which struck me as kind of funny.  And my characters agreed.  “Did you have the plant on the phone crying for mercy?” one asked.

So I chose that approach and it worked well enough to sell.  But would it be appearing in AHMM if I had made another choice?


Maybe not.  None of my stories about kidnapped children made it into those pages - although all of them found happy homes in other publications.

Every publication has its taboos (or at least strong preferences) and our field as a whole seems to have at least two. 

For example: Why didn't I have my protagonist kidnap, say, a dog?

Because the conventional wisdom for many years has been that in a mystery you don't hurt an animal.  I have been to panels at several conferences over the years where writers spoke with bemusement about the fact that you can massacre half of a small English village and still describe the book as a cozy, but heaven help you if, even in a noir thriller, you harm one whisker on a kitty's head.  It's a weird thing.

I'm not sure the rule about harming children is as deeply ingrained.  A few year ago I read in rapid succession novels by two well-known authors in which kidnapped children were murdered.  Both books were well-written and the violence was not gratuitous, but I will admit it didn't make me eager to read their next volumes.

Last year I started work on a story inspired by actual events.  I thought I had found an interesting way of recounting the tale but I froze up halfway through when I realized that two animals, family pets, were shot to death.  Did I really want to write about that and endure the fury that would follow?

I decided I didn't so I put the story aside.Then one day the Muse said: Hey dummy!  You write FICTION!

Oh, right.  So I went back to the scene, laid  my godlike authorial hand on the shooter's weapon and deflected the bullets.  The dogs may have suffered psychological trauma but they were otherwise unscathed.

Whether the story sells is, of course, up to different hands.

Meanwhile, what taboos do you refuse to write about?  Or read about?

01 March 2023

A Policeman's Lot is Now an Appy One

Last year I wrote here about my discovery of BBC Sounds, a free app that allows you to listen to shows and podcasts from across the pond.  I recently discovered a program on it which is right up our alley and well worth a listen.  

It's A Fair Cop stars Alfie Moore, a comedian who spent decades as a constable in a city in the north of England.  ("Scunthorpe is like Jupiter.  Everyone knows where it is, but very few have plans to go there.")  In each program he tells a live audience about a real event from his experiences as a cop  and asks them how they would have handled the situation.  

For example, a man found an intruder in his garage and hit him with a blunt object.  Was this a legitimate use of force?  In the course of this episode Moore points out that if you cover your garden wall with, say, bits of  glass, and a potential burglar gets hurt, you are liable, but if you plant abrasive foliage and he falls in them, that's an act of God, "and further proof that God also hates  burglars."  He notes that the Met (the London police) even put out a list of the 30 best anti-burglar plants.

And that's an unusually kind remark from Moore about the Met.  He is from the North, remember, and he manages to insult the capital's coppers in almost every show. "The Met is so overworked now that they are asking you to tamper with your own evidence."

We learn a lot about the rules of British police work, some of which seem pretty odd to me.  For example, if a beat constable thinks a parked car looks suspicious he can observe it while approaching it very, very, slowly, but he can't stop.  That would be surveillance, which requires authorization.

As I said, Moore is a comedian so the show is funny.  A few examples:

"Anyone who says the police are corrupt can kiss my Rolex."

"The last time [that security guard] chased an old woman around the store, she lapped him."

And in the inevitable grim humor of the police: "He said: 'God told me to kill my wife.' I said: 'Too bad he didn't tell you to dig a deeper hole.'"

Oh, you will also learn why Moore says "punching an innocent young man in the face" is the best thing he ever did as a cop.  Highly recommended.

Slightly off-topic: In my earlier piece about BBC Sounds I mentioned the serial Party's Over, about (fictional) Henry Tobin, the worst Prime Minister in British history, kicked out after eight months in office.  I wonder if they will consider him redundant now that Liz Truss has beaten him by six months?

15 February 2023

A Fox in Lamb's Clothing

Back in December Eve Fisher wrote about discovering Mick Herron's Slow Horses series.  I'd like to talk bout one aspect of these excellent books.

If you aren't familiar with them, the conceit is that Slough House is a rundown office building where MI-5 dumps its incompetents, giving them almost-worthless busywork (e.g. This car model was the most popular with terrorists five years ago, so check out everyone in England who bought one that year.) in the hopes that they will quit.  Because of the name of the building they are known as the Slow Horses.

And their leader is Jackson Lamb.  Ah, Jackson Lamb.

Imagine the worst boss you can conceive of.  Double it. Now you're getting there.  Lamb is vulgar, sloppy, lazy, vain, unhygienic, snide, malicious - and it's hard to tell whether he is really racist and misogynistic or just says such things to be as unpleasant as possible.

What type of things does he say?  

Well, when a member of his group complains about being left out of the loop: "You're always out of the loop.  The loop's miles away.  Nearest you'll get to being in the loop is when they make a documentary about it and show it on the History Channel." 

Here is Lamb mourning the death of a member of his crew: "Even when he was good he wasn't any good.  And it's a long time since he was any good."

His idea of a pep talk: "Don't anyone get shot or anything.  It goes on my record."

Please notice I did not say he is stupid or incompetent.  Because he isn't.  He slides through the dangerous waters of the spy world like an eel (okay, a corpulent. flatulent eel.)  And if he has another  redeeming quality  it is while the bosses at headquarters see their agents as pawns to serve their personal ambitions, Lamb does not. "A handler never burns his own joe.  It's the worst treachery of all."

In short, Lamb is a great, three-dimensional character and he makes me think about how genre literature is stuffed with great characters who we love to read about but would loath having to live or work with.

I mean, seriously: if you were Watson how long would you have tolerated Holmes before you smashed that insufferable egotist's head in with his own violin?

I think also of Nero Wolfe, Horace Rumpole, Gregory House, and others who insist on doing things their own way and get away with it because they are usually right.  (And now I am trying to think of any female characters that fit that description.  Surely there must be some?)

One of the reasons we love these types of people is that they do the sorts of things we would never have the nerve to do. And  they get away with it.  Mick Herron himself says of Lamb: "He says things I would never say.  I look back at some of these lines and think: My God, did I write that.  My mother reads this stuff!"

And now Mr. Lamb has come to television.  When I heard that Apple+ had chosen Gary Oldman to play our hero I immediately signed up for the channel.  I have not been disappointed.  (This is the second great British spy character Oldman has played. I enjoy his performance in Slow Horses much more than I did his version of George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.)

I have read the first four books in the series.  That means I am only halfway through, and more are expected. Hot diggity!

01 February 2023

Today in Mystery History: February 1


Today is our 12th exciting journey into the past of our amazing field.  Hang onto your blunt instrument.

February 1, 1878.  H.C. Bailey was born in London.  His most prominent creation was  a surgeon and amateur detective, Reggie Fortune.  He also wrote about an attorney, the unfortunately named Joshua Clunk.

February 1, 1920. British novelist Colin Watson was born.  He wrote about Inspector Purbright and Lucilla Teatime (another interesting name).  He also produced a history of crime novels between the wars called Snobbery with Violence.

 February 1, 1924.  "Night Shots" appeared in Black Mask Magazine.  It was Dashiell Hammett's seventh story about the Continental Op.  

February 1, 1925. Top Notch Magazine featured "The Case of the Misplaced Thumb" (and now the titles are getting weird).  It was Erle Stanley Gardner's first novelette about Speed Dash (another name for the books), a human-fly turned crime fighter.  I don't mean that he was a character from the movie The Fly.  He was an acrobat, able to climb walls unaided.

February 1, 1929. Dashiell Hammett's novel Red Harvest was released.  It was his second novel about the Continental Op.

February 1, 1976. Robert Martin died. In the forties he wrote for Black Mask, Dime Detective, and other pulps.  In the fifties he started writing novels, many about Cleveland private eye Jim Bennett.  Bill Pronzini, who corresponded with him in his later years, called Martin "a genuinely nice man." 

February 1, 1989.  P.D. James' novel Devices and Desires was published.  It was the eighth appearance by Adam Dalgleish.

February 1, 1993.
Publication date for Marissa Piesman's Heading Uptown.  Piesman and her protagonist were both Jewish New York attorneys.  The books were funny.  She used to write them on the subway on the way to work but, alas, she changed jobs , shortened her commute, and stopped writing them.

February 1, 2000. Peter Levi passed away.  This English author was an interesting fella.  He was a Jesuit priest until his forties.  He became Oxford Professor of Poetry and discovered (in California!) a poem he claimed was written by William Shakespeare.  Most scholars disagreed.  He  wrote several mysteries starting with the wonderfully titled The Head in the Soup in 1979. 



18 January 2023

Getting the Best of It

This is my fourteenth annual list of the best short mysteries of the year.  It is selected from my best-of-the-week choices at Little Big Crimes.  If  you cite this list please refer to it as "Robert Lopresti’s ‘Best of the Year’ list at SleuthSayers,” or words to that effect, not as the SleuthSayers' 'Best of the Year' list. Hard as it is to believe, some of the other twenty-odd bloggers here may have opinions of their own. 

Fifteen stories made the list this year, one fewer than 2021.  Nine are by men, six by women.  Two are by fellow SleuthSayers. Six authors have appeared here before.  

Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine provided three stories.  Akashic Press, Ellery Queen's Mystery magazine, and the Mystery Writers of America anthology each had two.

Six of the stories are historicals, three have fantasy elements, and two are funny.  Okay, enough number-crunching.  Let's start tearing open envelopes.


Barnsley, Pam. "Street Versus the Stalker,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine,   November/December 2022. 

Gina is an inner-city teacher and a genuinely nice person, the kind who makes friends easily with people you and I might cross the street to avoid.  When some of these folks notice a van following her in a suspicious manner they react, much like antibodies to an infection.  But they are busy and not the best organized crowd, so it is not certain whether the good guys will win...

Bethea, Jesse. "The Peculiar Affliction of Allison White," in Chilling Crime Short Stories, Flame Tree Publishing, 2022.

I have a story in this book.

It is the late nineteenth century in rural New England. A young girl claims her illness is being caused by vampires.  The irrational villagers believe her bizarre story and are digging up the graves of the supposed monsters.  If her uncle the doctor can't stop this madness corpses are not the only ones who will be harmed.  

Braithwaite, Oyinkan, "Jumping Ship,"  in The Perfect Crime, edited by Maxim Jakubowski, Harper Collins, 2022.

Ida is a photographer, specializing in baby pictures.  Her boyfriend wants her to take photos of his new baby.  Only catch is, it will be at his house and his wife will be there.  She doesn't know Ida is sleeping with hubby.  What could possibly go wrong?  Very creepy story.

Breen, Susan. "Banana Island," in Mystery Writers of America Presents: Crime Hits Home,  edited by S.J. Rozan, Hanover Square Press, 2022.

Marly is a scam-baiter for the IRS, engaging with scam artists, ideally to catch them, but at least to keep them busy so they are not robbing the gullible.  She has been engaging with a Nigerian, but can't convince him to ask for money.  To raise the stakes she tells him about the situation her family is facing, a real estate mess that has entangled her family.  Who exactly are the good guys? Twisty tale.

Breen, Susan.  "Detective Anne Boleyn,"  Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine,  May/June 2022.

You will notice Breen has  two stories in my best-of-the-year list this time.  Only Brendan DuBois and Jeffery Deaver have managed that before.

An American tourist named Kit is poisoned to death in the Tower of London.  Before she can get used to being dead Anne Boleyn arrives.  The queen  comes across as a tragic figure, very sharp except for her blind love for that nasty husband of hers.  The two wronged women manage to help each other out in surprising ways..

Haynes, Dana "Storm Warning
,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2022.
This is Haynes' second appearance on my list.  Jordan  is a wealth Texas oilman.  The insurance company is sending an expert to examine his collection of rare paintings.

The inspector's assistant is a beautiful blond woman who looks a lot like Jordan's wife Lizette did when she first met her husband.  This does not make Lizette happy.  Then a tornado warning forces the characters to retreat to the storm-proof basement.  Did I mention that Jordan keeps his firearms collection down there?     

Hockensmith, Steve. "The Book of Eve (The First Mystery)," Death of a Bad Neighbour: Revenge is Criminal, edited by Jack Calverley, Logic of Dreams, 2022.

I have a story in this book.  This is the second appearance in this column by my friend and fellow SleuthSayer Steve Hockensmith.

Abel has gone missing and his mother Eve is looking for him. The role of Watson is filled by a certain snake.   Much of the pleasure here is in the way it's told, the language of the characters. A very funny story that manages to be surprisingly moving as well.

Latragna, Christopher, "The People All Said Beware,"  in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2022.

It's St. Louis, MO, in 1955.  Henry is a professional gambler who works mostly on a steamboat called the Duchess.  One day he learns that the ship will be off-limits on Saturday due, according to rumor, to a mob wedding. Henry thinks it odd that the management of the ship would close down on the busiest day of the week, so he begins to investigate. Like a classic John LeCarre tale, or a set of matryoshka dolls, each secret exposed only reveals another secret, right up to the end. 

McCormick, William  Burton. "Locked-In,"  in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine,  January/February 2022.

This is the fourth time McCormick has made my best of the year column.  That ties him at the top with David Dean and Janice Law. 
McCormick and I sometimes critique each others work before it gets submitted for publication. I saw a version of this story back in 2019. 

It's 1943.  An insurance man named Jeff has just rented a house in a new city. He accidentally locks himself in the cellar.  Now he  has to attract the attention of a passer-by who happens to near his lonely alley.  But the person he attracts is not interested in rescuing anybody...

McLoughlin, Tim, "Amnesty Box,"  in Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, Akashic Press, 2022.

The publisher sent me a copy of this book.

The protagonist is a postal service police officer in New York City. To speed up the occasional metal detector check they must run on post office customers he invents the Amnesty Box.  Customers can drop into this cardboard box anything they know they shouldn't be taking through the metal detector.  The catch is they won't get the dumped items back.  "Even on a slow day we would collect a couple small bags of weed and a few knives." A harmless-enough trick until something much more dangerous is dumped in the box... 

Jonathan Stone, "The Relentless Flow of the Amazon,"  in Mystery Writers of America Presents: Crime Hits Home,  edited by S.J. Rozan, Hanover Square Press, 2022.

It is the beginning of the great lockdown, "the time of boxes.  Everything delivered." Annie and Tom,  new to their suburban neighborhood, are getting tons of boxes which they leave in their garage to give the virus time to wander off.

One day they get an Amazon box they are not expecting.  It contains two plastic but clearly real guns...

, Mathangi 
 "On Grasmere Lake,"  in Denver Noir, edited by Cynthia Swanson, Akashic Press, 2022.
The publisher sent me a copy of this book.

Nithi is a young woman who lives with her mother and her father, the brutally abusive Jason.  But now Jason is dead and Nithi feels guilt about that, and about other things as well.  The situation looks very bad but then it takes a delightfully  unexpected twist.  
Vincent, Bev. "Cold Case,"  in Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Issue 12, 2022.

Roger lives in Texas.  One frosty morning he finds a dead man sitting on his porch. When the police arrive he refuses to let them into the house, due to COVID fears, which does not endear him to the shivering constabulatory.  Roger is retired but not scared of technology, which he uses intensively in his unofficial investigation.  Very witty story.

Joseph S. Walker, "More Than Suspicion,"  in A Hint of Hitchcock, edited by Cameron Trost, Black Beacon Books, 2022.

Walker also made my best-of-the-year list last year. 

A small town in Colorado,  just after Pearl Harbor. Hannah is the projectionist in the town's movie theatre. Supply chain issues leave her running Hitchcock's classic movie Suspicion over and over.  Darlene, new in town, comes to see it almost every night. 

Darlene hates the film's ending, in which the husband turns out to be innocent and the wife merely imaging the danger she is in.  "The end is the only part that's a lie.  A pretty lie, but still.  He kills her.  Of course he kills her."  Darlene has a secret.  Hannah, it turns out, has one of her own. 

Zelvin, Elizabeth, "The Cost of Something Priceless,"  in Jewish Noir II, edited by Kenneth Wishnia and Chantelle Aimee Osman, PM Press, 2022.

This is the second appearance here by my fellow SleuthSayer. Zelvin has written other novels and stories about the Mendozas, a fictional family of Sephardic Jews, some of whom sailed with Columbus. This story begins with a letter from a modern Mendoza bequeathing to her granddaughter the family's most precious treasures: a necklace and the documents proving it belongs to them.

Intertwined with this tale is the third-person story of how Rachel Mendoza really acquired the necklace half a millennium ago.  Let's say that both women found their way through considerable difficulties.


04 January 2023

On A Winter's Night, A Writer...

At our house we usually keep the house pretty cool in the winter time, even more so at night.  The week I am writing this, in late December, the weather outside dropped to around 7 degrees Fahrenheit, which is darned low for my city.  Of course it was a lot warmer inside, but leave it to say it was cozier under the blankets than outside of them.

And as I lay there, all snug and warm, waiting for Morpheus to do his thing... I remembered something.  Details don't matter but it involved calling a doctor's office about something.  So, while it was not life-and-death, this was a matter of some significance.  It was an errand I had better not forget.  That meant I was either going to 1) find a way to make sure I remembered it in the morning, or 2) stay awake all night worrying about it.

Now, for the past fifty years I have seldom gone anywhere without a pocket notebook.  Every writer needs a way to scribble down the Next Brilliant Idea.  But as it happens my notebook was across the room on the dresser.  So in order to write myself a reminder note I would have to throw off the lovely sheet and duvet and stomp across the room, pick up my notebook, take it out into the hallway (so as not to wake my very tolerant wife), flip on the light, find an empty page, write down the reminder, and retreat to Slumberland.  It would be a cold couple of minutes.

I lay there for a while, trying to think of another alternative.  As it happened my cell phone was charging on my night table and I seriously considered turning it on, waiting for it to wake up, finding the note app, and sending myself a reminder.  This would actually take longer than the out-of-bed method but wouldn't get my toesies all chilled.

I decided that was ridiculous.  I got of bed, made the journey, made my note, and climbed back into bed. But before sleep could knit  up the unraveled sleeve of care, another thought came into my mind. 

What if, instead of a reminder of a medical issue, my brain had popped up a story idea?

I would have been out of bed in an instant, grabbing for my notebook to scribble it down. Because to a writer a hot idea can be much more important than a mere health issue.

Decades ago I remember reading that Buckminster Fuller said that from the moment you have an idea you have 17 minutes to do something physical with it - write it down, tie a string around your finger,  sing it out loud until it's stuck in your head -- or it will disappear.  I have searched for this bit of wisdom many times and have never found it again.  Did I make it  up?  Got the details hopelessly wrong?

If I ever do find it again, I'll even get off the mattress to write it down. In the mean time, the moral of the story: Keep my notebook near the bed.

21 December 2022

Breaking into Showbiz 4


We've played this game three times before.  Below you will find  ten familiar figures from popular culture.  But where did they start their careers? In many cases you may know the answer, but they will turn out to be more complicated than you expect.

See the white box on the side?  Your choices lie within.

Frankie and Johnny

Little Orphan Annie


Frank Furillo

Humpty Dumpty


Peter Pan

Jimmy Valentine

Maynard G. Krebs


And here are the answers:

Frankie and Johnny.  Real life.  The classic murder ballad was inspired by the real killing of Allen (Albert) Britt by his sweetheart Frankie Baker in St. Louis, in 1899. She shot him after finding him with a prostitute but was found not guilty, pleading self-defense.  Bill Dooley wrote a song called  "Frankie Killed Albert." In 1912 Bert and Frank Leighton revised that to "Frankie and Johnny" and Albert has gone by that name ever since.  It has been recorded too many times to count.

Mary Alice Smith

Little Orphan Annie.
Comic Strip. Harold Gray created the comic strip in 1924.  It ran until 2010, spawning a Broadway musical and a bunch of movies.  But the name, or a variation thereof, is even older. James Whitcomb Riley wrote a poem in 1885 called "The Elf Child." In later editions he changed the title to "Little Orphant Allie" but a typesetter thought otherwise and the protagonist has been Annie ever since.

The poem is about a young orphan who comes to live with a family and tells the children scary stories that encourage good behavior.  "The goblins will get you if you don't watch out."

Riley based the poem on Mary Alice Smith, who lived with his family growing up.  So the real little Allie inspired the poem which led to the comic strip.  Got it?

Lassie.  Short story.  Ah, but which one?  British author Elizabeth Gaskell wrote "The Half-Brothers" in 1859 in which a female collie leads a search party to two boys lost in the snow.  Sound familiar?

But in 1938 Eric Knight wrote a story called "Lassie Come-Home" about a doggie making a long journey to her master.  This led to a novel of the same name. Several movies followed, followed by a radio show, and finally the TV series many of us remember. Dave Barry complained that the family in that show spent so much time trapped in wells that they only survived on federal farm subsidies, and Lassie had to fill out the applications.

Frank Furillo.  Television. But you can get a good argument going about it.  Lieutenant Furillo was the protagonist of the classic series Hill Street Blues.  But some people claimed the show was, let's say, heavily indebted to Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels, which starred a cop named Carella.  

I don't see it myself.  McBain's books are all about a detective squad while the series covered all levels of a precinct.  

What did McBain himself think?  In his novel Lightning he has a character furiously argue that the show is based on the lives of him and some of his associates.  But in a brilliant bit of fourth-wall-bending, the author manages to have his cake and eat it too.

You see, the complainer is Fat Ollie Weeks, a bigoted cop and hardly the first person whose opinion you would trust.  So is McBain mocking the theory of the connection?

Not quite.  Steve Carella, definitely a reliable voice, is skeptical about Ollie's view but he says that saying the name Ollie Weeks is like (TV character) Charlie Weeks is similar to claiming that the name (TV character) Howard Hunter is like Evan Hunter.

Evan Hunter is Ed McBain's real name.  And Hunter/McBain thought about suing the producers, but decided it was too expenaive.

Humpty Dumpty.
  Nursery rhyme.  I have run into people who think ol' H.D. started life in  Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass.  He first appeared a  century earlier, 1791, in a nursery rhyme.  John Tenniel in Looking Glass gave him his familiar appearance. while Carroll, gave him his the obnoxious personality many of us remember:

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all."

That argument has been quoted by judges in more than 200 legal  decisions.

By the way, it is generally agreed that the nursery rhyme was meant to be a riddle.  It was identified as such by at least 1843.  It is easy to forget that it is a riddle because we all know the answer so well. In the same way, the surprise twist of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has not surprised anyone in a very long time

Columbo.  Television.  But much earlier than you might think.  Richard Levinson and William Link wrote "Enough Rope," which in 1960 appeared as an episode of The Chevy Mystery Show. It included Bert Freed as the famously inquisitive cop. 

In 1962 L&L turned their TV episode into a play, Prescription: Murder.  In 1968 the story that wouldn't die was turned into a TV movie.  But who would play the hero?  Lee J. Cobb was not available. Bing Crosby (!) was considered but he thought it sounded like too much work.  Then came Peter Falk who said he would kill to play the part.  If he had, I'm sure Columbo would have caught him.  

The show was a huge hit, of course, and the show went onto a long but irregular career: There were almost 70 episodes, spread out over more than 30 years.

Oh, one more detail: Remember I said Columbo began on TV?  Technically true, but back in 1960 Levinson and Link published a story in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine called "Dear Corpus Delecti."  Their original title was "May I Come In?" which should give you a hint about one of the characters.  But the police lieutenant in this story was named Fisher.

And speaking of names, What was Columbo's given moniker?  It is never mentioned in the show but sharp-eyed viewers noticed that his police ID said it was Frank.

Not surprising that no one called him by his first name.  The man, especially in early years, was practically a phantom.  I theorized that he wasn't a cop at all but a nut who had gotten his hands on a badge.  I mean, in the first episodes we never saw him in a police station and he had to introduce himself to every police officer he encountered...

Peter Pan.
  Novel.  The Little White Bird is an adult novel by J.M. Barrie (1902) about an aging bachelor trying to establish a relationship with a young boy.  I hasten to add that "adult novel" only means that it was not aimed at children.  Let's not take this the wrong way.

In the middle of the book Barrie wrote an odd section about a week-old baby who travels to Kensington Gardens where he is taught to fly by fairies and birds.  This baby's name is... Frank Columbo.

Sorry.  Got my notes mixed up.  It was Peter Pan.  Two years later Barrie returned to the character with the play Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, which brought in Wendy, the lost boys, Neverland,  Captain Hook, etc.  Then there was a novel, and who can keep up with all the variations that followed... 

Jimmy Valentine. Short story.  The most famous safecracker in fiction is sort of like Professor Moriarty, in that he has taken on a much larger life than his creator ever dreamed or intended.  O. Henry wrote precisely one tale about Valentine, "A Retrieved Reformation," but it is such a classic that it has led to five movies and a radio show.  Stick to the short story; it's a treat.

Maynard G. Krebs. 
TV. The lovable beatnik, played by Bob Denver, who shrieked in horror at the sound of the word "work," appeared on the TV series The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, which was based on the novel of the same name by Max Shulman.  Maynard, however, does not appear in the novel.  He is a creation of the scriptwriters and is probably television's first example of a breakout character, paving the way for Fonzie and Steve Urkel, among many others. 

  Real life?  Now, hear me out.  Certainly Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, slayer of monsters, and seeker after immortality, was the legendary protagonist of an epic poem, one of the oldest surviving works of literature .  But once again, it's more complicated than that.  What follows is from David Damrosch's excellent The Buried Book.

We have a list of the kings of the Sumerian region.  The recent (and by "recent" I mean about 3,000 years old) kings are recorded to have ruled for reasonable lengths of time, say six to thirty years.  But the oldest kings supposedly ruled for hundreds of years.

Unless you believe those early monarchs had a really fabulous health care system, we can assume that they are mythical, or no more than names the chroniclers dutifully recorded.

Now guess who stands squarely between the mythical old and the realistic new?  Gilgamesh, supposedly ruling for 126 years.  Which suggests to many scholars that he was the first king for whom they had authentic records.  But I doubt he really slayed the bull of heaven.  That sounds like p.r.

Interestingly, the Epic of Gilgamesh vanished from the record for two millennium until 1872 when George Smith, an engraver and self-taught amateur scholar, translated the cuneiform tablets in the British Museum.  Victorian England was shocked that the epic included the story of a world flood which only one man's family survived - and the man's name was not Noah. 

And that's enough.  As Little Orphan Annie probably never said, see you in the funny papers.


30 November 2022

All Things in Moderation

LCC 2022. Courtesy of Kelly Garrett

Back in the spring I attended Left Coast Crime in Albuquerque.  I have already blogged about that twice but I rediscovered another topic in my notes I wanted to write about. 

At LCC I served on one panel, moderated another, and attended a bunch of them. I came away with some thoughts on moderating panels, based on this conference and many others.  So here are my Twenty-five Rules of Moderation, in case you ever have the privilege.


1. Getting to know you.  As soon as you know who will be on the panel, talk to them.  Do you all agree on the topic?  Sometimes the titles chosen by The Powers That Be are ambiguous, or can be misunderstood. (Famous story from the world of folk music: One festival asked Arlo Guthrie to be on a Tropical Songs workshop so he learned "Ukulele Lady."  Turned out the topic was TOPICAL Songs...  But he later recorded the song, so it wasn't a waste.

2. Read ahead,  Read some of the works of each of your panelists.  That will lead to better questions, make it look like you know what you are talking about, and please the panelists. 

3. Prepare your questions early.  Procrastination is not your friend here.  

4. Abundance mindset. Prepare more questions than you think you will need.

Bouchercon 2014

5. Share the questions with your panelists.  I know there are those who disagree with me on this and, as usual when people disagree with me, they are wrong.  A conference panel is not a quiz show with points for spontaneity. Nor is it a final exam where knowing the questions in advance is cheating.  You have two goals: to entertain/inform the audience, and to make the panelists look good.  Neither goal is advanced by causing your team to waste precious seconds fumbling for an intelligent answer.  There will be plenty of opportunity for them to improvise anyway. 

6. Two-way street.  Telling them in advance  also gives you a chance to invite them to suggest questions.  Maybe they know something about the topic you don't.  In fact, let's hope they do!

7. No surprises.  I once served on a panel whose moderator decided each of us should read an excerpt from our book.  Nothing wrong with that except the moderator didn't tell us that until we were in the green room half an hour before the panel started.  That meant all of us who should be relaxing and  getting to know each other were instead fumbling through their books searching for the perfect passage.  Time to practice your recitation? Dream on.

8. Get it right.  Make sure you know how to pronounce the names of the panelists (and characters and book titles, if appropriate).  At LCC I was careful to check a tricky pronunciation but blew one that  looked obvious.


9. Location location location.  Check out the room in advance.

10. Gather the flock.  You have checked in with your panelists, right?  Made sure they arrived and know where the panel is?  If you want to meet in advance in the green room, don't assume they know that.

11. Scene of the Crime.  When you arrive at the meeting room  make sure the microphones are working.  Are there fresh glasses and water pitchers?  

12. Volunteers of America.  Is there a volunteer whose job is to warn you when the panel time is nearly over?  If so they will probably introduce themselves.  Make sure you know where they are sitting so you can catch their signals.

13. Don't call us.  Remind the audience to silence their  phones.  At one panel the moderator's phone rang!

Bouchercon 2017
14. By way of introduction.  One of the moderator's duties is to introduce the panelists.  This should take as little time as you can manage. I have seen moderators actually recite the mini-bios from the program book, which everyone in the audience has their own copy of.  What a waste!  Last time I moderated I skipped the usual intro and instead read a sentence or two from a reviewer or author praising the work of each panelist. I made darned sure to read a passage from MWA's announcement that panelist Laurie R. King had been chosen the latest Grand Master.

15. Watch your language.  A male moderator (much younger than me) frequently referred to his all-female panel as "the ladies."  I was not the only person who asked themselves "What century is this?"

16. Know your place.  Chances are that you wouldn't be moderating the panel if you weren't interested and well-informed on the topic, but this is not about you and you are NOT a member of the panel.  I am not an absolutist here; I will stick my oar in if I have something to add (especially in response to a question from the audience) but if I am talking as  much as the others I am doing it wrong.

At one conference I served under a VERY chatty moderator.  Later a stranger told me "I saw your panel.  I wish I had gotten to hear you." 

17. One for all or all for one? Some moderators prepare individual questions for each panelist.  That can work (especially if the moderator knows a lot about each individual and their work) but to my mind it cuts down on interaction between the members.  One tactic I like is asking individual questions as part of the introductions, and then switching to general questions.  

18. Switch it up. Don't ask the same person first every time.  If your first question is asked to A, then B, then C, then D, start your next query with B, etc. 

19. One at a time.  It may seem like a good idea to put the follow-up in the original question: "What characteristics does a good sidekick need?  And how does a sidekick differ from other secondary characters?" But now you have the panelists trying to sort through two topics at once and remember Part 2 as they explain Part 1.  Make it easier on them and you can always ask follow-ups if it seems appropriate.

Left Coast Crime 2019

20. You aren't the only one with questions. 
Leave a third of the time for questions from the audience.  They may have better ones than you.  But have extra questions ready in case they dry up.  

21. Lay down the ground rules. Before throwing it open to the audience I always remind them that this is an opportunity to ask questions, not to make comments, however brilliant those comments might be.  And I quote moderator Ginjer Buchanan: "If your voice goes up at the end that doesn't necessarily make it a question."

22. Be the voice of the public. Chances are you will have a microphone and the audience member won't, so repeat the question so  everyone can hear.  This  also allows you to clarify a rambling query.

23.  Never complain, never explain.  If the crowd is smaller than you were hoping, don't apologize and don't complain, especially not to them. As a musician friend says "We play for the people who show up, not the ones who don't."

24. Remember your manners.  If there is a volunteer assigned to signal that time is short, make sure you are watching for that.  And save time to thank the panelists, the audience, and any volunteers.  Don't forget any important announcements, such as when/where the panelists will be signing books.  I screwed that one up at LCC.


25. How was it for you? Email the panelists within a few days of the conference and tell them how wonderful they were.  Send individual messages, not one-fits-all.  Ask them if there was anything you could have done better.

That's all I can think of.  If any of you have been on a panel, or moderated one, or attended one, I'd love to hear your suggestions.

19 October 2022

Stepping Up to the Plate

 You might say our adventure begins with A.C. Gunter visiting San Francisco in the summer of 1888.  You have probably never heard of Gunter, which would surprise the people of his time for he was one of America's most successful novelists.  Today he has only one, very tangential, claim to literary fame.

On June 8 he picked up a copy of the San Francisco Examiner and read a poem.  He enjoyed it so much that he tore it  out and took it with him when he returned to New York.  There, he handed it to his friend John A. McCaull, a theatrical producer.  McCaull was impressed enough that he gave the poem to his chief comedian, DeWolf Hopper, and told him to memorize it and recite it that night in the middle of a play which, interestingly enough, had nothing to do with the subject of the poem.  Theatre was more casual in those days.

Hopper did so and thus began a new career.  For the next forty years he recited that poem countless times on stage, on records, and even in new-fangled talkie cinema.  In old age he commented dryly that when summoned out of his grave at the resurrection he would probably, automatically, announce "The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day."

As you have probably figured out the poem Gunter rescued from obscurity was "Casey at the Bat."  It was published anonymously but the author was Ernest L. Thayer, a recent Harvard graduate, who had taken a job at the Examiner.  (Inevitably, other people claimed to have written it, but there is no reasonable doubt.)  Thayer, like Gunter, left no other memorable work behind.  But his little masterpiece shows no sign of fading away.

I learned all this in an entertaining little book by John Evangelist Walsh called The Night Casey Was Born.  Because of the way my brain works, reading the book made me wonder: Can I get a crime story out of this?

And I did.  The October issue of Mystery Magazine features "Murder in Mudville," in which that town's unfortunate chief of police is trying to solve the murder (by baseball bat) of the very pitcher who struck out the hometown hero.  

It was great fun to write.  

But here's the thing that haunts me: Think about Gunter stumbling on that poem.  How many little masterpieces are rotting away, undiscovered, in old papers and magazines?


13 October 2022

Indexes and Other Treasures

When I heard the title of Dennis Duncan's new book my reaction was basically to pedal my bike to the local independent bookstore and yell "Take my money!"

I am fond of popular histories of scholarship.  So I have decided to tell you a bit about some of my favorite books of this type, with random anecdotes from each.  It has nothing to do with mystery fiction, so feel free to ignore me if you wish.  I get that a lot.

Dennis Duncan. Index, A History of the. The index is one of those things we take for granted.  Haven't they always been there, hiding at the back of nonfiction books, making them more usable?  Of course, the answer is  a lot more complicated.

Duncan points out three key ingredients you need before you can have an index.  First, comes the ABCs.  I don't mean the alphabet (duh), but the concept of organizing words in alphabetical order, which is a different thing.  Then, you need the codex, which is what we think of as the structure of a book, (indexes don't work well with scrolls).  The third essential we can date specifically: page numbers were first used in books in 1472.

This book includes all kinds of oddities: Indexes so long they had their own indexes.  Indexes to novels.  A short story in the form of an index.  Indexes created by authors' political enemies to mock their books. A picture index of envelope fragment shapes (and that was in a book by a well-known author.)

Oh, and how about this fact: ancient librarians used to glue a scrap of parchment with author and title to the back of a scroll.  The Greek term for that device was sillybos, from which we get the word syllabus.  The Latin word was index.

Denis Boyles.  Everything Explained That is Explainable.  The eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1910-1911) is considered one of the greatest reference books.  Its creation was part scholarship, part marketing scheme, and part con game.

The head publicist was Henry Haxton.  Earlier in his career, working as a reporter for William Randolph Hearst, he tested the lifeboat system of the Oakland ferryboats by "accidentally" falling into the Bay.  Fortunately the safety system turned out to be good enough.

The main editor for American entries was Franklin Hooper, who is drily described in the current edition of the Britannica as "undaunted by his own lack of scholarship."

The Americans who were running the encyclopedia project in coordination with the Times created something brand new: the Times Book Club.  They sold books much cheaper than had previously been legal, causing mob scenes known as "bookstore madness."

And speaking of the Times, the entire encyclopedia project almost fell through because of the obstinacy of a family whose mighty power came from their owning one-seventh of one-third of one-fifth of three-sixteenths of that newspaper.  This resulted in a lawsuit that was heard by Mr. Justice John Charles Darling, about whom, well…

Around the turn of the century barrister F.E. Smith was defending in capital case. After he gave a long and complex explanation of a point of law Justice Darling, complained: "Well, after all that, Mr. Smith, I am none the wiser."

Smith replied: "Perhaps none the wiser, m'lud, but certainly better informed." His client was executed.

Simon Garfield. Just My Type. Fifty years ago no one outside the publishing and design industries knew or cared much about printing fonts.  Then came personal computers and now everyone has an opinion.  I have seen college students argue furiously over serif vs san serif.

Garfield's book is a fascinating journey through the history of fonts. For example: in 1908 Thomas Cobden-Sanderson killed his classic Doves font by taking all the metal letters and throwing them into the Thames, so his partner could not profit from it.

In 1979 Japanese designer Eiichi Kono was selected to revise the iconic font used in London's subway system.  Rather dryly, he first demonstrated his work with the word underglound.

The first thing I did when I got this book was search the index (there's that word again) for The Prisoner, because that science fiction TV classic was the first place I ever really noticed a font.

Turned out the unusual lettering used in the surreal claustrophobic Big-Brotherish Village is Albertus, the same one used on street signs in the City, which is the financial district of London.  Hmm…

Garfield dedicates an entire chapter to the much despised  Comic Sans.  The title?  "We Don't Serve Your Type."

Simon Winchester.  The Professor and the Madman. When James Murray took on the task of creating the Oxford English Dictionary in 1857 he knew he would need help from hundreds of volunteers to track down unusual words and meanings in thousands of books.  He had no way of knowing that his most useful contributor would be Dr. W.C. Minor, an American Civil War veteran imprisoned for murdering a stranger during a bout of paranoia.  

This is the only book on my list which was made into a movie (starring Mel Gibson and Sean Penn, no less).  The flick is worth watching although it does get Hollywoodish, even adding a love story to provide a motive for some of Minor's bizarre actions.  (Here's a better motive: the man was crazy.)

Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton. Cartographies of Time.  For hundreds of years people searched for a way to visualize the passage of time.  This books shows dozens of examples.

Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen, cracked the problem in 1765 by inventing the timeline.  Since the timeline, like the book index, is so much a part of our lives it is hard to grasp that someone needed to dream it up. This made me wonder: Did it seem just as natural to the people of Priestley's time as to us, or are we just used to it?  

It turns out the former is true.  Other authors started using timelines immediately.  And it only took twenty years for William Playfair to add a y-axis and create the line graph.

 Violet Moller.  The Map of Knowledge. Moller says that when she was studying the history of science  she was taught something like this: "There were the Greeks, and then the Romans, and then there was the Renaissance."

Moller thought a piece or two had to be missing from that story.  Surely the Classical texts hadn't preserved themselves for a millennium.  As she demonstrates there were thousands of rulers, scientists, scholars, publishers, and librarians who cataloged, preserved, and used those texts.  Many of them spoke Arabic.  (Of course this relates to the Chicon panel I mentioned last month, where scholars complained that the Middle Ages received a bad reputation because of Renaissance propaganda.) 

You have probably heard of the great library of Alexandria, but you may not know of what we librarians would call their acquisitions policy: they wanted everything.  Each ship which landed in Alexandria was searched and all books confiscated.  When they borrowed texts from other libraries to copy they kept the original and sent back the duplicate.  Sneaky, sneaky, librarians.

In the tenth century the library in Cordoba, Spain, had 404 volumes.  That doesn't sound too impressive but I'm only talking about the  catalog of their collection.

In the eleventh century Salerno, Italy, was considered the center of modern medicine in all of Europe.  But a North African merchant who got sick there was so appalled by the ignorance of the doctors that he trained as a physician in his native Carthage and  returned to Italy with hundreds of up-to-date medical texts. 

In Venice, Italy, in 1502, a printer named Manutius started using a dolphin and anchor logo on his books, apparently the first "product brand."  It was such a recognized symbol of quality work that other publishers began counterfeiting it.

About half of the texts of ancient Greek we have were written by the physician Galen.  But since he was a doctor we can't read his handwriting.  (Rimshot! Sorry...)

And now I shall go read a mystery.

05 October 2022

Quotable Chicago... In Space!


As promised last month, here are some quotations from Chicon 8, the World Science Fiction Conference which I attended in Chicago in September.  Unfortunately, all context for the quotes had be quarantined due to covid concerns.

 "Science fiction is about upsetting society.  Mystery is about restoring it."        - Roberta Rogow

"I wrote this book but in a way the book wrote me.  It was cheaper than therapy." - Shelley Parker-Chan

"Every medievalist's favorite movie is Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  It's the only accurate one." - Jo Walton

"Terrorists are political illiterates." - David Gerrold

"Neil Gaiman could write a haiku about his intestinal issues and it would be made into a hit movie about one man's struggle with colitis." - John Scazi

"Writers have a sort of Stockholm Syndrome with the protagonist." - James Patrick Kelly

"A lot of scriptwriters think of a published novel as a piece-of-shit first draft they can work from." - Meg Elison

"I can really sell integrity." - Adam Stempel

"How does time work?  Ask your grandmother.  She's seen more of it than you." - Joe Haldeman

"I have a five part answer to that.  The first part has sixteen parts. " - John Scalzi

"Rule Number One: Do not time travel to a war." - Connie Willis

"I'm a child skeptic.  Do they really exist?  They're always fuzzy in photographs." - Paul Calhoun

"Use problematic authors as a motivation to write a better book." - Suzanne Palmer

"Who among us has not wanted to be a pregnant horse?" - John Scalzi

"You hear about someone who does bad things and it turns out they had a bad childhood.  So what?" - David Gerrold

"The urge to always have novelty leads, ironically, to the oldest conspiracy theories." - Kenneth Hite

"The current scam is  cryptocurrency.  It's tulips." - Connie Willis

"My mother was a car and we lost her in a terrible space rotary accident." - Suzanne Palmer 

"I have a hard time watching Star Wars.  Those poor stormtroopers.  Did they all volunteer?" - James Patrick Kelly

"How do you write time travel stories?  With a manual typewriter." - Joe Haldeman

"You can put whatever you want in a burrito.  This is a free country." - John Scalzi

"If not us, who?  If not together, how?" - Suzanne Palmer