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

21 February 2024

Stealing From The Best



 I hope you aren't sick of hearing about Murder, Neat, because here we go again. I am thrilled to teeny little sub-atomic bits to have a story in the SleuthSayers anthology.  

In "Shanks's Sunbeam," Leopold Longshanks has lunch in a tavern with a fellow mystery writer who tells him that a mutual acquaintance has been accused of Doing a Bad Thing.  It is probably not a spoiler to tell you our hero saves the day.

But what I want to talk about is the name of that lunch companion: Procter Ade.  I made up the first name but the last is a homage to my inspiration.

I have written here before about George Ade.  Early in the last century he was a midwestern humorist and journalist.  He is mostly remembered for his Fables in Slang.  These were a series of short stories he wrote which satirized human nature and social mores.  Since he wanted people to know that he knew slang didn't belong in a newspaper he capitalized all the guilty words and unusual uses (Much as I did above with "Bad Thing")



.  Here are three of his opening sallies:

"One Autumn Afternoon a gray-haired Agriculturalist took his youngest Olive Branch by the Hand and led him away to a Varsity."

"Once there was a home-like Beanery where one could tell the Day of the Week by what was on the Table."

"Once there was a Financial Heavy-Weight, the Mile-Stones of whose busy life were strung back across the Valley of Tribulation into the Green Fields of Childhood."

And since the stories were fables they all ended with morals:

"In uplifting, get underneath."

"A good Jolly is worth Whatever you pay for it."

"Give the People what they Think they want."

Dublin

Not too long ago I was thinking about one of my favorite Fables and I realized I could steal a plot device from it.  The result is "Shanks's Sunbeam."  If you would like to read my inspiration you can find it here. But I urge you to read my story first.  I'd rather spoil Ade's story than mine.

By the way, "Sunbeam" also involves memories of my pre-Covid trip to Ireland.  I'm sure that makes future visits tax deductible, right?

I'm looking forward to reading the rest of Murder, Neat.







07 February 2024

The Name of the Beast


 


I just want to make a weird little observation about that group of characters Earl Emerson once eloquently described as the Sociopathic Sidekicks (SS).  These are the men (I don't know of any female versions) who assist the hero (often a private eye) by being more vicious and less ethical than he is.  

Let's say there is a villain who keeps hiring thugs to kill our hero but whenever he is warned off promises to stop.  Then he does it again.  Hero Dude, with his firm code of ethics, can't kill the bad guy if the bad guy is promising  not to be a threat.  So the sidekick, untroubled by such ethical dilemmas, solves the problem with a well-placed bullet.


That exact scenario played out in a novel by Robert Parker, with the hero being Spenser and the sidekick being HAWK, who had made his first appearance in the novel Promised Land (1977).  Hawk is the earliest example of an SS I am aware of.  

In 1987 Robert Crais introduced private eye Elvis Cole in The Monkey's Raincoat. And faithfully at the P.I.'s side was ex-Marine, ex-cop, Joe PIKE.

Then Walter Mosley introduced MOUSE in Devil in a Blue Dress (1990).  He is Easy Rawlins' best friend, but so violent he even scares Easy.

I'm not sure in which of his novels about private eye Thomas Black the aforementioned Earl Emerson introduced SNAKE, but it was no later than The
Portland Laugher
(1994).  This guy varies from the others I mention here because  he seems more like a parody of the stereotype.  Instead of helping Thomas out of trouble Snake's assistance usually makes things worse and he ends up needing to be rescued..


I bring all this up because I am reading S.A. Cosby's first novel (and if you haven't discovered Cosby, my word, jump on the train, the guy is brilliant.)  In My Darkest Prayer, Nathan Wayfinder gets help from a gunhappy pal named (wait for it) SKUNK.

So there's my question.  Why are so many sociopathic sidekicks known (and in many cases only known) by monosyllabic animal names? 



31 January 2024

BSF (Best Stories Forever)



This is my fifteenth annual review  of the best short stories of the year, selected from my weekly-best choices at Little Big Crimes.  Feel free to cite this list but please refer to it as "Robert Lopresti's Best of the Year list at SleuthSayers" or similar phrasing, NOT "SleuthSayers Best..." because my fellow bloggers are stubbornly independent souls who occasionally disagree with me, as foolish as that seems.

There are sixteen winners this year, one more than last time. Thirteen of the stories are by men; three by women.  Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine is the big winner, with six tales.  Black Cat Weekly scored two, as did an anthology from Random House. Five were written by my fellow SleuthSayers.  

Six of the stories are funny.  Five have fantasy or science fiction elements. Two are private eye stories.  Two are police stories.  Two are by foreigners.  Seven of the authors are repeat offenders.  

Enough. Please pass me the envelopes.


Aymé, 
Marcel   "Martin, the Novelist," in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, July/August 2023. 

Martin is a successful novelist with one great flaw.  He kills off his characters. His publisher  extracts a promise that no one important will die in his next book, or no money.

That's hard enough for Martin to bear but even worse is a visit from one of his characters, who is very unhappy with the plot.  Everybody's a critic, right? 

Cody, Liza, "Never Enough,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2023.

This is Cody's third appearance on my best list.   

Sheena, the narrator of this tour-de-force novella, is a horrible person.  She never refers to her only child  as anything but "the annoying kid."  She has nothing but insults for her only two friends, one of whom she says "I don't like much."

But worse, when she decides that "the marriage was worn as thin as the hall carpet," she set her sights on an artist.  The fact that he had been in a  relationship for decades only made it more of a challenge. Sheena is a scary, narcissistic, probably delusional, menace.  You wouldn't want to meet her, but she makes a fascinating protagonist.


De Noux, O'Neil, 
"Of Average Intelligence," in Black Cat Weekly, #85.

My friend and fellow SleuthSayer is a retired police officer, and it shows.

"No offense, Office Kintyre.  But I'm smarter than you."

Have you taken offense yet?  I certainly have.  Attorney Matt Glick is the speaker and he has recently killed his wife.  The cops have a ton of circumstantial evidence against him and he has a ready explanation for every bit of it.

In fact the only thing Glick doesn't have  a ready work-around for is his own smug superiority,... 


Dean, David, "Mrs. Hyde,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine,  March/April 2023.

This is my friend and  fellow SleuthSayers' fifth appearance on this list, which makes him champeen of the world.  No one else has been in more than four times. 

Dr. Beckett Marchland  is an alienist, which is to say, a Victorian-era psychologist.  He receives a troubling letter from a woman who reports that her once loving and kindhearted husband is being changed for the worse by a bad companion.

The woman is Mrs. Edward Hyde.  The wicked friend is Dr. Henry Jekyll.


Faherty, Terence, "The Incurious Man,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2023.

This is the fourth appearance here  by yet another .SleuthSayer alum.

Owen Keane is a private detective starting a new job.  On his first day, taking the train from New Jersey to New York City, he encounters something very strange.  Every day for a week a woman near Rahway has held up a sign for people on the train to see.  The signs seem ominous, if not threatening, and refer to Giovanni and Elvira, whoever they are.

Everyone on the train is fascinated by the signs except one man who ignores them.  His lack of interest interests Keane...

Finlay, C.C. "The Best Justice Money Can Buy,"  in The Reinvented Detective, edited by Cat Rambo and Jennifer Brozek, Caezik SF and Fantasy, 2023. 

What if the whole justice system was for-profit?  Crimes would not be investigated unless the victims, or someone else, pay for the police time.  Criminals could shell out dough to get out of prison.  (Well, today we call that hiring a good lawyer, don't we?)  And so on.

Detective Chung is not a fan of the for-profit system but today it works in her favor, because she eye-witnessed the son of the wealthiest woman in the country committing a hit and run.  And this gives her leverage, if she can figure out how to use it...


Helms, Richard, "Spear Carriers,"  in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November/December 2023.

This is the third time   Helms had made my best of the year list.

Dave and Sam have bit parts in a Broadway play, as policemen.  They only show up at the very end which leaves them with a lot of time on their hands.  One night Dave goes out for a bite in his police uniform-costume and the clerk gives him his food for free. "Thank you for your service."

This happens because Dave is wearing his costume - which is to say, something that looks very much like a police uniform. . That gives Sam an idea...


 Hockensmith, Steve, "The Grown-Ups Table,"  in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine,   January/February 2023.

This is the third best-of-the-year appearance by SleuthSayer Hockensmith.  2023

It's Christmas dinner at a dysfunctional family.  Uncle Dan  can't stop spouting the philosophy of his favorite right-wing radio host.  And there is Cryptique who, until we turned goth a few months ago, was named Bobby.  

But the main character is Tia who has just graduated to the Grown-Ups Table.  And she is carefully orchestrating the dinner conversation to reveal who murdered the family matriarch, Gammy Bibi.   


Linn, Ken, "A Flash of Headlights,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2023.

Brody does yard maintenance.  A year earlier he was charged with a DUI.  He has been sober ever since, just barely. He makes a casual spur-of-the-moment decision to do what he considers a friendly gesture.  This leads to a tragedy which affects people he cares about. Every move Brody makes feels like it will make things worse. 

Narvaez, Richie, "Shamu, World's Greatest Detective,"  in Killin' Time in San Diego, edited by Holly West, Down and Out Books, 2023.


Shamu is an orca at SeaWorld (the eighteenth to bear that name) and thanks to new technology she is able to communicate with people.  Turns out she is, as the title says, a brilliant detective.  The story is narrated by her assistant, Angie Gomez.

One of the pleasures of this story is Shamu's dialog.  Here she is talking to her police nemesis: "I can solve the case in time for you to get home and rest your minuscule human brain."


Petrone, Susan, "The Silent Partner,"  in Cleveland Noir, edited by Michael Ruhlman and Miesha Wilson Headen, Akashic Press, 2023.

The publisher sent me a free copy of this book.

It's 1970.  The narrator writes about baseball history for the Cleveland Press.  He has to cover the 50th anniversary of the day a Cleveland player was killed by a pitch thrown by a Yankee.

The more he investigates  the more it appears that something weird happened.  Weird, like the beanball being deliberate?  Much weirder than that.

Roanhorse, Rebecca, "White Hills,"  in Never Whistle at Night: An Indigenous Dark Fiction Anthology, edited by Shane Hawk, and Theodore C. Van Alst, Jr., Random House, 2023.

White Hills is everything Marissa ever wanted, right down to the welcome sign by the community mail drop reminding everyone of the HOA rules. Some people don't like HOAs, but Marissa loves them. 

Marissa is perhaps a bit shallow and self-satisfied with  her wealthy new husband.  She constantly rattles off  popular cliches and mantras.  But does she really fit in in White Hills?

One night she springs two surprises on her husband.  The one she is excited about: she's pregnant.  The one she didn't give a thought to before mentioning: she's part Native American.  And suddenly things change...


Sheehy, Edward, "Lavender Diamond,"  in Crimeucopia: Boomshakalaking! Modern Crimes for Modern Times, Murderous Ink Press, 2023.

I'm done writing first-person point-of-view stories.  My latest saga of a modern family stretching back several generations, voiced by 72 first-person characters including pet dogs and cats and a crow circling the narrative dispensing omniscient commentary, had been soundly rejected by dozens of publishers.

So says our protagonist.  But it gets confusing he visits a library where he encounters...

A tall dude, six-feet-four with a shaved head, wore a gold chain over a tight turtleneck that showed off a thick musculature gained from years of pumping iron at Cumberland Correction on a narcotics charge.  Inside the joint the dude known as Craz had been the leader of a brutal and murderous prison gang.

How does he know all this?  Have we wandered into third person omniscient narration?  Hmm...

 


Thielman, Mark,  "Steer Clear,"  in Reckless in Texas: Metroplex Mysteries, Volume 2, edited by Barb Goffman, North Dallas Chapter of Sisters in Crime, 2023.

 This is the fourth time  my fellow SleuthSayer has appeared in this list.  

 As punishment for an indiscretion with his boss's ex-wife  Detective Alpert of the Fort Worth Police has been assigned to look into the disappearance of a steer.  Funny story with a satisfying solution.

Van Camp, Richard, "Scariest. Story. Ever," in Never Whistle at Night: An Indigenous Dark Fiction Anthology, edited by Shane Hawk, and Theodore C. Van Alst, Jr., Random House, 2023.

The narrator has just made it to the finals of the "Scariest. Story. Ever." contest using a story he learned from a village elder.  Tomorrow he will be flown to Yellowknife for the finals.  He needs to find an even better story to tell, so he goes to another elder, his Uncle Mike, and tries to convince him to tell him a properly horrifying tale. Is this a crime story? Sort of. Definitely.  Read it and see. 


Walker, Joseph S., "A Right Jolly Old Elf,"  Black Cat Weekly, #120, 2023.

This is the third story by my friend  to make the best of the year list.  

Marty is a no-talent who manages to marry into an influential family.  Sounds good, right? Alas, the family happens to be the Irish mob.  They get tired of him being useless and decide he has to become part of a robbery.  He will attend an office party dressed as Santa while his two brother-in-laws, dressed as elves, slip off to rob another office. What could possibly go wrong?


22 January 2024

Park It


Quick: What's wrong with this paragraph?

Logan turned onto Main Street and parked the car under a maple tree. He squinted his eyes against the sunset and saw Mary and Brown standing in front of the grocery store. Mary spoke and Brown nodded his head. He said something and she shrugged her shoulders. Finally Brown waved his hand and walked away. Mary turned to Logan and winked her eye. "I tried to warn you," he muttered.

Give up?

Well, for whatever other weaknesses it may have, it is 25% longer than it needs to be. The version below contains the same information and 18 fewer words:

Logan turned onto Main Street and parked under a maple. He squinted against the sunset and saw Mary and Brown in front of the grocery. Mary spoke and Brown nodded. He replied and she shrugged. Finally Brown waved and walked away. Mary turned to Logan and winked. "I warned you," he muttered.

As Will Strunk said: "Omit needless words. Omit needless words. Omit needless words."

17 January 2024

Three Little Words


  Occasionally I am reminded of the paucity of the written word.  Of course there are wonderful things about the written word.  As Penn Gillette noted, it's digital, or can be made so.  It is permanent in a way that spoken words cannot be.  But it has inherent limitations...

Consider the movie Forrest Gump.  I assume I don't have to put in any spoiler alerts at this late date.  In the movie whenever Forrest, a "slow" child, asks why he has no daddy in his life his mother replies "He's on vacation." This is obviously a convenient excuse for his absence.  (In Winston Groom's novel, by the way, the father died in an accident.)

But when Mrs. Gump is trying to get her son into a normal class as opposed to a "special school" for the retarded, the principal asks smugly "Is there a Mr. Gump, Mrs. Gump?"

And Sally Field, playing the mother, replies: "He's on vacation."

See? Those three written words tell you almost nothing.  But what Field gets across in her performance is: To get my son into  school I'm going to have to sleep with this bastard. And I will.

It shows what acting can add to a text.



I was thinking of this because of another scene I saw recently.

For All Mankind is an alternative history TV show on Apple.  It asks the question: How would history have changed if the Russians reached the moon first?  And the short answer is: The space race would have gotten hotter and we would have moved out into the solar system much faster than we have.


But in a third season episode called "All In" there is a stunning scene in which one character utters a three word phrase (not "He's on vacation").  Then they say it again.  And a third time.

The first two times it's a cliche.  The third time the actor makes it clear that the character has realized that their life is about to take an unexpected and very unwelcome turn.

Same words given a completely different meaning by the actor's performance.

It sort of makes me wish my characters could hop off the page and speak for themselves.


03 January 2024

Chatting with Shanks


 


"So," I said. "When did you decide to become a thief?"

Leopold Longshanks raised his bushy eyebrows.  "Seriously?  Talk about blaming the victim."

"I don't know what you mean."

He leaned on my kitchen table, pulling his coffee cup closer. "I mean I'm a fictional character and if I steal it's because that's what you wrote."

"True enough, I suppose.  I was just trying to open the conversation."

"Sure, and make me look bad in the process." He shook his head.  "The readers will know who's responsible."

"Well, what would you have said instead?"

Shanks looked at the ceiling.  "Let's see.  I would have pointed out that  you ride a bicycle every day."

"Unless there's ice on the ground.  I'm not crazy."

"The jury's still out on that.  For one thing, you're sitting here talking to a figment of your imagination.  But my point is, it's not surprising that you thought of a way to steal a bicycle."


I reached for my own coffee.  "Well, mystery writers' brains do tend to head toward crime, as you would know."

"Correct.  But since you are relatively honest--"

"Relatively?"

Shanks shrugged.  "Just because you haven't been accused of of plagiarism yet..."

"Very funny.  Go on."

"Well, you had to think of some way to use your technique for bike theft without risking jail time.  You thought of me even though I am somewhat exercise-averse."

"You're lazy, even for a writer."

Shanks waved a finger.  "Don't insult our peers.  The point is, you  realized that you could send me on a writer's retreat and they are often held in park-like settings, where there might be bicycles available for the guests. After that, the plotting was easy."

"It looks easy if someone else is doing it," I replied.


"Well." Another shrug.  "Easy for me.  I'm a much better writer than you."

"Only because I created you that way."

"As you often remind me." He sipped more coffee. "When does 'Shanks in Retreat' come out anyway?"

"The January/February issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  It's already available."

"Excellent.  Why don't you tell all those nice readers to turn off this blog and go get a copy?"

"I think you just did."

"Clever of me." He looked across the kitchen.  "Got any donuts?"  


 

20 December 2023

A Christmas Carol Chronology


 I whipped this chart up a few years ago and have updated it every December.  Seems like this might be a good place for it.

One interesting thing I learned this year: "Up On the Housetop" (I learned it as "Up on the Rooftop"), which is apparently the oldest song about Santa Claus, was written by a minister, of all people.  Didn't he know that we aren't supposed to secularize Christmas?  The gentleman in question was Benjamin Hanby, who was also an abolitionist.  His second most famous song, "Darling Nelly Gray," is from the viewpoint of a enslaved man whose beloved has been sold away.  Some say it is the musical equivalent of Uncle Tom's Cabin in terms of converting people to abolitionism.

If you want a crime element consider that the music for the "Carol of the Bells" (one of my favorites) was composed by Mykola Leontovych, a Ukrainian, who was murdered by a Soviet spy.

And, while I didn't include it on my list, the murder that the song "Staggerlee" is based on  took place on December 25th, 1895, so I guess it's a Christmas carol?  If Die Hard is a Christmas movie, anyway...

Start pulling on the strings of folksongs and you find all kinds of interesting connections.


One more thing: What do these songs have in common?  Answer is in the comments.

Baby, It's Cold Outside

Deck the Halls

Frosty the Snowman

Jingle Bell Rock

Jingle Bells

Let it Snow

Sleigh Ride

Winter Wonderland


06 December 2023

It Seems There Was This Irish Policeman...


 Foil Arms and Hog are three very funny Irish sketch comedians.  They have dozens of videos available on the web but the first one I spotted happens to relate to our favorite genre.  Enjoy.




Courting the B Muse




Last month I took a deep dive into linguistics.  I'm back in the same waters today.

Back in 2013 I wrote a novella about a beat poet detective named Delgardo.  After it appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine I put up an e-version on Amazon, courtesy of James Lincoln Warren who was kind enough to prepare the text for me, and create the cover.

Last year AHMM published the sequel and I have been thinking about creating a similar e-text.  I was reading it over and I came across this sentence:

The poet shook his head, looking bemused.  

And it occurred to me to ask: what exactly does bemused mean? 

I wasn't sure and that bugged me.  Here I quote a different story I wrote, about mystery writer Shanks:

Discovering he was using a word he couldn’t define annoyed him, like a carpenter opening his tool box and finding a gadget he didn’t recognize.  

And I had not only used the word, but had it published.  

I thought it meant: mildly amused and surprised.  But what did the dictionary say?  Glad you asked.  

Merriam-Webster gives three meanings: 

1. marked by confusion or bewilderment

2. lost in thought or reverie

3. having or showing feelings of wry amusement especially from something that is surprising or perplexing

(Ahem... Is from the word they want in definition 3?  I would have used because of.) 

Clearly, #3 is what was in my head. I checked my 1961 copy of Webster's Third International Dictionary (the one Nero Wolfe so despised he burned it in his fireplace). #3 is completely missing, so apparently the lexicographers only acknowledged it in the last half century.

Jumping back to the Merriam-Webster website I found something interesting by looking up bemuse (without the d).    It provided this helpful note:

Many people link bemused with amused, believing that the former word carries the meaning “amused, with a touch of something else.” While this was not its original sense, bemused has been used in such a fashion for long enough, and by enough people, that the meaning “having feelings of wry amusement especially from something that is surprising or perplexing" has become established. You may use bemuse in this fashion if you wish, but bear in mind that some people find it objectionable, insisting that bemused and amused are entirely distinct and that bemused properly means “marked by confusion or bewilderment.”

I went to the Oxford English Dictionary and discovered that they only list two meanings (under bemuse):

1. To make utterly confused or muddled, as with intoxicating liquor; to put into a stupid stare, to stupefy.

2.  Humorously, To devote entirely to the Muses.

So the OED doesn't even recognize "lost in thought." 


 Intrigued, I went to Facebook and asked people to define bemused without checking any sources.  I promptly received 30  responses. Their definitions fell into three main categories:

CONFUSED: confused, puzzled, bewildered, quizzical.

AMUSED: Amused, entertained by an odd event, gently amusingly surprised.

BOTH: Confused and slightly intrigued, pleasantly puzzled, taken aback and amused by it.

My friend Peter Rozovsky, who is a copy editor (and excellent photographer... that picture of me above is his work) is firmly in the "confused" camp and he wrote: 

That so many people get this wrong is an interesting sociolinguistic phenomenon. An error repeated often and widely enough becomes correct, with the intermediate step of usage notes in dictionaries that the word in question "is regarded by many as substandard, but..." The elimination of copy editing by newspapers (and, from what I hear, its downgrading by book publishers) only accelerates "language change." And if you find this troubling, go have a lie- down on your chaise longue.

I would suggest that Peter was surprised and mildly amused by the comments.  Too bad we don't have a word for that.

 



29 November 2023

Mind the Gap


Pottery shard, Ramat Rachel, Israel.


Today I find myself in a situation I have not experienced since, at least, July 5, 2021. Specifically, I don't have a short story to be working on.

I know the date, because I just finished a novella, and I started it on July 6, two years ago.  You may be surprised that it takes me two years to write a novella.  Well, here's the thing.  When I get an idea for a new story I generally drop everything and start to work on it.  My reasoning is that I'm a very slow writer and I want to strike while the iron is hot, to use a cliche.  Write the story as close to the moment of inspiration as possible.

So, I have probably written a dozen stories since starting this novella. But I have nothing on hand to write next.

This is not a panicky moment.  I know exactly  what I will be doing tomorrow, writing-wise.

For one thing, I will edit some of the seven stories I have finished a draft of but don't have ready to submit.  My stories average  ten drafts.  I work on one most days after doing my first-draft writing for the day.  And when I finish a first draft completely I usually take a week off from writing new stuff, and just edit.  

Secondly, it is not quite accurate to say I have no idea what to write next.  You see, the novella I have been working on is the fourth in my series about Delgardo, a beat poet.  Hitchcock's has published two and purchased the third.

The first story in the series was set in October 1958 and each story moves ahead by one month.  A real event occurred in February 1959 which fits perfectly into the lives of my characters, so my next job is to research that event and figure out how to turn  it into a plot.

So don't worry about me.  I'll fill the hours somehow.  How about you?

ADDENDUM: Two days after I wrote the above an editor asked me to write a story for an anthology.  I immediately had an idea for a sequel to a different tale.  So Delgardo will have to wait. I'm off to the races... 

15 November 2023

Dancing The Jig


We are headed deep in the lexicographic woods today.  If that's not your jam you have my blessing to move on.

As I mentioned previously, at Bouchercon I was on a panel about librarians and we prepared a webpage of resources for our audience.  I wanted to included Google Ngram Viewer, which allows you to trace the use of a word or phrase over centuries.  

Here is what I wrote:

Google Ngram Viewer.  Search millions of books and journals for words and phrases. Great for writing historicals. When did the phrase “the jig is up” start appearing in print?  When did it become popular?

I picked that phrase as the first crime-fiction-related term that popped into my head.  But after the conference I decided to take a closer look at what Ngram came up with.  And the result surprised me.

So, do me a favor and think for a moment. What does the phrase "the jig is up" mean?  In what context do you expect to find it?  If you are ready we will proceed...

The earliest example Ngram could find was from The Clockmaker, or the Sayings and Doings of Sam Slick. This was a comic novel written by the Canadian author Thomas Chandler Haliburton in the 1830s.  Oddly enough I have read the book and it isn't a struggle to get through.  

I became aware of the book when I was writing an essay about a different word: "slinky."

 But here is Mr. Haliburton on our phrase for the day:

The jig is up with Halifax and it's all their fault. If a man sits at his door and sees stray cattle in his field, a eatin up his crop...why I should say it sarves him right.

Fair enough.  But does that match the meaning  I asked you to fix in your head?

The next hit I found was a Dictionary of Americanisms from 1860.  That book says the phrase means "The game is up. It is all over for me." And that seems like a good fit with our Canadian friend.

But it isn't what the phrase means to me.  Here is what  a modern dictionary says about it: the scheme or deception is revealed or foiled. "the jig is up; you've had your last chance."

Exactly!  You might say that the modern meaning is a subset of the older one.  The phrase  used to mean something was over. Now it means something dishonest is over.  My example would have been something like:  "The jig is up, Bugsy.  We've called the cops."

So when did the change happened?  I suspected that, like so much criminal slang, we owe it to Prohibition. (For example, Donald E. Westlake  pointed out that "hardboiled dick" is a combination of World War I military slang with French-Canadian Prohibition jargon.)

Let's get on the trail and see what we can find out.

In 1877 in The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain wrote about people despairing and saying "The jig is up." Definitely the old meaning.

In 1881 Sheridan Mack quoted a man talking about a woman who left him:  "The jig is up and I ain't the fella to squeal on her. Matilda is as gay as a peach and I ain't gonna get all spoony."

In "The Flag Paramount," written by O. Henry in 1902, a character uses the term to say a Latin American revolution is over.  Still the old meaning.

But eleven years later in "The Badge of Policeman O'Roon" the same author has a policeman use that phrase to lament that he is too drunk to go on duty. Has Henry shifted to  the modern meaning in that decade or is it a coincidence?

Next Ngram pulled up an article from The Moving Picture World (1916).  Describing the movie The Defective Detective the writer said that when  a policeman enters the room "the jig is up." Now we're getting it!

Next comes a 1923 article from a magazine with the unlikely name of The Lather.  1923. It turns out to be the publication of the Wood, Wire, and Metal Lathers Union. This is part five of "A Confession" by an "Ex-Under-cover Man" about his infiltration of factories. 

It reads like  the author had been reading (or writing for?) Black Mask.  When he spots a competitor spying on him he tells his assistants: "Shadow the boarding house until you see him leaving, then catch up with him and tell him the jig is up and you are next to him.  Scare him red-headed if you want to, but don't harm him in anyway."

It's clear that by now we have the modern meaning, but I can't resist one more source.  In 1929 Joseph K. London wrote an article for The Jeweler's Circular on new methods to foil a hold-up man.  One involved taking the fiend's photograph. When he sees the flash he knows "the jig is up.'"

What none of these examples does is help explain why the phrase exists at all.  Why isn't it "the jig is down?" Or, for that matter, "the hornpipe is rotund?"






As I said when I was discussing the word "slinky," etymology is a wonderful time-sucker.