Showing posts with label Mark Thielman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mark Thielman. Show all posts

27 February 2024

Lyrics and Music

     Like the other authors in the Murder: Neat lineup, I'm using this blog as an opportunity to talk about my story in the new SleuthSayers anthology. I jumped at the chance to contribute a story as well as the opportunity to write about it here. My tale, "Lyrics and Music," kicks off the anthology. 

    I love listening to ballads on the radio. By definition, they tell stories. Not surprisingly, that's something I admire. But a ballad does the storytelling in short stanzas, set to music, and makes the words rhyme. A good one makes my attempts at story craft feel entry-level. 

    As my traveling companion can attest, with me, usually the sappier the ballad, the better. If you tell Billy not to be a hero, like Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods did, I'm right there with you. 

    Sappy is a loaded word. These days, it's never a positive. Tag anything with
"sappy" and it is weighed down with the baggage of cheesy or saccharine. But "sappy" used to be a good thing. In its origin, it meant full of vitality, like a young sapling. Somewhere around the early 17th Century, the meaning changed to excessively sentimental. The change may have been due to the stickiness of sap, the syrupy goo oozing from the young green stalks. 

    When the opportunity to contribute a story presented itself, and the only requirements were a crime story and a bar, I immediately thought about a saloon singer with a tale. Love, alcohol, a villain, and a problem to be solved: a ballad could be written about each. Instead, let's put the four together, I thought. That'll drip sap. 

    I turned up the volume on a Marty Robbins gunfighter ballad and settled in at my computer. 

    But what bar? In Fort Worth, the bar is Billy Bob's Texas, the world's largest honky tonk. It has a main stage, ample dance floor, various watering stations, and plenty of dark corners where all sorts of mischief might occur. 

    Billy Bob's Texas, however, felt too big for my setting. I needed something smaller. I remembered a great evening my traveling companion, and I spent at the Stagecoach Bar in Jackson, Wyoming, many years ago. In my mind, the place was like Billy Bob's Texas, only dried on hot. It had the same features and drew a diverse crowd but occupied less real estate. It felt more intimate. The place lacked a mechanical bull or a gift shop. The Broken Spoke in Austin also offered a similar vibe, at least before the new construction crowded in on all sides. 

    With a mental picture of the place and a vision of a woebegone protagonist, I began to type. The resulting story introduces the reader to Jimmy West, a country singer trapped by a bad contract and forced to perform at a bar run by an unscrupulous proprietor. Jimmy can't get out from under his ironclad contractual obligations. There is no escape for him...or is there? 

Vitality and sentimentality, "Lyrics and Music," I hope, embraces "sappy" in all its definitions. 

    Running a finger down the list of contributors to Murder: Neat makes a guy feel pressure to put the right words in the right spots. My name stands alongside some heady company. I'm grateful to Barb and Michael. Their skilled editing helped shift the errant words to the places they were supposed to be. They've wrung out the excess syrup. I hope you'll enjoy the results. 

    Until next time. 

06 February 2024

A Farewell Song

     As I mentioned in my last blog, the end of January marked the last day of my service as a magistrate judge. When I cleared out my desk, I found a smattering of paper scraps. On these, I had jotted down the typos and misheards from police reports that I'd been asked to review. Sadly, this is likely the last of these blogs. I've been cut off from the taproot. 

    As always, I hope these tiny written missteps brighten your day. Also, as you think about crafting characters, I hope they remind you that police officers, like everyone else, sometimes make inconsequential mistakes. Police errors are not always substantial, case-turning blunders of constitutional proportions. They're not necessarily mean-spirited or corrupt. Sometimes, they're just typos. 

    I found the defendant engaging in a fistic encounter. 

Creative Commons
    To be fair to the officer, "fistic" is a word. He wasn't wrong in his usage. The arrestee was hitting another person. The OED states that "fistic" is an adjective "related to boxing." The OED also reports, however, that its high water mark for usage was approximately 1900. Clearly, the officer channeled his inner Damon Runyon or Grantland Rice. Or, he may have reached for grandiose prose when a more common phrase would have worked better. 

    And now, another typic encounter. 


    At home, my husband's girlfriend pointed a gun at me.

    Again, not a typo. Remember this sentence the next time you're challenged to tell a story in ten words or less. Plot, setting, conflict, and theme all set out in a single line. I'll let the rest of the story unfold in your mind. 

    I arrived at the scene and exited my vehicle. The defendant then attempted to flea from the police. 

    Although it is always possible that the officer encountered a character ripped from the script of an upcoming Marvel movie or, for those with a literary bent, a John Dunne poem, this one is likely a typo. I do, however, really like the imagery that jumps to mind. 

    On January 15th, while I was performing my duties as a Texas Peach Officer...

    Fresh, quality produce is important to us in this state. Our Agricultural Department works hard to keep it safe from all enemies, foreign and domestic. I hope you'll raise your glass to those hard-working men and women the next time you're having a bellini. 

    This officer, however, was not employed by the Ag. Department. She was one of our rank-and-file peace officers who called in a report before getting back out on the streets. Voice-to-text heard something different than intended. 

    I prepared a search warrant affidavit and presented it to the Honorable Judge [X]. After reviewing the warrant, he singed it. 

    I know that on your bucket list of Broadway shows, slightly behind Hamilton, Wicked, and Hadestown, you've got Search Warrant: The Musical. Once you see it, you'll come away humming the tune to "Probable Cause" and that slightly bawdy earworm, "Cavity Search." 

    Incidentally related, perhaps: 

    While frisking the lung area, I found a firearm. 

    The "lunge area" is the space in a motor vehicle immediately surrounding the driver or passenger. It is the zone from which a suspect might quickly grab a firearm or weapon. Clearing the lunge area is an integral part of officer safety. 

    Searching the lung area for a firearm, however, probably required a great deal of singing before the judge granted the legal authority to go that deeply into the body. 

    And with that, my scrap pile has been emptied. 

Creative Commons

    In conclusion, I will note that it is not just officers who occasionally risk misinterpretation. A word of caution: When you're writing thank-you notes to well-wishers on the occasion of your retirement, be careful with your cursive. If you are a tad sloppy with your handwriting, the sentence: 

    "It has been an honor to work with you."

Might easily look like the sentence, 

    It has been an horror to work with you." 

And that changes the meaning of the sentiment entirely. Trust me on this one. 

Until next time. 

16 January 2024


     As frequently happens on the way to one thing, I encountered something else. 

    While doing some research, I bumped into the etymology of the expression "to toast." The phrase we use for words spoken about the bride at a wedding or a guest of honor at a banquet, I learned, is directly related to that piece of bread with jam you might be consuming while perusing your morning email or skimming this SleuthSayers offering. 

    The word "toast" is derived from an Old French word, toster, meaning to grill, roast, or burn. That word is drawn from an earlier Latin word, tostare, meaning to parch or dry out. It's no great stretch to see how this word became associated with the browning of bread served with a slathering of preserves or perhaps a sprinkling of cinnamon and sugar.

     Focusing on that last flavor combination gives the jump off to the use of "to toast" as celebratory words offered with a cocktail. 

    16th and 17th-century wines might be bitter and sediment-filled. Adding a piece of spiced toast to the drink added flavor, lessened any foul smell, and perhaps acted as a sponge to trap sediment particles. The toast made the wine more drinkable. William Shakespeare mentions the practice in The Merry Wives of Windsor.  Falstaff instructs his fellow to  "Go, fetch me a quart of sack;  put a toast in 't,". 

    According to accounts, the toast was not eaten but plucked from the cup and flicked to the nearest dog. 

    The offering of kind or thoughtful words to an honored guest added to the occasion's flavor, leading those praises to be called "the toast." 

    The practice of offering kind words pre-dates their designation as a toast. People have always felt the need to give speeches while drinking. 

    That's the G version. Both Merriam-Webster and the Online Etymology Dictionary, my sources for this, also offer a bawdier explanation. That story centers around a woman taking the therapeutic cool waters of a pool near Bath, England. While she floated, a traveler happened along. He plunged his cup into the water and offered a wish for her good health. His traveling companion, possibly drunk, suggested that while he might not care for the drink, he would undoubtedly enjoy the toast. "Toast" became both the words of praise and the subject--the toast of the town. 

    A bit off-topic, but the same sources note that to use "toast" to mean that someone is a goner or has been destroyed owes its genesis to an ad-libbed line by Bill Murray in Ghostbusters. Some argue that it had earlier origins, but all agree that the movie brought this usage of "toast" to the public. Now you know who you gonna call when you want a word placed in general circulation. 

    Back to today's subject. I will raise my mug of morning coffee and offer a toast to 2024. It may be a bit late in the month for such things, but in the due course of the SleuthSayers blog rotation, this is my first opportunity of the year. 

    May all your writing be prize-winning and effortless. May all your reading inspire and entertain. May your every encounter suggest another story. May your life be free of your main character's pain. 

    As for me, the new year will prove life-changing. I'm retiring as a criminal magistrate at the end of January. I'm doing so partly because I want to devote more time to writing. The full-time job gets in the way. Or, at least in my mind, it does. I will be curious to learn whether I'll produce more in the months ahead. Perhaps the time it takes to accomplish something will merely expand to fill the time available. 

    I may lose my new-found time running down rabbit holes in pursuit of etymologies. 

    One regret about leaving the magistrate gig is that I'll be deprived of the steady stream of typos I've found in the case documents. Reporting on that collection has been a semi-regular blog topic for the last couple of years. Like faithful companions, these unintended misspeaks stood by me, ready to jump in whenever I needed to meet an imminent deadline. 

If mystery fiction teaches us anything, it's that actions have consequences. The decision to retire cuts me off from that rootstock. We'll see what happens from here. 

    But that problem doesn't need to be solved for another three weeks. For now, I think I'll pour another cup of coffee and drop something in the toaster. 

Until next time. 

26 December 2023

Boxing: Round One

    December 26th, as all British mystery fans know, is recognized as Boxing Day. The holiday never became established in the United States. Boxing Day rose to prominence in the Victorian Era. By then the United States had separated from the United Kingdom and were busily creating our own holidays. 

    Within the early Christian calendar, the day was, and for some remains, St. Stephen's Day. December 26th commemorates the early Christian deacon and First Century CE martyr. St. Stephen, by tradition, dedicated his life in service to the poor. 

    Celtic people began celebrating Wren Day on December 26th. A dead wren was mounted on a pole and paraded through the village streets. The wren boys knocked on doors asking for money. In exchange, they gave the household a tail feather. The plume is supposed to bring good luck (Unless of course, you're the wren). At least one legend binds these two tales together. St. Stephen, although he was just Mr. Stephen at the time, was hiding from his enemies behind a bush. A chattering wren revealed his location to his captors. Different versions are reported, but in each story, the wren is labeled as treacherous. 

    In the spirit of St. Stephen, the money collected was to be donated to worthy charities. 

    At least two different origin stories exist for Boxing Day. The predominant one holds that during Victorian England, wealthy landowners presented gifts to servants and the poor on the day after Christmas. The servants had to work Christmas Day preparing their employer's feast. The day after, they were allowed to celebrate the holiday with their families. The landowners ate informal meals consisting of leftovers. The servants were provided with boxes containing money, hand-me-down clothing, and other goods, as well as leftovers from the family meal. These Christmas boxes lend their name to the day. 

    The other common theory holds that on the day after Christmas, the church opened the alms boxes, and the parish distributed the proceeds to the needy. 

    Victorians also often spent December 26th outside. After Christmas Day, inside a house jammed with relatives, the urge to get into the open air, burn pent-up energy, and get space from the family proved overwhelming. The hunt became a popular Boxing Day activity. Presumably, if wrens were killed, they would be distributed to Irish friends and subsequently hung from poles. 

    A host of traditions have come together to make this day after Christmas a holiday for more than just post-yuletide retail therapy. 

    One December holiday tradition important to the SleuthSayers community is the announcement of the Black Orchid Novella Award winner. Since 2006, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and The Wolfe Pack, the Nero Wolfe Literary Society, have been recognizing novellas. Robert Lopresti and Steve Liskow are past recipients of the award. Back in 2016, I submitted "A Meter of Murder" to the contest.  In "Meter," John Milton, the blind 17th-century author of Paradise Lost, served as the sleuth. The committee chose my story and inducted me into the community of published short story authors. I remain indebted to them.

    My congratulations, therefore, to Libby Cudmore for her winning story, "Alibi in Ice." We'll get to read her tale in the summer issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine

  I'm circling back to a Milton story, sort of, in the January/February issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. In "The Devil in the Details," an English professor finds inspiration for his misdeeds in the words of Paradise Lost. As always, I'm honored to be included in the pages of the magazine, this time alongside fellow 'sleuthers, Robert Lopresti and Michael Bracken. Now here is a tradition I'd love to continue throughout 2024.

    Whatever your holiday traditions include, I hope that you enjoy them with family and friends either inside or outside. May all your books and stories sell. And if your holiday tradition involves wren slaughtering, may the SPCA never find your home address. 

    Nollaig Shona Dhuit. (Google tells me that's a holiday greeting in Irish.) 

    Until next year.

05 December 2023

Narc Types?

    The current novel on my bedside table involves a cop who possesses superhuman thinking abilities. He never forgets anything. He has a sidekick who stands in awe of his mental agility. The protagonist is a modern-day Sherlock Holmes minus the cocaine and violin. 

    Although I've met many genuinely gifted police officers in my career, I've never met anyone like this. 

    Other books present the cops as corrupt or grossly inept. Some novels portray an officer so weighed down by personal baggage and the burdens she bears that she transforms into a drug-abusing alcoholic, barely a step above the criminals she pursues. 

    Each trope has some basis in fact. For the most part, however, these big issues don't reflect the officers I've seen and dealt with during my time in the courthouse. Their humanity is revealed, not in a single character bombshell, but rather because they sometimes run late, spill coffee, let an f-bomb drop in church, or drop the occasional typo into a report. 

    Anyway, that's my stated reason for the following compilation of typos gleaned from recent police reports. I hope they help you think about subtle ways to reveal character in your writing, better equip you to properly view the humans working as law enforcement professionals, or perhaps bring a smile to your day.

    "He angeled his head away."

    I assume that the arrestee bent his neck and moved his head to one side. But in the spirit of the yuletide season, he might have been adjusting his halo or emphasizing his pure white wings. The alleged offense, however, was not creating peace on earth.

    "The cocaine seized from the arrestee was gold ball sized."

    My assumption was that the packaged drugs collected by the officer were roughly the size of a Titleist. But given the fluctuating nature of narcotic prices, the baggie might have been worth its weight in precious metal.

    "She was found intoxicated in public lace."

    This one might unintentionally be accurate. Alcohol may sometimes lead to bad fashion choices. At least, that's what I've been told.

    "It was seized after passing the Heroine Test." 

    What are the elements of a good heroine test? Mental toughness. An unwillingness to allow her social status to defend who she becomes. A protagonist who is prepared to put her life on hold until the presenting problem resolves. Or perhaps a desire to sleep after consuming jerry-built pharmaceuticals.

    "The arrestee reviled to Officer Jones his name." 

    Another example of a sentence that might unintentionally be true. Not every citizen goes quietly into custody. Sometimes, hard feelings and genuine dislike develop between the opposing parties.

    Finally, in police work, as in fiction writing, the words matter. Consider the following typographical example. 

    During the argument, the arrestee hit his girlfriend.
    During the argument, the arrestee bit his girlfriend.

    The remainder of the report did not make clear whether "bit" was a typo or whether that was the actual physical conduct in which he engaged. It didn't matter for my purposes; the charged offense was the same regardless of the manner and means. However, I drew a very different mental picture of the two defendants. I found myself reacting much more strongly to the carnivore. What's your reaction? Was your image shaped dramatically by the single substitution of a consonant? 

    May all your holiday feasting be non-arrestable. 

    Until necks time. 

14 November 2023

Collateral Damage II

     In 1992, the McAllen police arrested Linda in a prostitution sting. By that time, she'd been living on the streets for four years. Linda went to court, took her conviction, and slowly began to clean up her life. She moved to a halfway house. Then Linda started taking classes to learn a trade. She received financial assistance from the Texas government to help finance her education. In 1996, Linda became a registered massage therapist. She worked in the field for the next quarter century, renewing her license every two years. 

    Then, in 2020, Texas took her license away.    

    Several weeks back, I began a conversation about the collateral consequences of crime. Citizens routinely think and hear about the effects of an offense on the crime victims. The earlier blog focused on the person convicted of a criminal offense. The topic seemed like something crime fiction writers might consider. Most collateral consequences are often not discussed as part of plea bargain negotiations. A defendant may not be aware. They accept a plea deal, serve the sentence, and, in their mind, pay the debt to society. Later, like Linda, unforeseen after-effects arise. Suppose, as a writer, that your goal is to craft a villain with sympathetic motivations. If you want a character whose outrage feels justified, the collateral consequences of crime might be a place to look. I hope to continue that conversation today. 

    (As in the earlier column, I focus almost exclusively on Texas law. That's my sandbox. The specifics of your jurisdiction may vary.)

    The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation (TDLR) is the state agency primarily responsible for overseeing businesses, trades, and occupations regulated by the state. Some jobs, such as plumbers, lawyers, police officers, EMS, doctors, pharmacists, and veterinarians, have separate regulating agencies. For many of the rest, the TDLR is the umbrella organization responsible for licensing within their occupations. 

    Some of the licensed trades in this state include air conditioning repair, auctioneers, barbers, electricians, massage therapists, mold remediators, notary publics, pawn shop employees, and tow truck operators. One state comptroller's report identified 774 occupation-related licenses overseen by 47 state agencies. 

    In Texas, a license holder's license shall be revoked if the conviction results in felony incarceration. It may be withdrawn, or a person may be denied the opportunity to obtain a license if the offense is directly related to the duties and responsibilities of the occupation or if the offense falls within the category of crimes that Texas has deemed especially bad. There is a list of these bad offenses in the Code of Criminal Procedure, Sec. 42A.054. Most practitioners call them the 3(g) offenses. (Section 3(g) was where one used to be able to find the list before the legislature renumbered everything, and 3(g) is easier to say than 42A.054. 

    The 3(g) list includes most of the crimes you'd think are bad, like murder and sexual assault. A few, like aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, are fact-specific.) 

    As with other states, Texas has different types of probation. Some were initially intended to enable the defendant to avoid the consequences of a criminal conviction upon successfully completing the supervision. Over time, many of those benefits have eroded. The TDLR may revoke, deny, or refuse to renew a license if the "non-conviction" activity renders the person unfit for the license. 

    In determining whether the conviction directly relates to an occupation, the statute lists four factors:

    1. The nature and seriousness of the crime.

    2. The relationship of the crime to the purposes for requiring a license. 

    3. The extent to which a license might offer an opportunity to engage in further        criminal activity. 

    4. The relationship of the crime to the ability or fitness to perform the duties of the     licensed occupation. 

    While items 2-4 draw some connection between the crime and the license, #1 is a giant loophole providing unfettered discretion to the overseeing agency. 

    Some licensing rules allow for the consideration of mitigating factors. Others in this state do not. We could discuss whether there should be zero tolerance for sex crimes in the legitimate massage business. As a society, we have become more attuned to issues of human trafficking and exploitation. We might debate whether we should consider the defendant's circumstances before denying a license. But those are topics for another day and a different blog. 

    Linda and others received their licenses because of an oversight by the regulatory agency. Then, at age 62, her income stream was pulled out from under her. The agency, alerted to the conviction, had no discretion. Bureaucracy may have crushed common sense. How might this defendant respond? It is easy for foresee anger and desperation. 

    Another reader might dismiss the concerns for Linda's livelihood. The saying goes, "Don't do the crime if you can't do the time." Linda, they might argue, should be grateful that she evaded the consequences for so long. 

    And in that debate, you may have created a complex villain. 

    (I would like to recognize Eric Dexheimer and his reporting in the Houston Chronicle for the specifics in this blog.)

    Until next time. 


24 October 2023

West of Here

I was driving through West Texas when a story idea struck me.

I'm speaking about West Texas, the geographically vague portion of my state that is, well, west. That landmass, by the way, does not include West, Texas, the Czech community located in the central part of the state. You'll likely pass through there if you're heading down to visit Michael Bracken in Waco. Should you be near that West, pause, pull over, and take a kolache break. They're pretty good. 

It's hard to pin down the precise borders of West Texas, the region. Some people set the boundary at the Brazos River. Others argue that the line is linguistic. The border between East Texas and West Texas gets crossed when twang slides into drawl. 

Basil the Bat Lord, Creative Commons
The boundary may be imprecise, but at some point, westbound motorists realize they've entered West Texas. 

A while back, a friend and I were driving to Lubbock. His Texas Tech football team was squaring off against my alma mater. He'd offered me a ticket. 

Many miles of semi-arid country separate the communities in that region. When you come to a town, you notice. 

Every community, everywhere, has character and characters, but I think the isolation of the towns in West Texas encourages a particular eccentricity. No town can model itself on the neighboring community because, likely as not, there isn't one. Each hamlet is a big fish. 

Lubbock came to be an urban oasis in the middle of the high plains. It fostered a music scene producing most famously Buddy Holly but also a host of other musicians from both country and rock genres. 

Sweetwater chose a different direction. It celebrates its rocky isolation through an annual rattlesnake roundup. Volunteers roam the local countryside, collecting Western Diamondback Rattlers and maintaining the local wildlife population. They bring the snakes back for milking, skinning, and eating. The high school girl chosen Miss Snake Charmer will likely have to pass by the occasional PETA protester. 

A visitor to the region needs to check out Marfa. At the far end of West Texas, this town was named for a character in Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Hardscrabble farmers work alongside modernist art installations. The art crowd and the agriculture crowd don't always get along. The higher prices brought about by the hip community burden the working-class locals. A casual visitor might miss the tension, distracted by the weirdness. The town has a public radio station worth a listen, public art along a farm-to-market road, a mocked-up Prada store, and supernatural lights. Some folks say the lights betray the presence of space aliens. 

There are the towns of Plainview and Levelland, so named because they're...well, you can probably figure it out. 

Post, however, is the place that really got me thinking about a story. Given the rural setting, many assume the name derives from a fence post. The town is actually named for C.W. Post, the cereal manufacturer. He sought to build a utopian community from a ranch he purchased just below the Caprock Escarpment. C. W. Post planned the town from his office in Battle Creek, Michigan. The local chamber of commerce might better testify to whether the founder's vision as a capitalist haven for hardworking, honest, simple folk was achieved. He spent years trying to better the locals' lives. He theorized, for instance, that exploding dynamite in the clouds would generate reliable rainfall. The plan failed. 

In West Texas, communities settle bragging rights on the athletic fields. This area is the home of Friday night lights. 

Quirkiness, secrets, and conflicts hidden below a seemingly peaceful surface, the settlements of West Texas have all those things. But towns everywhere probably do. All a writer needs is a Miss Marple to ferret out the truth. 

The current issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine includes my story, "The
Experimental Theater Company of Barb Wire, Texas." In it, I try to tell a whodunit while incorporating those hints of place I see when I point my car west. 

Building a sense of place when "place" is thousands of square miles and includes hundreds of independent communities presented a challenge. I thought about the elements any representation would have to include. The story must grab the peculiar oddity of the place. It would need to incorporate isolation. A West Texas story ought to have football, not only because the sport brought me to Post, but also because it is a lifeblood of the region. The short story needed a splash of art because, I think, it's an underappreciated element of West Texas. And any story had to have some cowboy spirit. 

Admittedly some elements, such as isolation and an independent protagonist, frequent many amateur sleuth mysteries. Fortunately, they are cowboy tropes and are easy to place in West Texas. The story that emerged from that germ of an idea, I hope, not only entertains but also gives a fair flavor of the land beyond the Brazos. 

What started as a trip to a football game became a research junket. That's a win. "The Experimental Theater Company of Barb Wire, Texas" was a fun story to write. I hope you enjoy reading it. 

I'll be on the road Tuesday when this posts. I apologize in advance if I'm slow to reply. 

Until next time. 

03 October 2023

Collateral Damage

 Think of some standard advice about writing villains. Often, the hints center on not making the bad
guy the living embodiment of evil. Make them relatable. Give them a sympathetic motivation for their anger and their actions. These men and women do bad things, but for reasons we, the readers, understand and perhaps even empathize with. An engaging villain might make us hold up a mirror to our own lives and ask if, similarly situated, our actions would be different? 

    The other day, for business reasons, I found myself thinking about the collateral consequences of crime. We easily imagine the ramifications of crime on victims. Assaults might cause social withdrawal. Murder or robbery often economically harms the victim's family. But what about the collateral fallout for defendants convicted of a criminal episode? These consequences, many seemingly coming from nowhere, punish a defendant after he or she has paid their debt to society. They're potentially a source of anger or resentment that may frequently be overlooked by people writing crime fiction. I'd like to look at a few.  

    (I'm focusing primarily on Texas law. The specifics in your jurisdiction may vary.)

1. Moral Turpitude--In many cases, before a conviction deprives a defendant of a particular right or privilege, the crime must be a felony or an offense involving moral turpitude. "Moral turpitude" is defined as base, vile, or depraved conduct. It labels inherently dishonest behavior. It is hard to argue with so far. Still, the list of crimes involving moral turpitude includes prostitution, any class of theft, failure to appear for court (bail jumping), and assault by a man against a woman. Crimes that may involve moral turpitude include bigamy, failure to stop and render aid at a crash scene, and issuing of a bad check. 

    Moral turpitude is often a critical factor in denying a job opportunity, professional license, or a loan or housing application. The label may long outlive the end of the case. 

2. Loss of Education Funding--Students convicted of any federal or state law involving possessing or selling a controlled substance may be temporarily or permanently ineligible for federal education loans or grants. 

3. Other Federal Programs--Narcotics or other convictions may result in temporary or permanent loss of food stamps, health care benefits, and housing assistance. Social Security may also be disrupted, at least temporarily. 

4. Asset Forfeiture--Seizing a defendant's assets believed to be used in the commission of certain offenses or purchased with criminal gains from those crimes is possible in federal and state court, particularly narcotics cases.  Cash, automobiles, houses, and businesses might be the targets. In one case, a drug dealer lost lottery winnings because he couldn't prove that he didn't buy the lottery tickets with legitimately earned dollars. 

5. Child Support--The Texas legislature recently passed a law obligating people convicted of the
intoxication manslaughter of a parent to provide support for the deceased's children. The obligation extends until the child reaches 18. (Although it may be hard to enforce if the defendant goes to the penitentiary.) 

6. Immigration--This could be an entire blog. The law is complex and evolves with shifting foreign policy priorities. The consequences to a defendant, however, are draconian enough that defendants must acknowledge they understand that there will be immigration ramifications before a judge will accept a guilty plea in Texas. 

7. Firearms Restrictions--State and federal law limit a convicted defendant's ability to possess firearms following felony and some misdemeanor convictions. 

8. Driver's License Restrictions--Various suspensions follow a final conviction for many offenses. These include graffiti, theft of motor fuel, tampering with a governmental record, intoxication offenses, some drug offenses, and failure to register as a sex offender. 

9. Registration as a Sex Offender--A plea requires the offender to have a public record made of name, residential address, mug shot, and shoe size, among other things. The public posting might serve as a drag upon a defendant's future social status. 

10. Travel--Travel documents of a convicted offender may be revoked. An issued passport may be withdrawn, or a pending application may be denied. Visas to a foreign country may not be granted based on a criminal conviction. 

A specific example of this is Canada. Canadian border authorities have immediate access to the federal crime information system, and can screen travelers carefully. Canada may
deny entry to someone convicted of driving while intoxicated, including first-timers. There are workarounds, but they involve advance planning and expense. 

11. Public Service--A conviction may affect a defendant's ability to vote, hold appointed, or elected public office or serve on a jury. 

    In a future blog, I'd like to return to reviewing collateral consequences and look at some specific occupations where a conviction might bite a defendant. My point in publishing this partial list is not to argue in favor of the restoration of the above-listed rights. That's a political decision for each reader to weigh. Instead, I hope readers understand the range of collateral effects that may follow a criminal conviction. These consequences have indirect legal ramifications, financial penalties, social costs, and the loss of rights and privileges. 

    As a criminal practitioner, I can tell you that most of these consequences are never discussed as part of a plea negotiation. A defendant may plead to a credit-for-time-served sentence. The deal seems in his best interest as he stands before the judge. Then, the unconsidered consequences arise as he seeks to move on from his criminal decision. A defendant may grow resentful as economic doors close and opportunities never appear. He may feel trapped because of the collateral effects he never imagined. You may have a defendant who feels like a victim. 

    And as a writer, you can work with that. 

    I'll be traveling the day this posts. I apologize in advance if you comment and I don't respond. 

    Until next time. 

12 September 2023

A Day for Nothing

Yesterday, September 11th, marked the 22nd anniversary of the attacks on New York City, the Pentagon, and the nation. Commentary about Patriot's Day might better come from those who were called to serve on that day or in the conflicts that followed. I spent the day as a prosecutor in Texas. A while back, in a different forum, I wrote about my 9/11. I'm offering a quiet reflection from the middle swath of America. 

In 2001, my children were toddlers. Tuesday morning was spent with the television turned off, if there was news, we didn't hear it. The many and varied tasks associated with getting us out the door and our children prepared for the day consumed our attention. The tasks of our everyday activities kept the outside world at bay. 

Betty and I were in the car, mere blocks from the Criminal Justice Center when her father called. A plane had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. He had little additional news, just the first glimpse of an unfolding tragedy. We had just parked and made it to our office when the South Tower was struck. 

Around the DA's office, televisions, radios, and computers focused on learning additional news. What we heard was catastrophic and getting worse. 

On September 11th, 2001, I was the chief prosecutor in the 372nd Judicial District Court. We had defendants summoned for trial. Jurors had been called. The court's docket had been prepared weeks in advance. Justice was waiting, but no one was capable of working. After a time, Judge Wisch, the presiding judge of the 372nd, brought the jurors into court. He explained as best he could where America stood. Then, he dismissed the panel. "Pray," he told the prospective jurors. "Pray for the soldiers, sailors, and airmen. Pray for the first responders of New York City. Pray for our country." 

The rest of the day was hollow. At another time, I worked in the office on the day that the elected district attorney succumbed to cancer. Although sad and signaling a change that affected the professional life of every employee, cancer was something we understood. We did what we needed to do. 9/11 was an event beyond our ken. We have a national hymn about alabaster cities undimmed by human tears. No meaningful work was done. Instead, we gathered in small, silent groups and traded rumors. Fort Worth is the corporate home of American Airlines. Everyone knew someone who worked for the airline. We worried for our neighbors. We all knew someone living in Manhattan. We worried for our far-flung friends. Everyone knew someone serving in the military. We worried about their future. 

That night, Betty and I kept the television off so as not to upset the boys. We made calls seeking news from our friends and neighbors. We gathered at a hastily arranged church service to add corporate prayer to the many individual entreaties for the dead and injured. In the days that followed, we donated blood and contributed to the Red Cross. We bought a share of American Airlines stock. We read and talked about how to answer a four-year-old boy's question, "Why did those men crash the planes into that building?" 

Church services and donated money and pints of blood, we stood in America's heartland and tried in our ways to recompense for the broken planes, broken buildings, broken bodies, and broken hearts. 

My clearest memory, however, of a fitting memorial to 9/11 occurred several weeks later. By then, here in the heartland, life had largely resumed. New York's recovery had become a topic of the evening news. We were back in the 372nd, prosecuting criminal cases. The defendant up in the dock, coincidentally that week, was named Mohammed Koran. He was charged with sexual assault. Had we culled through our case lists, we might never have found a name more likely to push Islamophobic buttons. On the morning of the trial, his attorney, Matt King, approached the bench and asked that a continuance be granted. He had no reason he could articulate except that a postponement was "in the interest of justice." 

Justice, however, has multiple sides. Sexual assault victims need to get past the trial so that they can resume their lives. The victim had done nothing to provoke any prejudice against the defendant. She deserved the trial for which she had waited. We should, as her advocates, press the court to go forward. 

In the end, the prosecution stood mute and allowed Judge Wisch to decide. He considered the "t'ain't fair" argument of the defense. (T'ain't is the local double-apostrophed word meaning "that is not"). Ultimately, he sided with the Defense. In the end, Judge Wisch was right. 

The nation had broken planes, broken buildings, broken bodies, and broken hearts. What the case reminded me, however, was that our institutions and our foundational principles remained intact. Our system of due process for all remained. We did not surrender to xenophobia, scapegoating, or misplaced revenge. To my mind, the court presented America at its best.  By doing nothing. 

Until next time. 

22 August 2023

I'd Hike That

     If the world is divided into beach people and mountain people, I fall solidly into the latter category. I have nothing against the beach, but I prefer to pad about a hiking trail instead of slathering myself in some high-grade, oily SPF. 

    These days, the desire to escape to the mountains may be due to heat fatigue as another month of triple-digit temperatures pound Texas. 

    So as this blog posts, I'll be hiding for a few days in a cooler climate, somewhere among the mountains of Colorado. 

    A couple of years back, my wife and I journeyed up here. As usually happens, we tried out a variety of different hikes. One morning, our favorite guidebook led us to the Alpine Tunnel Trail. The drive there featured an axle-busting bounce along a casually maintained logging road. It was easily as stressful as any sheer drop-off along the trail. It may dissuade a few. If you go, don't let the drive put you off. The hike was worth it--forests, meadows, wildflowers, and long-range views. 

    The Alpine Tunnel is an out-and-back hike unless you're the ambitious sort. Then, you can connect to the Colorado Trail and walk to the state border. 

A.L. Salzanski photo

Some folks hiked faster than we did and passed us on our trek. Others, we caught. Some traded places with us, back and forth, like race cars jockeying for position. Everybody showed a little fatigue. Only the accompanying dogs appeared unphased by the rock scrambling and elevation. 

    Among the common questions asked of writers is the source of our ideas. My common answer is to advise aspiring writers to keep their heads up and look and listen as they move through life. The inspiration for stories is everywhere. I've described before finding it in abandoned buildings and city streets. Sometimes it comes along in high places. 

    I am delighted to have my story, "The Ties That Bind," in the September/October issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. The tale had its genesis on the Alpine Tunnel hike. The pristine setting, the conversations with our fellow hikers, and the struggles of those who carved  a railroad line all niggled my thoughts on the return walk down. The trailhead begins in a ghost town and the terminus is a caved-in tunnel. The landscape is both a beautiful bit of nature and a graveyard for hopes and dreams. 

    I wanted my picture of the setting to come through in "The Ties That Bind." Good storytellers employ the location to establish a mood for the story, to reveal something about the characters as they interact in that environment, to suggest the conflicts of the story, and to hint at the themes. As we returned to the car, my mind's ear heard all those elements in the multifaceted piece of Colorado through which we traveled. The story that emerged, I hope, used the setting to accomplish a few of those goals.  

    As we looked around the scant remains of the old ghost town at the trailhead, I pictured the old saloon. That thought experiment led to an idea for another story that is currently scheduled to appear in print. Two stories from one hike. It must have been the lack of oxygen. 

    Until next time. 

11 July 2023

A Constitutional Road Trip


Our thoughts often turn to vacation travel. Today, I'd like to use the blog space to propose an itinerary for those traveling to Southern California. Skip the lines at Disneyland, the Getty, the Santa Monica Pier, or the San Diego Zoo. Instead, take a trip to make Atlas Obscura proud. What follows is a very brief itinerary for Constitutional law junkies and perhaps writers who want to get the law right. 

A quick refresher. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution holds in part:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated...

A number of Fourth Amendment hotspots lie in Southern California. Today's trip focuses on telephones. 

1. 8210 Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles

The Chateau Marmont stands close by this address. The hotel offers a history of
misbehavior worthy of a blog or book. But for Con. Law fans, walk across the street. These days, I think you'll be looking at a taco shop (at least according to Google Street View). Close your eyes. Imagine the year is 1967, and you're looking at three telephone booths right here. 

Charles Katz was a career gambler and, in the 1960s,  possibly the best handicapper of college basketball games in the country. He had an apartment at 8400 Sunset and would walk down to the pay phones to call bookmakers on the East Coast with his game recommendations. 

Unbeknownst to Katz, the FBI had begun an investigation into his gambling activities. Law enforcement, with the consent of the phone company, disabled one of the phone booths. They attached a listening device between the other two. Regardless of which booth Katz chose, the calls could now be monitored. Phone booths, for those who don't remember, were clear glass boxes.  Katz entered and closed the door. The police recorded his conversations. The surveillance was conducted through the exterior wall and without a warrant. Katz was convicted and fined. 

Following conviction, Katz appealed and the case ultimately went to the US Supreme Court. In overturning his conviction, the court established a new standard for identifying where constitutional protections exist. Although phones booths are quaint history, the test, by and large, remains. The court looked at how the phone booth might be viewed by Katz and, objectively, by the public. Although visible, Katz took reasonable steps to protect his privacy.  The Fourth Amendment, the court ruled, exists to protect people rather than places. Katz had a reasonable expectation of privacy that society was prepared to recognize. He went inside the booth, closed the door, and paid for a private phone call. He was entitiled to believe that, although he might be seen, he had a right not to be heard. 

The protections of the Fourth Amendment covered not just personal effects but also the recording of Katz's conversation. This spot of Los Angeles stretched the constitutional protections surrounding search and seizure. 

Katz v. United States, 389 US 347 (1967)

According to his attorney, when informed of the historic decision, an outcome that changed constitutional analysis, Katz's first question was whether he could now sue the phone company. Want to bet how that turned out?

Take the I-5 south to San Diego

2. The intersection of Euclid and Imperial

A busy crossroads in a working-class neighborhood that's sandwiched between two freeways. The area has a history of gang activity. The intersection has been known as "The Four Corners of Death." When you go, don't stay long. 

If you look around, you'll see a gas station, St. Rita Catholic Church, and a sign for San Diego Legal Aid. Had you been here in the early morning hours of August 22nd, 2009, however, you'd likely have witnessed David Riley being pulled over for an expired license plate. He was subsequently arrested for traffic violations. His car's contents were inventoried before the vehicle was towed. The police located guns. Riley's troubles mounted. The police next seized the cell phone in his pocket. They went through its contents and found several pieces of evidence linking Riley to the "Bloods," a criminal street gang. (Remember the gang activity I mentioned above.) In particular, photos on the phone included a picture of Riley standing in front of a car that had been involved in a drive-by shooting a few weeks earlier. The photos and phone data added to the prosecutor's pile of evidence in the trial for that shooting. The other evidence included DNA and ballistics. 

At trial, Riley's attorney sought to suppress the phone evidence. Riley claimed that the search of his cell phone violated the Fourth Amendment. Prior to Riley's case, the law had been ambiguous about whether police could, without a warrant, search the contents of a cell phone. His case made it clear that they could not. 

Even though Riley carried the phone in his jeans, the court recognized that raking through a smartphone was different than merely checking the defendant's pockets. The intrusion into a person's privacy proved far broader with a cell phone search. The phone, as we all know, is the storage vessel for most people's entire lives. The court did not prohit the police from looking at them. They did, however, require that law enforcement obtain a warrant before checking. 

Look at the intersection again. A landmark case that shaped Con. Law occurred at this humble street crossing. 

Riley, incidentally, won the case but lost the war. The Supreme Court case did not secure his release from prison. On remand, California courts found that the other evidence overwhelmingly sustained his conviction. 

Riley v. California, 573 US 373 (2014)

Both these addresses changed the legal landscape. Both affected police procedure, and both, therefore, influenced the details of crime fiction. Drive by both. Then stop, take out phone, snap a pic or make a call. 

Until next time. 

20 June 2023

I'm Out

 I'm preoccupied these days with watching an ongoing series. It's got tension and drama. Stealing occurs. Twist endings. I've seen the occasional hit. Those involved make errors. Sometimes those mistakes cost them, while other times, they escape scot-free. 

The College World Series is playing in Omaha.

My alma mater is playing this year, so my long-times and I are fixated. 

Consequently, as I lay my fingers on the keyboard, I allow myself to get distracted by checking out the bracket breakdown at Then, I'm pausing to look at the upcoming game schedule. Sometimes as a writer, it's essential to embrace reality. I'm thinking about baseball. A SleuthSayers blog is due. Here then, are a few of my favorite baseball-themed mysteries. 

1. Mortal Stakes by Robert B. Parker

I came into the mystery camp late. I wasn't one of those kids who devoured Hardy Boys books. Instead, a friend introduced me to Spenser in college, and I got hooked. Any personal list of baseball books must, therefore, include Mortal Stakes

Marty Rabb is the star pitcher of the Boston Red Sox. Rabb seems to be living a dream life. He has a beautiful wife and a wicked arsenal of pitches. Someone, however, may be blackmailing him to throw games rather than strikes. 

DanDectis: Creative Commons

Parker's story pits Spenser against a racketeer and a well-armed enforcer. Spenser throws a few punches, reads a few books, cooks a few meals, and drinks a few beers. He was the guy I remembered from my early readings. (Sadly, Spenser faces the challenges in Mortal Stakes without Hawk.)

The story opens with a lyrical description of summertime baseball. It is the nostalgic picture most fans carry around in their heads. 

2. The Final Detail by Harlen Coben

Myron Bolitar, a New York City sports agent, finds his business, friends, and life in peril. He returns from the Caribbean to discover that his partner has been accused of murdering one of their clients, a washed-up baseball pitcher attempting a comeback. Bolitar is determined to prove his partner's innocence, a task that would be easier if she would talk to him. 

Coben's pause to reminisce about the magic of baseball parks is about halfway through the story. He held off longer than Parker did. His description has a little less beer and a little more neurosis, reflecting the differences in the main characters. 

3. Murderer's Row by Crabbe Evers

The first two books are mysteries that touch upon baseball. Murderer's Row is a baseball book that uses a murder investigation as an excuse to spin baseball stories. It is the second of five novels written in the early '90s. Duffy House, a retired sportswriter, and occasional sleuth, is pressed by the baseball commissioner into investigating the assassination of the New York Yankee's owner. 

Murderer's Row was published in 1991. The book's style reflects a different time. The back story is shoveled into the first half-dozen pages. I'm not recommending it as a model for teaching novel writing. But this may be your book if you want a tour of names and places from baseball's past. 

* I don't have an international thriller with a baseball theme. I am also a fan of The Catcher Was a Spy. The book is the story of Moe Berg, a major league catcher in the '20s and '30s who later became a spy for the Office of Strategic Service during World War II. Berg was called the brainiest man in major league baseball. His friends said he could speak ten languages but couldn't hit in any of them. His baseball card is on display at CIA headquarters in Langley. (He is also one of the many players mentioned in Murderer's Row.)

**Murderers' Row was the name given to the core hitters of the 1927 Yankees. That batting lineup included Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The name has been borrowed a number of times for novels and movies. Among these is an Otto Penzler-edited anthology of short stories. All the stories were original when the book was published in 2001. Lawrence Block, Elmore Leonard, and Michael Connelly contributed, as well as Robert B. Parker.  

And with Parker, we've gone around the horn. 

Until next time.