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

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. 

30 May 2023

You Can Be the Judge

At conferences like Malice and Bouchercon, I hear about the techniques authors use to memorialize their thoughts. Story ideas don't come to us only while we're sitting at the laptop. Rather, they pop out of billboards we pass or from snippets of conversation overheard at a restaurant. Most of the panelists reported texting or emailing themselves. Wise ones recommended using a standard naming convention for messages. Some deliberately misspell a word. They type "Knotes," for instance, in the subject so that they can quickly locate the stash of ideas they've compiled. Each time I hear about these techniques, I admire the forward-thinking of my fellow writers. 

I scribble on scraps of paper. 

Sitting in the courthouse basement, when I run across the odd bit that gives me pause, I'll hurriedly jot it down, tear the note from the legal pad or Post-It note and return to work. At the end of the day, I'll empty my pockets--phone, keys, and odd scraps. Post-Its, by the way, offer the added benefit of cleaning pocket lint. 

The following are a few random notes harvested from police reports and fermented in my pocket. 


    In law enforcement, minor traffic offenses provide police with the legal opportunity to observe the contents of a vehicle and its occupants in more detail. Higher and better charges may then arise. In the police report following a methamphetamine arrest, the officer noted that the car had a detective brake lamp. Was it a typo or an acknowledgment of the pretext stop? You can be the judge. 

    In another case, the unemployed driver was pulled over operating a vehicle owned by a female passenger. The police report noted that a woman with him was his finance. I think the officer intended to report that the two were engaged to be married and, thus, she was his fiance. But the plain reading may also be correct. You can be the judge. 

    (This one may only be funny locally.)

    The suburban county just north of Dallas is Collin. When the Fort Worth officer arrested the man on the Colon County warrant, was it an inadvertent voice-to-text error, or did the police offer a comment on a Dallas stereotype commonly held by people living on the western side of the Metroplex. You can be the judge. 


    Blackie Sherrod, a legendary local sportswriter, published a regular column of random thoughts entitled "Scattershooting." It seemed a good title for the following unrelated notes gleaned from police reports. Each one briefly interrupted the flow of county business. 

  • As I approached the vehicle, I observed the pungent odor of marijuana wafting from the open passenger window. 

Pungent? Wafting? This is not the typical prose of a police report. I think that the officer yearns to be a writer. Look for her debut novel soon, available on Amazon. 

  • J. and his girlfriend have been dating a little more than a week and they live together at...

But at least they were rushing into things. 

  • I encountered S. sitting on his porch with his service dog, Capone. 

The family's cats, Manson, Kaczynski, and Gotti, were undoubtedly inside the house. What service, I wondered, does a dog named Capone perform? 

  • I identified the defendant as Chase T. and charged him with evading arrest. 

Chase was charged with running from the police. Does name determine destiny? Just ask Paz charged with disturbing the peace. Or the meth user named Krystal. 

And, because Memorial Day marks, for many, the unofficial start of summer. 

The police were called to the scene of a domestic violence offense. A fight broke out between two brothers during the family barbecue. The officer observed and interviewed both men attempting to determine who was the primary aggressor. The officer reported, 

  • I could not tell whether the substance on D's shirt was evidence of a bloody nose or barbecue sauce. 

Two things worth noting in the above sentence. First, dinners at this house get raucous. And a trained observer can't tell if it's blood or the family's barbecue sauce. If they invite you to dinner, I'd recommend politely declining. Secondly, you might have a new way to hide blood evidence in your next story. 

Besides a bit of fun, I think there is a lesson for both writers and criminal justice professionals. The participants in the system--lawyers, officers, defendants, and their families--are all human. Stories tend to focus on the big mistakes. The little errors, like those set out above, might make characters more like real people. 

Until next time. 

09 May 2023

A Mash of Mirth

The current issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine kindly carries my story, "The Case of the Kosher Deal." While I am always over the moon to see a story of mine in the pages of Hitchcock, I confess to a bit of surprise to learn that this story would appear in their May/June magazine. 

Kosher Deal is a Hanukkah story.

Someone may need to buy the good people at Hitchcock a calendar, one with the holidays printed in small blue type at the bottom of each day. The end of Ramadan, Earth Day, and Mother's Day all fall within the span of this issue. In no calendar, however, does any Hannukah event occur. 

Can the case of the funny timing be explained? 

First, the story is about corporate gamesmanship. The characters use Hannukah as an excuse for a power grab and a chance to settle scores. That fact likely widened the publication opportunity window outside the November/December issue. 

Second, and more importantly, the magazine's editorial staff thought that the story was funny. 

As written in the editor's note, April/May is the mirthful edition. The current issue leans into the lighter side of crime. "The Case of the Kosher Deal" is one is a series of light-hearted stories. Regardless of the holiday, this humor element helped me wrangle a spot in the current issue. Creating the series has forced me to think about writing funny. 

Two mystery readers walk into a bar...

And from here, the story could go in several different directions. The pair might find a body and set off sleuthing. Alternatively, the familiar trope, "two___ walk into a bar," might unfold inside the saloon. That ambiguity alone could drive the reader into the story. Humor in a mystery can reveal character, hide clues, provide a brief respite from the dark topic of crime, or merely entertain. 

"The Case of the Kosher Deal" is the fifth installment in a series about a private investigator and marketing rep for the Potato Advisory Board. Throughout, the protagonist is known simply as the Spud Stud. 

The challenge with elucidating "The Rules" is that I have very few. But here goes: 

1. Be Yourself (unless yourself is deathly dull, then be someone else.)

I write things that entertain and amuse me and trust that I am close enough to the center of life's bell curve that others will laugh along with me. The Spud Stud grew out of a family joke made while preparing dinner. The idea took hold, a story sold, and a series was born. I hope readers come away thinking he had fun writing this.  I did.

We all laugh. Each of us has things we find funny. Those experiences can be tapped into and twisted. Disguise them, if necessary, to protect the innocent or wring the laughter. If you want to write funny, believe that you have funny potential. 

2. Remember, You're a World Builder

The humorist, David Sedaris, begins his essay "Understanding Owls" with the a priori assumption that we all have too many owls in our lives. He creates an absurd world, and we walk into it. In the Bible, Jonah got swallowed by a whale. He rode around in reasonable comfort until finally belched out onto the land he was initially commanded to visit. And why not? The biblical story teaches through the comic setup. 

The Spud Stud is simultaneously a private eye and a vegetable marketing rep, a position I've never seen posted on LinkedIn. The supporting characters occasionally question his competency, but they never wink. The authenticity of that world is never challenged. 

The writer creates the world for the reader, so she can make it comical if she wishes. She can make the absurd realistic through detail. She must also demonstrate that the characters believe in the sincerity of their world. 

3. But Build the World With Some Restraint

Think about comedy duos. They typically consist of a silly partner and a sounding board, the normal one who reacts to the absurdity produced by the first. Both play essential roles in landing the joke. Humor in a story might come from the main character or one of the surrounding characters. Too many slapstick characters lead to chaos. If that's the goal, then take a seat next to Eugene Ionesco. A narrative thread typically involves a regular character. 

Consider a distinction between humorous and silly. Humor works best when it enriches an already good story. When jokes and silliness serve only to distract the reader's attention, like a magician's props, it's likely time to consider a rewrite. 

4. Short and Specific

Sprinkle the humor throughout the story. Try to avoid a long setup. Think about the stand-up comic performing her monologue. She might spend her entire routine relating one anecdote. When she delivers the punchline at the end, there is the twist. The audience, however, may have already lost interest and gone searching elsewhere on Netflix. So along the way, she sprinkles asides and quick bits of humor to hold them. 

The Spud Stud derives many of these quick bits from specificity. I might say "potato" at the story's beginning to orient the reader. After that, I'll wear out my potato reference manual working in potato types. The specificity adds tiny drops of humor. Among the potato varieties, "Bintje" is reliable when I want a laugh. It sounds funny. 

Forced metaphors are good too. The Spud Stud sees the world through his lens, the tuber industry. His choice of metaphor reflects that--Life is like a Bintje. 

5. Include a Surprise

As mentioned earlier, the twist ending is the punchline of a joke. Like a laugh-worthy clincher, a good twist turns the setup in an unexpected and yet sensical way. Good comedy relies on the surprise. A writer might use the "Rule of Three." Two items in a series establish a pattern. The reader's brain anticipates what comes next and guesses at it. That third item is the punchline or twist. When the last piece breaks from the series, the reader is surprised. The twist might make any Tom, Dick, or Bintje laugh. 

Some people tell jokes better than others. Some writers craft funny stories more quickly than others. The fact that it may not be natural does not mean a writer can't. I invite you to try it. 

Just as soon as you and the other writer walk out of that bar. 

(I'll be away from my computer on the day this posts. Apologies in advance if you comment and I don't reply.)

Until next time. 

18 April 2023

With Bias Toward None

    I'm sure I'm unique with this problem. While I searched for one thing, I got sidetracked. I distracted myself by reading about something else. 

    Some light research for a project led my browser to an article about ancient Greece. I clicked on it. There, the original work quickly became forgotten. I got pulled aside, musing about a question. The art of medicine has Hippocrates, their symbolic Greek forefather. But what about the practice of law?

    To think about ancient Greece is to think about the written and spoken word. The Greeks had lawgivers. No single toga-clad figure, however, stands over the legal profession like Hippocrates. Most of my fellow lawyers likely couldn't claim an ancient Greek to whom we are heir. Perhaps that's a bit of an overstatement. Since there is no standard pre-law curriculum, many of my brothers and sisters in the bar were liberal arts majors. We all likely have a smattering of ancient Greeks at the ready. If pressed, most would likely glom onto Socrates. The Socratic method, after all, is the standard pedagogical tool for most law schools. 

    But he was a teacher and philosopher and not really our legal ancestor. 

    Demosthenes, famous for his persuasive oratory, might be the candidate. You might remember the stories of him reciting verses with pebbles in his mouth to enhance his enunciation. Or speaking on the seashore, forcing himself to be heard over the roar of the waves. 

    Another contender is Themis. Originally the organizer of the communal affairs of humans, her ability to foresee the future got her promoted to one of the oracles at Delphi. She became the ancient Greek goddess of divine justice. Themis was not portrayed as blindfolded. As a seer, covering her eyes was unnecessary. Neither did she carry a sword because she represented common consent and not coercion. She has, however, largely been pushed aside by Iustitia, or Justitia, the Roman goddess of justice. 

    Iustitica, by the way, was originally not blindfolded either. She usually carried a double-edged sword, and her scales may date back to the Egyptian god, Maat. 

    I nominate as our standard bearer, Bias of Priene. He was renowned in ancient times as the wisest of all the Seven Sages of Greece. A skilled advocate, he famously represented only righteous defendants. He did so, the legends report, without charging a fee. 

Vatican, Public Domain

   An advocate up to his final days, one story of Bias of Priene has him arguing a cause on behalf of his client. After he finished speaking, Bias sat, leaned back, and rested his head on the chest of his grandson. When the advocate on the other side had finished his argument, the judges hearing the case sided with Bias. It was then discovered that he had died during the opposing counsel's argument. 

    Lest we think him naive, his most famous saying to come into our time is the simple epigram, "All people are wicked." 

    A model of wisdom, Bias recognized the wrong but crusaded for the right. He fought on behalf of the just cause to his dying breath. Bias of Priene deserves to have a better place in the lineage of justice than he currently occupies. 

    Perhaps it's the name.

    Bias, the systematic deviation of results or inferences from truth, is a perceived enemy of justice.  

    Does the ancient Greek have anything to do with our modern word "bias," the term for a prejudice sewn into our contemporary legal codes and scientific journals? The rabbit hole I had started down just got deeper. But now I was engaged, so I plunged into it. 

    Does our current usage have anything to do with the ancient Greek? 

    Duncan Hunter, in the online British Medical Journal, repeats a story reported by Herodotus. Croesus, the ancient king of Lydia, planned warfare to expand his influence throughout Greece. He consulted with the wise Bias about the best way to deploy his warships against the Ionians. Bias, hoping to avoid the death and destruction of war, deliberately misled Croesus. He advised the king that the Ionians were preparing a land assault against Lydia. Croesus stopped building warships and instead turned his attention to developing his defenses. Bias later confessed that he had lied and honestly reported that the Ionians were also building warships. Croesus, instead of being angry, learned instead that the better course would be to make peace with the Ionians. Bias of Priene may have provided misinformation. Some may see an early example of a "Reporting Bias." 

    Etymonline, the online etymology dictionary, offers an alternative and more modern explanation. This one dates from the 16th Century. In the game of bowls, "bias" was, apparently, a technical term. It is related to balls made with a greater weight on one side. This caused them to roll not on a true line but instead to curve in one direction. The figurative use became the one-sided tendency of a mind to bend in a particular direction. 

    Bias of Priene should be more renowned as the law's Greek ancestor. He symbolizes both the good and the bad in the modern practice of law. He is forever associated with forceful advocacy exercised until the last breath. His name, however, also serves as a cautionary tale against the pull in an unjust direction. While he should be Hippocrates, he rests in relative obscurity, unknown to most. 

    Crime fiction writers might adopt him. The maxim, "All people are wicked," means that anyone might be a suspect. 

    Until next time. 

28 March 2023

Recklesser or More Reckless

         Last week, Barb Goffman devoted her SleuthSayers blog to a conversation about Reckless in Texas, an anthology she edited. Reckless was released earlier this month. The book's selection committee kindly included a story I'd written, "Steer Clear." The tale allowed me to talk a bit about my city, Fort Worth. 

    In 1849, Major Ripley Arnold of the United States Army was ordered to establish an outpost in northern Texas near the confluence of the Clear and West Forks of the Trinity River. He, and the 2nd Drogoons he commanded, chose a site on flat ground at a bend in the river. This place, part of a line of garrisons, was to mark the boundary between the lands of settlers and those of the Native Americans. Arnold named this new site Camp Worth in honor of Major General William Jenkins Worth, a hero of the Mexican War and the recently deceased commander of all U.S. Army forces in Texas. 

    Arnold discovered that the advantage of the camp's location, ready access to good water, quickly became a drawback. Flooding of the Trinity moved the Dragoons to higher ground. The new outpost was built at the top of a bluff overlooking the river. Here, Fort Worth was established. 

    Following the Civil War, with that broad plain for grazing and the available water, Fort Worth developed into a stop on the Chisholm Trail for cattle drives. Hell's Half Acre emerged as the local entrepreneurs built a bustling and brawling place to separate herders from their money. They established "Cowtown." Later, along with the surrounding communities of the Dallas/Fort Worth area, we colloquially became a part of the "Metroplex." 

    Dallas/Fort Worth. Although we get half the names in this relationship (or two-thirds if you're a strict word counter), Fort Worthians sometimes feel overlooked in our paired relationship. The residents of St. Paul may well understand. 

    I blame alphabetical ordering. Dallas precedes Fort Worth in the dictionary. Hence, we get D/FW. And we became part of the "Dallas" area. 

    Army regulations distinguish between "camps" and "forts." Forts were permanent facilities, while camps were temporary. Would this region look different if my community had sprung from that original camp? If the sprawl of cities and suburbs dotting North Texas was known collectively as CW/D. If "The Camp" came to a reader and speaker's mouth first, would they be the Camp Worth Cowboys? After all, the team plays football in my county, not Dallas. 

    Perhaps not. Dallas sits on the eastern edge of our twin cities. As settlers came west, they stopped there first. Dallas had been established for nearly a decade by the time Major Arnold pitched his tent on that Trinity riverbank. Even with our name first, we might never have overcome their head start. Still, it's something I ponder now and again. 

    When Sister's in Crime North Dallas announced the anthology, Reckless in Texas, I knew where I'd set my story. My city needed a shout-out. "Steer Clear" does not delve into the history I've outlined. Nor do I have a villain bitter over Dallas's name primacy. I do, however, steal a prize-winning bovine in a locked barn mystery. I tap into Fort Worth's celebration of our cattle-driving heritage. Through the story, I hope to
remind readers about our links to the Chisholm Trail and, hopefully, Fort Worth's place in North Texas's rich crime fiction tradition. 

    The area's crime fiction offerings now include Reckless in Texas. I am happy to join my fellow authors in telling stories about North Texas. Thanks to Barb and the local SINC chapter for putting this volume together. 

    Now if I can just get them to change the chapter's name to Sister's in Crime--Camp Worth. 

    Until next time. 

07 March 2023

On the Road to Someplace Else

    I sat at my desk a while back, intending to write a short story about a private eye. Hard-boiled and world-weary, I envisioned an arc where this paladin of the pavement would walk some mean street and, likely, do the wrong thing for the right reason. 

    In my imagination, I pictured a Shamus Award-winning character. Heck, readers would love this guy so much that they'd create new awards to bestow upon him. In my imagination, he was that good. Ever humble and appreciative, I'd always accept their adulations on his behalf.

    He might have a worn trench coat for armor and keep a bottle of cheap whiskey in his desk drawer to help silence the demons of a life lived hard.

    I don't know. For the story to exist, the words had to cross the gulf between my mind's eye and that blinking cursor on the blank screen. The distance on that day was farther than I had anticipated.

    The tough guy couldn't make the leap.

    What do you do when the story refuses to come together?

    Strategies for overcoming the problem differ for everyone trying to write. Some people forge ahead, dropping bad word after bad word onto the page, thrilled that no one else will see the roughest draft, confident that editing will transform the ugly. Others recommend separation. Take a walk or do some vigorous exercise, some task to clear the impediment blocking the path forward. If I walk far enough or exercise hard enough, I'm too worn out to work at my desk. That also solves the problem.

    I could open a door, look inward, or try another Zen-like technique proposed online for getting unstuck with a story.

    Surrender is a final strategy. A writer might admit defeat in this round. Save what's there. My computer file labeled "Not Shamus" contains notes, including the alliterative paladin of the pavement, along with a few other bumper sticker jottings. They've been put aside for another day.

    I started fresh on a new blank screen. This story thread didn't have the baggage of the earlier character. The story contained a different protagonist. He'd been the junior varsity of my imagination. When the presumptive star couldn't perform, the coach looked to him to step forward.

    That plucky little bench warmer was Doyle Tuchfield, the main character in "A Study With Scarlett." Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine included my story in the March/April issue. 

    Faint traces of the old story remain. Rather than a contemporary private eye, Tuchfield is a Victorian-era detective specializing in on-scene investigations. As a veteran of some of the Civil War's major battles, Tuchfield, too, might be a bit world-weary. And we know that his sparse office has a desk. A bottle might be stashed there somewhere. 

    Setting "A Study With Scarlett" in an earlier era also allowed a Holmesian element to be added to the story. The small homage was noted with the main characters named Doyle and Scarlett.

    It is never the wrong time to have a Sherlock Holmes reference. Since their first publication in 1887, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson have remained in print. The original stories may be found in seventy languages. An eponymous magazine and countless websites, pastiches, parodies, and fan fiction entries are available for reading. The present, however, may be a particularly good time. Characters that Arthur Conan Doyle envisioned, like Mycroft, have their own books (Mycroft Holmes by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse).  Characters he didn't create have been featured in Netflix movies (Enola Holmes by Nancy Springer).

    I started off intending to write one story. On the way, a different tale emerged. A splash of homage combined with a few hints of the original. There was also some research conducted while standing in my darkened closet, but you'll have to read the story to see if you might guess what that was all about.

    Those original notes remain on my computer, along with fragments of other tales and titles for stories that I've never begun. I may get around to visiting them someday. That, I suppose, depends on the road ahead.

    Until next time. 

14 February 2023

A Valentine List

St. Valentine is the patron saint of affianced couples, beekeepers, epilepsy, fainting,
greetings, happy marriages, lovers, plague, travelers, and young people. 

Since this blog appears on February 14th, let us focus on the part of that resume dealing with love and marriage. 

A bit of background. According to a medieval legend, a Roman priest named Valentinus was arrested during the reign of Emperor Claudius Gothicus. Valentinus landed in the custody of Asterius, a nobleman. Valentinus used his time in this imperial hoosgow to preach about the salvation of pagans. Asterius, the legend says, challenged the priest. If Valentinus could heal Asterius's blind daughter, the nobleman would convert. 

The priest gently laid his hands on the girl's eyes. He began to pray and chant. When he drew back his hands, her sight returned. Asterius, true to his word, adopted Christianity for his entire household. The emperor, however, was not entertained by the story. He ordered everyone executed. Valentinus was beheaded on February 14th. 

Maybe he carried love letters between the cells. Maybe he married Roman soldiers to their girlfriends. No one is sure. History isn't clear that this is the right Valentine. 

A second possible Valentinus was the bishop of Terni in Umbria, Italy. He, too, sought a conversion, healed a child, and was beheaded by Gothicus for his troubles. 

There was a third possible Valentinus. He died in Africa, and next to nothing is known of him except his name and date of death, February 14th. 

The first Valentine's Day mystery. 

Little in the aforementioned has anything to do with romantic love. That association begins later, likely with Geoffrey Chaucer. But to be fair, there is little in the Valentinus story having to do with beekeepers. That also is an English addition associated with the promise of Spring. 

In German, the saint's name is pronounced Fallentin. The similarity to the word "fallen" likely links him to epilepsy and the plague. These diseases, incurable in the medieval period, both required saintly intervention. 

Crime fiction has its own fallen. And there is that element of mystery surrounding the saint's origin. These connections will serve as my jumping-off point. While many crime solvers involve romantic entanglements, let us narrow the field in honor of the holiday. Who makes the best crime-solving couples? Possible spoiler alerts run throughout the following list. 

    1. Sister Fidelma and Brother Eadulf (Peter Tremayne)

    "...[W]without your advice, your ability to analyse, I would not have succeeded in many of the investigations we have will forever be my soul-mate, my anam chara, and if you go my soul will die."

(Fidelma to Eadulf in The Chalice of Blood)

    These stories, set in the 7th Century, contain criminal investigation, analysis, Catholicism, soul mates, and drops of Irish. This couple seemed the perfect place to begin in honor of the religious roots behind St. Valentine's Day. Eadulf, from the Roman tradition of the early church, is matched with Fidelma, a dalaigh and nun from the Irish tradition. Their differing perspectives on religion, a central component of their shared lives, allows for debate. Their alternative viewpoints offer distinct ways to sort out possible bits of evidence. Both Fidelma and Eadulf aid in the solution of the crime. They are a pair. 

    2. Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane (Dorothy Sayers)

    "If anyone marries you, it will be for the pleasure of hearing you talk piffle." 

    (Vane to Wimsey in Strong Poison)

        Harriet Vane, a mystery writer, meets Lord Peter, a detective, when she is on trial for murdering her lover. The lover was poisoned, the same method Vane had been researching for her next book. Wimsey helps her get acquitted by proving who really committed the murder. The couple moves from courtship to marriage, solving murders along the way. 

    3. Albert Campion and Lady Amanda Fitton (Margery Allingham)

    Fitton: "So you've decided to come clean at last." 

    Campion: "Metaphorically speaking." 

    (Fitton to Campion in Sweet Danger)

    Red-haired Amanda brings passion and expertise to complement the character of Albert Campion. She provides mechanical skills as an aircraft engineer and a spark to Campion, a man other characters describe as "bland". Neither superhero nor purely rational thinking machine, Campion relies upon her technical abilities to aid in his work unraveling knots. 

    4. Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes (Laurie King)

    "You cannot help being a female, and I should be something of a fool were I to discount your talents merely because of their housing." 

    (Holmes in The Beekeeper's Apprentice)

    Besides the beekeeping, which gives this book an extra check in the St. Valentine box, the first book paired a fifteen-year-old Mary Russell with a mid-fifties Sherlock Holmes. A mentor-to-mentee relationship deepens across subsequent books. Eventually, they marry. Her quirks and intellect proved Holmes equal. King's Mary Russell stories give Holmes a life-blooded passion. 

    5. Nick and Nora Charles (Dashiell Hammett)

    "Listen, darling, tomorrow I'll buy you a whole lot of detective stories, but don't worry your pretty little head over mysteries tonight." 

    (Nick to Nora in The Thin Man

    I'll confess that I remember Nick and Nora far better from the Thin Man movies than the Dashiell Hammett story. My Nick is always William Powell thin and owns a wire-haired terrier. This couple is distinct from the others. While the previous pairs generally offered a partnership of relative equals, Nick does the detecting and is cheered on or pushed and prodded forward by his rich, thrill-seeking wife. Despite the detection imbalance, Nora regularly proves to have more brains and metal than haute couture appearances suggest.

    William Powell and Myrna Loy shaped the trope of the romantically involved, crime-detecting duo. Even if the couple isn't a traditional partnership, they must be on this list. To see the murder solved is not why we watch, but rather to enjoy the boozy, wise-cracking interplay between Nick and Nora. 

    Do you have other crime-solving Valentine's couples to propose? Tommy Beresford and Tuppence Cowley? Or a more contemporary duo? I look forward to reading your thoughts. 

    Until next time. 

24 January 2023

Boys Two Tax

When I was ten years old, my dad brought home a conversion kit for my bicycle. He installed a banana seat and high-rise butterfly handlebars so that I could ride a Sting-Ray, just like the cool kids.

Alas, Dad could change the bike to cool, but the rider remained unreformed.

I was reminded of my bicycle’s conversion in a rather roundabout Proustian moment the other day. Sitting at my desk in the courthouse basement reviewing cases, I was presented with an officer’s affidavit.

He pulled over a pickup on a routine traffic stop. As he approached the vehicle in the bed, he spotted a Cadillac converter.

Having some familiarity with our local crime trends, I knew that the officer had likely spied a stolen catalytic converter. The voice-to-text, called-in report had changed the stolen object. If one says the words out loud and mumbles just a smidge, it is easy to hear how the substitution occurred. 

In the moment, however, my imagination ran wild. I envisioned Hyundai Elantras or Chevy Sparks sprouting tailfins and hood ornaments, stretching out before my eyes until they became El Dorados. The Cadillac converter rolling around in the back of this defendant's pickup brought the transformation from an entry-level motor vehicle to a classic American roadster.

That sort of thing happens when you spend too much time alone in the basement.

Cadillac converter is a petite-typo, a small error, easily understood in a world of dictated reports and auto-corrections. January 2023 has provided several examples already. Perhaps the new year brought software upgrades to the local departments, and the bugs are still being worked out. None of these are significant, but each has successfully taken me away, if briefly, from the subject of the offense to consider the alternative reality posed by the language on the page.

Consider where your mind goes with the following actual examples:

“John Smith was arrested leaving the Budget Sweets.”

Envision the Willy Wonka-esque crime implied by the sentence. Readers might quickly fix this one and picture the malefactor sneaking away from the Budget Suites, a low-rent motel just off the freeway. Lots of offenses occur there. But a discount candy store as a crime scene? Maybe Hershey, Pennsylvania, has that problem, but it is unheard of here in Fort Worth.

Or perhaps this example:

“I apprehended John Smith before he was able to flea.”

If true, legal pundits will be forced to consider the definition of the verb, to flea. Can a pest infestation be a weapon? What constitutes a swarm? Fortunately, my colleagues and I were spared all that scholasticism. Smith merely hoped to run away. He was arrested by the police and not by animal control.

If the workload is heavy and I’m blessed with a smidge of discipline, the above auto-corrections rarely slow me down. They are momentary distractions, encouraging flights of imagination in the free moments. Occasionally, however, the auto-corrections indeed prove disruptive.

The other day, for example, Officer Lawful met Smith and Jones regarding a dispute. The police report described Officer Lawful comforting Smith after hearing his statements. I regularly read examples of officers offering succor to distressed individuals, so the emotional support did not seem out of place. Smith’s version of events changed while being comforted, and Officer Lawful subsequently arrested him.

In a world absorbed only through the printed page, the electronic shifting from confronted to comforted changed my perception of who the arrestee would be. Like a bad plot twist, it took me out of the story, and not in a good way.

As I think about my writing for 2023, I hope that exposure to these errors reminds me of some basic lessons. When I'm writing, the words matter. Seeing silly examples of word choice should prompt me to take extra care with my language decisions in the stories I'm trying to create. At least, I hope it does. The more important lesson for me is the reminder to carefully proofread my pages. And then reread them before hitting "send." I regularly see how a garbled or inattentive word changes my reading of a police report.

My apologies to Michael, Barb, and my other editors for the typos and word choices they’ve comforted.

Until next time.