Showing posts with label Robert Mangeot. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Robert Mangeot. Show all posts

11 March 2023

25 Years Later: Decoding The Big Lebowski

What makes a crime story? A crime, sure, but that can infer a creative box, as if the crime might ultimately confine the story. Not so. A crime story can do anything, given the ambition. 

Consider The Big Lebowski (1998), released 25 years ago this month. Even if you've never seen the oddball classic, you know the main character: The Dude (Jeff Bridges). And if the movie confounded you, you're not alone. Nobody confounds like the Coen brothers.


Actually, nobody else could've made The Big Lebowski. No Hollywood newbie could've sold a script this indulgent in directorial conceits and character asides. By 1998, though notches on the Coens' belt included Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, and the Oscar-winning Fargo.

The Big Lebowski comes disguised as subverted L.A. noir. That's not clear in the opening scenes, with the Dude sniffing milk and the voiceover narration. But resketch Acts One and Two to include the off-camera action, and themes will sound familiar:

  1. Jeffrey "Big" Lebowksi is a philanthropist statesman of the L.A. Chamber of Commerce set. In reality, he married well and stinks at business. His daughter, Maude (Julianne Moore), controls the wealth through a family trust. Big's trophy wife, Bunny, is causing him epic grief by sleeping around and piling up gambling debts to pornographer Jackie Treehorn.
  2. Treehorn sends goons to collect from Big, but the goons mistakenly barge in on unemployed stoner Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski. A rug is soiled. 
  3. Bunny disappears.
  4. Uli, an ex-Europop nihilist and Bunny's co-star in a Treehorn low-budget production, senses opportunity. Uli and his crew send Big a ransom note for $1,000,000, despite having no idea where Bunny actually went.
  5. Big senses a similar opportunity. Bunny has disappeared before, after all. She might be playing him for another payout. Big finagles a $1,000,000 withdrawal from the Lebowski trust to fund the ransom--which he pockets instead. He prepares a drop bag loaded with old papers.
  6. Big needs a fall guy for cash sure to be missed. Stealing a replacement rug from his mansion is the perfect mark: The Dude. Suspicion of double-cross and kidnapper retribution would fall squarely on the wayward but pliable Dude. Sure enough, the Dude is guilt-tripped into making a ransom drop he believes is real. 
  7. The drop goes disastrously, thanks to the Dude's bowling pal, Walter (John Goodman). The Dude is left thinking he has someone else's million, no explanation, and the sudden need to find Bunny.

Corruption, extortion, vice, adultery, mystery, questions of personal honor. It's a Marlowe riff, though you can almost hear Chandler grouse over the liberties taken.

Marlowe was in the trouble business. The Dude isn't in any business, let alone walking mean streets. His 60s-era sense of justice has devolved to jaded memories and bathtub tokes to whale cries on his headphones. He's forced to turn detective when what he thinks is the loot gets stolen along with his car. His looking for his ride or Bunny or both is a laid-back search, with ample time for bowling. Clues stumble over him from over-the-top characters who'd be at home in any Marlowe story. The Dude gets threatened, followed, drugged, lured to bed, and beat up by the Malibu cops--if any of that sounds familiar.

Subversion or not, The Big Lebowski wears its crime story clothes with clean lines. The confounding parts come with the added layers, and they're ambitious.


Big is the Korean vet become titan of industry. The Dude and Walter are yin and yang of the Vietnapm years. The backdrop is Iraqi War America. Three wars mark the eternal cycles of time in thinly-veiled allegory. The elder, conservative elite– Big, for example– are empty suits engaged in a money grab. Wars get arranged to protect their interests, and the liberals among the younger set, say like a hippie burnout, get blamed for war's downstream social issues. Attempts to break the cycle can't work unless someone deals with the systemic greed. Probably, no one will.

Take Big's daughter. In a prior age, Maude would've femme fatale-d across the screen. These days, she is too liberated and too busy as an artistic whirlwind. She is by some margin the smartest character in the film, even seeing through Big's shenanigans. Not that she cares much. She's after securing the balance of power for the future generation. She takes more care to retrieve the family rug than to address her dad's fraud. 


Scene One opens with a dadgum tumblin' tumbleweed and a Sons of Pioneers tune and The Stranger (Sam Elliott) in full drawl voiceover.  The Stranger rambles on how he's seen some things but this tale here might top them all, this tale how the Dude would become the man for his times. Weird, but not accidental. A man rising up right wrongs is a western trope.

As for the Stranger, maybe he's a keeper of time. Maybe he's God. He appears bodily twice, both at the Star Lanes bar, both after the Dude approaches. The first is mid-film, and over a sarsaparilla the Stranger imparts a meaningful cipher: sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you. The second manifestation is at the end, where the Stranger laments the movie's sole death. 

Star Lanes is no average bowling alley. Outside it, wars and aggression rage. L.A. crime laps right to the alley's door. The Dude's car is stolen in their lot. Inside Star Lanes, time passes differently. The fluorescent lights hum, the bowlers can live their best lives, and the pins get racked again and again by mechanical magic. Star Lanes isn't heaven, but it's a higher plane. 


Or if Star Lanes is a Garden of Eden, Walter is the serpent. Everyone else is trying to relax over a few frames, but Walter steps all over the mood with his thirst to impose his personal code on league and non-league play. A practice game infraction escalates immediately to Walter's gunpoint demand the roll gets marked zero. 

Walter represents order. More precisely, the folly of seeking order. Walter insists on his solution for everything, except his problem-solving instincts are disastrous. He turns Big's fake drop into chaos by substituting a second fake bag stuffed with underwear. Walter screws up the Dude's attempts to recover his car. Walter's real problem is understanding this universe. Cosmic and random forces work vastly outside human control. We mortals just need to roll with it. The Dude would, if Walter let him.


For The Big Lebowski's first hour or so, we're fed outrageous characters and Marlowe-ish flourishes. It's a set-up. Likely as not, you hadn't the pivotal guy in plain sight: the Dude's and Walter's third wheel, Donny (Steve Buscemi). 

Donny is a happy, in-the-moment guy. He just wants to bowl. He can't ever understand what the Dude and Walter are wrangling over. Missing money? Kidnapped porn queen? Rugs that pull a room together? It's all over Donny's head.  The one time he cares enough to ride along on the case, it's because the trip goes by the North Hollywood In-N-Out Burger. 

Not long after, the ransom plot has fallen apart. The Dude confronts Big j'accuse-style about the switcheroo scam, and Bunny returns from partying in Palm Springs. It's wrapped up--and it's been about nothing. The Dude is back where he started. Worse, even. No compensation for the rug or his trashed car.

It's wrapped but not over. No one yet has gotten the bear or been gotten. That happens when Uli and his nihilist buddies confront the Dude, Walter and Donny outside Star Lanes. A hilariously weird scuffle follows. In the aftermath, poor Donny, who never wanted anything but to roll with his buds, keels over from a shock heart attack. 

Donny passes young and pointlessly. In the funeral home, while the Dude and Walter haggle over cremains urn pricing, the Coens make plain what this crime caper has been about. The funeral home wall displays a verse from the King James Bible:

Banter, eccentric character turns, absurd scenes, a kidnap that wasn't a kidnap, ransom money never at risk. These things are as flowers in the field. The film says nothing much really changes in the grand play of the cosmos. We live in a disorderly universe, we deal with events of the day, and we die. Unlike true noir, though, the Coens offer hope. The now matters. The now is all we'll ever have.

The story ambition hasn't been about crime or death, which quite literally hits the Dude in the face. The Big Lebowski is about finding harmony in life. After his hippie years and jaded downslide, he can release that baggage and just go bowling. In the closing scene, the Stranger tells the Dude to take it easy, and only then the Dude gives his pop culture line, delivered in shadow: "The Dude abides." Finally, he can. 

11 February 2023

I Am Digging Poker Face

I read the news, and in the news there is hype. A bunch of hype recently touted a new mystery series on Peacock, Poker Face. The reviews were good enough, varied enough, and legit enough. A throwback to Columbo and the case of the week, they said. I was interested, largely because you can't beat the creative pedigree: Rian Johnson, lately of Knives Out and Glass Onion.

Still didn't watch it. I only clicked play when Poker Face cleared my real test: family screening. If family likes a show, I go from curious to intrigued. Family liked Poker Face a lot. And call me sold, six episodes in. Yeah, it's a throwback down to old school credit fonts and an awesomely shambolic sleuth.

The show takes its name from said sleuth, Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne). Benoit Blanc, she is not. Charlie is a heart-of-gold, drifter type whose drifting led to a Laughlin, Nevada trailer park. Episode One opens with her fetching comped drinks at a mid-grade casino. She got the job because the casino boss (Ron Perlman) caught her not-quite cheating at a poker tournament and wanted her off the circuit. Charlie's superpower is she knows when someone is lying. She has no idea what's true, but falsehoods she can spot. To avoid spoilers, circumstances and a sense of justice force Charlie to use that skill for solving a murder. 

It turns out Charlie missed her calling. Comic premise becomes a series formula when Charlie goes on the lam from Very Bad People. Every week, she hits a new town and new offbeat turn at murder. Charlie's sleuthing rambles between utter inexperience, missed inferences, and downright brilliance, with plenty of it's-right-on-the-edge-of-her brain shtick. The format is a howdunnit, with the crime played out first over 15 minutes of motive, means, and opportunity. Charlie's presence and accidental sleuthing emerge later, a perfect choice. Charlie is no cop. No one's calling her to a crime scene. She has to trip over a corpse, and our knowing the truth puts the spotlight on Charlie's dogged pursuit. In the end, at that shecaughtem, Charlie has stumbled a step ahead. If Lyonne is riffing Peter Falk, it's lovingly subversive. 

Your content warnings: This is no cozy. The murders are on-screen and sometimes violent, though the camera cuts away from most blood and guts stuff. The language is salty. The humor is slant and situational, not constant one-liners. It all suits the vibe.

Every week also brings a new crop of guest stars. No A+ Listers here. Even if the budget could swing one, an A Lister kills the working actor homage to the 70s mystery heyday. Columbo had his William Shatner, Julie Newmar, Roddy McDowell, and Valerie Harper. Charlie Cale goes up against waves of folks you'll know or maybe recognize--and more's the fun. 

And damn, Poker Face is fun.

10 December 2022

One-Fers and Zero-Fers and Damned Statistics

I know this is the holiday season and all that goodwill stuff, but I'll tell you one thing I'm not feeling good about. Not thankful for it, either. It's my late year submission record. Let's just say my stocking gets more coal this time of year.

In point of fact, in the ten-plus years of my submitting stories, I have sold precisely one story in November. It's a good one, but it's only one, and it sold in 2013. It had been worse. Until 2021, I'd gone 0-fer-October. Holiday cheer? Not so much. It's enough to shrink a heart two sizes too small.

I'm joking. A little. My month-by-month stats aren't meant to track emotional swings. I track them to keep my submissions straight. A by-product for a numbers guy is stats help glean insight and/or trivia. You notice things in the numbers. 

"Hey," you might say to the cat. "I'm seeing a trend here." 

The cat peeks her eye open. She says nothing.

"I don't get it," you might say. "One-fer November? That's a trend. Bank it."

She does not, but forget what the cat thinks. Ten-plus years is a certified trend. The real question is whether it's a curse.

It is. A total jinx, I've come to understand. But not the first jinx that slithers to mind. The curse is me.

Story ideas don't come to me in genre form. Sometimes, I'm writing to spec, such as for Alfred Hitchcock or anthology calls. My track record there is pretty strong. But the curse involves the other stuff. For the stuff not to spec, I start with zero no idea what end form it'll find. I just follow my process. If it has enough crime to it, it's a crime story. If crime-free or crime-light, it's a general lit story (once, a speculative mash-up with my famous magic sandwich). But I'm left with a batch of decent stories without a natural home. 

Which is fine. Normal, even. Except that I can be too much a Numbers Guy. 

I'm usually operating under a set of goals. These goals tend to come at New Years. I'll set a target for stories to write and past stories that deserve continued journey toward submission-worthy. The focus bump carries me into the year. By summer, my goals have met reality. My year has a word counts and response tallies. A track record. There is momentum--or not. 

Momentum brings creative confidence. I mean, the endorphins are flowing, a buzz even the cat can't kill. Numbers Guy will look at his story inventory and want them submitted pronto. "Let's blow this year out," you might say, and here comes the jinx. 

On the flip side, some years are lean. Dry spells and rejection streaks show up in the numbers, too. A healthy response would be to trust the process and plug ahead. Another response, some years my response, is to pour over the spreadsheet and glance at a calendar and understand time is running out on a good year. "We're getting stuff out there," you might tell the cat. "Buckle up."

She does not.

My editing standards don't slip when I hit this mode. Wishful thinking, though, comes rosy into my usual realism. I might push ahead with dream markets instead of angsting out over if the piece is for them. Out go a batch of submissions in summer and fall. November and December bring the rejections. Worse, I diverted time and energy away from stuff with much higher success prospects. My oh-fer-October ended last year when I ignored the calendar and just kept the plan rolling. 

Overconfidence, thy name is statistics. 

Fortunately, writing provides regular ego resets. Then, you can actually learn from the numbers--if you watch for what they really mean.

12 November 2022

I Confess: New Fletch Is a Big Improvement

I thoroughly enjoyed the Fletch reboot. You might agree, or you might disagree, or likely you hadn't heard there is a Fletch reboot. Well, there is. September. Confess, Fletch skipped wide release and headed almost straight for streaming services, propelled by a Miramax marketing campaign so stealth it would've shamed a ninja.

Fine by me--in the short run. I last darkened a movie theater door sometime before the pandemic. I'm happy in my basement cave, the big screen primed and a glass of wine ready for crime comedy.

Jon Hamm takes up the Fletch mantle. Fletch, if you've never seen the 1980s films or read the novels, is an ex-investigative reporter turned odd combo of art writer and impromptu sleuth, with special stress on impromptu. Movie-version Fletch is forever under-thinking investigation aliases and winging his way through trouble, usually of the upper crust sort. Fletch isn't a bumbler, though. He's a glider, and given the chance, Jon Hamm glides like few can.

The film offers plenty of glide path. The set-up: An Italian count hires Fletch to help recover a stolen art collection. Fletch's contacts say one stolen piece was sold in Boston. Fletch gets wrapped up first with the client's daughter and next with Boston Homicide detectives. Fletch discovers a young woman murdered in the Beacon Street condo that his new Italian flame rented. Then the Count vanishes, presumed murdered. The more Fletch investigates, the more the crimes are connected back his girlfriend. There's an actual mystery here.

They make too few movies like this anymore. Paced but not hurried, snappy dialogue without banter, constant humor without stooping to sophomoric, a bit of style but not style-obsessed. Much too rare these days. That's my long-term worry over Confess, Fletch landing bang in my basement cave, zero marketing beyond rolling the dice on a social media buzz-let.

If Miramax thought a smart crime comedy would break the box office, Miramax would've tried that route. I get it. Jon Hamm is great, but he's a television guy, and Mad Men was a while ago. Box office leads aren't also doing Progressive commercials. Nobody casted in Confess, Fletch is pre-hyped to younger thrill-ride seekers actually buying tickets. This film franchise has been dormant for three decades. The Fletch demographic is home decompressing via binge watch.

Maybe no one wants to make movies like this anymore.

Honestly, Hollywood didn't even make the original Fletch movies like this. Fletch (1985) exists to let Chevy Chase shtick his shtick. Seriously, there have been interviews about the lack of a traditional script. The plan was Chevy. The shtick works, but it doesn't hit hard. It can't when Chevy riffs through scenes played as skits, some legit hilarious, few with conflict even decent comedies need. Shtick without story wears thin. Witness the sequel, Fletch Lives (1989). Its contribution to entertainment was that actors and crew banked a paycheck.

Confess, Fletch takes the road more scripted. Good thing, because director and writer Greg Mottola asks the cast to act their comic roles. Much of that script sticks to the source material, Gregory McDonald's Edgar-winning novel (1977). Updated for a double-generational leap, of course. The best tension onscreen isn't between Hamm and his girlfriend or any of the suspects. It's the inter-generational joust between Hamm and Ayden Mayeri's Junior Detective Griz. Mayeri is gloriously Millennial in speaking her value while learning to keep up with Fletch.

Confess, Fletch can be nitpicked. The suspects could've used character depth. More danger would've sharpened the humor. The forensics and evidentiary exposition creeps toward a high-budget episode of Castle. But smart comedy doesn't have to be inventive genius. It has to be good, and Confess, Fletch is pretty good.

Please, someone keep making films like this.

Side note only discovered while researching this: In the 1980s, Gregory McDonald relocated to Pulaski, Tennessee, sixty miles from my basement cave. McDonald got involved in local anti-Klan efforts, which makes him especially cool.

08 October 2022

Haunted Hearts and Trapped Souls:
We Have Always Lived in the Castle

October has crept around, and again for the season I'll risk a toe in gothic waters. Last year, I analyzed Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. To stay with the author, I'll delve into my favorite of Jackson's novels: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)

First edition (Wikipedia)

Hill House was written in third person, often in a sweeping omniscient perspective that amplifies the narrative distance. Jackson never wanted us to understand Hill House's ghost. Instead, the novel explores how worse things than the supernatural walk our world. Persecution, isolation, fear-mongering, self-destruction. Jackson wrote about ordinary cruelty.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is no ghost story. There's not a scrap of actual magic, however much protagonist Merricat wishes otherwise. Castle is a crime novel. Humans are humans, and the dead are dead but never out of mind. The holds of the dead and our past are what gives Castle its unsettling punch. This time, Jackson wants us to meet cruelty up close and personal.

Consider this your spoiler alert.

The opening paragraph:

"My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead."

Masterful construction. Straight out, the voice invites a bond with this Wednesday Addams-ish Merricat. Her interests promise quirks and raise questions, lots of questions. Death stalks the paragraph. Unlayering the moving parts takes reading Castle closely more than once. If you haven't read it, hold two thoughts. First, Merricat believes magic exists--with a preference for a violent sort--though good luck might not. Second, every single word is about herself.

Merricat and Constance are the last Blackwoods alive after arsenic-laced sugar poisoned the family. The only other survivor, Uncle Julian, had gone unusually light on the sugar and was left an invalid. Merricat had been sent to bed without dinner--again. Suspicion lands on the otherwise-saintly Constance, the family cook and famously averse to sugar. But why use obvious means when she had a garden's worth of poisons? Why kill without a motive? A jury acquits Constance from lack of evidence, and the Blackwoods retreat to their hilltop confines.

Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, 2006

The novel opens six years later. Constance is captive to agoraphobia and a mother role to Merricat and the slowly-dying Julian. Julian obsesses with the unsolved crime and dedicates his addled brain to document it. Merricat runs errands and helps keep the house just as their parent left it. Between chores, she dashes around semi-feral with her cat, marking daily rituals and burying talismans against outsiders.

Her sympathetic magic protections aren't without cause. The village, sure Constance got away with murder, amps longstanding class friction into a cold war and Blackwood monster myth. Merricat endures vicious taunts on her twice-weekly supply runs. The grocer only serves her because she pays in Father's gold coins.

Constance is still young and attractive– and rich. Scandal cloud or not, a loyal upper crust connection wants Constance eased back into society. Constance is tempted. Merricat can't process Constance's restless thoughts or why any Blackwood might want to leave home.

Into the mix comes gold-digging cousin Charles after Constance's hand. Charles isn't the sharpest blade around. His charms and bluster work on Constance alone. Worse, his tactics make the wrong enemy in Merricat.

Underneath her endearing fails at magic, underneath her Blackwood grit, Merricat is stone cold cruel. She takes great lengths to follow strict house rules, such as parental belonging she can't touch. She can't enter Uncle Julian's room. She isn't allowed to light matches. She isn't allowed to prepare food. She states the rules simply, as if handed down from Constance or parents six years dead. But those rules aren't placed on Merricat. They're self-imposed. As Charles malingers, Merricat's changing attitudes show how her rules make shapes around darker things--not least a control mechanism over Constance. 

Jackson planted that seed in the opening paragraph. Merricat uses "I" eight times in six brief sentences. Constance is mentioned almost as a possession. At eighteen, Merricat is an indulged girl-child full of daddy issues and Blackwood privilege. Discipline is for less perfect children. Woe to anyone who disturbs the fantasy.

Merricat's cruelty isn't evil. Her obsessive routines and lack of expression and antisocial struggles hint at someone on the autism spectrum. She was born into Blackwood expectations and taught by formidable and vain parents. Her mother, a villager, had the Blackwood grounds sealed tight over Father's hesitation. It's not the last time her parents disagreed. One such argument rattled the manor that night of the tragic meal.

In the Jackson way, cruelty begets cruelty. A family friend from town makes her periodic visits. Merricat, no proper hostess, complains how terrible everyone in the village treats her. The guest correctly suggests that the townsfolk would be nicer to Merricat if Merricat was nicer in town. Constance asks for the same truce with Charles– and a bath and clean dress wouldn't hurt, either. 

Merricat never developed such emotional intelligence. Instead, she escalates her empty magic. When that doesn't scare off Charles, she uses his smoldering pipe to start a house fire. The town gathers to gawk and celebrate the fast-spreading blaze.

When the night is done, Charles is gone but so is most of the Blackwood finery, looted by the villagers. The upper floors are a burned hulk. Julian is dead of a smoke-induced heart attack.

In the aftermath, and in case anyone missed what's been in plain sight, Jackson clears up the murder mystery. Merricat did it– out of childish revenge for simple discipline. Merricat is fine with murder and fine letting Constance take the blame. Merricat is fine with burning the manor down, come what may.

Merricat wins, such as it is. Constance isn't going anywhere. The Blackwoods remain. The sister bond is sealed, if doomed. In a literary turn, vines grow over the wrecked manor. The sisters live in darkness and on meals left hurriedly by remorseful townsfolk. Merricat has achieved her self-image, a light of lights to be brought offerings. Sacrifices, more like. She's become the village bogeywoman from those rhymes. 

Technically, Merricat is an unreliable narrator. I don't read her that way. Mary Katherine Blackwood is honest from that opening paragraph. Stunted and dangerously arrogant--but honest in what she says and what she withholds. She feels no more need to share uncomfortable truths with a reader than she does in the village. We can't be sure how much guilt she feels, but Jackson doesn't spare the torture. Guilt is everywhere in the house. Guilt is Julian's main character function, a withering reminder Merricat can neither avoid nor internalize. Those rules become a coping mechanism.

The novel's secret sauce, though, is Jackson herself. The main characters are the sister figures caught in complex circumstances– sister figures often based on her daughters. The setting is again her New England stomping grounds, where years as a Bennington wife left her agoraphobic and feeling undervalued despite her track record. She tinkered with witchcraft. When Jackson wrote We Have Always Lived in The Castle, she wrote from her soul.

10 September 2022

Cool Writing Programs I Learned About on My Panel--and Why I Probably Won't Use Them

Last month, one of my Killer Nashville panels was a terrific dive into manuscript polish and being truly ready to submit. I was the short story guy trying to keep up with dynamite authors both traditionally and self-published, a managing editor, and an agent, all of whom had damn fine suggestions about editing steps and especially, in our wonderous modern age, editing software. And when it came to software, I turned into the contrarian every co-panelist dreads. 

Our audience got in on the software suggestions. The tools and platforms were flying so fast that I only managed to jot down three. I googled around post-panel and researched how these leading tools in this, our wondrous age.

And I probably won't use any of them.


Writers Helping Writers came up several times from the audience. I checked it out. It's an impressive platform to help build worlds, deepen characters, and punch up writing power with emotional-type thesauruses. 

Why I May Use It: Everything here looks thoughtful and detailed, especially for tries at a complex novel. Scene maps, character checklists, physical reactions to circumstances, you name it. There is a bookstore and software services to back this up. $11 per month feels a touch steep, but it's a bargain if the tools pay off in a final product. There's a free trial period for test drivers. Free tipsheets, too, but they're marketing teasers. Thoughtful stuff, though.

Why I Probably Won't: This content load risks planning overkill for short fiction. I don't need to build a new world. I use the one around me. I don't need someone else's character checklist. I won't write somebody's perspective and story if I haven't wriggled into their head. And when my characters and I get on different pages, I've learned free write exercises to help reconnect. 

The panelist point I grumbled was that writing is also about the writer's growth. When I started out, I leaned on The Emotion Thesaurus. It's a great resource and remains on my reference bookshelf. It has gathered a sheen of dust, though. Repeated work on authentic character reactions taught me that skill. I learn more now through critique and reading great authors than I can from a thesaurus. 

I was also the contrarian panelist about thesauruses. In fiction writing, a thesaurus will almost always offer the wrong word. It'll either be imprecise for the sentence or a vocabulary eyesore. The following are synonyms for the verb walk: locomote, perambulate, traverse, and "go on foot." Maybe traverse fits now and then, but perambulate? Who says that except college entrance exam tutors?


Several folks in the conference room swore by AutoCrit for deep manuscript analysis. Analysis? Worth a look, even to contrarians. 

Why I May Use It: Indeed, here is our wondrous age unleashed. Plop in your work, and the AI scans for grammar and style, big name author comps, and fit against current publication trends. It's all based on "painstaking research and professional connections with agents, authors and publishers." I believe it. Layered on the analysis features are an array of webinars and add-on services, all in a slickly packaged site.

Why I Probably Won't: I'm going to say it. A writer can't discover their voice off AI feedback. Can it help? Sure. AI will also push a story or prose direction the writer can't go sustainably or genuinely. Hey, I would love to wave analysis stating I write like Name Your Icon, but I don't. I write like me. Boasting I'm the next Name Your Icon anyway is off-putting. And doubly hollow when I don't back up the claim.

AutoCrit is spendy at $30 per month ($297 annually). Critiques and other add-ons land on top of that. Somebody needs a nice publication deal or steady freelance income to justify this cost, but if you've already begun to make your bones, do you need the voice analytics? There is a free version, but the reduced functionality seems not so different from Grammarly. Still, free does tempt a guy.

And yet. It's been my rule never to paste a manuscript anywhere except a submission portal. Some markets consider any prior pasting as first publication. As a contrarian, I'm out of date but suspect this catch is less and less prevalent. 

There remains a critique site's terms and conditions. Oh, management may pinky-swear not to pull shenanigans with the author's work kept in their digital hands. Terms and management teams change. Not sure I'm ready to trust my hard work this way.


I haven't been able to find this third one that a co-panelist suggested. It sounded the most adoptable suggestion of the bunch. It's something line "One Thousand Words," and it's a true sprint tool. Set course for 1,000 words and launch, no editing allowed. 

Lear, from Wikipedia
Why I May Use It: My perfectionist brain tussles with my creative side while the first drafts spill out raw. I can leave a tweak for the next pass, but it'll haunt my very soul if a big miss a few pages behind might be infecting the current words. I retreat and fix. When that works, it works. When it doesn't, it's stifling. Taking the retreat option off the table seems intriguing.

Why I Probably Won't: I'm all for creative exercises. Aimless sprints are a whole other thing. Segmenting a story or chapter this sharply means having pull it together later, and those pieces might need a bunch of spackle. I keep an ugly first draft together exactly because I'm seeking the story's whole. 

But if I find this tool, I may well give it a rip. Worst thing that happens is a high-intensity exercise.


I'm low tech. Proud of it, apparently. Word--or Pages or Google Docs or whatever--is workhorse enough for short stories. After years of using it, Word's features come second nature, no need to stop a writing flow and figure out new tools. And Word has leveled up of late. 

Word's Editor tools (red box) now give friendlier and more reliable suggestions as to problem grammar, conciseness, inclusiveness, reading comprehension level, and so forth. Important stress on more reliable. Word still gives advice that is dead wrong for voice or in-context meaning. But this editing logic forces me to decide on these critical passages.

Thesaurus-wise, Word is skimpy--and that's perfect. Word also improved its readback feature. I use it  extensively in the final prep phases. Same goes for the Document Compare feature, to double-check if proofing edits survived as expected.


To recap, I've become cranky about software, thesauruses, terms and conditions, and a load of other stuff that didn't come up at the panel. I keep these parts of writing simple. An agent or editor may forgive a novel's characters forever perambulating if the manuscript overall is going to sell. Not so with short story authors. No market accepts a piece that needs their time to fix. Nor should they. Whether we use pre-editors (I do) or software tools (I don't), the polish to readiness comes down to us. 

13 August 2022

There Will Be Math (or, a Few Story Statistics)

2010, Aix-en-Provence, and I'm standing at a velvet rope in the Musée Granet. The rope is the only thing between me and a manual inspection of any painting in the gallery. I could have a right good art appreciation lesson before the guards swarmed. I stayed lawful and legit, but what if someone hadn't? What exactly would swarm? A story idea was born, and it started me on an unexpected path.

My first crime story. My first good crime story submitted, anyway. And my first acceptance in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.. There are ten more AHMM acceptances since that museum caper and 29 others out or headed your way. If by now you're thinking there will be math in this post, you're right.

That first AHMM (2014)

In all honesty, I didn't start out writing stories with any count goal in mind.

I was drafting an ambitiously doomed novel and hoping for credits to pad my queries. A fine plan, other than the doomed novel part.

The novel is shelved. The stories still trickle out a few per year. A person learns a few things on a path like that. The stories get better, I hope, or the author gets smarter. Talent is a factor in acceptance, but I'm being honest here. Luck gets involved. Tons of talented writers are out there writing tons of great stories. Not all of those catch an editor's eye.

Which mean it's important to share the wisdom. Math-style. Buckle up.


We're a crime blog, so I'll filter the acceptances down to crime stories. I prefer to read printed stuff, so I'll filter again down to crime stories run or contracted to run in a print edition. I'll filter a third time for paying markets plus a conference anthology with charity proceeds. I want to see y'all printed and paid.

A print edition means print production costs. These constraints should inform a submission strategy. Precious few crime markets--or any markets--take novellas and novelletes these days. AHMM is one of those, to include the annual Black Orchid Award. Still, magazines have only so much room for magnum opus novellas. And for every long story, a print market needs multiple shorter stories to balance the issue. Not too short. Flash stories can create inverse balance issues. I go for the middle ground.

Oh, that Goldilocks zone, 3500 to 4500 words. Convert that word count to time, and you have a ten-ish minute, single-sitting read--nicely suited for my kind of character build and high note.

The average length in this group is 4,200 words. The eleven AHMM stories average 4,500, mostly off two longer stories featuring the same character. The eight in other markets average 3,800. Long pieces wear me out (more below), and shorter pieces are hard for me to nail. I don't spend much time on either.


Often, what goes without saying should be said most. Print markets have sample issues, either the current one or a back issue. Read them. Reading a market is essential to submission prep, or else I don't give the submission much chance. Respect-wise, markets can and should have editorial tastes. Not to sense a given market's taste is to be unprepared. As for AHMM, Managing Editor Linda Landrigan recently gave a lengthy interview to Jane Cleland here that is gold for anyone wanting to submit.

I'm molasses-in-winter slow at getting a piece ready. Six to nine months is warp speed. For AHMM, I'm usually in the eighteen month range before I feel confident enough to submit. Why rush something when AHMM prints six editions each year?

The numbers in red above are earlier manuscript versions floated to anthologies. These calls can be great motivators to get a draft finished. Deadlines are a thing with anthologies, whether I'm ready ready or not. Those early rejects did me a huge solid. A version of the French caper story went first to a MWA call. Rejection provided a chance to slow down and rewrite my AHMM breakthrough story.


Here's the thing about story variety: You have to be a varietal. At least bring a twist on something not done to death. If you're playing it tried and true, other someones have already bombarded these markets with a similar idea. I mean, distinctiveness is to break through that crowd. By side-stepping it.

Avoid–avoid–the first or easiest thoughts. People have been writing stories for a lo-ong time. That first idea has been done. But five or eight or so ideas down a brainstorming list is a prime nugget.

Inching out on a limb involves risk. Checking the mail has risk, too. Paper cuts. Wasp stings. Meteors. I say go for it.

"Two Bad Hamiltons and a Hirsute Jackson" (AHMM, 2015) is about twenty bucks in counterfeit. Twenty bucks. The difference maker is how the main character can't let an easily recoverable loss go. I've used hot chicken as an unhealthy religious experience, lottery audits as a stardom dream, and the surprisingly real phenomenon of walnut-jacking.

Another path to distinctiveness is approach, or how a story is told. Who takes center stage, how events are structured, what's the emphasis and slant. This path is inexhaustible. I'm character-centric. Premise follows, yin and yang. Plot and structure are the scaffolding. "The Cumberland Package" has a dark moment scene where main character literally disassociates for 412 words

. 412. In a short story. But whenever in angst I deleted that dark moment, the story fell apart. I kept the fugue, as to go down swinging. The story was a Derringer finalist.

Art theft and organized crime in the South of France isn't exactly original ground. To Catch a Thief got there first, among others. My thief in that French caper story had a turn of phrase, though, an Eeyore outlook on life but committed to the craft, like if Dortmunder had gone upscale and failed at that, too.

Speaking of Westlake, there's the dying art of style. I invest in a voice, broadly and for each story. I'm not afraid to use this for hijinks. But style is another risk. Style adds editing work. Maddening work, and style can backfire with an editor. AHMM's famed openness feeds my luck--but so does the energy put into each submission.


Murder in deft hands makes for awesome whodunnits.

Clues, red herrings, evidence, science, suspects. That's a lot. In that sense, I'm lazy. And also realistic. Writing a clever mystery isn't what draws me to the chair. Character is. Other writers bring more passion and skill to the whodunnit. I'll read those A-gamers' work and write in my wheelhouse.

This faux body count might surprise. Nine. That's on purpose. To paraphrase Raymond Chandler, murder is a means to another end, or it's a desperate reaction to something way out of hand. I start with the small change--relationship friction turned toxic, street robbery, drug muling, art capers that should've stayed clean--and see how out of hand things should get. If the character has to solve a crime, fine. Sometimes, I shake my lazy bones loose and write a mystery.

I've tried hard to learn from success and failure. I know first person is more my thing. Crawling inside a main character's head and way of speaking rewards my approach. I've learned to keep the vocabulary simple. A thesaurus is a great place to find the wrong words. And I track story stats so there's an objective way to keep improving. Okay, also I'm compulsive. But mainly the objectivity thing.


  • Pros submit to pro markets. To compete, write and submit professionally.
  • Don't rush a piece. It only gets one chance with a dream market. Be surer than sure you're researched and ready--ready ready--to click send.
  • Don't settle on an easy plot or premise. If you've read it before, so has the editor. 
  • When in doubt, mid-range length is your friend.
  • Read what you love. Write where your skills are.

If breaking in to these markets is your dream, keep dreaming. Don't be discouraged. Be intentional. Put in the work. I'm Exhibit A that there comes a moment. Mine was at that French velvet rope and wondering who might hop it.

09 July 2022

The Big Mo


In 1980, George H.W. Bush won the up-first Iowa caucuses and crowned himself the GOP presidential frontrunner, thanks to the now-unstoppable Big Mo--momentum--wind at his back. And Bush actually did win the next open primary. In Puerto Rico. Where Ronald Reagan wasn't on the ballot. Thereafter, Bush suffered a Mo-less drubbing that included his home Texas going for Reagan. 

Bush's main feat in 1980 was bringing "Big Mo" from sports lingo into the cultural vocabulary. And Bush wasn't wrong about momentum's potential. When things go well, empowerment soars toward critical mass. Future things likely go as well or better. On the other hand, confidence drains off when things start going poorly. Setbacks, if left unaddressed at root, breed more setbacks.

Reinforcement equals direction, positive or negative. It's no more true than for writers. We find our self-momentum, or we don't.

Publishing track records owe as much to authors finding an audience groove as to comparative talent. Process-wise, a cultivated routine sustains effort. I write more and better when I'm on routine. Productivity success lures my butt back in that chair the next day. When I lose Mo and get off routine, that empty chair looks daunting as hell.

And then there's craft. By my quick count, the Big Mo is--or isn't--alive in a story three ways. None of them happen by accident. 


Consider the Golden State Warriors. Last month, the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight seasons (they also lost the Finals twice in that stretch). This, despite being smaller and less athletic than the Celtics. The Warriors took the trophy because of game pace. Their core line-up pushes tempo and zips passes at a level that is fan joy to behold. They've trained themselves that way. They feed off it. When Golden State kept their signature pace, they ran up big leads. When they eased off the gas, here came Boston. It took a bunch of time-outs for the Warriors to break those runs and reset.

Fiction works the same way. A story needs pace. It needs a constant and crisp focus from avoiding asides down to Strunk and White's advice to omit unnecessary words. No off-plot indulgences. No info dumps to show off the research. Every sentence launches plot or character or both one direct step toward the big finish (red herrings allowed), or else say goodbye to tension. Say goodbye to Big Mo. 

An example. I truly enjoyed about 100,000 words of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The other 68,000? A perfectly good thriller could've soared next-level if it'd skipped its pace-sapping detail. But hey, what do I know? That novel is still selling--thanks to its hype momentum.


A sneaky craft trick? Sentence construction. This sounds so retro as to be quaint, but how sentences unfold is critical tactically. A great sentence build around its moment's conflict. What central person or thing deserves the subject mantle? The most important actor or action. What verb captures that central thing in action? What clauses show the situation or implications? 

That's only part of the trick. When I read great fiction, I don't just see words on the page. If I'm that deep in, the author's words have music. I hear the words. Each sentence rolls into the next, again and again, and carries me with it. Check this out the next time a story hums for you. Maybe, just maybe, the author created momentum through pleasing and varied construction. Like I just did. Hopefully.


Last year, I submitted a literary piece that I'd held back a while. It was long-ish for competing even after painful cuts, and my acceptance rate with literary pieces lacks, shall we say, similar momentum to the crime side. The story was rejected, nicely so by one market. The editor liked the writing and premise but didn't feel powerful character evolution for the length. A correct assessment, on re-read. I hadn't given the story enough forward motion.

Ironically, this is my frequent beef with some high literary pieces. Talented work laced with great imagery and language, but nothing happens. Not really. Don't get me wrong. Form and abstraction makes for an amazing read, in poetry. 


In 1980, George Bush invoked a Big Mo never actually behind him. He might've grabbed Mo anyway, had he altered his patrician style and message. He didn't. He stuck to words and aspirations. That's the thing about the Big Mo. It thrives on hard work, on acts and habits. The Big Mo is a fickle beast. It goes with who feeds it.

Writers can feed our Mo. Our work is, after all, ours. That over-long literary piece of mine? I can edit it. I can get fresh critique, or I can study authors who shine at these mid-long arcs. Or I can file it away and try another piece with more promise. 

Resets aren't easy. Resetting a reset is worse. Be that as it may. We can all tweak our approach to make us better at this writing thing. More enthused about our work, too. And that's when the Big Mo might swing our way a while.

14 May 2022

Your Word of the Day Is Panglossian

First of all, if anyone stops you wherever and accuses you of being Panglossian, hit pause. They're guilty of SAT-style, Fancy Pants vocabulary. Fancy Pants needs a stiff drink and mirror time over what they're about. Secondly, and here's where plain language comes in, Panglossian isn't a compliment. It's a warning. Maybe both of y'all need to check yourselves.

To be Panglossian is to remain excessively optimistic against all evidence to the contrary. Failure, consequence, injury, whatever. Adverse outcomes are merely trifles. Signs, actually. Signs of a larger plan in motion and destined to end fabulously. 

No, I didn’t know Panglossian was a word, either. Maybe I did when I prepped for the SAT. That was a few years ago. I happened upon Panglossian on March 9, 2021, when made this their Word of the Day. Panglossian. It's nice on both the eye and tongue. Fun, and I love a fun word. That SAT prep got me into a liberal arts school.

At the risk of further hoity-toity, the word traces back to Voltaire’s Candide (1759). A smash synopsis: Candide and his enthused adventuring companions stumble from satirically bad events to ever worse, no matter what anyone plans next. Candide's friend and tutor, Pangloss, philosophizes away each non-stop disaster--syphilis, violence, loss of personal freedom--as evidence of that larger plan cooking along fine. Our universe, as perfectly created, must always run to perfection.

Wrong. Sometimes, things suck. Sometimes, things are flat terrible, and somebody needs to do something about it right darn now. Pangloss couldn't grasp that--because he couldn't acknowledge flat terrible things. Trapped in his circular pathology, Pangloss never took obvious steps to avert his next disaster. 

Somewhere March 10, 2021 or later, I had an urge to write something Panglossian. I've done stories with folks planning jobs too big for their talents and with folks using doomed perseverance as a defense mechanism. I wanted another level of that. An optimist's optimist, someone all-in on their rose-colored lens no matter what.

I could just whip that up, right? Sure, start ‘em in trouble and make it worse. Then worse again. Dump a whole Freytag's Pyramid on 'em.

Easy as pie. It's a great thing, to be alive and writing.

So I wrote it in one fast sprint. I dropped a first-person character in a bank robbery already gone totally wrong. The cops have the branch surrounded, the driver has wisely taken off, and the rest of the crew are stuck and not seeing eye-to-eye. That set-up could go dark, but noir and optimism aren't two great tastes that taste great together. This had to be a light tale, a comic caper. I've done those. Lots of 'em. Yes, this was going to be terrific.

Draft one had a rough spot. Okay, a big rough spot comprising about 100% of the manuscript, but that's what first drafts are. Rough. Milestones toward final glory.

Sure, I didn't have the POV's name yet, and sure he was emotionally low when he should've hit optimistic highs. This is why there are second drafts (and thirds and fourths and fifths, etc., etc.). All part of the process. Yes, this was going great.

Another smash cut past many more drafts. Which weren't coming together.

I had the premise, the plot, the location, the cast, but I'd rushed past one crucial thing: the character. He wasn't talking to me. Didn't want to. I hadn't respected that this was his story, too. So I did something I rarely do. I asked him to answer a few background questions for me. Forget what's on the manuscript page. Let's rap. He leapt to share who he was, his whole life story and why it drew out the optimist in him. There were only two last drafts before the version Mystery Magazine picked up.

I can be too optimistic. I am perfectly capable of under-engineering a story. I'm also capable of recognizing flat terrible things and working them into shape. It's that liberal arts education. They taught me to better myself.

We can all learn. We can all challenge our work to another level. Rewards await, rewards that escaped Pangloss. If nothing else, we'll rest easy knowing that Fancypants won't have this vocabulary zinger against us.

09 April 2022

Splat (Or, How They Do It in Buñol)

Travel is coming back, y’all. If this August 26th you can get to Spain and love tomatoes -- you’ll need to love love tomatoes -- our wonderful world has crafted the perfect destination: Buñol, a picturesque village near Valencia. Doubly picturesque this particular weekend. One August hour per year, Buñol is awash in tomato pulp. Tens of thousands of festival goers hurl pulped tomatoes. At each other. Ten of thousand of tomatoes.

La Tomatina. It’s Europe’s biggest food fight. 40,000 people jam Buñol’s narrow streets and peg each other with tomato slop. Repeat: 40,000 people bought tickets for the privilege.

Full disclosure: I’ve never participated or been to Spain. I stumbled onto La Tomatina years ago, and I still internet-surf along each August as those hardy souls don goggles and bathing suits and splat tomatoes smack in each other’s kisser. 

La Tomatina has its rules and traditions, of course. I've learned something about them.

It begins as such things must: with a serrano ham tied atop a greased pole. It’s 10a.m., and as soon as someone fetches el palo jabón, the battala campal can begin.

Prime spots fill early. You need access to ammo and a good firing angle. Sensibly, it's only tomatoes that get hurled. Bottles, backpacks, and blunt objects aren’t allowed. Tomato fights are the sort of thing that can get out of hand.

Also, you can’t bring your own tomatoes. That’s a rule now, so I guess someone ruined that for the rest of us. Instead, the organizers buy market rejects cheap -- surely, you get a bulk rate when scoring 150,000 tomatoes unfit otherwise for sale -- and load them onto dump trucks that roam through the fray. Also, you can’t just grab and whip the pulped suckers at someone. No, you have to crush the tomatoes if not crushed already. We’re not trying to hurt anybody.

Another rule says only to target someone if you've drawn a clear bead. Smart, but this is a close quarters stuff. A melee. Crossfire, friendly fire, accidental fire? Hey, it’s La Tomatina.

In an hour, it’s done. 40,000 juice-smeared warriors have chucked 150,000 pulped tomatoes free-for-all. Everyone looks like they just survived an explosion at the Hunt’s cannery, except the smiles are ear-to-ear. Endorphins abound, skin has been super-moisturized, and even the streets will gleam from a citric acid wash. Once the fire department hoses Buñol down.

You would think such a festival has a wild origin story, a revolt against a cruel noble or a patron saint of garden salads. Nope. In 1945, there was a festival parade of musicians in big head outfits, and near a vegetable market one guy’s big head fell off. The guy apparently lost it with the other musicians and the crowd, which led to fisticuffs and inevitably to produce-flinging. One imagines alcohol was involved.


tried it again each August for a while, but each festival descended one way or another into tomato-throwing. Outsider were showing up, armed to splat. The city leaders caught on that these people were coming not for music but the tomato fight. One imagines alcohol remains involved. Buñol took a more Chamber of Commerce-like approach, and La Tomatina as a sanctioned festival was born. Not even Franco could stop La Tomatina from taking off. And he tried.

As of this writing, La Tomatina is returning after a two-year pandemic hiatus. It delights me to believe this summer we'll have a proper pasting. That's in four months, folks. Plenty of time to book those tickets, if you love love tomatoes.

Or if citrus is your thing, Italy has a giant food fight but with oranges.

Oranges? That’s just weird.

12 March 2022

Perfect Spy 'o the Time: The Macbeth Murder Mystery

It wasn’t an elaborate murder plot, nor did it go as planned. Not Macbeth’s plan, anyway. He put real thought into it, though. Ambushing his best friend Banquo outside Forres Castle required not one, not two, but three bushwhackers. What happens next is a Shakespeare whodunnit.

Macbeth (or The Scottish Play, for the superstitious) up to this point: Scotland is thunder and fog and war. The ever-hovering Weird Sisters have prodded general Macbeth's ambition with a prophecy that he'll rule Scotland. And Macbeth does, by killing his cousin and legit king, Duncan, and escaping blame with help from Lady Macbeth. But this power couple has a problem: The Weird Sisters also foretold that Banquo's heirs would assume the crown. The Weird Sisters are yet to be wrong. If Macbeth wants to hold and pass that crown, Banquo and his son Fleance's brief candles need snuffing.

Opportunity knocks at Forres Castle, Duncan's old palace. Macbeth freed up everyone's afternoon to relax before a self-congratulatory banquet that night. In actuality, he wants to catch a target alone. Banquo and Fleance, there at court, plan a conveniently lonely ride upon the heath before the banquet. It’s an odd move to leave the relative safety of the other thanes, what with Banquo--and most everyone else--not fooled by Macbeth’s bloody power grab. Banquo must feel most secure keeping himself and Fleance clear of Macbeth.

With cause. Ahead of the ambush, Macbeth tells Murderers One and Two:

…Within this hour, at most,
I will advise you where to plant yourselves;
Acquaint you with the perfect spy o' the time,
The moment on't — for't must be done tonight
And something from the palace, always thought
That I require a clearness.
Macbeth, Act 3, Scene 1

With Banquo connected and well-respected, Macbeth needs the job to go perfectly, but he's condescending at best to his crew already onboard. This new op is who Macbeth trusts, someone who knows the local ground and Banquo's riding habits, where he must dismount and walk his horse for the stables.

Enter Third Murderer. It's Third Murderer who positions the bushwhack while First and Second complain about Macbeth’s obvious lack of faith. They have no idea who this new accomplice is, nor is Third Murderer volunteering a name. It’s Third Murderer who spots Banquo, but Fleance scarpers off unwhacked into the heath. Third Murderer notices that, too.

Macbeth never identifies this perfect spy o’ the time. Third Murder just murders thirdly. The simplest theory: Read no critical meaning into this. Often, Shakespearian parts were tossed in to reposition the stage post-scene. But Third Murderer stalks the enduring 1623 script so trusted but so anonymous as if a clue. After all, if the production needed an extra hand to clear the heath, Macbeth could've hire a trio.

Henry Fuseli

And the play does need a trio. In Macbeth as in life, what's bad comes in threes. Ghostly knocks, incantations, murders on stage (Duncan, Banquo, Macduff’s son). Three was the unluckiest number in Shakespeare’s England. Third Murderer perfecting yet another unholy trinity amps the supernatural unease.

Third Murder perfects something more important: dramatic structure. Up to Fleance's scarpering, everything clicks for Macbeth. He won fame, avoided justice, taken the crown, and consolidated power. After Fleance scarpers, Macbeth suffers desertion and defeat. His hand-picked asset proves imperfect or at least inexpert– Macbeth's pivotal miscalculation and core to the play's message: Rulers turned tyrants will inevitably self-destruct.

Who, then, might be our imperfect spy o' the time?


The thane Lennox tracks after whoever is king. Lennox stays at court longest among the thanes, long after the most forthright have defected to the opposition cause. After Banquo's murder, Macbeth brings Lennox along for a final consultation with the Weird Sisters.

Lennox didn't, however, have motive. He may keep hanging around the palace, but not as a friend to Macbeth. Lennox is repeatedly sarcastic about Macbeth's suspicious rise and Scotland's trail of too-convenient deaths. Soon enough, Lennox joins the rebellion. It's unlikely he seeks or finds welcome there if he third-murdered Banquo.


© Wikipedia

Joel Coen's 2021 movie re-fashions the thane Ross as Third Murderer. It's not the first such interpretation. Ross, a cousin both to Macbeth and poor Duncan, is a wheeler-dealer, in on court gossip and happy to run errands for the crown. The Coen movie fashions Ross into a ruthless king-maker. The botched murder of Fleance intentionally furthers his own ambitions.

A cool take– that doesn't quite jive. In the First Folio (admittedly compiled some 17 years after Macbeth was first staged), Ross breaks with Macbeth early. Ross warns Lady Macduff to flee, at some risk to himself, and Ross tells Macduff about his family's assassination. Ross helps secure English forces to unseat Macbeth. Why murder for a tyrant while tipping everyone else to the body trail?


Macbeth was a successful warrior thane prior to the Weird Sisters' appearance. He would've had a network of useful associates and willing mercenaries. Third Murderer as a random agent moves the play along, but Macbeth is also about specific choices leading to specific fates. Even First and Second Murderer get a scene to choose their dark path of revenge for perceived insults off Banquo. It's too loose a thread if Third Murderer is just a mercenary.


The Scottish-English alliance creeping up forest-style on Macbeth also vow to punish his "cruel ministers." The play shows one such official around for the final battle: Macbeth's attendant and armorer, Seyton. He is introduced late--at the Act V climax--and with little ado. He seems there mostly to provide Macbeth updates on the crumbling situation. But Seyton is all-in with Team Macbeth. His rise to captain might've been launched as a trusted bushwhacker.


Scotland grows full of eerie happenings as the Weird Sisters run amok. It would've hardly been past the Sisters to place a malevolent entity at Macbeth's disposal. Or perhaps Scotland's hauntings reach a critical mass and conjure their own demons. It's all possible in Macbeth's story world, and such an entity would've seen that fated characters met fated ends: death for Banquo, escape for Fleance, doom for Macbeth. Still, Macbeth had a known someone in mind for third murdering. A random ghoul doesn't inspire the requisite trust.


John Singer Sargent,
1889 (Tate Gallery)

To here, Lady Macbeth has been clinical and composed about murder. This woman turned to direst cruelty is, at last, someone Macbeth could believe reliable at so great a task.

Directly before the bushwhacking attempt, though, she is at Forres Castle with Macbeth, who hints that it's a shame what might happen to Banquo. Macbeth leaves her with plausible deniability, and he's not interested in discussing her emerging reticence for bloodshed. We next see her entering the banquet with the royal entourage. By all evidence, she stuck to the castle and kept, ahem, her hands clean.

Then, there's theme. Macbeth is overt about gender roles. Lady Macbeth vows to “unsex” herself when she helps murder Duncan. The Weird Sisters are feared doubly for how they defy expectations of womanhood. Even if somehow First and Second Murderers didn't recognize the dang queen as Macbeth's perfect spy o' the time, they would’ve noticed something feminine or unsexed about this new partner.


By this point, Macbeth keeps his own counsel. He came to the throne by violence, and violence to hold power is fine by him. More than anyone, he knows old pal's Banquo’s habits and formidable skills in a fight. A direct part in Banquo's death would further explain Macbeth's sanity break when Banquo's ghost appears--only to Macbeth--at the feast.

But Macbeth, too, arrives at the feast on time and unruffled. If he did slip away and return under the wire, he has to feign surprise when First Murderer reports Fleance's feet-don't-fail-me-now escape. Like Lady Macbeth, though, it’s farfetched to imagine First and Second Murderer not recognizing the king even disguised. They don’t, either overtly or by inference, and as a practical matter, First Murderer wouldn't risk reporting to Macbeth what the boss witnessed in person.


That's right. The Bard pulled it off. He wrote in Third Murderer with such brilliant vagueness that production options were wide open.In a play about ambition and abuse of power, the suspect list is half the cast. It’s a testament to Macbeth's power that five centuries later we're still sifting through the couldadunnits.

outcomes of the accused