Showing posts with label Sherlock Holmes. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sherlock Holmes. Show all posts

11 June 2016

One More Thing: Is Columbo America's Sherlock?


by B.K. Stevens

If we were asked to name the quintessential fictional detective, most of us would probably reply, "Sherlock Holmes." Poe's Dupin came before him, and some fictional detectives who came after him may have greater psychological depth. Even so, Holmes' dazzling deductions and indelibly distinctive personality have given him enduring worldwide appeal. He's the icon who set the standard for the Golden Age, the epitome of the cerebral detective. And, as I'm about to argue, he's very, very English.


Does America have its own Sherlock? We definitely have iconic fictional detectives. The first names to come to mind might be Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, Kinsey Millhone or V.I. Warshawski--tough-talking, life-hardened private investigators who walk the mean streets with both guns and cynical quips at the ready. They're smart, no doubt about it. But their appeal may be based on their attitudes, as much as on their intellects. And their success at solving crimes may depend on their ability to intimidate witnesses and outfight bad guys as much as on their deductive powers. America does have some memorable cerebral detectives--Nero Wolfe, for example, and Ellery Queen. Much as their fans might disagree, though, I'd hesitate to call them distinctively American. In some ways, they're almost too much like Sherlock Holmes--arrogant manners, aristocratic tastes. For me, at least, an American Sherlock ought to embody more democratic traits and attitudes.

Let me propose another candidate. Like Holmes, Lieutenant Columbo relies on his wits to solve cases, not on a gun or his fists. (In fact, while Holmes often carries a gun and sometimes throws a punch, I can't think of a single time when Columbo does either.) Both detectives are incredibly observant, and both excel at sizing up suspects. But there are significant differences, too, and I'd say these differences stem from the fact that Holmes is English and Columbo American.

Let's start with names. A name can't get much more thoroughly English than Sherlock Holmes--unless it's Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Even most of the actors who have played Holmes have had distinctively English names, from Basil Rathbone to Benedict Cumberbatch. (And all right, once in a while a Robert Downey, Jr., will sneak in, or even--good grief!--an Igor Petrenko, in a Russian television series. The general point still holds.)

America's Sherlock, by contrast, has an Italian last name. Was it inspired by the explorer credited with discovering the new world? When asked in 1986, one of the writers who created the character said he couldn't remember how they came up with the name--maybe they were thinking of Columbus, or maybe they were thinking of a restaurant called Palumbo's. Those writers, by the way, were Richard Levinson (Jewish) and William Link (mixed German Hugenot and Jewish descent). The actor who portrayed Columbo was Peter Falk (also Jewish, from families that immigrated from Eastern Europe). So Columbo emerged from a hodgepodge of nationalities and ethnicities, from the descendants of a bunch of immigrants. What could be more American?

The fact that so many people contributed to the creation of Columbo also seems appropriately American. Sherlock Holmes was the brainchild of one writer and made his debut, of course, in print, in the pages of a series of short stories and novels. Columbo emerged from what might be considered the more democratic medium of television. Whatever its shortcomings, television depends upon a group of people working together--writers, actors, directors, producers, musicians, technicians, and so on and so on--and it aims for a wide audience. At its best, television also offers opportunities to talented newcomers--such as a twenty-one-year-old kid named Steven Spielberg, who got one of his first big breaks when he directed "Murder by the Book," which many people consider one of the stand-out episodes of Columbo's first season, perhaps of the series as a whole. Whether you love television or hate it, it seems hard to deny that it embodies central democratic ideals--many people from diverse backgrounds working together toward a common goal, encouraging those just starting out to fulfill their dreams by going as far as their abilities will take them.

What about Columbo himself? He's definitely not an aristocrat. The way he talks, the way he carries himself, the car he drives, the chili he eats--everything tells us he's from a middle-class or working-class background. His appearance confirms it. Like Sherlock Holmes, he has a distinctive style of dress. But Sherlock's clothes set him apart--the deerstalker hat, the caped coat. Columbo wears a rumpled suit and a shabby raincoat (almost always the same ones, from Falk's own closet). If his clothes set him apart, it's because he looks less imposing than other people, certainly far less imposing than the high-class types involved in the cases he investigates. In an interview with David Fantle and Tom Johnson, Peter Falk commented on the contrast: "Columbo is an ass-backwards Sherlock Holmes. Holmes had a long neck, Columbo has no neck; Holmes smoked a pipe, Columbo chews up six cigars a day."

In an interview with Mark Dawidziak, Falk made another comment about the contrast between Holmes and Columbo, this one focusing on the way others perceive the two detectives. He's talking about the second episode in the series, which centers on a faked kidnapping: "I'm not a mystery fan, but as a kid I read Sherlock Holmes. I remember being very impressed by Sherlock Holmes. He'd show up, and everybody would turn to him for the answer. I thought it was important in the opening of Ransom for a Dead Man that no one turn to me for anything. I was just a local. All these FBI agents had their job to do. I couldn't know anything except maybe he name of a certain street. I wanted to be ignored. . . . . Nobody wanted to know this guy's opinion, There's a lack of pretension. You expect something quite different from a great detective."

We definitely get something quite different from most great fictional detectives, definitely including Holmes. I don't know if it's accurate to call Holmes pretentious: He is, in fact, superior to everyone else, so there's no pretension involved. But he certainly doesn't try to hide his superiority. Apparently, in Conan Doyle's stories and novels, Holmes never actually says, "Elementary, my dear Watson." He does, however, sometimes say "elementary"--or something along the same lines, such as "it is simplicity itself"--to make it clear he can easily figure out something that baffles others. Some might call his manner arrogant; others might say he treats most of the people he encounters with disdain; still others might protest that he's simply being straightforward. But I don't think words such as "humble" or "self-effacing" come readily to mind when we think of Sherlock Holmes.

Columbo, on the other hand, is extremely humble and self-effacing. He constantly expresses admiration for other people's expertise and accomplishments, constantly acts as if he thinks they're much sharper than he is, constantly seems awed thy their jobs, their houses, their cars, their shoes. Part of it, of course, is shtick: Columbo throws suspects off guard by pretending to be dumb, so they'll relax too much and tumble into the traps he sets for them. But part of it, I think, is sincere. Even when he suspects people of murder, I think he's often genuinely impressed by their knowledge and talents.

Clearly, he doesn't mind letting people underestimate him, doesn't mind letting them think they're more important than he is. Even his trademark "one more thing" seems like an acknowledgment of his inferior status: The people he's pestering are so superior that he hates to take up their valuable time. The most he can hope for is that they'll indulge him for just a few moments more. Would Holmes be so comfortable about letting others regard him as inferior? I don't think so. I think it would drive him crazy. But Columbo has more democratic attitudes. He doesn't need to have everybody see him as the smartest person in the room. If they see him as no more than a regular guy, or even as less than that, that's fine with him.

What's more, I think Columbo honestly sees himself as a regular guy. When he describes his approach to detection, he doesn't talk about his brilliance. He's not so taken with his deductive powers that he thinks he can rely on those alone. No, he attributes his success to things Americans traditionally value, such as hard work. In "The Bye-Bye Sky High I.Q. Murder Case," Columbo talks to a man (the murderer, as Columbo already suspects) who belongs to a Mensa-type organization:

You know, sir, it's a funny thing, All my life I kept running into smart people. I don't just mean smart like you and the people in this house. You know what I mean. In school, there were lots of smarter kids. And when I first joined the force, sir, they had some very clever people there. And I could tell right away that it wasn't gonna be easy making detective as long as they were around. But I figured, if I worked harder than they did, put in more time, read the books, kept my eyes open, maybe I could make it happen. And I did. And I really love my work, sir.

I may be wrong, but I don't think Columbo is being falsely modest here, and I don't think he's just trying to throw the murderer off guard. In fact, I think he may be giving the murderer a kind of warning: Even if the murderer is smarter, Columbo may still catch him, because Columbo works harder. And hard work is a distinguishing feature of Columbo's approach. Even after the other police personnel are packing up and getting ready to leave a crime scene, Columbo is still crawling around on the floor, pawing through the carpet, searching for any shred of evidence that might help him understand what happened. Like Holmes, he's observant--he keeps his eyes open, as he says--but that's partly because he keeps looking after others have decided there's nothing more to see. Suspects complain about how often he keeps showing up, how long he hangs around. And he reads the books, learning whatever he can about the suspects and their areas of expertise. If he suspects a winemaker killed his brother, Columbo studies up on wine. If he thinks an expert on subliminal suggestion committed murder, Columbo reads the books the expert wrote and uses subliminal suggestions to lure him into incriminating himself. So Columbo embodies a fundamental American belief. You don't have to be born rich and powerful to succeed. You don't even have to be extraordinarily talented. As long as you're willing to work hard and never give up, you can get ahead.

Columbo also talks about his approach to detection in one of the more recent episodes, "Columbo Goes to College." He's a guest lecturer in a criminology class, and a student asks what advice he'd give a young detective. Columbo's advice is simple: "Don't talk too much." When the student is surprised, Columbo explains:
Well, sometimes, when you know something, it's better to keep it to yourself. You don't have to blab everything right away. Wait. Who knows what will happen? Timing. That's important, And lucky. You got to be lucky.
 This statement definitely isn't just shtick. The murder hasn't been committed yet--Columbo has no reason to suspect these students of anything. I think he's being completely open, genuinely modest. Don't show off by broadcasting everything you know, he says. Wait, even if it means people don't realize how smart you are. That's something anyone can do, regardless of wealth or power or anything else. Waiting may help you succeed--but if you do succeed, remember that it's partly because of luck, not because of any merit you can claim. How much more democratic can a statement about detection get?

It's also worth noting that when Columbo gives the class this advice, two of the students--smart students from wealthy, prominent families, students who are about to murder a professor by using a remarkably clever method that requires both technical know-how and a fair amount of money--don't pay attention. Instead, one turns to the other and whispers, "I wonder who his tailor is." These smug, aristocratic students underestimate Columbo because he looks so low class. They should have listened. After they commit their clever murder, Columbo suspects them almost immediately.

Columbo tends to suspect smug, aristocratic types. In "Columbo Goes to College," the upper-class students try to frame a heavy-drinking ex-con, but Columbo doesn't fall for it. Instead, he keeps zeroing in on the students. Jeff Greenfield comments on that feature of the series in a 1973 article called "Columbo Knows the Butler Didn't Do It." (It's available online--you have to squint to read the tiny print in the PDF, but it's worth it.) As Greenfield notes, "The one constant in Columbo is that, with every episode, a working-class hero brings to justice a member of America's social and economic elite." By doing so, Columbo proves that his opponents often don't deserve the privileges they enjoy, that he can best them by being more diligent, more determined. And with every victory, he affirms our faith in democratic ideals.

If we share those ideals, should we embrace Columbo and reject Sherlock Holmes? Of course not. America, at its best, also values diversity. There's room for everyone, even for a moody loner who thinks he's better than the rest of us. If Holmes and Columbo met, I think they'd get along fine. Holmes might look down on Columbo at first, but he's smart enough to learn to respect him. Columbo might be amused by Holmes's haughty ways, but I think he'd also admire him. Unlike some of the snooty types Columbo encounters, Holmes works hard, and he's earned the distinction he enjoys. And both Holmes and Columbo are devoted to justice, to seeing that the truth is ferreted out, to making sure the guilty are punished and the innocent exonerated. Those are qualities all of our great fictional detectives share, regardless of nationality, manner, or attitude. Once Holmes and Columbo got past any initial disdain or distrust, I think they'd like each other. I think they'd enjoy sitting down to compare their investigative techniques and discuss their greatest successes, perhaps over a lovely cup of tea and a savory bowl of chili.












One More Thing

Wildside Press has released a collection of my short stories. Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime includes eleven stories of various lengths, types, and tones, from humorous novella-length whodunits to a dark flash fiction suspense story. Most were first published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Some of the women featured in these stories are detectives, and some are victims; some inspire crimes, and some commit them. After over twenty-five years of writing mystery stories, I'm delighted to see these stories get out in the world for a second time.
Available at: Amazon Wildside Press

"What a great collection of mysteries! B.K. Stevens does everything right in this book of stories: plot, characters, setting, dialogue--it all rings true. It's easy to see why she's considered one of the best writers in the genre."--John Floyd, Edgar-nominated author of Clockwork and Deception

"These finely crafted stories have it all--psychological heft, suspense, subtle humor--and the author's notes on each story are especially illuminating. A treat for lovers of the short story form and students of the craft of writing."--Linda Landrigan, Editor, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine

"Stevens' irresistible sparkling wit and style start on the first page and never let up."--Kaye George, national bestselling mystery author 


26 July 2015

Copyright? Elementary, My Dear Watson.


by Dale C. Andrews

Arthur Conan Doyle published his first Sherlock Holmes story in 1887 and his last in 1927. There were 56 stories in all, plus 4 novels. The final stories were published between 1923 and 1927. As a result of statutory extensions of copyright protection culminating in the 1988 Copyright Term Extension Act, the American copyrights on those final stories . . . will not expire until 95 years after the date of original publication -- between 2018 and 2022 . . . . The copyright on the 46 stories and the 4 novels, all being works published before 1923, [has] expired.
                                                 Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd.
                                                 755 F. 3d 496, 497 (7th Cir. 2014)
                                                 per Judge Richard Posner
Is there anything left to say about Sherlock Holmes? The fame of Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective has now stretched across three centuries, with no expiration date in sight. . . . Recent books and graphic novels find the detective trading bon mots with Henry James, escaping the island of Doctor Moreau and squaring off against a zombie horde. One can also pick up Sherlock-themed tarot decks, rubber duckies, crew socks and — for undercover work — a “sexy detective” outfit featuring a deerstalker and pipe. And, needless to say, the digital landscape is ablaze with blogs, fanfic, Twitter feeds, podcasts and innumerable tributes to the cheekbones of Benedict Cumberbatch. What’s left? As Professor Moriarty once remarked, “All that I have to say has already crossed your mind.” 
                                                Daniel Stashower
                                                The Washington Post, July 12, 2015
                                                Reviewing The Amazing Rise and Immortal Lives of Sherlock Holmes                                                  by Zach Dundas

Sir Ian McKellen in Mr. Holmes
       This week’s summer movie roll-outs included Mr. Holmes, which features Sir Ian McKellen’s highly anticipated take on Sherlock Holmes at 93 —  battling age and dementia as he tries to unravel one last case. The movie, based on the 2005 Holmes pastiche A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin, actually offers the viewer two takes on Holmes, since the cinema version of the story features a “movie within a movie” in which Nicholas Rowe, who earlier portrayed the detective in Young Sherlock Holmes, once again assumes the role in Watson’s version of the mystery that confounds the elderly Holmes.  (Holmes views the movie version, based on Watson's account, in an attempt to jump start his failing memories of the case.)  The fact that the movie offers a new take on Holmes —  indeed, two new takes, and that the same week yet another Holmes retrospective hit the bookstores —   Zach Dumas' The Amazing Rise and Immortal Lives of Sherlock Holmes — is hardly surprising. For 130 years Sherlock Holmes has been, well, ubiquitous.

       Ellery Queen had this to say in his (err, “their”) introduction to The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes:   "more has been written about Sherlock Holmes than about any other character in fiction. It is further true that more has been written about Holmes by others than by Doyle himself."  We will return to that Ellery Queen anthology, but for now the important point is that no other detective  —  not Miss Marple, nor Hercule Poirot, nor Ellery himself  —  has so tempted other authors to lift their pens in imitation and tribute.  And all of this begs a legal question:  How, pray tell, have these new takes on Sherlock Holmes been reconciled with the copyright protection originally secured for the character by Arthur Conan Doyle?

     A Proviso before going forward here: While I am a lawyer, I am NOT a copyright and intellectual properties lawyer. So, a caveat  when I discuss copyright rules it may be a little like asking your family doctor to perform brain surgery.  But with that in mind, the simple rule is that in the United States under the terms of the 1998 Copyright Terms Extension Act the author has copyright protection for 95 years following the publication of the author’s work. So if you are inclined to dabble in pastiches (and I plead guilty on that one), well, you need to do this only with the permission of the original author (or their estate) if the character you are using was created less than 95 years ago.

       How easy is it to run afoul of copyright rules? Well, as promised above, lets return again to our old friend Ellery Queen for the answer to that question. In 1944 Queen published an anthology collecting most of the Holmes pastiches and parodies then in existence, The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes. Of all Ellery Queen volumes this one is likely the rarest. If you want to secure a copy on Amazon it will probably set you back around $150.00.  Why? Well, the anthology, it turns out, was published without first securing a license from the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle. As a result, it was quickly pulled from publication when the estate threatened to sue, and only a limited number of volumes ever reached book stores.   (As an aside, notwithstanding all of the above, a rough version of The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes is, as of this writing, rather mysteriously available for downloading on the internet!  Just click here.)

       But, in any event, Ellery's stumble over the copyright rules was way back in 1944, right? Back then the first Sherlock Holmes stories were not even 60 years old. What about today? In 2015 almost 130 years separates us from the first Holmes adventure, A Study in Scarlet. So Sherlock should have squared his tweed-draped shoulders and marched into the public domain almost 35 years ago, right?  Well, not so fast. The Doyle estate has historically taken a different (and predictable) approach when it comes to counting those intervening years.

       As the quote at the top of the article points out, the “last bows” of the Sherlock Holmes stories were the ten final mysteries written by Arthur Conan Doyle between 1923 and 1927.  And, counting it up, the 95 year copyright on those stories has yet to expire  and won’t begin to for another three years. The Doyle estate has argued that a “fully rounded” (their words) Holmes and Watson arose only upon completion of the entire Doyle canon.   Thus, the estate argues, copyright protection continues until 2022, i.e., 95 years after the last story was published in 1927.  Pause and think about this:  The Copyright laws speak of a protection period running for 95 years from the first appearance of a character, but the Doyle estate argues that this in fact means 95 years from the last appearance of the character.  The argument sounds more like George Orwell than it does Sherlock Holmes!

       The Doyle estate implemented their concededly expansive view of copyright protection in a rather clever manner. The estate decided to charge $5,000 in licensing fees for every use of Holmes and Watson, reasoning that the amount, while substantial, was far less than the cost of subjecting the “fully rounded” theory to a test in litigation. So their assumption was that those wishing to write about Homes and Watson might grumble, but they would pay.  All went well with this approach until Leslie Klinger came along.

       Klinger co-edited an anthology of Sherlock Holmes pastiches and parodies in 2011 titled A Study in Sherlock: Stories Inspired by the Sherlock Holmes Canon. Klinger dutifully paid the $5,000 demanded by the Doyle estate before publishing that collection. But when he and his co-editors decided to proceed with a sequel, In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, they also decided that enough was enough and refused to pay for a license. The Doyle estate escalated the dispute, threatening to sue if publication occurred without a license. Klinger responded by suing the estate, claiming that Holmes and Watson were in the public domain and had been since 1982, that is, 95 years after A Study in Scarlet was published. As a result, Klinger argued, no license was required.

       A federal district court, and ultimately the Seventh Circuit United States Court of Appeals, eventually settled the matter. In May of 2014 the Seventh Circuit agreed with the district court’s decision and held that the Doyle estate’s argument was wrong. The court instead agreed, as Klinger had argued, that Sherlock Holmes entered the public domain, and became “fair game” for other writers, 95 years following the publication of the first Holmes story.

       But how does one handle the refinements to Holmes and Watson that occurred in those later stories, that is, the “rounding” of the characters on which the estate had relied? Well, the court answered that question by concluding that only Holmes and Watson as portrayed in the original series of stories by Doyle are currently in the public domain; that is, the characters as portrayed prior to 1923. And any subsequent nuances to the character  those “well rounded” attributes on which the estate’s arguments were based  remain protected by the copyright laws.

       How does this work in practice? Well, as Barack Obama, among others, has observed “a good compromise leaves everyone unhappy.” The estate doesn't get its $5,000, but the author of a pastiche nonetheless writes at his or her peril since the use of attributes only arising in the last 10 Holmes mysteries infringes the continuing copyright on those stories.

       The Seventh Circuit’s opinion only identifies a scant few areas in which Doyle’s characters became "more rounded” in the later Holmes stories that are still copyright protected: First, Holmes (apparently) likes dogs; Second, Watson was married twice. (On that latter point, I think W.S. Baring-Gould set the number of marriages at three, but I won’t argue the point  particularly without a license!)  So the “rounding” of Sherlock Holmes and Watson may be limited, but what does this rule mean for other characters who appeared in a series of works over the years?  Let us take, for example, my old friend Ellery Queen.

       Ellery’s earliest appearance was in The Roman Hat Mystery, which was published in 1929. Thus, all of the Queen canon is still copyright protected. But what happens in 2024, when the first appearance of Ellery reaches its 95th birthday and the canon begins its seriatim march into the public domain? Arguably under the Seventh Circuit’s reasoning Ellery can be used freely by other authors as of that date.  But beware:  Ellery better be wearing pince-nez glasses, and he might be advised to only employ a Duesenberg for transportation.  He should also have retired, with a wife and son, to Italy. All of those early aspects of Ellery disappeared by the middle of the Queen canon as Ellery Queen and the Inspector were "rounded" by Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee.  In fact the first evidence of the Ellery of the latter half of the canon did not appear until about 1936, with the publication of Halfway House. So unlike Sherlock, there are unmistakable differences between early and late Ellery!

       And if all of this were not confusing enough, let’s throw into our copyright primer the fact that parodies of copyrighted materials, unlike pastiches, fall completely outside of the protection of copyright without worrying at all about the passage of time.  This exception to copyright protection is established and was famously re-invigorated in 2001 when the Eleventh Circuit held that The Wind Done Gone, a re-telling of Gone With the Wind from the perspective of the enslaved residents of Tara, did not infringe Margaret Mitchell’s copyright of the original story.

       So let us return again to Queen and see how that rule would work.  Well, apparently the great Jon L. Breen could have freely published his humorous short story mystery “The Lithuanian Eraser Mystery,” (EQMM March, 1969), in which “E. Larry Cune” solves a New York City theatre murder.  That story is a parody, no question.  Tongue is firmly planted in cheek.   But, by contrast, Breen needed a license in order to publish “The Gilbert and Sullivan Clue,” (EQMM Sept. 1999) since Ellery himself solves that theatrical-based mystery. And what about Francis Nevins famous pastiche “Open Letter to Survivors” (EQMM May, 1972), a story that, while clearly featuring Ellery, never in fact names him as the young detective? I asked Mike Nevins, a copyright professor himself, whether he secured a license for that story and his reply was that Frederic Dannay, then the editor-in-chief of EQMM, never brought up the matter one way or the other when the story was accepted by EQMM for publication.

       But back to Sherlock  when you see that new movie, Mr. Holmes, you might reflect on all of this, and what it can take to breathe new life into another author's character.   And think about the "rounding" of Holmes that had nothing to do with Arthur Conan Doyle  particularly Sherlock Holmes as portrayed in the movie and in Mitch Cullin's original pastiche.  As Holmes explains in each, part of his task in telling this story on his own, without Watson as narrator, is setting the record straight, removing the "excesses" of the Watson versions of his stories.  As an example, you will note that Sir Ian McKellen’s Holmes prefers cigars to a pipe. That “rounding” of the famous detective’s character has absolutely no precedent in the Arthur Conan Doyle canon, either before or after 1923. So at least when Sherlock enjoys his cigar we needn't go back to the Holmes canon looking for references that might prove significant for those pesky copyright laws.

       Come to think of it, a similar observation might be made concerning the title of this article.  Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes never once used the phrase "elementary my dear Watson!"

11 April 2015

Go Away, Space Angel! I'm Trying to Write Crime


by Melodie Campbell

A funny thing happened on the way to the crime book: it became a comic sci-fi spy novella.

That’s the frustrating thing about being a fiction writer.  Sometimes you don’t pick your characters – they pick you.

I was sitting at my desk, minding my own business, when…no, that’s not how it happened.

It was far worse.

“Write a spy novel!” said the notable crime reviewer (one of that rare breed who still has a newspaper column.) We were yapping over a few drinks last spring.  “A funny one. Modesty Blaise meets Maxwell Smart, only in modern day, of course.”

“Sure!” I said, slurping Pinot by the $16 glass.  After all, crime is my thing.  I was weaned on Agatha Christie.  I had 40 crime short stories and 5 crime books published to date.  This sounded like the perfect 'next series' to write.

And I intended to.  Truly I did.  I tried all summer. I even met with a former CSIS operative to get the scoop on the spy biz (think CIA, but Canada – yes, he was polite.)    

Wrote for two months solid.  The result was…kinda flat.  (I blame the Pinot.  Never take up a book-writing dare with a 9 oz. glass of Pinot in your hand. Ditto good single malt.  THAT resulted in a piece of erotica that shall forever be known under a different name…  But I digress.)

Back to the crime book.  I started to hate it.  

Then, in the middle of the night (WHY does this always happens in the middle of the night?) a few characters started popping up.  Colourful, fun characters, from another time. They took my mind by siege.  “GO AWAY,” I told them. “I’m trying to write a crime book!”

They didn’t.  It was a criminal sit-in.  They wouldn’t leave until I agreed to write their tale.
So the modern day spy novel became a futuristic spy novel.  Modesty Blaise runs a bar on a space-station, so to speak.  Crime in Space, with the kind of comedy you might expect from a descendent of The Goddaughter.

Two more months spent in feverish writing.  Another two in rewrites.  Then another, to convince my publisher that the project had legs.

CODE NAME: GYPSY MOTH is the result.  Yet another crossing the genres escapade.

Written by me, and a motley crew of night visitors.

Now hopefully they will keep it down in there so I can sleep.

CODE NAME: GYPSY MOTH
“Comedy and Space Opera – a blast to read” (former editor Distant Suns magazine)
“a worthy tribute to Douglas Adams”  (Cathy Astolfo, award-winning author)

It isn't easy being a female barkeep in the final frontier...especially when you’re also a spy!

Nell Romana loves two things: the Blue Angel Bar, and Dalamar, a notorious modern-day knight for hire.  Too bad he doesn't know she is actually an undercover agent.  When Dalamar is called away on a routine job, Nell uncovers a rebel plot to overthrow the Federation. She has to act fast and alone. 

Then the worst happens.  Her cover is blown…

Buy link AMAZON
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The Toronto Sun called her Canada’s “Queen of Comedy.”  Library Journal compared her to Janet Evanovich.  Melodie Campbell got her start writing standup.  She has over 200 publications and nine awards for fiction.  Code Name: Gypsy Moth (Imajin Books) is her eighth book.

23 March 2015

The Detective Doctor


by Melissa Yi

"You see, doctors are detectives, are they not, Rra? You look for clues. I do too.”
--Mma Ramotswe, proprietrix of the No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. "Doctors, detectives, and common sense," by Alexander McCall Smith

Mystery readers are clever, so you may have deduced that your newest SleuthSayer (moi) is also an emergency physician. I consider this great training for my detective alter ego, Dr. Hope Sze, because medicine trains you to…


1. Talk to people.


On a vacation in Hawaii, I met a 29-year-old who’d been retired for a year. Who does that? I set about quizzing him. How did he do it? Why was he so eager to make bank? I could tell he wasn’t crazy about answering me, so I explained, “I’m an emergency doctor! My job is to extract the most amount of information in the least amount of time.”

Granted, a detective may be more tactful than me. But we both have to learn how to ask intelligent questions, listen to the answers, and throw out the B.S.


Ancient Hawaiian justice system: if you broke a kapu (sacred law),
your only hope was to swim to a sacred place of refuge
like this one at Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park.

2. Learn patience.

You know how long doctors slog in school? I spent 25 years of my life from kindergarten until my emergency fellowship. And I’m not, say, a vascular surgeon with seven years of residency under my belt. Plus they estimate that doctors spend 50 percent of their time doing paperwork. You never see ER, Nurse Jackie,and Grey’s Anatomy spending half their waking hours on forms.

As for detectives, the New York Times recently published the provocatively-titiled essay, The Boring Life of a Private Investigator.

For both of us, TV cuts out the dull bits and maximizes the drama. Wise move.

3. Use your powers of observation as well as technology.

Once my senior resident told me, “The more I practice, the more I realize that the history and physical exam don’t matter. It’s all the tests you order, like the ultrasound or CT.”

Within the hour, the attending staff asked me, “Did you see bed 4?”

“Yes.”

“Did you notice anything unusual on the physical exam?”

“I noticed a systolic murmur.”

“That senior resident [a year above you] missed a grade III aortic stenosis murmur. You could feel the delayed upstroke during systole.”

Which may sound like jibber-jabber to people outside the trade, but what it means is, even in the age of technology, you should use your brain at all times. The imaging and other technology will help you, so you may end up doing the right thing, but you can look like an idiot.

Or, to quote Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles, “The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes."

At the moment, I’m enjoying both medicine and writing. As Dorothy L. Sayers’ detective said in Whose Body?: “It is full of variety and it forces one to keep up to the mark and not get slack. And there's a future to it. Yes, I like it. Why?"

So if you’d like to follow how my fictional medical resident became a detective in her spare time, take a gander at Dr. Hope Sze.

Or if you can take medical stories straight up, for the next week, I’ll also post a free excerpt from my book, Fifty Shades of Grey’s Anatomy.

What do you think? Does medicine train you for detective work? Or is another profession better? Let me know in the comments.

And tune in on April 6th, when I plan to talk about book trailers.

09 November 2014

The Not-So-Noble Bachelor


by Leigh Lundin

For a brief, shining moment in time, PBS Mystery brought us gems of classic mysteries, perfect, definitive portrayals of Miss Marple by Joan Hickson, Hercule Poirot by David Suchet, and Sherlock Holmes by Jeremy Brett.

Usually the bad guys were well-cast, too. In ‘The Greek Interpreter’  from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (season 2, episode 2, 01 Sep 1985), actor George Costigan channels a chilling Peter Lorre as Wilson Kemp, the mad mastermind behind terrible crimes. This version's ending deviates from the original, which I usually frown upon, but this interpretation disposes of the other bad guy, Harold Latimer, with a satisfying demise in a train car.



But it’s seldom wise to stray too far from the Master’s Canon.

A Little Less Cocaine, Please

I hadn’t seen ‘The Eligible Bachelor’ on PBS Mystery from The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (season 3, episode 2, 10 Feb 1994), when I stumbled upon this ponderous piece, an adaptation of Doyle’s ‘The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor’. Although Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke again star, this one-hour 44-minute made-for-TV-movie doesn’t carry the usual introduction other than the words ‘A Granada film’.

I deduce a little too-much cocaine was involved and not merely Sherlock’s. The director could have lopped off 20% from the running time. Those flash-forwards and flashbacks and flash-sideways dragged the pace into the mud. Here, Sherlock seemed bloated and, if not exactly dissipated and dissolute, disgusted with the whole matter. Still, it’s worth watching if only for Edward Hardwicke’s portrayal.

[Note: I wrote this article some months back and just discovered this episode now blocks North American viewers from watching it, perhaps anticipating my review and doing readers a favor. In lieu thereof, I include this brief clip of a few of its lowlights.]



One commenter, ‘OrchestrationOnline’, writes:
A regrettable adaptation of what was originally a simple story about a nobleman marrying a rich American heiress for her money and getting left at the altar. The producers have abandoned any pretense of faithfulness to the author by the wayside- which missed the original point of this series. When you lose faithfulness, then these stories just become penny-dreadfuls, which is certainly true here.
Odd as it seems, sometimes Sherlock Holmes needs defending.

19 August 2014

Don Quixote, PI


by Jim Winter

When people talk about the PI, they always trace the character back to three writers: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross MacDonald. Most people think the modern PI is based on Hammett's Continental Op. But you have to go farther back than that. Sherlock Holmes?

Well, yes, Holmes's fingerprints are all over the modern PI. He even has an erudite, if seemingly less intelligent, sidekick, the brainier forerunner of the psycho sidekick popularized in the Spenser and Dennis Lehane novels. But you have to go farther back. And I mean farther back than Poe's August Dupin, considered the first modern detective character.

No, the PI is a knight-errant, righting wrongs, defending the weak, and dispensing justice. The knight-errant was around for centuries, springing from stories of Siegfried the dragon-slayer, of Roland and Charlemagne, of the various knights of Camelot. But the archetype wasn't truly solidified until Miguel de Cervantes's comic novel, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha (which I plan to review this Friday.)

[Cue needle across vinyl.] "Duh... What? Don Quixote was nuts! And his sidekick was equal parts wise and ignorant."

Yes, well...

The comic aspect of that dynamic did not really repeat on a grand scale until the classic 1980's sitcom, Blackadder. In the beginning, Prince Edmund, the Black Adder, is more bungling than mad, and sidekick Baldric is much smarter than he appears, frequently saving the hapless prince from himself. Later, the roles were flipped, and Blackadder became an evil version of Holmes - arrogant, clever, and just as sarcastic - while Baldric became the embarrassingly dimwitted sidekick who always had "a cunning plan" (that always ended in disaster.)

So what's this have to do with the PI?

Think about Holmes, particularly as portrayed at present by Messrs. Downey, Cummerbatch, and Miller. The modern depictions of Holmes have more in common with Blackadder than in prior decades, while Watson is portrayed as long-suffering and sometimes the source of Holmes' brilliance. This was Doyle's original vision of the pair, and you can draw a direct line back to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. But whereas the don was off his rocker and Sancho had a simple view of the world, the impulses were the same: Quixote, like Holmes and like every PI character who followed him, loathes injustice and wants to see things set right. Panza, like Watson and the later stock psycho sidekicks, sees Quixote's (or Holmes's or Spenser's or Patrick and Angie's) mission as noble, though often has to show great patience standing in his brilliant partner's shadow.

The motivations and the levels of intelligence change. Even the personal missions change. Spenser, never mind Holmes, could not have thrived in the time of King Arthur or Charlemagne. And the whole thrust of Don Quixote's story is that the knight-errant was already part of a fictional past.

The PI is not the only evolution of Don Quixote, but it's the most obvious. Fans of Doctor Who can pick up on Quixote's madness in the Doctor, but it's darker and more bizarre. And more intentional.

So Don Quixote is still alive. When the PI is done right, the character taps into that zeitgeist. When it's not, he or she is simply parroting the Op and Marlowe.

27 February 2014

Tales Around the Fireside


by Eve Fisher

I am a short story writer.  Yes, I've written two novels, one (The Best is Yet to Be) as part of the Guideposts mystery series, "Mystery and the Minister's Wife", the other a sci-fi/fantasy piece that is still sitting in my closet.  I've written plays.  I used to write songs for myself and, later, a Southern rock-and-roll band called "Fantasy's Hand." (Those were fun days...)  But what I really feel most comfortable with is short stories.

I think a lot of this comes from my childhood.  I was an only child, and my parents were 40 when they adopted me; everyone around me was (it seemed) at least 40 years older than me, and back then children were expected to keep their mouths shut and just be there while the adults talked, talked, talked.  Luckily for me, most of them were storytellers.  A story, told in the night, to make you sigh or smile or shiver...  still pretty much the ideal.
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John Collier

And I like reading short stories.  I don't understand why so few magazines carry short stories anymore.  Why there are so few short-story magazines.  (Especially considering that attention spans seem to be growing shorter and shorter all the time, but that's another rant.)  I love them.  And some of the finest writing anywhere has been done in that format.  Here are my picks for some of the greatest short story writers:

John Collier.  "Fancies and Goodnights" contains some of his best work.  (It won the Edgar Award in 1962.)  Read "Bottle Party" to find out what really happens with a genie in the bottle.  "The Chaser" - on how tastes change over time.  "If Youth Knew What Age Could"... One of my favorites, "The Lady on the Grey."  And on and on.  Many of his stories were adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Tales of the Unexpected.  He also wrote screenplays (including "Sylvia Scarlett", [uncredited] "The African Queen", and "I am A Camera"), and a couple of novels of which my favorite is the mordant, devilish, unforgettable "His Monkey Wife."

File:Ray Bradbury (1975) -cropped-.jpgRay Bradbury.  There are not enough words in the English language to praise his amazing output of short stories.  From "The Fruit in the Bottom of the Bowl" to "I Sing the Body Electric," "April Witch" to "The Veldt", "A Sound of Thunder" to the heartbreaking "There Will Come Soft Rains", "Dark They Were and Golden Eyed", the whole body of "The Martian Chronicles", and on and on, I gobbled each and every one of his stories I could get my hands on. His work inspired me, amazed me, touched me...  couldn't get enough of it. And he was primarily a short-story writer:  aside from "Fahrenheit 451", his other novels didn't really gel for me.  ("The Martian Chronicles" is a collection of short stories, with a narration in between.)  He showed what could be done in the medium of short fiction.  And, of course, he was a regular writer for "Twilight Zone" and other TV shows...

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Somerset Maugham.  One of the few who could write both great novels, and great short stories.  "The Letter" - made into film twice, most notably with Bette Davis as the cool and collected murderess.  "The Lotus Eater" - when Paradise runs out...  "Red" - what really happens when you look up your old childhood sweetheart...  "The Luncheon" - never ask questions you can't take the answer to...  The hilarious "Three Fat Women of Antibes", "The Vessel of Wrath", "The Verger"...  and, of course, the "Ashenden" series which practically began secret agent stories.  (Alfred Hitchcock combined "The Hairless Mexican" and "The Traitor" into the 1936 movie "Secret Agent" with John Gielgud and Peter Lorre.) Seriously, his short stories are like popcorn at the movies - once I start reading them (I have a four-volume set), I can't quit until I've worked my way through...  way too many.
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Poe

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Lovecraft
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Jackson
H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, and Shirley Jackson.  And how do you want to be scared today, my precious?  My sweets?  By many-tentacled horrors from beyond space, or by crumbling ruins of decay and death, or the quiet malevolence of a quiet house or neighborhood? By the breathing darkness or that strange emptiness?  By the sudden creak or that high whistle in the depths?  Any of these will leave you wondering what's really going on next door, when you'll be able to turn the lights off again, and what is that sound in the closet or over head or under the floor...

File:Conan doyle.jpgArthur Conan Doyle.  Let us never forget that 90% of the Memoirs of Dr. John H. Watson about his inimitable companion, Sherlock Holmes, are short stories. We all have our favorites.  (Sadly, the relentless reinterpretations of Holmes and Adler have reduced my pleasure in "A Scandal in Bohemia".)  Among mine are "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches", "The Speckled Band", "The Greek Interpreter", "The Devil's Foot", and "The Norwood Builder".  I have spent many a rainy afternoon curled up in a couch with a hot cup of tea and my father's one-volume "Complete Works", reading, reading, reading, time travelling to Victorian/Edwardian London, as Sherlock Holmes - the world's only private consulting detective - solves case after case after case...  Ah...  Excuse me, I have some reading to do...

NOTE:  These are, of course, only a few of the many tremendous short-story writers I've read.  Flannery O'Connor, Guy de Maupassant, Rudyard Kipling, Roald Dahl, Daphne du Maurier ("The Birds", yes - but never forget "The Little Photographer"), Nikolai Gogol  and Anton Chekhov, Ursula LeGuin and Isaac Asimov, and so many of my esteemed colleagues...  I really do have some reading to do!

23 February 2014

Two More From “The Dead Witness”


by Louis Willis

The Parody
For this post, I read two more interesting stories from the Dead Witness anthology. One is a Sherlock Holmes parody , and the other involves a missing body part.
I sometimes have difficulty recognizing parodies because I’m too serious and tend to over analyze. But, through “inductive and reductive ratiocination,” I had no trouble recognizing Bret Harte’s “The Stolen Cigar-Case” as a parody of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Mr. Sherlock Holmes, the greatest cerebral detective who ever lived, greater even than that master of ratiocination, C. Auguste Dupin. What tipped me off you might ask. The name of Hart’s detective: Hemlock Jones. Sherlock is a perceptive person. Hemlock is a poison that was used to execute criminals (and of course to kill Socrates). Hemlock Jones is poison to criminals. And Jones rhymes with Holmes. 
The story is a parody of the Holmes/Dupin method of “inductive and reductive ratiocination.” Hemlock Jones accuses the narrator (his Watson) of stealing his cigar-case and proceeds to present the evidence that without a doubt proves the narrator is the culprit. Jones is so convincing that, after the narrator left and never saw him again, he “often wondered, pondering on that wonderful man’s penetration and insight, if, in some lapse of consciousness, I had not really stolen his cigar-case.”  

The Missing Body Part
I like to read stories in which the title suggests a missing body part, which is why I chose the story “The Mysterious Human Leg” by James McGovan (1845-1919). I wondered how would a 19th century detective find the body, alive or dead, the part belongs to without the aid of forensic science? 
James McGovan was the pen name of William Crawford Honeyman, a professional violinist and orchestra leader who published books on the violin under his real name. In my search for information on Honeyman, under both his real and pen names, neither Google nor Bing was of much help, though Google listed the book How to Play the Violin by William C. Honeyman. Google Books was a little more helpful. From the site, I downloaded a collection of McGovan’s stories, Traced and Tracked: or Memoirs of a City Detective. I found no books on the Gutenberg website under McGovan or Honeyman. I declined Wikipedia’s invitation to create a page for McGovan. All the search engines wanted to change “McGovan” to “McGowan.” 
Searching for information on McGovan/Honeyman, I felt like a detective on the trail of the missing writer. Luck came my way when I visited the Birlinn website and read a review of McGovan’s book The McGovan Casebook: Experiences of a Detective in Victorian Edinburg. The review provides a brief biography, and claims that, although McGovan’s books are mostly forgotten, Ellery Queen and Agatha Christie admired his stories.
McGovan/Honeyman, having no experience in police work, pretended he was a real police detective writing stories about real crimes. The stories were so convincing that in 1888 Publishers’ Circular “proclaimed McGovan’s articles ‘the best detective stories (true stories, we esteem them) that we ever met with.’” But he tells a pretty good story in “The Mysterious Human Leg.” After a young boy brings a left leg full of carpet tacks to him, detective McGovan notices that the leg was expertly cut, suggesting a doctor had performed the surgery. This initial observation leads him to medical student Robert Manson and eventually to the owner of the leg.

Without, I hope, spoiling the ending, my question to the firearm experts is this was it possible in the 19th century to load carpet tacks in any type of firearm and fire them like bullets?