Showing posts with label Stephen Ross. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Stephen Ross. Show all posts

23 November 2018

Two Gentlemen of London

by Stephen Ross

As I've mentioned before, my favorite art gallery in the world is the National Portrait Gallery in London. I like it because it's full of faces. Sure, I love strolling around any art gallery, and will take an interest in any Marcel Duchamp bicycle wheel, Goya lithograph, Turner seascape, or Hockney swimming pool, but it is to the gallery of faces I've returned most often. Faces are "characters," and I'm in the business of creating characters; albeit on paper, and in words, as I can't draw to save myself.

The double portrait below (a diptych painted on vellum) caught my eye the first time I visited the NPG. It's a Tudor-era work; the costuming and the date of 1554 (it's inscribed on it) are the big giveaway. But the most immediate thing about the work is its size; it's only 100 mm tall (4 inches). It's one of the smallest oil paintings in the gallery (depending on your monitor/phone screen configuration, you may even be viewing it larger than it really is).


It's an odd painting; very simple, very small, and somewhat engaging. This is not a double portrait of two kings, two dukes, or even two wealthy merchants; the plainness of their attire, and the minimalism of the work speaks to that. But there is a discernible sense of dignity about these two gentlemen.

The man to the left holds an artist's palette, the man to the right, a lute. This says:

This is how we wish to be known: Art and Music. 

Above each of the men, finely inscribed, are lines of text. Above the artist are two lines of Latin. Above the musician are two lines of English. Unless you are fluent in Latin, you immediately head to the English:

"Strangwish, thus strangely depicted is One prisoner, for thother, hath done this/ Gerlin, hath garnisht, for his delight This woorck whiche you se, before youre sight."
The key takeaways in this humorous, punning slice of ye olde English are the words "prisoner" and "garnisht." The later is Tudor-era slang for "giving something to your prison warden to obtain the conveniences of life." So, to paraphrase the inscription: The man with the lute is Strangwish (Henry Strangways). He is a prisoner, and this "which you see before you" was done to buy a little comfort for his life.

The Latin inscription is in a different mood.

"Such was the face of Gerlach Flicke when he was a painter in the City of London. This he himself painted from a looking-glass for his dear friends. That they might have something by which to remember him after his death."
Somber, huh?

The man with the artist's palette is Gerlach Flicke, a German portrait painter known for his work in the Tudor court at London. It's a self portrait, and to paraphrase his inscription: He thought he was going to die.

Flicke and Strangways were prisoners in the Tower of London. Friends and companions, or simply comrades in captivity? We will probably never know. Strangways was a "gentleman" pirate (it was a narrow channel between pirate and privateer). History never recorded why Flicke was jailed (maybe the Queen (Mary (Bloody)) didn't like something he said on Twitter?). And neither did die. Not in the Tower, anyway. Flicke in 1558, Strangways in 1562.

Could Strangways play the lute? History didn't record that either, but as a pirate, he probably enjoyed a bit of wine, women, and song. But history did record that he wanted to steal an island from Philip II of Spain; yes, an island. I like this man. Flicke is noted, but never became notable as an artist. He is, sadly, more of a footnote. This painting is his most famous piece. It's good, but really, it's well known more because it's recognized as the first ever self portrait painted in oils in England.

And knowing the conditions it was painted in explains its starkness. I've never visited the Tower of London, and I doubt I ever will. I know way too much about the abject horrors that took place within its walls, and there are frankly better things to visit when in London.

This is how we wish to be remembered: This is all we have left. 


I am reminded of Henry Purcell's When I am laid in earth, and its haunting lyric:
"Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate."



http://www.stephenross.live/
https://www.facebook.com/stephen.ross.writer.etc/



19 October 2018

Mystery Map

by Stephen Ross
I made a map. But before I tell you about it, let me explain why I made a map... in one sentence: Writers like to procrastinate. If you're a writer, you know that sentence well. You probably even have it printed on a t-shirt. You probably even took the time out to design and hand-make the t-shirt. I know this well. I have spent many happy hours designing t-shirt ideas: catchy, writerly phrases. Juxtapositions of images and words...

Anyway. 

It was the evening. It was raining. I had finished another chapter of the WIP, but rather than start on the third draft of the next one, I remembered something I had learnt during the week in my day job: how to create a Google map and populate it with custom location pins. So, armed with a mug of chocolate tea and a plate of late evening chocolate cookies (chocolate is always the best kind of procrastination), I set about making a map of the world identifying the locations where my published short stories have been set.

I created an icon/pin for each of the three categories I write in, assigned each story a category, and stuck in a pin where each was set; adding notation of when and where it was published.

It was an educational experience. I had this idea in my head that I had set only a few stories in New Zealand, maybe two or three. Wrong. There were in fact six.

I also had this idea that most of my stories were set in the United States. Wrong. Most of my stories are set in Europe, and even if the United Kingdom continues with its insanity and brexits away from continental Europe, the UK, alone, will still have the same number of stories set in it as the US.

Another interesting thing I learnt was that only two of my stories are set in fictional towns. Most of my stories are set in real, named places, typically cities, e.g., Los Angeles, London, Frankfurt. Bad Memory even drills down and mentions a whole cobweb of real street names and locations (it's set in West Auckland, where I grew up).

Some stories have no named setting, but it's reasonably clear and implied where it's set. The Man from the Future is set in the English countryside, near a river and near the coast, and the voice of the narrator (it's first person) is Snotty British. It's never said on the page, but in my head the story was set in Devon.

What's interesting about the two fictional places I made up is that both were for horror stories (with a young narrator). The youthful narrator of Feed the Birds departs Paddington train station bound for Abercrumble House in the Hertley Forest. There is no Hertley Forest in the North West of England. Or anywhere in the UK. The teenage boy in The Tall Ones finds himself swept up in a Lovecraftian nightmare in the small town of Redgrave on the shore of Lake Michigan. Yup. No Redgrave at Lake Michigan (unless you're thinking of Michael Redgrave in the movie Thunder Rock).

Probably my favourite location of all for a story, and in real life, is Metz. It's a small town in the North East of France. I've holidayed there a couple of times. It features two rivers, interesting architecture, a fantastic museum, coffee, 3000+ years of history (a woman in a bookstore there told me the town was the birth place of Gregorian Chant), and there's a dragon in cathedral's basement.

I set Monsieur Alice is Absent (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, 2010) in Metz. This has always been one of my favorite stories (a story dear to my heart, as they say) and now is a good time to mention it's being reprinted in the Terror at the Crossroads anthology that's being edited by Jackie Sherbow and Emily Hockaday at Dell Magazines. It comes out later this month. I can't wait!

My map of stories, of course, is rather sparse. I don't have that many published stories, compared to my fellow Sleuthsayers. I can image a similar map made by any one of them would be a carpet of icons. And by delightful coincidence, the day after I started making a map and writing this blog post, John posted an article about settings: A Whole Town--Imagine That. In which, he asked: As a writer, what works for you? Do you usually create your own town/city names, or do you install your characters in real-life locations? So, John, take this as my answer :)

So, what next? Oh, yeah, back to the next chapter in the third draft of the WIP. :P

Or maybe another t-shirt design.

Oh, and yes. You can look at my map here: Stephen's Story Map.


06 July 2018

Joy of Writing (Groups)

by Stephen Ross

I'm too old to play in a sandpit anymore with my toy cars, toy gorilla, and action man. And if I did, people would think it odd; at best, eccentric. Some might even alert the authorities. However, as a grownup, I can let my mind wander freely, letting my stories and characters flow (action man, gorilla, et al.). And so long as I do it on paper, no one will bat an eyelid. My joy of writing is creation; the joy of making things up. For me, a blank page of paper is like the sandpit of my childhood. 

I wrote the above, more or less, in about three minutes today (Saturday, May 12). I wrote it from scratch. It was a short writing exercise answering the question: What is your joy of writing?

I belong to a writing group. A bunch of us meet once a month at the local library, and we do things such as talk about writing, discuss competitions, hear from guest writers and speakers (today we had a comprehensive tutorial on social media for writers), and occasionally we undertake short, on-the-spot writing exercises, as above.

The group is delightfully informal (behind the scenes, it is a fully incorporated society). I'm not sure how many people belong, maybe upwards of 40-50, as attendance for some is delightfully casual. There’s a fairly wide range of ages among members, and a fairly wide range of writing experience: published, self-published, not-yet-published. Everyone in the room is a writer. Everyone has a WIP: a book, short story, play, poem, or piece of journalism.

I believe I am the only mystery writer in the room. But I’m not the only former teacher. It seems almost every second member of the group is, or has been, a school teacher… Apropos of nothing.

Children's Writing Workshop with Stu Deval
(Photo ©2018 Becky Carr)
I came late to joining a writing group. I've been writing all my life, but I only went along and joined one two years ago. The gateway drug was a post I chanced upon on Facebook about a guest speaker (Frances Housden) who would be giving a crime/mystery fiction workshop. Visitors welcome. Tea and cookies provided.

    I liked the atmosphere.
    It was local.
    (I took in a cappuccino.)
    I've kept going back.

I’ve said it often: Writers are the friendliest people you’ll meet (and I'll add that mystery writers are the friendliest of the friendly).

The writing of fiction is a solitary pursuit and an unsociable practice. By god, it is the very definition of unsociable. And even if you’re sitting in a crowded café, slamming out chapter 27 of your usurper to the Harry Potter franchise, you’re probably wearing headphones and ignoring everyone... except for the waiter bringing more coffee.

Writing is on the list of unsociable occupations along with IRS employee, jail warden, lone astronaut stranded on a hostile planet, and ascetic cave hermit. So, once a month, it's nice to go along and meet up with others who also do the writing thing, and to talk shop.

Sidebar: I bow to those rare literary pluralists who can truly write in tandem with another.

I work days in an office (software company). If I started randomly talking to my colleagues about first person omniscient, writer's block, word count, page formatting, current submissions, or who was nominated for or won a Derringer Award this year (claps and cheers for Elizabeth, Brendan, Rob, and John), their eyes would glaze over.

I suppose, it's a little bit therapeutic in that respect. A writing group is like an AA meeting. “Hi, my name is Stephen. I'm a writer.  I haven’t written a paragraph since 9 A.M. this morning.”

Sleuthsayers is an online version of a writer's group, with the advantage that it's open 24/7, and we can all be anywhere at all: Florida, Seattle, Canada, down here at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, or at the Stork Club (Thelma?).

The bottom line is: Belonging to a writer group, be it at the local library, or in cyberspace, is a chance to learn stuff (big or small); to plug into the collective writer mind and soak up new and interesting things. To hang out with fellow travelers.

Did I mention competitions? My writing group has a bunch of them, and one of them this year is a trophy-prized, short-story comp: "Crime and Mystery." I've not yet entered any of the group's competitions, but I plan to (pardon the obligatory pun) give that one a decent stab.

SR


Links:
Frances Housden
Stu Deval

Stephen Ross Facebook
www.StephenRoss.live

26 March 2018

An Emotional List

by Stephen Ross

I read recently in a newspaper about a study into the range of emotions human beings can experience. The study turned up 27 of them. And this was a study undertaken by the University of California Berkeley, and not some random list drawn up by two men in a pub over a pint.

Generally, it's been held that there are only about a half dozen core emotions, e.g., anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, surprise.

This study expanded on that.

In short, the researchers at Berkeley sat 800 volunteers down in front of video monitors and asked them to report and rank the emotions they felt when watching 30 short (silent) video clips. The clips included all manner of things, including births, deaths, marriages, sex, spiders, scenic wonders, natural disasters, and awkward handshakes (and probably, Donald Trump's hair).

In short again, they found that the responses they got to the clips were multidimensional. No one clip produced one single emotion. In fact, a clip could elicit a variety of "feelings" in the viewer. And each of these feelings constituted an individual and unique emotion.

For example, a clip of a man on tightrope walking between two mountain cliffs brought in the following response from the subjects: Fear 55%, Anxiety 45%, Admiration 9%, Aesthetic appreciation 9%, Amusement 9%, Entrancement 9%.

I don't want to get into an analysis of how they made their findings or drew their conclusions, but I think I can sum it up: Humans are complex creatures; our responses to stimuli are never one dimensional.


My real interest here, and reason for writing, is the LIST they drew up. And here it is:

27 Human Emotions
  • Admiration
  • Adoration
  • Aesthetic Appreciation
  • Amusement
  • Anxiety
  • Awe
  • Awkwardness
  • Boredom
  • Calmness
  • Confusion
  • Craving
  • Disgust
  • Empathetic pain
  • Entrancement
  • Envy
  • Excitement
  • Fear
  • Horror
  • Interest
  • Joy
  • Nostalgia
  • Romance
  • Sadness
  • Satisfaction
  • Sexual desire
  • Sympathy
  • Triumph
I like this. It's another handy list for the writer's toolbox.

And I like the concept of multidimensional emotional responses to stimuli. It's a good reminder to write characters that have depth and are of more than one emotion. If a character has only one emotion, he's not real, he's a transparent plot device.

The Illustration: This is a photo (close detail) that I took of a painting that hangs in the Auckland Art Gallery. "For of such is the Kingdom of Heaven" by Frank Bramley, 1891. It's quite big and quite haunting, when you stand in front of it. I can report Aesthetic Appreciation, Sadness, Empathetic pain, and Calmness.

www.StephenRoss.net

08 January 2018

Wandering with a Story

by Stephen Ross

A friend sent me a link to an article in The Atlantic. It's about how writers run. Maybe she was suggesting something. I'm a writer, but I don't run... but then I'm not exactly immobile. I walk; as in long walks for no reason other than the walk itself. So, in a sense, I am a writer who runs, I just do it with, ahem, "considered application." And like the authors mentioned in the Atlantic article (Louisa May Alcott, Joyce Carol Oates, Don DeLillo, et al), the forward propelled movement with no specific goal other than the movement itself is absolutely linked to my writing.

Absolutely is perhaps too strong an adverb. But the relationship is symbiotic. There is simply nothing better after a long day of writing to throwing on a t-shirt and pair of shorts, lacing up a pair of sneakers, and heading out for a brisk stroll. I have a natural circuit around my neighborhood. It's about seven kilometers, features a hill climb, and takes about an hour. Perfect.

First up out the door is the intake of fresh air; great lungfuls of it. And any kind of exercise has to be good after sitting at a desk for several hours. It gets the dopamine flowing. But what it's really about is the plunge back into reality after a day spent ensconced in the imagination. Writing is a form of meditation. It's a concentration that disconnects you from the here and now. You go with your story. You flow with it. You enter its world and your mind "exists" in its space and time.  Walking brings you back.

And brisk walking is a form of meditation itself, although a more rhythmic sort. It's a straightforward repetition of physical action. And it's passive, so you don't need to think at all while you do it. But, of course it is, in that passive state, with the dopamine flowing, the perfect time to think; to ponder, reflect, and consider. And here's where it's symbiotic for me, because I think about the writing I've just been doing.

And I realized sometime ago why the walking + thinking about the day's writing can be so effective: I can't edit. I can't call up the text on a screen in front of me and read it over. I can't move things around: a word dropped here, a sentence rewritten there.


Everything has to be from the memory. And as such, the thinking becomes more analytical in nature. Firstly, questions, e.g., Does the story really work? Are the characters' motivations clear and defined? Is the twist at the end twisty enough? And so on. And then out into the realms of meta-thinking, where, in the meditative state of the walking, the mind wanders in and out of the story, and I'll ponder everything from its word count to the hero's hat size. It's here where the imagination roams free.

And it's here where things can spark.

I wrote a story once about a young boy who enlisted the help of an elderly, retired policeman to look for a missing friend (The Man with One Eye, EQMM, December 2010). While out on a walk during the writing, an idea came out of nowhere to make the old man a retired gangster, instead. The character immediately became more interesting to write and the story was better for it.

Just about every story I've written has had a spark or two like this. Walking invokes a form of lateral thinking, or thinking outside the box (leastways, outside the house), which is completely different to the thinking when sitting at the desk staring at the text on the monitor.

Needless-to-say, I always have a notepad and pencil on standby for when I return home.

Beethoven was keen walker. He favored forests, and he was lucky; in 18th Century Germany there always seemed to be one handy. I don't have the luck of dense foliage to roam about, but it helps that where I live (borderline suburbs/rural) is low density traffic and people, so I encounter little distraction when out. My fellow footpath travelers are dogs, mostly; out taking their humans for walks, and no doubt mulling over their day's work, just like I am. This bone or that bone? Shall I annoy the cat, this evening? Shall I continue work on my memoirs?

Ray Bradbury was another walker. He hated cars and never got a driver license.
"What are you doing out?"
"Walking," said Leonard Mead.
"Walking!"
"Just walking," he said simply, but his face felt cold.
"Walking, just walking, walking?"
"Yes, sir."
"Walking where? For what?"
"Walking for air. Walking to see."
From The Pedestrian
Ray Bradbury, 1951
And, of course, the last thing I would say is that all that walking is kind of healthy. So there it is.

The article at The Atlantic is here: Why Writers Run

www.StephenRoss.live

Photo from www.Pexels.com

24 July 2017

Withnail & I

by Stephen Ross

Picture this: A large, empty, cavernous movie theater auditorium in the depths of winter. I'm in a jacket and scarf, and my breath is visible. It's a matinee screening and no one else came. The lights go down and the ruby red curtains part. A soulful saxophone echoes: a four a.m. version of Procol Harum's A Whiter Shade of Pale. Up on the screen, a man sits in profile in a darkened sitting room and smokes a cigarette. He's contemplating the universe, or he's about to face a firing squad.

This is a memory burnt into my mind. And I am lately reminded that it happened thirty years ago.

Thirty years ago, Kevin called me up on the telephone. "You should go see it," he said. He'd called to tell me about a movie that had opened a couple of days earlier. I don't remember his exact words, but I remember his enthusiasm, and the movie was Withnail and I.

"What's it about?"

A couple of days later, I sat alone in that aforementioned empty movie theater: The Embassy; a cold, uninspiring Art Deco building of creams and off whites. It used to stand on the corner of Lorne and Wellesley Streets in Auckland City, and it was a proper movie palace: wide, a couple of levels, big fat chocolate leather seats (and not a darkened shoe box like most cinemas today).

"What the hell was that about?" Francine asked, two weeks later, when I suggested we go see it (me for the second time), and we did, and we sat in a café afterwards.

The movie is set in England in 1969 and it's about a lot of different things, and to describe any one of them would do disservice to the others. To my mind, it's about as close to a book as any movie has ever gotten. When I close a good book, I'm left first with a mood, a feeling; it's taken me somewhere emotionally. Remembering scenes and moments (and the plot) comes later.

Essentially, Withnail is the story of two actors. They've graduated from drama school and are looking for work. They're unemployed and the world owes them no favors. In fact, the world seems to offer no hope whatsoever. The world is crumbling.
This can be read as a metaphor, and it's the key to the movie's popularity (it flopped when it was first released, but it's since become a perennial favorite; a cult classic). We've all been there. The waiting. The what next? The what do I do now?

It doesn't matter the career or chosen path, be it actor, writer, musician, or ________ (fill in the blank). Most of us have found ourselves, at some point, standing at the crossroads wondering what the hell do we do next?

Do I wait for the phone to ring? Do I go out and hustle? How does this thing work?

And there is no right answer. And Withnail doesn't provide one.

That's the trouble with most movies today. There's always a right answer: it's provided for you, usually in triplicate, and underlined. You can watch and "understand" most movies today without almost any assistance from your brain.

I'm not arguing that Withnail & I is the greatest movie ever made, but it takes you somewhere, if you want it to. And I will argue that it's one of the more sharply written and better acted.

Withnail ends in Regent's Park, London. It's raining. It's a miserable day. One of the actors has left to catch a train; he has secured a job. The other is left drunk at the bars of the wolf enclosure, his future uncertain. He recites the what a piece of work is man? monologue from Hamlet. The wolves are uninterested.


Again, a metaphor.

Withnail & I is about whatever you want to find in it.

Withnail & I (at the IMDB)

Stephen Ross (on Facebook)

12 March 2017

International GoodBooks

by Leigh Lundin

I love Looking Glass Alice and good books and well-done animation and charitable causes. When they come together, that's Wonderland. Check out this lovely Alice clip from the land of Stephen Ross— New Zealand.


The good folks at International GoodBooks (GoGoodBooks.com) can apparently deliver pretty much anything worldwide through Amazon channels. I haven’t tried it yet, but if you use their portal rather than Amazon’s, purchases are supposed to work the same but they get credit.

Brilliant, both the sentiment and the advert. Let me know how you make out.

For fans of the surreal Alice like me, Disney’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland is delightful and much better than the 2016 Through the Looking Glass follow-up. I also admired the computer game America McGee’s Alice for its brilliant music and surrealism.

Before leaving New Zealand and the phantasmagorical, check out this 1967 NZ classic by House of Nimrod, Slightly-Delic. (Page includes a free download.)

25 April 2016

Brief Encounters of the Story Kind

by Stephen Ross

Writing a book or a short story is like a relationship. You meet a pretty girl (you think of a cool idea for a plot). You discover the girl is super smart and intelligent (the idea has depth and resonance, and is compelling), and you become even more attracted to her. You start on page one (you ask her out), and there begins your relationship in earnest. Your first several dates go off without a hitch, and you make good progress on the first draft. The relationship grows and blossoms.

Without extending this metaphor into the realms of the surreal, you fall madly in love (you get into the zone of writing the story), and love (your writing) flows as poetically as a Shakespearean sonnet on a summer's day.

Pause for sighing. Ahhhh...

But, unlike in the real world, your relationship with your story is doomed to failure because, at some point, the relationship has to end. It must end. You can't keep writing the same story for the rest of your life. There has to be closure. We writers sometimes spend so much time with our creations, they are describable as significant others: loved and cherished, honored and obeyed, and breaking up can be hard to do.

Sometimes, the breakup might be mutually beneficial, especially when the story has been a hard write, and there's been a lot of bickering between you and it in the course of its telling. You know those stories, the ones with lots of long silent nights sat staring at each other, with nothing to say. And you're just mopping up the loose ends, to get it over with, so you can go your separate ways, with both hoping to survive the bitter separation.

Worse, still, is when you leave the story for another. And it sits there, alone, in the café of your soul, drinking endless cups of coffee waiting for your return. And when you do return (after your torrid affair with another story), it's never the same.

For most writers, writing is rewriting. I think only in movies (and in our dreams) does anyone start on page one, spend a couple of months working through to page 400, type in THE END, and then send the completed book off to a publisher (where, of course, it immediately sells and is immediately published)). The first draft is merely the gateway into the story. The real writing comes in the rewriting.

But rewriting can't last forever. How many times can you read over a story and refine it and polish it? Every time through you find something new to fiddle with and adjust: another adverb to throw out, another debatably redundant word or phrase to toss, another he said or she said that can be dropped, because it's quite obvious who is talking.

And every time you get to the end of a read over, you think, yeah, let's do this just one more time.

The best way to end a story is at the train station.


You're about to board the train (to continue on your journey), and your story is going to wave goodbye from the platform. You both know it can't go on, that you must part, that it's over. You're done. All that needs to be said has been said, and you both know it.

The encounter, albeit brief, has come to an end.

Your train departs.

You both wave goodbye.

Tears.

To actually go ahead and shunt this metaphor firmly into the realms of the surreal, your story then becomes your child.

It goes off on its own, and you have little or no more control over it. All you can do is sit back and watch as it grows and makes its way in the world.

Hopefully, it'll graduate from high school (i.e., sell and get published). Hopefully, at least, somebody might say some nice things about it. It might even get lucky and get nominated for an award; it might even win one.

It might even mature into an adult and get picked up by another medium: audio, film, theater, computer game (and who knows what else awaits us in the future). And it might even one day grow up to be considered something rather special: an outstanding story among its peers.

And one thing is absolutely for certain: no "mights "about it. Your story will outlive you. And long after you have gone, someone somewhere may still know of it, have a copy in his or her hand, and perceive a sense of the love that once bloomed.

Shakespeare has been dead for 400 years, and we can still feel the resonance of love in his writing:
If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it...

Be seeing you.

P.S. The photo is a still from the 1945 movie Brief Encounter. If you've never seen it, give yourself a treat.

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http://www.StephenRoss.net

24 August 2015

Queen of Crime

by Stephen Ross

I met Sam Neill (the movie actor) once. For a short time, in a galaxy far, far away (the 1980s), I worked as a bank clerk on campus at the University of Auckland, and Mr Neill came in one quiet afternoon to make enquiries about foreign exchanges. His brother was a lecturer at the university (his brother, Michael, would later be one of my English professors). I mention this brush with movie stardom simply because I can state that I have met and spoken to someone who not only knew, but was a good friend of, writer Ngaio Marsh.

Ngaio Marsh sold four stories to the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and I mention this upfront, because it's the only other connection (albeit tenuous) that I can claim to her; I too have had stories appear in the same magazine.

Ngaio Marsh's 
short stories 
in EQMM
I Can't Find My Way Out (August 1946)
Death on the Air (January 1948)
Chapter and Verse: The Little Copplestone Mystery (August 1973)
A Fool About Money (December 1974)

A couple of Dames at the Savoy (Christie and Marsh)
Edith Ngaio Marsh was born in 1895 (April 23; same birthday as Shakespeare) and died in 1982. In both instances, in Christchurch, New Zealand. If you want to talk about New Zealand and crime/mystery fiction, you start (and can pretty much end) with Ngaio Marsh. From the 1930s through to the 1980s, Ngaio Marsh wrote 32 novels (most still in print). She is considered to be one the leading writers of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, and along with her stable mates Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Dorothy L. Sayers, has been described as one of the original four Queens of Crime. The actual Queen (Elizabeth 2), made Marsh a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1966, and in 1978 (along with Dame Daphne du Maurier), Dame Ngaio Marsh became a recipient of the Mystery Writers of America's highest honour: the Grand Master Award. No other New Zealand writer of mystery fiction has yet achieved her standing. In fact, no other New Zealand writer. Period.

Ngaio Marsh's parents met in Christchurch. Her mother, Rose, was a New Zealander and an actress, and her father, Henry, was British and a bank clerk with an interest in the theatre. They were married in 1894 and Edith, their only child, was born the following year. An uncle fluent in Maori was asked to provide an indigenous middle name (a custom at the time, apparently), and he came up with "Ngaio", which is a Maori word for a type of tree, with the additional connotations of clever, methodical, and restless.


So, how do you pronounce Ngaio? And I have been asked. Being an authority on the New Zealand vocabulary and accent (because I be one), I can tell you it's pronounced Nigh-Oh [ /ˈnaɪ.oʊ/ ].


Marsh's childhood, from all accounts, was reasonably spiffing and splendid (we'll skip over the fact that she was bullied at school and for a time (10-14 years) was home-schooled). She read everybody. Ah... pause for a moment to imagine a life before the Internet, before television. Imagine summer afternoons in the countryside reading Kipling, Dickens, Henry Fielding, Smollett, Shakespeare, and Conan Doyle. You can just picture her, in Edwardian attire, basking on a blanket in a soft breeze, with a flask of lemonade, a half-eaten ham sandwich, and thoroughly absorbed in Smollet's The Adventures of Roderick Random (mark the name Roderick well).

In addition to reading, Marsh also had a taste for the theatre, like her parents, and while still in school she mounted several amateur theatrical productions. She also began writing: short stories and plays. At first, her audience was her school peers, but by her 20s, she was in print, with stories and poems appearing regularly in Christchurch's The Sun newspaper. She also had a strong passion for painting, and she graduated in 1917 with an Arts diploma (first-class honours) from Canterbury University College (Christchurch is located in the Canterbury province of New Zealand).

By the time Marsh was in her early twenties, the three corners of her world had been set. It's no surprise, then, that theatre and the arts would later form the backdrop to several of her novels. And although painting would figure prominently throughout her life (dare I call it a hobby), it was to the gravitational pull of words, both those written down and those spoken aloud, where her heart fell.

For the next ten years after graduation, until 1928, Marsh continued developing her talents as a writer: writing plays and working on a "New Zealand" novel. Together with a group of likeminded artists she formed "The Group" (a group, mostly women, with avant-garde leanings). And she found on-going employment with a handful of professional theatre companies. It was in this time that she "paid her dues" and learnt her theatre craft. In fact, had Marsh never written a single novel, she would still be recognized as one of the doyens of 20th Century New Zealand theatre. Indeed, my first introduction to her was in a theatre, when I was 14. I had joined an amateur repertory company (the other members were mostly adults), and I remember Marsh being spoken about with reverence on winter evenings over cups of hot tea and crumbly digestives (a type of cookie).

Marsh (in beret) with "The Group", 1936
My first introduction to Ngaio Marsh the author had come about earlier, when I was about 6 or 7, only I hadn't been aware of it at the time. There was a bookshelf in my parents' living room. The upper shelves were lined with the classics of literature, and the lower shelves with a healthy selection of crime fiction (Cat among the Pigeons, Death on the Nile, etc.). One title on the bottom shelf always caught my eye: "Surfeit of Lampreys". I was a small boy. The title may as well have been written in Klingon. Or Latin.

In April 2012, the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine published my short story Pueri Alleynienses, and a friend asked me if the Latin title was a reference to Ngaio Marsh's detective, the principal character of all 32 of her novels, Roderick Alleyn. No, it wasn't, but then I discovered, unintentionally, that it was. My story was about two old men who, many years earlier, had attended Dulwich College in London. Pueri Alleynienses is the title of the Dulwich school song. It translates from the Latin as "Boys of Alleyn" (the founder of Dulwich College was Edward Alleyn). My interest in Dulwich had been based on the fact that Raymond Chandler had been a pupil there (1900-1905). In 1882, part of Dulwich College was annexed as a separate school, to be known simply as Alleyn's School, and it was at this school that Ngaio Marsh's father received an education, and from where she took a name for her character.

And a home for her character, too. London. Inspector Roderick Alleyn worked for Scotland Yard. He was British, a member of the gentry (his older brother was a baronet). He was an Oxford graduate, and had a background in the British army and the Foreign Service before he joined the Met. Almost all of Marsh's 32 books are set in England, with just four set in New Zealand, where Alleyn is either on secondment to the New Zealand Police, or is on holiday (Colour Scheme, Died in the Wool, Vintage Murder, Photo Finish). A fifth, Surfeit of Lampreys, starts out in New Zealand, but promptly returns to London and stays there.

Why London? Because in 1928, Marsh went to live there. Why? Probably because, like most other New Zealand artists and creatives (and even more so 80 odd years ago), New Zealand is a bit empty. Even today, the population is well under five million, spread out over a land mass equivalent in size to the United Kingdom, or California, and not a lot of people in that population could give a flying truck about the local arts scene. Unless it involves Peter Jackson and lots of loud noises.

Nowadays it's called going on The Big OE (Overseas Experience). Yes, there is actually a name for it: when young New Zealanders venture overseas to find fame and fortune, or to get a life. Nowadays, an OE could mean venturing anywhere: Spain, Norway, the US, South America; but until about 20 years ago, it meant only one thing: London. There are very few New Zealanders who work, or have worked, in the arts who haven't done it. Katherine Mansfield, Janet Frame, to name two others. Even I’ve done it. I lived in Soho for a year (before decamping for the continent). The Big OE is written into the DNA of many New Zealanders.

Marsh (1935)
London's (and Europe's) appeal to Marsh would have been great. To quote Eddie Izzard, "It's where the history comes from." Marsh's father was British, her mother a second-generation New Zealander with strong family connections to the "old" country. And through her connections in the New Zealand theatre world, Marsh landed in London on her feet running and co-opened an arts and crafts shop in Knightsbridge. She wrote a series of travel articles that were syndicated by the Associated Press, the strength of which gained her admission to the Society of Authors in 1929. And she gave up on her New Zealand novel. The "colonial novel" had by this time become a little passé, and not something an artistic, sophisticated, independent lady of London would care for.

And then one wet winter's weekend in 1931, trapped indoors with nothing much else to do, a bored Marsh thought she would try her hand at a detective novel. She had been reading Sherlock Holmes mysteries since she had been a child, and she was au fait with the emerging detective genre (she had read Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, et al). The Golden Age of Mystery Fiction had begun, and Marsh probably didn't realize it when she put pen to paper that weekend, but she was about to join it. Her first book, A Man Lay Dying was published three years later in 1934. Inspector Roderick Alleyn entered the minds of readers and found their favour, along with most critics'.

Marsh was back in Christchurch when the book went to print, having returned in 1932 to nurse her ill mother. She wouldn't return to Europe until the late 1930s, and from then on she largely made her home in New Zealand. The Big OE was over. If I was to write a movie script about Marsh, that's where I'd end it: The publication of her first book to great reception. The end. Roll credits. The rest of her life is largely a matter of bibliography and milestone. She wrote 31 more novels featuring Inspector Alleyn (about one every 1-2 years), cementing her place in the literary pantheon. She wrote numerous plays, short stories, articles, and three works of non-fiction, including an autobiography. And she dedicated the remainder of her time to her other love: theatre.

Selected Milestones 
(not mentioned above)



1949
Penguin Books publishes the Marsh Million, in which one million copies of ten of her titles (i.e. 100,000 x 10) were released on the same day.

1950
Marsh produces her favourite play (Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author) at the Embassy Theatre in London.

It's interesting that this was her favourite play, given her love of Shakespeare. It's an oddball piece of theatre (in my tainted opinion -- I sat through a million amateur performances of it in the 1980s as a lighting designer). I much prefer Rod Serling's Five Characters in Search of an Exit, if you know your Twilight Zone.

1951 
An Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine reader's poll votes Marsh one of the best mystery writers currently active.

1963 
Receives an honorary doctorate in literature from Canterbury University.

1967 
The Ngaio Marsh Theatre opens. It is a 400-seat proscenium-arch theatre on campus at the University of Canterbury (currently closed due to earthquake damage). Opening night was a Ngaio Marsh produced production of Twelfth Night.

1967 
Death at the Dolphin nominated for the Edgar Award

1969 
Marsh produces A Midsummer's Night's Dream, starring Sam Neill.

1973 
Tied up in Tinsel nominated for the Edgar Award

1978 
South Pacific Pictures (a NZ television company) produces four feature-length adaptations of the New Zealand-set novels, starring George Baker as Inspector Alleyn.

Click here to watch online: Died in the Wool

1990-94
The BBC produces The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries, adapting nine of the novels.

2010 
The Ngaio Marsh Award is established by journalist Craig Sisterson. The award is given each year to the best crime novel written by a citizen (or resident) of New Zealand. 

Roderick Alleyn

Roderick Alleyn's initials are RA. As a painter, Marsh would have known that the initials "RA" after an artist's name stand for Royal Academician, i.e. an artist elected (to the distinguished title) by members of the Royal Academy of Arts. I mention this purely as an observation.

Agatha Troy 

Agatha Troy first appears in Artists in Crime (1938). She is a famous painter. She is Marsh's version of Agatha Christie's  Ariadne Oliver -- i.e. a character through which the author can vicariously live in the story. Troy reappears in the later books and becomes Alleyn's wife.

Ngaio Marsh's 
Mystery Books 
1. A Man Lay Dead (1934)
2. Enter a Murderer (1935)
3. The Nursing Home Murder (1935)
4. Death in Ecstasy (1936)
5. Vintage Murder (1937)
6. Artists in Crime (1938)
7. Death in a White Tie (1938)
8. Overture to Death (1939)
9. Death at the Bar (1940)
10. Surfeit of Lampreys (1941) [US: Death of a Peer]
11. Death and the Dancing Footman (1942)
12. Colour Scheme (1943)
13. Died in the Wool (1945)
14. Final Curtain (1947)
15. Swing Brother Swing (1949) [US: A Wreath for Rivera]
16. Opening Night (1951) [US: Night at the Vulcan]
17. Spinsters in Jeopardy (1954) [US: The Bride of Death (abridged, 1955)]
18. Scales of Justice (1955)
19. Off With His Head (1957) [US: Death of a Fool]
20. Singing in the Shrouds (1959)
21. False Scent (1960)
22. Hand in Glove (1962)
23. Dead Water (1964)
24. Death at the Dolphin (1967) [US: Killer Dolphin]
25. Clutch of Constables (1968)
26. When in Rome (1970)
27. Tied Up in Tinsel (1972)
28. Black As He's Painted (1974)
29. Last Ditch (1977)
30. Grave Mistake (1978)
31. Photo Finish (1980)
32. Light Thickens (1982)

Don’t ask me to name a favourite Marsh. I've only read two of them, and a long time ago at that. The word tardy is applicable. In researching this little post, I turned up the fact that the bafflingly titled book on my parent's bookshelf, Surfeit of Lampreys, is considered her best book. I've left a memo on my desk to get a copy and read it.

Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to th' rooky wood.

Light Thickens was Marsh's final novel (1982). The title is taken from a line in Shakespeare's Macbeth (quoted above), and a principal element of the book concerns the theatrical taboo of "the Scottish play". Marsh completed the book shortly before her death. The Golden Age was over. The last queen was dead.


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Photos: The Christchurch Press, The NZ National Library

20 January 2015

The Long White Cloud

by Raymond Chandler

You probably didn't expect to read an entry from me in this slot. I'm in New Zealand house-sitting for the kid (Stephen Ross); he's gone on vacation to work on his book. I suspect he's really gone on vacation to catch up on his reading; he's a prince among procrastinators, and there's a gap on the bookshelf where his collection of Perry Mason mysteries used to reside.

The kid asked me look after his house, feed his cat, and ghost write this blog entry. I have no interest in being a ghost, and blog is not a word to inspire confidence; it has a connotation best left to outhouses. I offered to write him a journal entry. He said, "Call it what you like, dude." The kid is under the misapprehension I am a cowboy.

There's no cash remuneration involved. He's left me with the run of his house, a full refrigerator, access to the Internet, WiFi, satellite television, and a Kindle. I'm not entirely sure what a Kindle is supposed to do, but it's convenient as a tray for my cup of coffee.

I may be of antique vintage, but I don't shy away from technology. I owned one of the first television sets in my building and on the block. The old woman in the neighboring apartment thought it was the work of the devil. She left bibles outside my door. The kid has a television set. It has the dimensions of a pool table and is about as thick as a paperback. For three days, I thought it was a room divider. I also invented Google, apparently.

So, what can I say? It's January and the weather is summer, which is strange to my Northern Hemisphere sensibilities. I'm sitting here at the kid's desk in a Hawaiian shirt and a pair of Bermuda shorts. My socks are English (they're plain and polite). The electric fan that's oscillating nearby came from Korea. The kid's desk was made in Canada, and he bought it in Germany. I suppose the carpet came from the Moon.
The kid's house is in Whangaparaoa; a peninsula that juts out like a finger, pointing across the Pacific at North America. I'm about 25 miles north of Auckland, which is the country's largest city (pop 1.3 million), and until 1865 the country's capital (until they relocated the government down to Wellington, at the request of Sir Peter Jackson). Do I like the Lord of The Rings and the Hobbit movies? No. I'd rather watch cloud formations.

New Zealand is located at the foot of the Pacific Ocean, and it's so damp, it may as well lie at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. It has a population of 4.5 million and a climate that I would describe as peculiar, as in you'd walk on the other side of the street to avoid talking to it. I'm sitting here in the heat and humidity of the sub tropics and in winter you can go snow skiing.

New Zealand is so far south (by the way, only Australians are ever truly considered "downunder") that the southern city of Christchurch is the last gas station before Antarctica (Scott, Shackleton, and every scientist currently down there now has swung by at some point).

I can hear the cat scratching at the front door.

For the life of me, I don't know how to pronounce Whangaparaoa correctly, and any word that requires five "a"s to get about its task of being a word is plainly asking for trouble. According to Starchild, the waitress at the Pacific Bar (about a block from the kid's house), Whangaparaoa is a Maori word and it translates as "bay of whales". This may be correct, as I'm sure I heard the echoing sound of one in the distance yesterday morning.

They used to hunt whales in this country. A couple of hundred years ago, there were a handful of whaling stations dotted along the country's coastline, worked chiefly by British, Scots, Irish, Scandinavian, and North American whaling teams. These impromptu towns were the original "Hellholes of the Pacific"; cheap rum, prostitution, and absolutely no law whatsoever. Shoot a man dead and he'd lie in the street until someone downwind got fed up enough to move him.

According to Starchild, whales are now a protected species (it's a jail-able offence to kill one), and anyone who tries to hunt one down within 200 nautical miles of the New Zealand coastline will in turn be hunted down by the Royal New Zealand Navy (and their harpoons have fancier names... like torpedo).

I just went and fed the cat (it's the late afternoon). The cat didn't seem remotely interested in the bowl of colorful kitten nibbles I laid out for it. It had a quizzical look and held its paw up, as though it was requesting a menu, and it seemed miffed there was none. I have no idea if cats are a protected species in this country, but I do know that we human people should be a protected species from them.

The kid's cat is a feisty little furred creature that shifts the doormat each day, leaves fur balls on the pavement leading up to the door, and is considering a life of crime, as most cats are. You can tell by the eyes. Go look at your cat and it'll show you its innocent eyes; its ain't I as adorably cute as a button eyes. Slip a couple of drops of catnip into its milk and it'll lose that veneer. Then you'll see the other face: The 3 a.m. face, when it drops its guard and truly reveals how it feels. It's going to kill something: a mouse, an insect, a bird... maybe even you.

Cats are one of the few animals that kill for the hell of it. Humans are the other one. Most animals kill for survival or out of fear. A cat will dispatch a mouse with as little thought as Lucky Luciano. It'll even leave the body on your doorstep as a "present", which is its thinly veiled way of saying: "You could be next."

Charles Darwin was the first to observe it: Cats don't have opposable thumbs. That's why they can't open doors or load hand guns. If they had them, my name would be "Fluffy Chandler" and we human people would all be in the cat pampering business. Wait a minute...

It's now about 11 in the evening, and I'm sitting here with a glass of wine and am quietly contemplating names. The kid left me the key to his liquor cabinet, but the only thing in it was a half-drunk bottle of Le Chat Noir. My New Year resolution for 2015, by the way, was to quit drinking. This has become my traditional way of starting a new year.

Why is this little country at the foot of the world named "New Zealand"? Where's the old Zealand? Does everyone here have a lot of Zeal? I made a long arm for the kid's bookshelf and his encyclopedia. According to what I read:

The first European to sight the country was the Dutch navigator Abel Tasman (in 1642). He named the country Niew Zeeland, after the Dutch province of Zeeland. He didn't stick around. After making landfall, four members of his crew were killed by a local Maori tribe. Tasman named the place it happened "Murderer's Bay". He never came back, but he is remembered: the stretch of water between New Zealand and Australia is named the Tasman Sea.

In 1769 (126 years later), the British Admiralty dispatched Captain James Cook down to the bottom of the Pacific (to look for the mythical Great Southern Continent), and he rediscovered Tasman's New Zealand (the anglicized spelling of the Dutch). Cook circumnavigated the country and drew the first map. He discovered that New Zealand was a long country (about 500 miles) and principally divided into two islands: the North Island and the South Island; with a land mass equivalent to the United Kingdom or Japan.

Around this time, the French had a serious sniff of New Zealand, and at least one Spanish and Portuguese expedition took respective peeks. The reason the kid speaks English today can be attributed to the British Admiralty -- they sent Cook back on several more expeditions, and firmly established the notion that if any colonial power was going to shove a flag into the turf, it was going to be the British. Oui.

The Maori people didn't have a flag, and their name for the country was "Aotearoa" -- a name largely ignored by the Pakeha (Gringos) until the mid 20th century. Today, the kid's passport bears both names. Like the European settlers, the Maori also sailed to New Zealand, arriving around AD 750 (they were part of the great Polynesian migration that populated all the islands of the Pacific). According to Starchild, Aotearoa translates roughly as "land of the long white cloud".

And at least the Maori people had a bit more imagination when it came to naming things (North Island, South Island, FFS!? to use the modern vernacular). And the country would have been better known as the land of the long goodbye, given how long it would have taken to sail to the bottom of the world in those days, and the lack of certainty you'd ever arrive there in the end. The breath of the wind is not the most reliable of ways to travel.

Starchild told me a joke: A man tells a woman if she marries him, he'll take her to the end of the world. She marries him. He drives her to Invercargill.

The kid left the following note for inclusion in this journal entry.

Many thanks to Raymond for ghostwriting this blog entry for me. I seem to have so many writing tasks on my list of things to do at the moment, it's crazy! I will be back as soon as my workload lightens up a bit. Thanks to all of you! You guys are the best! Be seeing you soon...


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30 December 2014

The Ponsonby Post Office Murder

by Stephen Ross

On the evening of Saturday, March 13, a person or persons unknown entered the house of Mr. Augustus Braithwaite, the postmaster of Ponsonby. Braithwaite was shot dead and the keys to his post office stolen from his pocket.

Ponsonby is a central city neighborhood in Auckland, and the post office (built in the Edwardian era and featuring a clock tower) has long been a focal point and landmark in the neighborhood.

The postmaster's inert body was discovered by his wife. He was still warm, and a doctor was telephoned for. The attending doctor immediately recognized that he was looking at bullet wounds (one to the abdomen and a second to the throat), that Braithwaite had been murdered, and a police constable was summoned.

It quickly became apparent that the postmaster's keys were missing. Within an hour, the police constable, together with officers from the detective branch of the Auckland police, made their way to the Ponsonby post office...  It had been robbed. The strong room had been unlocked and the cashboxes inside jimmied open. Clear fingerprints were evident on three of the boxes.

On March 15, the cashboxes, together with a list of the usual suspects (24 known criminals thought to be in Auckland on the night) were sent by train down to the CRB (Criminal Registration Branch) at the headquarters of the New Zealand police in Wellington. They arrived on the desk of the nation's fingerprint expert: Senior Sergeant E. W. Dinnie (ex Scotland Yard and 17 years of fingerprint investigative work to his name).

No fingerprint match was found.

Three days after the murder, which had gripped the nation and had taken up residence on the front page of every daily newspaper, a retired prison warder thought he might drop by the Auckland police headquarters. The retired warder had seen a man by the name of Dennis Gunn in the vicinity of the Ponsonby post office. In fact, he had seen Gunn loitering several times near the building on the day of the murder/robbery.

Dennis Gunn wasn't a known criminal, but he had two years earlier served a two week sentence in jail for the conviction of evading military service, and the retired warder had recognized him. Subsequent to the criminal conviction, Gunn's fingerprints were on file.

A telephone call was put into the CRB in Wellington. Within hours, they had a fingerprint match, and four days after the robbery, Dennis Gunn was arrested and charged with the postmaster's murder.

Gunn is on record as having smugly remarked to the arresting detective: "You'll have the devil of a job to prove it."

Three days after Gunn's arrest, a recently-fired revolver was located in a canvas bag in the bush down a steep gully near his mother's house (where he lived), together with the stolen post office keys, a jimmy, and a bag containing 229 pennies. A fingerprint matching Gunn's was taken from the revolver.

Gunn was still confidently smug.

A ballistics match was quickly made with the revolver: Grooves were matched. There was little doubt the gun (a .38) had fired the two bullets that had killed Braithwaite.

Gunn was still confidently smug. He was probably sitting in his police cell, clipping his fingernails, and thinking about hopping aboard a steamer bound for the islands for his summer vacation.

Gunn was smug because this was 1920, forensic science was still in its infancy, and no New Zealand citizen (in fact, no citizen in the entire British Empire) had ever been convicted of murder based solely on the evidence of fingerprints.

And there was no other evidence. The two gunshots had been heard, but in 1920, it wasn't an uncommon occurrence to hear a gun being fired (it was only two years after the Great War, and many a man still had his service revolver tucked away in his sock drawer).

There were no eyewitnesses, no convenient boot impressions left in the mud, no left-behind telltale strands of hair or threads of fabric. Nothing (not even the gun proved traceable). All there was were sets of damp little etchings, where a man's hands had touched several metal surfaces and had left behind little impressions of whorls and ridges.

Gunn had no alibi. He had no plausible explanation as to why he had hung around the post office that day, and he couldn't account for his whereabouts at the time of the murder. His trial began on Monday, May 24 at the Auckland Supreme Court, and quickly became a test case.

The matching fingerprints were the only things that tied Gunn to the gun and to the cashboxes; and the reliability of fingerprints as evidence was furiously argued against and discredited by his lawyer. As Gunn's lawyer correctly pointed out, there was simply no precedent for such a serious conviction based on such evidence.

After five days of heated courtroom debate, the jury retired for deliberation. Given that this was only two years after the First World War, when New Zealand's population was around 1.2 million, and that the country had recently lost more than 17000 men in the fighting; and given the fact that Gunn's earlier conviction was for desertion (a fact known to the jury); they'd have probably hung him for jaywalking.

A verdict of Guilty was returned for the robbery (the takings from the post office had amounted to 67 pounds, 14 shillings, and 5 pence), and a verdict of guilty was returned for the murder of Augustus Braithwaite. Gunn was promptly sentenced to death.

On that afternoon, Friday 28 May, 1920, a legal precedent was set for New Zealand and the British Commonwealth. As Sir Samuel Griffith, Chief Justice of Australia, concisely remarked at the time: "He who leaves a finger-print behind him, leaves an unforgettable signature".

Gunn was hung in Auckland on the grounds of Mt Eden prison, on Tuesday June 22, 1920. He was 25.

Gunn never confessed to the murder and had remained largely quiet throughout his trial. After the verdict was returned and the death sentence passed, he immediately attempted to blame two others: He confessed to the robbery, but claimed he hadn't pulled the trigger. The two others he fingered (a brother-in-law and an associate) both had alibis and neither of their fingerprints had been found on the gun or at the post office.

It should be noted that there were two other .38 revolvers found in that canvas bag retrieved from the gully, together with 30-odd rounds of ammunition. Neither of the other two guns was traced to an owner and neither held any fingerprints.

I've once or twice wondered if Gunn's keeping his mouth shut during the trial was some kind of thieve's code of silence (he clearly thought he would get away with it), and that once the verdict came in, all bets were off... It's unlikely we'll ever know.

Gunn is buried in Waikumete Cemetery: A vast cemetery in West Auckland that I often rode past on my bicycle as a kid. Gunn's mother never believed in her son's guilt. The epitaph on his gravestone reads: In loving memory of Dennis Gunn. Sadly wronged.


Be seeing you!


Newspaper Clippings form the National Library of NZ:
Dennis Gunn :  Auckland Star, Volume LI, Issue 67, 18 March 1920
Fingerprints : Observer, Volume XL, Issue 40, 5 June 1920
Death notice : Auckland Star, Volume LI, Issue 145, 18 June 1920

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09 December 2014

Adapting (to the conditions)

by Stephen Ross
I'm writing this on a bus, on a laptop. I have a 75 minute commute to the office each morning, and home again in the evening. Auckland is a spread-out city (think LA, but without the permafrost cloud of pollution). I live in a nice neighborhood, and I work in a nice neighborhood; unfortunately there's about 40 kilometers of road in between.

New Zealand is a car nation, and Auckland is the capital of cars. Public transportation exists, but it's little more than buses. There's no underground (or elevated), no streetcars (they were phased out in the 1960s). There is a rail line, but it's only a single line, and unless you are fortunate enough to live on it (I don't), it serves no benefit to you.

So, for the last couple of years, I've been taking the bus. It's hysterically cheaper than petrol and parking for the car, and until three weeks ago, when I bought a laptop, it gave me guaranteed time built into each day in which to read.

Learning to read while in motion was a new experience for me. For most of my life, I had been a confirmed motion sickness sufferer, a strictly stare-out-the-window-and-wait-until-we-get-there traveler.
  • Reading comics in the car as a child: ill 
  • Reading a magazine on a 747: ill 
  • Reading a plaque while standing on the deck of the HMS Endeavour replica while anchored in port: nautically ill
  • Trying to take photos out of the window of a helicopter 300 feet over Diamond Head: scenically ill
When I started commuting by bus I thought, at 400 kilometers a week, I was going to go out of my mind unless I did something to occupy myself. So I took a book one morning and committed to learning how to read. I was nauseous for about two weeks, and it was hell, but I broke through. Now I can read anything while in motion: books, my Kindle, emails, Facebook, WhatsApp, whatever.

However.

I am a writer, and in the times when I wasn't reading on the bus, I did a lot of thinking about writing; but thinking only, with the frustration that I couldn't do anything. So, after two and a half years, I finally bought a laptop. Reading a book every week or two is all fine and good, but it's NOT writing.

 If I was to code the problem, it might look like this:

$Writer == WHERE words(Output > Input);
Writing on a bus has meant learning to adapt. Probably 95% of all the fiction I've ever written has been done seated at the desk in my office at my house. The conditions for writing there have been finely tuned over the years and are optimal. Writing on a bus is like writing on a rollercoaster; you don't know what lies ahead.

As with learning to read while in motion, it's taken a couple of weeks to learn how to write while in motion, but it hasn't been too difficult. There are the usual distractions: other people and noise (generally forgotten about with a set of earbuds and the right music track). I honestly think I could write anywhere now. In fact, I'm getting adventurous; I today sat in a café in my lunch break, with the laptop and a cup of coffee which, for me, is completely out of the ordinary.

Writing in public, especially on a bus, does have one pitfall: if someone sits right behind you and can read what's on your screen. That's one distraction I find hard to ignore. Yesterday, I was writing a sex scene in my book. I had the impression the woman seated behind was trying to read what I was typing. In my mind, she was busting an eye socket trying to read my purple scarlet prose. In reality, she probably couldn't even make out the words, or even the language -- my font size is pretty small (so that I can see 3 pages spread across the screen). But it's the thought of it that's distracting.
Pick your bus seat wisely.

And while I'm talking about bus seats, allow me to gripe about the dimensions of bus seating on Auckland City buses. I'm 6 foot 1, hardly a contender for the Guinness Book of Records. The seats on buses here were designed for hobbits. Seriously.

A couple of other tips for writing on a bus:
  • Avoid the glare. If you can, sit on the side of the bus that's opposite to the sun.
  • The back seats are where the kids hang out. They like to fidget and kick seat backs. Only sit there if you're researching a story about teen angst.
  • Don't sit near anyone over 40 with an old phone in his/her hand. He/she will use it. Loudly. Everybody else quietly social networks on smartphones.
  • Sit near to people with books (they're the nice people)
  • Know the route: know the corners and potholes where it's a good idea to hang on tightly to your laptop.
How do you write? What distractions can you tolerate, or not? Can you write anywhere?

Be seeing you!

18 November 2014

Postcards from the River

by Stephen Ross

A couple of years ago, I was living in a city called Hamilton. It's one of New Zealand's few inland cities; New Zealand is a long, thin slice of country and the ocean (Pacific Ocean to the right, Tasman Sea to the left) is never more than an hour or two's drive away. Although inland, Hamilton is not without water frontage, as the Waikato River flows through the center of the city and effectively splits it into two.

I lived a couple of blocks from the river, and the office building I worked in downtown was located riverside on London Street. Naturally, I often walked to and from the office each day along the river, taking advantage of the excellent system of paved city walkways that hugged the river bank.

Given the remoteness of some parts of the track, and the signs of nocturnal delinquency (graffiti, condoms, needles, etc.), I expected most mornings to find a body. I did "find" a couple of drunks and several shifty teenagers, but thankfully never anyone dead. My mind had other ideas. Although I've never used the riverbank walkway specifically as a setting, it has inspired two short stories: Boundary Bridge (where an angry, American TV writer shoves a young man off one of Hamilton's five bridges into the river); and The Riverboat (which curiously ended up being set in the early 20th century, in the deep south of the US).

The Waikato River flows through the Waikato Plains region of the North Island of New Zealand, and at 425 kilometers (265 miles), it's the country's longest waterway. The Waikato Plains are one of the country's dairy heartlands, and Hamilton is the region's largest city (the fourth largest in the country). Photo (c)2010 Stephen Ross

One Monday morning, however, there was a dead body at the end of my walk. It was in the alleyway next to the front entrance of the office building I worked in (located about 20 yards from the river).

Actually, the body was no longer there; there wasn't even a chalk outline (they don't actually draw those). There was, however, a police line, a couple of dozen evidence markers, a frozen police officer, and a sea of fingerprint powder residue -- every inch of the alley and the building's entrance, every rock, every piece of litter, all of it caked in the stuff.

The police officer was frozen because he was dressed in his uniform of a blue shirt and dark slacks. I, by contrast, was dressed for an Antarctic expedition -- it was the middle of winter. It doesn't snow in Hamilton, but we were down to about 2°C that morning (that's less than 36°F).

According to the slowly-turning-blue representative of the thin blue line, the dead body of a man had been discovered in the early hours of the morning. The street had been closed off and a forensics team brought in to examine the scene. Yes, the man had been murdered.

The body had been taken away about 30 minutes before I arrived. The remaining officer was standing watch, preserving the scene (possibly forever) as the detective in charge hadn't given the all clear, which meant access to the building was a no go.

"You're not going in there, mate," said the officer, who must have been made out of concrete -- or was slowly turning into concrete.

"When can I go in? I work on the second floor of that building."

"I think you might be getting the day off, mate."

That was nice of him.

My boss (who arrived a few minutes later), when informed of this hindrance in our approach to our desks, and at our being given a day's holiday by the constabulary, said, "This is not good enough." Actually, he didn't say that, but that was the implication I could extract from the obscenities.

After about an hour, the all clear was finally given and we were allowed to enter the building -- to thaw out from the cold. It was a gloomy day at the office; not a joke was uttered. Bad taste took that offered day's holiday. The media had a vulture's picnic on the doorstep, and the scene of the crime became a tourist destination for Hamilton's lowlifes.

Photo (c)2010 Stephen Ross "The Waikato River flowed through Hamilton like a dark freeway. I spent afternoons sitting at the table in the living room staring down at its cool, shady water. Any day, damn it, I was going to jump in and hitch a ride out of town."

BOUNDARY BRIDGE
Stephen Ross

In the afternoon, a friend said: "I suppose you'll use this murder in a story?"

My reply was "No".

I make a very clear separation in my mind between real murder and imaginary murder, and I don't have a lot to do with the real stuff. Sure, I read about such stories in the newspaper, but note them only in passing. I don't believe I've written any story inspired by real life events.

The thing about writing crime fiction (and the operative word here is fiction) is that I get to make it all up. And importantly, I get to serve up justice where and how I see fit. Murder in the real world isn't that neat and tidy, and most writers, I guess, write because we want to bring order to that chaos...  And I won't write anymore on that line of thought, as I'm sure there are at least 50,000 university papers already collecting dust.

Real murder is complicated. It's ugly and banal. The "wonderful" killers I get to write about don't exist in the real world (inventing "Moriarty" types is a big part of the fun of writing).

Hamilton, New Zealand, June 2010

The dead man in London Street was Donald Alfred Stewart. He was 74. Towards midnight on Sunday 27 June, he stopped his car to use a public restroom in the central city. He was murdered for his car keys. His killer, a boy aged 14, and his accomplices, aged 15 and 17, were caught within days. All three were tried, convicted, and jailed.

Click here for New Zealand Herald report
Photo (c)2010 Stephen Ross

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