Showing posts with label Violence. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Violence. Show all posts

09 May 2013

Why Didn't They Just Leave?

I had a nice little blog post all set up and ready to go for today, but you're going to get it next week because I am pissed off and need to get this off my chest:
Some days you get up, watch the news, and just get pissed.  I did after hearing about the 3 women, held captive for 10 years in Cleveland, who were finally set free, thanks to one of them screaming loudly and a neighbor who (God bless him and keep him) came to her rescue.  That was wonderful.  What wasn't, what pissed me off so badly I am on a rant, was all the pundits, raising as always the ugly, stupid, evil question of why didn't they escape before?  Why didn't they run?  Why didn't they disarm their captors?  Why didn't they -

And which point, gentle readers, I went into a profanity enhanced symphony in F Major, screaming at the TV set, and at everyone who has ever thought, "Why didn't they get out sooner?"

Disclaimer:  I have never been kidnapped and held captive against my will.  But I did grow up in your classic alcoholic prison home, the kind full of secrets and violence, where no one from outside was allowed in (they might find out!) and no one was allowed out without specific permission and very specific threats if any mention was made of the crap that was going on.  As a child, I wasn't allowed to participate in extracurricular activities, from band to sports - I wasn't to be trusted.  At the time, I thought it was that they didn't trust what I would do, that they thought I was going to go hog-wild with sex, drugs and rock and roll (which I did, later, after I left, and had a hell of a time, which I rarely regret).  Now I know it was that they didn't trust what I would say.  No one could know what was going on in our three bedroom ranch with the nice lawn and the two car garage...   And it wasn't nearly as bad as some of the other situations in our lovely little suburb, like the family across the street, where the father raped his three daughters regularly. 

Second disclaimer - this was the late 50's, early 60's, where everyone knew that things like rape and incest didn't happen, any woman or child who showed up in public with a black eye or other obvious bruises deserved it, and any child who reported such behavior was obviously a pervert themselves.  The result was that all of us kids knew what was going on in that house - but we never dared tell anyone.  Whenever someone talks about the good old days, I bring up the house across the street, and how no one did - or seemingly could do - a damn thing about it.  At least now you can call Social Services.

Why don't people leave horrible situations?  Because.  It is frighteningly easy to convince almost anyone that they are worthless, that they deserve what they are getting, how they are being treated, abused, beaten, etc., that no one cares about them, that no one will ever care about them, that they have no future, no hope, no nothing outside of the current situation, the current power-holder.  It is frighteningly easy to isolate someone from everyone else on the planet - and that's in "normal" relationships, without locks and handcuffs and cells in the backyard or basement.  It is frighteningly easy to threaten someone not with death - death would be easy to face - but with the forever of it, with it always, always, always getting worse.  And worse can be, and usually is, manufactured at any time. 

And that's with adults who chose each other.

Now, think about kidnap victims, who are usually kept tied up, imprisoned (closets, basements, etc.), threatened, beaten, raped, drugged...  When exactly are they supposed to get free?  How?  And when the kidnap victim is a child...

Jaycee Dugard was eleven years old; Elizabeth Smart was fourteen; Steven Gregory Stayner was seven; these three women were teenagers.  What were they supposed to do?  Act like Rambo?  How?  Steven Stayner actually did escape, but that was after his captor, 8 years later, had kidnapped a five year old (!) and young Stayner was so upset by the poor boy's distress that, while their captor was at work, Stayner took the five year old and went into town (I'm sure he was scared out of his wits the whole time), where they were found by the cops.

It's amazing that any of these eight came out alive.  Ever.  What's frightening, what is unbearable to think about, is to think of the ones who don't.  Right now there are people who are being held in someone's basement, back yard, closet, house.  Who have been held for days, weeks, months, years.  Who will never be found, never come out, never be set free, unless someone spots something wrong. 

So, let's all agree that the next time someone says "Why didn't they get out sooner?" we will bust their chops.  And pray for everyone held captive.  And if you know of someone who's doing terrible things - in the house across the way perhaps - what the hell.  Call the cops.  Call Social Services.  Make someone listen.  Maybe someone else will finally be released.

End of rant. 

12 June 2012

Wedding Bell Blues

June is the month of brides and I've just returned from a wedding.  As I've grown older I have found that I attend more funerals than weddings...which I deeply regret.  Weddings are one of the last bastions of open bars and bad dancing, and for people like me that spells fun.  Most people like weddings, I think.  It's one of the few ceremonies left that both attendees and participants mutually enjoy.  It's an optimistic occasion in every culture and faith; full of youth and exuberance, hopes and expectations.  And people look better at weddings--there are pretty girls dressed very prettily and men in tuxedos and suits.  Have you noticed that almost every man is improved by a tux?  The seventies may have provided the exception to this rule.  I understand the bridesmaids gowns are usually cringe-inducing, however, the selfless manner in which the chosen few submit to them is very charming and brave.  I mostly come away feeling better about people and favorably impressed with the rising generation.  The open bar may play some small part in these perceptions.
Not all weddings proceed in the effortless, swan-like, manner hoped for by the bride's proud parents.  Usually this occurs during the reception, and sometimes in spectacular fashion.  I have never attended one of these wedding train wrecks as a guest, but I have been involved with one or two professionally as a police officer.  It's very uncomfortable, and in one instance, tragic. 

As there are always the exceptions to the rule, so it is with my mention that people are mostly happy at weddings.  Some are not.  On such occasions the open bar tends to be a bad idea discovered too late.  Passions run high at wedding receptions, and they are not always amorous ones.  And once the libations begin to flow, speaking one's mind to total strangers feels almost compulsory.  Sadly, these strangers are often related to the shortly-to-be-unhappy couple whom the critic has decided to publicly indict, or offer unsavory, and inappropriate, commentary on.  Bad dancing is quickly replaced with equally poor, but vigorous, fighting skills.  These martial displays appeal mightily to the young testosterone-charged, and well-lubricated young men in attendance, tux or nay, who quickly choose sides and join the fray.  Police are called by management.  The expensive nuptials become just another Saturday night at bar break.

It does happen.  I've responded to such a call and can attest.  It makes a good story for the grandchildren someday...perhaps.  The bride's mother  is never the same, I think.

On one occasion, officers of my department had to return several times to the hotel where the reception was held to put down flare-ups.  These went on well after the reception and raged from room-to-room into the wee hours of the morning.  It was something of a Hatfield-McCoy wedding though everyone did go home at the end of it all.

This was not the case during one reception.  In this instance, it was held at a seaside hotel during the autumn and all was going well until one of the bridesmaids husband decided to go swimming.  The day before had been very stormy and the ocean was still churning when he rushed onto the beach, stripped out of his shoes and shirt, and dove in.  This was after the season and no lifeguards manned the beach.  He was last seen swimming due east--directly out to sea.  When I arrived the wife was hysterical and screaming for me to send my officers into the water after him.  One of my men volunteered, but when I took in the condition of the sea and learned that the last time he had been seen with any assurance had been twenty minutes prior, I said no.  This was very hard to do, but I couldn't risk another man's life under the circumstances.  Naturally, I did activate the Coast Guard and fire department, which also had some boats available.  It was a fruitless search that went on until dark.  I found him the next night having washed up with the tide.  I was grateful that he was unmarked.  The sea can do truly terrible work on those it claims.  It was a small mercy for the wife and family.

Weddings would seem to be a good setting for a mystery story, but I'm not aware of very many.  Perhaps I've just not come across them.  My education is sometimes spotty.  Certainly there are the requisite ingredients available: passion, drink, love, sexual tension, and that certain, "I can't be held responsible for my behavior" attitude amongst many attendees.  Additionally, as the receptions often involve hotels and overnight stays, further intrigue is possible throughout the long night.  I might try writing one someday.   

In spite of my "on-duty" experiences, I still like weddings very much.  They make me feel younger and more hopeful.  As for honeymoons, well, that's another story, isn't it?  You don't get invited along on those very often.  But crime, violence, and tragedy, stalk them as well if the news is to be believed--husbands vanish from cruise liners; wives go diving with their husbands and don't come back up.  It would seem the institution of marriage is fraught with peril from proposal to final parting.  Perhaps this explains the falling marriage rate.

Whether it does, or doesn't, it certainly provides potential grist for the literary mill and food for dark thought--devil's food wedding cake perhaps.   



16 December 2011

Truth in Fiction vs. the Changing Nature of Child-created Violent Crime

Apocryphal Grapes

When I was in grade school, we read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. And, someone (I’m pretty sure it was a teacher) told us that Steinbeck had originally been hired to compile a non-fiction account of Dust Bowl farmers during the Great Depression, but eventually turned the project down, telling his editor that the story couldn’t be fully dealt with in a non-fiction format. “This one’s going to have to be fiction,” he supposedly said.

I suspect that grade school informant was a little confused. After all, Steinbeck actually wrote a series of articles about the subject, called “The Harvest Gypsies,” for the San Francisco News in 1936. The articles ran from October 5th through 12th of that year.

Still, the idea of using fiction to address current social problems is neither nothing new, nor just relegated to Steinbeck. I’m reminded of a blurb on the back of my dog-eared The Big Sleep copy, which reads: “Chandler writes like a slumming angel.” It goes on to explain how he lays bare the underbelly of L.A.

I didn’t see how a writer could penetrate much deeper under that belly, until I read Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress. About half-way through, I thought: “Wow! This author didn’t just crawl under the belly; he slit that belly open, and all its guts poured out on my head. This is awesome!”

Mosley’s writing had the same effect on me that Elmina Castle had, when my A-Team toured it during our time in Ghana, West Africa (or perhaps it was Cape Coast Castle; we toured both and I can’t keep them straight these days). After both adventures (castle tour, and book reading) I found myself reassessing my mental construct of the world and the culture I’m immersed in.

My politics are probably quite different from Mosley’s, Steinbeck’s, or even Chandler’s. But, there’s no denying that these guys have (or: had) a firm grasp on fiction’s ability to influence a reader’s thoughts, ideas, and quite probably future actions.

Child Violence in Mystery Stories
Sometime ago, in the Readers’ Forum on, Janet Hutchings, editor of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (EQMM), raised the subject of children as characters in mystery fiction.

According to The Mystery Place website, their forum is currently unavailable, due to technical issues, so I couldn’t refresh my memory about the post.

As I recall, however, in part of it Ms. Hutchings suggested that EQMM prefers writers to downplay violence toward or from children, locating the violent scene off-stage if it is essential to the story line.

This didn’t really surprise me. After all, EQMM is a family magazine; writers have to approach stories knowing that underage people will undoubtedly read them. At the same time, this approach should probably be balanced by a desire to present honestly written stories, which sometimes creates a very fine line upon which to spin a tale. However, I think the folks at EQ and AH do a good job of walking that fine line, and of helping writers to walk it alongside them.

At the time of her post, I had recently read about the arrest of 14-year-old Edgar Jimenez Lugo by Mexican authorities. This boy, a U.S. citizen born in California, who moved to Mexico with returning family members, began killing and decapitating rival drug operators for the South Pacific Cartel in Mexico at age 11.

(Time magazine story on Edgar Jimenez Lugo)

Details of the case are confused, but it seems the cartel controlled young Edgar by getting him hooked on drugs and then issuing threats. They may also have paid him $3,000 per killing. His teenaged sisters (below, right) were also evidently hooked by the cartel, and used to lure Edgar’s targets to the kill zone. The cartel’s threats may have been directed at Edgar, but – at one point, at least – the boy said it was his sisters whom the cartel was threatening to kill if he didn’t act as their designated hit man.

According to a July New Yorker article , in Mexico: “At least thirty thousand minors have been recruited by cartels, which promise quick and easy money to kids who have been orphaned by … drug violence, or who lack schooling and regular employment. It’s not known how many of those children are becoming hired killers.”

Thus, when I read Ms. Hutchings’ post, I posted my own reply, in which I wondered how long it would be before drug cartels began using U.S. teens to do their dirty work north of the border.

Would $50 cover your risk, for running drugs up from Mexico?

If you were a Texas teen living near the border, it might. This past October, the Texas Department of Public Safety (TxDPS) issued a news release, stating that Texas high school students are being recruited by Mexican cartels to “support their drug, human, currency and weapon smuggling operations on both sides of the Texas/Mexico border.”

The release went on to say: "Parents should talk to their children and explain how the cartels seek to exploit Texas teenagers …”

According to CNN, TxDPS Director Steven McCraw said his department first noticed this practice in 2009, when they began encountering U.S. teens trying to smuggle drugs across bridge border crossings. “Texas teenagers provide unique compatibility to the cartels,” he said. “They’re U.S. citizens, they speak Spanish, they’re able to operate on both sides of the border, and they’re expendable labor.”

In the Fall of 2011, a 12-year-old boy was apprehended, driving a stolen pickup loaded with over 800 pounds of marijuana. According to McGraw, teenaged contraband drivers, such as this, are sometimes paid as little as $50 for the job.

Piecing together what I’ve found on the web, it appears that the teens and pre-teens involved are introduced to the job through an oblique recruitment method. High school gang members recruit their classmates to carry drugs over the border, by introducing those teens to a ‘friend of a friend.’ And that friend’s able to pay hard cash. This cash is funded by Mexican cartels, funneled through the local gangs and finally handed over when one school kid gives it to another.

The Feds say Mexican cartels are buddying up with U.S. street and motorcycle gangs to make this happen. According to the National Gang Intelligence Center’s 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment (NGTA): "Federal, state and local law enforcement officials are observing a growing nexus between the Mexican drug cartels, illegal alien smuggling rings and U.S.-based gangs.”

While, in the past, U.S. gangs usually obtained their drugs through a middle man—who stood between the gang and the Mexican cartels—evidence indicates that U.S. gangs are now working hand-in-glove with the cartels, in order to cut out the middle man and increase profits. But the connection doesn’t end there. A Drug Enforcement Administration report, mentioned in the NGTA, states that local Los Angeles gang members assist not only in drug operations, but also in kidnappings.

What does this mean for writers?
Ms. Hutchings had yet to write her post, when I submitted my short story “Dancing in Mozambique” (EQMM July 2010) to her magazine. Yet, like any good writer, I’d studied their guidelines and read many copies of the magazine. I worried my story wouldn’t be accepted because I had a scene where a guy cuts a kid’s hand off with a meat cleaver. You don’t actually see or hear the chop. But, you do see the guy standing there, blood all over and the little kid’s hand held in his, afterward. Pretty strong stuff for a family publication.

I worried so much, that I worked and thought for days about how I might change the subject matter of the scene and still make the story work. But, try as I might, I just couldn’t. Finally, I surrendered and sent it in. I was grateful that EQMM took the story, and believe Ms. Hutchings probably accepted it because the scene was absolutely critical to the story’s theme. Nonetheless, I don’t plan to inundate any publication with stories featuring child violence.

Which leaves me with a conundrum. Kids being obliquely recruited by cartels is an important social issue, which mystery fiction is in a special position to comment on. As Mexican cartels strengthen ties with U.S. gangs, the pressure to write such stories will increase. However, the time when our writing might make its greatest impact is likely to be now, rather than later.

Balanced against this sense of urgency, though, is the natural reticence of a publisher to accept stories in which child-violence figures prominently. This leaves me wanting ask SluethSayers readers:

(1) Do you believe such stories need to be written? Or, do you feel mystery stories should concentrate on simply telling a story—leaving social commentary to other venues?

(2) If you believe subjects such as these should be tackled in contemporary mysteries: How do you believe we can best approach these stories, as writers, in order to make optimal social comment and impact, while still meeting editorial needs?

I’m interested in all your thoughts and comments. And hope you’ll click the “email me with updates” button on the comments page, in order to join a dialogue about this subject. As for me, I’ll be doing my best to stay with it all day long.

Either way, I’ll see you again in two weeks!

13 December 2011

Crime Family

by David Dean

I have been fortunate (sort of) to have had two very different men influence my writing about crime: One was an uncle; the other a clinical psychologist.  They both knew a lot about crime because one was a practitioner of it; the other a specialist in the treatment of 'offenders' of various stripes: two men who never met, though I would love to have heard the psychologist's professional opinion of my uncle had they done so.

My late Uncle Jimmy often comes to mind when I am trying to craft a character whose behavior is less than desirable. He spent a great deal of his life in prison and, when not incarcerated, was involved directly, or peripherally, with many crimes of violence; even murder. He was scheduled to be executed by the State of Georgia at one point, but had his sentence commuted to life when the death penalty was temporarily overruled by the Supreme Court in the early seventies. Did I mention he also had the luck of the devil?

Jimmy was a very good-looking man in his prime: tall, slender, charming, and well-muscled (lots of time in the prison gym). He had deceptively sleepy-looking blue eyes, which went well with his indolent manner, and he was usually smiling, as I recall. I was his favorite nephew, and I was glad. Mostly glad out of a vague dread of what might happen if I weren't.

My older brother, Danny, and I knew the stories about Uncle Jimmy; in fact, he once robbed a store at gunpoint just a few blocks from our house while ostensibly baby-sitting us. We found out later that this was why fetching us cokes and pork rinds took so long.

Mom always blamed her little brother's troubles on 'bad company'. He was also often a victim of circumstances… a staggering number of them by my count. But this was Annie Lou's opinion of most people who got into trouble; including her own boys, of course. Mom never met a 'bad' person. None of her other siblings were ever anything but good and kind people so maybe there is something to her line of reasoning. Of course, there’s always the ‘bad seed’ theory. But where we grew up did, in fact, provide a host of bad company and endless victimizing circumstances.

The Family Manse
 Lester's Meadows (isn't that an inviting name; just makes you want to move right into the neighborhood, doesn't it?) was packed with blue collar families; teaming with kids, and rife with violence, mostly of the domestic variety. For example, the first girl I ever had a crush on shot her father to death with his own pistol; she was sick of seeing her mother get beaten. She was only a young girl. It's hard to imagine her life after that, isn't it? But this was run-of-the-mill crime compared to Jimmy, who kicked it up a notch to open-throttled outlawry.

During the course of his career, Jimmy and his gang were involved in bank robberies, shoot-outs (He survived being shot twice– once by the police; the second time in more mysterious circumstances while living with a girlfriend… they broke up shortly thereafter. Remember the bit about luck?), high-speed car chases with guns blazing, escapes from prison, a stabbing while 'inside', a car crash during one escapade, and other incidents in which people were robbed, hurt, and killed. He was feared by both enemies and friends alike.

It's hard to know what makes someone like Jimmy tick. As a writer, I think a lot about his example. To my knowledge, he was never a victim of violence as a child, yet he was a fervent practitioner of it, going by the court records. His robberies were almost exclusively committed in the very mill-worker neighborhoods that he lived in and frequented (my psychologist friend would probably have made something out of that). I never sensed that he had any regret for anything he may have done, and he made me uneasy when he would visit or stay with us during his intervals of freedom.  I always felt he was studying us. It was little like keeping a snake in the house: fascinating, but a little nerve-wracking. I sensed that he was capable of anything.

The constants that I remember from his life were gambling and chance-taking: The workaday life was definitely not for him. I also don't think he had any vision of gaining great wealth as a result of his activities. I think it was the thrill of unbridled action, and the power of violence, that kept him coming back for more. But what do I know? Even when I questioned Uncle Jimmy about it later in our lives, he was evasive and sly; hinting that his actions were largely misunderstood; the police less than sporting. I found I couldn't believe him.

As a result of his actions our home was searched on more than one occasion; my parents questioned by police. Strange, and sometimes sinister, people would also show up on our steps from time to time; claiming to be friends of Jimmy; just looking to catch up, you know. We always gave the same answer: Don't know where he is or how to reach him. In Jimmy's line of work you could make dangerous enemies. We learned to be furtive when it came to my uncle; we knew that there were others just as ruthless out there.

Gangsterism was not new to my hometown of Columbus, Georgia. Our 'little' sister city just across the Chattahoochee River, Phenix City, Alabama, had been making the news for decades as an outlaw capital. Within this town a number of gangs had divided up the turf into various fiefdoms; each containing illegal casinos, bars, whorehouses and dope dens– heroin was the big money-maker in the forties and fifties. The sheriff's department recruited and ran a stable of prostitutes. Perhaps pay for law enforcement was not what it should have been. Citizens who protested their town being used in this manner were threatened and sometimes killed.

It all blew up in 1954 when the State Attorney-General Elect was assassinated there– he had campaigned on the promise of cleaning up 'Sin City'. Martial Rule was declared by the Governor of Alabama and he sent in the National Guard to clean out the vipers' nest. In the end, over five hundred indictments were handed down by the grand jury charged with the case; these included murder, voter fraud and intimidation, assault, bribery, illegal gambling, pimping, prostitution, narcotics trafficking, and kidnapping.

The racketeers' victims were largely textile workers from Columbus and GIs from nearby Fort Benning. People just like Jimmy's family… my family.  He could see Phenix City from his front porch growing up. Were these thugs his role models as a teenager and young man? He would have been the right age for it, but I don't know. He did admit to being an acquaintance of one of these racketeers in his youth… a protégé, perhaps? Maybe Annie Lou was right— it's all a matter of bad company. Or did he just like the lifestyle… period. Maybe it's that simple sometimes. I do remember my psychologist friend once saying, "People's behavior can be complicated, but their motives are usually very simple." I've always remembered that and I think he was right.

People like Jimmy, while dashing in a frightening sort of way, and entertaining, so long as you’re not on the receiving end, create a lot of misery in the world. Besides the obvious victims of violent crime, there are a host of unseen ones: wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, and children that will always suffer as an indirect result. Even the families of the criminals are affected. It’s a bit like poisoning a well— everyone that drinks from it gets sick; all become part of the crime family.

In the end, I fail to come to any positive conclusions about my uncle’s life of crime, though I suspect that you, dear reader, may have drawn some about me and why I chose a career in law enforcement. He did, inadvertently, give me a good education for police work.

As for crime fiction… I often feel that he is looking over my shoulder as I write… but then, so are his victims.

By the by, if you’re at all interested in those long ago events I referred to, there is an excellent book on the subject entitled, The Tragedy and the Triumph of Phenix City, Alabama by Margaret Anne Burns. It’s a riveting, factual account of a truly astounding piece of American crime history. There is also a movie from the fifties, The Phenix City Story (see poster above) that is pretty entertaining, if a little low on production value. It has popped up on TMC from time to time.

Finally, a shameless plug: My story “Ibrahim’s Eyes” is now on Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine podcast and can be found on that website. Doug Allyn did me the honor of both reading it and creating the musical score; which he also performs wonderfully well. Please pass it on to your friends. Thanks, and happy holidays!