Showing posts with label crime fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label crime fiction. Show all posts

28 October 2014

Why do you write Crime Fiction?

by Stephen Ross
Friday afternoons drag. If you work in an office, it can feel like the devil has planted one of his hooves down on the minute hand of the clock, slowing down time to the point where it starts to hurt. The happiness you felt earlier in the week has gone, the bright colors of life have faded, and all that remains is a seemingly endless, black and white, nothingness. Punctuated by the random antics of work colleagues, who are even more insane than you are (miniature remote-controlled helicopter racing, anyone?). Friday afternoons are a good time to start thinking about the next SleuthSayers article.

And then Friend K asks: Why do you write crime fiction? This is not a question I've been asked often; in fact, I can recall only one other instance. And I didn't really know how to answer it then, either. The short answer is: That's the way I evolved.

First of all, I actually think of myself as a mystery writer, not specifically a writer of crime fiction. I like mysteries, and at the heart of every story I've written you'll find one. It's a fundamental "human thing" to look for meaning in things we don't understand, to want to bring order to the chaos of life. Who, as a kid (and I mean everyone who's ever lived), hasn't looked to the stars at night and wondered what's out there? My foremost pleasure in writing a story is engaging the reader in a mystery; some kind of problem or enigma that needs/demands to be unraveled and solved. Seeking resolution is what makes readers keep turning the pages. I know it's why I do.
Danger! Conflict ahead! 
It's no surprise, then, that I grew up watching dozens of TV shows and movies about detectives and police officers. The mystery of who did it, how they did it, or why they did it, is central to any story in this arena; it's their raison d'être. I also grew up loving science fiction, because in Sci-Fi, the mystery can be as big as the universe. In fact, my favorite TV show of all is The Twilight Zone.

The thing I like about the Twilight Zone is that no matter how "out there" the stories were, they were mostly stories about real people. Rod Serling (the show's creator and principal writer) even said so. Setting stories in the "twilight zone" enabled him to explore almost anything about the human condition, that placed in a "realistic" or contemporary setting, he would never have gotten past the network censors or advertisers.

I don't write a lot of science fiction because I mostly prefer realistic settings and situations. I'm more interested in the girl hiding her dead boyfriend's body after she strangles him, rather than the girl who has three eyes and a luminous tail.

So, mysteries and stories about real people.
Picture a classroom in a suburban high school. The building is barely three years old and everything still has the feeling of the new and the modern about it: spacious, large windows, well lit. Teacher H is standing at the front of the room. She's middle-aged, has dark hair, glasses, and curious sense of humor. She's written "What makes a story work?" on the blackboard. It's English class, the last class before lunchtime on a Friday. The class is filled with a bunch of tired students, daydreaming about the weekend, their sandwiches, or the cute boy or girl seated in front of them.

This was a question that caught my attention and woke me up. And no one had an answer. No one put up his or her hand. No one had a clue, not even Student D, the cute girl who sat in front of me, in the front row -- the class Hermione, who usually had an answer for everything. In fact, she turned around to see if anyone else was putting up his/her hand. We traded vacant shrugs.

"Anyone?" Teacher H asked.

Nope.

She defined story: The plot, or everything that happens in a book, or a movie, or a TV show.

Teacher H, by the way, was the teacher who entered class one morning and announced: "The king is dead". I was proud that I was the only one in the room who knew what she was talking about. It was the day Alfred Hitchcock died.

She wrote the answer on the blackboard. "Conflict". She explained. Stories work when people are in conflict with someone, something, or themselves. What makes a story work is conflict. She cited three examples from our reading that year:

  • Romeo and Juliet's happiness in their love is prevented by the conflict between their two families.
  • The conflict in The Importance of Being Earnest is the misunderstanding (lies and confusions) that exist between most of the characters.
  • In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus' decision to defend a man he believes to be innocent in a rape trial threatens his family's safety.

Teacher H summed it up: Conflict is a problem to be resolved. The conflict and its resolution ARE the story. A story about a man who wakes up on a nice sunny day, goes out and buys groceries, and then comes home again, is not going to be very interesting or memorable. Without conflict, there's nothing to be engaged with.

You don't forget teachers like that.

So, mysteries, realistic people in realistic situations, and conflict -- the evolution of my writing gained mass around the nucleus of these three core components.

There are, of course, degrees of conflict. A misunderstanding where a guy asks a girl on a casual date and she misinterprets his intentions is at one end of the conflict scale. A man murdering another man because he stole his girlfriend is at the other. The scale itself is one of life endangerment -- the higher the risk, the more extreme the conflict.
As a writer, I tend to lurk around the extreme end of the scale. Heightened conflict engages the reader (and me). I simply find it more interesting to write about people in deeply dramatic situations -- more often than not, that involves some kind of crime. Had I not been so inclined, I might have become a romance writer, or a writer of literary fiction.

I don't know if my scale of conflict (illustration above) actually holds any water, I only just made it up (on the day before you read this) so I haven't had time to really think about it. Feel free to shoot it full of holes.

Anyway, that's why I write crime fiction.

Be seeing you!


https://www.facebook.com/stephen.ross.author

02 September 2014

How To Handle The Naked Suspect

by David Dean

Not Your Typical Naked Suspect
The subject of this blog was suggested by a Facebook posting of our SleuthSayers brother, Rob Lopresti, in which he published a quote regarding the difficulty of arresting a naked woman.  I responded that I could testify to the truth of this statement; various witticisms were exchanged as you might imagine.  However, as a result, I warned Rob that he had planted the germ of an idea in my near-arid brain for an upcoming article.  I can picture his rather distinguished brows rising in alarm when he sees this title; Rob's thinking running along the lines of, "No...he didn't...he's not really going to write about...poor, needy bastard, so desperate for readers that he stoops to this--a literary sidewalk barker for imaginary lap dancers.  Pitiful!"

Sadly, Rob would be correct if these were his thoughts, at least the part about being desperate for readers.  Of course I'm desperate, Rob!  For God's sake I'm a writer!  However, I wish to set everyone's minds to rest about the following content: I have rated it R for mature, though in some sections it is I for the opposite.

There comes into the life of every police officer (sooner or later; rarely or often) the naked suspect.  This is not a subject extensively covered (stop snickering), if at all, in the police academies of our nation.  Mostly, they arrive unannounced and unexpected, much like Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition, "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!"  Well, the police rarely expect the naked suspect.  You may wonder how professional police officers, like myself, know when a naked person is a suspect.  The answer to this is generally straightforward--when they are naked.  Once a naked person is spotted in a public venue, the police go on high alert--this is not normal behavior.  There are many motives, causes, and M.O.'s, ranging from youthful hi-jinks and drunkenness, to drug-induced euphoria and psychosis.  On a much more serious note, sometimes they are not suspects at all, but victims, but I will not be addressing this aspect in what I intend to be more light-hearted blog.     

I can offer several personal examples of encounters with the naked suspect: It would sometimes happen during a busy summer night at the Jersey Shore, that a naked person, like the proverbial deer, would appear suddenly in the headlights of our marked unit.  Sometime a herd of them.  It was equally possible, though much more rare, for it to occur during daylight hours, as well. 

Making a sweep of the beach in the wee hours before dawn might also reveal people who, through a series of events seemingly beyond their control, had also divested themselves of all clothing.  It appears that, for some, the salubrious sea air loosened the shackles of convention, rendering clothing irrelevant.

Typically, our reaction to such phenomenon was not as enthusiastic as one might expect.  Think about it--is there any dignity left to the officer who arrests the naked suspect?  I think you may know the answer to that if you think about it.  You've only to picture yourself tackling a naked dude, or gal, in view of dozens, if not hundreds, of on-lookers.  And then what?  Do you normally carry around a casual-wear wardrobe in the trunk of your car?  Note: We did carry blankets in the trunks of our patrol units, though not specifically for the purpose of clothing the naked.  May I also direct your attention to the question of why, when carefully considered, you would wish to handle a sweaty, naked stranger when you have no idea where he/she has been?  And though Hollywood would have it otherwise, naked folk are not always attractive--at least to others.  They often find themselves quite lovely, hence the paucity of clothing.  In one long-running affair, we had a senior citizen who felt his nakedness on the beach, or while swimming, was something no reasonable person could object to.  He was no Jack Lalane, nor was he destined for a leading role in adult cinema.  Oddly, many beachgoers did object, especially small-minded mothers and fathers with young children.  As I once pointed out to him, "This is not France, buddy."

In another instance, when responding to a complaint of a noisy party in the wee hours, we were confronted with an array of naked suspects.  It appeared that an all-female pool party was in progress, sans swim-wear.  After a lengthy surveillance to ensure that no actual crime was in progress, we revealed our presence and quickly restored order--one of the less painful encounters of the naked sort, that I had so far endured.  Caution rookie officer: this was an exception, not the norm for the naked encounter!  Most will make you cry out, "Oh dear God, no!  My eyes...my eyes!"  At the very least, you can expect to question the wisdom of your last meal.

The aforementioned blanket may, in fact, be your best defense against the naked suspect.  Here is a technique you may wish to remember: Summoned to a domestic, my partner and I were confronted with a fully clothed husband, and a completely naked wife.  She was a very angry naked wife.  She was also very drunk and drugged-out, and using their bed as a trampoline while hurling all available objects at us, screaming, "Don't touch me!"  The EMT's took one look and said, "We'll wait outside with the ambulance."  My partner and I looked at one another and shared a single thought--blanket! 

With panther-like grace, he leapt onto the still-quaking bed, seizing her hand in a reverse-wrist take-down and bringing her face-down onto the mattress.  There we proceeded to quickly roll her into the top cover like a cocktail sausage.  It was not dignified, but it was effective, and resulted in the least amount of handling possible in the circumstances.

Edvard Munch's "The Scream"
Some naked suspects, as you can see from the previous example, want to fight.  As the person is clearly not armed in most cases, the option of deadly force is rendered moot.  Pepper spray is not, however.  A naked guy who feels like his face is on fire should rank highly among things you don't want to experience in this, or any other, lifetime.  Picture Edvard Munch's "The Scream," (helpfully provided) and you have some idea of the result.  Yet, the naked perp has even more to fear from the officer who's aim has been thrown off by his assault.  Should the pepper spray find other exposed areas, the suspect may feel he has been transported to a realm far beyond the understanding of mortal man, a place reserved exclusively for those condemned to the seventh ring of hell; the final stop for the violent.  There, his previous understanding of agony will become transcendental, achieving a kind of satanic ecstasy.  Do not envy him this knowledge.

So there you have it, dear readers--a smattering of knowledge and ideas on handling the naked suspect--ideas and knowledge that I pray you never have to use, or have used on you.  Nakedness is a wonderful thing if you're centerfold material, or still south of three years old, but for the vast majority of us clothing remains the most appropriate option.  Take it from someone who's seen far more than he ever wanted to, a clothed world is a prettier world.  So until next time--keep your pants on and your hands to yourself.  Still good advice in an uncertain world.

12 August 2014

Why Won't Anyone Talk To Me?

by David Dean
  • You have the right to remain silent when questioned.
  • Anything you say or do may be used against you in a court of law. 
  • You have the right to consult an attorney before speaking to the police and to have an attorney present during questioning now or in the future.
  • If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you before any questioning, if you wish.
  • If you decide to answer any questions now, without an attorney present, you will still have the right to stop answering at any time until you talk to an attorney.
  • Knowing and understanding your rights as I have explained them to you, are you willing to answer my questions without an attorney present?
Well...are ya, punk?
Not Miranda, but Lorre looking like he needs some "coaxing."

Every writer of crime fiction runs into the Miranda Warning sooner or later.  How many TV episodes have ended with, "You have the right to remain silent..."?  There's just no getting away from those famous words arising from a 1966 Supreme Court decision regarding the Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights of one Mr. Miranda.  It was decided that his admissions during police questioning  leading to his conviction for rape and kidnapping were inadmissible, as he did not fully understand his right against self-incrimination, or the right to have an attorney present during questioning.  Out of that decision arose the warning that all U.S. police must give prior to custodial interrogation of a suspect.

A lot of young officers come out of the academy wringing their hands and mumbling the Miranda Warning over and over in their anxiety.  It's a mantra they don't feel comfortable going a day without saying for fear of running afoul of someone's civil rights.

Citizen: "Officer, can you help me find Fluffy, my cat?  I'm so afraid something's happened to her." 
Police Officer: "Of course, ma'am, I'd be happy to, but did you know that you have the right to remain...."

Not everybody needs to be delivered their Miranda rights.  It's okay for the police to talk with citizens, and even interview them without the Miranda litany occurring on every occasion.  It's a fairly simple formula that results in the mandatory warning: Interrogation + custody=Miranda.  And therein lies that grey area the police find themselves in so often.  What exactly is "interrogation" and "custody"?  Are interviews the same as interrogation?  If a person is in the police building, is he/she in custody?  We damn sure know what the Warning is, but the application can get fuzzy.  Maybe it's best just to sing it out from time to time in case someone's thinking of confessing.

Police interviews can be described (by me, at least) as the questioning of potential witnesses, complainants, victims, and even those temporarily detained at the scene of a crime or accident.  The object of such interviews is to determine exactly what has occurred and who may be involved or have witnessed the incident.  I know what you're thinking--if someone's been detained, don't you have to Mirandize them?  The short answer is no.  Not always and not if the officer is yet to determine that a crime, in fact, has been committed, and that the person he is speaking with is a suspect.  Once a person becomes an active suspect the relationship changes; especially if he has been detained.  The officer would be wise to read him his Miranda Warning at that point, if he's going to continue questioning him.  Now it's now longer an interview, with the overarching goal of determining the circumstances and players, but an effort to determine the amount of involvement by the suspect.  In other words, he has become the object of the questioning, and that's interrogation.

But what if this happy individual is a suspect, and you the police officer are interrogating him, but he's not in custody?  Example: You're sitting across from him in his own living room firing questions, while he answers them with a patient, but weary, air.  Does he get the Miranda or no?  Again, the short answer is no.  Even though he's being interrogated, he's not in custody.  He's in his own home, no cuffs or restraints are involved, and you don't have half a dozen uniformed officers surrounding him (hopefully).  That being said, it would probably be wise to do so, because if he does make any admissions, his attorney is going to do his very best to have them thrown out.  The absence of a Miranda Warning will form the centerpiece of this effort, and he will cite his client's trusting nature and ignorance of his right to have an attorney present as reasons to do so.  Attorneys have argued in the past that the mere presence of a police officer creates a custodial environment.  My own children would have agreed; fortunately the courts haven't yet gone that far, but you can see how skittish these things can make the police.

Even the suspect that voluntarily comes into the police department in order to be questioned is not necessarily considered to be in "custody."  So long as he understands that he is free to  leave the situation doesn't rise to the level of "custodial interrogation."  But the officer has to be very careful here.

Do suspects voluntarily confess?  Yes, yes they do.  And it even happens without the torture techniques for which the police are so well known.  There's several reasons for this in my experience.  One is that they just can't contain their guilt.  I know that seems a very antiquated notion these days, guilt, but there are some poor souls genuinely afflicted with conscience.  Fortunately for defense attorneys their number seems to be decreasing.

Another reason is to cut a deal.  I would say that this is the most common reason--self interest and preservation.  They're the practical ones--they know their butt (or some other appendage) is in a wringer and they want to cut their losses.  These kind of arrangements require the blessings of the prosecutor, as the police are not generally allowed these powers without him/her granting them.  The defendant's attorney is, no doubt, going to be part of these negotiations.

Inadvertent.  This category actually falls more into the "admission" category than the genuine confession.  Suspect is much smarter than the police and enjoys letting them know it.  This usually ends with the suspect stopping in mid-sentence with an expression of growing horror on his face as it dawns on him what he has just let slip.  Sorry, after the Miranda Warning, there's no take-backs.

In closing, it's worth mentioning the Miranda Waiver.  Most states issue the police cards with both the Miranda Warning and a Waiver printed on them.  If the suspect wishes to cooperate, the waiver is signed, along with a block acknowledging that they have been read their rights and understand them.  Here in New Jersey we also have a requirement to videotape interrogations that occur within the police department.  As nearly everyone is convinced that confession=torture/coercion, the reason for this is obvious.

Now, is there anything you want to confess?  I'm all ears.

22 July 2014

Search And Seizure

by David Dean

A few months ago I had the honor of presenting at the annual Pennwriters conference in Lancaster, PA.  As some of you may remember, I had definite qualms about whether I was up to this task as it lay outside my comfort zone.  In the event, nothing was thrown at me, and those that had not actually fallen asleep, said they found my talk very soothing.  So I counted my class on short story writing an unqualified success.

The attendance at my next scheduled effort, a presentation on police procedures and crime fiction, was much better attended.  The organizers had apparently spread the rumor that this event would feature an open bar.  They failed to specify that it was a coffee bar.  Still, the attendees remained, perhaps thinking that the "real" bar would be thrown open as soon as I finished talking.  In order to hasten that moment, several of the more enterprising began asking questions almost as soon as I was introduced, thinking no doubt that the quicker they talked me through this, the better.  These had probably attended my earlier lecture.

Their questioning revolved largely around a central theme--what the police can...and can not do...legally.  In other words, police power.  This is an issue which police officers themselves wrestle with on a daily basis.  If we rely on crime fiction (especially the Hollywood style of fiction) to inform us, then we would conclude that there are no meaningful limits or controls on law enforcement officers.  If the featured officer is a good guy, then he is justified in doing almost anything to achieve justice--and he does.  But benignly, of course.  When the opposite is true, the bad officer is characterized as an out-of-control criminal in uniform, and suddenly rules matter once more.

But what are the rules?  It's a big subject as my fellow SleuthSayers who have been involved in law enforcement, or criminal law, know.  Still, one good place to begin is with the issue of search and seizure.  And for that, we must turn to the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. 

In essence, this is the guarantor that our homes, persons, and property will be protected from unreasonable searches and/or  seizures.  For a search or seizure to be considered reasonable normally requires a search warrant.  Getting a search warrant, as R.T. Lawton knows I'm sure, is seldom something that can be accomplished quickly or easily.  It usually involves a good deal of investigation, followed by a written affidavit describing in detail the officer's probable cause for the search and its necessity.  Additionally it must carefully describe the premises to be searched, and as exactly as possible, the object of the search.  It then goes through several layers of review by prosecutors before it, and the investigating officer, must appear before a judge.  That same officer is often responsible for preparing the actual warrant, as well, which is the document that the affidavit supports.  Then the judge will give it the thumbs up, or no, and it isn't always a slam dunk.  Sometimes he will demand info that he feels is essential to the warrant but is not currently included.  Then it's back to the drawing board.  All of this can take hours, days, weeks, and even months to accomplish the goal of entering someone's home to legally search it.  This is most often the work of detectives and investigators. 

The uniform, or plainclothes street officer, works in a very different environment and often finds himself operating within the happening-right-now-and-what-are-you-gonna-do-about-it world.  Decision-making gets telescoped into minutes or seconds, and there are no judges or lawyers working the night shift or responding to calls with the officer.

Because of this the courts have recognized that there must be exceptions to the warrant requirement.  On the face of it the idea may sound shocking.  But if some exceptions weren't carved out, an officer in hot pursuit of a murder suspect would have to wait outside the front door if he failed to catch up to him before he got inside.  That would be unsatisfactory in the extreme, and also boring. 
Warrant?  I don't need no stinkin' warrant.

So here they are--the exceptions to the search warrant requirement:

1. Search Incident to Lawful Arrest: Kind of a no-brainer, I think.  When a person gets arrested the officer is allowed to search both his person and the area within his reach, or "wingspan".  Of course you need probable cause to make the arrest, which can be defined as more than reasonable suspicion but less than the evidence required for a conviction.  That shines a light on it, doesn't it?  P.S.  Since this was written the Supreme Court has ruled that cell phones recovered in such situations are excluded from this exception and require a search warrant.  I need time to digest this one before commenting.

2. Plain View Exception: No warrant is required if the officer can see evidence in plain view (narcotics, for example) and  he is legitimately in a position to do so.  For example: He responds to a home to administer CPR to an unconscious victim, and sees on the nearby coffee table a mirror with a mound of white powder and a razor blade on it.  Plain view would probably not apply to that same officer using a pair of binoculars from a block away to see the same thing.  

3. Consent: Suspects can, and sometimes do, give their consent to enter and search their property.  The person giving the consent must be reasonably believed by the officer to have the authority to do so.  Here, in New Jersey, Consent to Search forms are used to document the transaction.  It helps to repudiate later claims that the consent was not freely given.  As for blood stains found on such documents, these are easily explained away as the result of paper cuts.  The suspects are also advised that they do not have to give consent and may stop the search at any time.  And yes, they do sometime give consent even though they are in possession of something naughty.  My theory is that they think cops are slow-witted and can never, ever figure out where they have so cleverly hidden the contraband.  Sadly for them, it is most often not the cop who is slow-witted.

4. Stop and Frisk: A police officer may stop and frisk a person if he has reasonable suspicion that he may be armed and dangerous.  This is more than mere suspicion, but less than the level required for probable cause.  That's illuminating, isn't it?  It is worth noting that a frisk is a pat-down of outer clothing for the officer's safety.  He could progress to an actual and more thorough search of the suspect if he encounters what he believes to be a weapon during the pat-down.  Kind of a "plain feel" exception.  Though the person has not been arrested, he has been "seized," hence the need for the exception.

5. Automobile Exception: This actually applies to any vehicle, including boats.  If the officer has probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains evidence of a crime, contraband, etc...he may conduct a search for the item he believes may be present, but only in the areas where such an item could be hidden.  E.g. He can't look in the glove compartment for a robbery suspect; though he may search there if he is looking for a gun used in a crime.  This exception is allowed because of the highly mobile nature of vehicles.  If the car were parked in a driveway without an operator, a warrant would be needed. 

6. Emergencies and Hot Pursuit: If evidence is in danger of being removed or destroyed the officer can utilize this exception.  This is also the one that covers the fleeing suspect I mentioned earlier; allowing the officer to continue his pursuit onto and into private property without a warrant.  Even if the property is that of a third party.  Here's one for you: If during the apprehension of this fleeing suspect inside a very surprised John Q. Bystander's house, you see that John Q. is building a bomb, you can go ahead and arrest him, too, under the Plain View exception.  Then both men can be searched Incidental to Lawful Arrest.  What fun you're having!

The exercise of any of these exceptions often lead to a probable cause hearing after the fact.  This is the defense attorney's opportunity to have thrown out any evidence that the officer discovered as a result of the search.  The officer's interpretation of the search warrant exception utilized, as well as his understanding of the events leading up to it will be called into question.  This is not only a matter of checks and balances, but quite likely the suspect's best chance of beating the charge.  If the judge rules that the officer misused the exception, or otherwise overstepped the constitutional boundaries of the Fourth Amendment, the evidence will be thrown out and his case most likely dismissed.  The fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine states that evidence illegally obtained is tainted and cannot be used in court against the defendant.

Well, that's enough for today.  I'll see you all back in your seats in three weeks.  Until then--Bar's open!

Next Time--WHY WON'T ANYONE TALK TO ME? or A FEW WORDS ON MIRANDA AND SUCH LIKE.      



     


        

29 June 2014

Guilt and Vengeance

by Louis Willis

After finishing the Naguib story in Murder & Other Acts of Literature, I read two stories by women who commit literary murder on the page in the anthology. Guilt, not a woman scorned, fuels the desire for revenge in the stories by Alice Walker and Isabel Allende.

Alice Walker

  “How Did I Get Away With Killing One Of The Biggest Lawyers In The State? It was Easy” is a long title that identifies the 17-year-old narrator as the killer, leaving only as a surprise the motive. She is 14-years-old when the prominent lawyer Bubba (her name for him), the husband of her mother’s employer, rapes her. After the first encounter, they began a consensual relationship that lasts three years. Her mother constantly nags her about what she is doing with the man whose father is a segregationist. That he is a segregationist doesn’t matter to the teenage narrator because she thought, “he loved me. That meant something to me.” She knew nothing about civil rights; what she wanted was “somebody to tell me I was pretty, and he was telling me that all the time.” After three years, fed up with her mother’s constant nagging, with the help of the lawyer, she has her committed to an insane asylum. Three months later, she sees her in court when the mother’s lawyer challenges the commitment. To her surprise, her mother is really insane.  
Vapid was my reaction when I finished the story. It was difficult for me to objectively analyze it because of my anger at Alice Walker for the way she treated male characters, black and white, in The Color Purple, the first novel of hers I read a few years ago. I read two more novels and realized that she is a very good novelist. Not all her male characters are monsters, but I can’t shake my anger. So, I didn’t trust my reaction to the story.

Isabel Allende

  Isabel Allende, a Chilean writer has written numerous novels and received several awards. “An Act of Vengeance” is the first and only story of hers I’ve read. Like Walker’s story, it is about rape, guilt, and vengeance. During a violent time in a South American country, as his last mission, guerrilla Tadeo Cespedes comes to her village, kills her father, and rapes the 15-year-old Dulce Rosa Orellano. For 30 years, she thinks only of revenging the death of her father, who had sacrificed his life to save her. 
After 30 years, Tadeo, a powerful and important man in the new government, haunted by the image of the 15-year-old beauty he raped, returns to the village to find her.
The story is dissatisfying because of the predictable twist and easily guessed ending.
I enjoyed the stories, but, unlike the  Naguib story, which left me with the desire to reread, they did not invite rereading.

26 June 2012

Funeral March

by David Dean

In my last post, which was about weddings, I mentioned that I had just returned from one.  I also said that as I had grown older, sadly, I attended more funerals than weddings.  What I didn't say was that I had attended a funeral on that same day.  To be accurate, I had attended a sea burial--the funeral Masses for my wife's parents having been celebrated long before.  It had been their wish to be cremated and then to have their ashes scattered together at sea.  And that is what we did on a beautiful morning off the coast of Cape May.  My wife led her siblings and our collective children in a prayer known as the Chaplet of Divine Mercy.  This had been an especial devotion of both Bob and Jackie whose day it was, and so we honored them in this way. 

It's a fairly recent development that Catholics are allowed to be cremated.  It was not always thus.  For many, many centuries this practice was forbidden by the Church as a heathen rite.  In the very early days of Christianity many pagans practiced cremation; sometimes in spectacular fashion, e.g. the Viking's long-boat funeral pyres!  Quite the send-off!  Of course, a different view might have been taken by valued servants of the deceased as they were sometimes left on-board for the proceedings.  But, as the Christians believed in the resurrection of both soul and body on the final day, it was deemed inadvisable to burn the remains.  Since those dark times a consensus has been arrived at; that as we believe in a God that created life and promises resurrection, perhaps he can do so with whatever material we leave behind.  Oddly, there is still some controversy over the scattering of ashes.

Unlike weddings, funerals crop up quite frequently in mystery stories.  Not usually as the setting for the crime itself, but often as the end result thereof.  Often there is graveside plotting while the minister/priest/rabbi/imam drones on about the deceased.  Not infrequently we are introduced to the players at graveside.  Sometimes the attendees are carefully scrutinized for signs of guilt.  It was once a custom to expose the accused to the corpse of the murder victim to see if his wounds bled afresh at their presence--a sure sign of guilt!  It is not recorded how efficacious this method was.  As I understand it, at a certain point during decomposition wounds may seep once more. I  suspect timing was of the essence with this method--bad timing in the case of the innocent.  There was also a theory that the victim's retina retained an image of the last thing it witnessed...quite possibly his slayer!  Again, this practice appears to have fallen by the wayside for unexplained reasons.  

Like weddings, funerals are part of every culture and faith.  Even if one has no faith in the hereafter, the dead must be dealt with and that generally entails a funeral of some sort.  I've attended funerals that celebrated the life of the deceased--most often when the person has lived a long, productive life.  On these occasions, there tends to be a good deal of joking and laughter along the sidelines as people share good memories with one another.  But I've also been present at the opposite: funerals that result from accidents and murder, suicides and death at too young an age.  It's hard to celebrate a life that's been cut short, however many good memories they have left behind.  There's always that, "What if...?" left hanging in the air; never to be answered.

Different customs apply, as well, not to mention the last wishes of the deceased.  It was my Grandmother Dean's wish that her six sons dig her grave with shovels and lower her coffin into it themselves.  She did not want a backhoe, or other machinery involved, and her wishes were complied with to the letter.  It seemed very appropriate, that as she had labored to bring each of them into the world, that they should labor to carry her out of it.  There were no complaints amongst them.

We don't do wakes much any more.  It was once a widespread custom that has fallen into disuse.  I think we've grown too fastidious for such things as sitting up all night with the dead.  In Ireland, the local pub sometimes offered their services for such occasions.  The deceased was laid out in a room off the public area and there friends and relatives would come to pay their last respects.  Those waiting could refresh themselves as needed in the saloon.  The term "wake" derives from just what it sounds like...staying awake.  It used to be believed amongst many peoples, that during the short period between death and burial, the soul continued to reside within the corpse.  During this brief span it was vulnerable to dark spirits who might attempt to snare it and carry it away to hell.  Thus the family's duty was to keep watch the night before the burial Mass in order to protect their loved one's soul.  It was important to stay awake or the forces of hell might succeed.  Staying awake was certainly aided by visiting friends and neighbors telling stories and gossiping.  How the whiskey and ale helped remains unclear other than to attract said friends and neighbors.  Perhaps I could enjoy funerals more if, like wedding receptions, there was an open bar.

Ah well, believe it or not, I have another funeral to attend this week--a dear woman who was our court clerk for my entire police career.  She actually worked into her nineties (this after an earlier career in Jersey City) and was only recently considering retirement.  Hers will be one of the 'good' funerals--a celebration of a life well-lived and a woman most loved.  My former department will offer an honor guard and I expect to hear (and tell) some good stories… and even laugh a little.                               

29 April 2012

My Two Cents Worth

by Louis A. Willis
Types of Literature

I thought for this post I’d throw in my two cents on the controversy of literary versus genre fiction. We read stories to vicariously satisfy our desire for pleasure and to sometimes explain reality. So why the separation? To satisfy our need to categorize to avoid confusion, to clarify in our minds how the world works. Enough philosophizing. On to my meditation on the subject.

The argument boils down to this: genre fiction is plot driven and literary fiction is character or theme driven. Literary fiction appeals to our intellect and emotions while genre appeals only to our emotions.

Although readers may get more out of fiction than entertainment, stories above all should entertain. But no matter whether it is genre or literary fiction, both require craftsmanship, for it is in the craft that effects on the reader are achieved. I admit in some genre stories the line between good and evil are sharp and clear and may not be so clear in literary fiction, but isn’t it possible that the clarity can make you as a reader think seriously about the human condition? And isn’t it possible that literary stories may be read for sheer enjoyment without any deep thinking about the human condition?

In an attempt to clarify the situation in my mind, I analyzed two crime stories, one literary and the other genre, by two  great writers.

In Hemingway’s story “The Killers,” two hoods, Max and Al, enter a diner and tells the counter man, George, the black cook Sam, and Nick Adams that they are there to kill Ole Andreson. The killers leave without hurting anyone because Ole, a former boxer, failed to come to the diner that day. When Nick later tells Ole about the two men, he says there is nothing he can do. He is resigned to his fate. The story certainly is not plot driven for what little plot there is suggests more than shows what is happening in Ole’s mind. The story is literary fiction.




Hammett’s “The Man Who Killed Dan Odams” is a plot-driven story about  how a woman outwits the man who killed her husband. The man who killed Dan Odams escapes from jail and takes refuge in a house with a woman and her 12 year-old son, not knowing she is Dan Odams’s widow. She recognizes him and tricks him into believing she sent her son outside to watch for his pursuers. The son in fact runs to a neighbor’s place for help. As he is dying, realizing the woman is Dan Odams’s widow, the fugitive expresses admiration for her avenging her husband’s murder. No question the story is plot driven.

Neither story enticed me to think very seriously about fatalism or revenge. I simply enjoyed reading them.


I also analyzed and enjoyed a story by a not so well known writer that made me think. In “A Jury of Her Peers” by Susan Glaspell, John Wright is murdered in his bed. His wife Minnie is suspected since she was the only other person in the house, but the men, Mr. Hale, who found the body, the sheriff, and the county attorney, don’t find any convincing evidence in the bedroom  crime scene that would convict her. The two women, Mrs. Hale, and Mrs. Peters, the sheriff’s wife, inspecting Minnie’s things in the kitchen, find an empty bird cage. The dead bird they find in the sewing  basket suggests Minnie had taken as much abuse from John as she could and his killing her bird was the proverbial last straw. This story made me think about the perennial theme of how women and men see things differently.

Literary or genre fiction, does it really matter so long as you enjoy the story. Like Daniel Abrahams on the SFsignal website in his essay “A Private Letter from Genre to Literature,” I too plead, “Please, please, darling let us stop this.This artificial separation between us is painful, it is undignified, and it fools no one.” 

Except maybe a few literary critics. 

I'm So Confused

08 February 2012

Polar Readings

by Neil Schofield

I bin ill. For almost the whole of last month. January largely passed in a sort of blur. So apart from anything else my Sleuthreading has been pretty patchy. I just caught the end of the David Dean celebrations, but didn't have the wit or the time to add my Congratulations David!
I knew that story was a winner when I first read it last June.

I'm no good at being ill. It happens very very rarely, despite the fact that I lack a spleen, mine having been confiscated following a multi-car road accident in the 80's. Spleens are apparently supposed to produce the cells that fight infections. Where are all the spleens when you need one?
When I was young, being ill was frowned on. The traditional remedy was for my nearest and daftest to gather round my bed and intone the age-old Yorkshire incantation: "Gerrup out of that, yer lazy, leadswinging little whelp". This worked like a charm, which I suppose it was.
So I'm not one for being cossetted. I prefer the old dog method: retire to a corner, lick your wounds and if you don't die, then that means you're better.
I have a feeling that it was catching, too, because days after I went down, my printer-scanner went belly-up, and the toaster exploded. Let me tell you that a crumb of baguette has the stopping power of a 9mm round.

Cossetting is out, but I do need comforts, and my favorite is Comfort Reading. I mean reading familiar books that you know and love and which require little or no effort from a spinning brain. This month I turned to the French for comfort.

The French Have a Word For It

And the word is 'Polar' which is a short form of 'Roman Policier', and covers all crime fiction, detective fiction and mystery fiction which makes it a useful word. We have no equivalent it seems to me. Polar covers everything up to the Thriller category, which the French maddeningly call un Thriller.

The French are pretty good at crime fiction. When I was first in France, to acquire and expand a vocabulary I read everything I could get my hands on. I read the seven volumes of Les Rois Maudits which tells from a French perspective the story behind the Hundred Years' War, although stopping well short of admitting that, really, France today is rightfully part of England.
And then I started on crime fiction. The first man I read was an interesting character called Leo Mallet. Mallet was a surrealist and anarchist, and engaged in the usual series of bizarre jobs, before he was invited to go to Germany in 1941 to becomes a slave labourer. He quickly accepted because the invitation was delivered by a Sturmbannfuhrer backed up by a couple of Schmeissers. When he came back to Paris, he re-started writing. Pre-war he had enjoyed parodying Anglo-Saxon crime fiction and in 1942 he turned out his first crime fiction, 120, Rue de la Gare. After the war, he continued, and, according to some critics, helpd to  transform French crime fiction. His main character, Nestor Burma, was a private detective, disabused and cynical, with a secretary called Helène and a sidekick/helper called Zavatter who burgles on the side. Oh yes, and there's a peppery police commissaire called Florimond Faroux. The set-up sounds familiar, don't it, but it was a breath of fresh air to the French. He went on to write a long series of novels around Nestor Burma all set in the mean streets of Paris, including a sub-series calle Les Nouvelles Mystères de Paris, where each novel centres on a different arrondissement of Paris.

I'm afraid that Nestor Burma was never translated, but the stories are worth learning French for. For me, it's almost as good as re-reading Sherlock Holmes: I know the destination, but I know I'm going to enjoy the journey.

My other favorite has been translated and then some.
Sebastien Japrisot, (which is an anagram of his real monicker, Jean-Baptiste Rossi) started in the early 60s as a translator, of Hopalong Cassidy stories oddly enough. He also translated The Catcher in the Rye and The Trouble With Harry.  His change of direction, along with a change of name came with a murder mystery called Compartiment Tueurs (The Sleeping Car Murders in the English version). The film adaptation of this book  was Cost-Gavras's first film and starred Yves Montand. His best book, at least to my mind, was his third,  La Dame Dans L'Auto Avec Des Lunettes Et Un Fusil - The Lady in the Car With Glasses and a Gun, for which Japrisot trousered a Golden Dagger in 1966. If you can get hold of a copy, read it. It's one of the best-made crime novels I've read. The plot is beautifully constructed, flawless and diabolic.

Japrisot's ouput over 40 years was not enormous. He wrote a number of screenplays (a couple of which ended up starring Charles Bronson) and a handful of novels, but he is one of the best and most literate French crime writers I've ever come across. His last novel was set in the 1914-18 war and is a love story which turns into a detective story. It became the film A Very Long Engagement which collared the 2005 Edgar for Best Screenplay.
You can find his novels in translation on Amazon. Used copies cost pennies. Highly recommended.

Snow has now fallen, the whole country is in chaos, and I'm going out now to chop some logs for the fire. So I must be better, mustn't I.

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!

21 November 2011

Criminals and Protesters

Jan Grape by Jan Grape

What's all the big deal about the Occupy Wall Street protesters? What do they want? Do they expect the rich to give them part of their money? Take from the rich and give to the poor, really? Most of us are happy when someone makes a mint. We don't want their money. Especially the money they earned by working for it. Are they asking for a hand-out? After hearing some congressmen and other people who say they are in the 1% tell the protesters on national television to "get a job." I realize they have no clue. They have erroneously decided most of these protesters are homeless/hippie/college-age or teens who just want to protest.

Maybe so, and since I'm not out in the midst of these folks, I can't say for sure. I've read and heard that stealing food, leaving horrible unsanitary areas and sexual assaults have taken place in the tent cities, and that's just all wrong. But seeing the 84 year old woman who got pepper-sprayed in the face and the marine who got the skull fracture and the peaceful sitting protesters out in CA getting pepper sprayed in the face, by police who've been ordered to disband these peaceful demonstrations. I have a feeling there are a lot of people who feel that something is terribly wrong on Wall Street and in congress. I understand cities already in debt racking up even more debt to try and keep things peaceful. The police are given orders even though they don't always agree. Yet some policemen get totally out of hand. I saw and even personally know some college students who've been protesting, I have read about teachers, police officer, military personnel, people out of work for months, union workers, and even plain ordinary folks joining the protest. Tonight many artists and musicians are joining in with the LA protesters after the AMA awards.

Most of the protesters out there are trying to make Wall Street fund managers and politicians wake up and do what needs to be done to fix some grievous wrongs. However, I don't hold out much hope they will.

The fact that banking and financial institutions were bailed-out with taxpayer money, then the boards of those institutions gave themselves and most of their top management people huge bonuses. When called upon to explain, these corporate Greedy-Gus CEOs never explained. Not one of them has ever been sent to jail for malfeasance or mismanagement of funds or even called on the carpet. Not one of them ever paid back any bail-out monies that I know about or have heard.

Seems as if I recall a huge outcry when the bail-outs were given to the large auto companies but I've heard more than one of these companies has paid money back to the US Government. The banking and brokerage institutions who haven't paid any money back are criminals. To me that's the same as defaulting on a loan. These are same characters got our economy into this mess in the first place.

Okay, having said that, let me digress to why I write crime fiction. Throughout many years of living, I've seen, read and heard of many, many miscarriages of justice. In fact, a recent case happened here in Austin just last month. A man convicted of killing his wife twenty-five years ago was found to be totally innocent. He spent twenty-five years in prison knowing a killer was out there someplace, having gotten away with murder. The man was recently released but his life has been destroyed and his daughter's life destroyed because the man was falsely convicted of killing her mother. Imagine the sorrow his own mother and father went through. The only good part of the story is that last week they finally arrested the person who DNA shows is alledged to be the real killer. It's believed that he killed another woman two years after the first initial murder in the same manner.

In my stories and books the criminal is somehow caught and punished. He or she is put in jail or is killed The criminal get his "just desserts." Harsh justice? I think not. In real life there seldom is satisfaction when a crime is committed. Sometimes the criminal is caught and put on trial, but gets off by a technical error. or an inept prosecutor and inept jury. There is no justice. No satisfaction. Sometimes in one of my stories, I write the criminal gets a psychological punishment...having to live the rest of their life thinking of what they have done.

Real life is full of these huge miscarriages of justice. This echoes back to Dixon's blog the other day. Happy endings. People who read crime fiction want the bad guys/gals caught and punished. They want a criminal to suffer for their crimes. Writers of crime fiction usually write a happy ending. Maybe not every time but enough times to keep readers coming back. This is why I think crime fiction is so popular. If you keep track of the best sellers, the list generally has many books of mystery or crime fiction.

The Occupy Wall-Street protesters just want the criminals punished and these huge companies to STOP giving away money that was not really theirs to begin with, it came from the people. Why weren't those bonuses used to create news jobs? Why not restore a little faith in our society? Why allow criminals to get away with their crimes?

We writers of crime fiction must continue seeking truth and justice and let the bad guys be punished. If all else fails we may have to join the protesters.