Showing posts with label death. Show all posts
Showing posts with label death. Show all posts

29 March 2022

You’re Only Famous When You Die

Leigh Lundin was the first to notify me of my untimely death, when he emailed me on March 16:

Michael, while speaking this morning with my friend Cate in South Africa, she bloody nearly gave me a stroke.

She: “I’m sorry to hear about your friend, the one we were just talking about.” (We’d been talking about how prolific you and John Floyd are, masters of quality and quantity.)

Me: “What? Who are you talking about?”

She: “Michael Bracken. I saw his obit. It’s online.”

Me: “No!”

She pulled up the article and read it to me. Whew. It quickly became clear the obituary was referring to someone else, BUT… here’s the kicker. That early edition of the article spoke of the novels and numerous short stories you’d written, mentioned EQMM/AHMM, and that you’re editor of Black Cat. They conflated your career with the other guy!

Cate emailed me the URL, but by the time I got it this evening, the mix-up had been resolved. I regret I couldn’t get a copy to show you the conflation, but better for us, they had the wrong Michael B. I don’t know if there’s a way to get that early copy. I include the URL below.

I haven’t said anything to anyone else in case you might find an article/story in this, Michael. AND—this is exciting—you are definitely renown internationally.

I often wonder what will be written about me after my death and, apparently, I almost found out.

But I do wonder, so much so that I once attempted to draft my own obituary when I suspected no one in my family would do it justice. After I discovered that the cost to publish my bloviated paean to myself would cost my heirs more than I’ve earned for most of my short stories, I decided the paltry inheritance I’m bequeathing them—what is the going rate for half a ton of recyclable paper?—might better be spent on a twelve-pack of Mountain Dew to be shared at the Wake while everyone listens to “Highway to Hell” and “Stairway to Heaven” in an unending loop because I want all my bases covered.

So how is it we wish to be remembered after we’re gone? Loving parent and devoted spouse? Or hermit-like creature whose occasional screeds entertained tens of people? Will the list of the left-behind be a litany of children’s and grandchildren’s names or a screen capture showing all the unfinished manuscripts residing on our hard drive?

Either way, most of us are likely to be forgotten soon after our passing… unless we have stories in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine’s submission queue. Then we will live forever.

Until then, may you live long enough for your friends to read your obituary and to express relief that the report of your death had been greatly exaggerated.

21 September 2018

My Father Died Today

My father died today and I am left here, with my keyboard and memories. 

My father was born in Ceylon in the 1930s, but he had no sense of the place or time he landed on this planet. He was always immersed in books -philosophy, the classics and his beloved biology- and he had little regard for the social norms that were simply invisible to him.

My father got his PhD in Biology at Oxford University, at Christ Church College, in the 1950s. When my son asked him about Oxford, my father - one of the few non-whites there - did not comment on the prestige of Oxford, or the lack of diversity. That was not my father’s style. He was unfailing honest, so he talked about what mattered to him: how, as a poor student, he was able to buy so many of his beloved books at second hand stores and how he had his first sexual relationship there. Yes. That is what he said. That sealed the deal for my son - he was going to university.

My father was born into a wealthy family, one of a long line of doctors and scientists. Growing up in Ceylon, a country with a rigid social stratification, he had a servant whom he chatted with and respected. My father took him on collecting trips and was amazed at his fine mind. We knew him only as ‘Dr. Johnson’ because that is what my father called him. Whenever we returned to Ceylon, Dr Johnson would accompany my father on his collecting trips and lectures.  It was not until I was older that I realized that Dr Johnson was not a professor and he was different than the famous scientists that I often met. Dr. Johnson had no qualifications - not even a high school diploma - and as an adult I found out that my father had given him some family land, helped him build a house and sent him money every month to allow him to educate his children and live a life of ideas. ‘Social justice’ wasn't in my father’s vocabulary - he just did what he felt was right. Whether he was sitting with Maasai in the plains of Africa, or world famous scientists in the halls of a university, he was the same - it was people that he loved and he remained blind to the differences that others saw.

He fell in love with my mother, and stayed in love with her for 62 years. In my mother he found someone as oblivious of norms as he was: she was an MD/PhD with a passion for Parasitology. My father - with his eyes on science -  missed the chauvinistic memos of the 1950s. In my mother he saw a mind that he thought was finer than his. He supported her through her career. He also felt he was a better cook, so he cooked for her all his life, leaving her free to do her work. He supported and fought for many women in science in his lifetime - it was their minds, not their sex, that he focused on and championed.

He took our family around the world, through Africa, South East Asia, the Americas and Europe. He felt at home wherever he was, as long as he could talk bugs and fish, eat good food and share stories and laughter.

Deeply moved by democracy and fairness, my father had no tolerance for political despots. I know this not from what he said but from what he did. He took our family - often at young ages - through dangerous countries in search of fish and bugs. He faced men with machine guns and machetes with equal calm. He had a job to do and we simply went with him. Nothing speaks of his boldness as well as when he was in Singapore, on his way to the Philippines. We were not with him but called to tell him that the Philippines was in the middle of a coup. He said: If I stopped my work for every coup, I would never get anything done. My father felt strongly that political despots, dictators, and even civil war, were transient. Science, that careful, meticulous work of men and women around the world, that is what would endure and he would do his small part to contribute. Looking back - he was right. The despots are now dead or overthrown. The work of the men and women of science has lived on.

My father’s sense of fairness, and his support of my mother, occasionally made his life miserable. We were traveling during his sabbatical year, were in Malaysia, and my mother asked my father to bring some samples from chickens when he visited Burma (now Myanmar). In my father’s mind, if you took anything you paid. So, he offered to pay to collect chicken feces - chicken shit -in an isolated village.  As he was depositing samples into carefully labeled bottles of formaldehyde, he looked up to see many villagers, all carry bags, some of them in various states of degeneration, all filled to the brim with various animal feces. The word must have gone around the village that there was an odd man paying for shit. My father could see how poor these people were and so he did what few people would do - he left with his biological van filled with shit and his wallet empty. He told us this story over a meal, coupled with laughter.

Oddly, for a man of science, one thing my father would never accept is the death of people he cared about. He refused to go to any funeral. Ever. He simply could not bear it.

My father taught me to eat a good meal with people I care about and find a good book to read - every day of my life. He taught me to find every person, in every country, as comfortable as home. He understood - ahead of his time - that the world is a very small place. He taught me that chauvinism and racism are to be ignored in the face of larger, more important pursuits.

Unlike my father, I do go to funerals and I will go to my father’s funeral - my second this year. Why? Because my father - literally - gave me the world.

06 June 2018

Holding tight or Letting Go

by Robert Lopresti 

Warning: I am going to quote/paraphrase a lot of authors from my own memory.  You are hereby warned that such lines may not be reliable.

Let's pretend that you are an author.  For some of you that will be easier than others.

Congratulations!  A big Hollywood studio just called you.  They are interested in one of your books.  They are excited, even.

And now you're excited too.  Large checks with many zeroes are magically floating over your head.  You tell them you are eagerly awaiting their contract. 

Wonderful, they say.  And then they happily tell you about their plans for your masterpiece.

Remember your main character, the brilliant Native American nuclear physicist?  Well, in the movie she will be a Swedish man who makes balloon animals for a living.  And the cancer cure everyone is hunting for?  In the flick it will be a box of honey-glazed donuts.  It's a creative thing.

Are you still eagerly waiting for that contract?  Will you sign it when it arrives?

Different authors take different views on this, naturally.

Sue Grafton (herself a reformed screenwriter) refused to let Hollywood take a shot on her Kinsey Milhone books and claimed that, for that reason, she was highly respected in that town.

J.K. Rowling allowed movies of her books but, as I understand it, kept a pretty tight leash on Warner Brothers.  The studio wanted to combine her first two books into one movie. and she refused.  Considering how much money they made off those flicks they should send a million dollars a year to her favorite charity.

At the other extreme you have James M. Cain.  Supposedly someone tried to sympathize with him about what Hollywood did to one of his novels.  He replied: "They haven't done anything to my book.  It's right there on the shelf."

On a similar note Elmore Leonard once complained about the film version of one of his novels and his friend Donald Westlake asked: "Dutch, did the check clear?"

The problem with Westlake's philosophy, alas, is visible on his IMDb page.  A lot of the movies  based on his books are terrible.*

One more author example.  When William Gillette was preparing to write a play about Sherlock Holmes he asked Arthur Conan Doyle what he was allowed to do with the character.  The author repled: "You may marry him, murder him, or do anything you like to him."

And the mention of murder brings up our next topic.  How would you feel about someone writing new adventures for your character after you have passed on to your reward? 

When asked that question by his biographer, Rex Stout famously said, "Let them roll their own," meaning other writers should come up with their own characters. 

Lawrence Block said: "I’d prefer not having anybody mucking about with my characters after I’m gone, but when I’m gone it’ll no longer be any of my business. And, in the unlikely event that there’s an afterlife, I can’t imagine it’ll involve my caring much one way or the other."

On the other hand, we have the science fiction great Connie Willis, who said: "Other people have 'Do Not Resuscitate' orders.  I have 'No One Edits My Manuscript.'"

And that brings us to Charles M. Schulz who, arguably, is the teller of the longest single tale in known history.  He never let anyone so much as ink or letter the Peanuts strip, which was intensely personal to him.

When he was a wealthy old man his children gave him one gift money could not buy: the promise that once he chose to put down the pen no one else would ever write or draw the Peanuts comic strip.  And they stuck by their word.  The cartoons that have been running since his death are repeats, all straight from the master's hand.

And that's enough to make Snoopy do his happy dance.

*Yes, two movies Westlake wrote, The Grifters and The Stepfather, were very good.  But they weren't based on his books.

13 May 2018

Death comes in...

by Mary Fernando

She is the first person I have spoken with who has actually killed. 

“Unlike a lot of people, I do kill,” says Dr. V. As a veterinarian, she does indeed kill as part of her job. “There is how I end a life and what it is like.”

She starts with the latter.

“As one of my duties it is a bit of a double edged sword - it is so sad. Euthanasia literally means good death in Latin- I have to concentrate on that. it is my job to stay professional and not show grief. It can build up over time.”

Veterinarians have a very high suicide rate. One of the contributing factors is the result of facing grief over killing animals they are attached to while not being allowed to express their grief. It is their job to stay calm and comforting when they need comfort themselves.

She then moves onto the how she kills. She is describes both how to kill and what you see when death arrives. Not just for the animals in her practice, but for all living beings. 

“I front load sedatives and anti-anxiety meds, so the animal is still with it enough to know their owners are there, but not as aware of the insertion of the IV catheter. We use pentobarbital at 300 times the dose used for anaesthesia. In 30 secs to a minute the syringe is fully injected and in 15 sec to 30 secs they pass.”

“I believe that is when the soul leaves the body. Breathing is slower and slower and then it stops - and I get a feeling - it is a deep stillness and you can almost see an emptiness.”

“I know what to expect and I warn my clients. The eyes will stay open. Even if you try to close them, they open up again. The  animals will urinate and defecate. When calcium is released from the cells, sometimes you will see muscles contraction and the most scary thing is when the diaphragm contracts it looks like breathing. But it isn’t.”

“If this was an overdose of sleeping pills, it would be just like this.” 

Listening to her, I think of the many dogs I have had over the years. How their pain and suffering was relieved by vets just like her. And how it must have worn each of them down. 

I also wonder if any of us can kill - and watch this stillness - the emptiness - followed by the open eyed release of bowels and bladder and the breath that is merely the release of calcium and not life. Can we watch this and not be gutted to our core?

As a doctor I have seen death marching in - sometimes slowly and sometimes on a rampage - and I have seen death arrive. I have heard people say that it was a mercy, for the best. I have said that myself. But here’s the thing, the arrival of death is always frightening. There is no way that you can wipe out a life lived without that. Even if it is for the best.

18 January 2018

Death by Fairytale

A week ago, I posted this image on my Facebook page, and Paul Marks commented, "Eve, I think there's a SleuthSayers column in this":

r/CasualUK - Causes of death in traditional English folk songs... An accidental find in an otherwise serious music group :)...

And he's right, so here it is!

Traditional English folk songs can be history (a little mossy, a little mutated), myth retold (look, everyone really wants to go to Elfland, if they can just figure out a way to come out alive), news (remember when Alisoun got shot cause they thought she was a swan?), and the occasional unique idea (I'll let you know when I find one).  They're all sung in a minor key, and can be very haunting.  That's why they're still being sung.  And why I still listen to them.

But let's break down these categories a bit:

Most of English folk songs have people dying of a broken heart.  "Barbara Allan" is actually unusual, in that it's the lass that's hard-hearted (although she does die for her dead lover in the end:  "my true love died for me today, I'll die for him tomorrow").  Most of the time it's the lass that got knocked up on velvet green and was abandoned who dies of sorrow (and sometimes childbirth).  But there's a lot of broken hearts, and there still are.  For one thing, it's hard to get to a ripe old age and never have your heart broken once.  And sad songs are cathartic.  There's nothing like a good cry, especially when accompanied by alcohol and maybe a group sing-along in the bar...

The amazingly large number of deaths by drowning makes just as much sense.  Drowning was actually a major cause of death in the Middle Ages because:
(1) People drank a lot.  Beer in the morning, beer at midday, beer at night.  Granted, a lot of it was small beer, but there wasn't any caffeine in those days, and the water wasn't safe to drink and they knew it.  And even if it was, they were still going to drink beer.  Or wine.  And if anyone offered them some whiskey, well, they wouldn't turn it down.
(2) Almost every village and every city was built along water, because water was necessary for cooking, transportation (barges were the equivalent of modern semis), power (mills), and the occasional cleaning.  This meant there was lots of water to fall into while drinking, either from the banks, bridges, or well.  You combine drinking with darkness, and stumbling along home after a few pints at the pub could lead to serious injuries and more drownings.  And the Middle Ages were not known for their seating:  it was common to sit down on a bridge or the edge of a well and have a long pull at a noggin, and tip back, back, back...  Well, watch Oliver Reed in "The Three Musketeers" above...
(3) All that alcohol and water gave you a handy place to toss someone you were tired of, whether it was your spouse, your friend, or the occasional stranger.

Cruel wars...  Well, there's still, sadly, a lot of those.  Of course, back then men were often pressed into service at sea or land, against their will, or deliberately inebriated by recruiters and signed up, or ran off to join the wars, any wars.  Most of the sad songs are about peasant lads being pressed into service and never seen again by their own true love...   Sometimes the loved one goes off in search of her true love, but that rarely ends well, either.

NOTE:  The most amazing story is a real one:  "The Return of Martin Guerre" is about a peasant who went off to the wars, leaving his wife and family, and returned many years later and resumed his life as husband, father, peasant and all was well...  until the real Martin Guerre came back from the dead, years after that, and booted the imposter out and up onto the gallows.  The movie, starring a young Gerard Depardieu and Nathalie Baye, is magnificent.

Execution...  not so often, and usually NOT for being a highwayman or a footpad.  Although there are lots of serial killers, then and now.  And there are songs about the victims of said serial killers, such as "Reynardine", in which the lass is led over the mountains by a serial killer werefox cannibal "whose teeth did brightly shine". 

But most are about escaping Bluebeard types in the folk songs, legends, stories, and fairy tales:  a man who marries successive wives and kills them all, except the last who somehow figures a way out of it.  My favorite version is Grimm's "The Robber Bride".  I was fascinated as a child by the three glasses of wine the Robber gave his victims (one white, one red, and one yellow, which knocked them out), grossed out by the dismemberment (read it yourself HERE), and cheering when the Bride cleverly exposes him at the wedding feast, and he and all his band are executed.

Another version of nailing Bluebeard is a very old folk song called "The Outlandish Knight". Flora Thompson quoted hugely from this in her memoir "Lark Rise to Candleford", because she heard it almost every night from the local inn, as old David sang it to wind up the evening's drinking:

"He turned his back towards her  
   To view the leaves so green, 
And she took hold of his middle so small 
   And tumbled him into the stream.
And he sank high and he sank low 
   Until he came to the side. 
'Take hold of my hand, my pretty ladye, 
   And I will make you my bride.' '
Lie there, lie there, you false-hearted man, 
   Lie there instead of me, 
For six pretty maids hast thou drowned here 
  And the seventh hath drowned thee.'

"The Outlandish Knight" is a variation of "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight".  (See Steeleye Span's version.)  There's a lot of songs about Elf Knights, Elf Queens, and elves in general, and all I can say is, you don't want to go there.

Except you do.  Because it's an incredible place, full of mystery, beauty, glamour, and as long as you're there you'll never get old.  And who knows?  You may be as lucky as Thomas the Rhymer, who returns with the gift of prophecy and poetry...

Nonetheless, it can end badly, unless your true love comes to fetch you, like in Tam Lin ...  Otherwise...  I'd stay home.

And now we come to the last two:

"Wandered off, lost in the woods, and died".  One variant is the Babes in the Wood, a/k/a Hansel and Gretel, who were either murdered or driven out to starve to death in the woods... and do.  (The frequency of these tales can make you wonder about human nature.  Then again, having just seen this on the news, maybe not...)

The other variant is Rip Van Winkle, who drank the wrong wine / ale given to him by ghosts / elves / trolls, falls asleep, and awakens a hundred years later, which means that all his generation thought he died.  While Washington Irving based Rip Van Winkle on a Dutch story, "Peter Klaus", it's a very old legend.  The first go-round apparently was when, in the 3rd Century BC, the Greek historian Diogenes Laertius told the story of a shepherd, Epimenides of Knossos, who fell asleep in a cave and woke up decades later. But it might well be older than that.  There are tales of long sleepers in the Orkney Islands, where a drunken fiddler meets up with trolls, in Ireland, China, Japan, and India.  The Babylonian Talmud tells a version of it.  Who knows?  There are probably some in ancient Egypt and Sumer.  This is VERY old stuff.

Also (imho) old, old, old stuff is "being mistaken for a swan by a trigger-happy hunter."  I totally buy this one.  For one thing, swans used to be eaten, in ancient Rome, in Elizabeth times, and on.  They were apparently a delicacy.  Anyway, hunting them used to be common.  And God knows it still happens, although they're not taken for swans anymore.  Back in November, 2017, a Pennsylvania woman, out walking her dogs, was shot by a hunter who mistook her for a deer.  (Newsweek)  November was actually an interesting month for mistaken shootings:  another hunter in New York shot a brown pick-up that he mistook for a deer, still another up in Hebron, Maine killed a woman on the opening day of hunting season, and yet another hunter in Oxford, Maine shot a man in the arm.  Personally, I'm staying away from the Northeast during hunting season.

Anyway, as you can see, the "Causes of Death in Traditional English Folk Songs" can all still be used today by the modern mystery writer.  Our victims can die of a broken heart, accidents, drowning, drinking (or drugs), execution, serial killers, escaping serial killers, Elf land (think cults of all kinds), babes in the wood, and hunting accidents.  The technology may change, but the ways, and the motivations, stay pretty much the same.

Related image

And you could do worse than to start with folk songs...

06 March 2017

Last Writes

by Steve Liskow            

A few weeks ago, I attended the funeral of a former colleague. I have to admit that I'm approaching an age where I--and several of my friends--find this happening more often than we like. But it made me stop and think for the first time how many of my own works involve funerals, too. So far, eight of my eleven novels have funeral scenes or scenes in which characters talk about a funeral. So do both my current WIPs and at least one short story.

That made me try to recall "great literary works" that have funerals in them, and I immediately thought of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, Wuthering Heights, The Loved One, Hamlet, As I Lay Dying, and Antigone. There must be dozens of others, especially when you think of all the "great literary works" I've managed to avoid reading.

This makes sense because if a story doesn't have something at stake, the reader will stop reading and the audience will stop watching or listening. The two main issues that put something at stake are love and death because they cause irrevocable change. Love changes everything. Where would Romeo and Juliet be without it? Well, alive, you say. Exactly, I say.

Most of us in the crime writing biz focus on murder, not jaywalking or littering because it has a more profound effect on the people. My funeral scenes remind me--and my readers--that killing someone affects the survivors, too, the ones who have to carry on without that person who has been taken away. The protagonist has to figure out how and why so order can be restored, albeit differently. The friends no longer have that shopping companion or tennis partner. The lover no longer has his or her other half. The child(ren) no longer have that parent. The parent no longer has that child.

I sometimes use the funeral scene to provide a clue to the crime, but more often than not, I focus on the inner life of the characters for whom the landscape has changed. These people have to reinvent themselves in order to go on. We all do that many times in our lives (See Judith Viorst's Necessary Losses and Gail Sheehy's Passages for examples), but we crime writers grapple with it every time we put words on paper.

Maybe that's why I get annoyed when people look down at crime writers or romance writers as "mere genre fiction." Take away love and death, and what do you have left?

21 August 2015

Author Down

The phone call came in the middle of July. A fellow writer had died a couple of days before and his only son was letting me know of his dad's passing. Seems the son had my telephone number on a short story manuscript I'd sent the kid while he was deployed in Afghanistan a few years back. It was the only way he knew to get in touch with me.

His father (Aaron B. Larson 03/14/1955 - 7/14/2015) and I had been critique partners from about 1993 up to somewhere around 2001. It was mostly short stories, plus a novel each. In those days, we communicated by old fashioned snail mail for exchanging manuscripts and typed critiques, and in person with conversations at a monthly writers group meeting if Aaron managed to drive the 200 Interstate miles from his house to the meeting on that particular night.

Aaron had started out as a serious writer before me and had been doing well with his short stories published in various magazines. His output was a mixed bag of fantasy, sci-fi and mystery stories, but he was trying to make a living at writing in those genres and in that format. The incoming paychecks were small, not much to support a family. He did have some fame and recognition on the fantasy and sci-fi side, but those by themselves don't buy much in the way of groceries. To help tide things over, he took up various employment, such as night motel clerk and substitute teaching, among other jobs.

In an attempt to broaden his potential writing market, he put together a collection of his short stories and took up novel writing. Both were published by small press. The problem for him was, if you tried to live by the pen, but didn't make the big time circuit, then your career was apt to die by the pen. In the end, it came down to either obtaining success towards the top of the writing pyramid, or get serious about other employment to pay the bills and then only write on a part-time basis.

In later years, he drifted away and I moved south. Eventually, he took his two college degrees and went back to school for his masters in drama. His creative side moved over to the theater. We talked a few times afterwards, but it wasn't the same. His heart for writing had been taken out of him.

After the call came in that night, I dug out the giant plastic bin I'd kept all our correspondence in and went through it. There were photographs, personal letters, critiques, copies of successful publications, triumphs and rejections, notices of potential markets and of closing markets, hopes and dreams. It got me to thinking.

I've always known this writing game of ours is a harsh mistress. If you're going to mess around with this fickle muse, on any level, then you'd better have some talent, lots of luck and a thick skin. It also doesn't hurt to network like hell and have something in your background or writing to make you stand out from the pack.

A lot of years ago, a man named Jack London figured writing short stories would be his way out of poverty and out of working jobs at manual labor, but his first short story to be published sold for only five dollars and that payment was too long in coming. He was ready to abandon a career of writing, when his second short story paid him forty dollars and gave him the encouragement to continue. After that, his novels and other short stories paid him increasingly well. He made it to the top during his time period.

For me, I think I always knew I was better off with a good paying job, so that paychecks coming in from writing weren't crucial to feeding my family. Could be that I picked up on a certain lack of encouragement from a couple of college professors in my earlier years, but then that same put down led me to an I'll-show-you attitude that got me my first three sales. Who knew? Of course in the end, it was my contract with the military to go fill sandbags in a hostile environment that left me with itchy feet and a restless mind which put the final cement into my job decision to go work the streets as a fed.

We've all known writers who struggled and ended up with some measure of success, whether it was a few paying publications or a great career. At the same time, we've known those who struggled and had little or no success. I guess you just do what you can, strive hard and hope for the best.

In the meantime, wherever you are on the measuring stick, I wish you all well.

Go out there and persevere as best you can.

27 May 2015

The Verdict

A while back, I wrote a story and submitted it to HITCHCOCK. Not long after, a bomb went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. It was one of those WTF moments, because it didn't make any sense. (Of course, you could say that terrorist acts, by definition, don't make any sense, and you wouldn't get an argument from me.) The weird thing was that inside of 48 hours, the suspects in the bombing were ID'd as Chechens. My story began with a hit on a guy in a car. The shooters were hired guns, contract killers. They were Chechen gangsters, brought in soft, for the one job.

Now, my story didn't have anything to do with terrorism. It was about money, and closing a loop. Eliminating loose ends. But the coincidence bothered me, and I dropped a note to Linda Landrigan at AHMM, and suggested it was kinda too close to home, as if I were exploiting a real-life event - that killed people - and better we revisited it, if and when she bought the story.  

Next up, I touched base with my pal Michael Parnell, who at the time was living in Tbilisi, Georgia. Michael's pretty much my go-to guy for crazy feudal stuff in the Caucasus, and I wanted his input. Michael came back at me and agreed it was an odd juxtaposition. He said, Chechens make great heavies, for sure, but you got a lot to choose from, this neck of the woods. For openers, there's your Armenian rug guy who gets his thumb cut off - why not make the baddies Azeris, for example? Armenians and Azeris hate each other. And he threw some other stones in the pool, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the heroin traffic out of Afghanistan, the Moscow mafia moving in on the Georgian gangs. In the end, writers being jackdaws, attracted to shiny objects, I wound up writing a book called EXIT WOUNDS, and I'd happily credit Michael with giving me the background.

This is taking the long way around to the Tsarnaev verdict. Everybody's familiar with the essential narrative. An impressionable kid, led astray by his older brother, who'd been lured to the dark side of Islam. I have to comment that I have no patience at all with Fundamentalism, whether it's Born Again bible-thumpers, or extremist Orthodox Jews (like the guy who murdered Yitzhak Rabin), or ISIS thugs. My personal sympathy is that I'd like them out of the gene pool. Tsarnaev himself is sort of a poster boy, or at least that's the tack his defense took. There's something to this. The wars in Chechnya, for instance, drew in plenty of recruits from the disenchanted Soviet republics, border states along the southern perimeter, what the Russians like to call the Near Abroad, many of them with majority Moslem populations. Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Tajiks. All of them disaffected with native dictatorships, set up by Moscow. These are genuine grievances, and historic. Don't think people don't nurse old wounds.

This is, however, no alibi. You don't spray a crowd with shrapnel from pressure-cooker bombs. An eight-year-old kid died. What does he have to do with the Palestinians, or the invasion of Iraq? There's something truly screwy with making these things morally equivalent, or using them as an excuse. I don't get it. Terror tactics, the bombing of the King David hotel by the Irgun, say, or the IRA campaign in central London, in the 1990's, don't really work. They come back to haunt you. Prince Charles can shake hands with Gerry Adams, but it was the Irish, after all, who blew up Mountbatten.

I know inviting a conversation about the death penalty is asking for trouble. Abortion, capital punishment, and gun control seem like hot-button issues. (How gay marriage got sucked into this is beyond me.) But certain things seem obvious. The death penalty isn't a deterrent. It's unequally applied. Guys on Death Row turn out not to be guilty. DNA evidence, twenty years later. That's enough reason to get rid of it. Me, personally, I kind of like beheading, and hanging, and electrocution. They're all inhumane - you hang somebody, you have to stand on their shoulders, it doesn't break their neck, put some weight into it. This is, not to put too fine a point on it, society's revenge. You murder the social compact, you pay the price. And in this particular case, there's certain guilt. I'm sorry, but this isn't good enough. I might personally think Tsarnaev should be publicly disembowelled. That's not the issue.

Tsarnaev has no excuse, legally or morally. Like the old lawyer joke. Guy murders his parents, and then throws himself on the mercy of the court, because he's an orphan. I don't think so. You take responsibility. Diminished capacity doesn't work, not in this instance. There was a plan that required malice aforethought. They knew innocent people would die. They went ahead. Good lawyering can't explain this away. In fact, nobody even tried. We're left with the raw thing itself. The dead.

I think we deserve satisfaction. Socially. I think we deserve an endgame. I think we want payback. I think we're entitled to it. The death penalty speaks to this. You fry 'em, or they roll on the gurney. Retribution. But. I can't answer my own question. Are there people who deserve to die? Yeah, there are. Who makes the decision? I guess we all do, collectively. Which means the burden is ours. We choose this. Have we repaired the damage to the social compact? There's certainly something final about it, that a blood price is paid, and we're complicit. I don't know. If you take innocence off the table - if we can say, beyond doubt, that Tsarnaev is guilty - is justice served? I'm not convinced.

21 April 2015

Publisher Changes Titles, Author Doesn't Mind! The World Turns...

by Elizabeth Zelvin

I completed the first draft of my first potentially publishable mystery in October 2002. (The less said the better about three manuscripts in the 1970s, although an agent who's eminent today tried to sell them.) Since 1993, I'd been running around saying, "Some day I'm going to write a mystery titled Death Will Get You Sober." I finally did it after I left my last day job directing an alcohol treatment program down on the Bowery, which was slowly morphing from New York's Skid Row to the gentrified neighborhood it is today. My protagonist, Bruce Kohler, was a recovering alcoholic with a New York attitude, a smart mouth, and an ill-concealed heart of gold.

Everybody who heard the title loved it except my first agent, who specialized in romance and cozies. She thought she'd have less difficulty selling a series with punchy one-word titles like Carol Higgins Clark's, which include Decked, Snagged, and Iced. (Not to be snarky about the Clark women, who are lovely, she'd have sold it a lot more easily if I'd been Mary Higgins Clark's daughter.) I remember pacing back and forth in my living room, phone to ear (quite a feat, since this was long before I had a cell phone), begging her not to make me change my title. Not only was Death Will Get You Sober clever and memorable, it told the reader exactly what the book was about. I had a long string of unwritten sequels lined up that did the same: Death Will Improve Your Relationship, Death Will Help You Leave Him, Death Will Extend Your Vacation, Death Will Forgive Your Debts. I won the argument, but she failed to sell the book. After many rejections, Death Will Get You Sober ended up, by a fluke and sans agent, with legendary editor Ruth Cavin at St. Martin's, who fortunately loved the title. The book was published in 2008, just before publishing began to change in the vast paradigm shift in technology, books, and the nature of reading and writing that we all know about.

Cavin rejected Death Will Improve Your Relationship but took Death Will Help You Leave Him, which appeared under the Minotaur imprint in October 2009. At that very moment, the economy tanked, and Minotaur, disappointed by advance sales and evidently blaming the author rather than the changing market, dropped me a week before the book came out. Death Will Extend Your Vacation finally sold to a smaller publisher known for picking up abandoned series. I'm grateful for that. For their decision to bring the book out as a $25.95 hardcover in 2012, when the e-book revolution was in full swing and their target market, libraries, reeling from huge budget cuts--not so much. Assuming the series was dead apart from short stories, I turned to other projects.

Enter Julie Smith, Edgar-winning author of the Skip Langdon mysteries set in New Orleans, who had recently started a small e-press, BooksBNimble. I'd known Julie since I interviewed her for the Poe's Deadly Daughters blog years before, and she'd been kind enough to blurb Death Will Get You Sober. Julie loved Bruce and his sidekicks Barbara and Jimmy and wanted to bring out the series as e-books. I tried to get her to give me final say on the titles in the contract, but she wouldn't do it. Luckily, she was happy with the titles of the three novels that had appeared in print. By this time, I had cut Death Will Improve Your Relationship by 50,000 words, and with Julie's skillful edit, turned it into a 20,000-word novella about the murder of an obnoxious relationship guru, author of a bestseller called How to Improve Your Relationship. I was not happy when she insisted on changing the title to Death Will Save Your Life. It was reasonably apt, since the denouement involved a lake, a canoe, and a Klepper kayak. But it wasn't as transparent as my title, with which I'd been living for ten years. On the other hand, it fit better on the postage-stamp-sized cover of an e-book.

Julie's done a great job of promoting the series, which would have been long dead by now in the era of traditional publishing only. But she thinks the books could do better. She's had success at boosting sales by changing the titles and covers of other authors' books (and some of her own backlist) to attract a different readership. So in the fall of 2014 she proposed that we give Bruce a new look and the books new titles. We both knew she'd win, but I think she was surprised that I didn't put up a fight.

Like every writer of fiction except James Patterson, Janet Evanovich, and a handful of others, I've had to revise my fantasy of success, ie, my expectations, as the rollercoaster that publishing has become swoops and twists around. So when my mystery e-publisher is willing to invest in transforming my modest midlist novels and put her full energy into promoting them seven years after the first hardcover came out, I don't think, Oh, no! If she changes the titles, the books will be ruined! I think, Wow! I am so lucky!

So now the e-book versions of the Bruce Kohler mysteries are Dead Sober, Dead Wrong, Dead in the Hamptons, and Dead Guru. (The short stories in the series have kept their original "Death Will" titles.) And now there's a new novel: Dead Broke, in which Bruce and Jimmy need a twelve-step program to help them deal with their money issues. The new covers feature an animé version of a sardonic, sexy Bruce. Now, there's something I'd never have come up with on my own. So far, people seem to like Bruce's new look, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Elizabeth Zelvin is a former SleuthSayers regular and author of the historical novel Voyage of Strangers as well as the Bruce Kohler mystery series. Her short stories have been nominated for the Derringer and three times for the Agatha Award for Best Short Story. Most recently, Otto Penzler included her story, "A Breach of Trust," in the list of "Other Distinguished American Mysteries" for 2014. Dead Broke, the first Bruce Kohler novel since 2012, is available for preorder now and will launch on May 1. Liz is also a psychotherapist based in New York, an established poet, and a singer-songwriter with an album titled Outrageous Older Woman.

02 June 2014

Killing Your Darlings

Susan Rogers Cooper
Susan Rogers Cooper
You may have heard the instruction to beginning writers, 'Kill your darlings,' meaning if you like a phrase or passage too much, your readers won't react well to such self-indulgence. Today's famous author gives the words an entirely new meaning.

Susan Rogers Cooper is one-half fifth-generation Texan and half-Yankee, but the Texas side seems to be winning. She is the author of two dozen books: twelve books in the Milt Kovak series, ten in the E.J. Pugh series, and two books in the Kimmey Kruse series. Susan lives in the Austin area and is the grandmother of three precocious children.

And now, as promised…

Killing Your Darlings

by Susan Rogers Cooper

The year was 1983 and my family had just moved to Austin, Texas. I was still buzzing from my first fiction sale – a romance sold to a company called Listen to Love, romance novels on audio-cassette (it went belly-up within a year, although my $100 check did clear).

I saw an ad for story submissions to a prestigious local anthology and reworked a short story I'd already written. The submission criteria was several hundred words less than the story I'd written, so I went about dealing with that. In the story, my angst-ridden main character, going through a mid-life crisis, goes into her attic and finds a box from her teen years, full of Ricky Nelson 45s and other memorabilia of the artist, all based on my own pre-teen fixation with all things Ricky. I tore out the scene – mindlessly and with great aplomb. The story was submitted and bought and I was thrilled. One month later Rick Nelson died in a plane crash.

I'd always heard the expression “killing your darlings,” but I thought it was figurative, not literal. So this is my confession, such as it is. And, by the way, the prestigious local anthology – having been in business for over ten years before my submission – also went belly-up immediately after that year's publication, and I never got the fifty bucks I'd been promised.

In 1987, I decided to write a mystery, which I did, and sent it off to various over-the-transom houses. After the third devastating rejection, I decided on a new mental approach. Instead of “getting published,” my new goal would be to paper the downstairs half-bath with rejection letter wall paper. I only got part of one wall done. Since that time I've had close to thirty books published and, as of this writing, I've not killed anyone else – except on paper – no more publishing venues have gone belly-up on my behalf, and I've been able to tear down the half-finished wall paper in the downstairs bath.

It's the little things that make a career, right?

07 April 2013

A Fiery Death in the Afternoon

by Leigh Lundin

I write about Florida crime news because it's so weird, offbeat, even kinky and often awful, such as the guy arrested for returning used enemas to a Jacksonville pharmacy or the woman who was arrested this week not for breaking and entering a man's home, not for swimming nekked in his swimming pool, but for answering the call of nature in his backyard. She reportedly blamed President Obama.

But sometimes I stumble upon incidents that grab the throat or seize the heart and won't let go. Years ago, a dear friend told me of a wandering high school classmate who'd been sent from her parents' home in California to Plymouth, Massachusetts. She had trouble fitting in and no one was surprised when she disappeared that autumn, supposedly hitchhiking. The grandparents had a large wooded property and the following spring, they began trimming back the overgrowth. There at the back of the property under an apple tree, they found their granddaughter where she'd hanged herself.

But what shocked me was what the girl had with her: A favorite book, a guitar, and an alarm clock. A god-damned alarm clock. To this day that haunts me, a girl I never met setting a date and time to meet her own destiny with… an alarm clock.

Death. Cold, cold, but very, very personal.

I suppose such an incident might inspire a writer, if one could figure out whether it's the beginning of a story, the end, or the journey itself. Or perhaps it overwhelms an ordinary writer, too existential, too esoteric in its implications.

I've been driving a couple of hours each day mostly on Interstate 4 and the Florida Turnpike, enough that I had to buy a new set of 225-55R16s. Details, fodder for writers, where the rubber meets the road.

So this past week I'm running up the Turnpike at 70mph, 120km/h if you're reading this overseas. Ahead, brake lights. Smoke. Dark smoke, billowing black. Flames reaching into overhead girders.

I'm not a gawker, never have been. Cate says, "Oh, my …."

Out of my peripheral vision, I see a car has smashed into one of the support pilings under an overpass. It's reinforced concrete, two feet in diameter, an immovable object. The Japanese car that plowed into it is not an irresistible force. It's concertinaed into a third of its original length.

Flames, heavy smoke. No ambulance yet. By evening, efficient Turnpike crews will have painted the columns, swept up the glass, repaired the melted asphalt, shampooed the last vestiges of molten metal and fricaseed flesh. That's what your Turnpike tolls pay for.

"Oh," says Cate softly. She turns, drawn by the horror. I focus driving through the traffic and smoke.

Through the flames she can see the rear of the car. "There's writing on the rear window," she says.

"Writing?" I can't turn to look even if I wished.

"Writing, white shoe polish, like…" Only one application comes to mind, a date with destiny. "Like on honeymooners' cars," she says.

Honeymoon bliss, perhaps but certain fiery death in the afternoon.

Sometimes we stumble upon incidents that grab the throat or seize the heart and won't let go. Whether it's the beginning of a story, the end, or the journey itself, it's haunting.