Showing posts with label mystery writers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mystery writers. Show all posts

28 July 2016

The Seven Deadly Sins

by Janice Law

They are known by a variety of names, elegant like ‘evergreen’ or downmarket like ‘filler’ and ‘plugger’. However they are dubbed, these are useful columns and articles that have   long shelf lives. Good today, good tomorrow, good enough a year from now.

Sleuthsayer’s emergency columns are an example of the genre, and in an attempt to write something that will have a long literary shelf life, I recently thought of the Seven Deadly Sins. Sure, their heyday was probably six or seven hundred years ago, but look at it the other way, they were on the cutting edge of entertainment, morals, and religious thought for probably a millennia. And to be fair, what would mystery writers be without them?

Of course times and fashions change. Our Victorian and Edwardian predecessors in the scribbling trades leaned heavily on greed. Heiresses were married for their money; wards were cheated out of their inheritances, and last wills and testaments attracted skullduggery of all kinds. The modern writer, by contrast, favors wrath, all the better to dispatch multiple victims, and lust, a super reliable motive. If they are not enough, greed is certainly good, although gluttony has gone quite out of fashion.

This is not to say that writers do not have a personal acquaintance with the deadly sins, but their general poverty probably keeps most of us from greed and gluttony, while pride, although a temptation, gets its regular comeuppance from editors’ rejections, readers’ resistance, and critics’ complaints. I think the  scribbling tribe must make do most times with envy – self explanatory – and sloth, ditto.

For a different view, go back six hundred years and check out the medieval literary landscape. There were different ideas and different concerns, but then as now, popular writers tried to produce the stories that their readers or listeners wanted and needed. To us, a procession of the Seven Deadly Sins – even accompanied by Despair, the worst of all – or a battle of vices and virtues like the ancient Castle of Perseverance sounds like a dull afternoon. Where are the gun battles, the car chases, the seduction scenes, and the moments of terror?

Nowhere in sight! A superman – or superwoman – saving the world or a persistent detective bringing a felon to justice would have seemed to the medieval audience an irrelevant distraction. Secular justice was not their concern – wise enough since it was often in short supply. What they wanted was to avoid hell, about which they had an all too clear notion, and reach heaven, which they figured had to be better than much of medieval life. They understood that their souls were the battleground between angels and devils, and the plays they watched and the stories they heard pointed the road to salvation.

Which did not mean that their stories and plays were sermons with costumes. The people who built the great cathedrals, illuminated the great manuscripts, designed the wonderful stained glass windows, and, incidentally, created fashions to die for whenever they had money, certainly knew how to put on a show. When you read that a favorite feature was fireworks-farting devils, I think you can see that spectacle, as well as salvation, was a necessity.

 Looking back at plays and pageants featuring Pride, snooty and elaborately dressed; Wrath, red faced, bearing a club and no doubt mugging for the audience; Gluttony, fat and overfed and probably gnawing on a chicken leg, and the rest of the wicked crew, we see how a whole set of stories and characters flourished and then all but died. The battle between spiritual forces for the individual soul was replaced by struggles in the secular realm. The heroes of the old plays, Virtues like Fidelity, Chastity, and Mercy gave way to real men and women of less elevated character but more concern with righting wrongs within everyday society.

But, sad to say, Despair, that companion of the Seven Deadly Sins, suddenly seems more relevant than ever. In medieval theology, Despair, with its implied limitation of God’s grace, was the worst of sins. I used to think that curious and retrograde and psychologically unsound. No more. We don’t have to accept any theology at all to see that radical despair is a bad thing. What is it that drives people toward fanaticism, toward hatred, toward radical programs of destruction but despair? Not necessarily theological despair, but despair of society, of civilization, of humanity, itself.

I think no one can predict where literature will go next or what stories people will demand, but I am afraid that, just as the Seven Deadly Sins show up in contemporary disguises, Despair is going to feature prominently in our future.



18 August 2014

Troubled Minds

Jan Grape by Jan Grape

This has been an awful week for me personally. After hearing about the death of always creative and funny icon Robin Williams and all that sadness entailed, we hear about the death of the beautiful Lauren Bacall. Of course, there was a big difference.  Age for one thing, Betty Bacall was eighty-nine years old and had lived a full and I imagine a reasonably happy life. Her great love was Humphrey Bogart and by all accounts their marriage was happy and fulfilling. Although it was cut short by his early death.

Robin Williams was only sixty-six, and I say only because I have long since past my sixties and that seems reason enough to say "only." But we discover that he was a man who has fought depression for a number of years. But he had given up his addictive drugs and seemed to be on a fairly good path. Problem is, we just never know. Little things can send a troubled mind off into the abyss and into that awful land of suicide. His television show had been cancelled and he recently had been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease according to his wife. Those two things are enough to slam even the hardiest of us right into the gut, but to someone who deals with clinical depression and someone who perhaps is bi-polar it can be devastating. No one except a person who has dealt with such depression can begin to understand.

Jeremiah Healy
Jerry Healy
On Friday, I learned along with many others in the writing game, Jeremiah Francis Healy the lll had also died.  He had completed suicide on Thursday evening. Jerry Healy aka Terry Devane was only sixty-eight years old. This was the hardest blow for me to take as I've known Jerry for years and years and been around him, bar-hopping, playing poker, eating meals, laughing and talking about writing for hour upon hour. There was a time when I went to at least two mystery conferences a year, the main one being Bouchercon. And it was at these fan and writer outings that I spent time with Jerry, along with a cadre of mystery writers. Jerry was a graduate of Rutgers College and Harvard Law School and was a Professor at the New England School of Law for eighteen years. We always teased him about his preppy look. But he could carry it off if anyone could. Probably that big smile of his made us forgive him.

He was a member of Private Eye Writers, a Shamus Award winner and nominee and was the President of PWA. For several years I was the editor of their newsletter, Reflections in a Private Eye and because of that Jerry and I spoke on the phone occasionally but, more often we e-mailed back and forth. Jerry wrote over thirteen novels featuring John Francis Cuddy, Private Eye Series and two short story collections with Cuddy. Fifteen have been either nominated or won the Shamus award given by the Private Eye Writers of America. In 2001, began the legal thrillers featuring Mariead O'Clare, written under the name of Terry Devane. The third, A Stain Upon The Rose was optioned for a feature film. He was also a President of the International Association of Crime Writers and traveled entensively in Europe.

I personally never would have guessed that Jerry suffered chronic depression, however, I do know that it seems to be a regular visitor to creative people. I imagine all the times I was around Jerry, he was in his element, being with fans and writers and discussing writing projects and the writing biz. At those times the depression was at bay.

Since Friday, I have learned one thing that I did already know but learned much more about, was how many upcoming writers that Jerry helped. He shared stories and ideas and encouraged them especially new writers coming up. He helped me quite a lot and blurbed my first book. And I do have a bit of insight into why Jerry was always helping.

One early morning after an all night poker game at Bob Randisi's headquarters (our usual game room) Jerry insisted in walking me back to my hotel room. It was only across the street as I recall but being the gentleman he was, he didn't want me out on the street alone at four in the morning. We were strolling along, in no particular hurry, talking about receiving help from other more advanced writers. I remember saying something like, I can never repay the writers who have helped me along the way. Jerry said, something like, you can't even begin to repay them.  But let me tell you what Mary Higgins Clark told me.

Right after Jerry's first book was published, he attended the Edgars meeting in NYC. Since he lived in Boston, this was not a big deal for him. However, a few people knew he had recently published his first book. Somehow, Ms Clark found him and invited him to a party at her apartment.  Seems everyone who was everyone was going. Jerry went still not knowing how Mary Higgins Clark knew who he was and during the evening he found himself talking to Ms Clark and two or three others and he said to her. I've been lucky in that I've had so many other mystery writers who have helped and encouraged me along the way. I'll never be able to pay them back for all they've done. Without missing a beat, Mary said, "Don't even try it. You'll never be able to make up. But what you can do is pay it forward. You can help others who are coming along and in that way you are giving back to all the ones who helped you."

Jerry took that to heart and I read over and over from a large number of FB people how Jerry had helped and encouraged them in their writing. He also helped when he learned they might be having a personal crises. Jerry would pull them aside and give them encouragement. And each person said what a genuine, warm and kind person he was.

If I thought for a while I could come up with story after story of Jerry and some of the funny things he did. Or the gentlemanly things he did. But thinking too hard about those stories are a bit to difficult to think of right now. My heart is too full of our loss. But two stories did come to mind.

Once a group of us had a joint signing at a mystery bookstore, maybe in Bethesda. After the signing, everyone was trying to get a taxi to go back to the hotel. I got back with a group of writers and I saw three or four older ladies getting out of a taxi with Jerry Healy. The ladies had huge smiles on their faces and I thought to myself, Jerry just made the day for those fans. They will never forget his taking the time to visit with them and what a gentleman he was.

The other story is one that I hope will give you a smile.  A number of private eye writers play poker in Randisi's room. The game is by invitation only and I had the honor of being the first female who was asked to play. For several times, I was on the "B" team, meaning I could only play after one of the "A" gave up or was wiped out for the evening. One Saturday night at Bouchercon, after the banquet a group of us met up in the hotel lobby to head for the poker game. There were four or five of us and we walk in the hotel room to find Jeremiah Healy, all alone in the room, sitting alone at one of the tables reading a book. We were taken aback. What in the world was he reading? How To Win At Poker. Needlessly to say, we all fell out laughing.

Goodbye, my friend, I love you and miss you. Much love to Sandy. the family and all the many, many friends who also loved and will miss Jeremiah Healy III. RIP

At the Healy's cabin in Maine in 2003. I stayed there while attending an author day event at Five Star Publishing. Jerry demonstrating an electric bug zapper which looks like a tennis racket, the stuffed animal is the victim. Note the evil grin on Healy's face.