Showing posts with label police. Show all posts
Showing posts with label police. Show all posts

18 June 2020

Adventures in Logic


At the entrance of the Temple to Apollo at Delphi were three maxims:
  1. Know thyself.
  2. Nothing to excess.
  3. Surety brings ruin.
All very logical, and God knows every philosopher from Cleobolus (c. 6 BC) to Aristotle (384-322 BC) hammered home the maxim "Moderation in all things." Along with the primacy of Man's Reason, and how that made Man superior to the beasts of the field, not to mention foreigners (all of them barbarians to the Greeks), slaves and, of course, women.  (Except the hetairai.)

But the Greeks also worshiped Dionysus, the god of wine, fertility, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, festivity and theater.  Their symposia were all male affairs (except for the high-class hetairai and the low-class musicians) at which they recited poetry, discussed philosophy, sing songs, give speeches, and get thoroughly drunk.  (Please, read Plato's Symposium HERE for one of the great discussions of love anywhere - interrupted by a very drunk Alcibiades and his buddies.)  

Decent women - wives and daughters - were kept at home, uneducated and working, in the women's quarters, where they were to never be seen or heard by any other man.  Except at weddings.  And their coming of age.  And the Dionysian Mysteries when all those well-hidden wives and daughters turned into Maenads, Bacchantes, and raced out into the hills, where they drank and danced and sang all night long, in the religious frenzy of Dionysus, tearing animals apart with their bare hands.  (And the occasional man who dared to look into their rituals.  See Euripedes' The Bacchae.)


That's the Greeks for you.  Logic, logic, logic, and the next thing you know they're screaming wild in the mountains.  Well, at least they had the gods to blame.  

So much for logic.  

"If we stop testing right now, we'd have very few cases, if any."  President Trump, 6/15/2020.  

In the world of Logical Fallacies, this is known as a False Equivalence - if THIS, then THAT - which always sound logical, and can work, but only if both parts are completely true.  

BTW:  Twitter has been full of other examples of such thinking:
"Yes, and if I stop weighing myself, I'll never gain any weight."
"If we stopped being poor, we'd all be rich."
"If I quit recognizing birthdays, I won't get any older."
Make your own:  ______________________ 

But God knows, that's not the first time that Presidents have said dicey things:

"When a great number of people are out of work, unemployment results."  Calvin Coolidge  
"While the crash only took place six months ago, I am convinced we have now passed the worst and with continued unity of effort we shall rapidly recover." - Herbert Hoover, May 1, 1930
"Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?" —George W. Bush, Jan. 11, 2000
"I am not worried about the deficit. It is big enough to take care of itself." - Ronald Reagan
"I was under medication when I made the decision to burn the tapes."—Richard Nixon

Meanwhile, there is no system of logic in any universe that will allow you to be both the Party of Lincoln and carry a Confederate flag.  The history is plain:  Lincoln and the Confederacy were on opposite sides of the Civil War.  

BUT the Appeal to Ignorance (argumentum ad ignoratiam)  can work a treat if people are determined enough to remain ignorant.



And let's not forget the classic misshapen logic of criminals, all of which - and more! - I've heard on the job at the pen:  

"Look, if they didn't want to be robbed, they shouldn't have had such nice stuff."  
"I don't have to follow the rules.  Rules only apply to losers." 
"No one has ever been mistreated the way I've been mistreated.  I'm amazed that I'm even alive."
"No one has ever done anything for me.  Everything I've got I've had to take."
"No matter where I am, I always know I'm the smartest person in the room."
"It's not my fault I got arrested:  my baby mama turned me in to the cops for dealing because I was cheating on her."  
"I've never done a thing wrong in my entire life.  It's just that people always have it in for me."
"I'm the messenger of God.  If you hadn't been such sinners, God wouldn't have sent me to punish you."
     (All right, all right, the last one's Genghis Khan.)

Also, see the wonderful Top Ten Criminal Thinking Errors HERE.

If the numbers don't fit, change things!

Back on May 13, two weeks after reopening, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that the State of Georgia made it look like its COVID-19 cases were going down by putting the dates out of order - April 26th after May 2nd, and two Sundays in one week - on its published chart of COVID-19 cases, in order to prove that "new confirmed cases in the counties with the most infections had dropped every single day for the past two weeks."  (Link)  And to prove that the reopening was going great!  Huzzah!  Except it wasn't.  

What's that about All Lives Matter?

"A resurgent economy is seen as critical to boosting President Donald Trump’s reelection hopes and has become a growing focus of the White House coronavirus task force led by Vice President Mike Pence."  (AP)  

Which begs the question, why isn't preventing a second, third, or fourth deadly wave of COVID-19 seen as critical to boosting President Trump's reelection hopes?  Especially since the stock market that increased at the reopening dropped like a hot rock through ice cream - almost 2,000 points - on June 12, as COVID-19 spiked around the country.  Oh, and currently COVID-19 cases are increasing around 10,000 a day in the United States.  Doesn't look like we flattened the curve.

I know he says terrible things, but look at all the conservative judges...  Especially Neil Gorsuch...

Image


One of the accomplishments ascribed to President Trump is the appointment of conservative judges and Supreme Court Justices.  Meanwhile, two days ago, SCOTUS refused to hear review a ruling on California sanctuary laws, as well as a several Second Amendment Cases.  And then Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion in the above ruling.  “An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law,” Justice Neil M. Gorsuch.  As one might expect, many conservatives who now praised him as the country's moral salvation are now calling him "Deep State".  (And far more unprintable things.)

BTW, two things to remember:
(1) Judges don't always vote their party.  I grew up seeing "Impeach Earl Warren Signs" on trees because as Supreme Court Chief Justice, ultra-conservative Earl Warren decided that segregation, suppression of free speech (whether for Communists or protesters), and mandatory official school prayer were all unconstitutional.  
(2) Those who assume that Justices will vote their party (i.e., "dance with them what brung 'em"), are always going to be SOL somewhere along the line.  In fact, this is a damn good thing to remember as a general rule in life.  Otherwise, you're gonna end up crying over The Tennessee Waltz way too many times.


I'm not a doctor, but I play one in my mind

Among many other current arguments in what I like to think is the fringe (but is rapidly becoming the back and sides as well):

"It's no worse than the flu."  
Tell that to the people who, after 60 days, are still sick with COVID-19, the ones who have had major organs compromised (apparently for life), and what about the guy who got a 1.1 million dollar hospital bill?  Oh, and since we have neither treatment nor vaccine, the current mortality rate is averaging about 6%.  It's 0.1% for the flu.  (I know, percentages are hard... look it up.  There are websites that will explain it to you.)

"I don't wear a mask because masks make you sick!  You breathe all that CO2 and you're gonna die!  You've got to have as much fresh air as possible!"  
My dears, if masks make you sick, then every surgeon, physician, nurse, and lab technician must die extremely young.  And they should all, obviously, be in ICU right now, as patients.  BTW, you don't have to wear masks in your own home, or in your car, or when you're taking a (socially distanced) walk outside.  

"If masks were so good for you, why didn't they tell us to wear them from the beginning?  Huh?  How can you trust the doctors if they keep changing their minds?"
So, if the antibiotic isn't working on your gangrene, you shouldn't listen to your doctor when she changes your medication in search of something that might work?  

If you think I'm exaggerating, check out this video of Orange County residents protesting against a requirement to wear masks.  Notice the reference to "I am a sovereign citizen" (and read my 2012 blogpost - https://www.sleuthsayers.org/2012/08/sovereign-citizens.html - about this unmerry loose rubberband of hoaxers and victims).   


The gist of the anti-mask crowd is: "It's so inconvenient etc. for me to wear a mask, so rather than protect the elderly, or those with pre-existing conditions, or even my own family & friends, EVERYONE ELSE STAY HOME FOR MY CONVENIENCE!"  (At least they're easy to avoid - they're the ones not wearing a mask.)
And when they say, "I'd rather die of COVID-19 than live in fear and wear a mask all the time", all I can say is (1) death is far more inconvenient, and (2) if you're scared of dying of CO2 poisoning from wearing a mask, I think you're going to be terrified when your lungs and kidneys collapse from COVID-19.  

Also, scientists change their minds after experiments and research have proved that their hypothesis was faulty.  They don't keep doing the same damn thing over and over again, even when it's proved ineffective, expecting different results.  That's why the call it science, instead of magic.  

A Great Number of Logical Fallacies Revolve Around Bulls&8t.

Ad Hominem - or the Personal Attack.  From Crooked Hillary to Racist Clementine, Sleepy Joe to Moscow Mitch, we've heard a ton of them.  Most of us will have been on the receiving end of them, especially in junior high.  The key is to ignore them all.  

A subgroup of this is Guilt by Association - where a person is vilified for "associating" with someone else.  Thus the 75 year-old protester Martin Gugino (peace activist with Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker Organization) was called "Antifa" by our President.

Another subgroup of this is Guilt by the Past.  Example: After Tamir Rice, the 12 year old black boy was shot by a Cleveland cop for playing in a park with a toy gun, "The Northeast Ohio Media Group investigated the backgrounds of the parents and found the mother and father both have violent pasts." Which has nothing to do, of course, with a little boy playing in a park.

Strawman Argument - where one attacks a position the other doesn't really hold.  

“You're against the death penalty. You want to set murderers loose to kill again.” (Instead of arguing what punishment murder should get, this accuses you of wanting murderers to be allowed to run amok in society.)  

Pars Pro Toto, or "The Part Taken for the Whole" - Used - often extremely successfully, to divert attention away from, and even to ridicule, a particular case.

"We must save the children in Yemen."  "No, first we must stop all abortion."
“We must save the whales.” “No, we must save all the creatures in the sea.”
“Black lives matter.” “No, all lives matter.”

(My favorite response to the last one was when a conservative acquaintance announced his birthday on Facebook only to have someone - not me, sadly - respond #AllBirthdaysMatter.  Really pissed the guy off.)  
Slippery Slope - This is used over and over and over again.  Among the most popular in the US are:

"Same-sex marriage leads to bestiality."  (Louie Gohmert, Rick Santorum, and Ben Carson, among others, have all used this argument.  - HERE)
"If marijuana is legal, everyone will become heroin addicts."  (Classic, going all the way back to Richard Nixon.)
"If you give the poor money, they won't work because they are feckless and lazy, and that's why they're poor in the first place, so you should never just give the poor money because it won't help them, it will just make them lazy." (This one is a double decker of Logical Fallacies, because it combines the Slippery Slope with Circular Reasoning.  Used frequently to gut SNAP, etc.)
"Give teenagers birth control and all they'll do is have sex and get pregnant." (Actually, the opposite is true - see HERE)

False Dilemma - You're given two options, black or white, which do you choose?  Except that there is probably at least a third option, if not a lot more.  

“Either we go to war, or we appear weak.”  (Ever hear of diplomacy?)
"The only economic options are unfettered capitalism or communism." (There used to be a wide range of economic theories and practices - remember mercantilism? - but that was back in the 18th & 19th centuries when, apparently, people had time to think about such things.)  
"Either we open the country to restart our economy or we keep everything shut down."  (How about if we increase our testing and contact tracing abilities first?  How about if we mandate certain rules for how we open and what we have people do?)  

Meanwhile, all of these, and many more can be found at the following websites:


Good reads. After all, it's always good to know what kind of bulls&&t's being handed to you, and how to refute it.

† "We have courtesans [hetairai] for pleasure, concubines for the daily tending of the body, and wives in order to beget legitimate children and have a trustworthy guardian of what is at home." Appolodorus, Speech Against Neaera (Link HERE)

05 June 2019

Five Red Herrings, Volume 11


1. Pictures from a Prosecution. Back in 2017 the Library of Congress held an exhibit of unusual art: drawings by courtroom illustrators. Fascinating stuff including such sinister types as Charles Manson, Bernie Madoff, and (?) J.K. Rowling.

2. Man, that's succubustic. I have mentioned Lowering the Bar before. A wonderful website about all that is ridiculous in the world of law. This entry concerns a California attorney who used (invented, really) the word "succubustic' to describe the behavior of a female judge who refused to grant him the attorney's fees he wanted. (Apparently the lawyer worked very hard on the case, clocking 25 hours in a single day, for instance.) He also referred to the "defendant's pseudohermaphroditic misconduct." Stylish.

3. Write like a girl. Useful for all of us boy author types: Women Share the Biggest Mistakes Male Authors Make with Female Characters. Here's one from jennytrout: "We have never, ever looked in a mirror and silently described our nude bodies to ourselves, especially the size/shape/weight/resemblance to fruit, etc. of our breasts."

4. Write like a cop. From Robin Burcell, Top Ten Stupid Cop Mistakes (in Fiction). "Only some of the bosses are evil or stupid..."

 5. "Dieoramas." Article from Topic Magazine about Abigail Goldman, who  is an investigator for the Public Defender's office in my county. Her hobby is making tiny 3-D "reproductions" of entirely fictional murder scenes. Creepy...

10 March 2019

Canadian police are very good at NOT shooting people:
A Conversation with Darren Laur


by Mary Fernando

Like the rest of the world, I watched the events that unfolded in Toronto in April of 2018.

“There has been worldwide amazement that Toronto Police did not shoot the suspect in Monday’s vehicular attack.

He had left a street strewn with bodies and was wielding an object that he claimed was a firearm. Nevertheless, Const. Ken Lam not only arrested him without using lethal force, but did it without waiting for backup.

Seven months ago, when a 30-year-old man perpetrated a similar vehicular attack in downtown Edmonton — which injured four, in addition to the stabbing of a police officer — he too was apprehended without a single shot being fired.

Both events speak to a pattern: Canadian police are very good at not shooting people.

“Policing in Canada is not policing in America … the police in Canada use force with incredible infrequency,” said Joel Johnston, a veteran Vancouver Police officer and former use-of-force co-ordinator for the province of British Columbia.

The statistics back this up: The rate of police shooting in Canada is 11 times lower than in the U.S.

Another account of the incident in Toronto of April 2018:  “From the video, it appears the suspect was yelling for the police officer to shoot him. He dropped his arm to his side and brought it back up again as if pointing a weapon at the police officer. Again, it was not a typical shooting stance. This officer clearly had de-escalation in mind. He recognized his car siren was on and went back to turn it off. This shows that he did not have tunnel vision or hearing. With the siren off, clearer communications were possible.

With a good visual of the subject, the actions of the suspect, his calls to be shot and the artificial manner in which he was standing and threatening, the police officer clearly made a decision that the use of deadly force, while authorized, was not immediately needed.”



This story fascinated me and brought up a lot of questions. Why are Canadian police so good at not shooting people? So, when I was interviewing Darren Laur, a 30 year veteran of the Victoria police force, I asked him why Canadian police are so good at not shooting people. 


His answer surprised me: “My best weapon is tongue-fu”

“If I can get them to talk, in most cases I can get them to walk,” says Darren. “Unfortunately in some rare cases officers may have to resort to using deadly force to protect themselves and/or other form death or grievous bodily injury. However, what makes Canadian policing stand out is our humanistic approach. I spent most of my career in the downtown city core of Victoria where I built rapport so I could de-escalate situations.”

Instead of looking at the rougher inhabitants of the street as potential problems, he always saw them as people. Darren explains, “I have never met a drug addict who said ‘I want to be a drug addict for the rest of my life.’  They all got there somehow and I like to get to know them.”

This is the core of the humanistic approach: everyone was once young and full of dreams. They got to where they are by taking a path they hadn’t envisioned.


There are a few interesting facts about the Canadian police that also help explain some differences from the police force in the United Staes. First, the “biggest difference between American and Canadian police is that Canadian police enact the single Canadian federal criminal code, whereas in the United States different states have their own criminal code, which in some cases differs from the American federal criminal code. In Canada the enforcement of the federal criminal code is the same throughout all provinces and territories. Therefore police training, police practices, and investigative policies are standardized regardless of a police officer’s location in the country.”

Finally, police in Canada are public servants and “Americans are used to hearing about a "police force" being called out to deal with an emergency, catch a robber or track a suspect. Canadians, however, are protected by a "police service."


Perhaps the best summary of what happened was the now famous tweet by Inspector Chris Boddy of the Toronto Police:

28 September 2018

Social Issues in Crime Fiction, and a Farewell


I honestly believe—that the crime novel is where the social novel went. If you want to write about the underbelly of America, if you want to write about the second America that nobody wants to look at, you turn to the crime novel. That's the place to go. --Dennis Lehane, from an interview at Powells.com

 I agree with Mr Lehane and it is one of the reasons I chose crime fiction as the method to tell my stories. That and realizing that I wasn't finding stories about my family or the people I knew in "literary" fiction, except on rare occasions. I don't think you can write about crime without staking your position on many social issues. Even if you don't comment on them directly, you are affirming the status quo in one way or another--stating that "all is well" or "what ya gonna do, that's the way things are." Even the definition of crime is a social issue statement. At Bouchercon, I attended the criminals in fiction panel, and during the Q&A I asked, "How do you define a criminal?"

I asked the question because first of all, actual questions are rare at any writer panel. Most of the time they are manifestos or statements twisted into the form of a question, such as "the unpublished novel about my pet squirrel's ghost solving crimes would be bigger than The DaVinci Code, don't you agree?" So I wanted to give the writers something to chew on, but unfortunately I didn't get any good answers.

One writer used the legal definition, which means anyone never charged with a crime--either because they eluded police or their status and privilege acted as a Get Out of Jail Free card--isn't a "criminal." Which makes no sense at all. Jack the Ripper isn't a criminal, he was never caught. Is someone who is pardoned a criminal? Are you a criminal for life if you've done your time, but an upstanding citizen if you've been acquitted because your victims signed NDAs or disappeared? Our heroic protagonists often break dozens of laws, but they're okay. The most popular genre today, superheroes, act as vigilantes, above the law either by government sanction or their own moral code, and we cheer them on. They are criminals.



As for Get Out of Jail Free cards, police unions give out paper or gold cards to their members to give to friends and family for preferential treatment, and badges to put on windshields to avoid traffic stops, so I guess anyone who's good friends with an American police officer is unlikely to be a criminal by the legal definition, "just don't kill anybody," one recipient was told. We permit this and think it won't lead to abuse. I'm sure the strict moral codes of all involved come into play.

People from the "underbelly of society" as Lehane calls it don't get these too often, they are the hidden tax base that American municipalities leech for revenue, keeping them in a cycle of probation to give jobs to our bloated drug-war-fueled criminal injustice system, but whenever I read about corruption it's about a few "bad apples" like the guys in Don Winslow's The Force. We always forget the other half of that adage: they spoil the whole bunch. I know that's sacrilege these days, saying that our warrior caste of Heroes are complicit in a corrupt system and anyone who says "I hate bad cops! They make my job harder!" but can't produce a list of cops they got jailed for corruption is helping rot the barrel, but yes, that's what I'm saying. And when we write stories about police that ignore that unarmed black men are shot in their homes and turned into criminals, that prosecutors withhold evidence to make their cases, that judges take kickbacks to send kids to private prisons, we are the bad apples, too. Oh, that's unpleasant? That can't be entertainment? The fantasy section is over there.

Am I without sin? Hardly. I've been that cowardly guy who chuckled nervously when a man with power over me said something terrible about women and confessed to mistreating them. It's the same thing. We perpetuate it. It's our problem, not women's. I've tried to do better. I've helped train police to constrain violent people without having to shoot them, tase them, or choke them to death for selling cigarettes. I've tried to write that whether you wear blue uniforms or prison sweatpants, that you are human and have your reasons for what you do, whether those reasons are for the greater good or for personal gain, and make it entertaining in the process. They are not mutually exclusive. If you think they are, take it up with Lehane, Hammett, Hughes, Himes, Chandler, Paretsky, Mosley, and Block--who gave us openly corrupt cops in both Scudder and his cozy Burglar series.

The young bloods in crime fiction are not shoving "social issues" down your throat. It has been the crux since Hammett "took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley," as Chandler said. Even cozies today take on social issues. It is in crime fiction's DNA. Maybe we don't quote scripture, maybe we prefer Lil Wayne. He's sold 100 million albums, do you know who he is? Big as George Harrison (RIP, my favorite of the fab four). If you think "kids today" are stupid when they are the most active young generation in politics since the late '60s because you saw some edited crap on the Jay Leno show, my suggestion is to get out more. Take your head out of the Venetian vase and put it on the streets.

Thanks for listening to this rant. It will be my last for SleuthSayers. Thank you to Robert and Leigh for letting me speak here, and for all of you for reading and commenting. Fare well.

26 September 2018

Sharky


Burt Reynolds made his share of dogs, which he'd be the first to admit, but in 1981 he released Sharky's Machine, a rock-solid cop noir about dirty money and easy virtue.

John Boorman was originally signed. It had been nine years since Deliverance, the first picture anybody took Reynolds seriously in. But post-production on Excalibur ran long, and Boorman stepped away, telling Reynolds he should direct Sharky himself.

Burt Reynolds in mid-career, the early 1970's to the early 1980's, was Top Ten box office. He leveraged this into directing his first feature, Gator, in 1976. His second picture, The End, came out in 1978. Reynolds had optioned Sharky's Machine when it was published. He knew he had the chops. Now it was time to ante up.



This is a movie that begins with the first frame of the opening credits. Actually, it begins before the opening credits, because there's an eerie musical echo behind the Orion studio logo, then a fade to black, and then the first fade-in. A freeze frame, the color desaturated. An urban skyline, a tall glass-high-rise. The aerial shot tilts and opens up. Solo saxophone, bluesy, a little wistful. The string section, in a low register. Randy Crawford, her voice smoky, comes in slow, with the opening lyrics of 'Street Life:' "I still hang around/Neither lost nor found - " The single long shot keeps going, dipping closer to the ground, the camera in tighter, traveling left to right, picking up detail. Railroad tracks, a guy with a long, purposeful stride. Jump edit, with a simultaneous music cue, blam! the rhythm section kicking in, the horns. Cut to a sudden reverse, looking back up from a low angle, the camera now moving right to left, keeping pace with the guy's motion, his silhouette against the sky, the glass high-rise on the horizon behind him, distant, a world apart from his. And yes, the opening introduces Burt Reynolds.

First off, it's a virtuoso shot, done in the day before CGI. Secondly, it sets up - formally - a repeated visual effect, from high to low, from low to high. You're not at first aware of it. Then you begin to notice. Early on, there's a wonderful tracking shot, inside a stairwell. Sharky's been taken off Narcotics, and reassigned to Vice, below the salt. In fact, Vice is literally in the basement of the building. The camera backs down the stairs, below Sharky and his partner. A couple of flights down, his buddy tells him, This is as far as I go, people don't come back, and Sharky goes on alone, but the camera turns behind him, so it's hanging back, looking over his shoulder.

Sharky's Machine has very conscious echoes of Laura, and Rear Window, but its deeper influence is the legend of Orpheus, themes of descent and ascending. The journey into Hades, the rescue of the beloved, once lost. The whore Dominoe is an innocent, and the tarnished Sharky the one in need of redemption.



Not that the movie's perfect, by any means. There's one near-fatal mistake, when Dominoe finds Sharky carving a rose into the wood trim of a window seat in the old house he's renovating, and Reynolds has one of those patented Aw, shucks moments that just makes you want to vomit. It almost breaks the spell entirely. Another incident, when Sharky confronts Hotchkins, the crooked candidate whose run for governor can be compromised by Dominoe, loses most its effectiveness because it's played in long-shot, and you don't hear what they say to each other.

Let's look at the strengths. Music supervision by Snuff Garrett. The score's orchestrated by Doc Severinsen, who goes uncredited. But we have both Chet Baker and Julie London doing 'My Funny Valentine,' not to mention incidental tracks by Sarah Vaughan and Joe Williams. The cinematography. William Fraker. Rosemary's Baby, Bullitt, Tombstone. The entire cast. Charles Durning. Brian Keith. Bernie Casey. Richard Libertini. Earl Holliman. Vittorio Gassman. Henry Silva. Not to forget Rachel Ward, either.

What characterizes the picture, in a curious way, is restraint. Considering how much of it is over the top, and how repellent the material could easily be, Reynolds gives it a genuinely human dimension. When he does dial up the shock, it's all the more chilling for not seeming forced or calculated so much as necessary and immediate.

Sharky's Machine was Burt Reynolds' high-water mark. He tried again with Stick, and the movie tanked. It was his last major picture as a director. He later admitted he thought he could always come back to it - he directed a number of episodes for his series, Evening Shade - but time had passed him by.

In one of his last interviews, he said he didn't have any regrets left. I think he meant, not that he had none, but that he'd used them all up. He didn't need to spare any over Sharky's Machine. You could take that guy to the bank and get change back.



28 February 2018

Heat Lightning


Atlanta, the Deep South, in 1948. The war changed a lot of things, but the immediate postwar world, in the U.S., was in many ways a turning back of the clock. Women in the workplace, like black guys in uniform, were wartime adjustments. The unions had been bottled up, part of the war effort, and there was no reason to let a bunch of Jews and Reds wave the Hammer-and-Sickle. Jim Crow was both custom and law, and things were gonna be the way they were before, when people knew their place. And if they forgot themselves, there were the night-riders, the Klan. Not that good people subscribe to violence, but when every Christian value is threatened with contamination, where can you turn?

All right. The obvious irony, first, that we're talking about white values. And secondly, was it in fact that bad, in the South, for black people? Well, yes. All you have to do is ask. It's a time in living memory. Equally obviously, not just in the South, either. But in a town like Atlanta, it was institutional. This is the world of Thomas Mullen's novels Darktown and Lightning Men, a world of tensions and temperament, accommodations and anxiety. A place of comforting convention and uncomfortable energies.

Some of you probably know I have a weakness for this time period, the late 1940's, and I've written a series of noir stories that take place back then. The stories involve the people and events of the time and place, and usually touch on some cultural or political ferment, the Red Scare, the mob takeover of the waterfront, running guns to Ireland or Palestine. One in particular, "Slipknot," takes a sidelong glance at race, in the context of fixing the book on a high-stakes pool game. The principals are two historical figures, rival gangsters Owney Madden, owner of the Cotton Club, and Bumpy Johnson, boss of the Harlem numbers. I have no idea whether these guys actually butted heads, back in the day, but it felt right to put them at odds. It was a way of sharpening the racial edge, to make it personal, an open grievance. And neither of them what you might call black-and-white, but equal parts charm and menace.

This is true of Thomas Mullen's books. They're about the color bar, in large degree, but one thing they're not is black-and-white. There are good people, and bad, and mostly in between, just like it is. Darktown is maybe the more traditional as a thriller, with its echoes of True Confessions, and Lightning Men less about a single criminal act than it is about a climate of violence, but both books are effectively novels of manners. You might be put in mind of Lehane or Walter Mosley, but I think the presiding godfather of the books is Chester Himes. Mullen is the more supple writer by far - which isn't to disrespect Himes, but let's be honest, he's working the same groove as Jim Thompson, it's lurid and it's unapologetically pulp - and Mullen's characters are round, not flat (E.M. Forster's usage). All the same, there's something about the weight these people carry, their mileage, their moral and physical exhaustion. This is material Himes took ownership of, and Mullen inhabits it like the weather, We all get wet in the same rain.

Don't mistake me. These books aren't dour. We're not talking Theodore Dreiser. Mullen's writing is lively and exact. He's sometimes very funny. He's got balance, he's light on his feet. And he does a nice thing with voice. The books are told with multiple POV, shifting between five or six major characters, black and white, male and female. You always know who it is, because the narrative voice rings true. The situation is lived-in. You feel your way into its physicality, and you can take the emotional temperature. You don't hang up on it, thinking, that's not a genuine black person speaking, or that's not white.

I realize I've been talking about theme, for the most part, and not giving you the flavor. Here's a cop in a bar.

  He lifted the glass, nothing but three sad memories of larger ice cubes. "I'll take another."
  When Feckless returned the full glass, it rested atop an envelope. Smith looked up at Feck, who peeled the triangle away and revealed cash stuffed inside.
  That there was a lot of money, Smith saw. "I don't do that," he said, looking Feck in the eye.
  "Pass it on to Malcolm, then. He could use it."
  "He'd be very grateful. But you can give it to him yourself." Smith stood and walked away, leaving the full glass behind him as well, and wondering what lay at the end of the road he hadn't chosen.

Not that he isn't tempted. That's the underlying tension, the spine. What lies at the end of the road you don't take? What lies at the end of the road you do? Personal character - moral character, integrity - is about what you do when the going gets tough, not when it's easy, how you behave when you don't want to disappoint yourself. It's self-respect. It's not Jiminy Cricket, or concern for appearances. This is the engine that drives everyone in the books, whether toward good ends or bad. If you've got nothing to live with but your own shame, you've got nothing left to fight for.



27 December 2017

Book of the Year


Guy's name is Don Winslow, his novel's called The Force.



North Manhattan Task Force. They target the drugs, the guns, the money. They work the barrio, the projects. They like to call themselves the Kings.

Denny Malone. Detective sergeant, gold badge, rock-star cop. The man. Top of the food chain. Malone's team gives good weight. They make cases, they make headlines. They make the suits look good. Malone delivers on his promises, puts meat on the table.

Here's the thing. Denny Malone is dirty. Do the numbers. 4th of July, his crew takes down a Dominican heroin mill, score a hundred keys and five million cash, waste the kingpin. Fifty kilos go in evidence, two million of the money. Malone's crew splits the difference. Call it the 401K. Something happens, on or off The Job, they've got extra benefits, cover your family in case of need. Malone and his partners have each other's back. Can't be otherwise, line of work they're in.

Short declarative sentences. Not a lot of wasted motion. Not a lot of adjectives, either. Skip unnecessary verbs, too. Keep it propulsive, present tense. Might put you in mind of early Lehane, a little, maybe Ed Dee. Not that this guy doesn't have a singular voice of his own. But the story, and the voice, belong to Malone.

All he ever wanted to be was a good cop. This is Denny's ambition, and his doom. It could stand as his epitaph. The Force is tragedy, in the classic sense - not an accident, but a fated choice. There's nothing hesitant or peripheral about it, it's front and center. Denny can feel the darkness closing in. At the same time, he can't help but try and work some angle, he's still thinking there's a way to save something of himself. Not because he's bad, either. He's basically good, or like most of us, he'd like to think so. He's just run out of moral collateral.

This is what gives The Force its center of gravity, but don't mistake it for ponderous. The book is a sheer, headlong adrenaline rush. (Malone's team suits up for a raid, and Dexedrine is part of the mix.) The dialogue, the human dynamics, the corrupt politics, the combat gear and the technical specs, the neighborhoods, the urban landscape and its discontents, is all convincing, and made familiar, but the brutally compelling action scenes are something entirely apart. Winslow makes it look effortless. Trust me, it ain't. The most basic principles of physical geography apply. Where is everybody, and where are they in relation to everybody else in the stairwell when all the lights go out? You can't leave it to chance. If you don't block out your fight scenes, they're incoherent.

I think the book delivers the knockdown punch it does because Winslow shows the emotional detail and human costs of The Job so effectively. The fierce loyalties and savage betrayals, the gallows humor, the scabrous vocabulary, the locker-room jive, the brittle tensions, the presence of death. There's this reflection. "Malone isn't a big fan of God and figures the feeling is mutual. He has a lot of questions he'd like to ask him, but if he ever got him in the room, God'd probably shut his mouth, lawyer up, let his own kid take the jolt."

Hard-boiled, and heartbreaking.



My suggestion for best mystery or crime thriller of 2017.

26 July 2017

Old Dogs


Even before Rob Lopresti mentioned it last week - is there a rule about blondes? - I'd been watching the Brit cop show New Tricks, starting at the beginning of the series and working my way forward. I remember catching some episodes when they were broadcast on A&E or maybe Mystery, but I wasn't a regular. Just like discovering a new writer when they're already established (picking up a book from the middle of their catalog, and then going back to read all of their books in order of appearance), you get a stronger sense of brand loyalty, not to mention story dynamic and character, when you watch a series from the start. You see them correct the seasoning, too, and find the right beat. Riker is better with a beard. Barney Miller doesn't need a home life.

New Tricks was camera-ready pretty much right out of the box. They established a framework, furnished it with familiar devices, and peopled it with a comfortably solid crew. And something unpredictable happened. The show got legs, yes, but the anarchic energies of the game team, or whatever was in the water, made for an eccentric orbit. This is immediately obvious in the chemistry between the four character leads, and the writing plays off this as the series builds on itself. It's a symbiotic process.



The premise is reasonably straightforward. A fast-track Detective Superintendent is given the job of recruiting a cold case squad for the Met. She lines up three retired cops, each with particular strengths and weaknesses. They are, in fact, past their sell-by date, and the tensions between the three older guys and their younger, ambitious boss are about gender, and generations, and not a little about style. Which makes for easy targets, on the one hand, but some quieter subtext, on the other. The show can be surprisingly dark, comic relief a way to depressurize. The pilot for New Tricks came on in 2003, the same year as the American series Cold Case. Cold Case, though, was pretty relentlessly grim. Also the American show used flashbacks as a regular feature, reconstructing what might have happened.  New Tricks takes place entirely in the here and now, using only the POV of the detectives.




What makes it effective? The casting. This is as true of Jim Garner in Rockford as it is of Angela Lansbury in Murder, She Wrote. In this this case, it's the ensemble, and the way they rub off on one another (or rub each other the wrong way). Four old pros, basically. Alun Armstrong is one of those English supporting actors you recognize immediately, without remembering quite where it was you saw him last. Something of Dickens, maybe? You look him up, it's amazing, the range of stuff he's been in. James Bolam runs a close second. (It surprised me to see he once even did Andy Capp, the working-class comic strip character.) Amanda Redman has done Diana Dors, she was Ray Winstone's wife in Sexy Beast, and she's got a long line of British TV credits. Lastly, there's Dennis Waterman, with a career going back to the 1960's. Waterman was the second-billed lead (after John Thaw) in The Sweeney, a cop show that overturned convention, at least in the UK. Up until then, the idea that a cop would bend the law to put a villain away wouldn't have been spoken above a whisper. It's hard to overstate its influence. As big as Miami Vice here in the States, ten years later? Let's just say it's a name cast, so far as British viewers go. (Nor to scant the wonderful Susan Jameson, either, who plays Alun Armstrong's better half, and is married to James Bolam, in life.)



And part of the fun, on either side of the Pond, is the list of guest shots. Ooh, look, there's Patrick Malahide  (Inspector Alleyn, Balon Greyjoy), or Clare Holman, from Morse, and Lewis, and Lewis himself, Kevin Whately, playing against type as a rather dodgy school headmaster. Jon Finch, Rupert Graves, Phyllida Law, Claire Bloom, Peter Davison, Anthony Head. Cherie Lunghi, Jane Asher, Victor Spinetti, Art Malik, Honor Blackman, Camille Coduri, Rita Tushingham, Sylvia Syms, Jenny Agutter, James Fox, Nicholas Farrell, John McEnery, Roy Marsden. Sheesh.



The scripts are very canny, and consistent. They have the satisfaction of good joinery, tightly fit and pleasingly shaped. The usual red herrings, and the least likely, but the stories play fair. The procedural and the personal are interleaved, and they inform each other. The funny stuff surfaces in unlikely places, too, catching you with your guard down. Dennis Waterman's Jerry, who fancies himself something of a ladies' man: "I used to have a thing for older women." Amanda Redman's Sandra: "And now there aren't any." (The exchanges between the two of them given a slight extra edge by our behind-the-scenes knowledge that they were briefly an item themselves, back in the day.)

The show ran its course. At mid-point, it was one of the most-watched series in the UK. But after eight seasons, James Bolam left, and Alun Armstrong and Amanda Redman hung up their spurs after season ten. Dennis Waterman lasted into the opening episodes of season twelve, and then he too turned in his badge. New Tricks folded.



The lesson here isn't about losing stamina or overstaying your welcome. The lesson is about how they got it right in the first place. We know it's not as easy as it looks. Part of it's luck, part of it's having good material, part of it's showing up on time. The writers, the cast, the production values. They knew they were onto something, and it shows. What it is, is heart. They delivered.

16 June 2017

The Purple Side of Blue


Shell shock is what they called it during the wars of the 20th Century when combatants who survived shelling suffered serious psychological effects. Today it is called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We all know it effects police officers and other first responders as well. It comes in many shades.



When I was a homicide detective We experienced what we call 'the purple side of blue' - a bruising of a police officer's psyche after repetitive exposure to extreme violence perpetrated on others. It effects police officers and their families. It is another brutal, lingering residue of the job.

I cannot even list all the horrendous things we witnessed - from infants beaten to death to children shot in drive-by shootings to stabbings to mass killings. It cannot be forgotten. Some try to numb the effects with alcohol or sex or whatever. It makes officers vengeful and their families stunned as the officer morphs from the smiling rookie who came out of the academy with visions of saving lives and catching criminals into a sulking individual with demons crawling inside their mind, reminding them of what they've witnessed. Again. And again.

Every cop I know who has been in law enforcement a while suffers the purple side of blue. Every one. Some more than others.

I've written about the subject, illustrating it in my police procedurals, rather than telling about it. Probably why my most realistic homicide novel, GRIM REAPER, has the word 'fuck' in it 344 times in a 208 page book. You see, on my first day as a homicide detective, my partner Marco Nuzzolillo (best detective I ever worked with) took me to witness 10 autopsies of murder victims. From that bloody day, I worked case after case where a human died at the hands of another human.

Not long ago, I was asked by a deer-hunter friend if I was a hunter.
"I used to be."
"Did you hunt deer?"
"No. I hunted humans."
Pause.
"I hunted humans who killed humans."

I am old now and have an excellent memory. I recall, with unfailing clarity my childhood days weilding wooden swords made by my father as we were the knights of the round table, days swimming in Lake Garda, nights chasing lightning bugs, getting into watermelon fights, looking at girls differently as I grew up, wondering why I noticed their lips and the flow of long hair and their smooth jawline and soft necks. I recall every broken heart, every scintillating thrill of love, recall the births of my children. I remember the bad times too, the failures in life we all experience, but we concentrate on the good times, don't we?

Sometimes, in the middle of remembering a day at the old zoo with a pretty girl, I can see her face and the beauty of that summer day and how I felt. Then I get a tap on my shoulder and turn to see it is nighttime and the bodies of two teen-aged girls lie next to the muddy Mississippi, their hands tied behind them, bullet holes in the back of their heads and I see their autopsies in flashes. I remember brushing a finger over their wrists, touching them, connecting with them, secretly telling each who I was. I was the man who was going to catch who did this.

My partners and I solved that murder case. Took 13 months, but we did. Closure? Not for me. I still see those young, dead faces under the harsh light in the autopsy room. Snapshots of carnage. Closure? Yeah. Right.

A better writer once wrote:
"Never send to know for whom the bells tolls; It tolls for thee." John Donne

Damn, this article is depressing. It is a wonder we can stand it all. Maybe that is what makes us human. We can stand anything.

www.oneildenoux.com

26 April 2017

Life on Mars


Life on Mars is another one of those oddball Brit TV shows you come across from time to time. It ran in the UK from 2006-2007, and then fell off the radar, although David Kelley produced a short-lived American remake, and there were Spanish, Russian, and Czech versions. Later on, the original creative team developed the sequel Ashes to Ashes, which BBC One broadcast from 2008 to 2010.

I came to Life on Mars backwards, by way of an entirely different series called Island at War, about the WWII German occupation of the Channel Islands. Island at War had a high-powered cast, for those of you familiar with British TV - Clare Holman, Saskia Reeves, James Wilby, Laurence Fox, along with a guy who hadn't caught my eye before, Philip Glenister. The show's a little reminiscent of Foyle's War, because of the period, for one, but also the slightly off-center POV. The crushing weakness of Island at War is that it stops dead after six episodes (it apparently didn't pull in enough audience share), so what happens to these characters we've become invested in can never be resolved. They're marooned, foundlings, lost from view. The fates we imagine for them go unsatisfied.

What's a boy to do? I went looking for more Philip Glenister. There's a fair bit of it, he's got a solid list of credits, and as luck would have it, the first thing to turn up on my researches was Life on Mars, two sets, eight episodes each. I could see heartbreak ahead yet again, but I took the plunge.

Here's the premise. The hotshot young DCI, rising star Sam Tyler, is knocked flat by a hit-and-run, and when he wakes up, the time is out of joint. It's thirty-odd years in the past. 1973. Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Mott the Hoople. There are basically three alternatives. Sam has actually traveled back in time? Um. He's stark raving nuts? Could be. Or is this all a figment of his imagination, because in the real world, his own world, he's in a hospital bed in Intensive Care, in a coma? Which is what Sam decides to believe. He's hearing voices, having hallucinations. He must be elsewhere, if he's somehow generating this fiction, this vivid alternative reality.

And into this vivid fiction swaggers Philip Glenister, playing the juiciest part in the show, DCI Gene Hunt, the 'guv,' or as the local Manchester accent has it, Dee-See-AH Hoont. Life in Mars, see, is a police procedural, but the era of Hawaii Five-O, if not Barney Miller. In point of fact, what Sam wakes up to is a cop shop filtered through a TV sensibility. There's enough "Book 'em, Dan-o" to go around, and a grab-bag of generic conceits, but the characters play both into and against type - at the same time - which keeps you guessing. Glenister certainly plays Hunt as larger than life, and Hunt is often shot from a lower camera angle. He looms. Glenister voices him at a rough pitch, too, so he seems more villain, in the Brit sense, than copper. Which makes the moments when he unbends all the more affecting. Hunt isn't confessional, he doesn't admit his vulnerabilities, you'd never catch him getting teary. Sam puts a sympathetic hand on the guv's shoulder in a scene, and Hunt shrugs it off. "Don't go all Dorothy on me," he says.

I'm showing my own hand here, because one of the guilty pleasures in watching Life on Mars is its gleeful political in-correctness. The coarse jokes, the raw vocabulary, the constant smoking - somebody's always lighting a cigarette or putting one out, it's a signature. Less comfortable is the casual violence. The lack of self-discipline is itself corrupting. This isn't a subtext, either, it's front and center, woven into the fabric. I might be reading the signs too closely. Then again, the reason a show like this strikes a nerve, and creates brand loyalty, is because it reflects some hidden thing or open secret, whether it's played for laughs or not. Life on Mars doesn't take itself too seriously, but it invites our complicity.

What, then, accounts for its extended shelf life? People keep discovering or rediscovering the show, the sixteen episodes of those two seasons out on DVD. (Ashes to Ashes, the sequel, is only available so far on Region 2, which makes it more or less out of reach in the U.S. Get a clue, guys, this is a neglected market.) For one, maybe I haven't made it plain that Life on Mars is extremely funny. Sometimes it's gallows humor, sometimes pure burlesque. For another, the cast is terrifically engaging. Glenister owns DCI Hunt, but John Simm as Sam Tyler is the tentpole character. And counter-intuitively, maybe we don't want all those loose ends tied up, everything unambiguous, the answers packaged and portion-controlled. Always leave them waiting for more.



15 March 2017

The Cop and the Codex


by Robert Lopresti

This is the fourth in my exceedingly occasional series of reviews of nonfiction books of interest to mystery readers and writers.  These two have nothing in common except excellence.

The Job by Steve Osborne.  Steve Osborne was a New York City cop for more than twenty years.  One day, after his retirement, he was invited to speak at a Moth event.  For those of you not in the know, The Moth is a radio show on NPR (also available as a podcast).  They record live events where people tell true stories, and pick the best ones for airplay.

Osborne had twenty-four hours to prepare his telling and was shocked to find hundreds of people in the audience.  ("I would rather have chased a guy with a gun down a dark alley than get up on that stage.")  But he did and it was a hit and he appeared many times more on the show.

Which resulted in The Job, a collection of essays about life as a cop.  It is full of crazy incidents and fascinating details.  Take this example, which happens to be from the very story that got him started on The Moth.

Normally most cops don't like hanging around where you work because if you're active, meaning you make a lot of arrests, guys get out of jail and don't necessarily have fond memories of you.  You don't want to have to deal with them when you're off duty, especially when you're with someone you care about, like a girlfriend.  It's not that you're scared of these guys, it's just that you have better things to do with your free time than getting into an off-duty confrontation.

This particular story is about a convict who does have fond memories of being arrested, much to Osborne's astonishment.

Another tale I liked was about the city's obsession with keeping squatters out of Tompkins Square Park which resulted in one cop car patrolling the inside of the locked park every night while a sergeant in another car circled the outside.

Osborne worked for some time in Anti-Crime which he described as the best or most-active cops in any precinct.

Our job is to go out and hunt.  And it is like hunting - very much so.  All night long we ride around searching for bad guys who are looking to commit a crime.  Our job is to find them before they commit the act, and be there when the crime happens.

The most powerful part of the book occurs when Osborne is on the Bronx Warrant Squad and goes, with his crew, to locate and arrest a gang member.  They find the fugitive's mother who tells them her son is dead.  What happens next is a tiny shred of shared humanity than any novelist would have been proud to dream up.

The Aleppo Codex by Matti Friedman. A "codex" is simply a book-shaped book, as opposed to a book in the form  of a scroll.  In synagogues Bible texts are always read from scrolls, but the synagogue in Aleppo, Syria, was the home for hundreds of years to a codex, written by hand more than 1,100 years ago.  Known as the Crown of Aleppo it contained not only the books of the Hebrew Bible (more or less what Christians call the Old Testament),  but also annotations on how the vowel-less words were to be pronounced, and exactly how the text was to be written out.  It is the ur-text from which a millenium of scribes have reproduced the sacred books.  Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher, had that very copy on his desk when he was writing his book on Jewish law.

The Aleppo synagogue was destroyed during the riots in 1947 after the UN vote that paved the way for the creation of the state of Israel.  The Codex - or most of it - survived the catastrophe and eventually made it to Israel.

All well and good, you might say, but what does this have to do with crime writing?  Never fear; I will offer you  tales from three different genres.

Spy thriller.  In order to protect it, the Jewish community of Aleppo spread the word that the Codex was destroyed in the fire.  Years later they arranged for a cheese merchant to smuggle it into Turkey, wrapped in cheese cloth, inside a washing machine.  An Israeli agent then got the merchant, his family, and the treasured text into Israel.

Courtroom drama. The cheese merchant gave the Codex to a government official, much to the shock of the Syrian Jews in Israel who felt it belonged to them.  Understand that I am wildly oversimplifying, but in those early days many Israeli officials, who were from the European side of the family, considered the Oriental (i.e. Middle Eastern) branch to be quaint and primitive.  The president of the state (a major player in the Codex story) referred to "the most backward Jewish tribes, whose cultural possessions have no responsible curator."

Naturally the Syrian Jews who had successfully curated the Codex for hundreds of years went to court to get it back.  Matti Friedman, the author of this book, uncovered the partial transcripts of the trial which, frankly, don't make the government officials look good.

Theft.  The official story is that most of the first five books of the Codex (The Torah or Pentateuch, the most vital part of the Bible to any Jew) were destroyed in the synagogue fire, but Friedman builds a solid piece-by-piece case that the majority of those pages were in tact when they arrived in the care of an Israeli institute.  A few years later they had vanished.

And things get messier.  Consider the death of a rare book dealer two years after he  allegedly offered to sell most of the missing pages to a collector for a million dollars:

The case was never solved.  Officially, in fact, there was no case, as the Hasid had died of a heart attack, in a hotel room that happened to have been rented by someone using an alias, who then disappeared without a trace.

Certainly convinces me.  Nothing to see here, folks.

Two fascinating books.

16 May 2016

Things That Go Bump or Scream in The Night


I'm  a notorious insomniac. It all started the night I was born. I didn't arrive until two am. I have no idea what my mother was doing out so late. She was barely eighteen. I think it was because she and my dad had a thing. But me sleep? No way. I was sliding naked into a brightly lit, cold room where some giant fellow slapped me on the butt and made me cry. Of course mother and I finally did get to sleep around four. Well, that was when I got to sleep.

First, this really sweet faced nurse cleaned me up and dressed me and I got to flirt with my dad. One look at him and I understood why mom married him. Tall, good looking, dark hair and blue eyes. Next I flirted with the boy baby next to me in the nursery. Must admit I've been making eyes with boys ever since. We did sleep a little while.  Mom went to asleep pretty soon after I arrived. I think that giant guy gave her some kind of knock out drops. Those bright lights and those darn nurses kept bothering me every few minutes. It all led to me having trouble going to sleep some sixty-seventeen years later.

The other night I was reading, Michael Connelly's latest book, The Crossing, featuring Harry Bosch and his half-brother Mickey Haller. A wonderful read by the way. If you like that sort of thing. Any way I heard this loud male voice say, "Get Out." or "You Get Out of Here." I wasn't sure of exactly what he said, it was something along those lines. Okay it's 2:30am and the house is really quiet that time of night. No television noise. The AC isn't running at that minute. I did notice the time.

Normally, I wouldn't exactly get scared. My little town is almost like a village and it's probably as safe as anyone can be. But, I do live here alone. And we do have full time police force. In fact, the police station is right up the street from me. A mile or less.

The loud male voice just hit me wrong that time of the night. I only heard that one remark. he didn't repeat it nor did I hear a response. I'm smart enough not to look out my windows or turn on the porch light to SEE what might be going on out in the street in front of my house. I didn't remember hearing any cars screeching or banging together, however I was involved in my book. And this book isn't like a Stephen King. If I'd been reading a King book I would have turned off my light, gone to bed and covered up my head. You know, just in case something was out there and could GET me.

I did pick up my phone and dial 911. The dispatcher said, "911 what's your emergency." I said, "It's not exactly an emergency. I want to report hearing a man's voice outside my home, yelling to someone." He asked for my phone number, I'm on my only phone, a cell phone. Then he asked to verify my address. And I started to give him my name about the time he was asking for it. He asked me again to detail what I had heard and assured me the police were rolling this way. I told him I was a 77 year old woman, widowed and lived alone. That this voice at this time of the night had scared me. He said "Did you look out?" I said, "No. I'm all locked up inside and didn't look out because if someone is out there I don't want them to see me. They might not be happy about that."

He kept me on the phone for a couple of minutes, I assumed until the police arrived. There wasn't a siren and I didn't even hear a car, but in a couple more minutes I heard someone walk up my front porch steps. Then someone said, "Mrs. Grape" and knock on the door. I said, "who is it." Then realized it must be police because they called my name. I got up, turned on the porch light and could see a police officer there. It was a very pretty female police officer. I opened the door.

My goodness, she was young, wearing an officer's uniform. Shorter than my five, three, she looked to be about five two and maybe a little more. Loaded down with belt and gun and all kinds of equipment that likely brought her weight up to maybe 110 lbs. She said, "I'm with the police." I said, " Come in." She stuck out her hand, shook mine firmly, and I said, my name is Jan. She said her name was Sara.

Police officer Sara said, "I walked up and down the street out here. I didn't see anything and all the houses around here looked dark. Have you heard anything else?"

I said, "No, only a dog barking."

She said she saw and heard a dog. Said it was an Alaskan Husky.  She said she wasn't too fond of big dogs. And she asked again to tell her what I heard.

I repeated it all again. This loud male voice and at 2:30 in the morning. I didn't know if a couple of guys were arguing or what? I didn't know if it was in front of my house or down the street. How noise travels this time of night. I said, "I didn't know if a couple of guys were arguing and could maybe start shooting one another."

The dog started barking again and that's when I realized that a man shouting, "Get Out." or "Get outta here" was probably yelling at that dog. Maybe the dog was in his yard and he was trying to chase him away. AND boy, did I feel dumb.

But Sara said,  "I'm glad you called. It could have been something dangerous and you and I are both glad it wasn't. Don't ever hesitate to call. I'm going to sit in the patrol car down here a little ways for a few minutes and be absolutely sure there's nothing to worry about.

I thanked her and apologized a couple more times. I asked her name again to be sure I had it right.

She said, "It's Sara."

I said, "I can remember that."

And then she said, "Just ask for the girl. I'm the only girl in the department. I get a little teasing about that."

I said, okay. I also made a mental note to tell her soon she should never put up with the guys just calling her a girl. She had to pass the same qualifying as the "boys" did.

I also didn't tell her that I write mysteries and that my imagination often goes wild especially with things that go bump or scream in the night.

14 December 2015

See You In The Funny Papers


by Jim Doherty and David Dean

There’s an old saying that goes, “See you in the funny papers,” which, I have to admit, I never quite got. I mean, how are you going to see me in the funny papers? I’m a real, live, three-dimensional sort of guy. I must also be a literal kind of guy because now I find that the impossible has happened—I’m in the funny papers! That’s right. I find that I’ve been reduced (some might say enhanced) to two dimensions and basking in the reflected glory of none other than that venerable crime fighter, Dick Tracy! Lest you doubt, I’ve attached proof of my brief appearance.


There, see me? I’m the thin dude in the Hall Of Fame box. It appears that amongst Dick’s many skills and talents at detection, he has also honed an appreciation of fine crime writing—mine… amongst others it seems. Can you believe he also honored some dude named Wambaugh in a previous issue? What kind of name is that for a writer? Get a clue, Wambaugh.

When I got the news it was via a forwarded email from Janet Hutchings at Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It being a weekday, I was hard at work hammering out my next story when, during a brief lull in my creativity I checked all my social and communication media. Half an hour later, I’m reading a very kind note from a police sergeant named Jim Doherty telling me of my inclusion in Dick Tracy’s Hall of Fame. He had also attached the comic strip. Jim, as I learned, is the police technical advisor to the comic strip’s creative team.

To say that I was blown away would be putting it mildly. Having spent a big part of my adulthood as both a cop and a writer, this inclusion rang all the bells and blew all the whistles for me. I loved it. And it’s great fun to boot.

But that’s enough about me. Though you probably couldn’t tell, I intended my little victory dance to serve as an introduction to my new friend and colleague, Sgt. Jim Doherty, the person most responsible for my induction into the Hall of Fame. On my honor (which is now unquestionable), Jim and I have never met, and he only knew of me through my writing. It was he that submitted my name and bio to the editors, and it was on his recommendation that I was accepted. May his name be sung in the mead halls of Valhalla forevermore.

Jim, as mentioned earlier, is both a police sergeant and technical advisor, but he is also a writer of crime fiction himself. So, I thought it might be interesting if he shared with us a bit about his own background, as well as his relationship with the square-jawed Detective Tracy and his crime-busting comic strip. I think you’ll find it interesting.



Thank you for the introduction, David.

It might seem odd to be discussing a comic strip character on a blog devoted to the mystery genre, until one considers that Dick Tracy’s as important a figure to crime fiction as he is to the comics medium.

Leave aside the obvious fact that, with the exception of Sherlock Holmes himself, Tracy’s the most famous detective in any fictional medium. Leave aside that, like Holmes, he’s a multi-media star, successful in movies, novels, TV and radio, stage productions, and just about any other story-telling medium you can imagine.

Forget about all that and look at him:

The rugged features. The snap brim fedora. The trench coat. Comics are a visual medium, after all, and that being the case, it’s clear that our whole idea of what a hard-boiled sleuth is supposed to look like comes to us direct from Tracy. Every time we think of how cool Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Alan Ladd, Jack Webb, or Dick Powell look in that particular ensemble, we’re admiring a look that Tracy’s creator, Chester Gould, invented, or at least connected to crime fiction, as indelibly as Sidney Paget connected the deerstalker cap and the Inverness cape in the pages of The Strand Magazine.

And imagine about how many people must have been introduced to crime fiction through Tracy. Most mystery fans, at least in the US, will probably mention the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew when asked how they first got started, but, how many of them, even before they knew how to read, thrilled to the four-color adventures of the most famous of all fictional cops. I know one of my fondest memories is of my dad reading Dick Tracy to me years before I even knew how to read. Aside from turning my into a mystery fan, and eventually a mystery writer, Tracy also clearly had an influence on my choice of day job (though, being Irish, and having a lot of law enforcement types in my family Tracy was, perhaps, not the only influence).

I was fortunate enough to get involved in with Tracy professionally, or at least semi-professionally, when two guys I knew through the Internet, both of them well-known comics professionals, decided to start a web page called Plainclothes as a tribute to the famed law enforcement icon. (When Chester Gould first conceived the strip, he called it Plainclothes Tracy).

Mike Curtis, who had briefly been in law enforcement himself (he once served as a deputy in the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office), started in the business writing scripts for Harvey Comics about character like Casper the Friendly Ghost, Richie Rich, and Wendy the Good Little Witch. Later he would form his own company, Shandafa Comics. Though an admirer of Dick Tracy, Mike’s first love is really Superman, and he owns one of the biggest collections of memorabilia devoted to the Man of Steel in the country.

He’d formed a friendship with legendary comics artist Joe Staton, who, since he got his first professional job in 1971, has been so active in the business it’s easier to list the characters he hasn’t drawn, than those he has. From Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern for DC to the Hulk, Captain America, Phoenix, and the Silver Surfer for Marvel, to say nothing of work for just about every other comic book company in the US, including Charlton, Western, Comico, First, etc., etc. etc.

The one character Joe always longed to draw, but never got a chance to, was Dick Tracy. Or make that rarely got a chance to. He’d done a comic book story for Disney in the early ‘90’s to tie in with the Warren Beatty film, but it never got published due to the rights being clouded. And he’d done some covers for books collecting reprints of the old strips. But he’d never gotten a chance to do the strip, or even a regular comic book series.

Mike had heard that Dick Locher, the Pulitzer-winning artist/writer who had been drawing the strip since 1983, and writing it since 2005, might be retiring.

He suggested that he and Joe do the website, not only as a tribute to the character, but as a sort of high-tech audition, in case Tribune Content Agency, the syndicate that distributed the strip, really was looking for someone to replace Locher. The main attraction on the Plainclothes website was an original Tracy comics story, done in daily newspaper strip format. This was accompanied by articles, original artwork, and prose stories about the character.

Knowing that I was a cop, a Tracy admirer, and a mystery writer, Mike invited me to contribute two prose stories featuring Tracy. I was at the point where I was actually getting paid to write stuff. I’d had two books published, a collection of true-crime articles, Just the Facts, which included a piece called “Blood for Oil,” about the Osage Indian Murders of the 1920’s which won a Spur from the Western Writers of America, and a study of the creator of iconic private eye Phil Marlowe, Raymond Chandler – Master of American Noir. Writing for free seemed, on the surface, like a step back.

On the other hand, my only novel, An Obscure Grave, though a finalist for a British Crime Writers Debut Dagger Award, was still unpublished, and how many chances would I ever get to write about my favorite detective?

It turned out that the Tribune folks were aware of us. And, though our use of the character could be construed as a copyright violation, they were inclined to look at it as an audition, just as we hoped. It turned out that Mr. Locher really was retiring. On the basis of the work displayed in Plainclothes, Mike was hired to write the actual strip, Joe to illustrate it. Mike invited me to be the police technical advisor, since I’m still an active cop, and I live in Chicago (the unstated, but obvious, setting for the strip).

The first person to have that job was a fellow named Al Valanis, a respected detective in the Chicago Police who has the distinction of being one of the first forensic sketch artists in the history of law enforcement. He created a new feature in Tracy that’s become almost as familiar to fans as Tracy’s two-way wrist communication device. “Crimestoppers’ Textbook,” a panel at the beginning of every Sunday strip that gave safety tips for cops, crime prevention tips for citizens, and the occasional pithy editorial comment. As the new technical advisor, I was also to write the copy for “Crimestoppers.”

A few months into the gig, I had an idea for a new feature that would occasionally replace “Crimestoppers.” A feature that would profile a noteworthy real-life police officer, to be called “Dick Tracy’s Hall of Fame,” appearing roughly once a month. Over the years, we’ve honored such famed law officers as Eliot Ness, Frank Serpico, Robert Fabian of the Yard, Mary Sullivan (the first-ever female homicide detective), Eugene Vidocq (the founder of the Sûreté), and Bill Tilghman (the greatest of all frontier lawmen).

During this last year, being a policeman who writes crime stories, I had the notion of building the “Hall of Fame” entries for 2015 around a particular theme, cops who also write cop fiction. A few of the more obvious choices have been Joseph Wambugh, William Caunitz, Maurice Procter, and A.C. Baantjer.

But police work isn’t carried out exclusively on big city streets. And crime fiction doesn’t exist only in novels. And so, when I conceived the notion of devoting a year’s worth of Hall of Fame inductees to cops who were also fictioneers, small-town police chief and short story ace David Dean was one of the first persons I thought of.

I’ve admired David’s stories for years, and was pleased to learn that, upon retiring from the Avalon Police in New Jersey, he intended to start writing novels. His first book-length fiction, The Thirteenth Child, was a first-rate genre-crossover, effectively blending the elements of a realistic police procedural thriller with a supernatural horror novel. I couldn’t put it down.


I was also struck by the fact that, when I saw a picture of David, tall, lean, ruggedly handsome, square-jawed, he seemed to remind me of someone.

Maybe if his hair was dark instead of sandy, or if he changed out of the uniform and into a business suit, trenchcoat, and snap-brim fedora, I’d be able to put my finger on just who it is he puts me in mind of.