Showing posts with label stories. Show all posts
Showing posts with label stories. Show all posts

01 March 2021

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes


by Steve Liskow

Between the ages of about six and fifteen, I spent my Saturday afternoons at the Court Street Theater, five blocks from my house. I watched at least 1000 films. Back then, network prime time featured films both Saturday and Sunday nights, and I saw a lot of them, too.

I discovered fairly early that I seldom liked the film version of a book as much as I liked the book. Later, I became heavily involved in live theater. Over the course of 30 years, I acted, directed, produced, designed, and helped build over 100 productions throughout central Connecticut. On those rare occasions when someone tried to turn a novel into a play, that tended to be a bad idea, too. 

Why?

Because the three art forms rely on different elements. Stories use words, which create images and emotions in the reader's mind and often rely on their style to make their point. Plays use movement or behavior, often in the context of time and space (the stage). Films function through images.

The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite novels, and I've seen five or six film adaptations, none of which satisfied me. Fitzerald's use of biased narrator Nick Carroway doesn't translate well to the screen. I know there is a stage version of the novel, a musical, no less, and I have avoided it. That concise little book, barely more than a novelette, doesn't need heavy-handed jazz production numbers to convey its ideas. There's also an opera, but let's pretend I didn't mention it.

A story with a distinctive or idiosyncratic style doesn't translate to film or the stage (the film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a glaring exception, and I loathe the play). I've seen several bad attempts to put Wuthering Heights on film (The famous Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon version clearly does not understand the book). Both Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird have successful film versions, probably because even though they are also 1st-person POV, the characters relate events that happen outside themselves. Horton Foote took liberties with Mockingbird, but they relied on words AND IMAGES. When I showed the video in class, I knew at least one student would tear up when Gregory Peck walked out of the courtoom and a black spectator told Scout, "Miss Jean Louise, rise. Your father is passing."


If that didn't get them, Scout's greeting Robert Duval in his film debut as the shattered Boo Radley always did. "Hey, Boo." Cue the tears. Both  powerful IMAGES supported by words.


When I advised the high school yearbook for several years, I trained myself to be a decent (never more than that) photographer. You can learn composition and cropping. I could never write a screenplay because I'm not visual enough to tell a story through what the audience SEES. I never designed sets back in my theater days because I can't visualize space. Since plays use movement ("Blocking") to help tell the story, you need to translate ideas into motion. By directing 20 plays in as many years, I got better because I figured out how to choreograph movement, but it was a huge weakness in my early work. I learned to move people with the rhythm of the lines and scene, often on a beat change or to emphazise a particular speaker or line. Camera angles do that on film with a good director or editor, but can you connect the visual rhythm to the story's pace? Only if it's mundane writing.

Sometimes, the unreal quality of a play gives it its power, and a film image is too literal. John Pielmeier's play Agnes of God has three characters, one who is both narrator and protagonist. The entire set consists of two chairs and a standing ashtray, and the theatricality makes it all work. My daughter gave me the film version on video years ago, but I never watched it. I'd seen my wife play Agnes on stage and I didn't need to see Hollywood put the bloody wastebasket where the baby was supposedly found in a close-up. 

A theater I worked with for years presented an early STAGE version of High Noon.


Thankfully, I never saw it. Imagine trying to put on stage that series of jump cuts as the film reaches its climax: The clock's pendulum swinging, Grace Kelly waiting for the train, the bartender and other men in the bar, the bad guys waiting for their leader, Gary Cooper writing his will in the Marshal's office, the clock, the bar, the bad guys, Grace Kelly, Katy Jurado, the church congregation, all with that orchestrated version of the title song, the beat synchronized to the pendulum...and then the train whistle that freezes your heart in your chest.

The two final visuals. Grace Kelly embracing Gary Cooper, the wedding ring on her finger. Then Cooper staring at the towsnpeople who refused to help him while he drops his badge in the dust.

The film is based on a story called "The Tin Star." I've never read it.

Cornell Woolrich's short story "Rear Window" has many built-in problems, but Hitchcock figured out how to make it less static with camera angles on film. Alas, a few years ago, a play version was commissioned, or should I say, "committed." My wife played one of the apartment dwellers in the world premiere at Hartford Stage (maybe the only production ever), with Kevin Bacon as the photographer. He was excellent, but he was stuck in a wheelchair on a large stage. The star of the show was the computer-operated back wall that moved up and down so the audience could peer into the neighbors' apartments. It cost $300,000 to build that set, and I don't think anyone has produced the show since...and rented the set so HSC could recoup some of the cost. 


If you want to write a screen play, do it. If you want to write a stage play, do it. If you want to write a novel or short story, absolutely do it. But remember that they're different animals, and mixing species leads to scary mutations. Like the Island of Dr. Moreau. 

14 February 2021

The Pandemic: Babies and Stories


With so much time together with our lovers, many expected a pandemic baby boom, but it is looking more like a bust.

I get it.

My writing fantasy is to have stories - the ones that reveal the places we live and breathe, the dark places, the places of joy - and also the time to write them. 

I now have the time but the onslaught of stories is just too much. The edits on my book are not a boom but a bust. A total bust.

Normally, when I work I shut out the world. Ignore it. However, this is a time in history when absorbing what is going on in the world is needed.

When I sit down to write, my head swirls from the page outward. Perhaps my characters are talking on the phone - I think of all the people isolated by #COVID19 who can only talk to those they love by phone. When my characters sit for coffee, I think of all the lonely people unable to gather and the small coffee shops struggling to survive in this pandemic.

Then there are the elderly in long term care homes, isolated and at times suffering with dementia - how do they make sense of the long days when no familiar faces come? Do they forget them? Do they remember them in their dreams?

The children who once rushed up to playgrounds to do what we have forgotten to do - play with abandon with children they have just met. Now, they are masked and are asked to keep their distance. Will they play with abandon when the virus is gone or will they grow up too soon into the far more distanced adults that surround them? Hell, we are asking them to keep their distance so it would be a small wonder if they don’t.

The lovers, the ones that had planned romantic trips, weddings and parties - what happens when none of that is possible? Do they put that spontaneous side - the most romantic moments - on hold. Can they return?

And then there are those who don’t return at all.  Their families watch them disappear into the bowels of an ambulance or hospital and then can’t see them, hold them before they die. 

I’m bombarded by stories of my colleagues in the #COVID ICUs. They have so many tools to save people but now, their tools are often useless against Covid-19. Death after death. It's everything they've been trained to fight and yet they lose the battle constantly. They are tired and demoralized when one patient dies, the numerous deaths are just too much for them.

And, perhaps a few blocks from these ICUs, people are gathering without masks, perhaps in homes, to have a drink, laugh and spread this damn virus around another room.

Will all the pandemic stories raging around demanding attention finally settle when the worst of this pandemic is over? Will we have time to write them when life returns to normal?

My hope is that these stories will be written and we will take the time to pay tribute to each person we can. There have never in my lifetime been so many stories crying out to be told. There are also so many people who are now no longer with us to tell their story and we need to honour them by telling it.

I have practiced medicine. I have written. Both involve a similar process.

In medicine, the key to a diagnosis is always the story - the more fulsome the story, the more likely the diagnosis will be accurate. And after diagnosis, following the story allows us to assess the treatment and, more importantly, how the patient is doing. 

With writing, the key is always the story and the more fulsome, the more accurate. 

With the pandemic stories that will be written, I hope that that they will be about how we recover, or don’t, from this terrible time in our history. Like a medical story, we need to follow this up. 

At this point in time I have no idea how the story ends for us all.

Oh, and babies. We need to see more babies please. We need a new generation to whom we pass on our stories, because this has been a time of such important stories. But until we pass on our stories, we need the joy of a new beginning.

24 January 2021

Tell Me a Light Story, Tell Me a Tale


Your Job: Write us a story of mystery and intrigue.

It’s a box, just an ordinary carton for a light bulb. At $25, the lamp is a bit expensive, but it’s an LED ‘smart bulb’ with motion and light sensors. It also communicates with Google Home automation, which activates it at sundown and disables it at sunrise. The flood lamp supposedly lasts 22 years and uses less than $2 a year in electricity.

Here are the four sides of this curious box:

box front
box left
box back
box right

The box features the specs, a picture of the light and two additional images, one of them a girl who’s apparently joyously toying with her cell phone. The other graphic also pictures a girl… but… what the hell?

blowup of panel picture

The well-lit house appears to be in a forest. This night, two lawn chairs sit empty on the deck. Wood pallets on one side rest against a tree.

But why is the girl on the ground? What is she reaching for? Or pointing at? Or warding off? Why is her pose so peculiar?

Imagination might suggest an Andrew Wyeth painting gone wrong. Or perhaps the girl has been kidnapped, captured and held in the woods. Perhaps she’s trying to escape.

But who’s taken her? Seven little guys with names like Flippy, Flappy, Floppy, and Dorky? Or a weird prince with delusions of Roquelaure? Or aliens? Or a boyfriend in a consensual game of hide and seek? Or she twisted her ankle when three bears chased her? Are those bears hiding beneath the deck or behind the pallets? Enquiring minds want to know.

So click on the picture below to expand it for any grainy detail you can discern, then tell fans a story about the scene.

Strange scene on Sengled light bulb box
*click* the picture to enlarge

Mystery number two: Pray tell us what the hell the package designer was thinking.

20 January 2021

2020 Was A Big Improvement


Note: I reivsed this column on February 27th, because I needed to add the story by Thomas Perry, which appeared in a magazine with a 2020 date which I didn't receive until last week. 

I had better explain that title before you send for the nice folks with the strait jackets.  2020 was better than 2019 only in the sense that more stories made my Year's Best list.  Last year, my eleventh, 12 stories made the list.  This year it's 17, a 41% increase.  Am I just feeling generous as the world dips into chaos?  Who knows?

For the second year in a row the big winner was Akashic Press, with three stories.  They send me their anthologies for free, by the way.  Following with two were Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, LB Productions, Mystery Writers of American, and Superior Shores Press.

That last one requires a bit of explanation.  Publisher Judy Penz Sheluk asked if I would read an advance copy of Heartbreaks and Half-Truths and give it a blurb if I thought it worthy.  I did so and was happy to write said blurb but, since I read the stories long before the book came out, I didn't feel I could list one as my Story of the Week.  Therefore this is the first time since I started reviewing at Little Big Crimes that tales make the year's best list without appearing there first.


Eleven stories are by men; six by women.  Five are humorous; four are historical; and two have fantasy elements.  

Ready?  Let's go.

Barlow, Tom, "Honor Guard,"  in Columbus Noir, edited by Andrew Welsh-Huggins, Akashic Press, 2020.

The narrator is the only child of Tommy, a former navy man turned plumber. The old man's dementia is turning him violent, profane, and racist  On Veterans Day there is a violent confrontation with tragic consequences.  Some stunning surprises follow.

Cody, Liza, "My People,"  in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November/December 2020.

This is Cody's second appearance on my list.

Shareen Manasseh is  a Jewish woman whose family came to Britain from India.  She joined the police force and, without much training, was assigned to infiltrate the climate change activists - she calls them rebels.  Her work her rethinking her allegiance.  Did she become a cop to get "black-and-white certainty" or because it was better "to be with the bullies than against them?"

Dixon, Buzz.  "Tongor of the Elephants." Heartbreaks and Half-Truths, edited by Judy Penz Sheluk, Superior Shores Press, 2020.

Here, lemme show you something you've never seen before.  The nameless narrator has film of an actor called "J. Cecil Revell, the Million Dollar Profile," being smashed to death by a grumpy elephant while filming a very bad serial.  It's a charming tale of villainy, revenge, and, of course, elephants.


Foster, Luke, "Seat 9B,"  in Mystery Weekly Magazine, June 2020.

The narrator  is an investigative journalist, covering true crime for TV news shows.  On a flight from Los Angeles he suddenly realizes that the man he is sitting next to is the unknown serial killer the country's cops have been looking for.  And since he has "the world's worst poker face," the killer immediately knows he knows...

Goldberg, Tod, "Goon #4," in The Darkling Halls of Ivy, edited by Lawrence Block, LB Productions, 2020.

Goon #4 (his mama named him Blake) is an ex-military thug, now specializing in high-risk assignments.  Having made enough money to retire he decides to go to college and winds up, more or less by accident, in a class on radio performing.  He has some abilities there, it turns out, but more important is the attitude he brings from his previous profession.


Grafton, Sue, "If You Want Something Done Right...," in Deadly Anniversaries, edited by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini, Hanover Square Press, 2020.

Lucy Burgess has reason to think her hubby is planning to get rid of her.  So she plans a preemptive strike, so to speak.  A lucky mistake puts her in touch with a hit man, and this fellow's way with words is a good deal of the charm of the story.

"Keeping my remarks entirely famatory, every matrimonial association is defeasible, am I right?  ...So what I hear you saying is that you and him are engaged in a parcenary relationship of which you'd like to see his participation shifted to the terminus."


Guthrie, C.C., "Cahoots,"  in Cozy Villages of Death, edited by Lyn Worthen, Camden Park Press, 2020.

Alan Peterson is a banker, and son of the wealthiest man in a small East Texas town.  The story opens with him running into Beulah's diner in a panic because his beautiful wife TeriLyn has disappeared.  

But things don't seem to add up.  She's only been gone a few hours.  And isn't Alan supposed to be out of town?  And why is he claiming she has been having mental problems?

Henderson, J.A. "The God Complex," Heartbreaks and Half-Truths, edited by Judy Penz Sheluk, Superior Shores Press, 2020.

Turns out you can't time travel exactly, but you can view time.  The problem is you tend to see what you expect to see.  And quantum physics is right: observation  changes the thing observed.  That means the ideal observer of the past is someone with no emotions. What's the other term for someone with no emotions?  Oh yeah: sociopath...


Hunt, Alaric, "Borrowed Brains,"  in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, May/June 2020.

Daniel McLaren, an aging West Virginian rumrunner, is happy working as a messenger in New York City, but when he gets beaten and robbed of a half-million dollar package the cops decide that the ex-convict is obviously guilty - or at least convenient to blame.

Fortunately McLaren has a buddy in the city, a fellow native of the Mountain State named Clayton Guthrie.  And Guthrie is a private eye.  Together they start to unravel a complicated fraud scheme that is going badly wrong, with possibly deadly consequences.


McCormick, William Burton.  "Night Train to Berlin,"   Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2020. 

This is McCormick's third appearance here.  It is 1939 and Stalin and Hitler are playing footsie.  As part of their nice-making the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany are exchanging prisoners.

Moller is a German-born Communist.  He has lived in the USSR since its origin but is now  being shipped back to his homeland in exchange for some unfortunate Russian the NKVD wants to get their hands on.  He knows that the vehicle he is about to board "might as well be my funeral train."  But there are plots within plots  and an unlikely ally might  help him out.


Moore, Warren, "Alt-AC,"  in The Darkling Halls of Ivy, edited by Lawrence Block, LB Productions, 2020.

This is the second appearance here by Warren Moore.  It ranges between the amusing and startling.

Roger  possesses a newly minted PhD. in medieval English.  He is desperate for work in a crowded  market but he has a plan to avoid teaching at "the Swamp County School of Mortuary Science and Transmission Repair,"

Oltvanji, Oto, "Underneath it all Runs the River of Sadness,"  in Belgrade Noir, edited by  Milorad Ivanovic, Akashic Press, 2020.

Ranko and Kozma are neighbors and old friends.  Kozma is the troublemaker.  As a cop he did little but paperwork and now, in retirement, he is desperate to actually solve a crime for once.  His attempts to find villainy where there may be none has gotten him into hot water with the police and the neighborhood.

But now, just maybe, he could be onto something.  There's a man on the fourth floor who keeps bringing young women to his apartment.  Nothing wrong with that, except they never come out...

Perry, Thomas,  "Katerina Goes to Studio City," in The Strand Magazine, LXII, 2020.

Katerina is a teenager leading a miserable life in Moscow with no hint of a better future.  Then her best friend escapes to the United States and Katerina, a very resourceful girl, arranges to go as well.

Naive as she is, she does not realize why a Russian oligarch ("He's like a king,") would be willing to help a beautiful young girl come to California.  He sends a different man  to her apartment every night and Katerina develops a wide assortment of tricks and games to keep them out of her bed.  Does this begin to sound familiar?  Are you perhaps humming a few bars of Scheherazade?  


Read, Cornelia, "The Cask of Los Alamos," in Santa Fe Noir, edited by Ariel Gore, Akashic Press, 2020.

The thousand injuries of Richard Feynman I had borne as best I could. But when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.

It is World War II.  The Manhattan Project is toiling away in New Mexico and Thurston has taken a deep grudge against his fellow physicist.  Read draws details from Feynman's real life into the fictional  plot which is, of course, modeled on Poe's.  

Rozan, S.J., "Chin Yong-Yun Sets The Date,"  in Deadly Anniversaries, edited by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini, Hanover Square Press, 2020.

This is the third appearance here by my friend S.J. Rozan and the second by the formidable Chin Yong-Yun, mother of  Rozan's private eye Lydia Chin, and quite a character herself.  She notices that Chu Cai, the son of a friend, seems unhappy, even though he has just gotten engaged.  She cleverly arranges for him to come to her apartment to tell his problem to Lydia -- who, alas, is not there.  Perhaps, Mrs. Chin says, she can do the groundwork, although she is not quite sure what ground has to do with the detection business...


Simon, Clea, "No Body,"  in Shattering Glass, edited by Heather Graham, Nasty Women Press, 2020. 

Before she even spoke she knew her body was gone. It had been a struggle, losing it. 

At first I thought the protagonist was a ghost, but no, she is a person in trauma experiencing, as some people do in such a situation, the sensation of being outside her own body. In fact, she was drugged and is being raped.  This story is so much about style that I was not expecting the very clever ending.                                                          

Wishnia, Kenneth.  "Bride of Torches,"  in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery magazine, March/April 2020.

My friend Ken Wishnia has  retold a story from the Book of Judges.  He does a lovely job of showing the Hebrews at war with an enemy who has superior technology. Ya'el  commits the crime (?) which is the centerpiece of our story.  The main thing Wishnia adds to the Bible tale is giving her a motive.  In fact, he offers two, one of which feels very modern without being anachronistic.

30 December 2020

Which Came First? The Title or the Egg?


 I belong to the Short Mystery Fiction Society. In fact, I am the current president.  I imagine you can figure out what we discuss there. (And, hey, if you want to join, go to this page and look for Subscribe.  It's free.  But do it by tomorrow or you have to wait until the spring when the Derringer Awards have been decided.)

Recently I sent the following note to the Society's list:

I am about to do something that truly irritates me: starting to write a story with no idea what the title will be. 

How about it?  Do you need a title before you start writing?

And that started quite a discussion.  I am going to reduce a lot of interesting comments to four generalized categories:

Inspiration.  Writers who said their stories were often inspired by titles.

Start. Writers who usually know the titles before they begin.

Later. Writers who don't know the titles until the story is mostly or completely finished.

Varied.  Writers who are all over the map.

And speaking of maps, this chart shows the results.

A number of people agreed with me that it is annoying to start without knowing the title, if for no other reason than: what do you call the file?  When I started the story I was complaining about I called the file "Tunnel," which I absolutely hated.  The next day I changed it to "Underpass," which I like so much it may wind up being the actual title.  A subtle difference, perhaps, but huge to me.

I can think of only two times when the title inspired the plot:

"My Life as a Ghost." This was the first story I sold to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  They changed it to "The Dear Departed."  They have never changed another title on me, even when I invited them to do so.

Too Dead For Dreaming. I was listening to "Mr. Tambourine Man" one day and that line leapt out as a perfect title for a crime novel. So I wrote a book set in Greenwich Village during the Great Folk Scare of the early sixties.  Alas, Bob Dylan's publishing company wouldn't permit me to use the line as a title so it became Such A Killing Crime, a line from a traditional song, long out of copyright.  

My story about the Plainfield, New Jersey riots was originally called "Bullets in the Firehouse Door," but before I finished it I changed to "Shooting at the Firemen," which covers the same ground but is shorter and more active.  First readers suggested I drop the "the" so it appeared in Hitchcock as "Shooting at Firemen."  

Do you need a title before you start?  Do they stay the same or change their identity mysteriously?

12 October 2020

It's Better When It Moves


Last week, Rob Lopresti offered "The Inspiration Panel," a short play that was both funny and terrifying. I told him if he could write two companion pieces to make it a trilogy, I'd direct them. Now I think about how much my early misadventures in theater taught me about writing.

Theater audiences pay more to see a live play than they do for a movie, so you better give them their money's worth; small audiences mean you might not get to direct again. Sitting in the audience when my first baby hit the stage taught me a lot that you can apply it to stories and novels.

Years ago, I showed Hitchcock's Dial M For Murder to a high school class. The first 45 minutes of the film show Ray Milland and another actor sitting at a table talking. That's it. My sixteen-year-olds went crazy. The long stretch of nothing happening was brutal. Do you have long passages like that in your book? Audiences need movement, emotion and/or action to keep them grounded.

Action perks up a static scene 
If they don't get the stimulation they need, they'll drift away. Good dialogue is fine, but does it go somewhere that the reader can notice? Nobody includes the set design in the program, so maybe you can cut back on description, too. 

If I directed that play today (I can't think of any reason I'd want to, including a large check), those two actors would mix a drink, go to the telephone, size up the room, and laugh at each other. Movement.

Twelve Angry Men was originally a teleplay, and it works better that way because the camera cuts and close-ups give the illusion of motion. Watching the play on-stage is akin to watching gangrene move up your leg. The only successful staging I've ever seen was when the director seated the audience around the jury table so the actors could move naturally and address each other without have to face front in an awkward pose. I still don't care for the play, but that made it much more watchable.

Inertia is bad, but so is too much movement. If we see lots of action early, we get lost without a context to show us whose side we're on. That guy in the cape might really be a bad guy, not a super hero. Think of the James Cagney film White Heat (1949), which opens with ten minutes of car chases and gunfights, but includes dialogue and character background so we understand what we're watching. It's good exposition without becoming static. Can your book do that, too?

Unrealistic set that HELPS actors
tell the story: Book of Days

Bill Francisco and John Hawkins, my directing and acting mentors at Wesleyan, both pointed out that nobody watches an actor or scene unless the actors make him watch it. If the audience doesn't feel like they're getting something out of it, they'll check their watch, fan themselves with the program, or play with the change in their pockets. Earn the attention. That goes for your story, too.

Beware of special stage effects. Arcane sets, odd lighting, and bizarre sound effects may work for Richard Foreman (or not), but unless they help the actors tell the story, they'll pull attention away from action and dialogue.

If you need bells and whistles to make it work, your plot or characters can't stand on their own. Fix it. It makes a better story and saves money on the special effects budget.

Think of last Wednesday night. Did you really pay attention to what Mick Pence was saying while that fly sat on his head?



06 October 2020

Coast to Coast Noir - The Many Shades of Noir


Amazon

I’m happy to announce that the third volume in our Coast to Coast crime fiction series dropped last week. (See how cool I am: “dropped”.) I’m also happy to say, we’ve had some success with the first two volumes, Coast to Coast: Murder from Sea to Shining Sea and Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea. When the last volume came out I did a piece here on editing for it: click here. For this volumeNoirI’m going to talk a little about noir, what we decided our definition of it is, and a little tease about each author’s story.

The authors in this volume are: Colleen Collins, Brendan DuBois, Alison Gaylin, Tom MacDonald, Andrew McAleer, Michael Mallory, Paul D. Marks, Dennis Palumbo, Stephen D. Rogers, John Shepphird, Jaden Terrell, Dave Zeltserman.

Coast to Coast: Noir from Sea to Shining Sea is the third in our series of Coast to Coast crime anthologies from Down and Out Books. The first two Coast to Coast collections garnered fifteen nominations and/or awards between them. Hopefully we’ll keep our record going with volume three. We have twelve terrific writers and stories.

The way that all the books have been laid out so far is that the stories start on the West Coast and each succeeding story moves a little farther east until we hit the East Coast. The thinking on this, at least in my mind, is to move left to right because that’s how we read on a page and it just seems comfortable.

From the intro to the book and pretty much what we suggested to the authors:

“What we asked for was noir in the classic tradition of David Goodis and Jim Thompson or movies like Double Indemnity. Our definition of noir is basically somebody tripping over their own faults: somebody who has an Achilles heel, some kind of greed, or want, or desire that leads them down a dark path. But within that the authors could be as down and dirty as they wanted. Time frame wasn’t an issue either. The stories could be set anywhere in time from now till back when.

We also don’t think noir has to be the dark of a rainy night or ominous shadows from Venetian blinds. There doesn’t even have to be a femme fatale. But one definite thing about noir: No one is safe. There’s no place to hide in this collection of twelve stories from the dark side of the American Dream. Noir can happen anywhere to anyone who’s just a little greedy, a little too proud, or a little naive. It can happen to a college student working at a steel mill or the chef-owner of an upscale Greek restaurant. Even the most pure of heart can succumb: a correctional officer at a maximum security prison or a father seeking justice. And it’s not always about money, sometimes it’s about power, fame, revenge, payback.”

So here’s a little tease for each story, in author alphabetical order: 

Look your Last by Colleen Collins

Location: Denver, Colorado 

Story: A young woman follows in the footsteps of her P.I. father who was murdered. She takes on a case that has ties to her father’s murder. 

Noir themes: private eye, revenge, fate, the past haunts the present. 


The Dark Side of the River by Brendan DuBois

Location: rural Massachusetts

Story: An ex-con trying to get on the right track again is persuaded by his brother to help him in a drug scheme.

Noir themes: femme fatale, ex-con trying to reform, family and loved ones can drag you down.


Where I Belong by Alison Gaylin

Location: Hudson Valley, New York


Story: A teenager leaves home after a video of him beating up his stepfather makes him an internet sensation.

Noir themes: outsider, loner, greed, some people are born bad.




Nashua River Floater by Tom MacDonald

Location: Nashua, New Hampshire

Story: A detective is hired under the table by a state trooper to investigate a homicide of a criminal who was recently released from prison. He uncovers some secrets from the past. 

Noir themes: private eye, secrets from the past, alcoholism.



On an Eyeball by Andrew McAleer

Location: Boston, Massachusetts 


Story: A woman C.O. at a high security prison endures sexual harassment in her job. She isn’t happy about it…

Noir themes: femme fatale, sex, revenge is best served cold.




The Dark Underside of Eden by Michael Mallory

Location: Springfield, Missouri

Story: A reporter for a local radio station looks into the apparent suicide of a young intern at the station who he was having an affair with. 

Noir themes: sex, power, corruption, the innocent are sacrificed.



Nowhere Man by Paul D. Marks

Location: Santa Monica/Venice Beach, California

In 1965, a guy working at the DMV sells information on the side and causes a young woman’s murder. It affects him more than he thought it would… 

Noir themes: greed, the innocent are sacrificed, you can't escape fate. 


Steel City Blues by Dennis Palumbo

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania


Story: A young college student works in the local steel plant and finds himself embroiled in a steamy affair with the foreman’s wife. But nothing is quite as it seems. 

Noir themes: sex, seduction, greed, femme fatale.




Detour to Dolmades by Stephen D. Rogers

Location: Providence, Rhode Island

Story: The chef-owner of a high-class Greek restaurant is the master of her domain, until she lets her defenses down. 

Noir themes: homme fatale, gangsters, pride can bring you down.



Pandora’s Box by John Shepphird

Location: Los Alamos, New Mexico

A young college student is seduced into joining a group of grifters in a plot involving the  Los Alamos National Laboratory and a Grateful Dead rock concert.

Noir themes: sex, drugs, loss of innocence, a con man luring a young woman into crime.


Sins of the Father by Jaden Terrell 

Location: Nashville, Tennessee


Story: A former Night Stalker special forces helicopter pilot comes to his daughter’s rescue… 

Noir themes: mistakes made in the past, regrets, revenge, redemption.




The Long Road by Dave Zelsterman 

Location: small town, Kansas 

Story: A husband can’t remember what happened before he was in a car accident. His wife discourages him from thinking about it, but he won’t leave it alone. 

Noir themes: lies, deception, you can never escape your own past.





We also did a Zoom panel with 9 of the 12 authors you might want to check out: 


So there you have it. This collection shows that noir can be many different things in many different settings. And, much as I like classic noir films and books, the stories don’t have to have unceasing rain, Venetian blind shadows or flashing neon signs. But I think there is a theme to them and that theme shows up in each of these varied stories.

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

The Blues Don't Care got a nice review from It was a Dark and Stormy Book Club.

“On one level it’s a mystery where Bobby Saxon, with secrets he wants no one to find out, works to solve a murder and clear his name under extraordinary racially tinged circumstances. With a lot of twists and turns, this is an excellent mystery.  It takes place in World War II-era Los Angeles, and the author does a brilliant job that brings the long-gone era alive with memorable characters, scents, descriptions, and most of all, jazz. Highly recommended."


Buy on Amazon or Down & Out Books


Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my web site www.PaulDMarks.com

27 September 2020

In the Trenches


"In order to write about life
you must first live it.
        — Ernest Hemingway

For most of what goes into my writing, I tried to first live in that life, but then as a kid I had also raised myself on such novels as The Three Musketeers, Scaramouche, Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe. The true adrenaline adventures came later.

If what I was going to write about as an adult was not something I had personally lived or observed, then I would research that topic. I quickly found the best research information came from those who had lived in that life, so when I decided to write my Bookie series, I went out and got myself a bookie. Surprisingly, he wasn't like bookies are depicted in movies and on television. This bet taker turned out to be a young guy, no different than the All-American kid next door. It's just that he illegally took bets on sporting events and laundered some of his cash salary received for booking these bets through his personal legitimate business as a landscaping company.

Now bookies don't necessarily talk to law enforcement and especially not to lay out their entire clandestine operation. Since this particular bookie had a loose, potential connection to my extended family, he agreed to meet with me, but not in the city where we both lived. Which led us to Bernie, my mother-in-law, who lived in a town about an hour away.

At the time, Bernie was a school teacher and the biggest fan of my short stories and magazine articles. She definitely did not condone crime or criminals, but when I explained the situation, she decided that since it was me then I could use her house for the meeting place. She would just go shopping during the appointed meeting time.

The bookie, whom I had never met before, and I got together for a couple of hours and talked. I ended up with four typed pages of notes. Having never made a sports bet, except for friendly wagers with friends while watching various Super Bowls, this was all new to me. I learned about overs and unders and the spread. I learned how bookies only take referred clients, how limits worked, how the odds came from Vegas and the terms for betting. A penny is a hundred dollars, two cents is $200, a nickel is $500 and a dime is $1,000. Back then, bet records were kept on cassette tapes and tossed in a burn barrel after debts were settled. Sometimes, they merely used magnetic erasers to clean the tapes. The client knew he was being taped when he placed the bet. The bookie then repeated the bet on tape and stated the account number of the client.

A Popcorn Bookie was a small wanna-be bookie who usually operated in a bar or other business and laid off his bets to a larger local Book. For very large bets, the local book would usually lay off those bets to an offshore book in order to protect themselves from extreme loses.

Using some of the above information, I wrote the first two stories in my Bookie series. Unfortunately for me, AHMM and EQMM didn't take these stories, so they didn't become an actual series. You know, one is a standalone, two is a sequel and it takes at least three to make a series.

For my E Z Money Pawn Shop series, I went to an actual pawn shop owner on a cold call and spoke to him for an hour. He was not as forthcoming as the bookie when it came to telling shop stories, but I got enough info to write a couple of my own stories. These two pawn shop stories and the two bookie stories can currently be found in 9 Deadly Tales on Amazon in paperback.

For my 9 Tales of the Golden Triangle, I figured a year in Nam (1967-68) was close enough for experience, plus years later, reading the reports on opium warlords that crossed my work desk along with various editions of the South China Morning Post out of Hong Kong. Six of these tales have already been published in AHMM, one more has been purchased by them but not yet published and two more are resting in AHMM's e-slush pile. All nine stories should see print in paperback on Amazon in a year or two.

In past SleuthSayer blog articles, I have written about the backgrounds of 9 Holiday Burglars Mysteries, 9 Historical Mysteries and 9 Twin Brothers Bail Bond Mysteries, so I won't repeat that information except to say they are also available in paperback on Amazon.

And, that's me reporting from the trenches.

Have a nice day and keep on writin'.

22 July 2020

Charlotte Gray


My sister gave me Charlotte Gray, and I left it lying about for a while. I wasn't familiar with Sebastian Faulks, nor was I terrifically compelled by the jacket copy,  and when I did start reading it, I resisted. It seemed too domestic, it didn't appear to have much urgency, but then I fell into the rhythms of the story, and it caught me up. Charlotte Gray isn't a thriller, quite, although it has thriller elements, and it isn't a romance, either, although it's enormously romantic, in its own way. It's more of a meditation on those themes. Which doesn't mean Faulks is trying on literary costumes, or condescending to the genre; he's feeling his way into it, as if it were new to us.



The story is about a young Scots woman who's recruited to the Special Operations Executive during WWII and dropped into Occupied France to service a Resistance network. SOE did a lot of dodgy stuff in the war, some of it marginal, some of it extremely effective, and they had no problem using women for clandestine work. More than a few of their number were compromised, tortured, and then executed by the Germans.

As with an Alan Furst novel, or a le Carre, we learn about tradecraft, and the threat environment, and the strengths and flaws of character, but there's an interesting simplicity about Charlotte herself. As she inhabits her French cover story, she uses 'Dominique' as a counterpoint, one step removed, a frame of reference at right angles - not an alibi, but a different narrator, somebody else telling her own story. Charlotte is herself well aware of the ironies, but as a device, it allows her to hold the story up to the light and reexamine it. This isn't studied or self-conscious: the author isn't breaking in, it's the character who wonders what part she's playing. I found it compelling, and more than that, completely convincing. You might think, Jeez, c'mon, the SS and the Vichy milice are hot on your trail, you don't have time to second-guess your place in all this, but it makes Charlotte real.

There's an authenticity of feeling, throughout the book. I think what threw me, in the beginning, is that the story isn't told as a narative of event. The episodes are emotional, which just sounds unlikely, coming from a male writer. You're used to the idea that a guy is going to present building blocks, a structure, rising action. It took me by surprise to realize the story lay, not in what was happening, exactly, but in how people engaged with what was happening. Even a fatal hinge point, the moment where Charlotte and Julien realize they have to assassinate a collaborator, is necessary because of who they are, and its inevitability lies in their sympathy for one another.

Of course, the book is not entirely interior, and there's more than enough razzle-dazzle, as it develops, but I'm still struck by the method, the lack of the literal, even though the story is full of concrete, obdurate detail. There is, as it happens, a movie adaption. The novel came out in 1999, and the movie in 2001. I'm now curious to see it. Movies are nothing if not literal, in the sense that you see an object presented. I can't quite imagine how this reconnaissance of a story, this narrative of suggestion, would translate. Charlotte Gray isn't dreamlike, it's in fact very specific, but not specifically about the visible. It's specific about the heart.

20 July 2020

Plot versus Character


When I conduct a writing workshop, one of the questions people frequent ask is about the importance of plot versus character. I tell them that it depends.
If you're writing a novel, or maybe even a series, you need to know your main characters very well. These imaginary friends and co-workers need a biography that's complete enough to flesh them out and show what makes them who they are. You need to understand their strengths, weaknesses, and the lines they won't cross well enough to know what they want enough to risk dying for it. If you write mysteries, you need to understand how your protagonist's mind works so he or she can solve your mystery, too. You probably won't bring all this information on stage immediately, and some of it may never show up, but you need to know it. It's how you give your character depth.

If you're writing a series, this bio is even more important because some stuff may not matter until the third or fourth book, or even later. Publishers and agents love, love, love a series.

Lately, I've been moving from novels to short stories, and my thinking is changing, too. Maybe my attention span is waning, or maybe I'm just trying to go faster, but for short stories, it's all about the plot.

Remember, instead of 80K words or more, my short stories average about 4K, roughly 15 pages. Get in, get dirty, get out again. There's less room to present a complex and fleshed-out character. Unless you're trying to sell a story featuring a character from your series--which I've only done two or three times--you rely more on your premise, and that's more apt to guide your plot.

You need a character who will logically find herself in a particular situation. For a short story, once I have a premise, I start typing with generic names and see where those given circumstances lead me. I characterize the protagonist with action and his or her goal instead of with lots of description and back-story (both of which I tell my writing workshop students to leave out). If I go quickly and don't censor or force things, they will lead to the detail I need, and that often provides a plot twist, and maybe even a solution.

Let's say you're writing about a woman who qualifies as a "crazy cat lady." She has eight cats and has hidden her will somewhere in her enormous house. Cats suggest certain ideas: mice, purring, dogs, people who like or dislike them, people who are allergic to them. What if a supporting character loathes cats? What if she likes them but is allergic? Can you use that as a plot point, or even a clue? Maybe. It's a character detail, but it steers your plot. More and more, I discover details that flesh out the plot at the same time they delineate character, and when you get two for the price of one, it's even better.

As I re-wire my brain for short stories, I find that I'm writing them more quickly and maybe having even more fun. I'm fond of a few stories that have rich and complex characters, but several of them have never found a home except on my hard drive. The newer plot-premise stories seem to have more potential markets, so I can send them out with higher hopes.

That's a happy ending.


22 April 2020

The Unreliable Narrative


Preface
My apologies. This is unavoidably political, in the larger sense, but not a polemic. It's about grief.

***

Something is happening in this country, with regard to the coronavirus. If it were fiction, we could call it multiple POV, a chorus of voices competing for our attention.

The unreliable narrator is a longtime convention, in mysteries particularly, a famous example being The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, or more recently, Gone Girl. All the same, in fiction as (we hope) in life, our suspension of disbelief depends on accepting certain ground rules, and at the least an agreed-upon reality, a common yardstick.

So the question is, how do we engage, how do we maintain a sense of balance, or of structure, if the narrative keeps contradicting itself? In other words, how do we manage doubt? To return to the fictional model, mystery stories are inherently conservative, in that the crime, usually murder, violates the social contract, and resolution restores it. Even in noir, retribution is orthodox and rigid, a setting-right, with something almost Greek in its penalties, the appetites of the Furies satisfied. But if no weight is put on the scales, and no balance is required, nothing is restored. Order is relative, not absolute.

We have, in this strange political theater, not so much an unreliable narrator as an unreliable narrative, a story taken out of context. Exit, pursued by a bear. And this isn't simply one or the other, my way or the highway. It's a hall of mirrors, reflecting many alternatives.

In fiction, again, in fairy tales or fantasy, dystopian or post-Apocalyptic, mysteries, thrillers, cozies or Gothic or paranormal, the most outrageous or outlandish conceits can be convincing, if they're internally consistent. This is the most basic rule. You can bend time, or the laws of physics, you can disregard every convention except the one: that similar acts have similar consequences. 

We each and all, of course, believe we see reality. We might very well believe we see the only reality. This is certainly delusional, but it's comforting nonetheless. We have very little tolerance of ambiguity. Quite probably our belief systems are grounded in self-image, or our sense of self is reinforced by belief, two things integrated. I suspect we choose a reality out of necessity, and yours can conflict with mine, because they're mutually exclusive.

Darwin may sort this out for us, survival of the fittest being adaptive, not necessarily predatory. Then again, you might not believe in natural selection, you might prefer a different model, that we are Chosen. Either way, the rough numbers come out about the same.

The astonishing thing, to me, is that unlike a fiction, life is essentially messy, and has no shape or storyline, other than what we impose. To imagine that reality - as an absolute, not a construct - pays any attention to us is no more than vanity. And to pretend that we can pick and choose which reality we inhabit is foolhardy, although that seems to be the human experience, if history's any judge. More astonishing is the lesson fiction teaches us, in that we use stories to impose order, that narrative, or history, is necessary. Like sunlight, physically and psychologically.

All the crazier, then, that what we're seeing in our body politic, and the breakdown of our national conversation, is that chaos is self-inflicted. We've agreed to it.

***

Postscript
This, from The Atlantic, may be paywalled. I recommend it.
https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/underlying-conditions/610261/

20 April 2020

The Starless Sea



Although most of my writing has been mystery novels and short stories, I have also published a number of contemporary novels, as well as short stories in other genres. For this reason, I am always interested in novels that combine genres or generally break the usual compositional rules.
Erin Morgenstern's The Starless Sea, a love letter to reading, books, and stories of all types, is a fine example. Distinguished by an intricate plot that mixes myth, fable, adventure, and mystery, its greatest strength turns out to be an incredibly detailed and imaginative setting.

That's right, setting.

We like to say that character and plot are absolute keys to success and normally they are. In the case of The Starless Sea, however, while the plot is effective and the protagonists, likable enough, what one is apt to remember is the creation of an alternate world, dominated by books and stories, far beneath our feet.

Clearly this world, without sun or visible means of ventilation or food production has many, many implausibilities, not to mention the sea of honey, the bees, the Owl King, the seemingly wise cats, and the immortal Keeper. But never doubt the power of a good storyteller. The Harbor where Zachery Ezra Rawlins enters (via an elevator in New York's Central Park) is described with such precision and such a wealth of detail, that it is easy to suspend disbelief. And well worthwhile, too, because that alternate world is where the various stories, some no more than a page or two, some newly-invented fairy tales, and some full-fledged adventures, all come together.

Zachery is a graduate student in Emerging Media, who finds that all he really wants to do is read after a romance goes sour. Scanning his university library's bookshelves, he chances upon Sweet Sorrows, an anonymous volume from a mysterious donor, that recounts an incident in his own life. This triggers a bibliographic mystery, which, in turn, leads him to adventures with members of a mysterious society and their enemies; to Dorian, to whom he will lose his heart, and to Mirabel who may be human or may be a metaphor, but who knows her way around the starless sea and its harbors.

Zachery winds up below ground, while in the upper world, life goes on for people like his friend Kat, an aspiring game designer also enthralled by fiction. At the same time, in another dimension, one of fables and myths, various stories unfold, interesting oddities what will all be eventually pulled into the overall narrative. This complicated structure must have presented many challenges for the author, but the breaks have a useful function. They interrupt what might have become an overly claustrophobic and precious atmosphere of the vast libraries of the starless sea venues, whose very physical structures are sometimes devised from stories on paper.

The narrative spine is provided by Zachery's adventures, interwoven with the experiences of the heroic Dorian; of Eleanor, who literally fell into the Harbor as a young child and of Simon, later her lover and man lost out of time, along with appearances by the enigmatic Mirabel and her antagonist Allegra, the Painter, who wants to preserve a world that both Mirabel and the Keeper know is in decline.

Erin Morgenstern
The line of the novel only becomes clear in its closing stages, but the adventures of the main characters prove strong enough to support the weight of fantasy and myth and, yes, the many metaphors, that fill the book. A clue to the author's ambitions comes when Kat reflects on the type of game she would like to construct: " Part spy movie, part fairy tale, part choose your own adventure. Epic branching story that doesn't stick to a single genre or one set path..." She concludes, "A book is made of paper but a story is a tree."

So speaks the video gamer.

But in The Starless Sea Erin Morgenstern has done something similar the old fashioned way with print on paper.

24 January 2020

Ten Pin Alley


Riley Fox
Riley Fox
Riley Fox is my oldest grandchild. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee.  He's been writing or telling little fiction stories ever since he was five years old. For past ten years he has done stand-up comedy writing his own jokes. This is his first fiction story to be published.     — Jan Grape


TEN PIN ALLEY
by Riley Fox

There’s something about the smell of a bowling alley that is hard to define. From the coat of mineral oil on the wooden lanes, to the inescapable presence of cigarette smoke that clings to the brick walls like a memory that refuses to leave you alone in the dead of night, to whatever it is they spray into the insides of those cheap rental shoes that always seem to be too big and too small at the exact same time, it’s a smell that you can only identify in fragments. But that’s exactly what Earl loves about it. Sometimes you can only appreciate a full image by its parts.

Earl has owned this bowling alley for so long that many frequent visitors greet him by name. Even the ones who don’t know his name recognize his ever-present smile peeking from beneath his thick white mustache and his piercing blue eyes that seem to see into your heart without seeing through it. He asks them about their days, their families, their lives, and he remembers the details. He delights in their successes and commiserates in their failures, and usually throws in a free game or, depending on the circumstances, a free alcoholic beverage to long-time regulars. He never sees them beyond the bowling alley, so they are the closest thing to friends he has, but he doesn’t mind. He’s happy to have the repeat business.

Each night, when the hour strikes eleven, Earl switches off the neon sign outside, and after escorting the night’s final patrons to the exit, he locks the doors, goes behind the bar to pour himself a glass of Coors Light, plays the Hotel California album by The Eagles on the jukebox, and opens a lane to roll a single solitary game. Some nights go better than others, but he doesn’t think nor care about the score. Instead, Earl uses the nightly ritual to meditate and reflect, to wander and get lost within the vastness of a mind that has vicariously lived hundreds of lives in a single day. The bright crackle of pins being knocked around by a speeding ball is an intoxicating sound, itself a repetitive rhythm that soothes the soul and ignites the synapses to look into the past, present, and future. Some nights he imagines the ball rolling on forever until it becomes the size of a speck of dust and then disappears into nothingness. Infinity is only bound by the limits of how far one chooses to see.

After the last roll of his game, Earl waits for the ball-return machine to spit his bowling ball out to him so he can return it to the nearby shelf of in-house balls. Bowling balls are identical in size, but vary in weight. For casual players, this simply means finding the weight you are most comfortable rolling. However, for more experienced players, this can create strategic opportunities: a lighter ball can be spun faster and create a wider-angle trajectory for picking up tricky spares, while a heavier ball creates a more powerful impact to increase the likelihood of a strike. As Earl has gotten older, his preferred weight has dwindled slightly– he currently uses an eleven-pound ball as opposed to the fourteen-pounder he rolled in his younger years– but he still likes a simplistic approach: feet lined up along the center boards (the thin lined rows along the lane), throw it down the middle, between the center head pin and the pin to its right, which seasoned bowlers refer to as “the pocket,” and try to strike. Then, if any pins remain standing, adjust to the left or right along the boards, and angle the throw however necessary in order to attempt the spare. Earl never bowled at a competitive level himself, but after spending so many years watching others, he learned a few things along the way. If he saw someone successfully pick up one of the more difficult spare arrangements, such as a 6-7-10 split, he might pick their brain for a tip.

After placing his ball back on the shelf, Earl sat at a laneside chair and finished drinking his beer as the warm sound of The Eagles continued to fill the room. When the final song concluded, he unplugged the jukebox, performed one final sweep around the alley to turn off all the mechanical machinery that makes a bowling alley operate, turned out the lights, and headed for the exit. Looking out into the parking lot, he saw a handful of vehicles scattered across the moonlit pavement. The air was thick and still. Even though he was the last one to leave, oftentimes visitors left their cars overnight, particularly if they had had too many alcoholic beverages and called a cab home, and later returned to retrieve them the following day. Earl never minded this; he was certainly much happier to allow these vehicles to remain parked in order to prevent someone from driving when they shouldn’t.

Because he remembered what happened that night.

He remembered the glint of shattered glass on the highway beneath the stars. He remembered the grim taste of blood in his mouth. He remembered the overbearing stench of burnt rubber. He remembered the way time itself seemed to slow to a harrowing crawl; every second seemed like a minute, and every hour seemed infinite. He remembered the cacophonous anti-symphony of wailing sirens and shrieks. He remembered not remembering what happened next. He remembered waking up in a bed that wasn’t his own, surrounded by people he didn’t recognize. He remembered a man in a suit standing at the foot of the bed, speaking words that blurred together, a violent collection of syllables twisting into each other until three slashed their way to the forefront.

Manslaughter.

The word sliced through every cell in his body. The man in the suit dryly and methodically recounted the sequence of events, as though he were giving a presentation. Earl did the best he could to keep up despite his disoriented state: torrential rain, low visibility, hydroplaned, lost control, careened into oncoming traffic, female high school student, graduation party, flipped into a roadside ditch, died instantaneously upon impact. Infinity is only bound by the limits of how far one chooses to see, and he had robbed someone of making that choice for themselves. The man in the suit said something about justice for the family. Earl looked at the couple holding each other next to him. They were sobbing. Earl cried with them.

The trial was mercifully swift. Earl pleaded guilty. The girl’s parents asked the judge for moderate leniency on Earl’s sentence, citing the fact that Earl had no prior criminal record, and that living with the guilt of his actions--which he had already begun to experience when he grieved with them in the hospital--would be punishment enough. Earl testified that, while he was grateful for the parents’ kindness and compassion, he felt he did not deserve it due to the nature of the crime he had committed, and asked the judge not to grant any measure of leniency, for he believed that the only thing the family truly deserved was something that was impossible, and therefore anything less than the maximum sentence would still come up short of what he considered to be justice for the family. The judge handed down his sentence: four years in prison, half of the maximum federal sentence for involuntary manslaughter.

Earl’s incarceration was a lonely time. When he slept, he dreamed haunting tales of isolation. When he was conscious, he would read books from the prison library, or he would simply lie on his bed and stare at the ceiling. He thought about the girl. He thought about her parents. He thought about that night. He replayed the details over and over until he made himself sick and vomited into his toilet. He wanted to rewrite her history. Scratch that, he wanted her to live out the rest of her story. His was over anyway.

On the one-year anniversary of the day he entered prison, Earl received a letter in the mail. His first piece of mail since being incarcerated. He looked at the envelope. The return address was from his town, but he didn’t recognize it. Maybe it was from an attorney about his case, or a relative who had heard about what happened. Earl carefully opened the envelope, treating it like some kind of rare gemstone. Inside was a letter addressed to him. Before finishing the opening line, he began to cry. It was from the girl’s parents. His heart flayed open and his soul crawled through the incision, not like someone trying to escape but like an infant emerging triumphantly from a pile of rubble, fully aware of its surroundings and yet without the communicative tools to express itself effectively. He pored over each word, each line, with the studious eye of an academic, while letting every emotion underneath fight its way to the surface.

He learned about the girl, at least as much as the parents were willing to share to the man who stole her from their lives. He learned about her sociopolitical interests (criminal justice reform, the environment, gun safety), her hobbies (binging Netflix shows with her friends, fashion blogging), her favorite authors (Haruki Murakami, Toni Morrison, Ursula Le Guin), her dreams (she had planned on attending the University of Oregon that fall with the intent to major in journalism, but wanted to wait a year or two before committing). Each new detail was another stroke of paint on a blank canvas, and after finishing the letter, Earl wanted to expand the palette of colors. He wrote back to the parents. He thanked them for being kind enough to write to him, explaining that their letter was the first communication he’d had with the outside world in a year. He asked them to write back, to share more about their wonderful daughter, because he wanted to use the remainder of his life to honor her in whatever way he could. He wanted to lift her into Infinity’s grace, so she could see the precious gifts that lie beyond the limits of space.

For months, Earl heard nothing. Each day the prison guard tasked with handing out mail would pass by his cell without acknowledgement, and Earl would spend each night silently begging the girl for forgiveness, for just a modicum of compassion. He looked out the window of his cell at the sparkling dots of the distant city, each one twinkling at its own tempo. He often wondered if one of them belonged to the home of the girl’s parents. He imagined them attempting to have a meal together, only for it to be derailed when one of them broke down in tears. He often wished he could be there for those moments, in order to comfort them, to hold them tight and tell them he was sorry, that sorry would never fill the permanent void in their hearts, that he shared their feelings of loss, that he hated himself as much as they did, even if they never dared to admit it, because they didn’t want to desecrate her memory with vengeful rage, even if it was a natural part of the grieving process, to feel the impulse to wrap their hands around his throat, to become a self-appointed god of revenge, to hear the croaking struggles of his desperate final breath, to see his eyes become vacant and lifeless, in acceptance of a fate so violent, so primal, knowing he deserved to choke on his own benevolence, such that were he to ask for mercy, he would know the true answer. Every night, he wished for this. And every night, his yearning desires went unanswered, and he would cry himself to sleep. So often the pain of not knowing hurts worse, because there’s no bone to stop the questioning blade from slicing deeper, until your body has become a pile of shredded ribbons where you once stood.

A few weeks before Earl was scheduled to be released from prison, the answer he begged the endless sky for arrived. Another letter had come for him, this time with no return address. The envelope was much thinner than the one he had received previously, but he didn’t care. He ripped it open with the same ferocity of a child on their birthday, eager to caress the contents between his fingers but careful not to damage them in the process. Inside was a single piece of paper. It was another note from the parents. They wished him luck with the rest of his life, and asked that he refrain from ever contacting them upon being granted his freedom out of respect for their privacy. Then they reiterated their hope that he would use his remaining days to honor their daughter, like Earl himself had pledged. Unlike the first letter, however, this one ended differently. The first letter had been signed with two names: those of the two parents. This one had a third name added to the signature line.

Sadie.

He read the name over and over. Sadie. Sadie. Sadie. Sadie. Sadie. It rattled around his brain until it hurt. He certainly thought it was a prettier name than his own. For a name without any hard consonants, Earl had a guttural inflection to it that he often likened to human vomit (it didn’t help that his name rhymes with hurl). The name Sadie was soft and delicate, like a rose petal floating gently towards the ground long after the flower itself crashed with a bursting thud. He wanted to keep her name suspended in midair, between the chasm of life and death, where all things can exist forever in Infinity, from the blackest days to the brightest nights, with the dazzling vibrancy of colors, the sonic clarity of sounds, and the neverending collage of the grand tapestry of the universe.

Back in the present, as Earl approached his vehicle in the bowling alley parking lot, he gazed up at the stars as they danced in the moonlight. He turned to take one final look at the pink-and-yellow neon sign in front of the building– which read: Sadie’s Ten Pin Alley--muttered a prayer to himself, and drove into the night as the sign illuminated her spirit into the sky.