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03 January 2021

The Skating Mistress Affair, Part IIII


bank vault

Parts I-III provide the background of a unique bank fraud investigation.

In Part II, negotiations soured and in Part III, legal action failed miserably. The bank thought they were done for, but I wasn’t.


The Commentator

To continue developing and enhancing the software, I needed to understand it at least as well as the author. Nothing would do that like immersion in it, and nothing would aid in immersion like having to document the programs line by line, block by block, section by section.

Tedious. Refill the Ritalin, oil the exercise bike, and absorb.

Data Corp set up a pair of desks for me, not with their programming group but in a large room staffed with accountants, bookkeepers, and clerks. That made me the only guy amid thirty-some women.

pink office chair
 
pink Princess phone
Princess phone
 
boobs coffee cup
a slightly less risqué model
 
latex fingertip protectors
latex fingertips

Flirtatious and fun, the data center girls delighted in playing pranks on me. Some tricks were small, such as when they glued a dozen water-cooler cups together and hid the rest. Others were more ornate. They ordered a pink and gold chair for my desk, and installed a Playmate screen saver. My black office phone found itself replaced with a princess phone also in pink. A welcome gift box on my desk contained a coffee cup shaped like breasts.

My office mates flattered and flirted. Once, I asked a supervisor why the girls believed they could get away with such outrageous behavior. “You look easy to tease,” Shelly said. They read me like a Power Point slide.

They were also kind, sharing lunch with me. I never knew who installed a bud vase on my desk and kept its rose and water fresh.

One afternoon, the VP stopped by to pick up a couple of data cartridges. I opened my desk drawer… and immediately slammed it shut. I’d caught a glimpse of something lavender and lacy. Every eye was riveted upon me, watching what I’d do next.

“Er, maybe this drawer,” I muttered, only to spot another item, pink and frilly. The women had filled my drawers with, well, drawers, lingerie at least. I could feel the back of my neck burning.

“Er, I have to dash down to the computer room,” I said. “I’ll drop them off at your desk.”

“But…”

He peered after me suspiciously, knowing something was up. As I took off, he glanced around at the women who were all staring at him.

One morning I arrived to find a fat pink envelope on my desk decorated with hearts and cupids. Inside was tucked another plump envelope with a calligraphic message on it: “Shelly, Julie, DiDi, and Roxy invite you for the weekend. Necessities enclosed.” Heads craned my way as I slipped my thumbnail through the seal.

Out fell a dozen of the tiniest condoms. They’d filled the envelope with the thin latex fingertips clerks slip on when flipping through sheaves of checks and currency. Their cleverness cracked me up. When I stopped laughing, I took out a ruler and carefully measured one of the latex rings. Nodding judiciously, I placed one in my wallet. The lasses laughed, hooted, and jeered and cheered.

We Leave Our Light Off For You

At night, I pretty much lived at the data center, starting on the computers as soon as one was freed up from the work day. To snatch a few hours’ sleep, I holed up in a small motel near the bank’s Data Corp office.

During my extended stays, hotels generally grew used to me, A low-key and seldom demanding demeanor made the maids happy and sometimes pampering. Managers were pleased to X-out a room from their unrented list for a month or six, sometimes more. Across many states and a few countries, hotel life worked efficiently for me.

But deep in the Shenandoah Valley…

This local motel operator wasn’t used to a nomad like me, out all night, sleeping during the day. He glowered at my arrival each morning, frowned as I departed in the evening. Chambermaids reported reams of secret code documents in my room. Learning I skulked down to the bank building each night convinced him I was up to no good. He grew suspicious nefarious activities were afoot.

He telephoned the bank. They routed him to the Data Corp center and wound up with an operator who told him, “Oh, that’s the guy involved in the computer fraud.”

He’d heard enough.

Next morning, exhausted from a long and grueling bout of decoding and debugging, I arrived to find the motel manager in the lobby, arms folded, glaring at me. My haphazardly packed suitcases stood by the door.

Stiff-lipped and obviously fearful of a disheveled guy my size, he said, “Pay your bill and leave. I’ve called the police.” Activity in the motel stopped as a gallery of employees gathered at the balcony rails to witness their innkeeper deal with his dastardly guest. I disappointed them by producing my American Express.

With no internet at the inn, he refused to lend me a phone book to look up alternative hotels. The manager got his final satisfaction by ordering his bellboy to toss my bags outside.

Theirs was an independently owned franchise of something like Motel 7. An hour later, cheek buried in a Howard Johnson’s pillow, I sleepily fantasized complaining to Motel 7’s corporate office… and drifted off to sleep. Just another hazard of the road.

Reanimation

Here I delve into technical details of Sandman’s cryptography and computing. Feel free to skip ahead to The Flash Gorden Super Decoder Ring.

The first hurdle required overcoming a lack of tools, even a lack of tools to build tools. I needed to develop solutions on the bank’s computers, and they weren’t geared for deep-level development. The answer was to invent parsers in assembly language, the language of the machine itself, not meant for the type of character analysis and manipulation I needed. That filled the early days and then came the heavy lifting.

David Edgerley Gates previously brought to our attention substitution cyphers called cryptogramsfound in Sunday newspaper puzzles. Each encrypted letter translates or maps to a plain text letter. For example,

CryptoQuote Encryption Table
↪︎ ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ0123456789 ↪︎
JXOHY28RGUPB1WA736SLZQF5MD40CN9VTKIE

In the ‘Adventure of the Dancing Men’, Sherlock Holmes took on a secret society’s messages that differed from cryptograms only in the ‘letters’ represented as pictographs. The Dancing Men glyphs corresponded one-to-one with letters of the alphabet.

Sherlock Holmes Dancing Men translation table

Sandman didn’t resort to half measures. I realized he’d built multiple tables that made decoding a multiple more complex. I had to figure out the mirror image of what he’d devised. The American Civil War saw the use of hair-yanking two-dimensional cyphers. Sandman hadn’t made decryption impossible, merely difficult.

Toward that end, I built a translator to fill holes in the reconstituted tables, gaps where uncertainty failed to reveal which letter represented what. The translator checked for errors, refined and reran the process repeatedly until the blanks filled in.

The process was a variation of stepwise refinement: shampoo, rinse, repeat. I’d decrypted so much, I no longer doubted the plan’s viability. The more I decoded, the smaller shrank the unknowns list.

As Sir Conan Doyle pointed out, the frequency of letters we use in writing varies considerably, useful to know when solving puzzles and Wheel of Fortune. In many examples, ETAOIN occur most frequently in ordinary writing and KXQJZ appear least often. In my code tables, I’d cracked the ‘E’s, the ‘S’s, the ‘T’s and most of the other letters. Here and there I might not know the occasional Q or J, but that decreasingly mattered. Over time, I could plug holes as the solution became clear. I was going to whip this thing.

Ironically, if Sandman had simply treated labels as serial numbers, e.g, No52000, No52010, No52020, etc, he would have robbed them entirely of meaning, making decoding moot. He probably avoided that path, thinking it went too far and might set off alarms within Data Corp’s programming staff.

In the days before I’d realized the labels were encrypted, I wrote a program to extract a sampling from 25,000 lines of code, sort them, hoping they’d point a way to patterns. The harvest yielded 3600 unique names, not one of them a recognizable word or abbreviation. That clue alone suggested something bogus. Programmers might omit vowels, might use peculiar abbreviations, or sometimes use slang drawn from popular fiction like grok and borg, foo and plugh. In 3600 labels, I found not one meaningful word. Patterns, yes, but nothing recognizable surfaced.

I built frequency counters, applets to show how often characters appeared. I had to be wary of vowels since labels were limited in length and the first thing people jettison when abbreviating are vowels. The tables from the frequency counters not only revealed which letters were the most crucial, but also helped zero in on likely character replacements.

The first pass turned out better than expected. A thousand labels suddenly appeared readable. A few unknowns became obvious, but in one table I inadvertently mixed M with N. Correct and rerun. Rinse and repeat. Letter by letter, the coded alphabets unmasked.

Discovering how Sandman selected which table to use helped narrow the focus. The first character of a label served as a table selector. If that letter fell within the first third of our thirty-six alphanumeric characters, he used table 1, or within the second third, table 2, and so on. That mapping didn’t immediately jump out from the encryption, but it could be deduced as labels revealed themselves.

Sandman’s Encryption Table
  ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ0123456789
selector

↪︎ JXOHY28RGUPB1WA736SLZQF5MD40CN9VTKIE
↪︎ 5FXABTS2V71K9Y6G048HUOLEIPQJNZCDMWR3
V52KGBXSLOM7TIWH6P18Q03NYDJZCEUFR94A

7-of-9 and Other Figures

An important issue I had to deal with was context. If you’ve ever glanced at raw HTML, you saw that formatting tags were mixed in with common text. You might see something like:

<html><head><title>Student Body</title></head><body>

This page discusses who shall head the student body.

</body></html>

Imagine searching and replacing the keywords ‘head’ and ‘body’ without affecting the HTML tags in a hundred-thousand lines and upwards of a million words without making a mistake. The solution is to comprehend meaning, to grasp when head is part of a formatting tag and when it isn’t.

Much like a human reader, the translation program needed to comprehend context. It parsed the text, distinguished actual programming statements, formatting commands, comments, and assorted runes in what technical people call a non-trivial exercise.

The smart enough parser had to recognize if “7,9” referred to two registers, two memory locations, a mix of the two, coordinates, formatting, a decimal number, part of a comment, or an actress in a television show.

To minimize errors as I restored the code, I borrowed a programmer to help check expansions. Late into the night, our flat conversations sounded like alien air traffic controllers:

“… Hex two-five-five, nought, bang paren dog-easy minus splat…”

“… Xor var fox fox, double word, two-seven baker niner able, no deltas.”

A splat meant an asterisk, bang an exclamation point, a delta implied a difference, and much of the rest was hexadecimal. You’re following this, right?

Deltas had to be identified and dealt with. A final pass matched the assembled output of the original and my newly created decrypted version.


The Flash Gordon Super Decoder Ring

It took a shade over two months, but finally I could inform the vice president he had viable source code, better documented than the original. Since most people couldn’t tell assembler code from alphabet soup, he awarded me congratulations with a vague smile. After all, he had to trust what I said it was.

More satisfying was a phone call I made, one to Sandman.

He said, “I don’t believe it. Impossible. You could not have done it. I couldn’t have done it.”

“It’s true. Got a fax number? I’ll send you a couple of pages plus a cross-reference list of labels.”

“Wow, that’s stupendous. Awesome. I didn’t think it could be done. I respect you, you know. This has been extremely satisfying in a way, a battle of brains. Thrust and parry. Check and mate. You’re as good as they say.”

“You could be a contender, Dan. Do the right thing, join the universe on the side of the angels.”

I thought it was end game, but it wasn’t over yet. When no one was looking, perhaps influenced by his corrupt skating Queen, Sandman slipped another rook onto the board.

Computer Associates

I continued development, expanding the product’s capabilities. Some time earlier I had invented Fx, a technique to carve out an independent partition tailor made for such a product to run in. I refined it for Data Corp, which pleased the customers.

On the sales side, matters were not going well. Sandman was right about one aspect. The business model Chase maintained in his head did not match the reality of the market. Australian Boyd Munro had managed to support a high-flying international sales organization– literally high flying– Boyd and the top officers flew their own private planes. Their salesmen personally visited companies to sell a product that leased for a thousand dollars and upwards a month.

Chase owned a Cessna, but with a product that sold for a fraction of Munro’s in an increasingly competitive and changing market, flying half way across the country to make a sales pitch wasn’t feasible. Although we’d solved the technical and legal catastrophes, the board eyed the bottom line, and S&M– sales and marketing– loomed in their gunsights.

During my break in Boston, the vice president phoned. Another situation. Couldn’t he time dramas to occur when I was in Virginia?

“Leigh, what is your opinion of Computer Associates?”

“My opinion? They have staying power, can’t argue that. They change with the times. The company has a chequered reputation, though, considered shady. Rumors persist about a clash with Tower Systems out in California and that the D-fast and T-fast products were cloned. Supposedly the president’s brother is the corporate attorney, so one story says they bully smaller companies in court, grind them down with legal fees, Software Darwinism, the beast with the biggest claws.”

“Computer Associates expresses an interest in buying the rights to our product. They want to send a software specialist to look over the programs. Can you fly here to show it to him?”

“You want to show a competitor our source code? In light of what I just explained, if only a small part is true, does this make sense?”

“Did I mention they are talking a five with a lot of zeros after it?”

“Five hundred thousand dollars? You are joking.”

“I do not joke.”

“Have them sign a non-disclosure agreement, maybe an MOU. Protect yourself.” I could tell from his reaction he wasn’t listening to anything but a five followed by five zeroes.

Bankers, hard-nosed but so naïve.

CA’s software guru turned out to be a Jersey guy with an enviable excess of kinetic energy. The bank’s coffee klatch girls studied Matt, sizing him up.

“He looks like the Leverage TV actor, you know, Christian Kane without the smile, don’cha think?”

“I picture that bad boy flying down the road on a motorcycle, long hair flattened back by the wind.”

“You hear how he talked to the receptionist? He gives me the creeps. You ever see Andrew Dice Clay?”

“Girlie, we got a male who fogs a mirror. What more do we need in a testosterone drought?”

Matt communicated mostly in monosyllabic grunts and nods, then dove head-first into the programs. The vice president hung about, all but wringing his hands before deciding his presence wasn’t contributing. Chase on the other hand, sat down prepared to answer questions. When Matt opened his notebook and began to make copious notes, I shot a questioning look at Chase. He merely shrugged and motioned me outside the room.

“The VP said anything goes. They want to sell it and don’t want us to throw up barriers.”

“What about the non-disclosure? Your bank had me sign one.”

“You are a consultant. This is an established company.”

“I don’t believe it. You wouldn’t give me a hint about the program until I signed sixteen documents. This guy waltzes in, they open the vault?”

“Pretty much. Look, they know your feelings; they just don’t see it your way.”

The VP returned and offered lunch, a largess almost unheard of. Barbecue, Southern buffet, Chinese… Matt waved them all away. “Cold pizza will do.”

Folks in the Shenandoah Valley like to get to know people they do business with. Matt did his best to keep a distance. Chase was clearly uncomfortable with this, but the vice president took it to mean Matt was all business and above frivolity while the rest of us worried about job security. The fact Matt saved the vice president forty bucks for lunch didn’t hurt either.

The afternoon turned into more of the same. Matt pored over the programs, taking extensive notes, filling page after page. He asked to use the phone in private a couple of times. About 5:30, we shut down for the evening, unusual for us. We invited Matt out to dinner. Chase suggested bluegrass, but Matt declined both.

We met again at nine the next day. Mid-morning Matt turned his attention to my Fx routine and his interest picked up, so much so that he was copying actual bits of code. How did this advance negotiations, I wondered. I closed the binder cover and excused myself, taking it with me.

I stopped in the VP’s office, and reported I didn’t like the way this was going. I’d developed this routine on my own, already had it purloined once, and I didn’t want it stolen again. Because I benefited from royalties, I allowed the bank to use it but they didn’t own it– I did. My holding out for a signed agreement did not make the vice president happy.

Lunch saw subs delivered. By mid-afternoon Matt said he was ready for a meeting. Even I wasn’t prepared for the audacity of his announcement.

“You know a guy named Daniel Sandman? We bought rights and title to the package from him. After minor changes, we shall bring it to market. We’re willing to pay you $10,000 for whatever rights you think you have and you turn your source code over to us.”

The blatant gall stunned us. Finally, Chase said, “The offer of a half million plus was just bullshit?”

The vice president, never one to forget proprieties, frowned at Chase but said to Matt. “You viewed our source under false pretenses?”

Matt shrugged. “You were under no obligation to show me a fucking thing. I suggest you consider this proposal quickly and unemotionally. I have no idea how long my bosses will keep the offer open. With or without you, we’ll bring the product to market within months.”

“What offer?” said Chase. “This is blackmail.”

“It’s actually extortion,” said the vice president. “It won’t fly here. We own the product. We have taken steps more than once to defend it. I cannot imagine what Sandman led you to believe, but the product is not yours. Now I’d appreciate it if you return the notes.”

“Forget about it. The notes are mine, freely allowed by you. You know Charlie Wong, the guy I work for? And his brother, their lawyer? Believe me, before this is over, we’ll own it, Fx and all, and you’ll be wishing you had the $10,000 to cover your first week of legal fees.”

“Fx is not for sale,” I said flatly.

“You think you can stop us?”

The vice president leaned in. “Our customer base monthly revenue is worth more than you’re offering. I suggest you leave, before Southern hospitality comes to an end.”

Matt tapped his fingers a moment and said, “You’ll regret it. Call me a fucking cab.”


The after-conference turned dismal. We had been humbled, deceived, threatened, misled and misused. Only our refusal to be bullied gave us the least comfort.

Matt’s feint and his company’s bluff corroded the bank’s confidence. Computer Associates’ audacity must surely have some credence, mustn’t it? The vice president sent out a tendril of query, tried a civilized probe into Computer Associates, which was met with stony implacability. Gradually, the cold acidic silence ate through the bank’s certainty and sense of justice. They decided to invest no more in the product.

I was retained for the time being because Data Corp still had customers who depended on the software and they would not abandon them. As manufacturers introduced new devices and operating system changes, our package continued to adjust and adapt.

Loose Ends

Chase departed, moving on to sell elsewhere. He reported an industry insider rumor that Computer Associates concluded Sandman either screwed them or they found him too volatile to work with. Either way, they killed off their project. But sadly, they’d also killed ours.

CA’s retreat came too late for us. With sales and marketing shut down, the die had been cast. Within a year or two, requests for updates to the software slowed and then tapered off altogether. The bank ceased billing the last few customers, letting them continue to use the product if they chose or migrate to a competitor’s offering.

Sand Castles

Sandman induced mixed feelings. He possessed a brilliant, if sadly injudicious mind. Like a Greek drama or a Russian novel, the characters and the outcome were doomed from the start. I thought of Sandman less a bad guy and more a pathetic protagonist hemmed in by a distorted perception of the world.

As a result, he acted vengefully and criminally. He’d defrauded a bank and its most important business clients. goaded by his lover, he blew every chance, every opportunity to get it right. When the blunders of a cigar-chompin’ deputy gave him a get-out-of-jail card, he attempted one more dishonest end-run, reselling a product he no longer owned. It shouldn’t have turned out a tragedy, but characters seldom get to decide the plot.

I confess I relished the contest. Like a novel’s protagonist, I had to see it through until its end. A friend noted I would have fought the battle even if I hadn’t been paid.

As a freelancer, jokes surrounded me about riding into town, smiting a problem, and riding out again as winsome daughters clasped their hands to heaving bosoms and cried out, “Who was that masked man?” Even the industry slang of a hired ‘code-slinger’ evoked the image of a geekish gunfighter. We each enjoy our illusions, but the challenge felt exciting.

Although a resoundingly happy ending didn’t materialize, the case looms in my past with a sense of satisfaction, of skirmishes won and a job completed. One could argue otherwise, but I like to think it a shadowy victory for the good guys.

As much as I enjoyed the battle of wits, the world would have been a happier place if Sandman had executed an ethical U-turn into the righteous lane. But if the ungodly, as The Saint was wont to say, always did the right thing, we’d have no story.

06 December 2020

The Skating Mistress Affair, Part I


bank vault

Some people don’t seek trouble, but it finds them. That’s how I viewed fraud cases that came my way. Hired to hunt down computer anomalies, I didn’t enter a contract thinking criminal intent, but occasionally I stumbled upon crimes. This episode outlines my most challenging case, a battle of wits with a very smart adversary.

It started with a phone call.

In a cultured, south-of-Mason-Dixon accent, the man said, “Call me Chase; my daddy’s Mr. Franz. I’m marketing director of a software venture owned by a major Virginia bankshares concern. We own a product, a big one. We need a specialist to figure it out and support it.”

“A banking program?” Visions of Cobol or badly written C++ sprang to mind. “Sorry, I work with operating systems, not applications.”

“No, no, we’re talking systems software, not an app. The bank’s investment division floated the venture capital internally.”

“What’s the name of this product?”

“I can’t reveal that.”

“What does the software do?”

“I can’t tell you that either, not until we have your signature.”

“That’s all you can say? Why the secrecy?”

“Take a bank’s perspective of confidentiality, marketing paranoia, and a technical product we need to get a handle on, you get secrecy.”

“Who developed it? In fact, where is the developer in all this?”

“Well, that’s part of the problem. It was developed by a low-profile dude in North Carolina, really eccentric. He’s difficult to work with and we can’t seem to get his full attention. After selling us the package, he doesn’t want to be bothered with it.”

Only a few dozen independent software designers populated the top of the pyramid and we all knew each other, at least by name and reputation. I didn’t recall anyone in the Carolinas.

“You must not be paying much.”

“We bought the program dirt cheap, figuring he’d gouge us with ongoing support fees, but he’s not done that. He shows no interest in the product.”

“Your startup software group purchases an untried product from an unnamed author? How do you know the product is viable and isn’t trash?”

“Our bank’s systems run this software and no one, not even our lead systems programmer, can comprehend the program– it’s way too advanced. We sold copies to multiple Fortune 1000 companies, companies that use it and like it. But we found bugs. We desperately need enhancements and alterations as systems grow and evolve. We’ve got no one capable of maintaining it.”

“And your bank’s worried someone will wise up and expose your exposure.”

“That’s a huge concern. Spending venture capital is one thing, but discovering critical vulnerabilities implies liability. A number of jobs hang in the balance, mine included.”

“Written in C or what?”

“Assembler. 50,000 lines of machine code for the nucleus. With support utilities maybe hundred thousand lines for the old OS version and double that for the new, plus somewhat more for add-ons and extensions.”

“You’re saying a quarter million lines of code?”

“Uh, not exactly. The old and new versions cover a lot of duplication, so figure maybe one fifty to two hundred thousand unique lines.”

“That no one understands?”

“It’s costing us already. We need to put this right.”

The Plot Thickens

Locally, nothing exciting was happening with current clients. Steady income was nice, but I liked challenges.

Their tech division was named Data Corp. We exchanged non-disclosure agreements, eventually reaching an accord and a paranoia contract that required my cutting ties with other parties.

From Boston Logan, I flew a geriatric jet into Charlotte, Virginia, where I hired a car for a drive deep into the Shenandoah Valley. I passed beautiful horse farms and Mennonites in their buggies before I came to markers of American civilization – McDonald's, KFC, and WalMart.

The bank’s data center dominated a charming downtown in Harrisonburg, Virginia. I gave the receptionist my name and glanced around.

To the left of the lobby extended the glass room where the main computers lived, MICR check readers, networking and transmission units, 6000 square feet, perhaps 550 square metres, nicely laid out. It looked outwardly secure short of a terrorist attack.

From stairs at the right of the lobby descended a man about 5’5 of economical build. My salesman alert Early Warning System sounded. Scientists and engineers regard salesmen barely a step removed from slithering politicians. The two aren’t so much cats and dogs as cobras and mongooses. That mutual distaste would play a key part in the drama about to unfold.

Even so, Chase seemed a decent sort. He cultivated a brooding mien like a mantle of poetic melancholy, the kind that tenderizes feminine hearts and moistens girls’ eyes. Sporting a black, closely trimmed beard, he might have portrayed a weekend Civil War reenactor captain or river boat gambler.

He toured me around the complex, introducing me to bank presidents and vice presidents, those who plump out the top of the pyramid in financial institutions. He chatted up a half dozen girls who seemed in various stages of thrall. His magnetism short-circuited the female EWS.

“The product,” I said. “Let’s take a look.”

Chase offered me a seat in his office. He busied himself sipping coffee, winding his Swiss chronograph, twiddling a pen. I waited. Finally he said, “What we have here is a print spooling subsystem. A good one. Cool, huh!”

I understood why they wanted me. Not only did I work on operating systems, I had contributed code to two competing packages, a key operating system component in the evolution of computers.

Like a priest revealing the Dead Sea Scrolls, Chase reverently set a six-inch thick binder before me. He opened it. “This is our baby.”

My response came out less than reverential. It could be summed up as “WTF?”

No titles. No headings. No comments. No register notation. No meaningful labels. No reference points.

“I told you, Sandman, the developer, doesn’t need all that. He’s an amazing genius. He doesn’t document his work because his eidetic memory remembers everything.”

“Except for those who come after,” I said.

The lack of labels troubled me most of all. Normally programmers use real world identifiers such as Minutes, Seconds, Distance, Height, Weight, Brightness, etc. This had gobbledegook.

“Who does this?” I said.

“I told you, he’s a genius. They mean something to him, but he’s way above our level.”

“This is attempting ancient Egyptian without a Rosetta stone. This is insane,” I said.

Chase beamed. “You confirm what I’ve been saying. Sandman is genius above other geniuses; he’s beyond brilliant, absolutely off the scale. Our own people say his high-level abstract symbolism is far beyond their comprehension.”

“Even Einstein used standard identifiers, e = energy, m = mass. This has, for example, ‘rtgq233x.’”

“Sandman isn’t a merely an Einstein. Your challenge is, are you someone who can come to understand this or are you giving up?”

“Like hell.” Candidly, I wasn’t sure which part of the question I should answer.

Mystification

As a digital detective, I first confirmed the original assembly language matched the binary machine code in the executable module. I looked at a hundred different values scattered throughout the programs. They matched.

I profiled the program, I ran traces. I floated one other idea to Chase.

“Does Sandman speak Arabic or some language that omits vowels? Or Welsh? Polish? Russian? A language with unusual combinations of letters?”

“I imagine not,” said Chase. “He’s short, sandy hair, fair complexion. I doubt he’s visited out of the country. He’s barely travels outside of North Carolina. He’s so fearful of flying, he always takes a train.”

I had seen computer programs written in French and German. The mix of English and other languages looked a little unusual, but they ultimately made sense.

“Perhaps foreign abbreviations…”

“Look, stop going on about labels. Maybe they are in Klingon or Tolkien Elvish. Maybe they’re random or perhaps they’re nothing at all. With an impenetrable genius mind like Sandman’s, the labels themselves appear opaque to us and we simply don’t know.”

I didn’t accept that for a moment, but there was one other avenue to understanding the code– weeks of immersion in it. I packed the programs in my bag and headed back to Boston.


Over the next two weeks, I pored over 150,000 lines of assembly code. Some days I dissected routines line-by-line, noting, studying, analyzing. Other days I propped my feet up on the sofa and absorbed the gestalt.

Reading a program offers a unique peek into the author’s thought process. This mind meld can provide a strangely disquieting experience. A virtual voyeur can determine a precise mind opposed to a sloppy one, bold versus fearful, brilliant versus not so much, and lucid v losing it. This code contained all these elements and more. Although tightly written, it radiated a surreal aura and umbra, a sense of someone hiding in the shadows.

The Rosetta Stone

“The name of the song is called ’Haddocks’ Eyes.’”

“Oh, that’s the name of the song, is it?” Alice said, trying to feel interested.

“No, you don’t understand,” the Knight said, looking a little vexed. “That’s what the name is called. The name really isThe Aged Aged Man.’”

“Then I ought to have said ‘That’s what the song is called?’” Alice corrected herself.

“No, you oughtn’t: that’s quite another thing! The song is called ’Ways And Means’, but that’s only what it’s called, you know!”

“Well, what is the song, then?” said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.

“I was coming to that,” the Knight said. “The song really isA-sitting On A Gate’, and the tune’s my own invention.”

Through the Looking-Glass (1871) chapter VIII, Lewis Carroll

I kept coming back to the labels. They held significance, I felt certain. I could sense a pattern as if glimpsing a phantasm from the corner of my eye. Sometimes, I almost grasped a meaning, only to lose it as I shifted to focus on it.

While analyzing the program line by line, I stumbled across the name of a known operating system routine declared in a constant. The name of the routine was $$BEOJ, which stood for ‘Broker End of Job’. Unnecessarily, the program invoked this routine directly. The author had allowed himself a moment of ego. Instead of the standard, run-of-the-mill method available to any programmer, the coder had showed off his knowledge of operating system internals and triggered this segment explicitly.

I understood the inner workings, but the label of the constant, $$XYAU, grabbed my attention. Could this, perhaps, be the name of the name? Could XYAU someway represent BEOJ?

I poked around, trying the David Edgerley Gates’ Sunday Jumble and Crypto-Quote letter swaps on other labels. Sometimes it seemed to work, more often it didn’t. I combed the program in earnest, searching for obvious constants that might zero me in.

The hunt suffered from a paucity of information, but slowly clues accumulated as I harvested two more paired constants and labels, four, and then six out of three thousand six hundred. Patterns, it was all about patterns. I glimpsed the edges of a picture. No label contained more than eight characters, and something peculiar happened to the letters in each label.

Oddly, B often meant X but it also appeared to be F at times. In rare cases, it didn’t seem to be either. I ripped another sheet off a legal pad and tried again.

I phoned and left a message for Chase. He hadn’t called in days. I sensed his dismay.

I sat up that night, the next two nights, devouring Chinese food for nourishment and Coca-Cola caffeine to feed my notorious ADD. I clocked six hours sleep out of seventy-two. My hair matted, my smelly T-shirt could startle bad-tempered water buffalo.

Everything changed. Like a submerged enemy submarine hiding in deep waters, computerdom’s trickiest puzzle broke the surface. I faced the most fascinating computer game of my career.

On the fourth day, I messaged Chase a couple of times in the morning. I made a few more notes, then toppled over and slept until mid-afternoon.

Demystification

“What?” I barked into the phone a bit too sharply. My eyes seemed glued shut.

“Hey, it’s me, Chase. I got your messages. Whatcha got?”

“How much did you pay for this program?”

“Well…” He hesitated.

“You either paid way too much or way too little. Either way, you got screwed.”

Defiance mixed with defensiveness, he mentioned a figure barely larger than a month’s salary, paid for a program that took someone a year or two of 60-90 hour weeks pouring out one’s soul.

“Why do you ask?”

“Like I said, you got screwed. Sabotaged. Someone has encrypted the labels and stripped the meaningful information out of this program.”

“Bullshit. I don’t believe it.”

“Embrace it. You think it’s a coincidence comments are missing? There’s no register notation? Not a single artifact of meaningful evidence?”

“My people asked him about that. He’s one of those super smart guys who never comments his code.”

I grimaced. For that alone, the program should never have been accepted. I no longer believed the legend.

“Look,” I said. “Labels have been encrypted. I’ve got examples of equates in which one is assigned to 5 and five is assigned to 10.”

“It’s his genius level of abstraction. And what do you mean encrypted?”

“’His genius level of abstraction nonsense’ is getting old. I mean encrypted like the cryptogram puzzles in the newspaper, A equals S and B equals M and so on. A substitution cipher they call it, like Sherlock Holmes’ Dancing Men, only a factor far, far more complex. I’m still working it out, extrapolating clue by clue; it appears the bastard’s used at least two translation tables I'm sure of plus a couple of other frills, kind of a mental oubliette.”

“I don’t believe it. Look, we better rethink this contract. This can go one of two ways. Option one, we terminate our relationship. Option two, other than these conspiracy theory labels you go on about, the positive side is you now know more about the software than anyone other than the author. Come on down here, show us what you’ve got, and we’ll move forward.”

Enter Sandman

From DC, again I boarded another deafening jet into Charlotte. Where did USAir salvage these museum pieces? Maybe they explained why Sandman refused to fly.

The girls at the banking complex greeted my return engagement warmly, speculatively. The town librarian had mentioned the region suffered a serious shortage of males.

Chase, a bit aloof, escorted me into his office.

“I phoned Sandman,” he said coolly.

“And?”

“Says your theory– your accusation– is nonsense. Says he never ever uses comments, can’t afford time for them. Says those equates you mentioned, one equates to 5 and so on, just a coding convenience when in a hurry. Told me if we want to make insinuations, his lawyer can tell us to get stuffed. We can’t afford to get on his bad side.”

I snorted. “Coding convenience? How did you approach him? Did you ask if he sabotaged the code?”

“Of course I asked him. What was I supposed to say?”

“When you asked rather than told, he knew he’d bluffed you. I know he sabotaged the code, so I don’t need to ask.”

“He denies your allegations. Look, you’re a guy I hardly know. You make unbelievable accusations about a fellow I’ve known for years who says your notion is ludicrous. You tell me; how am I supposed to believe you?”

“I’ll show you proof.”

At the end of an hour, I’d further confused Chase rather than convinced him. He still believed Sandman. My stacks of tables and colored diagrams decorated with fine-tipped arrows left him unmoved. He couldn’t entertain the slightest possibility he’d been fooled or the other guy committed malfeasance.

I said, “I want to talk to Sandman myself, geek to geek.”

“That’s unwise. If he breaks off contact, we’re done for. He might even sue our asses.”

“You’re already done for– that’s why you hired me. Anyway, I’m not going to ask him if he encrypted the program, I know he did. That gives me an advantage.”

He reluctantly agreed to my calling with the condition he silently listen in. Like me, Sandman worked nights, so Chase and I grabbed dinner at a great restaurant as we waited for Sandman to come alive in the night.

One lichee duck later, we strolled back to the data center. I sat in his office while Chase lounged outside at the secretary’s desk listening in on her phone. He promised not to interrupt no matter what– I made him swear to stay quiet.

I dialed the Greensboro number he gave me. The call connected. Dan Sandman’s voice at the other end sounded pleasantly curious.

He said, “So you’re the guy they hired to develop the app.”

“Yep, I’m the sucker. Brilliant program, by the way.” I kept my voice light, pleasant.

“Thanks. I’ve heard of you by reputation. Boston, right? So how are you making out?”

I chuckled. “Dan, you left me one tricky puzzle. I’m still working it out, but your encryption scheme is brilliant, harder than hell to break.” I shook my head admiringly, not that he could see it. “Thus far I’ve identified two different translation tables. That’s ingenious.”

No hesitation, no prevarication, he broke into laughter. “Three actually.”

Through the window, Chase blanched, then darkened. I put my finger to my lips in case he felt like an outburst.

Danny continued. “You haven’t been working on it long. I’m astounded you got that far.”

“Three translation tables explain why I still have a thousand or so labels to crack.”

He chortled. “God damn, you smart dog. I used the first character of each label as a selector, picking the cryptographic table based upon which third of the alphabet the first character fell in.”

Outside the office, a purplish Chase was working on a serious case of TMJ.

I complimented Sandman. “I’ve never come across that idea before. Man, figuring out those tables can give one fits.”

“I didn’t want anyone to break it. Can’t believe you’re two-thirds of the way there. How did you figure it out?”

“$$BEOJ.”

“What? Oh, yes. I’d debated making a special case for it, but didn’t imagine anyone would ever get that far. What did you think of my equates?”

“Annoying.”

He laughed. “I trust that’s mildly put.”

“Right you are. There’s the obvious question, of course.”

“You mean why? Why screw up my own program?”

“You weren’t seeking job security.”

“I did it because I can’t stand that salesman, Chase. He’s such a bullshitter, all monies for himself, benefit the investors and screw the inventors. Flying around the country like an exec, trying to hustle the package, spending other people’s money, hogging the biggest slice off the top– I got fed up.”

Chase’s blood vessels looked ready to burst in an apoplectic fit. When he opened his mouth, I frantically waved him to silence. I tried to remember what Chase had told me.

Into the phone, I said, “You worked with him before?”

“Yeah, he found out about my package and begged to sell it. He couldn’t bother working the phones, doing sales fundamentals. Figured he was a Steve Jobs executive, jumping on a plane just to give a demo. I sold more copies than he did and I never left Greensboro, never tried to promote it, only word of mouth. Know what Chase did? He took the salesman cut anyway. He spelled that out in the agreement he wrote. Now ask me again why I’m pissed at him.”

Outside the door, Chase turned magenta. He could barely refrain from screaming into the phone.

Sandman continued. “So anyway, Chase was burning through money when he approached that bank in Virginia. He convinced them he had a hot product and urged them to buy out his contract. Chase wouldn’t change his ways, though. He wasn’t going to pay me what it was worth and I knew I’d never see royalties. My girlfriend, she said screw him. So I got this idea and I did. It wasn’t ransom, it was revenge. Sold it for almost nothing, figured he’d do himself in.”

“How much did he pay?”

“I bet you already know that. And he was gleeful at the fire sale price, ecstatic. The greedy bastard couldn’t believe the advantage he’d seized over his so-called partner. The slime-ball acted right proud of himself.”

“Dan, it’s affected other people. Plus other companies depend on the product.”

Sandman sounded almost regretful. “Yeah, I know. That’s why I agreed to partially support it until they found a replacement for me. I didn’t figure they’d bring in you.”

“Thanks, I think.”

He giggled dryly. “It’s tough maintaining it. I made the source code such an abortion, I find it nearly impossible to debug. They send me a trace or a dump and I spend a couple of days pulling my hair out. I provide just the minimum, which hasn’t been good enough, certainly insufficient to support new equipment coming out.”

The full significance of that statement wouldn’t register until much later: By implication, he’d orphaned this program and was developing a parallel version with enhancements.

“Dan, you know I have to tell the investment bank about this.”

“Figured you had already. Did Chase convince them otherwise? I successfully put him off when he called, but I gathered you were on to me. Yeah, talk to them. Maybe we can work something out, something fair and equitable. I’d like that.”

Witness to the Ascension

If Chase wasn’t pleased, the bankers were apoplectic. The vice president called the president. The president called the chairman. The chairman called the board. The board called the holding company and they called a meeting. In the meantime, the president asked me to stand by. “Don’t leave town,” he said.

Chase departed on a trip. He begged me to stay at his house and care for his dog, one with a bad case of separation anxiety. Shenandoah Valley girls were very hospitable. Over the next few days, I accepted kind invitations to luncheons, dinners, a bluegrass festival, a Mennonite market, and a community fair.

On Monday, the chairman called the president who called the vice president who called me. “Go home for a few days while we sort out what to do.”

I departed almost regretfully.


A few days became two weeks. I spent the time picking at the listings, painstakingly peeling the masks off characters in this exquisite puzzle. That’s what I liked best about programming, me against the machine, taking its rules and making it do what I wished, bending the beast to my will, solving abstract puzzles others couldn’t see. Usually it was me versus the computer; now I faced a clever human adversary.

Sandman called once to ask what the bank decided. My guess was gnashing their teeth, but I confessed I didn’t know.

People found it easy to talk to me, sometimes revealing personal things that seemed surprising later. He opened up.

We ended up chatting about nothing but learning about each other. Topics included girls, cars, his fear of flying and his enthusiasm for roller skating. We discussed fueling software with good Asian food. Our liquid Ritalin was cola, Coke for me, Pepsi and Moon Pies for him. He revealed a passion for Shostakovich. In the wee hours of the morning, he confessed frustration at his girlfriend’s lack of libido. He hesitantly admitted she was married.

On Friday, the VP called from his scratchy speaker phone. “Leigh, I got Chase and the president here. We want you to hop down to Greensboro and negotiate for the source code. Just you and Sandman– you’re the only one he has rapport with, the only one he respects.”

“What are the guidelines of the negotiations?”

“Obviously try to ransom our source, pay as little as practical for it, low five digits if possible.”

“Cap it at one-twenty, maybe twenty-five,” someone in the background said, probably the bank president.

“If things turn too unreasonable,” continued the vice president, “just walk out and we’ll haul his tail into court.”

“D’accord,” I said. “Shoot me a letter defining the limits.”

The VP said, “Do you anticipate a need to involve the police? Should we hire a private detective, perhaps a non-threatening girl his age?”

Chase spoke up in derision. “He just a little squirt, a pussy, a…”

The VP must have waved him to silence. “Okay. Buy it if you can, walk out if you can’t.”

No one had any notion of the unreal turn negotiations would take.


Next week: Part II, Skating Follies

03 November 2019

History and Mystery


Leigh Lundin
Perhaps I've always enjoyed historicals without fully realizing it. To pose a question, are Agatha Christie novels historical? What about the novels of Arthur Conan Doyle?

Generally, we don’t call fiction written in and about the author’s own time as historical novels. Yet modern readers can consider them a slice of history. Who better to fill us in on fine details of the day than someone living then and there?

I don’t find the tales of Edward Marston as smoothly written as, say, Ellis Peters or the wonderful Lindsey Davis. But that lack of ‘smoothinity’ (I’m aware of ‘smoothness’ but this suits my purpose) lends additional verisimilitude. The reader can feel the dirt in roadside food, the pinch of the cobbler’s shoes, the stench of an outhouse.

We live in a politically correct ‘woke’ atmosphere. We foster a supercilious attitude where we think we’re some way superior to those who’ve come before. Novels set in ancient Egypt or Imperial Rome remind us we’re not so different, not different at all.

Many of us, R.T. Lawton and Janice Law, David Edgerley Gates and Eve Fisher, to name a few colleagues, love the research as much as the writing… and reading.

For your pleasure, following are a dozen historical novels, new and old, you might want to nab.


The Alienist first appeared in 1994, the first in a short series. Who can resist New York City Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt?


The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco’s first novel published in 1980, is one of my all time favorites. Monesteries aren’t all peace and quiet.


I loved the virtually vanished Jewish Alps, the Borscht Belt Catskills in upstate New York. Think The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel entertains The Hotel Neversink.


Thanks to Tirzah Price at Book Riot for many of these suggestions and further details.

What are your favorite historical novels or series?

21 August 2019

Made in the Decade


Back in January, when I produced my yearly thing I wrote: "I was somewhat surprised to discover that this is my tenth annual list of the best short mysteries of the year, as determined by me. I will have to do something to celebrate that in a month or two."

Well, more than a month has passed, but here we are. My first thought was to pick out the Best of the Best from the 151 stories that made my original list, but that seemed like a fool's errand for various reasons. Below you will find 15 categories, subgenres if you will, and in each I have listed five stories that made my best of lists in the last decade. They aren't the Best of the Best, just excellent examples of their subgenre.   Of course, some of these could have easily fit into several categories.

And by the way, there is a hidden category tucked away here: stories with twist endings.  There are many examples below but to point them out would be counterproductive.

As a lagniappe I have added a Classic story in each category. "Classic" here is defined as a great story that was published before I started reviewing.

Availability! In each case I have listed the original publication unless I thought there was a more available site. I provided links to a few stories that are available for free on the web. You may find others elsewhere on the web but I suspected those sites might be copyright-violators or malicious, so I skipped 'em.



AMATEUR SLEUTH
Palumbo, Dennis. "A Theory of Murder," available free at Kings River Lite.
Perks, Micah. "Treasure island," in Santa Cruz Noir, edited by Susie Bright, Akashic Press, 2018.
Petrin, Jas. R. "Money Maker," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2017.
Rusch, Kristine Kathryn. "The Wedding Ring," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2018.
Rozan, S.J. "Chin Yong-Yun Meets A Ghost," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2015.
Classic: Kemelman, Harry. “The Nine Mile Walk” in The Nine Mile Walk and Other Stories.

COZY
Cajoleas, Jimmy. "The Lord of Madison County," in Mississippi Noir, edited by Tom Franklin, Akashic Press, 2016.
Harlow, Jennifer. "The Bubble," in Atlanta Noir, edited by Tayari Jones, Akashic Press, 2017.
Page, Anita. “Isaac’s Daughters,” in Malice Domestic Presents: Murder Most Geographical, edited by Verena Rose, Rita Owen, and Shawn Reilly Simmons, Wildside Press, 2018.
Stevens, B.K. "The Last Blue Glass," available free at B.K. Stevens's website.
Todd, Marilyn. "Slay Belles," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. January/ February 2017.
Classic: Asimov, Isaac. “The Acquisitive Chuckle,” in Tales of the Black Widowers.

CRIMINAL’S POINT OF VIEW
Block, Lawrence. “Who Knows Where It Goes,” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, January 2010.
Howard, Clark. “White Wolves” in The Crooked Road, Volume 3.
Paul, Bryan. "The Ice Cream Snatcher," in Thuglit, issue 13, 2014.
Sareini, Ali. F. "A Message In The Breath Of Allah," in Prison Noir, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, Akashic Press, 2014.
Warthman, Dan. "Pansy Place," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January-February 2012.
Classic: Francis, Dick. "A Carrot for a Chestnut," in Field of Thirteen.


ESPIONAGE
Child, Lee. “Section 7 (a) (Operational),” in Agents of Treachery, edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage Crime, 2010.
Deaver, Jeffery. "Hard to Get," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2017.
Faherty, Terence. "Margo and the Silver Cane," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January/February 2013.
Lawton, John. “East of Suez, West of Charing Cross Road,” in Agents of Treachery, edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage Crime, 2010.
Rabb, Jonathan. "A Game Played," in The Strand Magazine, June-September 2013.
Classic: Household, Geoffrey. “Keep Walking,” in Days of Your Fathers.


FANTASY
Blakey, James. "Do Not Pass Go," in Mystery Weekly Magazine, September 2017.
Goree, Raymond. "A Change of Heart," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, October 2012.
Law, Janice. "The Crucial Game," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January-February 2018.
Powell, James. “The Black Whatever.” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, January 2010.
Rozan, S. J. "e-Golem," in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine,September-October 2017.
Classic: Ellison, Harlan. “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs,” in Deathbird Stories.

HISTORICAL
Levinson, Robert S. “Regarding Certain Occurrences In A Cottage At The Garden Of Allah,” in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, November 2009.
Law, Janice. “Madame Selina,” free podcast.
Rutter, Eric. “Runaway” in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 2009.
Thornton, Brian.“Paper Son,” in Seattle Noir, edited by Curt Colbert, Akashic Press.
Williams, Jim. "The Hotel des Mutilées," on Williams's website.
Classic: Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Garden of Forking Paths,” in Collected Fictions.

HUMOROUS
Gould, Heywood. "Everything is Bashert," in Jewish Noir, edited by Kenneth Wishnia, PM Press, 2015.
Lawton, R.T. "Black Friday," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, November/December 2017.
Maron, Margaret. "We On The Train!" in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, May 2015.
Schofield, Neil. "It'll Cost You," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 2014.
Wiley, Michael. "Making It," in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, September-October 2017.
Classic: Thurber, James. “The Catbird Seat,” in Thurber on Crime.

NOIR
Crouch, Blake. “The Pain of Others,” in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March 2011.
Gaylin, Alison. "Restraint" in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March/April 2013.
Neville, Stuart. "Faith," in Blood Work: Remembering Gary Shulze: Once Upon A Crime, edited by Rick Ollerman, Down and Out Books, 2018.
Pluck, Thomas. "The Uncleared," available free at A Twist of Noir.
Stodghill, Dick. “Deathtown,” in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, November. 2009.
Classic: Kinsella, W.P. "Dance Me Outside," in Dance Me Outside.

PASTICHE
Faherty, Terence. "The Man With The Twisted Lip," in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, February 2015.
Lewis, Evan. "The Continental Opposite," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May 2015.
Warren, James Lincoln. "Shikari," in The 1% Solution.
Warren, James Lincoln. “Shanghaied” in The 1% Solution.
Zeltserman, Dave. “Julius Katz,” in The Julius Katz Collection.
Classic: Powell, James. “The Tamerlane Crutch,” in Christmas Forever.
POLICE
Alcalá, Kathleen. “Blue Sunday” in Seattle Noir, edited by Curt Colbert, Akashic Press.
Camilleri, Andrea.  "Neck and Neck,"  in Montalbano's First Case and Other Stories.
Estleman, Loren D. “Death Without Parole.” in Detroit is Our Beat: Tales of the Four Horsemen.
Phelan, Twist. "Footprints in Water," in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, July 2013.
Powell, James.  “The Teapot Mountie Ball,” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine,  March/April 2011.
Classic: Westlake, Donald E. “Come Back, Come Back,” in Levine.

PRIVATE DETECTIVE
Crowther, Brad.  “Politics Makes Dead Bedfellows,” in  Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2011.
Gates, David Edgerley.  "Slip Knot," by David Edgerley Gates, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, November 2011.
Helms, Richard.  "Busting Red Heads,"  in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March/April 2014.
Moran, Terrie Farley.  "Inquiry and Assistance," available for free on Moran's website.
Rusch, Kristine Kathryn. “The Case of the Vanishing Boy.” The Case of the Vanishing Boy.
Classic: Grafton, Sue. “A Poison That Leaves No Trace,” in Kinsey and Me.

PSYCHOLOGICAL
Brackmann, Lisa. "Don't Feed The Bums," in San Diego Noir, Akashic Press, 2011.
Cody, Liza. "I Am Not Fluffy," in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, December 2013.
Itell, Jennifer. “Inevitable.” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, November 2010.
Merchant, Judith. “Monopoly.” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March/April 2009.
Pronzini, Bill and Barry N. Malzberg. "Night Walker," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine,, March-April 2018.
Classic: Bradbury, Ray. "The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl," in The Golden Apples of the Sun.

SUI GENERIS
Armstrong, Jason. "Man Changes Mind," available free at  Thrillers, Killers, 'n Chillers.
Muir, Brian. “Dummy,” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, May 2009.
Rogers, Cheryl. "The Ballad of Maggie Carson," in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, May 2016.
Smith, Mark Haskell. “1968 Pelham Blue SG Jr.” in Crime Plus Music, edited by Jim Fusilli, Three Rooms Press, 2016.
Weikart, Jim, "The Samsa File," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 2013.
Classic: Faulkner William. “A Rose For Emily,” in A Rose For Emily and Other Stories.

SUSPENSE
Buck, Craig Faustus. "Blank Shot," in Black Coffee, edited by Andrew MacRae, Dark House Books, 2016.
Day, Russell. "The Icing on the Cake," in Noirville, Fahrenheit Press, 2018.
Estleman, Loren D. “Rumble Strip” in Amos Walker: The Complete Story Collection.
Gates, David Edgerley. "Cabin Fever," in The Best American Mystery Stories 2018.
Tippee, Robert. "Underground Above Ground," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2017.
Classic: Cail, Carol. “Sinkhole,” in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Presents Fifty Years of Crime and Suspense.

VICTIM’S POINT OF VIEW
DuBois, Brendan. "The Final Ballot," in Mystery Writers of America presents Vengeance, edited by Lee Child, Mulholland Books, 2012.
Hallman, Tom, Jr. "Kindness," in Mystery Weekly Magazine, April 2018.
Law, Janice, "The Double," in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Issue 7.
Opperman, Meg. "The Discovery," in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Issue 18.
Rusch, Kristine Kathryn. "Christmas Eve at the Exit," in The Best American Mystery Stories 2016.
Classic: Ellin, Stanley. "You Can't Be a Little Girl all Your Life," in The Specialty of the House and Other Stories.

24 July 2019

Metropolis


David Edgerley Gates


Fritz Lang's movie Metropolis was released in 1927. Paranoid and hallucinatory, it's the first feature-length dystopian SF picture, but of course its spooky Teutonic future is at right angles to the spooky present of a doomed Weimar.


Philip Kerr's last Bernie Gunther novel, Metropolis, came out this year. It's set in 1928, and sure enough, Fritz Lang's chilly breath hovers over the story. (His wife, the screenwriter Thea von Harbou, steps into the book to pick Bernie's brain for cop shop detail - she's turning over some ideas in her head for a serial killer story.) Bernie remarks early on that for all its grime and despair, his home ground of Berlin mirrors both the human condition and the German national character, and you can say the same about a book or a movie, so is it true of this book or that movie?

Lang had a problematic relationship with the Nazis. He'd been raised Catholic, but his mother was originally Jewish. It was an obvious pressure point. And while we're on the subject, Thea, the wife, was a Nazi sympathizer from early days. Hitler and Goebbels were huge fans of Metropolis, as it happens. But after Lang made The Testament of Dr. Mabuse in late 1932, and Hitler came to power in January, 1933, the Nazis banned Mabuse, which was pretty clearly aimed at Hitler. Goebbels, on the other hand, offered Lang a job as head of UFA, the biggest German movie studio. It was bait-and-switch. Lang was being invited inside the tent, but the price of admission was spelled out: he was selling his soul. Lang said he'd think about it, and beat feet for France. Thea stayed behind and divorced him. UFA went to Leni Riefenstahl.

The question is often raised in the Bernie books - in fact, it's the central spine of the stories - What would you do as the world disintegrated around you, as it lost all moral force, what choices would or could you make? Metropolis goes back to the beginning, chronologically. It takes place before March Violets, the first of the novels. But it looks forward. The foreshadowing is all there, On the other hand, Bernie doesn't comment on what he sees and does from a future perspective. This dramatic irony, which is used in a number of the books, isn't present here. Bernie is blessed with ignorance of the future, even though the choices keep lining up. The answer to the questions is, You compromise just a little every day, and it gets easier.

How can we know, how could we possibly predict whether we'd rise to the occasion, show grace under pressure, or simply cave? It seems, generally speaking, as if even the major life-changing decisions we make are essentially taking the path of least resistance. If you've followed Bernie's history, as I have, over the thirteen books leading up to Metropolis, you respect him not just for his survival skills, but for his generosity, and his self-respect, even if he sometimes loses confidence. Seeing him here, right as his life is about to take a walk off a cliff, is enormously affecting, because you know what's coming, and he doesn't. The future of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, as frightening as it is, can't begin to conjure up the waiting chaos, and the terror.


Metropolis, the novel, is a swan song. Phil Kerr died last year. This is one terrific run of books.

18 July 2019

Miscellany


by Eve Fisher

If you're looking for a logical sequence of events, this is not the blog for you.  The title means what it says.

So, to begin with,

My Masterpiece PosterThe other night we streamed Mi Obra Maestra (a/k/a My Masterpiece) on Netflix.  You gotta love a movie that opens up with a guy saying, "I'm a murderer".  And then - what a delight! - every time I thought I knew where it was going to go... it didn't!  Dead pan, very black humor, slapstick, a maniac artist, plus the fun of seeing Buenos Aires and the World Heritage site of Quebrada de  Humahuaca.  (And yes, I had to look that up all for myself.)  You can't ask for much more than that.

Quebrada de  Humahuaca
Those are real, folks!!!!

I've also been thinking about mysteries / thrillers / etc. written by non-mystery writers.  Most of these are short stories.

There is, of course, also the classic The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.  Who really did what, and was/were there ghost(s), and if not, was the governess mad, or is it all one big fantasy, have been argued up one side and down the other for decades. (BTW, it's available on Project Gutenberg HERE.)  Personally, I've never cared for The Turn of the Screw.  If you want horror - albeit of a different kind - I recommend James' The Beast in the Jungle (HERE).

But Henry James is a bit literary for a lot of people, so try Haircut by Ring Lardner.   (Read it HERE)   I keep re-reading it, and each time, new questions:  How funny did Lardner's contemporaries think it was?  Was the scene in the movie Pleasantville, where the mayor comes in and takes the barber's chair away from someone else, taken from Haircut?  I do know that Grant Tripp's brother, Barry, is kind of based on Paul.  I also know that there are still a lot of Jim Kendalls around, especially in small towns.

The Meyerowitz Stories.pngMeanwhile, I'm a big Maeve Binchy fan.  Most people know her from her Irish novels, but she wrote a number of short stories.  I just reread "Queensway", an absolute gem from the anthology London Transports:
When Pat saw something like "Third Girl wanted for quiet flat.  Own room, with central heating" she had dark fears that it might be a witches' coven looking for new recruits.
But sometimes a coven would be better.  And "Queensway" provides a wonderfully subtle, terribly accurate depiction of a manipulative sociopath.  Check it out.  (No e-text available.)
"It's like their apartment is full of everything we once threw out, but it looks so good the way they have it." - Cornelia in While We're Young.
Speaking of manipulative sociopaths, I've been working my way through the films of Noah Baumbach ever since seeing The Meyerowitz Stories, and Dustin Hoffman certainly nailed the manipulative narcissistic sociopath in that movie.   Goodbye, Tootsie, goodbye...  As did Adam Driver in While We're Young.  Both are available for streaming on Netflix.

Meanwhile, looking forward to the Lodge 49 season 2 premiere on AMC, Aug. 12, 10 p.m.!  Watch the Season 2 Trailer HERE.


Finally, thank you, David Edgerley Gates, for mentioning John Crowley's Little, Big in your blogpost The Art of Memory.  I had never read that book, and I did, because I'm always fascinated by memory houses.  I have one, mostly for books, because I figured out early in the day that if I really was going to read all the books I wanted, then by God, I was going to have to set up some sort of mental filing system.  And I did, although I'm not sure how, but it works.  It supplies me the title, author, plot, major characters, most minor ones, and specific scenes of almost every book I've ever read.  (Which is a lot.)

Anyway, Little, Big stunned me.  Among the notes I wrote in my journal were "A fever dream of immanence."  You see, I've always been and still am the person - girl and woman - who walks looking for the path through the forest, the door in the tree, the cottage under the stones, the opening in the sky, knowing that some day it will be there, and I'll get to go through.  (Yes, I'm a huge fan of the movie Picnic at Hanging Rock.)  This will definitely go on the shelf of those books I reread, breathlessly.

BTW, a few others that have provided me similar fever dreams:  The Once and Future King (T. H. White); Centuries of Meditation (Thomas Traherne); La Morte d'Arthur (Thomas Mallory; the oldest translation you can stand); all fairy tales (believe it or not, the Hans Christian Andersen ones get better as you get older); Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass; Piers Plowman; The Old Ways (Robert MacFarlane) and Meeting the Other Crowd:  The Fairy Stories of Hidden Ireland (Eddie Lenihan)

And FINALLY finally, next blog post - the mystery and challenge of Little Shrimp Factory on the Prairie - because if you thought everything was going to go swimmingly <groan> to bring shrimp farming to the high prairies, you really have a lot to learn.

and FINALLY FINALLY FINALLY, just for the information soundbite, from the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission:

What you should know about National Origin Discrimination under Title VII

The law protects people against employment discrimination on the basis of their national origin. Following are some examples of employment discrimination based on national origin.

Harassment Based on National Origin

  • Ethnic slurs and other verbal or physical conduct because of nationality are illegal if they are severe or pervasive and create an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment, interfere with work performance, or negatively affect job opportunities. Examples of potentially unlawful conduct include insults, taunting, or ethnic epithets, such as making fun of a person's foreign accent or comments like, "Go back to where you came from, " whether made by supervisors or by co-workers.
Read more HERE.

Granted, this is probably another government agency that will soon be gutted, renamed, rehelmed, and/or dismantled, but there you are. For right now, that's the law of the land.