15 November 2011

Greetings From The Jersey Shore

Jersey ShoreThe title of this posting should give you a clue as to where I live, though I fear it may also induce acute nausea in those of you who have been exposed to the reality television version of this area.  It can get bad here during the heady summer months, but perhaps not that bad.  In any event, there are those of us who find the Shore (not beach or coast or seaside) a very fine place to live.  It also gave me a career, after the army, of rounding up and knuckling down on the hi-jinks and high spirits of such as the "Jersey Shore" crowd when they crossed the line.  This could be satisfying.
I didn't start out to be policeman; it just worked out that way.  In fact, I'm not even from the Garden State, but from that very close relative somewhat to the south, Georgia.  However, the die was cast when I met and married my own Jersey Girl, who could not be less like... Pookie, is it?  Honestly...Pookie?  I ask ya?  Had that unlikely scenario occurred; instead of writing this today I would probably be serving a very long sentence in a very small room.  However, I struck lucky, and Robin and I have been together for most of our lives.  But it was she that got me here.

For nearly seven years I dragged her and the kids across the states and over to Europe as part of my stint in the army.  For those of you who have spent any time in the military with a family, you'll know what I mean when I say it was hard...very hard.  So with the kids still young we made the decision to get out and I further agreed to her wish to be close to her parents.  It seemed the least I could do. 

But even that I couldn't quite get right--I couldn't find work in the area where her parents lived and we were fast running out of money!  A friend of mine who lived  in South Jersey (the natives make a very big deal about the distinction between north and south here) called me and invited me to visit and look for work at the 'Shore'.  I did, and walked into a job as a cop.  I say walked in, but in reality I competed against a pool of several hundred (mostly locals) and came out as one of two who were sent on to the Police Academy.  It was a miracle--the last of my army paychecks had just run out and we were saved!  And it was more of a miracle than I even realized at the time.  I found I loved police work and that I had somehow landed in just the right place for me and my family.  We even bought a house (a very tiny house, but a house); life was getting good.

The police profession treated me well, and Robin went on to get a full time position as a kindergarten teacher, where she still is.  To this day I have little kids run up to me, point, and say, "You're Mrs. Dean's husband!"  Like that's some big deal.  Before my retirement I would point at my badge and answer, "Oh yeah, well I'm also the police chief around here!"  This usually elicited a second and more emphatic exclamation of, "You're Mrs. Dean's husband!"  Alright already...I get it...don't you have parents?

Somewhere along the road I was taking some college courses and found myself in an arts appreciation class (mandatory, don't you know) and my final project was to produce a work of art.  "Art?" says I.  "I can't draw."  "What can you do?" says the professor with a small challenging smile.  He had seen my kind before.  "Uh..." thinking hard...thinking very hard.  "Maybe I could write something," I offer.  His expression shifted over to one of subtle doubt.  "Okay," says he.  I did, and produced my first story.  Not surprisingly, it was about a patrolman at the Jersey Shore, and in this tale, one attempting to apprehend a particularly violent burglar.  I drew the details from a case I had worked.  The prof liked it and said I should submit it to a magazine, which I did, and "The See-Through Man" (1990) became my first published story with Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and also the beginning of a long and satisfying relationship with that august publication...except for the fact that sometimes my stories are turned down.  I don't like to say 'rejected' because that sounds so unsatisfyingBut I don't want to dwell on that here...maybe later...in a more tearful posting (bring hankies).

So now I am retired, and find myself joining the assembled company of SleuthSayers and friends.  Some of the staff writers here I have had the privilege and pleasure of meeting through Criminal Brief; others I have met while out and about in our small world.  I hope to provide some useful service by my scribblings, if only to amuse you ("What...I amuse you?") or at the very least, not to embarrass myself or others.  But if I don't manage it, just turn the page (figuratively in this case) and move on, as this is the judgement and sentencing that all writers must bear if they fail to keep up their end of the bargain.

So with that, "I'll catch youse later (as they say around here)."

14 November 2011

My Name Is Fran And....


by Fran Rizer

My name is Fran, and I write... cozies?

I didn't start out that way, and I didn't flounder around with other subgenres then decide
to have protagonists "trip" over clues while I rounded up recipes and knitting patterns for them.

Actually, I do know how to knit. My knitting experience goes back to my divorce. I thought it would be appropriate for me to knit an afghan. My friend Linda taught me to knit. When I completed a twelve-inch square, I decided that wasn't for me. She taught me to cr
ochet. I did about three granny squares and decided I'd rather go dancing. I buy my quilts and afghans ready-made, and I still love dancing.

All that dancing led me into managing and booking country and rock bands, who usually start playing at nine and finish around 2:00 am. I moved from that to blues bands who, in our neck of the woods, start anywhere between 11:00 pm and midnight and play 'til they're too wasted to play anymore. When that grew tiring, I moved to bluegrass. Most grassers are in the Waffle House long before midnight.

I've written and sold articles to magazines since I was seventeen. Among my sales were
articles such as "Shower the Bride without Soaking Your Budget" to the other extreme of "How to Field Dress a Deer," (first thing I wrote under a male pseudonym and written totally by research as I don't hunt) but what I really loved was doing articles about performers and venues. These included "Hillbilly Dust," which was my first feature published in Bluegrass Unlimited before I learned that grassers don't like the term "hillbilly." I'd swiped the title from an Emmy Lou Harris quote about "feeling the hillbilly dust." Though there were additional articles about venues, most were about singer/songwriters like my good friend Randall Hylton.

The writers' group I frequente
d kept telling me, "You've been published a lot, but fiction is different. It's a hard nut to crack." So I got cracking, wrote my first fiction story, "Positive Proof," and entered it into the Augusta, Georgia, Festival of Arts Fiction Contest. I won $500 and an invitation to read it at the awards contest. That was fun, but I never even tried to sell it, just went back to magazine articles.

Life is full of things that aren't necessarily what they seem. My next fiction was a horror story which I took to a writers' conference at St. Simon's Island, Georgia. Most of the writers there were spiritual, and they had lots of categories that dealt with inspirational material. The only place to put my story was in Miscellaneous which was described as "any story that doesn't fit into the other categories." At the awards dinner, they announced that I'd won, and on my way up from where I was sitting between two gentlemen who'd placed in inspirational, they announced that it was the first time anyone had submitted erotica! I still don't see how anyone could count that story as erotica because if I wrote erotica, it would be a lot more erotic than that story was. The first short story I had published in a magazine was "Emily's Ghost Story," which was printed in the summer, 2011, issue of Pages of Stories.

My friends read cozies, but I'd always been more into hard mystery and potboiler (not a derogatory term to me) mysteries. I met Gwen Hunter and Tamar Myers, both of whom are delightful writer/ladies and began reading their books. During that time, Callie Parrish birthed herself in my brain, and I decided to write a book about her. When I asked what constituted a cozy, I was told: (1) No more than two murders in the story; characters can find bodies, but don't describe the killings (2) No overt sex; shut the bedroom door (3) No profanity and (4) Don't kill off any old ladies or pets.

With those instructions, I wrote A Tisket, a Tasket, a Fancy Stolen Casket and simultaneously queried five agents. My first choice took the book and sold three of the series to Berkley Prime Crime.

Some folks believe all cozies are destined to be mass market paperbacks. I know many who're published first as hardback. When I signed with Berkley, my agent asked if I wanted to go for a hardback contract. Being an old Beatles fan, all I wanted was to be a paperback writer, and that's still what I want though my grandson is happy that all four Callies are on Nook and Kindle.

Now, about those recipes. There are no recipes in my books, but I do put them on my webpage. Why? Because I want to. A lot of my friends read and collect recipe books. I don't because I'm one of those "pinch of this, pinch of that" cooks, and when I want a specific recipe, I go to the Internet, but if recipes are fun for me and my readers, why not? (There are
also Moon Pies available at my signings.)

Callie set out to be cozies, so you can imagine my surprise when Berkley released them as Mainstream Mystery.

Can you see what's wrong? I write horror, and it's labeled erotica. I write cozies, and they're labeled Mainstream Mystery. I have a serial killer thriller coming out under a pseudonym, but who knows how it'll be classified?

Help! Is there a twelve-step program for those of us who aren't living in the sixties trying to find ourselves but for those of us who don't know where we're going or what we're writing?

Now, for the Question of the Day, which is directly related not to mystery in general, but to the Callie Parrish stories. Callie eats Moon Pies. (I sent a case of Moon Pies to my first New York editor. She'd never heard of them, but she said everyone enjoyed them.) Only one answer to this question: In what city did Moon Pies originate? (Clue: They're still made there.)

First person to answer correctly wins. Winner will be announced tonight with instructions how to claim the prize.

Until we meet again...take care of YOU.

13 November 2011

Twin Peaks

by Leigh Lundin

Cooper and opening scene
Last week, Richard Santos, who blogs on Paperclip People, posted on Criminal Element a terrific article about Twin Peaks. That brought back a flood of memories as if remembering an old lover.

I have a complex love-hate relationship with Twin Peaks. After the series ended, I felt annoyed and cheated. Along with any number of deep-sixed series like Nowhere Man, Firefly, and Jake 2.0, it reflected in my not watching Lost, refusing to vest in a series that might head south.

David Lynch

David Lynch is, well, a flawed genius, which I think is way cooler than ordinary genius. His works are never dull (although Eraserhead takes more wine and corn chips than most folks can consume).

The influence of Blue Velvet on Twin Peaks is clear, from the actors and musicians to the dark plot, and arguably it influenced Dune. Twin Peaks' music is hypnotic and seductive. If Angelo Badalamenti never writes another note, he'll be remembered for that haunting score. The Ipcress File and the Twin Peaks CDs are among the soundtracks worth listening to.

Cherry Jubilee
Audrey Horne
The characterization is brilliant and draws viewers like few other programs. The plot intrigued but the characters made you feel like a part of the town populated with people you cared about. I'm not sure how Lynch accomplished it, but that magic should be taught in writing classes.

Lynch created characters who were believably quirky, not unlike small town denizens I grew up with. Viewers love Sheriff Harry S Truman, Agent Dale Cooper, Laura and her cousin Maddie, James Hurley, and Audrey Horne. (I confess my brain short-circuited when Audrey tied a cherry stem (and me) in knots.)

A Spooky Turn

But the plot… Recently, my friend Ryan Freeman gave me David Lynch's works on DVD, which allowed me a more careful dissection of Twin Peaks. I disagree with Michael Giltz– the problem wasn't that the mystery was solved, but that it wasn't resolved. For months, avid viewers took copious notes and compared conclusions, so the who and the how came off as contrived. After the reveal of Laura's murderer, one reviewer wrote that writers must have been stunned when the series was picked up for a second season, because they hadn't plotted a logical dénouement. ("What? There's a second season? Oh, no!") Post-series critics differ in debates, but I lean toward those who feel Twin Peaks fell back upon paranormal deus ex machina.

Laura PalmerIn a similar way, I found myself disappointed by the movie The Forgotten about a distraught mother who wonders why others can move on after the death of her son but she can't. It exhibited the same feel of a film that lost its way, as if a writer had a brilliant seed for a story but didn't know how to wrap it up. If you're going to write a paranormal story, then let the reader know that's what it is, but don't blame the dénouement on psychic phenomenon and expect us to applaud.

Fire Walk

Possibly producers felt that way too, coming out with the dark and sexy Fire Walk with Me film to tie up the myriad loose ends, but many critics treated it harshly. USA Today wrote "Except for a brief episode in which singer Chris Isaak and Kiefer Sutherland make like an FBI Rocky and Bullwinkle, this is a morbidly joyless affair. You'll feel as drained as one of Cooper's mugs of joe watching homecoming queen Laura drown in a whirlpool of sex and drugs." Ouch, that's cruel. Rotten Tomatoes treated it a bit better, scoring 62%/78%.

Quibbling aside, whether one feels love, hate, annoyance, or disgust with Twin Peaks, almost no one feels indifferent, and that's a tribute to the skills of David Lynch. He made us care, which is what writers want to accomplish. If only a little dust from Twin Peaks falls upon our works, we benefit from that seminal television program.


Our Women of Mystery bosom buddy, Clare Toohey, drew readers' attention to CNN's Katie McLaughlin's article about Psych's tribute to Twin Peaks, in the town of Dual Spires, where Douglas Fir is mayor and Julee Cruise sings Psych's theme. That episode is now on my must-watch list.


12 November 2011

When the Grammar Cops Comma Calling

by John M. Floyd

Consider the following two statements:

1. The frustrated mother says, "Eat that cereal, period."

2. The frustrated writing instructor says, "Use that serial comma."

In my opinion, both are good advice.

A serial comma, for those who don't already know this, is the comma before a coordinating conjunction (and, or, etc.) that precedes the final item in list of three or more items. Example: the comma after Dick in every Tom, Dick, and Harry. Some writers always use it and some never use it, and I know a few who go back and forth. Personally, I like the serial comma, for one reason: it can prevent misunderstanding.

Here's what I mean. A writer friend suggested this sentence to me the other day, as an example:

Attendees at the event included two hookers, Diane Sawyer, and Barbara Walters. That's pretty clear. It refers to four people.

Now consider what happens when you leave out the serial comma:

Attendees at the event included two hookers, Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters. That's pretty clear too, except that it now seems to refer to only two people. I doubt Diane and Barbara would be pleased with that version.

Here's another example:

Every morning I have orange juice, bacon and eggs and toast.

There's nothing wrong with that, but the writer is probably thinking of three separate "items" rather than four. A serial comma after eggs would clarify the sentence--and the extra pause would probably change the way it sounds when spoken.

The clarity issue doesn't come up often. In The road was hot, dry and dusty, leaving out the serial comma doesn't hurt the sentence or our understanding of it. To be truthful, I'm one of those people who use too many commas anyway--I've been trying to cut back a bit. Unneeded commas tend to slow things down, and we all want sentences to flow well and sound right. But I can't help myself: I like serial commas.

What's the official position? Both The Chicago Manual of Style and Strunk and White's The Elements of Style say the serial comma should be standard usage, but I believe the AP Stylebook discourages it. This goes along with the fact that writers of fiction and most nonfiction seem to favor the serial comma but journalists don't. It's my understanding that the British, by the way, almost never use it.

But the serial comma remains an interesting subject, if only because of the fact that it is optional. I never object when my writing students don't use it in the class stories that I critique and edit. I just tell them the advantages and disadvantages and let them make up their own minds. I myself will continue to use it, though, because that way I don't ever have to worry about whether there's a clarity problem in one of my sentences. (Or at least a clarity problem caused by the lack of a comma.) As my fellow southerner Forrest Gump would say, that's one less thang.

So . . . what will you do, if the Punctuation Police start banging on your door at three in the morning? When they whip out a manuscript page and point a flashlight at it, will you confess to being a user or an abstainer? Or maybe a commakaze?

Seriously, what do you think of serial commas? Are you for or against?

As I implied in a recent column, different strokes for different folks. Or, in the much wiser words of Kinky Friedman, "Beauty is in the eyes of the beer holder."

11 November 2011


You are probably related to a military veteran, or at least know one. With today being designated as our national Veteran's Day (Canada refers to it as Rememberance Day), please take time to support your troops in whatever manner you see fit, and to also honor the memory of those gone past. These people have protected your freedom over the centuries and stood sentry on your walls, wherever those walls may have been. Regardless of how you personally feel about any given war, know that it is not the soldier who makes the decision to go off to battle, it is the politicians that send him. The soldier merely does his duty and goes as our leaders have ordered.
Summer of '67

For me, it's been a little over 44 years since I went in-country at Pleiku up in the Central Highlands, then caught a two-engine, tail-ramp aircraft to fly about 80 kilometers east to Camp Radcliffe at a place called Ankhe. My duffel bag was my seat (they didn't worry about seat belts) and my orders in hand were my ticket to fly.

There in the camp, I'd wake up in morning, crawl out of my sleeping bag, wander bleary-eyed from my three-man, wood-constructed hooch, with an aluminum basin in hand and head for the overhead 55 gallon drums that supplied water for our showers, hoping I didn't have to shave in cold water again.

(Photgraph used by permission of Ray Smith at Ray's Map Room. http://rjsmith.com/Images/cav_patch.jpg Visit it some time and click on designated spots to get a photo or short history for that location.

The Patch

Engineers had gone up on Hon Cong Mountain where we had a ground surveillance radar site and poured a slab of concrete. They then proceeded to paint the 1st Air Mobile Cavalry patch in black and yellow on that cement slab. I suspect the theory behind putting it high up on the mountain was that the Cav wanted to mark its territory, much the same as men have done for centuries.

Most of us camped down below had the same black and yellow patch sewn on the left shoulder of our jungle fatigues. Camouflage insignia had not yet come into fashionable army wear, but being as we had no wish to come to the attention of enemy snipers by wearing bright colors, most of us soon used a ball point pen to darken the cavalry yellow.

We weren't the first ones to this party

In the Spring of 1954, the French were heavily engaged in the struggle for Dien Bien Phu, a French fort also built in a valley surrounded by mountains. Their theory was to lure the Viet Minh into a fixed battle rather than hit and run guerrilla tactics. Unfortunately, there was a flaw in the plan and it did not go well. Seems the Viet Minh had found a way to put artillery on the surrounding mountains in order to bombard the French at will. Their fort was soon isolated from the outside world and collapsed.

Days afterward, Groupment Mobile 100, which had been stationed in the Pleiku-Ankhe area to guard the Central Highlands, was ordered to withdraw from their positions in Ankhe as being indefensible. Fifteen kilometers west of the Ankhe airfield, the Viet Minh 803rd Regiment ambushed the French Task Force in a series of running fights along Highway 19. Later, the VM 108th Regiment joined in to spring its own ambush on the French column. Survivors of the Group managed to withdraw to fortifications at Pleiku, but their unit ceased to exist as a fighting formation. Those members killed in the ambush were later buried in the French Military Cemetery not far away on the crest of Mang Yang Pass. Legend has it they were buried upright with their faces to the west, toward France.

(1967 photo of the French graves taken from a Huey by Jim Bracewell, 229th Avn Bn, used by permission of Dave "Davo" Holdorf, 15th Artillery Battalion. http://www.landscaper.net/images/FrGravesMY.jpg

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the Vietnamese Communists allegedly removed all the white headstones in order to erase reminders of French and American presence in the south.

The Fallen

In the old days, a fallen soldier was usually buried in the area close to where he died. No doubt the French still honor those fallen soldiers laid to rest at Mang Yang Pass, they just no longer have a monument in that location. In more modern times, under the concept of Leave No Man Behind, our fallen servicemen and women are brought back to the States, rather than buried in military cemeteries on foreign soil, such as ours were in France, where many WWII veterans were laid to rest during those war years.

Of Love and Death

My opening salvo in the courtship of my wife, Kiti, was my Take-A-Veteran-To-Lunch Scam. Eventually, it worked.

In more recent years, I informed Kiti that I would like to buried in the veteran's cemetery up in the Black Hills of South Dakota where we used to live. Seems the VA has a policy where the first to go spouse can be placed at the seven foot level and the last to go can be placed just above the other. One name goes on one side of the headstone and the other name goes on the other side. That's our government in its efficiency towards space allocation.

In any case, I happened to mention in passing that whether I go first or last, I'd still like to be on top. Don't know if that's a guy thing or a matter of competiveness.

The Problem

Kiti has an independent spirit. I can live with that and rather enjoy it. But, the rank she held in her Army Reserve Unit is one pay grade higher than my active duty one. With the life I've lived, I really didn't think I'd last this long, but if I want to be the one on top, I believe I'd best try to last a whole lot longer than originally anticipated. Otherwise, she just may pull rank on me. Son of a gun.

Aahh, as we used to say in The Nam, "No sweat, man. Ain't no thing."

Hey, time to go put the flag out on the front of the house before my morning coffee.

Stay well.

And for those of you who've been, "WELCOME HOME."

10 November 2011

All the Beautiful Girls are Murdered

"The more things change," wrote a French journalist, "the more they stay the same." I have been thinking about Jean Baptiste Alfonse Kerr's epigram in connection with the mystery genre.
Certainly nothing much changes in the visual arts; styles and subjects and attitudes simply come in and out of fashion. There is no progress. Who would say that any drawing since has surpassed the animal sketches of the cave painters of Lascaux or that metalwork has improved on the Chinese bronzes or the sculptures of Benin? Rather work runs from one extreme to the other in size, in technique, in delicacy of sentiment.

But surely our own favorite genre has seen changes, and changes for the better? Isn't there greater variety? Isn't the level of writing far superior to the old pulps? Aren't the characters more complex? And aren't women writers, in particular, a good deal more welcome than when a reputable paperback house told my agent that they "already had their woman writer"?

All true. And yet Monsieur Kerr's cynical remark has lingered in the back of my mind, since reading one of Jo Nesbø's well written, well plotted, and frankly sadistic mysteries: Snowman. I don't want to lay all the blame on this in-many-ways excellent writer. Other novelists and recent television shows have all had a high body count of pretty young women, not to mention the rabid coverage given to the murders and disappearances of certain members of the female population. Hint: it helps to be blonde, middle class, and attractive.

No, Snowman was only the tipping point, with a variety of attractive women tortured to death in the sort of queasy-making detail once reserved for martyrdoms and high church décor. The fact that each had been adulterous reminded me of an article that was the latest thing back when I was an undergrad. Someone had gotten his (or much less probably) her scholarly bones for an essay on the "good-bad" girl.

She was, according to the author, and I'm in no position to dispute him, something new on the literary scene. A female character who was not solely defined as virgin, wife, or whore, but who could, to a modest extent, live "like a man" and still be an accepted member of society.

And yes, indeed, she has blossomed, as a glance at any of our female detectives, police investigators, or other protagonists will show. Change, indeed. But the preference for female victims, indeed for multiple female victims, has not altered. In fact, the trend away from what P.D. James referred to as "body in the library" stories has only allowed plots to move from the frivolous rococo to the blood and gore baroque.

Crimes are as ingenious as anything Agatha Christie ever cooked up, but done realistically with labeled body parts and blood spatter patterns and all the scientific grand guignol effects of forensic medicine. Add to all this the preference for young, sexy, and beautiful victims, and it doesn't take a Freud to sense a deep seated cultural pattern. Beautiful women are still threatening as well as desirable, and sexual activity for women in still problematical.

Indeed, for any female denizen of the mystery universe, my advice is to dress down and look homely, as it appears to be beauty, rather than the gang membership, seedy neighborhoods or bad company, that, in real life, puts one in harm's way.

Years ago, I was at a program where Mary Higgins Clark noted the eternal popularity of 'the woman in jeopardy' theme, and in the interests of full disclosure I am currently enjoying Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White, a classic of the type. Just the same, it is fortunate that the female characters of mystery novels have escaped from being just damsels in distress to participate in all sorts of adventures. Things do change.

But woman as victim is still very much with us. Perhaps as a reaction to the real changes in society, and even in genre fiction, one of the bastions of conservatism, female victims meet worse and gaudier fates than ever before, and, I suspect, in greater numbers.

Things change, yes, indeed, but as the wonderfully named Jean Baptiste Alfonse Kerr observed, sometimes underneath they remain the same.

09 November 2011

Digitally Yours

by Neil Schofield

I am a child of the digital age. Or at least the digital age grew up around and alongside me. But, alas, I never grew up with it. I remain but a tiny, tiny child.
And when I read a few weeks ago that a third of British children under ten have a mobile phone, a sixth have a laptop and a twelfth have a social network account, the horrid dimensions of my infantilism became clear.
Witness, I thank you, the unedifying porridge I made of my first attempt to contribute to this blog.

All can be summed up in a Groucho Marx line, as can so many things in life:

Groucho: (reading a document) Why, a five-year-old child would understand this. (beat) Someone run out and find me a five-year-old child, I can't make head nor tail of it.

As a non-grown-up in this vertiginously adult world, what I am doing now is typing, not writing. I still feel it is cheating to stare at a screen on which the pixies are forming my words. (I know, I know, everyone calls them pixels, but I know The Truth. They are the pixies, and they are fractious, fickle little blighters whom it is best not to vex lest evil befall.)

'Digital' to me means you do it with your fingers. Writing is something you do with a pencil and a piece of paper.
When long ago I began writing scripts for cash money, up there on the Writers' Floor we wrote in pencil (or pen - the rules were not set in stone) on an A4 pad, and our scripts were typed  by a proper typist called Camilla. When changes had to me made because the Suits demanded it, cut and paste meant precisely that. Camilla typed out the offending passages, cut them out and pasted them into the master script. Consequently, copies of the script sometimes contained pages on which sections of dialogue were ver so slightly skewed with lines round them like a bad collage. (Mind you, I've nothing against collage. Picasso dabbled in it, during what I believe is now known as his Glue period. And even Ernest Hemingway once famously said: "When I hear the word collage, I reach for my gum.")

Our first computer, a DEC I think, was, in fact, a room. Its capacity was shared with Accounts, so that very often production of a script would be held back because Accounts were doing big sums. I suppose that the capacity of all that wheezing, throbbing metalware was a tiny fraction of that of the tiny machine on which I work now. And we were frightened of it. We called it HAL.
(Incidentally, here's a thing. Arthur C. Clarke was a cunning bloke. If you take the name HAL and take a step forward in the alphabet for each letter, what do you get? All right, everybody knew that.)

It wasn't until the 90's that I was brought face to face with the computer as a personal tool. But I still held on to my yellow HB pencil and my spiral-bound notebook. I still do. All my published stories were written first by hand. Some of my happiest hours have been spent unfurling the Big Parasol, furling a cigarette (yes I know, Dixon, I would have been useless in the US Special Forces) pouring out a Little Something and settling down with pencil and notebook to see what my wandering brain will drag in. I never know what it will be - my brain has a mind of its own.
I've still got my notebooks from ten years ago. And it amazes me that these spiderish scrawls ever found their way into print. Among all the stuttering and stammering and crossings-out and balloons and arrows, there are little notes. Sometimes a one-word plot idea, sometimes just a title. I've  got some knock-out titles. Titles for which the story never turned up, but might one day, who knows?
Life down here among the pencilleros will forever be associated with the wonderful taste of cellulose and the gritty feel of graphite betwen my teeth. Apart from anything else, an HB pencil smells good. And by golly, mother, it tastes good too. What's more, an HB pencil doesn't stare moronically at you and deny, hand on its traitorous little heart, that you ever, ever wrote a story called 'Detour'. Faced with that mulish stupidity, even the old Yorkshire trick of weeping and pleading  cuts no ice. I've tried it.

Once I have done my typing, it still isn't finished. I have this thing about reading a wodge of typescript. I can read it and understand it, but I can't take it in as a whole. I have a problem in comparing and contrasting this scene with that scene ten pages before. At the end I know whether it works or not. But that isn't the whole story. Is everything working well down in the bowels of the thing? Because, you understand, for me, never mind your novels, every single story is an aircraft carrier.
What I have to do is the following: physically lay out the story page by page on the dining-table. (If it's a novella, which has happened once or twice, I have to pull out both leaves of the table. What I am going to do when the Book is licked into shape is anyone's guess. Mimi might have a word or two to say about a forty-foot refectory table sticking out into the garden through a hole roughly hacked through the wall. But I'll burn that bridge when I come to it.)
When it's all laid out, I sit high up on the back of a chair and look down on the whole work. Like that, I can see everything. I can see what works and what doesn't. I have been known to talk during this bit: "You must be mad. That bit doesn't belong there. It's too early." or: "That bit's too long and lumpy. Why don't you break it up with some back story from that bit over there."
People who walk in during this process usually make an excuse and go hurriedly about their business.

After that I have to edit, using the hated C&P. But even then, it isn't finished. I put it in an envelope and place it on the table by the door. There it sits, sometimes for a week or more, until I know I am really happy with that last line, or until Mimi threatens to put it into the recycling bag. Nobody ever reads my stories except me and the editor. Mimi doesn't read English very well, and because I'm bad at oral storytelling, trying to tell and explain a story to her is like trying to explain the leg-before-wicket rule to a young owl.
So, all in all, writing chez nous is a bit of a cottage industry. I keep expecting tourist groups from Osaka and Wichita Falls to wander through and take photographs. I also feel that, at the same time, Mimi should be stitching together little linen bags of lavender, or fashioning litle pottery animals. I haven't suggested this : I may be mad, but I'm not yet suicidal.

My fervent hope is, that perhaps, just perhaps, contributing to Sleuthsayers is going to force me to join the grown-ups.
But, to prove that I am on the way to becoming a Big Person, I have to get this piece on the blog. This may take some time. First I have to run out and find a five-year-old child.

08 November 2011

If It's Tuesday This Must Be Belgium -- or, "The Dutch Website Mystery"

    Several times in the course of past articles on SleuthSayers I have referenced my Belgian friend and occasional collaborator Kurt Sercu and his remarkable website Ellery Queen  --  A Website on Deduction.  In fact, in my first post I promised more about Kurt in the future.  No time like the present!

    I stumbled on to Kurt’s site sometime in 2000, when it had been on-line for about a year.   As an Ellery Queen stalwart over the years I had frequently used internet search engines to look for on-line articles about Queen.  Invariably those searches yielded rudimentary lists of books, or abbreviated discussions on the lives of Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay, who were Queen.  My expectations  were therefore already low when I ran the search again in mid-2000.  I was surprised when  Kurt’s then-new site appeared at the top of the search list and was awed when I then visited the site.  Even if you are not an Ellery Queen fan you have to be amazed by Kurt’s website.  It goes on forever.   But before embarking on a short tour of the site, let’s delve a bit deeper into the background of its author and proprietor

Brugge, Belgium
    It is a sort of poetic symmetry that Kurt is superficially a wholly unlikely candidate to preside over the world’s foremost collection of facts pertaining to the Queen canon – after all, in Ellery Queen mysteries it is often the least likely character who is in fact the murderer!  How unlikely?  Well, Kurt is a head nurse at a large hospital in Belgium.  He and his wife Martine and their two children Dries and Astrid reside in the picture-perfect town of Brugge, Belgium.  His native language is Dutch, and his website offers up both an English language and Dutch version.  One might perhaps have expected Hercule Poirot from Kurt, but Ellery Queen?

Dale Andrews and Kurt Sercu,

In the amazing world of the internet – where everyone can be everyone else’s virtual neighbor – Kurt and I first became friends during the course of an exchange of messages on the Golden Age Detective Forum, where Kurt presides over the Ellery Queen section.  Since then Kurt and I have corresponded by email, often several times per week, and we have visited in person twice – once in 2005 when literally on the spur of the moment he flew to D.C. and together we attended the Ellery Queen Centenary Symposium hosted by EQMM in New York City.  Thereafter, two years ago Kurt and his family vacationed in the United States and stayed with us in Washington, D.C. for one week.

But back to that website.  Kurt explains there that he first became interested in Ellery Queen when he read Queen mysteries, in Dutch translation, in the 1970s.
[Then, Kurt explains,] in 1997 the net came to my house.  After some time I wanted to start a website of my own. Not one with personal [reflections] but with content, content useful to the visitor.   If all webmasters would do the same the net [it seemed to me could become an] interesting place to spend some time.  My first idea was to start a website on Tolkien.  But several sites on the subject already existed and had done a great job! So what other subject I could talk about? Well, there was [my then] small collection Queen-stories.
Those stories, together with some articles Kurt had collected concerning Ellery Queen, formed the early foundation for Ellery Queen – A Website on Deduction.  
[At first I] tried to "cut and paste" my way through what grew into a large volume of information. Too few sites, in my opinion, do justice to [Queen], who started off in the late twenties and [continued to write] into the seventies.  He made maximum use of the media at that time and is now, I feel, grossly neglected. I hoped the site [would] fire up more interest in the Ellery Queen stories.
The result of Kurt’s efforts has now grown into a near-Byzantine website.  In fact, I know of no other site that is as complex, or that offers up deeper insight into its subject matter.

     A word of caution – as noted above, Kurt has published two versions of the site, one in his native Dutch language and one in his second (or perhaps third or fourth) language – English.  My second language is Spanish, and I do well if I can order from the menu in a Mexican restaurant.  So expect a few translation difficulties, and just marvel that someone can produce such a source of information in a language that is not their native tongue.

     Just as it is the best practice not to reveal “spoilers” when discussing detective fiction, so too I want to be careful not to reveal too much about Kurt’s website since, like Ellery Queen’s stories, there is much just below the surface that is best discovered by the reader working through the site at his or her own pace.

In many respects the site is half Wikipedia, half computer game.  For those of you somewhat removed from the “gaming community,” there is a device used quite often in games that is referred to as the “Easter Egg."  Easter Eggs are hidden messages or "in" jokes or references hidden in the course of a game.  Kurt’s site is full of Easter Eggs -- click-able words that the reader will miss unless care is taken, and that, once found, will lead the reader to hidden pages from which you can tunnel deeper and deeper into the subject matter.  As an example, if you dig really deep you can find my very first Ellery Queen pastiche, never published elsewhere.  But it will take a lot of looking.  I barely remember how to get there myself!  You can also find hidden goodies such as an essay on the Queen Centenary Symposium, one click away but otherwise not referenced on the site’s menu.

      It would be easy to spend a rainy day entirely entertained by Ellery Queen -- A Website on Deduction.  The homepage for the site gives you most of what you need to know in order to begin your journey.  While some guidance is offered below, explore the page with your cursor.  Like a good fair play mystery the site holds lots of twists and turns, just awaiting discovery.

That promise aside, here is a sort of beginner’s guide to the site.

    “List of Suspects” takes you to detailed essays on recurring characters in the Queen library – Ellery, the Inspector, Sergeant Velie and, among others that infrequent Secretary and almost love interest, Nikki Porter. You will also find essays on Djuna, a character in early Queen mysteries (who also figures prominently in The Book Case pastiche), and lesser luminaries -- like coroner Dr. Samuel Prouty.

   “QBI” unlocks an amazing sixteen pages in which every Ellery Queen book ever written – and not just those in which Ellery appears – is discussed in detail.  Kurt even provides the history of each of the works that Dannay and Lee “farmed out” to other writers in a perhaps ill conceived attempt to keep the Queen name before the reading public.  (Some, including Frederic Dannay’s son Richard, have argued that this in fact hastened the demise of Queen since these later volumes are generally inferior to the works actually authored by Dannay and Lee.)  While perusing these essays be sure to click on the covers of the various volumes – this will take you to even more in-depth discussions of each work.

     “Kill as Directed” offers up essays on every Ellery Queen movie, comic book and television series.  Clicking through the list of episodes of the first EQ television series, which aired on the ancient and largely forgotten Dumont television network, will lead you to a select few episodes that Kurt has uncovered that can be watched, in their entirety, through the website.   The section also contains a full and affectionate guide to the 1975 NBC Ellery Queen series, a personal favorite, now (finally) available in a re-mastered DVD collection, and surely one of the finest fair play detective series to ever grace the small screen. 

     “Whodunit” contains essays chronicling the lives of Dannay and Lee.  But you will also find biographical notes on every other author who  ever authored a Queen work as a ghost writer.  These comprise those farmed-out volumes, the Ellery Queen Jr. juvenile mystery series, and some later Ellery works that, while outlined by Dannay, were written by others during the period in which Manfred B. Lee famously suffered from writer’s block.  In "Whodunit" you will also find descriptions of every Ellery Queen pastiche ever written.

     This all just scratches the surface.  And the site continues to grow.  In addition to the interview with Iiki Yusan, which prompted my SleuthSayer’s article on October 25, Kurt has also recently devoted a growing number of pages to the “West Eighty Seventh Street Irregulars,” comprised of individuals who have been active in keeping alive the Queen name.  There you will find essays by Joe Christopher, Janet Hutchings, Jon Breen and (blushing) me!

     Enough guidance!  Go forth.  And be warned – there is a lot more clicking to be done before you even get beyond the site’s introduction page.  If you are a Queen fan, or potential Queen fan, well, read and enjoy.  But even if you are not, take a look around the website and marvel at how much sheer information is imparted through this grandly designed portal.

David Dean, right, with his Readers' Choice award.  (Runner-up on left)
A note to Tuesday readers -- as you may have noticed, there has been a little bit of disarray getting our Tuesday rotation of authors up and running.  For that reason you have had me lurking around here for several weeks in a row.  Next week, however, we welcome aboard a new SleuthSayer -- David Dean.  

David is a well known author of mystery stories, who will doubtless offer up his own introduction next week.  I have some (grudging) praise that I will proffer first, however.  David's short story Ibrahim's Eyes came in first place in the 2007 EQMM Readers Choice survey, thereby edging out -- by one vote -- The Book Case, which placed second.   Welcome, David!

07 November 2011

Ideas R Us

Jan Grape Almost every time I talk to a group about writing and get to the Q and A portion, I’m asked, “Where do you get your ideas?”

I have a couple of stock answers which usually get a laugh. One is: “I belong to ‘Ideas of the Month Club’ and they send me ideas once a month.” (I think I stole that from mystery writer, Les Roberts.) The other is: “I just go to “Ideas R Us” and buy one when I need it.” (Am sure I stole that from someone, too.)

My own real answer is: Ideas are in the air, all you have to do is pull one down when you need one.

Deadly Allies III wrote two short stories that were inspired by songs. One story was “Scarlett Fever” in the Deadly Allies II anthology and my inspiration (idea) came from a song by Kenny Rogers, titled “Scarlett Fever.” In the song, this guy kept going to a club to watch a dancer named Scarlett and fell in love with her. One night he goes to the club and she’s not there anymore and he’s devastated. My idea was: what happened to this girl? Did she really leave for brighter lights as the club manager says or did something bad happen to her?

My second story is “Deathbed Confession” based on a song by a local Texas writer, Thomas Michael Riley. I can’t really say much about the song without giving away some of the story but it will be published next spring in ACWL Presents: Murder Here, Murder There. This will be the first Jenny Gordon, C.J. Gunn, story in several years and it was nice to find out how the female private investigators were doing. Nice to know that G & G Investigations still is in business. Murder Here, Murder There is the second anthology written by the members of the American Crime Writers League and is co-edited by R. Barry Flowers and myself and published by Twilight Times.

Another story was inspired by a name. A friend of mine, writes a newsy-about-town column in a local weekly newspaper and she writers under the nom de plume of “Ima Snoop.” I thought the name was funny and asked permission to use it in a story called, “The Crimes of Miss Abigail Armstrong.” That story is in the first anthology, from Twilight Times, written by ACWL members and co-edited by R. Barri Flowers and Jan Grape.

My Austin policewoman series was inspired by taking a ten week class, Austin Citizen’s Police Academy training which was offered by the Austin Police Department. In these classes we learned about different departments such as fraud, firearms, robbery homicide, SWAT, etc. After the training was over, I was involved in the alumni association and went out to the academy on numerous occasions to assist in the new cadet training. Training offers set up scenarios using alumni graduates as bad guys and the cadets would have to participate and discover the crime or non-crime committed. Cadets learn how to use their computers, the patrol car’s siren, their walkie-talkies and to quickly access a situation and act accordingly. That was fun because I got to role-play as a bad guy, which soon led to a voice I kept hearing in my head. Fortunately, I began writing Zoe Barrow’s story in Austin City Blue, published in 2000 by Five Star and wasn’t hauled off in a strait-jacket by the guys from the funny farm.

My latest novel, What Doesn’t Kill You, came from seeing a little girl with ears that stuck out like open taxi doors, who was in a bookstore with her grandfather. She wanted to buy a magazine, but gramps said they couldn’t afford it. Somehow that little girl stayed in my mind and eventually became the sixteen year old, Cory Purvis, in that book.

Just yesterday, a friend asked me to do some research on sleepwalking for her. Who knows– I may come up with a character who kills when sleepwalking or so he/she claims.

Today I read a short article in my Sunday newspaper about people selling lollipops which have been licked by children with chickenpox. The buyers are people who don’t want to vaccinate their children but want them to catch the childhood disease. People could go online and look for: 'Find a Pox Party In Your Area' the article said. Cost was $50 a pox-licked lollipop. The sellers are selling these all over the country, sending the candy by mail. Sending diseases and viruses by mail is a federal crime. So some arrest have been made and prosecutors warning parents. Can you imagine giving your child a lollipop, supposedly with chickenpox virus on it? What if it were AIDS virus, or hepatitis? What if it were a more deadly lollipop like Anthrax or something similar? That news article idea sounds like a great plot for a book and I’ll bet we’ll see that used in one very soon.

Newspapers, TV news reports, TV shows, songs, books or stories by other writers, something read on the internet all can give you ideas. So in my humble opinion, ideas are everywhere and all you have to do is pull one down. As a last resort, just go to the mall to IDEAS R US and buy an awesome idea.

06 November 2011

Crime News

by Leigh Lundin

It's time to return to crime news, starting with Halloween.

Bag of Bones

Knightstown, In.  This little burg is a few minutes over country roads from the village where I went to high school. I recall being amused at the 'aptonym' of a local business, Butcher's Mortuary.

A local family isn't amused after moving into their house and finding an attic with scalpels, surgical scissors, bone saws, and… bones. And skulls. And lots of creepy stuff like embalming fluid. WoooOOOooo…

Smugglers Turn Tail

Ribeirao Preto, Brasil.  Brazilian police waxed heroic as they took down a Cessna full of smugglers with their car. The video below is plane adrenaline.

Coaled Comfort

Chicago, IL. 
I've been seeing ads for 'clean coal'. Color me darkly skeptical. My grandparents and my old school burned coal and trust me… there's nothing at all clean about coal. Be that as it may, Greenpeace protesters rappelled down from the Pulaski Bridge and dangled in the paths of coal barges to prevent passage and climbed smokestacks to paint the message QUIT COAL on outdated and unsafe coal-fired plants.

I'm not unsympathetic to Greenpeace, but I award Chicago Police the prize for humor. Officers charged protesters with misdemeanor 'reckless conduct' and 'performing an aerial exhibition without a net'.

Slippery Slope

Houston, Tx.  Forty-one years after a Texas woman killed her husband by dousing him in hot grease, police and prosecutors succeeded in tracking Mary Ann Rivera down and bringing her to trial. However, Judge Mary Lou Keel dismissed charges, saying too much time had elapsed.

Strange… Texas is usually so hot to fry perpetrators.

Showing a Bit of Ankle

Paulding County, Ga.  The dumber-than-a-box-of-rocks-off award goes to a Georgian man, a 'high-risk' sexual offender. When police received reports of a dude exposing himself, they simply matched the GPS and time-stamp on his ankle monitor with the time and place of the crime scene.

Attached GPS… It's a no-brainer.

Tall Corn

Fort Dodge, Ia.  Hang on, because this is convoluted. The gist is an Iowa woman, who apparently has a history of fraud in Colorado, Illinois, and Nebraska, concocted a scheme to frame her ex-husband (who'd twice accused her of trying to kill him) by murdering a neighbor and staging a botched home invasion. Her lawyer claims she's just an innocent little ol' victim of police prejudice.

On second thought, I'm not going to try to describe it. Click on the heading above and decide for yourself.

Burning Rage

Des Moines, Ia.  I don't know what it is about Iowa, but police charged a Des Moines woman with arson after she was defriended by another woman on Facebook. The other woman and her husband barely escaped with their lives, awakened around 1AM by a boom as their garage collapsed.

We pretty much guarantee there's no hunk-a-hunk of burning love lost.

Hacked Off (update)

Edinburgh, Scotland, UK.  I wrote about Gary McKinnon last December. He has Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, combining limited mental capacity with OCD. Gary got a bee in his bonnet that the US was hiding files on secret free-power sources and UFOs. Unfortunately, he hacked into something like 100 US Army, Navy, Air Force, Defense Department, and NASA computers searching for such information. As the military and NASA readily acknowledge, he didn’t vandalize and he may not have stolen anything. Nonetheless, our government is insistent he be brought to the US and prosecuted, where he could spend the rest of his life in prison.

Gary has great sympathy within the UK and even the US, the computer community, and those who understand such disorders as Gary’s. Two British Prime Ministers and the British ambassador asked Ambassador Hillary Clinton to seek US forbearance. A recent legal review has not found a legal reason to abide with the extradition treaty with the US.

There's a twist. According to WikiLeaks, the White House is not in a forbearing mood, still angry with Scotland’s release of convicted Lockerbie bomber, Ali Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, subsequently welcomed home by Libya. This may not be the best time to ask, but it appears nothing will be gained by locking McKinnon away in a US prison.

Hacked Off (Amish style)

Jefferson County, Pa.  In black-on-black (clothing) violence, a rebel group of Amish men have been breaking into homes at night and snipping off the hair of other men (and a 13-year-old girl, if news reports are to be literally believed). "Who knows where it's going to end?" mused the task force lead, Sheriff Fred Abdalla.

The suspects are followers of… wait for it… Sam Mullet.

Very Grand Theft Auto

Erie, Pa.  A car thief, possibly an illegal alien, stole a car and then returned it with a note of apology, written in Spanish. If you have information about a polite car thief, call Police Officer Stu Harrison at 717-225-1333 ext. 111.

Norman x 26

Nizhny Novgorod, Russia Police found more than two dozen female corpses dressed much like dolls in the home of historian Anatoly Moskvin. Wait, it's not what you think– Moskvin didn't make them corpses, he dug them up.

His parents reported him. Apparently Moskvin has the odd hobby (what they call 'hobby' we call crazed obsession) of visiting at least 750 graveyards in the, er, dead of night to, em, dig up a date.

Carlos, aka Ilich Ramirez Sanchez
The Jackal (yawn)

Nothing's more banal than a Marxist-Leninist privileged class terrorist, unless it's an aging privileged class terrorist trying to protect his 'suave image'. Bombing and strikes against unarmed citizens is cowardly, no matter how heroically terrorists pretend to portray themselves.

Carlos, aka Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, is back in court to answer charges of four additional bombings stemming from the early 1980s, bombings that wounded 200 and killed eleven. In protest, Sanchez wages hunger strikes which, from his chubby cheeks, appear to last no more than twenty minutes, as if anybody cares.

Feel-Good neo-Nazi Story

Somewhere, USA. 
This story is about a former neo-Nazi and his wife who are so dedicated to reforming, he endured months of pain and shame. Associated Press correspondent Helen O'Neill wrote about it so well, I can't improve upon it, but if you haven't read her article, I strongly recommend it.

new-Nazi transformation
new-Nazi transformation

Until next week, stay out of the news.

05 November 2011

“Because I have something to say”

Last time I was up at bat on SleuthSayers, I confessed that I couldn’t write a cozy, although I know authors who do it very well and whose careers are flourishing as a result. Now I’ll add that I doubt I could write a save-the-world thriller, a locked room mystery, or a a forensics procedural. They’re simply not my bag.
I would add serial killers to the list, except that the protagonist of one of my published short stories is a paranormal serial killer. Another story features a revenge killer. Short stories are a grand medium for trying on voices and subgenres beyond the writer’s comfort zone. In fact, I was perfectly comfortable with these two murderous protagonists, probably because both were female. I have no empathy for men who kill. My characters sprang to life out of that mysterious inner place that we sometimes call inspiration, allowing me to explore my own dark side.

When I was a kid, my favorite book was Emily of New Moon, by L.M. Montgomery, the author of the classic Anne of Green Gables. Emily was another little orphan girl on Prince Edward Island, and her burning passion was to write. The urge to write is a phenomenon to which many writers attest. Thanks to Project Gutenberg, I found the line that was imprinted on me at the age of seven or eight and reinforced through many rereadings: “There is a destiny which shapes the ends of young misses who are born with the itch for writing tingling in their baby fingertips.” When I googled “urge to write,” what popped up first was a quotation from writer Anne Bernays, who says this urge is “mysterious and subterranean...the creative floodgates having been released in a torrent.”

In my current later-in-life (“old” always being ten years more than me) career as a writer of fiction, I have heard many writers, published and aspiring, express the same sentiment. They declare that the impulse to tell stories cannot be denied and that they’d go on writing even if they knew their work would never be published. This claim has always baffled me. Sure, I feel the call of the muse. Yes, my characters talk in my head. In a poem (“Night Poem,” in Gifts & Secrets: Poems of the Therapeutic Relationship, New Rivers, 1999), I wrote:

...a line tugs at my mind
and I go stumbling through the hall
groping for light and pen
each time I lie back down
the images pop up like frogs
clamoring to be made princes
and you grumble and roll over
as I shuffle into my slippers once again
and go kiss the page

Can't help marching to a different drummer
But if asked, “Why do you write?” I don’t say, “Because I have to.” I say, “Because I have something to say.” For years, I said, “Some day, I’m going to write a mystery titled Death Will Get You Sober.” And when I left my job as director of an alcohol treatment program, I did. Why a mystery? Because I love reading them. Why a character-driven traditional mystery? Because I wanted to make my readers laugh and cry. I was proud as punch when SJ Rozan wrote, “Zelvin’s characters are both over the top and completely believable—just like real people.” But what I wanted to say (with humor and without preachiness) was that recovery itself is transformative and that those who embrace is truly turn their lives around.

My historical series about Diego, a young marrano sailor with Columbus, both confirms and denies that I have to write. Diego came to me in the middle of the night, pounding on the inside of my head and saying, “Let me out! Let me out!” He wouldn’t leave me alone till I went and kissed the page to the extent of making some notes. In the morning, I groaned and said, “I don’t want to write this story. I hate research.” But Diego wouldn’t let me alone until I’d found excerpts from Columbus’s logbook online and learned enough to tell the story (“The Green Cross,” published in EQMM). Diego kept revealing more of his story, so I kept writing about him.

So why this particular event in history? Why this outsider point of view? (The marranos were the secret Jews who converted to avoid the Inquisition and the Jews’ expulsion from Spain in 1492.) The process that produced Diego inside my head was completely unconscious (if not paranormal—both he and his sister Rachel feel completely real to me). I’m Jewish, but if anyone had suggested I write about Jewish themes, I would have said, “That doesn’t interest me.” But evidently I had something to say about being an outsider and, in particular, about being Jewish in a Christian society. And woven into the fabric of Judaism is a concern for social justice, which brought me to the genocide of the Taino, about whom I knew nothing when Diego first came to me.

04 November 2011

Something you might want to know...

I had originally intended to write about something else, this week. However, my attention was caught by a New York Times article. And, I'd like to take a moment to share some information with you.

Not long before 11 September 2001, I spotted a brief note on a network evening news broadcast about a national security exercise known as Dark Winter. Dark Winter was essentially a Bio-Terror Attack Drill, and the news story covering it lasted barely fifteen to thirty seconds. I don't recall ever having seen any other coverage of it -- until now.

Though the story was small in terms of broadcast time, its implications were enormous -- particularly given the fact that every terrorism expert I'd seen or read lately (back in the summer/early fall of 2001) had commented that it was not a question of if there would be a mass-casualty terrorist attack on US soil in the relatively near future; it was a question of when there would be one.

I find it interesting that many media and political figures seem to indicate there was no prior indication that something like 9/11 could take place. To me, in the months leading up to 9/11, the indications were everywhere and ominous (though not specific). And, I wasn't an intel analyst at the time; I was just a civilian who'd been out of the army for a few years but still enjoyed being a bit of a news junkie. Nor do I think there was some sort of conspiracy or cover-up concerning 9/11.

Now please don't think I'm claiming that I knew what was going to happen on 9/11.

I didn't.

Nor did I have any inkling that September 11th, 2001 would be a day unlike any other. My sense of shock and surprise, when it actually took place, were probably about as strong as yours.

As I remarked to a friend, later that day: "Here I am: the big bad ex-Green Beret, and the first time I see thousands of people killed at once, I'm watching it on television -- with my six-year-old daughter in my lap!" (For a change, I'm wasn't joking around.)

What I did know, was that a mass-casualty terrorist strike was something we should all be expecting. But what amazed me after it happened (and still does to this day) is how many people kept asking how "something like this" could happen.

Frankly, it made me a little angry at the time. Not at the folks who asked that question, but rather at the media, because they didn't do a better job of broadcasting the warnings that were being put out. The truth is: I knew to be concerned because I had a tendency to look for stories concerning military or terrorist operations. But, you really had to look for them -- for the most part -- or you wouldn't see them. I suspect that most media gatekeepers (newspaper editors, for instance) really didn't believe foreign terrorists would strike on US soil, so they either "spiked" that type of story, or ran very abbreviated versions -- such as the short segment I had seen about the Dark Winter exercise on the evening news.

Unfortunately, ten years later, it looks as if many of them still feel that way. At any rate, in my opinion, their behavior indicates they feel there won't be a repeat of 9/11 -- or something even worse. But, I still have a tendency to watch for stories like these; it's just my nature. So, if you click on the link below (It may be in red, instead of blue but should still work.), you'll be taken to a New York Times story that is very good (IMHO) and has information you might find worth knowing.

The story is quite in-depth, and covers events that transpired over a number of years. In fact, the writer covers Dark Winter, the exercise I mentioned near the opening of this article. But, he also unearths real concerns about US preparedness for Bio-Terrorist actions, and explains that sophisticated biological weaponry is no longer beyond the reach of terrorist organizations.

I'm not trying to frighten anyone, or to railroad anyone into some political agenda. Frankly, getting the federal government to do its best to protect us from Bio-Terror is something I'd rather not see politicized -- though, according to the NYT article, it may have been.

I believe, however, that we might all benefit if the information contained in the story were known by a large percentage of the populous. So far, however, I haven't run across anyone who's seen it. And, that is why I put it here.

If anyone objects, let me know. And -- Just so you don't worry: I don't intend to do this often (if ever again).

And now, to quote the great Rod Serling (He was a terrific writer, in case you don't know!): "Submitted for your approval..."

NY Times BioTerror Story

03 November 2011


by Deborah Elliott-Upton

One of my longtime writer friends is compiling information for an article about one of my former employers –and maybe unbeknownst to my boss– also one of my best writing mentors though the title was never official.

As editor of the "Book Page" where my book reviews ran every Sunday for several years, Mrs. Tripp may not have known how much in awe I was and still am of her accomplishments.

The writer friend, Bernice Simpson, asked my initial reaction to meeting my editor in person. The memory made me smile. Mary Kate Tripp looked like she ought to be harsh. She looked like a tough reporter. She looked exactly like I expected her to be. Picture Katherine Hepburn and you picture Mary Kate Tripp – all the sass, spitfire and spunk rolled up in a no-nonsense attidtude about her work.

Mrs. Tripp conquered the Old Boy's Club of the newsroom decades ago when women weren't allowed to wear slacks in public much less be a spitfire of a reporter. Women were like children and meant to be seen and not heard. If you went by the photo accompanying her column, you would suspect she was a stern woman who probably never laughed. Looks can be deceiving. Sometimes.

My initial meeting with Mary Kate Tripp happened when I wanted to write a book review of Jan Grape's mystery novel, AUSTIN CITY BLUE. I had never attempted to write a book review to be published, but when I met Jan at a writer's workshop, I knew I wanted to give it a try. When I spoke on the phone to Mrs. Tripp, she gave me the go-ahead to write the review on spec. For the non-writer, that simply means if they don't like it, it won't see print and you won't get paid no matter how much time you spent doing the research and writing the piece. It's just the way of the publishing world. After giving me the guidelines, Mrs. Tripp instructed she wanted me to bring a hard copy of the review to her home so she could meet me.

When she opened the door, I felt like Mary Richards (the main character from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show") meeting crusty Lou Grant for the first time. I swallowed hard and introduced myself while Mrs. Tripp gave me the "once over." I couldn't tell what sort of impression I made on her, but I desperately wanted to do this paricular book review and be published in the newspaper. To be honest, I wanted more than that: I wanted to be Mary Kate Tripp or at least inherit her job when she retired.

I have no idea how old she was then or now, but her hair is still white and worn in an unswept hairdo, both professional and intimidating simultaneously. The woman had won about every award a reporter could win and had interviewed everyone from celebrities to those in politics to ordinary people making a difference in the world through their books. She'd helped many local authors on their way to great careers.

The woman was sharp and once I got to know her, hid a delicious sense of humor beneath that steel glint expression in her eyes. At that first meeting, she told me she wanted to know about me. I was surprised. I assumed my writing would be all that mattered. I had given her my postal box address to send my check. Instead of asking where I resided, she inquired, "Where do you vote?" Inwardly, I smiled at her cleverness, but outside I tried to to keep my expression stoic. I was trying to appear more experienced and professional I suppose, but she probably saw right through me. (I've been told I must be lucky in love because I don't have a decent poker face to win at cards at all.)

My writing style ended up being my saving grace as she bought the review, then led me to her office in the back of the house and told me to pick out whatever books I'd like to review for the next Sunday's edition. In that moment, I realized I was hired for more than one gig. I stayed with the newspaper until it was sold to out-of-state owners who decided to discontinue the Book Page. I did write a few book reviews for the paper when one of my friends had a new book released, but it wasn't as much fun as when I worked for Mary Kate Tripp.

The best memory of working for her came one day after I'd selected a stack of books for the next week and Mrs. Tripp invited me "to sit and visit for a bit." I listened as she told me stories about when she'd first graduated from college and found no jobs available to her. She took a position for a rancher and his wife tutoring their children and becoming their nanny on the side. This woman who'd seemed so hard to crack admitted she often rode a horse to a spot where she could be alone and sneak a cigarette. The rancher didn't approve of women smoking, she told me. I didn't get the impression she enjoyed teaching children, but times were hard and she needed work. Then she grinned and said, "But his wife sure was a good cook." Mrs. Tripp eventually went to work for the newspaper and rose up through the ranks, keeping a marriage going along with a job back when women didn't do such things after marrying. Mary Kate Tripp is one heck of a woman, one great writer and a terrific mentor and role model for me. She inspired me to become a mentor to an aspiring writer a couple of years ago. (Yes, I had a full school year– that's nine months of Summer – with mystery writer, Summer G. Baker. Keep a lookout for that name!)

Do you have a mentor in your life and are you one to someone? It's really a wonderful experience and I highly recommend mentorship from both sides of the equation.

02 November 2011

A Page A Day

 by Robert Lopresti

A while back we had some new friends over for dinner and when they found out that I write fiction  one of them said "But how do you find time?"

I gave my usual answer, with a shrug: "If you write a page a day at the end of the year you have a novel."

Which satisfied my guests, but I knew it was facile and disingenuous (which are two wonderful words, but not such wonderful things to be).  Because the fact of the matter is that if you write a page a day at the end of the year  what you have is 365 pages.  There exist, I have been assured, people who start on page 1 of a book and when they finish the first draft have something ready to send to the publisher.  So I have heard and I assume it is true, but boy, it's not the way things work in my world.

Leaving aside the question of rewriting (a big question as far as I am concerned), writing in small doses I find it hard to keep the plot and especially the mood together. I generally try to write a first draft in a rush, dumping my brain on the page as fast as possible, knowing I will have to rewrite every sentence, but trying to getting it on the page as close to my insipration as possible.  Of course, that's easier to do with a short story than a novel.

I am currently working on a novelette and am taking advantage of the only consistent free slot in my schedule: my lunch hour.  So that means I have been writing about a page a day after my bowl of mixed veggies.  (Today is an exception since I am writing this instead.)

I have written the beginning and end of the story and am now working on the part that interests me least: the second act.  I  know that when I tie the two ends together I won't have anything that is ready for a publisher.  Whether it can be beaten into shape, I cannot yet tell.  Ask me again in a year or so.

And don't get me started on yesterday's joyful event when, after twenty minutes of pushing nouns and verbs uphill, Windows decided it was time for an update and restarted my computer.   No, I hadn't saved anything.

Okay.  There's always another lunch hour.  Fortunately no editor is eagerly awaiting this particular publication.  And I guess that's a good thing, huh?

01 November 2011

Old Purple Head

     What follows would have been more appropriate yesterday, on Halloween,  But hey, can I help it that Tuesday is my day, that I get “All Saints’ Day” while Fran drew the darker card?  In any event, this column is spawned from last week, from a year ago, and from the legends that surround all of us, wherever we may find ourselves.  Some of these legends are written anew by the likes of us, you and me, while others evolve, almost on their own, over years.  Folk tales without authors.  Some of these we stumble upon, unexpectedly, as we round a corner.

     The past week my wife and I traveled from Washington, D.C. to southern Illinois to visit friends who live on the banks of Lake Egypt.  This is the second time we have made this trip  Like last year we first stop there, in the woods by the lake, and then after a few days we  move on 130 miles north east to Vincennes, Indiana where my wife’s family lives, and where, every year, just before Halloween, they gather for several nights of bonfires in the woods. 

     Last year when we first added our Lake Egypt stop to the  trip I consulted a map and realized that while most people would travel between southern Illinois and Vincennes by going north on Interstate 57 and then west on Interstate 64, that route is, in fact,comprised of  a geographically inefficient  two sides of a triangle.  There is another way to do this, I concluded – a combination of Illinois 45 and Illinois 1 in fact runs a razor straight hypotenuse to the triangle, connecting Lake Egypt and Vincennes in a straight line.

     We are retired.  We have plenty of time. We don’t need interstates when there are state and country roads.   So last year when I typed our destination into the car’s  GPS  I pushed the button for shortest route, not fastest, and our car proceeded to guide us northeast along route 45.

     Route 45 and route 1 are, for the most part, easy going idyllic two lane blacktop.  They meander through small towns, past lots of barbecue restaurants, antique shops and churches, all with little traffic.  But, as I said, easy going is the description for “the most part.”

     Last year we had almost reached Vincennes, indeed, our GPS indicated less than 10 miles to go before we reached my sister-in-law’s house, when the GPS instructed us to turn off of Illinois 1 and into the small (and a bit deserted) town of St. Francisville, Illinois.  I turned to Pat and asked, “Why are we going to St. Francisville?”  (After all, this is her neck of the woods not mine.)  Pat shrugged and shook her head.   The GPS  next  instructed us to make a sharp left turn off of Main Street and on to a seemingly little used side street.  We dutifully obeyed, following the map in our dashboard as we wandered out of town, into the woods.  After another sharp left we pulled up in front of a ramshackle one room building beside the road and next to two signs.  One said “Stop.”  The other said “Pay Toll.”

      I turned again to Pat.  “Are there any toll roads going into Vincennes?”  “I didn’t think so,” she answered just a bit uneasily.

     There was no place to easily turn around so I pulled up to the open window of the shack.  A bored teenage girl sat inside in a rickety office chair, Ipod, buds in her ears, an illustrated novel propped on a wooden table in front of her.  She lazily turned her head, appraising us,  one eye wide, the other slit.  “One dollar,” she mumbled through chewing gum.  I fished in my pocket and handed over a buck.  The path of least resistance.  We all end up on it more often than not.   She deposited my dollar in a dirty cash register sitting on the table and then turned  back to the comic.  Pat and I eyed each other as I pulled slowly away from the shack.

    The blacktop road rapidly gave out to gravel.  Ahead was a sharp corner.  We rounded it and then, before we knew it, we were facing “Old Purple Head.”   The website Haunted USA describes the Purple Head bridge, spanning the Wabash between St. Francisville and Vincennes as follows:
Purple Head Bridge in Vincennes, Indiana is a decrepit train bridge with most of the ties now missing, leaving holes through its span like gaps of rotten teeth. The rusted metal frame however still spans the Wabash, an echo of the might of the former rail traffic that connected a nation.
Another description appears in the on-line article The Ghosts of the Purple Head Bridge in Vincennes, Indiana by Jennifer Eblin:
The Purple Head Bridge in Vincennes, Indiana, is rumored to be one of the most haunted places in the southern half of the state, if not the entire state. There have been dozens of people over the years, maybe even hundreds of people, all of whom claimed to experience some strange and unsettling things.
The Purple Head Bridge is an old railroad bridge located in Vincennes. Some people claim that this is a toll bridge, but based on the images I have seen, it is clearly a railroad bridge. It is hard to imagine anyone driving a vehicle across it, but a large number of people believe it once did that.
     It is certainly true that Old Purple Head was a railroad bridge, but we all know that you can’t believe everything you find on the internet.  I can tell you, based on personal experience, that however ill advised the enterprise may be, Old Purple Head presently does indeed operate as a one-lane toll bridge (albeit with two way traffic).  And you do not have to take my word for it.  Want to drive it?  Well, take my word for it, the real thing is even worse, but hold on tight because  here we go, courtesy of U Tube.

As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.  (This great video, which tells it all, is courtesy of Ed Brumley, www.edbrumley.com.  Ed truly captured the experience.)

While the drive is scary enough by itself, as noted by Ms. Elbrin the bridge has also spawned a remarkable number of ghost stories, legends that have evolved in the folklore of Southern Illinois and Indiana.
 I have also [Ms. Elbin writes]  heard varying stories on how exactly you are supposed to see the spirits [that inhabit the bridge]. Some people claim that you must drive your car on to the bridge, and wait for strange things to happen. Others state you need only be close to the bridge. Given its decrepit state, and the pieces missing from the bridge, I would highly advise against trying to find a way to get your car on to it.
According to local legends one of the spirits of the Purple Head Bridge is visible only during storms. Supposedly a man once decided to kill himself by hanging himself from one of the trestles during a storm. Something went terribly wrong and he was decapitated in the fall. Today [it is said that] you can see his head floating along the bridge. . . .
     Other local legends maintain that the bridge is haunted by a native American medicine man, murdered there during the French and Indian wars.  Still other locals will tell you that the bridge was used by the Ku Klux Klan for lynchings.  Students at nearby Vincennes University have posted website accounts of ghostly encounters that invariably occur late at night on the bridge.  Others claim that if you stand on the bridge at night you will see a luminescent purple head floating below in the Wabash.  Want more?  Google “Purple Head Bridge” – there are pages of references and stories.

     What’s the suggested take-away here?  Well, one might be that sometimes we write the stories and sometimes the stories evolve around us.  Some places are so strange, so unexpected and maybe even bone-chilling when you first encounter them that they beg for backstories.  You can find those places, sometimes they will find you.  And you can write those stories.  But you better hurry up because if you don’t write them, well. . . eventually they are going to write themselves.

     Last week, one year later, on the 27th of October, Pat and I once again were headed across Southern Illinois bound for Vincennes.  We have a new car this year, and I was hoping for a different GPS outcome.  But when our dashboard display directed us to turn left off of Main Street in St. Francisville at an old wooden sign that said “toll bridge,” we instead pulled a U-turn and drove back to Route 1.  There are limitless stories out there, and there are also plenty of other ways to cross the Wabash.

(A note to readers -- the interview with Iiki Yusan that was a basis for last Tuesday's article is now available on Kurt Sercu's website Ellery Queen -- a Website on Deduction.  Click here and follow Kurt's prompts.)