16 February 2012


In writing, as in so much in life, a good start is vital. Unless it’s the dreaded assigned reading, a novel or story with a flat opening is doomed to remain unread and unsold, one reason why so many contemporary mysteries and thrillers start with the page one discovery of a corpse, preferably young, female and formerly beautiful. While a few writers, like Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell) in A Fatal Inversion and Eric Ambler in Journey into Fear, are content to build up a suspenseful atmosphere and trust to their literary skill, most prefer to start with more visceral excitements.
But the modern preference for a scene of unbridled carnage is not the only option. Since February 2012 marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens birth, we can profitably look at a writer who was supremely confident about his beginnings – and his audience.

He is famous for opening lines like, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” that begins A Tale of Two Cities, and he was no stranger to exciting openings. In the first pages of Great Expectations, Pip is frightened by the escaped convict, Magwitch, and early on in Our Mutual Friend, a body, yes, indeed, is pulled from the river. There’s also murder and all sorts of brutality in Oliver Twist, and, besides Our Mutual Friend, another genuine mystery in the unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

The beginnings of any one of these – or of other Dickens’ works – repay examination, but I will stick with the one I know best, having taught it to many classes of Gen Ed students, most of whom were not enthralled by literature of any type. A Christmas Carol was a happy exception for them, although it lacks the explosions, car chases, and bizarre deaths of the pop fiction and video games they enjoyed.

True, A Christmas Carol does begin with a death or, at least, the fact that Marley, Scrooge’s old partner, is dead. But Dickens doesn’t plunge immediately into the whys and wherefores of Jacob Marley’s demise. He takes time to speculate on whether “dead as a doornail” is really the most appropriate simile, before declaring that it embodies the “wisdom of the ancestors.” He also allows himself an amusing digression on the ghost of Hamlet’s father before he finally turns to the matter at hand, which becomes the immortal description of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Right away, we see two things that appeal to readers. First, an intimate, amusing, and confident voice. Who can resist Dickens’ conviction that we will stay with him through his little jokes and asides? And who wants to resist those energetic sentences with their reckless piling up of nouns and adjectives, all due to be undercut for comic effect. Referring to Marley’s death, he tells us that “Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event...”

And then, there are the characters. When its time to describe Scrooge himself, Dickens really cuts loose, beginning with “Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!” Most writers would be exhausted right there, but Dickens is just warming up. He has a lot to say about his protagonist, much of it funny, all of it sharp, with no wishy washy adjectives, no cliches.

Every character gets similar treatment. There is no such thing as a faceless man or woman in Dickens. The most minor character is sharply delineated and even the holiday display of fruit and vegetables in Carol get the star treatment. This is writing with energy, and I think even reluctant readers respond to the writer’s irresistible enthusiasm.

Of course the passport of genius crosses many borders, but it is not a bad thing to remember energy in writing as well as pyrotechnics in plot. Especially in mysteries and thrillers, there is a tendency to rush to the exciting scenes or to what, in more innocent times, was called the naughty bits. Action writers tend to remember Elmore Leonard’s famous dictum to leave out the parts readers skip, but anyone who has sampled his dialogue knows that if his sentences are short, his high octane prose has been painstakingly distilled.

So can Dickens two hundred years on give us some tips for beginnings? Yes, he can. Write with confidence in your audience. Build up the energy in the prose as well as in the plot, and remember there is really no such thing as a minor character in the hands of a genius.

15 February 2012

Popularity Contest

by  Robert Lopresti

A couple of weeks ago one hundred-plus million people watched a football game broadcast from Indianapolis.  I was not among them.  Instead I was one of about fifty watching Dick Hensold do his stuff in person.  He's the dude on the left in the video below.

The contrast between the audience for these two events got me thinking about popularity.  It seems like a good time for it, since a bunch of politicians are currently spending mult-millions to try to win one of the biggest popularity contests in the world.  On a slightly smaller scale, I also belong to the Short Mystery Fiction Society whose volunteer judges are currently trying to decide on nominees for the best stories of 2011.  Then I and the other members will get to pick the winners.  It seems like everyone wants to be popular.

Of couse we all know that fan-base is not a perfect measure of quality.  Some very bad books have sold like crazy and some very good books vanished without making a ripple.  But I suppose it is the closest thing to an objective measurement we have: people voting with their dollars, their time, their attention. 
I sometimes wonder if there is another measure besides width of the fan-base.  Depth, perhaps?  After all, there are lots of writers I like, but I'm  not equally crazy about them.  Everyone on the best seller list has tons of fans, but are they equal if you ask the desert island question (If you could only bring five books…)  But maybe that would only identify the obsessive fans, the scary folk Elizabeth wrote so well about last week..
After all, if you want attention, you can’t get much more intense than a stalker.  But I suppose most of us would prefer the same amount of attention spread out over a few hundred book-buyers.  Although it might be fun if some big corporation offered to pay a million dollars to put an ad on SleuthSayers....

14 February 2012

Valentine's Day -- Love Among the Clues

    Every once in a while my schedule of alternating Tuesdays coincides with a special day on the calendar.  Such is the case today:  Valentine’s Day.  A day of romance, a day that, while falling in the midst of winter, conjures spring.

    Trying to stay on topic here I decided to offer up my best recommendation for a Valentine’s Day mystery:  a story that will tug at your mind while also tugging at your heart.  Finding a candidate that fits that description is not, however, an easy task.  The Golden Age of detective fiction (my favorite hunting ground) is not exactly riddled with romantic mysteries.  This can be illustrated best by examining some favorite classical mystery authors whose works simply do not fit the bill.

   None of the Sherlock Holmes stories are potential Valentine’s Day nominees.  The closest we get to a romantic involvement for Mr. Holmes is Irene Adler, who actually appears in only one Holmes story, A Scandal in Bohemia..  Irene Adler has no romantic scenes with Holmes in any Arthur Conan Doyle story, and in fact A Scandal in Bohemia ends with her marriage to someone else.  Nonetheless she is frequently linked with Holmes, but in various pastiches, not in the original Arthur Conan Doyle canon.

    The source for these romantic conjectures involving Sherlock and Irene probably stems from a passage in  A Scandal in Bohemia where Watson sets the stage as follows:

To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind.
    This, plus the fact that Irene Adler is referred to, albeit fleetingly, in four other Holmes stories, A Case of Identity, The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, the Five Orange Pips and His Last Bow, inspired other writers, notably Nicholas Meyer and J.S. Baring-Gould, to speculate as to a romantic involvement between the two.  But none of their stories, and certainly none of Arthur Conan Doyle’s, meets our Valentine’s Day requirements of a mystery that is also a romance.

    My favorite Golden Age detective, Ellery Queen, fares no better.  While Ellery engaged in some flirtations over the years, in The Finishing Stroke for example, no actual romantic involvement ever took place during the course of the Queen novels and short stories.  Two recurring female characters appear as quasi-romantic possibilities, but, again, neither suffices for our purposes.

    The first of these is Nikki Porter who for a time was Ellery’s secretary.  Nikki first appeared in the Ellery Queen radio series and movies and was later a character in two Queen novels, There Was an Old Woman and The Scarlet Letters .  Nikki also appears in several short stories, but she and Ellery were never portrayed as a couple.  (Just as Irene Adler inspired other writers to hypothesize romantic involvement with Holmes, so, too, Nikki inspired a similar hypothesis concerning her involvement with Ellery in The Book Case, a conjecture for which I am largely responsible!)

   The only other possible femme fatale in the Queen canon is Paula Paris, a reclusive Hollywood columnist who sparks Ellery’s interest in The Four of Hearts and who also appears in several Queen short stories set in Hollywood.  (Paula also makes a brief appearance in my Queen pastiche The Mad Hatter’s Riddle.)  But, again, whatever spark there might have been between Paula and Ellery ultimately fails to ignite.

David Suchet as Poirot
    What of Agatha Christie?  Well, slim pickings there too.  As far as I can determine there was never any reference to a love interest for Miss Marple, and no love story involving her ever played a part in the Miss Marple novels and short stories.  We get a little closer with Hercule Poirot.  Poirot was apparently smitten at least once --  by Vera Rossakoff , a Russian countess who appears in The Double Clue and then re-appears in The Big Four and The Labours of Hercules.  However, while there is infatuation that is evident on Poirot’s part, at least in the course of Christie’s written word any attraction between the two remains unrequited.  So no Valentine story there.

    With Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe we fare, if anything, even worse.  While there is the occasional female character who earns the grudging respect of Wolfe, by and large the detective is portrayed by Rex Stout as a misogynist.  Archie Goodwin describes Nero Wolfe’s views on women as follows in The Silent Speaker:

 The basic fact about a woman that seemed to irritate him was that she was a woman; the long record showed not a single exception; but from there on the documentation was cockeyed. If woman as woman grated on him you would suppose that the most womanly details would be the worst for him, but time and again I have known him to have a chair placed for a female so that his desk would not obstruct his view of her legs, and the answer can’t be that his interest is professional and he reads character from legs, because the older and dumpier she is the less he cares where she sits. It is a very complex question and some day I’m going to take a whole chapter for it.

    Well, interesting, all in all.  But not the stuff of which Valentines are made.

    As an aside, I should at least mention here the famous "e-o/o-e" theory propounded by John D. Clark, Nicholas Meyer, Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, writing as Ellery Queen, and W.S. Baring-Gould that the combination and order of the vowels in "Sherlock Holmes" and "Nero Wolfe" are a clue that Nero Wolfe is in fact the son of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler.  But, again, while there are Valentine possibilities here, the theory is derivative and appears only in homages and analytic works.

     We get much closer to the mark, however, with The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett.  While it is sort of hard to believe, given all of the movie and television sequels that this book spawned, Hammett only wrote one book starring Nick and Nora Charles.  In fact, it was the last book he ever wrote.  And, even more strange is the fact that the Nick and Nora did not even appear in the original version of the 1934 novel, which was first published in a shorter version in installments in Redbook.  In any event, the romantic and flirtatious interchanges between Nick and Nora push this novel much closer to a Valentine’s Day nominee.  Indeed it was Hammett’s novel that set the stage for later spins on the “romantic couple” as detectives, notably television’s MacMillan and Wife, starring Rock Hudson and Susan St. James, and even Richard Stevenson's characters Donald Strachey and his partner Timothy Callahan, who have been referred to as the gay Nick and Nora.

    Having said all of this, however, The Thin Man is no better than a near miss, as far as I am concerned, for today’s purpose.  While the detectives are a couple, the mystery itself doesn’t tie back to or otherwise derive from their romantic involvement.

    Well, as you have probably guessed, I do have a personal favorite to nominate for best Valentine's Day mystery story.   It is Random Harvest by James Hilton. 

    I know, I know, Random Harvest isn’t a classic Golden Age “whodunit” mystery.  But it is a classic.  And it is also, most certainly, a mystery.  Written in 1941, Random Harvest tells the story of Charles Rainier, a wealthy businessman and politician, who battles his way out of amnesia to search for his long-lost love.  The story is a wonderful and nostalgic depiction of life in England from the First World War to the brink of the second, but it is also one of the finest classic mysteries I can remember reading.

    There is a tendency to say too much when discussing Random Harvest, and this I refuse to do.  As I have said before, “no spoilers here.”  I will offer up a snippet from the New York Times review published back in 1941:  “a strange tale . . . harrowing and romantic and tender.”   The Chicago Tribune, in the same year, called the book “Mr. Hilton’s best novel to date.”  That is saying something since Random Harvest was preceded by Lost Horizon  and Goodbye Mr. ChipsRandom Harvest is, in any event, my Valentine’s Day nominee since, to my mind, it is one of the best blends of mystery and romance ever written.

    So if there are any readers out there who have somehow gotten to 2012 without reading Random Harvest, or watching the 1942 film version starring Ronald Coleman  and Greer Garson, this book is for you.  My advice, however, is that you should look no further for information concerning the book: don't watch the movie, don't search out reviews, don't read about it on Wikipedia.  Just get the book and then read it as James Hilton intended, from start to finish without the “help” of others.

    Happily, unlike many volumes from the 1940s Random Harvest is still readily available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.  There is even a Nook edition for $3.99.  (Sorry, apparently it has yet to be “Kindled”!)


    And Happy Valentine’s Day.


13 February 2012

Flim-Flam or Con Artist

Jan Grapeby Jan Grape

For some strange reason I seem to like con artists. Not the ones who set up older people and cheat them out of money.  I mean the guys like Robert Redford and Paul Newman in The Sting. The con to set up bad guys who've wronged people and need to be taken.

The brilliance of a good con is intriguing.  I watched an old Law and Order TV show the other day. It was probably was filmed in the early 2000s. The con was amazing, however, the con artist were not nice people and the people they were cheating were nice people.  And unsuspecting. The story involved two people who had a lot of money.  They were both married, but not to each other.  They were both married to flim-flam artists.  The rich lady had been raped and almost killed.  In fact, she was paralyzed on one side.  Her husband was not suspected at the time and he was very supportive and solitious of her. He was the con man.

As the detectives investigated they discovered another lady living nearby who also had been attacked. Her husband was out of town and he was not a suspect.  She was the con artist.  The two cons set up a lock-smith guy to take the fall. The locksmith had installed new locks on the doors of each residence. When all that failed and the investigation led to the discovery that the con man and woman had been convicted of fraud on Canada and they had different names, the police were charging that the marriages of the two con artist to the rich man and woman were invalid because the cons used fake names.  The DA wanted the rich man and woman to testify against the con artist.  The cons lawyer said they couldn't testify against their spouses. The cons lawyer then gave the DA copies of the both con artists having legally changed their names to the phony ones they were using prior to all this.

The con artist each confessed to their spouse all their previous misdeeds and confessed also to their current misdeeds and the rich man and the rich woman each forgave the con person they were married to and that settled it. Both rich people were in love with their spouses and couldn't believe any of this was just to obtain their money.

Now I won't tell you how the DA and the investigators managed to right this horrible wrong because that would be a spoiler and you might have a chance to see the old episode and you don't want the answer revealed, do you?  (Ok, if you're dying to know, you can e-mail me at Jangrape@aol.com .)

My first thought was whoever wrote this screen play was really an excellent writer.  I don't know who it was because like most of us I don't pay a lot of attention to who the writer is.  Well, maybe I pay more attention than most people because I am a writer and I do have some interest. But I don't remember who the author was and if it had been someone I had heard of or knew about, I might remember.

My next thought was the fact that the story was very entertaining and intriguing.  There were so many twists and turns that everytime the DA thought he had the con artist "dead to rights," they had an answer. Their lawyer was able to produce conflicting evidence and keep his clients out of jail.

As mystery writers we can learn a lot from such programs.  Unfortunately, so many TV shows and movie plots are so full of plot holes that you almost run from the room screaming.  All of us, writers and readers alike really enjoy a good plot.  We like to try to figure out the "mystery," to solve the case along with the detective. I think we can all agree that if we can paint our protagonist into a corner which seems to have no way out, then we have a good story going. The reader had to keep pealing back the layers until they get to the end.

I'll admit that I'm not always the best at plotting.  I think my strongest point is characters.  I enjoy developing good, well-rounded believable characters and hope that my readers like them enough to keep reading even if they figure out "whodunit" by mid-book.  I wish I could plot better and I'm hoping that I can learn more as I continue this journey into the writing game.

But I'll just have to confess that a good flim-flam artist story is one of my favorite reads and I also admit that a good con man is fascinating.  Or maybe it's just Redford and Newman that intrigues me.

12 February 2012

Florida News (Not-so-Hot Sex Edition)

by Leigh Lundin

Florida postcard As you know from past reporting, Florida is one weird state, the only one with its own Fark tag. Sometimes an upstart like Arizona might try to compete, but the Sunshine State is so outlandish that mere cud-a-bin contenders haven't a chance. For example we recently learned pepper spray and tasers trump hi-tech light sabres. And Casey Anthony is never quite out of the news– her attorney went on Geraldo Rivera's show to decry talk show media attention. Apparently José Baez doesn't comprehend irony.


Fair warning: Much of today's report deals with s-e-x, although this time there're no DWS shaving incidents nor intimacy with a handgun.

Personally I like sex. Florida does not. The state actually banned sex, as you shall see, but they weren't satisfied. This is a state with a statute on the books banning sex with porcupines.

Florida doesn't much like nudity either, although visitors to Playalinda Beach tried. You can go topless on South Beach, but good luck elsewhere. Weirdly, some towns legislate swim suits, tops and bottoms, using 9th grade geometry term such as hemispheres and bisected angles. Truly.

Florida Bans Sex

Legislators like to prove to their constituents they're doing something for their money, which usually means passing useless laws. It's true the great state of Oklahoma solved a huge problem when they moved to ban human fetuses in food, but Florida started worrying about tourists having sex with animals, corpses, and presidential candidates. So, the Sunshine State outlawed sex. Really.

Politicians will enforce the ban just as soon as they quit screwing the public.

Florida Golf Wasn't Listening

If you launched a paedophile take-down operation, would you give it the pervy name Operation Red Cheeks? Blech, but that's what Osceola County did in a sting operation near Walt Disney World. Deputies arrested a swim coach and a pro golfer.

A golfing perpetrator really T's me off.

But Kids Are Listening

Fox News climbed right on this story: A 15-year-old called the cops on her mom for having sex. It seems she heard bangin' though the bedroom walls and that meant, yech, mom was having sex. Eew.

Good call, girl. If I'd been as proactive as she, I might not have suffered two younger brothers.

But Not Listening Hard Enough

After a 14-year-old boy hugged his best friend, a 15-year-old girl, his Palm Bay school suspended them. A spokeswoman said the school's focus was on learning, but apparently affection isn't on the books. The girl was punished too, and the suspension was in their permanent records.

That's so they can look back at how ridiculous that ordinance was.

Who's Yer Daddy?

You probably heard Palm Beach Polo Club developer John Goodman just adopted his 42-year-old girlfriend as his daughter to allegedly avoid paying out in a lawsuit.

Okay, here's my question: Won't it be creepy if he tells his new daughter she's ƒing Hot? Won't boffing Heather Hutchins constitute incest? Shouldn't this be doubly illegal?

Busted Big Time

Okay, I'm aware some women suffer keyboard chatter, but driving problems? Martin County deputies stopped a woman driving a Toyota Camry on a suspected DUI who needed to get things off her chest. An operational Camry probably came as a shock, but the officer was stunned when the suspect said she couldn't do the DUI perp walk because her 'big boobies' (no 'ballpark size' specified) overbalanced her and she suffered 'whiplash'. To show she had nothing to hide, she started to strip but the officer stopped her.

Though the lady was in her cups, at least the officer kept abreast of the aforementioned law.

Tastes Like Chicken

Finally, if you were ever curious what human eyeballs taste like, ask a Lynn Haven arrestee.

Me, I want to shower and do something sane like take up writing for a living. See you next week!

11 February 2012

Before Stalking Had A Name

by Elizabeth Zelvin

stalkverb (used without object)
1. to pursue or approach prey, quarry, etc., stealthily.
2. to walk with measured, stiff, or haughty strides: He was so angry he stalked away without saying goodbye.
3. to proceed in a steady, deliberate, or sinister manner: Famine stalked through the nation.
4. Obsolete. to walk or go stealthily along.
verb (used with object)
5. to pursue (game, a person, etc.) stealthily.
6. to proceed through (an area) in search of prey or quarry: to stalk the woods for game.
7. to proceed or spread through in a steady or sinister manner: Disease stalked the land.

1250–1300; Middle English stalken (v.), representing the base of Old English bestealcian to move stealthily, stealcung stalking (gerund); akin to steal
Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc.

As the dictionary indicates, “to stalk” is a verb that has existed in the English language since the thirteenth century. Sherlock Holmes dons his deerstalker hat to pursue his criminal quarry, crying, “The game’s afoot!”

However, surprising as it may seem to young people today, “stalking” as the crime we know today was, if not non-existent, certainly not well known and not by that name. How do I know? Well, yes, of course I googled, finding sources from serious discussion of stalking as a crime by David Levinson in the Encyclopedia of Crime and Punishment (Sage, $716.62 on Amazon, excerpts available on Google Books) to a step-by-step description of “How to Stalk A Celebrity” on WikiHow. As Levinson says, the lover who won’t take no for an answer was considered a comic or romantic figure until several high-profile cases in the 1980s, in at least one of which celebrity stalking led to murder—as well as increasingly vocal concern about domestic violence—led to the first law against stalking as a criminal act in 1990.

But the real reason I know is that it happened to me. I was a fifteen-year-old junior in high school in the late 1950s when a classmate developed what everybody laughingly called “a crush” on me. He tried to get my attention in class and in the school cafeteria. He hung around the schoolyard during the girls’ gym classes so he could see me in my blue cotton gymsuit. When I wouldn’t talk to him, he would buttonhole my friends and even teachers and pour out an endless stream of compulsive talk about how wonderful I was and how much he admired me. He wrote me letters filled with obsessional fantasies about me that I found deeply disturbing but didn’t know how to deal with.

My parents tried to help. Eventually, on their advice, I stopped opening the letters. They tried to get the school to stop him “bothering” me, but the school not surprisingly, did not want to get involved.
He was a bright boy, and they didn’t want to jeopardize his chances of getting into a good college. I believe they even contacted his parents, who, again not surprisingly, were outraged by any complaint against their son.

At one point, he left me alone for a few months, but the pursuit, which I certainly experienced as harassment, intensely embarrassing to an adolescent girl, started up again when our math teacher, returning graded tests to the class, requested that I hand him his paper, since he was sitting right behind me.
The use of our names in the same sentence and my turning around in my seat to give back the test constituted encouragement to this disturbed boy, and the persecution began again. (There’s a good article on emotionally disturbed and mentally ill stalkers here.)

Was I scared? I don’t think so, probably because there was no context in which I could consider his behavior dangerous. However, there is no question in my mind that being victimized in this way blighted my junior and senior years in high school, an age at which a young girl is emotionally extremely vulnerable. I suffered agonies over what teachers (whose high regard I valued) and more attractive boys would think of me as a result of what he told and wrote to them about me. (When I started discarding his letters, he wrote voluminously to everyone around me.) I got nowhere trying to enlist sympathy from my classmates. They thought it was funny.

One morning, a week before graduation, I woke up to the sound of the hated voice haranguing my parents outside our house, with my parents trying to reason with him. He was drunk and delusional, and he had brought along a chance acquaintance to whom he’d spun a story that he was in love with this girl and she with him, but her parents disapproved, so he needed help to plead his case with them. Luckily, his companion was not too drunk to see that the reality was quite different, and finally my parents were able to insist that those responsible for him get him away from me and make sure he got professional help.

It would still be another thirty years before California legislation was the first to make stalking a crime. And in the intervening years, old friends who’d known me in high school would periodically say, laughing, “Do you remember X? He had such a crush on you!”

Stalking A Hundred Years Ago

After writing this post and scheduling it for publication, I found evidence that the kind of adolescent stalking I've described existed a hundred years ago, and that the friends of the distressed victims found it as funny then as my classmates did. Like many new Kindle owners, I loaded my e-reader with free or almost free old favorites as soon as I got it. I've been reading my way through the works of L.M. Montgomery, including the Anne of Green Gables books (all in the public domain), and I came across this passage in The Golden Road, her book about yet another group of children in Prince Edward Island, published in 1913. Cecily is 12 or 13, and she is being teased about getting married.

"It will be time enough when I grow up to think of that, Sara."

"I should think you'd have to think of it now, with Cyrus Brisk as crazy after you as he is."

"I wish Cyrus Brisk was at the bottom of the Red Sea," exclaimed Cecily, goaded into a spurt of temper by mention of the detested name.

"What has Cyrus been doing now?" asked Felicity, coming around the corner of the hedge.

"Doing NOW! It's ALL the time. He just worries me to death," returned Cecily angrily. "He keeps writing me letters and putting them in my desk or in my reader. I never answer one of them, but he keeps on. And in the last one, mind you, he said he'd do something desperate right off if I wouldn't promise to marry him when we grew up."

"Just think, Cecily, you've had a proposal already," said Sara Ray in an awe-struck tone.

"But he hasn't done anything desperate yet, and that was last week," commented Felicity, with a toss of her head.

"He sent me a lock of his hair and wanted one of mine in exchange," continued Cecily indignantly. "I tell you I sent his back to him pretty quick."

"Did you never answer any of his letters?" asked Sara Ray.

"No indeed! I guess not!...But I'll tell you what I did do once. He wrote me a long letter last week. It was just awfully SOFT, and every other word was spelled wrong. He even spelled baking soda, 'bacon soda!'"

"What on earth had he to say about baking soda in a love-letter?" asked Felicity.

"Oh, he said his mother sent him to the store for some and he forgot it because he was thinking about me. Well, I just took his letter and wrote in all the words, spelled right, above the wrong ones, in red ink, just as Mr. Perkins makes us do with our dictation exercises, and sent it back to him. I thought maybe he'd feel insulted and stop writing to me."

"And did he?"

"No, he didn't. It is my opinion you can't insult Cyrus Brisk. He is too thick-skinned. He wrote another letter, and thanked me for correcting his mistakes, and said it made him feel glad because it showed I was beginning to take an interest in him when I wanted him to spell better. Did you ever? Miss Marwood says it is wrong to hate anyone, but I don't care, I hate Cyrus Brisk."

"Mrs. Cyrus Brisk WOULD be an awful name," giggled Felicity.

"Flossie Brisk says Cyrus is ruining all the trees on his father's place cutting your name on them," said Sara Ray. "His father told him he would whip him if he didn't stop, but Cyrus keeps right on. He told Flossie it relieved his feelings. Flossie says he cut yours and his together on the birch tree in front of the parlour window, and a row of hearts around them."

"Just where every visitor can see them, I suppose," lamented Cecily. "He just worries my life out. And what I mind most of all is, he sits and looks at me at school with such melancholy, reproachful eyes when he ought to be working sums. I won't look at him, but I FEEL him staring at me, and it makes me so nervous....And he sends me pieces of poetry he cuts out of the papers," Cecily went on, "with lots of the lines marked with a lead pencil. Yesterday he put one in his letter, and this is what he marked:
'If you will not relent to me Then must I learn to know Darkness alone till life be flown.' Here--I have the piece in my sewing-bag--I'll read it all to you."

Those three graceless girls read the sentimental rhyme and giggled over it. Poor Cyrus! His young affections were sadly misplaced.

L.M. Montgomery takes the sting out of the story with that last paragraph, and I'm sorry she did. I'm sure the other girls giggled, but I'm not so sure the real-life girl Cecily must be based on joined them. What fascinates me is how similar Cyrus Brisk's behavior is to my adolescent stalker's. After one of those moments that triggered his delusion that I was encouraging him, I found this poem (by one of the Elizabethans, probably Thomas Ford), cut out of the paper, on my desk: "There is a lady sweet and kind, Was never face so pleased my mind; I did but see her passing by, And yet I love her till I die."

10 February 2012

In Black & White

Not long ago I watched a pair of films featuring iconic names, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Ha! I know what you're thinking, but you're wrong although one of the movies is monstrously awful. Both turned out to be locked room mysteries.

Mr. Wong, Detective (1938)

This Karloff film is clever if you forgive a kind of police stereotype and the fact K
arloff isn't Chinese, but it tied in with America's on-going fascination with the Orient.

I found myself smiling at a particular 'trope' (for lack of a better word), but discovered the plot hinges upon it. Given that wrinkle, the story turns out to be surprisingly satisfying. If you haven't seen it, it's worth watching.

As much as I like and recommend this film, I'll talk about another with a major failing.

Murder by Television (1938)

In contrast, the Lugosi flick was surprising awful. Bela himself seems resigned to struggling through the movie trying not to tatter his reputation.

What's not to like? It contains everything: corporate intrigue, high tech toys, a musical number, comic moments, and an imbecilic dénouement. Er, but wait, there's more: A half-hearted romantic flame flickers, sputters, and almost dies. Did they forget anything?

Movies in Black & White

The best part of Murder by Television was the cook, Hattie McDaniel, who stole the show with her gentle humor. I heard she sang in this film, though how and why remains a mystery– often films slipped in musical numbers on the flimsiest of excuses.

When I saw no singing, I shrugged it off until I came across a note in IMdb that suggested this particular print may have been intended for the Deep South and deliberately omitted the scene.

What a shame. I can't imagine why Miss Hattie singing would have offended Southern sensibilities, so I'm still mystified if she sang in the film and if it was subsequently deleted. If you know details, share them in the comments. Meanwhile, back in the studio…

Television in 1935

A character in the film makes this prediction: "Television is the greatest step forward we have yet made in the preservation of humanity. It will make … a paradise we have always envisioned but never seen."

Presumably they were thinking of Dancing with the Stars and not Jerry Springer or 'rasslin' (which can be synonymous).

In the early years, television was a hot topic in radio enthusiast magazines. Numerous technical contributions from around the world– Russia, France, Mexico, Hungary, Scotland, the UK and US– led to an explosion of television invention in the mid-1920s.

By 1928, General Electric began experimental transmission from two stations in Schenectady and New York City, the figure of Felix the Cat rotating on a turntable. The Great Depression may have devastated the working man, but technical development continued.

Murder by Television was released in 1935 at a moment when the exciting possibilities of TV appeared poised on the threshold. The following year, Germany would broadcast the Olympic games from Berlin and Leipzig and by November, the BBC tele-vising group would begin the world's first public regular 'high definition' transmission from the Alexandra Palace in London.

In that context, the underpinnings of Murder by Television weren't out of place. The value of the props– actual experimental television on loan– was $75,000 for a film budgeted at $35,000. For those familiar with competing technologies, a close look reveals the mechanical rotating aperture that was one thrust of development at the time.

Reel Problem (spoiler)

Professional Tip
First clue when writing a tech thriller: look up interstellar in the dictionary. Hey, I told you the plot was bad!
Most mystery writers go to a great deal of trouble to make the means of crimes realistic. We don't like deus ex machina or too much contrivance and this is where Murder by Television fails.

I won't reveal the howdunit of Mr. Wong, but I'll spare you the drudgery of Murder by Television, not the who, but the how. (Trust me: The movie will gel your mind and you'll forget I told you.) The inventor was murdered by– are you ready– "the interstellar frequency death ray". Verily, I say unto you.

A Noir Treat

From my CB files, I tender this little noir film from the Bristol band Portishead, which perfectly captures the tone and mood of a late 60s spy film. Like many noir films, it's more ambience than logic, but it's satisfying. Fortunately Beth Gibbons doesn't sing until the closing credits, leaving the viewer with a mellow Ipcress File melancholy. Granted she's not so bad here or in Catch the Tear as other tracks that cause one to wonder why so many bands have their Yoko Ono.

Waging Love in Ink

by Dixon Hill

y column is a little different (and perhaps a bit more light-hearted than usual), today.

But, I thought you might get a kick out of it.

Valentine's Day is coming up, and I’d like to submit this as a salute to the pending Lover’s Holiday, coupled with my own wedding anniversary on February 18th. (I blew the date, over the prior weekend, while speaking to my wife, incidentally. And, stubborn woman that she is, she’s unwilling to grant me any brownie points because the 18th and the 28th — the day I mistook for our anniversary — both end in 8. My claim? Hey! I got the eight right, honey!)

Before I get to the fun stuff, however, I need to take about ten paragraphs of your reading time to explain something about what you’re going to read.

My mom was what she called “A Creative Writer.”

She defined Creative Writing as: “Fiction wrapped around a kernel of truth,” if I correctly recall the phrase. And, I heard this definition often enough, during my childhood, that—though I may have gotten the specific wording wrong—there’s no need to worry: I’ve definitely captured her intent.

That definition didn’t bother me, until I got older and undertook to earn a Poli-Sci degree I never finished. (As I used to quip to my army buddies: “I wound up in uniform, because -- having earned a sum total of thirty-three credit hours during my three years and two summer sessions at Arizona State, in my teens -- I felt moved to take an extended sabbatical, in order to give my professors a chance to mature.”) After completing my army adventures, I went back to school to become an engineer, which is how I wound up earning a J-school degree—because I wanted to write fiction: Clear evidence that “The Army Way” of doing things had been indelibly embedded in my neural pathways! And, during all this time, the unannounced mixing of fact and fiction (or opinion) in supposedly non-fiction articles and stories began to chafe against my grain.

Today, I probably write what my late mother would have termed: “Creative Writing.” And, in fact, concerning one of my stories, she said, “I like this a lot, but I don’t understand why you call it fiction.”

I told her: “Creative differences, Mom,” and left it at that.

In my stories, I work to render most of that ‘kernel of truth’ down to an ethereal point, where it (hopefully) transforms into theme, while sprinkling the uncooked “reserved portion” atop the finished product (like a garnish) to add verisimilitude. This, at least, is what I tell myself.

What I don’t call it, is anything but: FICTION.

To me, if any small part of a story is made-up or embellished, the label Non-Fiction must be removed and traded-in for a label clearly reading Fiction. If a writer’s opinion is added to a story, through direct comment or via manipulative voice, I want to see that story clearly labeled too. In this case: Opinion or News Analysis works for me—either one provides a clear heads-up. And, I’ve written these introductory paragraphs to give you just that very sort of “heads-up.”

While I may embellish slightly, making my wife sound snarky, or Leigh Lundin a cruel taskmaster, I try to stick pretty close to the truth in my posts. The piece below, however, was written several years ago, when I was a student in Dr. Christine Ferguson’s Magazine Article-Writing class at Scottsdale Community College. The assignment was to write a Service Piece—a short article explaining where one might find a good deal on stemware, for instance. Or pens, as in this case.

At the time, however, my concerns about mixing fiction and fact hadn’t fully gelled. Consequently, the story below is just that -- a mix of fact and fiction, what my mom would have called "Creative Writing." Pasquale Pagliuca (Puh-squal-lee Pag-lee-oo-ka) was a real guy, whom my buddies in the cigar store turned me onto. Pens International was a real store, though sadly Pasquale has passed away and I think the store is gone now. The throwing and catching of the book happened as described in the article, but the college girlfriend part is all bunk. And, contrary to what you may read, I wound up in Pasquale's store, as a class exercise, to interview him about expensive pens—an interest of mine, which I don’t have the money to call “a hobby.”

I had a hard time finding my way into the story, until I lit upon a fictional vehicle, which I envisioned as being the type of thing I had run across in GQ. I never tried to sell it anywhere; it was a class assignment, and not the sort of thing I usually do. But folks seem to get a romantic kick out of it, for some reason—so I thought I’d put it here.

Finally: In addition to saluting the upcoming two “Dates of Amour” — I’d also like to submit today’s column in tribute to Dr. Ferguson, and SCC Professor Dan Braezeale (now retired). Between the two of them, their inspired teaching (Journalism and Fiction Writing, respectively) led me to realize my brain didn’t want to spend the rest of its life doing engineer work. To that end, I’ve left the story as I found it in my computer—no reworking it. And, so . . .

(Rod Serling’s voice says) Submitted for your approval:

Waging Love in Ink
By Dixon Hill

Women did this to me! A college girl friend started it when I wrote her a love letter, using a ballpoint pen. I thought I’d never hear the end of it!

So I wrote her, using a calligraphy pen. My letters looped, swirled, and danced. The capital P stood poised on a razor’s edge, gradually widening like a stiletto. And the part of the P that bulged could only be described as—burgeoning!

Her eyes widened as she read it. A small pink tongue darted out, wetting her lips. Her bosom began to heave! The next morning, sneaking from her dorm room, I knew I had discovered the secret weapon in the war of love. I have since wielded that weapon on numerous occasions, and have never failed to vanquish my opponent.

After getting married, I let the weapon rust. The war was over. Both sides had declared a victorious cease fire at the wedding. Or so I thought. When my wife read last year’s Valentine’s card, written in ballpoint, I could see that I had made a grievous error in judgment. What I had thought would be an ever-lasting peace, was armistice at best.

I should have done what I did in college, and bought a Schaeffer calligraphy set, with the pen, three nibs, and four ink cartridges—all for fifteen bucks—and had done with it. But no! I had to have something special—like a Cobalt Bomb versus the puny thing we dropped on Hiroshima—that sort of pen.

And that’s how I wound up getting my ass kicked in a battle of wits with Pasquale P. Pagliuca. He owns Pens International. I called up and left a message explaining my quest. Pasquale invited me in—and the fight was on!

To prepare, I read an entire book: A History of Calligraphy by Albertine Gaur. Here, I learned that Egyptians made the first pens, the Greeks developed the first nib, and that while the quill was used in the West, Arabs used reeds aged in fermented manure. Then I poured over articles from Forbes, The Office, US News, and The New York Times. I even blew the dust off of such voluminous tomes as: Encyclopedia of American Industries, Second Edition; and Market Share Reporter 1999. I learned that Eisenhower and Macarthur used Parker pens to sign the surrender documents at the end of World War II, and that Bill Gates bought a pen that may have been Tolstoy’s. In short—I became an expert!

I sped to Pens International. Swaggering through the glass and steel doors of the modern high rise, I spotted my opponent in his small shop. His fifty-five year old bulk was enveloped in a blue oxford, dark pants, and sandals. Topped by woolly gray hair, and ensconced in a green leather chair, he looked like a Mafia kingpin on his day off.

“This is going to be a push-over,” I thought, walking in. But, oh! he was crafty. He started off by suckering me.

Rubbing his arthritic hands, he sighed, “Old age ain’t for wimps, kid.” I hadn’t been called a kid in twenty years. But if a centenarian hobbled in, Pasquale would probably bellow, “Have a seat, young man!”

He strikes without warning. Saying he’s got to straighten me out fast, he launches into a diatribe, claiming that ink color and paper type are as important to love letters as the type of fountain pen used. He throws a book at my head. I catch it, inches in front of my nose. The title reads: The Gift of a Letter. Realizing that—in the immortal words of Bugs Bunny—“This means WAR!” I wade into the fray, experts facts blazing from my mouth with a machine gun staccato!

Pasquale counters with a flank attack, saying he could write a love letter with any fountain pen. Particularly, “with either one of these two pens. It depends on my mood . . . each one has a different colored ink.” Damnit! He’s made it back to ink type, again!

I’ve got to get my hands on one of those pens! He may say he’ll use any fountain pen, but none of his cost less than a grand. And I’m dying to write virtual ink mushroom clouds, which will vaporize any mental chastity belt my wife may have! Sensing my weakness, Pasquale begins a fifth column action, designed to destroy my will to fight.

He unclips a Cristoforo Colombo II from his pocket. The only briar wood pen made, it retails for around $1500. My eyes capture the beautiful grain patterns of the briar—the same wood used to make pipes. “There’s something about briar wood in your hand,” Pasquale intones. “It’s such a nice, sensual, warm experience.” He slides a pad of parchment across the desk, saying, “Take it for a test drive.”

The feel of warm wood, the nib scratching over paper while the ink glides fluidly out, ignites my senses. My knees go weak. Good Lord! What would this do to my wife?

Pressing his advantage, Pasquale hands over a $1000 OMAS Celluloid, telling me that OMAS is an Italian acronym for: From the Workbench of Armando Simoni. With Svengali overtones, he encourages me to, “Sit back. Just get comfortable.” I feel my defenses crumbling.

He hands me a silver pen filled with an ink mix of King’s Gold by Schaefer, and OMAS’s Sepia. “Check this color out. Can you imagine somebody opening up your letter, with a gold hand-painted border, and reading that?”

I surrender!

I spend the next two hours being educated by Pasquale. He surprises me by saying that he used to love Mont Blanc, but since the company has changed hands, “I wouldn’t sell one to anybody I liked.” He tells me the Pelican 1000 is a “World Class Pen” for around $500, and the Caran D’Ach is an excellent pen for $150, while the $100 Colibri Scribe is really, “three pens in one: a fountain pen, roller ball, and a ball point.”

At the end I wander dazedly out the door. Phrases like “iridium tip”, and “rhodium mask” ricochet through my brain. I clutch my purchase to my heart—the model I bought is classified: TOP SECRET, only Pasquale knows for sure. I make my way to a Crane and Company stationery store; Pasquale has praised their cotton paper until I have to have it, or die.

After that I headed for home. I have my new weapon—locked and loaded, ready to fire! When my wife arrives home from work she’ll be impaled by the full thrust of my new rapier.


See, Mom? I really was listening to what you said about writing, all those years.


See you guys in two weeks! And, Have a Happy Valentine's Day!

09 February 2012

Right Under Our Noses

by Deborah Elliott-Upton
Mysteries of life surround us. Where there is something evil going on, something good is also flourishing. The idea of seeing what you want to see (half-empty glasses or half-full) has always
been up to the interpreter, but what is going on right under our noses isn’t always so easy to detect.

Sometimes I wonder what’s really going on out there. I know the truth is out there, but am I missing it just because I’m too busy to see? If you haven’t looked through an I SPY book lately, do
yourself a favor and find a kid who owns a copy, or go to a bookstore or library and find one to skim through. Only you won’t skim through. They are quite intoxicating. All those hidden- in- plain-sight things make a mind that enjoys mysteries wander. Considering Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” suggests there is much to be discovered right under our noses.

Over the years there have been many serial killers who lived seemingly normal lives right under the noses of those around them without any real hint they were committing heinous crimes.

Dennis Lynn Rader murdered ten people in the Wichita, Kansas area between 1974 and 1991.
His modus operandi was to bind, torture, and kill and rendered his nickname as the BTK Killer. Rader was viewed by many as a normal neighbor who ranted about a few things, but who didn’t?
Rader had earned an associate’s degree in Electronics and a bachelor’s degree in Administration of Justice. He’d earned a living as a home security installer, a census field operations supervisor, and a dog
catcher. He had spent four years in the United States Air Force. He was a member of a church and elected president of the Congregation Council, a Cub Scout leader, father of two and married to his wife for 34 years before his arrest.

Right under our noses and yet he murdered ten people before he was discovered.

Is the truth really out and we aren’t paying enough attention to discover it?

The son of one of our neighbors told me he was terrific at snowboarding. Our area isnot known for snow and the child claiming this was five, so I doubted what he said. The truth was he was great at snowboarding on his Wii game. He actually believed he could hit the slopes on a snowboard and be a professional. BUT, he was five years old. As mystery readers and NCIS junkies, we think we could figure out a serial killer before the police and we don't have innocence of youth in our corner as a defense.

One of my writing buddies who is a retired police officer from Colorado said most of us believe because we watch CSI that we know as much as the detectives and could warrant a decision as to who is guilty and why if we were privy to the information found at a crime scene and especially if we’d had the opportunity
to know the profile of the perpetrator. In real life, it doesn’t always work that way. That’s why shocked neighbors living next door to a killer for decades are always remarking to the press, “He seemed like such a nice guy. I had no idea he could do such a thing.”

Being a mystery writer is much easier than being in the trenches catching real killers. In our stories we develop the pace and decide how he will be caught. In the real world, there also is detecting, but often the ego of the killer also plays a hefty part. The BTK killer taunted police with letters which helped lead to
his eventual capture.

Luck sometimes plays a big hand in the apprehension and in those escaping becoming a victim. The
BTK killer had planned to strike again and actually stalked a woman and laid wait for her in her home for hours while she visited with friends. Angered when she didn’t return home on time, he left frustrated. Being with friends and staying late saved the woman’s life.

Dare we pay more attention to our neighbors and new co-workers with an inquiring mind? Perhaps, but maybe catching real criminals should be left in better hands of the professionals.

As for me, I will continue to plot my own fictional crimes and capture the bad guys on paper. I will enjoy reading other’s works and try my hand at mentally figuring out who did it and why. I will pay more attention to those around me in real life. I will probably visit longer with friends because it could someday save someone’s life.

That doesn’t mean to say I am giving up on still-great eye candy Mark Harmon and his exploits via the small screen. I think he’s doing a wonderful job heading up the NCIS due to the writers’ wonderful job tying up all those loose ends right under our noses.

08 February 2012

Polar Readings

by Neil Schofield

I bin ill. For almost the whole of last month. January largely passed in a sort of blur. So apart from anything else my Sleuthreading has been pretty patchy. I just caught the end of the David Dean celebrations, but didn't have the wit or the time to add my Congratulations David!
I knew that story was a winner when I first read it last June.

I'm no good at being ill. It happens very very rarely, despite the fact that I lack a spleen, mine having been confiscated following a multi-car road accident in the 80's. Spleens are apparently supposed to produce the cells that fight infections. Where are all the spleens when you need one?
When I was young, being ill was frowned on. The traditional remedy was for my nearest and daftest to gather round my bed and intone the age-old Yorkshire incantation: "Gerrup out of that, yer lazy, leadswinging little whelp". This worked like a charm, which I suppose it was.
So I'm not one for being cossetted. I prefer the old dog method: retire to a corner, lick your wounds and if you don't die, then that means you're better.
I have a feeling that it was catching, too, because days after I went down, my printer-scanner went belly-up, and the toaster exploded. Let me tell you that a crumb of baguette has the stopping power of a 9mm round.

Cossetting is out, but I do need comforts, and my favorite is Comfort Reading. I mean reading familiar books that you know and love and which require little or no effort from a spinning brain. This month I turned to the French for comfort.

The French Have a Word For It

And the word is 'Polar' which is a short form of 'Roman Policier', and covers all crime fiction, detective fiction and mystery fiction which makes it a useful word. We have no equivalent it seems to me. Polar covers everything up to the Thriller category, which the French maddeningly call un Thriller.

The French are pretty good at crime fiction. When I was first in France, to acquire and expand a vocabulary I read everything I could get my hands on. I read the seven volumes of Les Rois Maudits which tells from a French perspective the story behind the Hundred Years' War, although stopping well short of admitting that, really, France today is rightfully part of England.
And then I started on crime fiction. The first man I read was an interesting character called Leo Mallet. Mallet was a surrealist and anarchist, and engaged in the usual series of bizarre jobs, before he was invited to go to Germany in 1941 to becomes a slave labourer. He quickly accepted because the invitation was delivered by a Sturmbannfuhrer backed up by a couple of Schmeissers. When he came back to Paris, he re-started writing. Pre-war he had enjoyed parodying Anglo-Saxon crime fiction and in 1942 he turned out his first crime fiction, 120, Rue de la Gare. After the war, he continued, and, according to some critics, helpd to  transform French crime fiction. His main character, Nestor Burma, was a private detective, disabused and cynical, with a secretary called Helène and a sidekick/helper called Zavatter who burgles on the side. Oh yes, and there's a peppery police commissaire called Florimond Faroux. The set-up sounds familiar, don't it, but it was a breath of fresh air to the French. He went on to write a long series of novels around Nestor Burma all set in the mean streets of Paris, including a sub-series calle Les Nouvelles Mystères de Paris, where each novel centres on a different arrondissement of Paris.

I'm afraid that Nestor Burma was never translated, but the stories are worth learning French for. For me, it's almost as good as re-reading Sherlock Holmes: I know the destination, but I know I'm going to enjoy the journey.

My other favorite has been translated and then some.
Sebastien Japrisot, (which is an anagram of his real monicker, Jean-Baptiste Rossi) started in the early 60s as a translator, of Hopalong Cassidy stories oddly enough. He also translated The Catcher in the Rye and The Trouble With Harry.  His change of direction, along with a change of name came with a murder mystery called Compartiment Tueurs (The Sleeping Car Murders in the English version). The film adaptation of this book  was Cost-Gavras's first film and starred Yves Montand. His best book, at least to my mind, was his third,  La Dame Dans L'Auto Avec Des Lunettes Et Un Fusil - The Lady in the Car With Glasses and a Gun, for which Japrisot trousered a Golden Dagger in 1966. If you can get hold of a copy, read it. It's one of the best-made crime novels I've read. The plot is beautifully constructed, flawless and diabolic.

Japrisot's ouput over 40 years was not enormous. He wrote a number of screenplays (a couple of which ended up starring Charles Bronson) and a handful of novels, but he is one of the best and most literate French crime writers I've ever come across. His last novel was set in the 1914-18 war and is a love story which turns into a detective story. It became the film A Very Long Engagement which collared the 2005 Edgar for Best Screenplay.
You can find his novels in translation on Amazon. Used copies cost pennies. Highly recommended.

Snow has now fallen, the whole country is in chaos, and I'm going out now to chop some logs for the fire. So I must be better, mustn't I.

07 February 2012

Mind Control

I've just finished the draft of a story (a first draft according to my editors, the Professor and, his sister, Bridgid, that is. They both assure me that it is far from submission-ready.). This unpolished gem is rather loosely based on the infamous Symbionese Liberation Army of the roaring seventies. I'm too young to actually remember them, of course, but I have made something of a study of their antics. As you may know, they hit their high note with the kidnapping of newspaper heiress, Patricia Hearst–a strike directly at the heart of the "fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people"–soaring and repetitive hyberbole was the stardard for radical groups of this era. The kidnapping, in of itself, would not have made the episode so distinctive, rather it was the completely unexpected events that followed that set the nation on its ear: Patty Hearst appeared to morph from helpless victim of a rather terrifyingly single-minded group of self-styled revolutionaries into a full-fledged, gun-toting (and shooting) member! It appeared to be a near incomprehensible evolution. Cries of Stockholm Syndrome rent the highly-charged air!

 The SLA was not much of an army, as it turned out, though they claimed repeatedly to be operating cells nation-wide. In fact, the army that kidnapped Patty consisted of eight people. The only 'cell' they were operating was located in a California prison block where their other two members unhappily resided. These two were serving time for the murder of a school superintendent who had been deemed racist by SLA's revolutionary 'court of justice'. Apparently, actual trials of the accused were not required in their brave new world. They killed his aide, too. The victims were black men that were widely liked and respected in the Oakland, California community. This may you give you some inkling of the SLA's philosophy–possibly too subtle for most of us to comprehend.

The SLA sans Patty
The group that kidnapped, and subsequently "brain-washed" Patty Hearst was made up of three men, two white, one black, and five women–all white. Patty made six; and she was also white. Their leader was the sole black member who went by the assumed name, Cinque ( pronounced 'Sin-kay'), and wore the impressive title, Field Marshal. All of the group adopted what they purported to be African names; their avowed purpose being the destruction of racist, capitalist, fascist, Amerikkka. Yes, that's how they both spelled it and pronounced it. Whatever you may think of this group and its aims, they were certainly a conflicted knot of humanity. Bank robbing came next.

The heist at the Hibernia was well-planned, if not executed. While liberating money from the corporate oppressor they managed to shoot and kill two unarmed people. Everything was captured on the film of the security cameras–including the newest addition to the guerrillas ranks–Patricia Hearst. Wielding a sawed-off M-1 (the rest carried an assortment of automatic rifles, pistols, and shotguns) she announced her identity, purpose, and new-found solidarity with the cause of oppressed peoples as championed by the SLA! A legend was born. Patty Hearst was now Tania. This being the moniker of a female revolutionary who died with Che Guevara in Bolivia. Curiouser and curiouser–Alice had certainly stepped through the looking-glass.

Tania (Patricia Hearst)
Fleeing from the intensifying heat they had generated in the San Francisco area, the gang headed south to hole up in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Compton. This would turn out to be mistake. After fortifying a small house in this predominantly black, and poor, neighborhood, it appeared some neighbors took note of this sudden influx of heavily armed white people. Took note and grew alarmed despite the SLA's assurances that they were, in fact, there to protect and liberate them. It seems that some did not want the kind of liberation they deduced might be in store for these guerrillas.

Oblivious to these concerns, Tania (Patty), in the company of William and Emily Harris (Now known as Yolanda and Teko… say what?) set out to buy some supplies for their new household. This did not go well. While in the store, Revolutionary Teko decided to liberate some sweat socks that he was in sore need of. Why he did this when they had the requisite cash (Hibernia Bank job, remember?) will never be fully understood by the bourgeois mind. A security officer employed at the store attempted to uphold the reactionary status quo, and a struggle ensued with Teko. Yolanda joined in. Tania, having been left in the van parked out front, became alarmed when she saw that her revolutionary brother and sister were in dire straits. She reacted quickly and decisively by opening fire on the front of the store with a machine gun. This did have the effect of inducing a sense of despair in the security officer, and he chose the better part of valor at this juncture. The dynamic people's soldiers rushed out to freedom and Sister Tania.

In something of a panic now due to the attention they had drawn upon themselves, the rest of the evening and next several days was spent stealing and switching cars. The descriptions of all three were instantly recognized and the L.A.P.D. now knew that the feared SLA was in their town. This was to have repercussions for the folks back at the ranch(er).

As word circulated through the media and the Compton neighbors realized exactly who the new folks on the block were, a few discrete calls were made. So, while Tania and crew tooled around L.A., the FBI and police gathered their forces and laid siege to Cinque's band of not-so-merry pranksters. Though they were repeatedly offered the chance to surrender, this had never been in their plans according to Patricia's 1982 autobiography. A fierce firefight ensued, mostly fought with fully automatic weapons. Tear gas and smoke bombs fired into the house by the police resulted in the building catching fire. This in turn began to set off the crates of ammunition and bomb-making material within. No SLA member offered to surrender and none survived. The house burned down around them.

Tania during Hibernia Heist
The three remaining, at-large, members (including Tania) made themselves scarce upon hearing the news, and went on to reconstitute the SLA with new members, succeed in robbing another bank (during which Yolanda killed a perfectly innocent wife and mother with a shogun blast), and bomb a police car. In the fullness of time, they were at last apprehended and brought to trial. Tania (now Patricia Hearst once more) became the focal point of public, judicial, and political interest: was she a willing participant, or a helplessly brain-washed victim of terrorists? Theories abounded; talking heads chattered.

As for the jury handed her case– they weren't buying it. In spite of her attorney's attempts (a rambling, and almost incomprehensible F. Lee Baily) at convincing the jury that his client was simply another victim of the SLA, they just weren't having it. They found her guilty of robbery and assault and she was sentenced to seven years imprisonment. President Jimmy Carter foiled all this with an order of Executive Clemency after only two years served.

I must admit, that during these amazing chain of events (okay, I am old enough to remember–and a lot more besides) I was of the opinion that the jury got it right. Okay, the bad guys kept her in a closet (and not the walk-in kind) for seven weeks while blasting soul music at her day and night; but what's not to like about Otis Redding; James Brown? I'll also grant that being forced to listen to lectures on her political responsibility for the world's ills (largely because her father was what we now call a one per center) would try the patience of a saint. But joining up? To me, it just didn't add up.

Yet, we have the Stockholm Syndrome advocates. The general theory grew out of a bank robbery gone wrong in (you guessed it) Stockholm, Sweden. The robbers, foiled in their attempt to escape the bank with their loot took hostages. The police went to work trying to negotiate their release. The entire episode dragged on for days (or was it weeks? ) when lo, and behold, the hostages began to take up for their captors, complaining of their treatment by the forces of law and order. Some even went further, justifying the robbers' actions and blaming the police for the entire situation… including the robbery.

Still, in my mind, I'm thinking that's a long way from a hostage taking one of the bad guy's guns and opening fire on the home team. But, remember, Patty's ordeal was far longer and more intense than that of the Swedes: she was subjected to sleep, sensory, and food deprivation, constant threats to her life and that of her family, she was raped. A young woman in her very early twenties, brought up in a devoutly Catholic household amidst private schools and a close family network. Still, I'm thinking…

There's certainly a school of thought regarding behavior modification (Pavlov and his drooling dogs, etc… ) that argues a person's mind can be controlled through various methods. Naturally, as a writer, my own mind leaps to "The Manchurian Candidate"; "A Clockwork Orange". But wait, the would-be zombie hit man of the former defies his programmer in the end; foiling her plans rather decisively. As for the latter fictional example, Alex is not really changed at all, is he? Only his responses are; his violent yearnings remain (in the novel, not the film) forever unsatisfied, and he a clockwork organism pining for better; bloodier, days. Could this have been Patty during her Tania days? Was she acting as programmed while wistfully recalling the peaceful days of her 'other', lost life?

Her autobiography, "Every Secret Thing" would lead one to think so. I read it with a jaundiced eye, indeed. But, I must admit that she did manage to convey the pervasive sense of terror she endured during the initial weeks of her captivity. I thought of my own daughters in such circumstances… then quit thinking about it fast. What wouldn't you do to stay alive?

Ironically, according to Patty, the SLA crew, after granting her membership status (a propaganda coup dreamed up by the Field Marshal), repeatedly asked if she was doing so out of her own free will. This after seven weeks in a closet, blindfolded, threatened and raped. Well, they were liberators, remember, and had an image to consider. Additionally, they drilled nearly everyday for the final showdown with the "pigs" that they were convinced was going to happen. It was made clear to Patty that surrender was not an option. Talk about your self-fulfilling prophecy; talk about ideal conditions for Stockholm Syndrome. Remember Jonestown, anyone?

Okay, so I started moving closer to Patty's version of things. If she was to be believed, then her circumstances appeared pretty compelling. But how do you explain the hardware store incident? Remember Teko's socks? Patty was left alone in the van while her captors were inside the store–she opened fire with a machine gun in order to facilitate their escape.

Why didn't she drive away while she had the best chance she'd been given up till that point? I just couldn't get my mind around it. Had they really, and truly, made her into a convert? Or was she right where she wanted to be? Was it a genuine conversion, or a programmed survival mode she could not cast off? A young woman with no particular political leanings is kidnapped, only to emerge a few monts later as a violent urban guerilla. Things that make you go… hmmmm.

I've got to admit… I'm a little stumped. In the final analysis, the more information I considered, the more I dithered on a definitive answer. The jury was charged with considering Patty's acts while in the company of the SLA and got it right: she did participate in armed and deadly robberies, kidnappings (I skipped over that part as gilding the lily), and the firing of an automatic weapon on the streets of L.A. She did do those things. Why she did them is still up for grabs thirty-seven years later. Her own book never makes the claim that she was successfully "brain-washed"; only that she was very successfully terrified into unquestioning obedience to her captors. What do you think?
JB (Julian Brendan– English teacher, editor)
with JJ (James Joyce– a Big Shot Writer)

The characters you see portrayed here were not members of the dreaded SLA, but the equally feared Professor (see first paragraph) and collegue on an outing in Dublin. I'll let you determine which is which. I've not found a suitable photo of his sister for the line-up, but am working on it.