07 December 2011

At the end of your trope

So, all you writers out there: have you ever been tempted to hang a lampshade on  a weak point in your plot?  Have you ever been reduced to the use of oven logic?  Or do you have no idea what the hell I'm talking about?
If the latter than you might want to discover a cool webpage called TV Tropes.  It is a wiki and, as the home page explains, it is "a catalog of the tricks of the trade for writing fiction."  Don't think it is limited to TV, by the way.  There are plenty of examples from literature, movies, comic books, and even video games.

If I have a problem with the execution it is that they love clever names for the tropes, which can make it hard to find the one you are looking for.  (If you find one that is almost what you are looking for, check the related tropes at the bottom.

Here are a few of my favorites.

Absence of Evidence  In mystery fiction this is known as the dog in the night-time. 
Black Best Friend  Doesn't need much explanation, I guess.
Bolivian Army Ending  As in Butch Cassidy.  Nobody here gets out alive.
Bond Villain Stupidity.  I found this one in the index by typing in "Goodbye, Mr. Bond."  The villain (not necessarily in a Bond movie) at long last captures the good guy, sets up an elaborate death trap, and then doesn't stay to see if it works.  The movie Austin Powers mocked this perfectly.
Bus Crash  A character is killed  retroactively, that is, after the actor has left the show (and therefore doesn't get a dramatic death scene).  Most famously, I think, Henry Blake on MASH.
Crazy enough to work  As the wiki noted, this is practically Captain Kirk's middle name.  I hate when it shows up in a story, but what about when it happens in real life?  Apollo 13, anybody?
Lampshade Hanging You have a plot point so weak or unlikely the audience may refuse to bite.  So, illogically, you call their attention to it.  As the page points out, even Shakespeare hung a lampshade or two.
Mr. Exposition  Hello, hero.  Let me tell you everything that has been going on, which you probably know, but the autdience doesn't.
Oven Logic  Old comedy  premise.  We need to cook it faster so double the temperature and half the time!
Red Shirt Army  If you ever watched Star Trek you understand this one.  Why can't the storm troopers ever shoot straight?
Tomato Surprise  A specific kind of twist ending, one that depends on the audience suddenly learning something that some of the characters have known all along.

And finally....
Not worth killing   The bad guy lets the puny mortal go, as not worth his attention.   But what I was looking for and couldn't find was the situation where the hero is about to destroy his career/violate his code by killing the bad guy in cold blood and the side kick says "Don't do it!  He's not worth it!"

I hope you find TV tropes to be worth your time.

06 December 2011


(with a lot of help from Kurt Sercu)

3. 11/22/63 (Scribner, $35)
By Stephen King.   A modest English professor is offered the chance to change history — by preventing the JFK assassination.
Washington Post, description of the number 3 book on the bestseller list, December 4, 2011

*    *    *    *

Add to that sense of ho-humness the fact that the secret in question turns out to be rather murky, and many readers will be left wondering exactly what is “the most dangerous thing” referred to in the title. (Beats me.) 
 Quoted from Maureen Corrigan’s review of Laura Lippman’s “The Most Dangerous Thing,” Washington Post, October 9, 2011

     What do these two quotes from the Washington Post have in common other than referring to two recently published bestsellers?  At least one other thing:  they each contain errors unpardonably obvious to anyone who has actually read Stephen King’s 11/22/63 or Laura Lippman’s The Most Dangerous Thing.  In King’s book the protagonist is a high school English teacher, not a college professor.  And no reader who actually finishes Laura Lippman’s latest novel The Most Dangerous Thing (which I liked a lot) could have the smallest doubt as to what the most dangerous thing is.  That question (and the title) is explicitly explained, for anyone who hasn’t already figured it out, in the last sentence of the book.  (You know me, no spoilers – just telling you where you can find it, not what it is!)

    I am pretty unforgiving about errors such as those discussed above.  I mean, all the journalist assembling the list of bestsellers for the Washington Post had to do was write one correct sentence about 11/22/63.  And all Ms. Corrigan had to do was to actually read the book that she was reviewing, start to finish.  One can be more forgiving, however, when it is Mr. King or Ms. Lippman who get something wrong, or seemingly wrong, during the course of their novels.  These, after all, are not factual reviews, they are works fiction, and they come to us with the established leniency of poetic license. 

    One of the funny things about such seeming mistakes, therefore, is that sometimes they are not errors at all.  Laura Lippman, for example, in an afterward, discusses the liberties she has taken with the real-life town of Dickeyville, Maryland in The Most Dangerous Thing.  And Stephen King is famous for dropping snippets of information into his works that could be historical errors but that could also be references to other King works, usually clues hearkening back to his seven (soon to be eight) volume Gunslinger series.   Notwithstanding this, however, Stephen King can be a bit defensive when it comes to defending his own research. 

    In The Colorado Kid (which, as noted in a previous column, is not my favorite work by King) there is a reference to a Starbucks coffee shop in Denver, Colorado in 1980.  When a USA Today review of the book mentioned that there in fact were no Starbuck stores in 1980 Denver, Mr. King bristled, and posted the following retort on his website:  "The review of  The Colorado Kid in [the October 7, 2005] issue of . . . USA Today  mentions that there was no Starbucks in Denver in 1980. Don’t assume that’s a mistake on my part. The constant readers of the Dark Tower series may realize that is not necessarily a continuity error, but a clue.”

    Hmmm.  Allow me to digress for a paragraph.  For many years my brother and I gave my mother a gag gift as the last gift of Christmas each year.  These were really stupid things – a three foot tall plastic goose that lights up, a kit kat clock, an autographed picture of Dwayne Hickman (“Dobie Gillis” -- remember?).  We always told my mother that each gift was a clue to a secret message that would be revealed over the course of future Christmases.  We continued this silly stunt for twenty five years and every year my mother would fret over what the growing number of “clues” had in common, what they might point to.  Get the picture?  We were just winging it.  No secret message, just stupid disparate gifts.

    Okay – back to the issue at hand.   I have read all of Stephen King’s books, including all of the Gunslinger series, and I’ll be damned if I can figure out how the presence of a Starbucks in 1980 in Denver has anything to do with Roland’s grand quest in the Gunslinger.   So was that Starbucks a clue, or was it an “oops?”

    With all of this in mind, let’s poke around a little in Stephen King’s latest novel 11/22/63.  As I wrote two weeks ago, I think this is a stand-out novel, to my mind the best thing Stephen King has done in over ten years.  And I don't want to detract from the novel by trolling for errors.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a little fun with it!

    Given the novel’s time travel theme King in 11/22/63 is called upon to describe and re-create life in the era from 1958 to 1963.  Let’s take a look at how he does on just one aspect of that quest, his repeated references to another of my favorite authors (and characters) Ellery Queen. 

    I suspect that Stephen King is an Ellery Queen fan.  After all, Ellery pops up in many King novels, including in the aforementioned The Colorado Kid.  Indeed, in explaining that there will be no solution offered up in that novel to the mystery that is at its core, the heroine is admonished by one of her mentors that she should not expect Ellery “to come waltzin’ out of the closet” with a solution.  The solution to the mystery in The Colorado Kid remains a mystery to me, but so too the connection, if any, between that Denver Starbucks store and the Gunslinger.

    11/22/63 also contains several references to Ellery Queen, most notably to the NBC series “The Further Adventures of Ellery Queen,” which aired from 1958 through 1959.  The timing of certain events in the novel (I’m carefully avoiding spoilers here) are critically dependent on the timing of an episode of the series that, according to the storyline of the novel, was aired on Halloween night, 1958.  At the first mention of the television show in the novel I wondered whether the Ellery Queen series had, in fact, aired on Halloween night in 1958.  This sent me off to Kurt Sercu’s repository of Queen information, Ellery Queen – a Website on Deduction.  (Kurt’s site was the focus, many will recall, of an earlier article.)  And I was immediately rewarded – according to Kurt’s website on Friday, October 31, 1958 The Further Adventures of Ellery Queen, starring George Nader as Ellery presented the following episode:
George Nader as Ellery Queen
Cat of Many Tails
         10/31/58 With John Abbott, Paul Langton
The mayor of New York City calls on Ellery to help solve a series of strangulations for which the police can find no motive but which they believe to be the work of one killer.
The story, based on Queen’s 1949 novel of the same title, is a perfect one for Halloween.

    However, about 100 pages further into 11/22/63 the hero secures a copy of TV Guide to check on the timing of the Halloween broadcast, and there the episode is described as follows:
8 PM, Channel 2:  The New Adventures of Ellery Queen, George Nader, Les Tremayne, “So Rich, So Lovely, So Dead.”  A conniving stockbroker (Whit Bissell) stalks a wealthy heiress (Eva Gabor) as Ellery and his father investigate
     What happened to Cat of Many Tails?  Kurt’s website in fact identifies an episode of the series titled “So Rich, So Lovely, So Dead,” and that episode otherwise meets the description in King’s book.  Except for one fact:  the episode aired one month later, on November 28, 1958.  “What is going on, here?” I thought.  Then I immediately sent an email across the pond to Belgium posing that same question to Kurt.

    Kurt dove into his archive of Queen documentation and came up with pretty irrefutable evidence that it was, indeed, “Cat of Many Tails” that aired on Halloween in 1958.  First Kurt pointed out that Francis Nevins lists the episode as the one appearing on Halloween in his definitive article "Ellery Queen on the Small Screen" which appeared in The Armchair Detective volume 12, 1979.  Second, the episode is also identified as having aired on Halloween according to the television archives maintained by the Theatre Arts Library at UCLA.  Third, from Kurt’s own archives he uncovered a 1958 NBC press memorandum that also identifies Cat of Many Tails as the Halloween episode.  And fourth, Kurt supplied me with a TV listing from Halloween week, 1958 also identifying Cat of Many Tails as the episode that aired that night. 

Halloween Week 1958
Halloween Week 1959
Another funny thing – 11/22/63 describes that Halloween issue of TV Guide as one “with Fred Astaire and Barrie Chase on the cover.”  This time I hit the internet, and uncovered the actual TV Guide cover for Halloween week of 1958.  It's reproduced on the left, and, as is obvious, it featured George Burns on the cover.  So what about Fred Astaire and Barrie Chase?

   After all of this Kurt and I sort of had a burr under our saddle so we went back to trolling the internet.  Just as the heroine in The Colorado Kid tried to solve her unsolvable mystery, so too Kurt and I got a little obsessed with what was going on back in the 1950s, at least according to King’s view.   Lo and behold, we eventually found the TV Guide cover above on the right.  Yep, it features Fred Astaire and Barrie Chase, and it was published on the week of Halloween.  But Halloween of 1959, not 1958.

    And that’s as far as we got.  So, just like the heroine in the The Colorado Kid, you should not expect Ellery to come “waltzin out of the closet” tying together all of those clues and making sense out of the 1958 TV schedule as set forth in 11/22/63.  Did Stephen King encounter a (minor) researching “oops” that caused him to miss the date of the Ellery Queen episode he refers to by one month, and the date of the cover of TV Guide by one year?  Or is the Gunslinger and his ka-tet sleeping just a bit easier under a desert moon in an alternative 11/22/63 universe where history has been set right and Fred Astaire and Barrie Chase’s Halloween TV Guide cover exists where it was supposed to, in 1958?

Oops?  or Ka?

05 December 2011

Do You See What I See?

Jan Grapeby Jan Grape

'Tis getting closer and closer to the holiday season and when I heard the words of the old carol, "Do you hear what I hear?" and "Do you see what I see?" I thought about this magical thing that happens when we write.

We see or hear in our heads what's going on between two or three characters in our story, and...

Then before I can finish that thought I wondered how does a story start for most writers? And I found out it's different for different writers. And even different for different stories or books.

Most of the time, for me, I hear two or three characters talking, maybe even arguing. Maybe one is trying to make a point or explain their reasons for doing something. I try to listen in and figure out if what they're saying is important or if they're just blathering. Usually the best thing is when I can write the dialogue down. On a computer or even by long-hand if I'm not near a keyboard. Other times I may be sitting at my keyboard and the characters start talking and I even "see" what's going on. Almost like a movie or TV show playing in my head. Other times only the words come through and I try to capture them as they play out.

If possible I know who's talking, but there are times when I have no idea who it is or what's going on and I just have to type or write and hope it makes sense before long. That happens when a new character appears in the story. Maybe my detective is working a case and the criminal starts talking. Even if I write it down and even if it's important it may not make the final draft. Because it could just be information I, the writer, need to know and it's not for the detective or the reader to know as yet.

Sometimes I may even act out a scene to prove to myself that it rings true. Years ago in one of my early unpublished novels, I had a scene where a policeman came to the door to tell my character that her police officer husband had been killed.

Well, I've never personally received news like that. I wrote how I thought it might go, but it didn't feel right. Eventually, I walked to my front door, opened it and pretended that two police officers were standing there to tell me the bad news. I could see that it was a man and a woman. I felt my hand rise up to cover my chest, as if something had delivered a hard blow there. I could hear their words but it was not exactly clear in my brain. As I went back to my keyboard, I could only remember a shiny name tag on the male officer's chest and tears glistening on the policewoman's cheeks. Those were the words I wrote and that scene was a good as I could make it at that stage in my writing development.

Another time my female detective character had her hands taped with adhesive tape behind her back. I managed to tape my hands by myself and lie on the floor and try to get my hands free. I couldn't, but what I could do was sit up and to bring my hands in front by twisting my arms and legs and then bit the tape off. I was younger and more limber then.

After I've written dialogue, it generally helps me to read it out loud. Even then it may not sound quite right. Often I send a scene to my daughter via e-mail and she will suggest how the dialogue should go, especially if the characters are a lot younger. Now that I have an alien in my house I can always go to him and have him suggest dialogue to me. He's eighteen and easily knows how today's teens or even younger folks talk.

Anyway you get the idea. Now back to the magic...it honestly is amazing to me that I can sit at my computer in Texas, think of a story, write my manuscript, it then gets turned into a book in NYC or Maine or Southern California and it goes into a bookstore. A Chicago or Miami or Helena, Montana reader goes into the bookstore, buys my book, goes home and begins to read. Lo and behold, he or she hears or sees what I heard and saw and wrote and it all makes sense. If that's not magic then I don't know what else to call it.

I love to read books set in places where I've never been and learn about that place. I love to read books set in places where I have been and recognize the scenery or a location. I love to read books where the main character is like Aleut Detective, Kate Shugak, in a book set in Alaska where I've never been and probably will never be able to visit. To learn that almost everyone travels by airplane or snowmobile was fascinating. To feel the depth of cold and snow. To experience the isolation and loneliness and yet to enjoy the vast beauty of our last frontier state is awesome. I also loved reading about Sweden in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Love that book or hate it, I enjoyed all the little towns and areas that I have visited. To realize that I knew the places mentioned was definitely fun.

To spend time in my imagination that somehow winds up in your imagination when you read my book is definitely magical. Do you hear what I hear...do you see what I see? I surely hope so.

04 December 2011

Mrs. Swann Toasts Mr. Wolfe

James Lincoln Warren
James Lincoln Warren
(photo credit: Reinhard Kargl)
by James Lincoln Warren

On the evening of December 3, 2011, the Wolfe Pack, the international Rex Stout fan organization, gathered for its annual Black Orchid Banquet in New York City, this year celebrating not only his works, but also his 125th birthday. One of the events during the banquet was the presentation of the Black Orchid Novella Award, or BONA, given to the winner of their annual competition for an original novella written in the tradition of Rex Stout. This year, I was honored to be its recipient for my story Inner Fire. Here are my prepared remarks for the banquet.

The old saw that being a writer is the most solitary of occupations is completely wrong. Honestly, I can’t think of a more social activity, because a writer is nobody without readers, and readers form a community, as this gathering tonight so clearly demonstrates. Along those same lines, Inner Fire would never have succeeded without the advice and feedback of several advance readers, most of whom are accomplished mystery writers themselves. The fine writers who provided that advice were Melodie Johnson Howe, Nora McFarland, Robert Lopresti, Steve Steinbock, and John M. Floyd. Additional thanks are clearly owed to Linda Landrigan, editor of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, the members of the BONA selection jury, and to my wife Margaret. It would also be utterly remiss of me not to express my gratitude to the founder of the literary feast, the great Rex Stout.

When the BONA was first established a few years ago, Linda invited me to submit something for it. At the time I declined because I couldn’t think of anything good enough, but I paid close attention to the results of the competition in subsequent years. Although the rules of the competition state that the story shouldn’t be derivative of the Nero Wolfe milieu, I found the idea of writing a story using the Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin model patently irresistible. (I note that it was irresistible to previous winners, too.)

I realized I needed my own spin on the Wolfe/Goodwin paradigm. So I asked myself, what if I Nero and Archie were women? And what if, instead of living in New York, they lived in my town, contemporary Los Angeles? I thought this concept was brilliant, and I was right to think so. It was so brilliant, in fact, that it had already been done twenty years before.

I mentioned that Melodie Johnson Howe was one of my advisors. In 1990, Melodie gave the world her first novel, The Mother Shadow, featuring Claire Conrad, her Wolfe character, and Maggie Hill, her Archie equivalent, the story taking place in L.A. It’s such an excellent book that it was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author.

Knowing this, especially as Melodie is a dear friend, you might wonder how I had the gall to proceed with my own women-in-L.A. take. Well, I don’t know how I did, except to say that once I got my teeth into the idea, I couldn’t not write it. There could be no question, though, of not bringing Melodie into the loop, because I felt I needed her permission to carry on. So I enlisted her to advise me, hoping she would perceive that my story was almost as much an homage to her as to Rex Stout.

In the sequel, my female Nero and Archie weren’t much like Melodie’s. Erica (that is, my girl Archie) is younger and less cynical than Maggie, and Miss Enola (my female Wolfe) is not at all like Claire except in her analytical genius and immense self-confidence. It wasn’t difficult to separate my creations from Melodie’s at all.

No, the tough part was to make Erica and Miss Enola as credibly and convincingly female as the original Nero and Archie were so steadfastly male. I’m the the kind of guy who likes smoking cigars, watching football games clutching a cold beer, and occasionally playing dealer’s choice low-stakes poker with my friends, so writing male characters is easy for me. Female characters are hard. One of the characters in Inner Fire expresses my conundrum. “The biggest difference between men and women,” he says, “is that women think they understand men. Men know they don’t understand women.” So you can see that given my limitations, I had set myself a daunting challenge.
black orchid
I began by assuming a new identity. The byline on the story is “Jolie McLarren Swann”. That is ostensibly the name of a woman. As you have probably observed, I am not a woman. But if you look carefully at the name, you may discover that if you rearrange the letters, one of the possible results is “James Lincoln Warren”. By an amazing coincidence, that happens to be my name.

Inner Fire’s narrator is a callow and attractive young detective named Erica H. Wooding. By the same amazing coincidence as the byline, that is an anagram of “Archie Goodwin”. The senior stateswoman in the story is named “Enola Fowler”. The letters in her name can be rearranged to read “Nero Wolfe L.A.”

I thought that the anagrams would please the puzzle-minded of the tale’s readers, as well as serving to pay direct, if mildly covert, tribute to Rex Stout.

Erica and Miss Enola are not carbon copies of their progenitors, though, and I worked hard to give them their own voices. I have to say that I am especially proud of Erica, since I am categorically not a 23-year-old woman myself, and personally have very little in common with 23-year-old women, but I think she comes across as who she is. I confess I’m in love with her, but I honestly can tell you that having standards of her own, she would never be in love with me.

I’m more in tune with Miss Enola, a woman of my own age who shares many of my more pronounced prejudices about the world. She’s not so lovable as Erica, but in many ways she’s more interesting. Nora McFarland, another of my readers, pointed out to me that her first name taken by itself is an anagram of “Alone”, and that this is a quality essential to her character.

But of course Miss Enola is not alone. She has Erica to keep her company, even if she spends most of her time in her own head. Mostly, though, she will never be alone as long as there are people who love to read detective stories. I hope that when Inner Fire is published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mysterty Magazine this coming summer, you will all have the opportunity to read it. I wrote it for you, and I am deeply and humbly grateful for the honor you have done me in granting me this award. I tell you from the bottom of my heart that it is one of the brightest highlights of my career as an author of crime fiction.

03 December 2011

Editorial Crimes

by Elizabeth Zelvin

In a recent talk to a group of mystery writers about editing, critique, and craft (“The End Is Just the Beginning”), I ruffled a few feathers among the professional editors present by indicating that I had had some negative experiences in this aspect of getting various manuscripts into print. I salute the many excellent substantive editors who can improve a manuscript’s structure, pace, and clarity, as well as those copy editors whom authors rightly credit with making their writing clean, crisp, and grammatical. I spent fifteen years as a damn good editor myself, back in the days when you could get a decent full-time job in a publishing house shepherding a work “from manuscript to bound book.” Unfortunately, there are exceptions.

I never edited fiction, so I never had to worry about that mysterious and essential ingredient in a damn fine story (please have patience with the “damns,” I’m going somewhere with them), voice. Everybody involved in publishing novels says how important voice is, but it’s remarkable how many seem not to recognize it when they see it or can’t trust the author enough to leave it alone. In a third-person narrative, the authorial voice can be distinctive; in first person, it’s even more crucial. Some crime fiction writers are masters at varying their voice. Ruth Rendell is one: her Inspector Wexford novels sound completely different from the psychological suspense standalones she writes as Barbara Vine. Other successful and popular writers have a voice that works and that readers love, but it seems to be the only voice they have. To my ear, Robert B. Parker’s Sunny Randall sounds exactly like his Spenser.

I am both fond of and grateful to the editor who worked on my forthcoming Death Will Extend Your Vacation, third in the series featuring recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler. My first-person protagonist is a streetwise New Yorker with a smart mouth and a not too well concealed heart of gold. He used the word “damn” half a dozen times in the course of the book in constructions analogous to the “damn good editor” and “damn fine story” above. My editor, bless her heart, is a lady, and one who knows her grammar. She added “-ed” to every “damn” that Bruce uttered. Bless her even more for not giving me a hard time when I deleted the “-ed” throughout, explaining that Bruce would never have said “a damned fine wake” or “damned insulting questions,” not to mention “damned yellow tape,” “damned boat,” or “whatever damned thing she wants to say,” not in a million years. Being a New Yorker with a smart mouth myself, neither would I. Dr. John Watson, yes. Amelia Peabody, yes. But not me and Bruce (and no, please respect my voice and don’t make that “Bruce and I”).

Luckily, I was able to persuade the editor of an earlier Bruce story not to insist on making Bruce say “not sufficiently far” for “not far enough” and “an alcoholic such as I” for “an alcoholic like me.” I can laugh about these distortions of my character’s voice when I catch them in time. What makes me nuts is when they’re inserted after I’ve signed off on the manuscript (after correcting galleys, in particular), so that I don’t discover them until I see the book in print. There were two in my last novel, Death Will Help You Leave Him, that still make me squirm in embarrassment. I’d rather attribute them to the final proofreader than to the editor who I wish had checked her work and consulted me if she wasn’t sure. She did email me when the proofreader asked if I really meant a night security guard on Wall Street to ask my characters to “state your name and who you got the apperntment with.” (“Did you mean ‘appointment’?” “No,” I write back, grinding my teeth and glad we’re not Skyping, “it’s what used to be called Brooklynese.”) Maybe the editor is simply too young. I suspect the issue was sense of humor with one I didn’t catch because she didn’t ask me. It involved a character I’d described on page 34 as follows:

Vinnie frowned. His bushy black eyebrows almost met above a massive beak of a nose. I doubted even a broad smile would make more than a centimeter of breathing room in the middle.

Much later in the book, Bruce and his sidekick Barbara are reviewing possible witnesses and suspects.

“We haven’t talked to his friend Vinnie—the nice one from the funeral,” Barbara said.
“I don’t think he was no nice,” I objected. “I didn’t like his eyebrow.” I waggled mine like Groucho Marx.

Guess what appears on page 191 of the printed book. Yep, “eyebrows.” They went and tromped on my joke.

My final example, from the same book, involves an error, also introduced in the final post-galley proofreading, that in striving for grammar makes a hash of meaning. Instead of describing it, I offer the two versions—the first as submitted and passed through several stages of editing with my approval, the second in print. Let’s see if you can spot what’s wrong.

02 December 2011

How Can a Martian Wax Venusian?

by Dixon Hill

Hi . . . my name is Dixon . . . and I'm a martian.

The litany above may be familiar (if slightly changed) to some of you, if you've attended certain meetings.

I've never actually been to one of those meetings, though I have a relative who's been attending at least once a week for years -- as well as an ex-girlfriend who attended meetings; she and I were very close for a long time.

In the words of Monty Python, however: "And now . . . for something completely different ..."

My name is Dixon ... and I'm a Martian -- because I'm a man.

Men and women are different. I'm not saying one gender is "better" than the other; I'm just saying the two genders are different.

The book Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus points up some of these differences quite well. My wife and I read it together, out loud, years ago, and the information contained helped to greatly strengthen our marriage.

But, I'm not here to write about marriage. I'm here to write about writing -- writing so that readers will understand and appreciate what they've read.

And, here too, men and women -- it seems to me -- are quite different.

Now I know that in his book, John Gray is talking about the planets Mars and Venus, but I thought the artwork I found did a little more to accentuate the differences than pictures of planets would. So what you're looking at are the Venus De Milo (left) currently held in the Louvre, and Mars (right) probably made in the 1st Century, and found at the Forum of Nerva, now held by Capitoline Museums, Rome. The god of war. And the goddess of love.

I also know it's dangerous to speak (or write) in generalities when discussing the idea of cross-gender writing, so let me explain up-front that I know different categories of comprehension cross gender lines. For example: while it's often said that men are more easily visually stimulated than women, I'm perfectly willing to agree that many women are just as stimulated by what they see as any man might be--and vice-versa.

It's also often said that women are more focused on "sharing" information than men are. But, I'm sure there are men out there who also enjoy sharing. I myself have learned, over many years of marriage, not to run for the nearest bunker when my wife starts sharing all over the place.

Instead, I now stand my ground and maybe even share a little back -- assuming I can do so without trying to "fix" anything. (As in my wife's complaint: "I'm just sharing why I'm so frustrated at work! I'm not trying to get you to fix anything, you idiot!")

As you may have surmised, I have a weakness: an inability to fully communicate with women.

I didn't even realize I had this problem until I'd been out of the army for about a year, and volunteered to run the annual PTA carnival at my son's school. My son (our oldest--he's 22 now) was in 3rd Grade at the time.

In the army, I had orchestrated large groups of men to accomplish tactical missions or construction projects. And, I usually had to communicate with those men in a language other than English. Sometimes it was Spanish, a couple times it was Arabic. Once, I used a little Twri (a West African Tribal language -- I don't speak much of it), and occasionally in French. So, maybe you can see why I figured I could easily orchestrate the members of my local PTA to run a slam-bang carnival.

I drew up a carnival plan, based on an Army Operations Order -- the planning format I'm most comfortable with. A few months before the carnival, I held a briefing for the PTA -- complete with handouts and slide show -- so people could decide where they might most advantageously "plug into" the operation.

I was actually speaking to a group of about 98% moms, of course, since this was a PTA meeting. Most of them had never set foot on a military installation, so there were a few shocked looks when I initiated my brief with (what I considered to be) the standard admonition: "As this is a complicated operation, the plan will be presented in stages. Please note any operational concerns, which may arise in your mind, on the notepad provided, and hold all questions until the end. I will entertain a question and answer period after the briefing is complete."

To their credit, following my introduction, they took a presentation that started with "Situation" then continued through "Mission" and ventured through such topics as "Actions on the Objective" -- heavily peppered with time-frame notes couched in military terms such as "D minus 5" (Day of the carnival, minus 5; or in other words: "5 days before we would hold the carnival...") -- Well, they took it all with barely a raised eyebrow.

And, after I had answered each of the first three questions by putting up the slide which immediately followed, the PTA moms seemed to realize they might as well hold their questions until the end of my briefing.

I thought this was because they finally understood what was going on. And, my belief was bolstered by a general agreement afterward, that they had no questions because I seemed to have thought of everything. (Their words; not mine.)

I was slightly concerned, because I'd never presented a briefing in which no one had any questions, before. But, subsequent discussion clearly indicated these women had paid close attention and understood the plan very well. In no time at all, in fact, everyone was organized, and preparations begun.

I didn't realize my glaring error, until the day of the carnival. That's when I noticed two PTA moms hanging streamers, balloons and other decorations. I slapped the side of my head and exclaimed, "Oh, man! I left decorations totally out of the plan! Why didn't you guys say something?" They told me that they thought I'd been too busy arranging for the fire trucks, bouncy house, monkey bridge, etc. to take care of it; so they decided to just do it on their own.

I realized then that I had not only left out an important part of the plan, I had also presented myself in a way that made it impossible for these women to find a way to communicate with me. Somehow, the techniques I'd always relied on to ensure good communications, had opened a chasm between us that these good women couldn't find a way to cross. So, they hadn't tried; they'd just fixed the problem themselves

I was grateful that they covered my oversight, but completely dumb-founded by the communications barrier I'd discovered within myself. And, though I've learned a lot since then, I know I've still got a long way to go. This is why I was so bowled over when I read Deborah's article about her friend, Travis Erwin, a man who writes women's fiction.

I really respect a guy who can do that. I have a hard time writing any stuff that appeals to women. Yet, I know women make up the lion's share of readers, and so struggle mightily to overcome this obstacle in my way.

This is why I change my story if my wife says something like, "You don't describe the women in this very well. I know how big their breasts are, what their hair and eye color are, and how long their legs are -- but you don't really tell me what they look like. From your description, all I can see is a pair of legs with a set of eyeballs on top, and a hunk of hair tossed over it. Plus maybe a breast or two, but I'm not sure where they're attached. I mean, are the breasts mounted on top of the legs, and the eyeballs stuck on the ends of the breasts like some sort of gross nipples?"

And, this is also why I've occasionally tried to write romance -- because I'm bad at it, and want to get better. And, it seems to me, to be a type of fiction primarily geared toward women readers, an audience I'd really like to learn to write for.

Finding a way to move this women-centric concept into an action-adventure story, however (as many mysteries I write seem to be) often proves daunting. Largely because I'm not a woman, and have a hard time writing things from a female perspective. (Heck! As you can see from what my wife says, I seem to have a hard time even from a man's perspective ... at least from a woman's point of view. But, that's a POV that's pretty important to me.) So, I keep plugging away, trying to find new and different ways to do it.

I found an interesting idea, the other day, called The Final Girl theory. This theory seems to be based on slasher movies, such as Friday the Thirteenth, or Halloween, and is the brainchild of Carol Clover, who wrote about it in her book: Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.

I've ordered the book through interlibrary loan, but not yet read it. However, I have done a little research on the theory. The idea here, seems to be that the modern slasher movie starts out from the killer's POV, but later switches to that of the female who will eventually be the sole survivor. Thus, in Halloween, Jamie Lee Curtis is "The Final Girl." And, as such, she's supposed to be (a) virginal, or at least virtuous, (b) smart, (c) curious, (d) vigilant and (e) possibly is related to the killer. [b,c & d are supposed to help her be the "investigating consciousness" of the film. Finally: at the end, she takes up a weapon -- thereby, theoretically "masculinizing" herself through the weapon's phallic symbology.

I've been looking at this idea, and thinking that it might provide a doorway, of sorts, that I might use to access an ability to write a woman into a believable character. The only problem is: I don't find it terribly believable.

To begin with, I can't remember the last time I wrote anything in which I thought: "Now this female character -- she's a virgin." And, as for be masculinized by taking up a weapon ...

Well, that makes me think of a certain woman I studied Arabic with in the army. She'd been a cop in San Francisco before enlisting, and was tough as nails. In fact, I'd trust her cover my flank in a fire-fight or beer-hall brawl any day of the week. But, when we went out on the town, she'd show up in clothes that displayed a figure that would've made many a man whistle, if -- to paraphrase the great Groucho -- it wasn't so hard to whistle with your tongue hanging out. My friend was NOT masculine. But she was tough with her fists -- and good with a weapon.

No. I don't equate women with whimpieness. But, I'm still left working my way slowly toward my goal of writing in a way that truly does appeal to women readers. So, when the book gets here, I'll read it. Maybe it will make more sense to me, or help me in some other way.

Meanwhile, I'll try (again) to attend the local meeting of the Sisters in Crime. They've told me before that they'd welcome me. They put out anthologies I'd love to get a crack at. And, I'm sure I'd learn a lot from having some of them look over my stuff.

But, as a man I feel like an interloper. I mean, this is an organization created to help women writers get published. And, I'm a man. Further: After consideration, I finally decided against visiting Frederick's of Hollywood for one of those inflatable bras Fran writes about in her books; my beard pretty much ruins that brilliant disguise idea.

So ... I'll try it in my own clothes; no disguise.

Maybe this time, I'll actually make it from my car to the meeting. Last time I sat in the parking lot for thirty minutes, then just drove home. I worry about being a bull in a china shop and creating PTA Moms Redux.

Wish me luck!

01 December 2011

'tis the Season

by Deborah Elliott-Upton

'tis the season of stress. The news is filled with greedy shoppers elbowing their way to do hand-to-hand combat for the toy everyone wants this year. Prepared to get the best deal means being armed with pepper spray and perhaps trampling a grandpa in your way. Students are in a frenzy trying to finish up reports and finals before being released for the holidays. Moms are preparing for a return of the kids being home 24/7 with nothing to do but finds new ways to irritate their siblings. Writers are pretty much the same all year with the stress of finding a new twist on crimes as old as mankind.
As I sit safely in my home with little of my own shopping done and a manuscript half-formed in my mind, my thoughts wander to ruthless criminals preparing for their busiest season, too. Unlocked doors have a bounty of gifts under a tree just for the taking. Each burglar's booty will be a surprise present for someone. Identity theft is on the rise and cyberspace is the New Frontier. Every vehicle on the road is ripe for a carjacking experience to spice up the Family Newsletter this year.
Crime is never out of season and mystery writers seem to know that as much as a voracious readership. Mysteries hold a perpetual spot on my personal Want List. Fortunately, I'm not alone.
How many mystery books will be sold this season? With the popularity of e-readers, probably more novels will be downloaded than ever.
A few years ago, I was involved in an anthology of holiday crime stories to benefit Toys for Tots. THE GIFT OF MURDER was the brainchild of Tony Burton of Wolfmont Press. Edited by John M. Floyd, the anthology was a collection of stories by authors you just might recognize: J. F. Benedetto, Stefanie Lazar, Stephen D. Rogers, Anita Page, Randy Rawls, Earl Skaggs, Peg Herring, Bill Crider, Carolyn J. Rose, Elizabeth Zelvin, Barb Goffman, Austin S. Camacho, Sandra Seamans, Steve Shrott, Gail Farrelly, Hershel Cozine, Kris neri, Marian Allen and me. Though we shared the same theme of holiday crimes, the stories -- like the authors -- are vastly different.
My contribution was deemed "disturbing" by one reviewer which made me smile. My intention was to pen a more naughty than nice story this time around.
As for now, I am content to concoct a murder or two, an arson case and maybe a posioning. It really releives my stress.

30 November 2011

Digging Up Old Crimes

by Robert Lopresti

We just got back from San Francisco, which felt like deja vu all over again, since we were there last fall for Bouchercon.   Even stayed at the same hotel.  But this time we were attending a very different conference: the fourteenth annual Biblical Archaeology Fest.

I discussed this event the last time my wife and I attended it.  I won't repeat myself except to explain that this is not a religious event, but a chance for archaeology buffs and wannabees to learn from the experts (who are actually meeting together across town).

And I heard a lot of wonderful lectures on subjects ranging from the horned altar of Gath to misconceptions about second Temple-era Judaism, but I will stick to two lectures that I can reasonably tie to crime.

Dr. Robert R. Cargill's talk was titled "No, No, You Didn't Find That."  He is an archaeologist and since he is willing to face cameras and was for several years working in Los Angeles, he became a go-to person when someone made an outrageous claim about archaeology.  This happens with depressing regularity.  (Does anyone keep track of how many times Noah's Ark has been discovered in the last century?  Or the Ark of the Covenant?)

A pseudoarchaeological claim is generally made by an amateur (who will often argue that the elitists - e.g. those with training - are conspiring against him).  There are a lot of possible motives: money, fame, religious or other ideology.  Cargill offered his "magic formula" for success in pseudoarchaeology:  start with a media blitz (as opposed to attempting publication in a scholarly journal or conference), misinformation dump (forcing critics to go through piles of irrelevant stuff, disproving it all), and attacking the critics.

One fun example: Glenn Beck claiming that the Dead Sea Scrolls were texts being hidden from Emperor Constantine.  What's a difference of three centuries between friends?

Law and Order: Ancient Canaan
Rami Arav has had an interesting career.  With his fresh doctorate in hand he moved back to Israel and began searching for a place to excavate in his native Galigee.  Aware that no on e had determined the site of  Bethsaida (the third most mentioned place in the Gospels).he set out to find it, and in ten days he did.

He duly reported this at a conference in front of an audience of about ten people (the air conditioning had broken down).  One of them happened to be a reporter who wrote that the site of  the miracle of loaves and fishes had been discovered.  Two days later everyone in the world wanted to interview Rami Arav.  The result is 25 years later he is still digging at Bethesda - or more accurately at Geshur, the huge ancient city whose ruins Bethesda was built on.  Arav estmates he has dug up about 4% of the site's 25 acres.

Amazing story, but what does this have to do with crime?  Well, Arav explains that archaeologicists "are like C.S.I.  First we take thousands of pictures.  Then we bring in experts.  Geologists, biologists,  chemists, computer experts, paleozoologists," and so on. (Quotation is approximate.)   He says archaeologists only deal with mute witnesses (texts get passed on to other scholars, but ruins can nonetheless provide remarkable evidence.

For example, one issue about the Geshur era (say, 3.000 years ago) is the question of law and order: was there a reliable system of justice, or something more like anarchy?  Is there anyway to find out without written texts?

Well, one of the things Arav's workers found was a four-meter wide paved road outside the city.  Nobody builds a paved road that wide for pedestrians or people on horseback.  That road was for wheeled wagons.  Now, think about that.  The merchant wouldn't bring a wagon pulled by animals to the city if he wasn't fairly comfortable that it would be there the next time he looked for it, and that someone would take an interest if it disappeared.  So there was law and order in Geshur.  Cool, huh?

I have 19 pages of notes from the conference, but I'll be merciful.  Meanwhile, keep digging.

29 November 2011

When We Were Very Young

A number of postings on SleuthSayers have concerned the act and nature of creative writing and brought up a lot of interesting issues: outline or free-form, cozy vs. hard boiled, first person narrative or third; just to name a few; recently, Dixon Hill did one on endings which I enjoyed very much.  So I thought I'd throw something else into the pot--Why do we write?  And beyond that, why do we write what we do?  Things that we never considered when we were very young.

I'd like to think that I can write anything that I want (at least fiction), but when I seriously consider it; I'm not so sure.  For instance, could I really pull off a romance story of the ripped bodice variety?  My inclination is not only to say no, but hell no!  Why not, you may ask; you being the consummate professional you are?  Well, I would answer, "Cause it just doesn't interest me, and I seriously doubt I could stay focused long enough to pull it off."  Besides, I'm not very clear on what a bodice is exactly and am too shy to march into the nearest Victoria's Secret and demand a viewing.  But if I did muster the required nerve necessary in the pursuit of that ringing authenticity for which I am known; I would have to request the modeling of a torn one, and I'm thinking my Robin (not Christopher) wouldn't like that.  But a Western, maybe so…I think I could do that.  War story...ditto.  Horror...oh, yeah.  Literature...sure, I've got a thesaurus.  So, in other words, I've got limitations.  I'm not saying that I couldn't write the romance novel if there was a gun to my head, but I would have to be certain it was loaded.

I suspect there's a few of you who would agree that we don't just write what we know, but write what we must, to a large degree.  I still believe in free will mind you, but I also believe we work out of all the experiences and influences that make us who we are and inform our choices on the subject matter, genres, style, endings (happy, grim, or positive), etc., of what we write.  Even the fact that we write at all is a choice.  I mentioned in my first posting that I began to write as a requirement of a college course I was taking; but I didn't have to continue; that I chose.  It was what I wanted to do from that moment onward.  The sum total of my experiences, as Elizabeth Zelvin touched on a few weeks ago, had given me something to say.  Not that I grasped that at the time.  Self-awareness came later, and with it exile from the Hundred Acre Wood.

Once published (just once, mind ye) we become professionals; thrown in amongst the great of the land; the frailties and excesses of our youth no longer tolerable; all excuses to be checked at the door.  So we concentrate on style and craftsmanship and write and write...but what, exactly?  Well, in a sense, we write about ourselves.  The particular genre(s) that we work in probably say something about us right from the start.  In my case, it's laughingly obvious--a cop writing cop stories in the beginning, and later on, crime fiction of various bents and persuasions, but almost always crime stories.  Even when I wrote a family saga and a horror novel (both languishing in a desk drawer) they involved a crime or crimes.  It's what I know...but it's more than that; it's also who I am, and I don't mean just a retired policeman.  After all, you write crime stories as well as me, and not all here are ex-law enforcement. 

My best guess is that there are as many motives for writing crime fiction as there are people writing it.  I know that a love of order has a lot to with it in my case; and a desire for justice as opposed to the rather dry, unsatisfactory rendering of the law that the courts dispense.  Writing allows that.  Can you think of a single profession where the practitioner exercises more control over his creation than that of an author?  Almost everyone else has to work in a collaborative fashion.  That is only true of us when our work reaches the hands of a willing editor.  We may be called upon to make changes and alterations, but the content; the soul of the work, remains largely untouched.  After all, it's being published because of what the editor found there, not for what they wished they'd found.

When we were very young, it was easy and comforting to believe that we could accomplish anything that we put our hands to, but with the painful self-awareness of experience and, dare I say it, the onset of wisdom, are we not better off; better writers for it?  A greater understanding of who I am and what motivates me is not actually restricting at all, but ultimately liberating: the small world that I inhabit becomes just large enough to encompass the universe.

So what say you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury?  Could you just chuck crime fiction today and begin a new career in Science Fiction tomorrow?  How about plumbing or lion-taming? Any takers?  Well, let me know your thoughts.  In the meantime, I'm reconsidering that romantic novel career...the more I've thought about the research required the more intrigued I've become, and besides, a challenge keeps you young. 

28 November 2011

A Sad Farewell

Way back when I did my undergraduate work at the University of South Carolina, I double-majored in English Literature and Journalism. The only grade less than an A I ever made was the exam on writing obituaries. There was an exact format that had to be followed. Unfortunately, I'd partied too hearty the night before the class and slept in. Not only did I not know how to write an obituary, I didn't even know we had a test the following class. I received an F and a lecture on missing the prof's lecture.

Times have changed and our State Newspaper now will print ANYTHING the family gives the mortuary. Of course, now the family has to pay by the word for the printed obituary. I've written quite a few, but I'd still rather write anything than an obit. Today's topic is a death, but I'm not going to write it as such.

This morning, I received an e-mail from Darlene Poier, editor and publisher of Canadian magazine, Pages of Stories. Subject line reads, "Goodbye from Pages of Stories." Problems forced the Poiers to take a brief hiatus to reorganize. Research in how to promote the magazine convinced them that they could not continue. Therefore, Pages of Stories ends.

I learned of Pages of Stories through Criminal Brief and won a subscription through a contest. That led to my submitting a story, which led to my story appearing in the same Summer, 2011 issue as stories by John Floyd and Leigh Lundin. I was honored to be in such fine company.

Darlene started the magazine intending to publish the best stories available, and she states, "I believe that this magazine did accomplish the goal of having the highest quality stories available, making for an enjoyable read for everyone." She wrote that subscriptions never rose to the level necessary to establish a foundation sufficient for production and promotion.

Last Friday, comments on John's blog led to a discussion of how few fiction magazines are left and how hard it is to obtain them. Perhaps we need to reconsider subscriptions. John, what I do to avoid the crowding situation is donate to nursing homes and senior citizens groups. But then, I have to subscribe because not a single bookstore of newsstand in Columbia, SC, stocks AHMM or EQMM.

The web site for Pages of Stories is still up but will soon come down. The war story project Lest We Forget is available in both hard and soft copy. Communicate with Darlene through the website or at www.pagesofstories.com.

I promised I wouldn't write this as an obituary, and I'm not. Instead, it is an eulogy and a question about our legacy and the inheritance we leave. Certainly the market is depressed, but what do we leave those who come after?

I'm going to miss Darlene and Pages of Stories.

27 November 2011

Metaphor Hunting

by Louis A. Willis

Attempting to combine the subject of this column with a Thanksgiving theme, I tried to find a metaphorical image of a turkey’s thoughts about Thanksgiving but I couldn’t find exactly what I had in mind. The image I had in mind shows a large tom turkey in the foreground holding a rifle across his chest. In the background are several turkeys gobbling in an angry mood. The caption reads: “No More Turkey Funerals.” 

(Image courtesy of  Steve Voght )
Like the symbol hunter, I’ve been hunting metaphors. The idea of writing about metaphors has been circulating in my mind since I read Dixon’s column on props. Metaphors are props that ignite the senses which, combined with the imagination, enables the reader to experience viscerally the sensation the writer is trying to convey.

Although we often apply the term metaphor to all figures of speech, the figure writers use most often is In fact that workhorse of the figures of speech, the simile. For my own clarification of the difference between metaphor and simile I consulted a source I have been reluctant to use: the WIKIPEDIA FREE ENCYCLOPEDIA (why my reluctance to use it might be subject of another column). 
From the Wikipedia: “A metaphor is a literary figure of speech that uses an image, story or tangible thing to represent a less tangible thing or some intangible quality or idea; e.g., ‘Her eyes were glistening jewels.’ Metaphor may also be used for any rhetorical figures of speech that achieve their effects via association, comparison or resemblance. In this broader sense, antithesis, hyperbole, metonymy and simile would all be considered types of metaphor.” 

“A simile is a figure of speech that directly compares two different things, usually by employing the words ‘like’, ‘as’. Even though both similes and metaphors are forms of comparison, similes indirectly compare the two ideas and allow them to remain distinct in spite of their similarities, whereas metaphors compare two things directly.“

A good simile forces me to suspend my right brain and allow my left brain to take over (I think I got correct which side of the brain controls imagination and which rationality).

Erick G. Benson in his novel Framed Justice describes how rapidly Monday morning greets his detective Tiger Price“: …as swiftly as a bullet exiting the barrel of a rifle.” I imagine Tiger waking suddenly with the morning sun in his eyes, expecting to have a productive day, which he does.
Austin S. Camacho uses a sun smilie in his debut novel Collateral Damage to describe the look the private detective sees on his girlfriend’s face: “When she opened the door he saw the expectant look lift from her face like a mist when the sun hits the land.” The disappearing mist reveals the smiling face of happiness.

Leigh in his short story “Untenable” in Pages of Stories suggests that the Nina character may be a dangerous person when he describes her look “as cold, dark, and tart as the witches brew” and continues the simile with “Her glare turned icier.”

In his short story “Detour” (EQMM July 2011), Neil Schofield made me think of why I hated the 30 plus pigeons that at one time occupied the roof of my house. Questioning by the police makes his unnamed protagonist feel “like being pecked to death by a thousand pigeons.

In David Dean’s short story “Tap-Tap” (EQMM  March/April 2011), the protagonist, sitting at his computer staring out the office window into the street through the cold, steady rain, sees “cars planing past like water-skiers”, and I see my car fishtailing into a ditch on black ice.

The narrator in the early Edward D. Hoch horrifying story “What’s It All About?” (EQMM December 2011) describes Friday night in a Florida city as “alive, with blood of the city throbbing in its veins…” . The description reminded me of Friday nights in downtown Las Vegas when I lived there in the late 1960s.
I hope you all had a happy Thanksgiving

26 November 2011


by John M. Floyd

A few months ago I got a phone call from Strand Magazine editor Andrew Gulli. That, of course, usually means good news, and it was: he said they had accepted a story I'd submitted to them. He wasn't sure when it would come out, so I've been watching their web site, and last week I noticed that my story was listed as one of those in the newly-released Holiday 2011 issue.

Having completed my investigation, I decided to drive over to the nearest bookstore and buy a copy of the magazine. But there was one more thing to do. Our nearest bookstore, now that Borders has put all four feet in the air, is now almost twenty miles away. No great distance, but since this was late afternoon, and since Jackson's rush-hour traffic reminds me of the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, I didn't want to make a special trip all the way over there until I was certain they had the current issue on their shelves; sometimes they've been known to run a little behind. Besides, I'd been there only a few days earlier, to buy the latest Stephen King novel, and the only Strand they'd had in stock on that visit was the previous (June - September) issue. Cautious soul that I am, I called the bookstore and asked the lady who answered the phone if they'd received the Holiday issue. She said she'd check.

When she came back on the line she told me yes, they had the latest issue in stock, but it didn't say anything on the cover about being a "holiday" issue. She was holding it her hand, she said, and down in the bottom corner of the front cover were the words "October through January." That sounded to me as if that adequately covered the holidays, but I wanted to be sure. For all I knew, they might've put out an extra issue this year. I thought for a moment, and after a rare brainflash I asked her if she saw any authors' names on the cover.

"Yes," she said. "Five or six."

"Would you read them out to me?"

"Read them out?"

"I want to make sure this is the issue I'm looking for."

"Okay." After a pause she said, "Alexander McCall Smith . . . Cornell Woolrich . . . Laura Lippman . . ."

I tried to remember if those names had been listed on the web site for the new issue. I thought Laura's had been, but I wasn't positive. "Keep going," I said.

She hesitated. "Woolrich sounds familiar."

"He wrote 'Rear Window,'" I said.

"Rear what?"

"Keep going."

"Three more names," she said. "Harlan Coben?"

"Keep going."

"M. L. Malcolm?"

I could tell she was beginning to lose patience with this. "Keep going."

"John Floyd?"

"Okay," I said, relieved. "That's who I was looking for. Thanks--I'll be over in about an hour to buy one."

"You're going to come over here and buy the magazine just because this guy Floyd's one of the writers?"

"Yeah," I said. "He's really good."

If this were a perfect world, she would have then put down the phone, hurried over to the fiction section, and bought one of my books. After all, employees get a discount. But somehow I doubt that happened.

The truth of the matter is, I can't figure out how I deserve being included in the company of those other folks whose names she read to me. As a friend of mine once said when he first heard he'd received a prestigious award, "They must've made a mistake." But if they did, I'm glad they did. Anyhow, I hotfooted it over to the store and bought the magazine, and in the process I got a lot more than just a contributor's copy. The October - January issue (a.k.a. the Holiday issue, apparently) has some interesting stories and interviews. Here's a quick summary, in order of appearance:

  • "Chameleon in Berlin," by M. L. Malcolm, is an enjoyable tale about spies and passwords and stealth in the cold-war era. It reminded me a little of George Smiley's adventures.
  • Cornell Woolrich's "Never Kick a Dick" brings back a long-lost story that mixes New York gangsters and Miami vice. And this one has an especially effective surprise near the end.
  • "The Adventure of the Vintner's Codex" is a New Year's Eve mystery featuring Holmes and Watson, by Dust and Shadow author Lyndsay Faye.
  • My story, "Turnabout," is--in the introductory words of the editor--"a desert-highway caper full of his [my] trademark twists and turns."
  • The interviews with Laura Lippman and Harlan Coben are--what can I say?--as informative and entertaining as you would expect them to be, from those two authors. LL and HC are among the best crime writers around, and it was fun to get a look inside their heads.
  • "A Very Personal Gift" by Alexander McCall Smith is a tale of love and suspense set in western Australia. This one is probably my favorite story in the group.

Also featured are more than a dozen book reviews and detailed coverage of the annual Strand Critics Awards ceremony, which was held this summer in New York City.

If you've not picked up this latest issue, I hope you will--I think you'll enjoy it. The Strand, like AHMM, EQMM, Woman's World, and a few others, has always been a great mystery market for both readers and writers.

There aren't many of them left.

25 November 2011

Flying Without a Parachute

There was a time early in my career when we wanted to get into a house, but had no probable cause for a legal entry. Without probable cause, any evidence found inside the residence becomes fruit of the poisonous tree. In short, this means any items found inside get thrown out as inadmissible evidence in court.
So here's how it all went down.

The Setup
A street informant called the office.
"Hey, you guys got a warrant for Bopper, don'tcha?"
"Yes, why?"
"Well at ten o'clock this morning, Bopper's gonna be at James Lewis' house to make a score."
The phone got hurriedly hung up, the troops got hatted up and we all headed out to James Lewis' place where his apartment consisted of the entire third floor. We set up surveillance and waited. Time passed. A blue Cadillac pulled up out front, two men got out and went into the house. Ten o'clock went by. One of the two men, a tall thin guy, came out of the house and returned to the Cadillac, sitting on the passenger side. More time passed. Then it started.
"Bopper's walking down the street," came the radio call.
"Wait," replied the case agent.
"He's headed for the house," said the radio voice.
"Wait," said the case agent.
"He's going up on the front porch."

"Not yet," ordered the case agent.

"He has his hand on the doorknob."
"Hit it now," barked the case agent.
Four government vehicles immediately came alive, screeching up to the front of the house and bouncing over the curb. Car doors opened and agents with drawn guns came screaming out, making as much noise as possible.
"Federal Agents!"

Survival Instincts: Fight or Flight
Bopper morphed into Panic Mode. Bless his heart, he ran into the house we wanted to enter, but hadn't previously been able to acquire probable cause for a legal entry. However, there are exigent circumstances known as Hot Pursuit for situations like these. When law enforcement is in immediate pursuit of a fleeing felon, a search warrant is not needed in order for officers of the law to enter the same building which the pursued felon has just entered during the chase.
Having now found himself inside James Lewis' house, and seeing no good exit, Bopper chose to ascend the stairs to the second floor. The Thundering Herd close behind him, still hollering "Police" and "Federal Agents," shifted into Hot Pursuit Mode.
Having now arrived at the second floor landing and still not finding a good way out, Bopper continued his desperate journey upward toward James Lewis' apartment on the third floor. In full hue and cry, the mob followed at his heels.


Now, we take a short intermission to catch our breath and explain that in those days only seasoned agents had the privilige of entering the house. Snot-nose green agents, such as myself fresh out of the academy, were regularly assigned to the perimeter where nothing of consequence ever happened. Special Agent Pat got assigned to the back of the house and I got assigned to the front. We two newbies were designated to miss all the fun.
Bored, I decided to do something. Since the tall, thin Cadillac passenger had previously been inside the house, I thought maybe he'd be holding, so I knocked on the passenger window and flashed him my tin. In no time, I had him out of the car, hands on the roof, legs spread into the proper position and was patting him down. Just as I found contraband in his hip pocket, I heard a great noise behind me.
I glanced back at the house.

The Not (W)Right Brothers
Two bodies came flying out the front third-story windows and landed on top of the front porch roof. They stood up with guns in their hands. Neat.

A Sharp Drop in Business
Unknown to us, James Lewis already had company in attendance trying to conduct a little business. His company's nerves began to unravel as they noticed the Thundering Herd was ascending the stairs and coming their way. By the time Bopper burst into the room, their taut nerves snapped and they departed via the front windows.
At least now I had something to do.
Wheeling the tall, thin Cadillac passenger around in front of me, where I could keep an eye on him, I placed my gun hand on his right shoulder and pointed it at the two miscreants on the porch roof, ordering them to drop their weapons.
They looked at me, looked at their buddy the gun rest, looked at the distance to the ground and then decided, yeh, they'd drop their guns. Good thing. If there'd been a shooting match, I'm fairly certain my gun rest would have ended up hard of hearing in his right ear. Took another half hour before I had enough help to get them two off the porch roof.

One Landing for Every Launch
Back to inside the house. When Bopper made his Mad Hatter entrance into James Lewis' apartment, he was still looking for a rabbit hole. However, since all the front exits, also known as the third-story front windows, were occupied at the time, he opted for the side window. Bad choice as Bopper soon realized.
Left behind, James Lewis sat flabbergasted through it all. He'd never seen a show like this before and therefore sat quietly, readily giving up his two handguns, plus all his contraband to approaching members of the Thundering Herd.
Bopper, outside the house and now in mid-air, suddenly saw that what he had failed to consider during his hasty departure was that there was nothing to deaccelerate his downward flight, except a concrete driveway.
Turns out in all the confusion, none of us saw his exit.
At a descent rate of 32 feet per second per second, his right leg failed to stand up to the pressure of cement bringing an end to his ill advised experiment of flying without a parachute. He then crawled through a bordering hedge and "ran" away from us. Our Probable Cause had literally flown out the window. Took us an hour to catch up with him.

After that, I graduated to the level of door crasher.

So now you have the background. If you want to compare the above telling with the fictionalized published version, you'll have to acquire the Who Died in Here? anthology. All short story submissions to it required a crime in a bathroom. Author compensation was a sum of money, plus an air freshener. I still have the air freshener.

24 November 2011


I've been watching the first episodes of Case Histories on Masterpiece Mysteries. I should say that Kate Atkinson is one of my favorite writers, and that I approached the BBC production with mingled hope and trepidation. Would Atkinson turn out to be one of the lucky writers whose work thrives on tape or celluloid or would the gods of mystery turn against both her and Jackson Brodie?

No sure thing either way. Some writers and some detectives have famously been improved by the tube. John Mortimer is a good writer, but I suspect that I am not the only reader to find the Rumpole stories a tad on the thin side without Leo McKern's rotund person and orotund phrasing, not to mention the wonderful supporting case embodying Gutherie Featherstone, Claude Erskine-Brown, The Portia of Our Chambers and, of course, She Who Must Be Obeyed.
More recently I felt that Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen was more effective digitally than on the page. Rufus Sewell's stubbornness, his watchful passivity and sudden violence made sense of a character who is too often opaque in print. The screen plays of Vendetta, Cabal and Ratking streamlined Dibdin's meandering plots and produced good drama.

Of course, some popular writers have been, like good horses, virtually bomb-proof. Every decade brings another series of Miss Marples from across the water, and I imagine that there is a queue of actresses of a certain age waiting to play the elderly sleuth of St. Mary Mead. But only one to my mind has suggested a really exceptional intellect. Joan Hickson, who was genuinely old when she essayed the part, played Miss Marple in 12 eisodes and got an OBE and plaudits from the Queen for her efforts.

Christie's Hercule Poirot has been lucky, too. He's had some heavy weight interpreters, including Peter Ustinov, Ian Holm and Albert Finney, but it is safe to say that David Suchet has made the part his own with the long running series on Masterpiece.

Other writers have had mixed fortunes. Tony Hillerman was most unlucky with the 2004 series, starring Adam Beach as Jim Chee and Wes Studi as Joe Leaphorn. I don't remember them being particularly poor, but the bleached out colors and dusty landscape on the tube captured none of the splendor of Navaho territory in the novels. Background counts, especially in Hillerman's work, where the harsh but beautiful landscape grounds so many of his detective's attitudes and beliefs.

Even successful series with admirable production and good scripts depend heavily on the charisma of the leading characters. P.D. James' Inspector Dalgliesh novels have been beloved both on the page and on Masterpiece, but there is no doubt that it was Roy Marsden who made the ideal inspector. Sensitive but chilly, gangly, bright-eyed and reflective, Marsden really was believable as both poet and detective. A subsequent performance by Martin Shaw in the role showed the difference.

Sometimes a performer simply seems miscast. Elizabeth George, like P.D. James, has been popular across platforms, but the transition to the small screen has produced a shift in the balance between her two detectives.On screen Sharon Small makes Sergeant Barbara Havers much more appealing and attractive than she is in print, attractive enough so that Lynley seems a bit of a dolt not to notice. Nathaniel Parker, who has been funny and effective in other roles, is either miscast or seriously misdirected as the stiff and rather stodgy inspector.

So where does my favorite Kate Atkinson fall on the metamorphosis scale? Somewhere in the middle, I'm afraid. Edinburgh and its environs are beautiful, as might be expected, and Jason Isaacs certainly looks the part, although he has a Brando-ish tendency to mumble that we could do without.

The minor parts are lively and some of the dialogue has the real northern humor, but I am not sure that Atkinson's work is destined to be transferred smoothly to visuals. The strength of her novels lie in her eccentric and unexpected characters and in a plotting talent to rival Christie's. She also has a lightness of touch that is hard to mesh with the realism demanded by TV.

The script, alas, has only one of these virtues. The production seems to fear that we will forget Jackson's lamentable childhood and the traumas which have made him obsessive about protecting the vulnerable. Clips of his discovery of his dead sister appear with almost tedious regularity and serve not to deepen his character but to give a too easy explanation for his sometimes irrational reactions.

So Case Histories is entertaining and handsome but not to be compared to the novels. Read them first and then enjoy the more modestly successful efforts of Jason Isaacs and the rest of the cast.