04 March 2012

Book 'em

In recent weeks, we've seen interesting news on the literary front. We'll headline a couple of them today.


Texas You may have heard of the Librotraficante movement and its caravan this month from Texas and New Mexico into that literary desert of Arizona where schoolbook banning is alive and well. Authors and educators are fighting back– smuggling banned books back into the state that just celebrated its centennial.

Arizona Like other bannings, Arizona HB 2281 ARS §15-112 touts such lofty goals of racial harmony and patriotism, but also like other bannings, the result is something else. Reportedly, officials seized books while studies were in session and subsequently shut down classes.

The numbers of 'offensive' books comprise an extensive list, mostly related to Indian and Hispanic themes and authors. I won't suggest this is communist thinking (although Arizona's flag features a suspiciously large red star. Hmm…)

The Streisand Effect

New York My take is nothing like banning books gets people to read them. A couple of thousand miles away in New York City, Mayor Bloomberg twice destroyed the so-called People's Library, an outgrowth of Occupy Wall Street. I'm sure officials saw only a rag-tag collection of books, but burning books of any kind raises hackles. Thus, out of these two attempts to take books out of people's hands, a new movement has arisen… 'read-easies'.

Like speakeasies of the Prohibition era, people can gather to partake of the illicit and even the illegal. The idea of these decentralized underground libraries is for each to stock copies of banned works. Thus if a book is banned in Boston (or tossed in Tucson), it should be available elsewhere.

Criminal (and other) Composites

In possibly the first intersection of People Magazine and the literary world, the celebrity mag published pictures of Daphne du Maurier's Mrs. Danvers, Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade, F. Scott Fitzgerald's Daisy Buchanan, Thomas Hardy's Tess, Patricia Highsmith's talented Tom Ripley, and Vladimir Nabokov's Humbert Humbert.

A new web site called The Composites combines descriptions of literary protagonists and law enforcement composite sketch software to create visuals of our favorite characters. Following are some of the most popular results:

Tom Ripley
The Talented Mr. Ripley
Patricia Highsmith
Mrs. Danvers
Daphne du Maurier
Sam Spade
The Maltese Falcon
Dashiell Hammett
Daisy Buchanan
The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Finn
Burning Chrome, Neuromancer
William Gibson
Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Thomas Hardy
Emma Bovary
Madame Bovary
Gustave Flaubert
Pinkie Brown
Brighton Rock
Graham Greene
Edward Rochester
Jane Eyre
Charlotte Bront
Humbert Humbert
Vladimir Nabokov
J.G. Ballard
The Misfit
A Good Man Is Hard To Find
Flannery O’Connor
Richard Tull
The Information
Martin Amis
Ignatius J. Reilly
A Confederacy of Dunces
John Kennedy Toole
We Need to Talk About Kevin
Lionel Shriver
Judge Holden
Blood Meridian
Cormac McCarthy
Zone One
Colson Whitehead
Keith Talent
London Fields
Martin Amis

I admire Sue Grafton's detailed descriptions, but I tend toward minimalism. In Swamped, I described the professor's hands, damaged foot, and what little could be seen of his eyes, but I spend more time writing about what's on the inside of a character. What characters think is important to me, especially if it doesn't mesh with their actions. Although I'm more Continental Op than Kinsey Millhone, descriptive difference may be attributable to the length of the story form. In a novel with more room to play, I might become more effusive vis-à-vis physicality, but there can be drawbacks.

I'm not the first to mention that whilst Stephenie Meyer vividly portrayed teenish hunk Edward Cullen in her Twilight Series, she sketched virtually no physical description of Isabella Swan. Apparently that lack of detail allows readers to visualize themselves as their heroine, Bella.

Speaking of which… it's the witching hour of midnight and I'm outta here.

03 March 2012

Three Amigos

by John M. Floyd

As R.T. Lawton mentioned yesterday, three of us at SleuthSayers (R.T., Rob Lopresti, and I) are fortunate enough to have stories featured in the May 2012 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. In fact they're the first three stories, lined up one after the other--Rob's ("Shanks Commences"), mine ("Lewis and Clark"), and R.T.'s ("Spring Break"). My story is distinctive in only one way: at 2200 words, it's by far the shortest in the issue.

You can probably guess which three stories in the May issue are my favorites, but I wound up enjoying all eight of them. (The final story in the magazine--"Carry-on," by Wayne J. Gardiner--provides a dandy twist ending.) What I remember most about R.T.'s story is the Florida setting and the delightful characters, and Rob's story features his usual humor and a plot involving some names that are suspiciously familiar (?!?). Believe me, it's an honor for me just to be included alongside (and in between) those two guys.

My story is a lighthearted look at a couple of Boy Scouts named Lewis Tucker and Freddie Clark. The two of them, hiking together in the deep woods, are already in deep trouble with both their troop and their parents because of a stupid prank involving their scoutmaster and a sleeping-bag full of fire ants--and if that isn't bad enough, they soon realize that they're lost. It's also late and almost dark, and if all that still isn't bad enough, they then cross paths with two bank robbers on the run. One of the boys winds up captured and hogtied while the other sits hidden high in a pine tree above the thieves' campsite. Since they can't rely on anyone else's help (their parents think they're spending the night at an uncle's, and the cops are looking for the robbers in all the wrong places), the boys know their only hope of rescue lies in their own ingenuity.

As a writer I love situations like that. A mystery novelist once told me he keeps a note taped to his computer monitor that says MAKE THINGS WORSE. A protagonist should not only be in agony, he should stay in agony while the situation around him grows steadily more hopeless, until at some point--at or near rock-bottom--he somehow manages to find a logical way out of the mess he's gotten himself into. That holds true for short stories as well as novels, and I think plotting that kind of story is at least as much fun for the writer as reading it is for the reader.

I've sold only a couple of stories to AHMM that are shorter than this one; my longest there was around 13,000 words. Most have been between 4,000 and 7,000. They've included crimes that range from bombings to ATM theft to murder-for-hire to insurance fraud, and settings from Hong Kong to Africa to the South Pacific. One story was dialogue-only, one was a locked-room mystery, and two were set in my home state. I'm honestly not sure if I just like variety, or if I can't figure out how to do any one kind of story well enough to stick to it.

By the way, I agree with Rob's comments in his column last Wednesday, regarding differences between AHMM and EQMM. AH seems to be more open to stories with humor, twist endings, unusual locations, and even occasional paranormal elements. Those are things I like dabbling with, as a writer, and that might be part of the reason my publishing record with Hitchcock and Queen is so lopsided: eleven stories in AH, two poems in EQ. I won't tell you how many times I've been rejected by both magazines, but I assure you I probably have enough of those "thanks but no thanks" notes to paper the walls of my home office, and most of our bedroom as well.

The trio of SleuthSayers stories in this issue got me to thinking about other "shared" publications with blogmates, and after thumbing through the old AHMMs on my shelf I've found that my stories have twice appeared in the same issue with Rob's, twice in the same issue with Janice Law's, once with Neil Schofield's, and (now) once with R.T.'s. I've also been featured with my fellow Criminal Briefer James Lincoln Warren on three occasions. It's fun anytime to get published in AHMM--it's a magazine I've been reading pretty regularly since my college days--and it's a special treat to also occasionally be tethered alongside friends and colleagues at the Hitching post.

Here's hoping that happens again.

02 March 2012

"Spring Break"

by R.T. Lawton

Since Rob Lopresti, John Floyd and I all have stories coming out in the May 2012 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Rob suggested that we each write a blog article about our own story. Seems our stories are printed back to back, 1st, 2nd and 3rd in the magazine. Rob's is "Shanks Commences," John's is "Lewis and Clark" and mine is "Spring Break." So, put a little something extra in your coffee and let's keep this celebratory party going.
"Spring Break" is 6th in my Holiday Burglar series. Its protagonists, Beaumont and Yarnell, got their start, or baptism of fire if you will, in a Christmas tale entitled "Click, Click, Click" (currently available in podcast at AHMM's website: http://www.themysteryplace.com/ ) when they attempted to burgle the residence of a drug dealer who concealed his illegal product and cash received in Christmas paper wrapped boxes under the tree. Unfortunately, our duo did their counting to figure out the third house from the corner while they stood at the back door they were breaking into instead of counting from the front while facing the house. Wrong corner. Thus as Beaumont munches cookies left out for Santa in the living room, Yarnell discovers they have mistakenly broken into the residence of a member of the National Rifleman's Association. Their quick departure, prodded by some of the loudest sounds Yarnell has ever heard close up, is hampered by the sudden onset of night blindness in their night vision goggles as a result of several bright muzzle blasts from the home owner's very large hand gun.
As far as the title goes, the reader is free to make his own choice as to whether the story title derives from that old Christmas carol concerning the sound of reindeer hooves upon the roof, or could it be the noise a gun makes when its hammer gets cocked.
In the subsequent episode, "Grave Trouble," our two bunglers guess-timate their distance inside a large storm water drain on Halloween night and end up breaking into the basement of a mortuary, instead of the jewelry store they had anticipated. Deciding to search for the office safe anyway so as the break-in won't be a total loss, after all a profit is a profit, Yarnell soon finds The Thin Guy sleeping in one of the display coffins. Turns out the assistant undertaker, recently divorced, has been taken to the cleaners by his ex-wife. Being homeless, needing the influx of immediate cash and having a secret yearning to be a burglar, The Thin Guy blackmails our two protagonists into him becoming their protege. In stories thereafter, The Thin Guy keeps popping up at odd times and places, always trying to make a purloined score.

Video Clips for two of the other three episodes:

Which ultimately brings us to "Spring Break." Yarnell who suffers from many psychological problems, to include "closet-phobia" ( his street psychiatrist with the folding card table and three online degrees explained this to him as the anxiety of being confined in small or tight places), finds himself in the unfamiliarity of Florida during the time period that college students consider to be their Spring Break. Since Yarnell had never been to college, he's not sure he's eligible to attend any Spring Break event, but decides to give it a try, even though Florida lets their alligators run around freely above ground instead of keeping them down in the city sewers like sensible New Yorkers do with theirs.
As Yarnell's fellow burglar explains the current job to him, this will be an easy one. All they have to do is stand at the foot of a ten story condo on the beach inthe dark of night and wait for the loot to be lowered down to them on a rope. After a few minutes of craning their necks to watch the tenth story unit, they hear noises behind them in the landscaping bushes. It seems that a crowd of Spring Breakers had earlier noticed a "spiderman" climb up the outside wall of this same condo all the way to the top, and believing this to be an anonymous college prankster, they have gathered to videotape the entire event and put it on You-Tube to go viral. Realizing that the spiderman was actually The Thin Guy, Yarnell starts looking for an exit.
Of my four series in AHMM, this is my comedy one. The way the world goes, I occasionally have to write something that makes me laugh, and hopefully another reader somewhere will get a chuckle or two for themselves. If so, then I've done my job. This is no literary or work of great literature, but then I write these to be entertaining. Laughter is good medicine, or at least a coping mechanism. Who knows, if there was more laughter in the world (naturally, this does not include the evil villian laugh), maybe there would be fewer.......murders.

Read the story, after you read Rob's and John's stories of course. I'm just honored to even be in the same issue with them.

01 March 2012

Off the Literary Reservation

by Janice Law

It is always interesting to see writers operating off their usual turf. Sometimes, the results are disastrous – John Le Carre’s The Naive and Sentimental Lover comes to mind. Other times, skills that flourish in one genre turn out to be dynamite in another. Arguably P.D. James’s best novel is The Children of Men, her futurist tale of a disastrous population crash in near future Britain. The careful characterization and thoughtful prose of her mysteries seem even better when unhitched from the genre requirements of red herrings and planted clues.

Similarly, the Canadian poet and novelist Margaret Atwood hit it big with The Handmaid’s Tale, another futurist foray about an infertile future. (It’s a nice question why this theme resonated with two female novelists in a time of over population). The narrator has a poet’s grasp of the language and the combination of a flamboyant style and a thriller plot made it no surprise that Handmaid later showed up on the screen – and in an opera.

With 11/22/63, Stephen King is the latest writer to move off his particular literary reservation a novel about a time traveler who heads off to Dallas to block the Kennedy assassination. Like Atwood and James, he brings a heady literary arsenal, particularly his gifts for visceral effects, violent action, morbid atmosphere and imaginative plotting.

He doesn’t completely avoid his patented horror effects, either, nor his affection for schools and teenagers, who, in the main, get a charming and sympathetic treatment. Indeed, many of the characters, particularly the minor ones, are sharply observed and appealing.

So is 11/22/63 in the rare category of the totally successful and unexpected? To my mind, not quite, though to be honest, I am a fan of his non-fiction, not his stories. Some of it is excellent, and who can say too much against a writer who comes up with a line like : “A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.” He also has some trenchant observations about life, American politics, and human limitations, and the ending is genuinely touching.

On the down side, the book is enormously long, too long, I think, to be carried by Jake Epping/ George Amberson, the English teacher time traveler, who finds a ‘rabbit hole’ to the past in the back room of his friend Al’s diner. He steps out into September of 1958, the Land of Ago, where he first attempts to reset the life of his school’s handicapped janitor before setting his sights on changing history big time.

George is a fine functional character. He is good at any number of things and abundantly gifted with the savoir faire that enables him to make a living without documents in 1958 and fit into the ‘Sixties without more than a few linguistic slips and some unwise song lyrics. The heroine falls for him; his colleagues like him, and even derring-do is not beyond his brief.

But he does not seem to have much of an interior life. Until the very end, he seems to have few conflicts and, like most of the characters, he belongs to a universe where good and bad are sharply separated. George once confesses to cowardice, momentarily, otherwise he’s a white hat all the way.

Towns, too, are clearly on one of the other side of the moral scale. Derry, Maine, where George first goes to change destiny, is a creepy place, and King can’t resist suggesting a real monster in an old chimney. Dallas, similarly, is haunted by evil, and the famous Book Depository is almost the personification of brooding malice. In contrast, Jodie, the small Texas town where George finds happiness, is almost overflowing with good will and good folks.

11/22/63 is clearly and vigorously written but at over 800 pages, I, at least, began to find the five years before that November day in Dallas very long indeed. Part of the length is caused by the way King has set the parameters of his time travel scheme. It is always September 1958 when one leaves the rabbit hole and precisely two minutes later in modern time when one returns.

Furthermore, every time George re-enters the rabbit hole, the past is reset and any changes he made on his previous visit are erased. You can see the potential for a Groundhog Day scenario, and there is something exhausting about the resets and the repetition of events. I’m probably a minority opinion, but I think 11/22/63 would, indeed, have been masterly at about two thirds of its present length.

Still, there are plenty of things to like as well as some curious touches. The importance of dancing is not so surprising ( Dancing is life) in a man clearly fond of music and devoted to art. But the sense that 11/22/63 conveys of the fragility of reality and the contingency of all our perceptions surprised me in a writer whose great gift is the transcription of violent bodily states.

Indeed, the last writer I would compare to King is Nathaniel Hawthorne, though like King’s narrator, he was often criticized for lacking red-blooded emotions. But early in The Marble Faun, Hawthorne has an interesting passage about the sorts of stories, touched with the uncanny and the supernatural, that both he and King construct.

Of the ruins of Rome, which attracted him as the ruins of our old industrial towns attracts his modern counterpart, he writes of the ‘ponderous remembrances’ of the city where “our individual affairs and interests are half as real here as elsewhere. Viewed through this medium, our narrative– into which are woven some airy and insubstantial threads, intermixed with others, twisted out of the commonest stuff of human existence– may not seem widely different from the texture of our lives.”

English teachers as they are, Jake Epping/ George Amberson would heartily agree.

29 February 2012

There's a Hitch in it, somewhere

Sometimes a road trip can change your life.  I took one with my parents in the late sixties to upstate New York.  I think we went to Lake George, but I don't remember that at all.  What I remember is seeing a fat, familiar face on a newsstand.
I wish I remembered which issue it was.  I looked on this helpful but incomplete page and the oldest story I can be sure I read in the magazine was from the October 1969 issue ("Scream All The Way," by Michael Collins. I remember the illustration - a dramatic drawing of  a man falling out of a building - so I know it wasn't a reprint in a book).  But I am confident that I was reading it before then.

What attracted me?  I don't think at that age (roughly fourteen) I had ever seen a Hitchcock movie, although I had certainly enjoyed his TV show, and his children's anthologies,

 and the Three Investigator books,
   and I believe I had discovered the anthologies that often included stories from the magazine. 

Quite a cottage industry Hitch had going,  huh?  All of them might as well have been gateway drugs, preparing me for mystery magazines, I guess.

There were two other features back in those days that made AHMM unique.  First, each issue began with a note in solemn tones signed by Hitchcock himself, introducing all the stories.  I don't think that even at that tender age I imagined Alfred had anything to do with writing the notes, but it was another way of tying the mag to one of the most famous people in the world.

They also used to tuck him into a story illustration in most of the issues, like his famous cameo appearances in his movies.  There would be a tubby patrolman in the back of a crime scene, or a rotund waiter in a restaurant.   Or see this one, from 1981.

 By then AHMM  had been sold by H.S.D. and was published by Davis, the same company that owned  Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

Over the years I have heard the question a hundred times: what's the difference between Hitchcock and Queen?  My answer used to be: Hitchcock sometimes buys my stuff.  But since Queen gave in and bought one of my stories that distinction isn't as helpful anymore.  I usually say Hitchcock is fonder of humor, suspense, and twist endings.  Queen leans toward longer, darker, stories,  and is more concerned with the history of the field, so it features pastiches, fair play mysteries, and the like.

But I'm sure the main reason I have been published more often in AHMM than in EQMM (18 to 1, to be exact), is that I grew up on the former. My tastes in mystery stories were shaped by AHMM, so it is hardly surprising that my writing tends to match up with theirs.

How good are the stories in AHMM?  Well, here is a brief summary of the awards the magazine has collected:
*more than 20 Edgar nominations, including three winners.
*eleven Robert L. Fish Awards for best first short story.
*more than thirty Shamus nominations, and eight winners.
*more than twenty Derringer nominations, including three winners.
*nominations (and some winners) for the Spur, the Anthony, the Macavity, the Barry, the Agatha, the Arthur Ellis, and the Herodotus, the last of which I had never heard of.  

Impressive, you might say.  But you might also ask why I bring up this particular magazine in the first place.  If you don't already know all shall be revealed in the next few days, starting on Friday, when we will come back to AHMM in a big way. Until then, keep reading and writing.

28 February 2012


Typical Datura blossom
They believe what they are told, said Miss Marple.  “Yes indeed, we’re all inclined to do that,” she added.  Then she said sharply “Who told you these stories about India, about the doping of husbands with datura . . . .?”

                    Agatha Christie
                    A Caribbean Mystery

    In a previous article I listed a number of books that were inspired by trips to the Caribbean.  When I finished the article I realized that there was only one book on the list that I had not, in fact, read.   I remedied that by downloading Agatha Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery onto my Nook and read it while we were “down island.”  Half way through the book Miss Marple muses on a strange flowering plant – the datura. The reference struck a personal chord.

Areas where daturas are likely to be found
    I suspect that few readers know much about the datura.  The plant grows profusely in warm climates and, while indigenous to Latin America (on this continent) can be found in many aereas of the world.  The datura puts forth beautiful lily-like flowers, wonderfully fragrant, that blossom and then whither, each over the course of an evening and the following morning.  Sometimes, particularly in mid-summer, one datura plant can produce 20 to 30 of these one-day wonders.  At sundown you can watch the bees buzzing around the sealed flower buds, waiting for each flower to burst open.  A beautiful plant.  But, as Miss Marple alludes, there is a dark side to the Datura.  More about that in a little while.

    Why was I surprised to encounter Agatha Christie’s reference to the plant,?   Well, as rare as the datura plant is, it is hardly so on our block in Chevy Chase, in the District of Columbia.  Like many of our neighbors we have several datura bushes growing in our back yard, where they have been ensconced for the past thirty years.  It was surprising to find Miss Marple referencing this strange plant since my wife Pat and I, along with many of our neighbors, were, in fact, introduced to the datura by a lady not completely unlike Miss Marple.

    Shortly after we first moved into our home in Washington, D.C. back in 1982 there was a knock at our front door.  When I opened the door I was face to face with a ramrod straight 80 year old woman attired in a cotton dress and a huge straw hat, tied at the chin.  Our visitor announced (seemingly in one breath) that she was Mary Marsh, that she lived just across the street and that she had lived there since 1942.  "Back then," she said, "the street was not even paved."  Nodding her head once in punctuation she then marched through the door before I could even utter a word of invitation.  Mary walked purposely into our living room, seated herself on the couch, and explained that as the oldest neighbor on the block she wanted personally to welcome us to the street.  My wife Pat and I watched in awe as Mary prattled on non-stop about the history of our new block. 

    The next day Mary appeared again at our door, this time with a small white envelope.  “I thought you might like these,” she said, thrusting the envelope into my hand.  “These are datura seeds. I could see your back yard through the kitchen window yesterday, and I thought that a row of daturas would look lovely along your rear fence.” 

    Pat is more the gardener, but even she was perplexed.  “What are daturas?” she asked.  “Lovely white flowers, bloom only for a day,” Mary responded.  “You have to pinch the flower off then, you know, in order to be sure that the plant continues to produce and doesn't start going to seed. Bert and I,” she said, referencing her 84 year old husband who at the time we had yet to meet, “brought them back from Mexico years ago.”  Mary thought a minute and then added “you know, I have a book about daturas that I should lend to you.”  And at this she turned on her heel and trotted back across the street only to return several minutes later with what was probably the most dog-eared and heavily read book I have ever seen.  She handed the book to Pat and then left. 

    We closed the door, looked at each other and then down at the book.  The well-worn volume our octogenarian neighbor had pressed into Pat's hands was titled Narcotic Plants of South America.  Well, beyond that ominous title the book also confirmed the beauty of the datura's flowers.  That afternoon, like Jack and the beanstalk, we planted the seeds.

    So, we had a colorful introduction to Miss Marple’s (and Mary Marsh’s)  most unusual plant.  As Mary had assured us, the datura, more  technically the Datura Stramonium, without question, produces a lovely and fragrant flower. Each blossom is lilly-like.  The flowers open, like clockwork, just as the sun sets, and they last only until the next morning.  And as each flower opens it sends forth a beautiful fragrance, that often, in the height of summer, will flavor the air of our entire back yard.

    I never found another copy of that book Mary loaned to us, but in one of the few horticulture books on daturas that is easily accessible, Brugmansia and Datura: Angel's Trumpets and Thorn Apples, Ulrike Preissel, writes   
Datura, sometimes called Thorn Apples, are mostly annuals and are cultivated like summer flowers. The impressive bell flowers of both varieties -- in white, yellow, pink and red -- are extraordinarily decorative. It's no surprise that Brugmansia and Datura are prized by enthusiasts around the world. 
    But enough of this.

    Mr. Preissel also notes  that cultivation of daturas is unlawful in some places in the world.  (I understand this to be the case in Oklahoma, for example.)   Why?  Well, as Miss Marple observed, and as the title of that book Mary Marsh first loaned to us back in 1982 implies, daturas are not known solely for those lovely, lily-like aromatic flowers.  We can get an inkling of this from the name itself: reportedly  in Latin one meaning of the word "datura" is "send to die."

    The datura is, in fact, one of the most dangerous poisonous and hallucinogenic plants in the world.  Enno Freye in Toxicity of Datura Stramonium  has written:    
No other substance has received as many “Train Wreck” severely negative experience reports as has Datura.  The overwhelming majority of those who describe the use of Datura (and to a lesser  extent Belladonna, Brugmansia and Brfunfelsia) find the experiences extremely mentally and physically unpleasant and not infrequently physically dangerous.  
Datura seed pods 

    This beautiful flowering plant has historically been linked to numerous murders and suicides, particularly in India and in Europe, where it also grows in warm climes.  A 2002 study entitled Brugmansia and Datura:  Angel’s Trumpets and Thorn Apples by Ulrike and Hans-George Preissel (yep, co-authored by the same gentleman who, in the earlier quote, was extolling the datura’s beauty) reports that the between 1950 and 1965 the State Chemical Laboratories in Agra, India  investigated 2,778 deaths that were caused by ingestion of the datura plant. 

Datura seeds
    Most poisoning incidents involving daturas stem from the ingestion of the plant’s large potato-like root.  But it is not just the root that causes trouble.  The datura’s seeds, which diffuse from the plant in the wind after the first frost, are also highly toxic, and reportedly swallowing as few as a half teaspoon of the datura’s seeds will cause delirium and, in severe cases, death by cardiac arrest.  

    Closer to home (indeed, only a few miles from mine) the United States Center for Disease Control reports that in 2008 a family of six in Maryland were inadvertently poisoned when they ate  cooked datura root and leaves that they unknowingly added to a stew they had assembled using only “natural” ingredients found in the woods behind their home.  (Ahh, nature!)  While, thankfully, all six survived the ordeal, the Center, even in its characteristic dryly medical style, reports a harrowing experience:
The six affected persons came from one family and included three men and three women ranging in age from 38 to 80 years (median age: 42 years). All six shared a meal of homemade stew and bread at approximately 9:00 p.m. on July 8, 2008. No one else was at the home when the meal was eaten. Approximately 1 hour later, another relative arrived at the home and discovered the six affected family members laughing, confused, and complaining of hallucinations, dizziness, and thirst. One of the family members vomited. The unaffected relative called emergency medical services, and all six were transported to the hospital by ambulance.

On admission to the emergency department, two of the six patients were unconscious. The other four were awake and had altered mental status; . . . .  During the next 6 hours in the emergency department, the six patients continued to experience tachycardia [i.e. accelerated heart beats], mydriasis [i.e. severe dilation of the pupils], and altered mental status. One remained unconscious. The others demonstrated confusion, aggression, agitation, disorganized speech, incoherence, and hallucinations. All six were admitted to the hospital, five to the intensive-care unit.
    According to the Center, such effects are apparently not at all unusual in cases where datura, and principally its root, is eaten.  Typically ingestion of the plant produces delirium, a complete inability to differentiate reality from fantasy, violent behavior and prolonged amnesia. Without immediate treatment ingesting the root can prove fatal, particularly to children.

    You would think that such a plant would be very popular in the types of stories that spring from the computers of authors such as those who contribute to this blog.  But aside from Agatha Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery, I personally know of only one other book in which the datura plays an explicit role –  The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel.  There the roots of the plant are ingested by the clan’s shamans to induce a hallucinatory religious experience.  The  datura also reportedly inspired the strangling plant that was a key element in the plot of the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone (or Sorcerer's Stone depending on where you live).  Following publication of the book there was a spate of somewhat hysterical reports from folks in the English countryside who found that their gardens in fact contained the plant that had inspired the one used against Harry.  

    While the datura is not a common mystery device, it has made its presence known throughout history.  The chapter on daturas that is available on-line at the Poison Garden Website  reports the following:
In 38 A.D. Antony led another attempt by the Romans to subdue the Parthians and, as with previous expeditions, met with no success. Starving on the way back, his soldiers were reduced to living off the land and some of them ate Datura. As a result they are reported to have done nothing but ‘turn over every stone in his path with the greatest gravity, as though it were a difficult task.’ It is sometimes said that this incident leads to the saying 'leaving no stone unturned' to mean taking great care over a task.
    My favorite historical reference to daturas, however, that is quoted at the Poison Garden website, is from colonial times: 
In Jamestown in 1679, soldiers ate leaves in a salad and experienced ‘a very pleasant comedy’. In the “History and Present State of Virginia” (1705), Robert Beverly gives an account of what happened. “Some of them eat plentifully of it, the Effect of which was a very pleasant Comedy ; for they turn’d natural Fools upon it for several Days: One would blow up a Feather in the Air; another would dart Straws at it with much Fury; another, stark naked, was sitting in a Corner, like a Monkey, grinning and making mows at them;  a Fourth would fondly kiss and paw his Companions and snear in their Faces with a Countenance more antick than any Dutch Droll. . . . A thousand such simple Tricks they play’d, and after Eleven Days, return’d to themselves again, not remembering anything that had pass’d.” This incident gives [to daturas] the [local] name jimsonweed (Jamestown Weed).
    Or consider, if you will, the strange case (sounding like Rod Serling, here) of Clairvius Narcisse, probably the most well-documented Haitian "zombie."  Narcisse "died" in 1962, lay in a refrigerated morgue for three days and then was buried.  Yet he turned up 18 years later, identifying himself to his sister on the streets of Port-au-Prince.  Narcisse claimed that after being buried alive he was dug up and then subjected to mind control that allowed him to be kept in forced labor all of those years.  According to Wade Davis' 1985 book The Serpent and the Rainbow, and a report at the Skeptoid website, this was accomplished by force feeding him "a paste made of sweet potatoes, cane syrup, and a plant called Datura"  The website notes that datura, popularly referred to as "the Devil's cucumber" in Haiti, along with nightshade and henbane, has long been used there as a hallucinogenic drug.

    All that having been said,  thanks to Mary Marsh -- who, notwithstanding her life-long proximity to these poisonous plants lived to be almost 100 -- our neighborhood is populated by many daturas, all relatives of the seeds Mary brought back from Mexico decades ago.  On our block daturas are cultivated only for the beauty of their flowers.   No mystery stories here,.  Certainly no zombies.

    Our daturas plants do seem to have a mind of their own.  They started out near our back fence in 1983, died out there but then re-appeared for several years at a side fence, only to desert that location for their present home  under a black locust tree at the rear of our yard.  There they die off every fall only to re-appear, like clockwork, in the first warm days of June.  By August they can be six feet tall.

    Throughout the summer we appreciate the beautiful flowers, and the aromatic fragrance each evening as the blossoms open.  Miss Marple, and our late neighbor Mary Marsh, knew both sides of the plant.  But for us it is all about the flowers. 


27 February 2012

What's In A Word?

by Fran Rizer

The young lady farded before leaving to meet the new man she'd met on the Internet.

She hoped he wasn't a grinagog. After all, she'd met one of those the previous night, and it had become a kankedort. That's why she'd chosen to make this a jentacular date, hoping it wouldn't turn out to make her niddick quiver.

The last man had been ambisinistrous, though eumorphous. Unfortunately, he'd insisted on going to a new restaurant and ordering for her. The spitchcock had almost gagged her. It was even covered with shitake. When she'd complained, the man insisted she taste his scrod. She thought it was quisquilious and certainly hadn't want to osculate with the man after he'd stared at her glabella and complained that his coccyx hurt after they'd run into a friend of his who debagged him.

Well, what do you think? Did you understand that brief scenario or did it make you want to run for the dictionary? Did you think parts of it might even be a bit "blue" or off-color? Unless your normal vocabulary far exceeds mine, you may have misinterpreted some of it.

Through the years, I've met writers who like to pull out every ten-dollar word they know when writing. I'm not referring to the jargon specific to a subject, just the habit of using a long, lesser known word when a regular old two-dollar word will do. A friend who wanted to critique each other's writings told me, "I want every paragraph to have a word that the reader has to look up in the dictionary."

I laughed and said, "Then I don't want to read what you're writing. Fiction should entertain, and unless you explain those words in context, I don't want to read what you write."

Unless I'm writing an instructional article, I try to write so the average adult reader will understand what I'm trying to say. I've been told that my Callie Parrish mysteries are great "Beach Reads," because they are easy reading. That comes naturally because I spent over thirteen years teaching fifth grade, so I tend to write on about a fifth-grade level in vocabulary. That doesn't worry me a lot because most newspapers are now written below fifth-grade level.

I used to "collect" unusual words though I don't use them in normal speech, nor in fiction. (Not even in the serial killer novel, which is a different style from Callie.) In case I've collected a few words you haven't, I'll give you these for your edification:

  • fard - to put on excessive makeup
  • grinagog - person who grins a lot
  • kankedort - an awkward situation
  • jentacular - related to breakfast
  • niddick - nape of the neck
  • ambisinistrous - clumsy, opposite of ambidextrous
  • eumorphous - well formed
  • splitchcock - a special way of cooking eel
  • shitake - a kind of mushroom
  • scrod - young cod fish
  • quisquilious - like garbage
  • osculate - kiss
  • glabella - facial area between the eyebrows
  • coccyx - bottom bone of the spine
  • debag - to pull someone's pants down as a joke

Until we meet again… take care of YOU.

26 February 2012

Meditation On Imagination and Logic

by Louis Willis

I’m not sure what adjective describes what I’m doing in this post. Brainstorming? No, it takes more than one person to do that. Speculating? No, wrong connotation; meditating is probably the word for what I’m doing. I got the idea of calling this post a meditation from an essay “A Few Thoughts on the Meditative Essay” by Robert Vivian in which he says the essay is more pondering and contemplation than opinions and ideas (I paraphrase).

After reading Dixon’s post on Print Zombies, and thinking about the post on whether to outline or not to outline, I couldn’t stop my left brain from thinking theoretically, which it does occasionally without any prompting from me. I sometimes read as much theory as I can stand without getting a headache, thinking it will help me understand and enjoy fiction on deeper level. You know what I’m talking about, all that headache-inducing stuff called deconstruction, postmodernism, reader-response, aestheticism, ethical criticism, and a whole lot of other theories of literature and criticism. All that theory stuff does is interfere with my enjoyment of a good story. 

Nevertheless, the theorist in me had to get out, so the left brain just kicked the right brain to the side and took over, and the result is this article. It is not about theory of storytelling but a meditation on the imagination and logic in the creative process, that is, their relationship to each other and function in the art of storytelling (okay, it is a meditation on the theory of imagination and logic). 

When you start a story, do you use logic and say I’ll write about so and so. Maybe, but at some point, your imagination takes over, whether you want it to or not, and your muse offers her help in letting your imagination roam where it may. The subconscious probably takes over at some point in the creative process before logic steps in. Thus, you have already told the story in your imagination but not in a coherent order—an outline puts it in order. If you don’t put the outline on paper, logic demands you think outline: how does this character function, what is the need for this scene; how can I make this character come alive? Logic edits and in some cases sanitizes what goes  in and what’s left out of a story. Whether to outline or not outline doesn’t matter because imagination and logic are at work no matter what, and if properly used can prevent those Print Zombies from remaining so dry.

Anxiety, the feeling that you might miss an editor-imposed or self-imposed deadline, or that for some reason, the story isn’t right, or maybe imagination has gone hog wild (a clich√© and I don’t even know what it means), you stop and think, and logic sees an opening and rushes (well maybe not so quickly) in to provide answers.

As for the Print Zombies, what is missing is a lack of imagination and too much logic. And maybe a little laziness is present. 

25 February 2012

Getting Lost in a Good Book

One of the great joys of reading novels is the opportunity to “get lost in a good book.” As a mental health professional, I can tell you that the psychological phenomenon involved is dissociation. Getting lost in a book or movie is at the mild end of the dissociative spectrum, along with the long-distance driver’s road trance. At the other end is dissociative identity disorder: the pathological condition, resulting from extreme trauma such as childhood sexual abuse, that used to be called multiple personality. Getting lost in a book, while it’s certainly not pathological, produces the same effect of coming to with a jolt from a world that made the one you’re actually in vanish completely. There’s the same sense of having been somewhere else and having no idea how much time has passed.
People who don’t read miss this pleasure. So do those who don’t read fiction, or so I believe. My husband is a history buff and inveterate non-fiction reader. He’s always trying to involve me in his reading. He’ll chuckle aloud and say, “Listen to this!” as a preface to telling me some priceless tidbit about Napoleon or Frederick the Great. (Readers of my mysteries know I borrowed this trait for one of my characters.)

The standard answer to that or any other interruption in our house is, “Shush! I’m reading my bookie.” “Bookie” is our private baby talk for genre fiction, a novel on the light side of what the Brits call “a good read”—a story absorbing enough to sweep the reader away. It goes with teddy bears and cuddling up to read.

My husband sometimes complains that it’s not fair, since I don’t always refrain from talking to him while he’s reading. But the truth is that he’s more willing to be interrupted when he’s reading serious history or something dense and weighty. He’s absorbed, but not to the point of dissociation. I’ve noticed that when he lightens up enough to pick up a mystery, science fiction, or fantasy, he too says, “Shush! I’m reading my bookie.”

What lures me most intensely into an alternate world? My briar patch is the character-driven traditional mystery, but crime is not a necessity. Historical fiction with endearing characters and a dollop of romance can do it, as can character-driven speculative fiction or fantasy.
I remember gasping with pleasure the first time I read Diana Gabaldon’s outstanding time-travel historical novel, Outlander. It utterly pulled me into the 18th century. Dorothy Dunnett’s novels about Francis Crawford of Lymond take me just as thoroughly to the 16th century. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series, set in the galactic future and on an old-fashioned planet within it, does the same.
So do Sharon Shinn’s perfectly constructed Samaria novels about genetically engineered angels.

The common elements are lovability and the touch of romance, combined with highly intelligent writing, brilliant characterization, and superb storytelling. Of course, there’s plenty of that in mystery too. I don’t want to come back from Judge Deborah Knott’s North Carolina or Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes’s England either. So shush! I’m reading my bookie.

24 February 2012

Generation: Encrypted

I have to admit it.

I spend quite a bit of time on sites like CraigsList. Because, I’m looking for a contemporary mystery story plot. And not just the “CraigsList Killer Slays Three” type of thing.

I can’t help thinking there are a million stories just nested there, on CL – all those people advertising for dates (or just sex), trying to sell an old Schwinn, or maybe looking to buy a house.

Just take this ad, for instance:

schwinn moutian bike - $45 (n/w)
Date: 2012-02-23, 4:04PM MST
Reply to: see below

cheap ride. call [REDACTED FOR PRIVACY] $45obo

• Location: n/w
• it's NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests

I see an ad like this, and it makes me wonder. Was this bike stolen? Did the owner buy a new one? Or did the poster’s kid perhaps outgrow it?

After all, I bought a “tagalong” attachment for my own bike, on CraigsList, and used it to get my youngest son back and forth to school before he learned to ride his own bike. (Those unfamiliar with a "Tagalong" bike trailer, can see one attached to a larger bike's seat -- below -- just as ours works.)

When we got to the house in West Phoenix, where the poster of that tagalong CL advertisement lived, I found the tagalong still hooked to his own bike. He told me his daughter had recently learned to ride, and now they were getting rid of the old tagalong — but she’d wanted one last ride on it, that morning, for old time’s sake.

And there stood the little girl, dark ringlets of hair cascading onto her shoulders, blue eyes rid-rimmed from crying. My heart just about melted. Her dad asked me to ride my son around on it, a little, so she could see it was "going to a good home."

The two of us hopped on, and I peddled us up and down the block a few times. And that little girl came out to join us, riding her own shiny new two-wheeler. With a big smile on her face!

So, you see: I responded to an ad for a bike attachment, and got a story about a little girl growing up.

(My youngest son graduated to his own bike a couple of years ago, and I’ve been meaning to post the tagalong on CL ever since, but one thing or another has kept cropping up to stop me. Now that I’ve thought about it, though, I’ll have to try to get it up by Friday. Maybe we can have it sold by Saturday night. Who knows?)

m4f, f4m, m4m, f4f, mf4f, mf4m, mf4mf, f4mf, m4mf, mm4f . . .
Then, there are those ads in the Personals section. And I have a sneaking suspicion every one of them has a story behind it, as well — even if it’s not a story for little ears.

That m4f business is easy enough to break out, into “male looking for female.” But other acronyms and code systems sometimes take a little research. I had no idea, for instance, that cfnm meant “Clothed Female, Nude Male”— a naked man waiting slave-like on fully clothed women. Frankly, I had no idea such a thing excited people — well, maybe some women. But, men?? And, when I told my wife about it, she barely took time to glance over her book at me before murmuring, “No way we’re doing that, Joker!”

Nor did I understand that ABDL stood for “Adult Baby and Diaper Lover.” (These ads are evidently posted by grown men who enjoy dressing like babies, and being treated as if they are babies.) However, a google search of abdl led me to the following quote — surprisingly apropos for SleuthSayers — from a 2005 Phoenix NewTimes article, about a company called Adult Baby Furniture (which bills itself as the “Best maker of fine adult baby furniture”).

When the producers of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation needed props for a curious caper titled "King Baby" that aired back in February, they went to Baby Apparels/Adult Baby Furniture and there (AB/DL) business, And, yes, the folks at CSI had plenty of other options for their episode about the murder of a grown man who had a secret chamber full of oversize baby paraphernalia. But they went the best builder -- out of a few dozen adult baby furniture makers around the country -- to provide them with custom-made furniture: a $1,200 crib, a high-end $600 high chair with lots of extra room in the seat, a $700 playpen, and other accouterments. Michael also sells big baby accessories, and clothing "fun, simple and sophisticated" crib bedding, and rocking horses "built to last."

Now this is not any sort of baby furniture I’ve ever shopped for. But, CL certainly does provide a window of sorts on a world very different from my own. In more ways than one.

And the encryption just keeps getting deeper . . .

I was particularly perplexed by certain Personals posts that contained odd strings of figures and letters – until I spoke to my 22-year-old son, who laughed when he explained how to read it. An example
(not from CL, but from a CNN article a few years ago) is very reminiscent and looks like this:
1 w45 50 j4ck3d up l457 n16h7. 1 5c0r3d 50m3 cr4ck 47 7h3 p4r7y 50 1'd h4v3 17 f0r 70n16h7 4nd 70m0rr0w, 4nd 7h3n J1mmy 700k 0ff w17h 17, 7h3 455h03l! 1 4m 4ll j1773ry 4nd n33d 70 m337 up w17h y0u 70n16h7 4f73r my p4r3n75 7h1nk 1 4m 45l33p. c4n y0u m337 m3 47 b0j4n6l'5 47 m1dn16h7 ju57 f0r 4 f3w m1nu735? 1 ju57 n33d 4 l177l3 4nd 1 c4n p4y y0u b4ck 0n m0nd4y, 1 pr0m153.

At first blush, the message appears to be gibberish. And — to my mind, trained in standard and multi-level substitution system encryption — it just didn’t seem to work out right. But, if you forget standard encryption methods, then simply stare at the message and make believe the numbers are strangely-made (and sometimes reversed or truncated) letters, you’ll see that it actually says:
“I was so jacked up last night. I scored some crack at the party so I'd have it for tonight and tomorrow, and then Jimmy took off with it, the [expletive]! I am all jittery and need to meet up with you tonight after my parents think I am asleep. Can you meet me at Bojangle's at midnight just for a few minutes? I just need a little and I can pay you back on Monday, I promise.”

According to the CNN article, this is a common encryption system employed by teens while texting on cell phones. (I’m glad to say I haven’t run across anything so heart-stopping on my own kids’ phones!)

But, that still leaves me with a mystery concerning most of those figure-letter streams. Because, once I learned to read them, I found them few and far between. And, the samples I saw in CL Personals were not nearly as long as the sample above. In fact . . .

7h3y w3r3 l1k3 7h15 5h0r7!

The few I’ve spotted since then, have evidently been people looking for drugs. Their posts appear to be fake, in the sense that the ad blurb used usually looks as if it’s been copied and pasted from somewhere else online (something similar to: “the largest sea mammal in existence, it dwarfs the size of any land animal now walking the planet.”)

The real message is located down below in the post, and might look like:

w4n7 60 f457

“Go Fast” is assumed by many texters to equal Methcathinone, “crank” or methamphetamine. Presumably, a seller clicks on the CL contact link to set up a buy. I’m sure the folks at CraigsList have tumbled to this as well, and that’s probably why I can’t find many examples these days — because the CL watchdogs try to keep them off the system.

I know there are myriad higher-tech ways of hiding data in electronic messages. I’ve read reports about organizations hiding (nesting) encrypted message data in photograph html on websites, and in other places, for instance. But, that really is not part of why I’m writing this post. At least, I don’t think it is.

So, Why Should Mystery Writers Care?

At a time when I hear or read that many editors decry the lack of interest in mysteries, on the part of the younger generation, I think the information above is important—because it points up how disconnected older writers now are from younger readers. But, it also indicates one possible way to perhaps jump that gap.

I think it may provide older writers with a glimpse into the world-view held by younger readers. For example:

My older son and his friends use the word “Leet!” to mean “Cool!”, “Neat!” or “Awesome.” Leet is short for “Elite!” which is the word they really mean to connote. To them, Elite means: Cool, Neat or Awesome — something that stands alone by being pretty extraordinary. But, they never say “Elite.” It’s just “Leet, dude!” Or maybe a head nod, accompanied by a heart-felt, “Leet!”

They use that word so often, that when I wrote a recent story, in which I had a young man interacting with an older one, I had the young guy use the word. Then I had my son read it over, to be sure I’d used the slang correctly.

His comment? “You spelled it wrong.”

A lengthy conversation ensued, which resulted in my realization that – while my son may say “Leet!” — he envisions the word as l337! He doesn’t really conceive of it in standard English alphabet format.

To him, when he says “Leet!” it’s the verbal form of l337!


Which leads me to keep searching CL and sites like it, in quest of an avenue that would allow me to incorporate some encryption system used by these younger folks into the plot line of a good yarn. Seems to me, mysteries and encrypted messages are a natural fit. But, there would have to be a way to obscure the truth from the Electronic Generation, until just before they hit the denouement.

I haven’t figure it out yet, but I keep trying. What about you?

In an age when publishers sometimes seem to be running scared, maybe it’s time to focus not only on the platform we present stories to the E-Generation on (electronic or paper), but also to factor in younger reader’s interests and world-perception when we’re figuring out our stories. Maybe that way, we can write plotlines they’ll identify with, and want to read.

What I’m talking about isn’t a panacea, but perhaps it’s a part of the puzzle we need to figure out if we’re to capture younger readers.