03 January 2012

Letters and Numbers


    Sometimes it takes me a while to notice new fads, but when I finally do I suddenly start to spot them everywhere around me.  That’s what happened this year with the on-line game “Words with Friends,” an app take on scrabble that is played over the internet.

    First Alec Baldwin gets kicked off of an airplane for playing it, and I ask my kids (adults, but still kids) “hey, what’s that game all about.”  They roll their eyes.

   The next thing I know I am bombarded by the game.  Driving from Washington, D.C. to St. Louis for Christmas Eve my kids are playing the game on their cell phones, on line (thanks to 3 and 4 G) with their friends back in Washington D.C.  Then on Christmas night, with my wife’s family in Vincennes, Indiana, I look around the room and six different family members are clicking on their phones playing with people either across the room or across the country.  Well, a bit of a disruption for Christmas, but as Mr. Baldwin observed on Saturday Night Live, at least it’s “one of those intelligent games.”

    All of this got me to thinking about what kinds of games appeal to what kinds of people.  As to the aforementioned Words with Friends,  I am not bad at coming up with suggestions for words for my kids as we drive across the country.  But my role is, at best, "of counsel" --  the game holds no real interest for me. 

   Several years ago a query was posted on the Readers’ Forum at the Mystery Place, the forum hosted by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  The question posed was how many of the readers of those magazines were also cross-word puzzle aficionados.  A number of readers reponded that they were cross-word fans, but a very prominent contributor, Jon Breen (who for over thirty years wrote The Jury Box for EQMM and who is a heralded author of mystery short stories and novels) replied that while he didn’t do many crosswords, he was a big fan of Sudoku puzzles.  “Aha,” I thought.  “I have that in common with Jon.”  Something about how my mind works doesn’t adapt all that well to crossword clues.  And I am terrible at chess – one of the worst chess players ever.   But Sudoku puzzles – not only can I solve them, I often seek them out for intellectual diversion. 

    What’s the attraction?  Well, principally it seems to me that the Sudoku puzzle runs very close to the guidelines for classic whodunit mystery stories, ‘fair play’ mysteries, which are my favorites both to write and to read.  The Sudoku puzzle, like a golden age mystery, is (literally) walled off.  All of the suspects are known, and the game is a contained one of “fair play” since enough clues are always revealed so that a diligent player has the opportunity (if not always the ability) to glean the culprit that must necessarily occupy each box.   Some of the relationships behind the various boxes are not in the first instance obvious, but all ultimately can be deduced (albeit often by those with abilities beyond my pay grade). 

    Thinking back to Jon’s answer on the Mystery Forum, it occurred to me that perhaps the types of games a person likes bears a rough relationship to the type of mystery stories that person likes.  I suspect, as an example, that a reader who thrives on historical mysteries might be more attracted by crossword puzzles – where solutions rely on the player’s ability to apply knowledge of outside events to the puzzle.  Whether or not this is true, I know that one of the reasons I like Sudoku puzzles is that they come about as close to a fair play mystery as you can get in game form. 

    Background for anyone who somehow is new to the game:  A Sudoku puzzle is a variant of a Latin square, that is, a grid with n different symbols, each occurring exactly once in each row and exactly once in each column.  The classic Sudoku puzzle contains nine rows and nine columns.  Each row contains nine number squares.  The puzzle itself is also divided into nine internal boxes of nine squares each.  The goal of the game, for those not familiar with the process, is a simple but maddening one:  Each row contains the numbers one through nine, as does each column.  And every number can appear only once in each row, each column, and each internal box of nine squares.  For each puzzle there is one, and only one, solution.

Howard S. Garns
    The Sudoku puzzle has an interesting history, and variations of the puzzle go back centuries.  But for modern purposes, Wikipedia (where were we without it?) reports that the version we are all now familiar with  was most likely designed anonymously in 1979 by Howard Garns, a 74-year-old retired architect and freelance puzzle constructor from Indiana.  Mr. Garns puzzles were first published by (drum roll)  Dell Magazines as Number Place.   While readers of SleuthSayers no doubt first think of Dell as the publisher of EQMM and AHMM, it is the Dell Sudoku magazines that you are much more likely to encounter on the dwindling racks in the magazine section of your dwindling local book stores.

    The USNET news group has reportedly determined that there are 6,670,903,752,021,072,936,960 possible puzzles that can populate a nine by nine Sudoku grid.  But in each board, if the minimally required hints are given, there can be only one solution, only one number that can occupy each box.  And that is the essential similarity, it seems to me, that links the puzzle and classic fair play mystery stories.  The art of constructing each is to fairly give enough clues that the mystery demonstrably can be solved.  And the challenge in constructing both a difficult fair play mystery and a difficult Sudoku is not to reveal the answer, but to hide it.  To achieve the most diabolical level of success requires the designer of the game, and the author of the story,  to give all of the information that is necessary but to do so in a way that will hide the actual solution.  In other words, the game is not “show and tell,” it is “hide and seek.”

Professor James Moriarty
    For an example of the similarities between the two genres we need look no further than Sherlock Holmes.  Professor Moriarty, who Holmes describes in The Valley of Fear as “[t]he greatest schemer of all time, the organizer of every deviltry, the controlling brain of the underworld” is also, according to Holmes, discernible only as a shark beneath the surface:  Invisible, but nonetheless the force behind all nefarious schemes.  So, too, in a difficult Sudoku puzzle it is not uncommon for one, or even two numbers to be completely absent from the grid when the game begins – the missing number, or numbers, are an integral part of the “plot” of the puzzle, but, at least at the beginning, they can only be discerned by the reaction of other numbers that surround their invisible presence.

    Unlike mystery stories there are, of course, more precise constraints on the number of clues that must be given in a Sudoku.  While it apparently cannot be mathematically proven, the supposition among math theorists is that a full Sudoku grid of 81 boxes must minimally contain at least 17 filled in “clue” boxes in order for the final solution to be both discernible and completely unique.  But the fact of “uniqueness” is, again, an attribute shared with a golden age mystery  – in each, if you pay attention, and engage the deductive process, there is one and only one solution.

    Needless to say there are some Sudoku puzzles that are so difficult that they can only be solved by logical reasoning that is too complex for most human minds.  In the world of Sudoku puzzles this has spawned websites, the development of computer programs, formulae and the advent of discussion groups, all aimed at developing tools to decipher the seemingly impossible.  But in at least one respect the mystery story has the upper hand.  When a Sudoku completely baffles the player the only option (if your game is published in a periodical) is to wait a day to read a published solution (or hit that “hint” button if you are playing electronically.)  But with a mystery story you can just go on reading and wait for the likes of Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Poirot, Nero Wolfe, or Ellery Queen, to offer up the solution that has stumped the mere mortal reader.

02 January 2012

January 2012


Jan Grape Janus. I'd always heard that Janus was a two-faced God. That always made me sad since my full name of Janice derived from Janus and I never thought I was two-faced. And never wanted to be considered two-faced either. A couple of days ago a friend wrote a newsletter and she said January was from the word Janus and it meant new beginnings. I like that better. A new week, a new month and a whole new year.

I'm like a number of people I know, I don't really make New Year resolutions. I quit smoking fifteen years ago. I lost twenty-five pounds this past year on Weight Watchers and am still trying to eat healthier and continue to lose. I don't exercise enough but I try. Taking yoga once a week and bowling once a week helps. I'm going to try to get a walking program going.

One major thing I'll try to do this year is write more. I haven't worked on my latest book in quite some time. Partly because I was trying to get moved and get my office set up. Partly because I had an alien move in with me and seems like I was always running him someplace or the other. Partly because I didn't always feel too good. However, I'll admit none of those reasons are worth a tinker's dam (whatever that means.)

Sometimes you just have to sit down in front of the computer screen and write. Okay, that sounds easy enough, but if the muse doesn't move you then what? You have to set a word count and stick to it. But the muse still doesn't tickle your creative brain.

For me, I'm going to have to set a time frame. Maybe start off with one hour. Try to write something in that one hour. I believe it was Sue Grafton who said this in a talk I heard her give, to start by writing "THE." Then sit there for your allotted time frame, no matter what. Okay, I can write, "The quick red fox jumped over the lazy brown dog."

You must start with an urge to write. An idea that fascinates you or excites you or intrigues you. Then not let everything else get in the way. I know these things, but don't always do them. And I honestly don't know why.

I know writers who treat their writing as a job. They get up, dress as if going to their office downtown then go into their office at home and write from eight to twelve or from two to five. Nothing wrong with that, but I think I spent too many years working at a job and that way doesn't appeal to me anymore.

Oddly enough when I'm writing, I'm having fun. I enjoy the heck out of creating a good scene, having the dialogue flow, getting a character to tell me why and how the scene will go. I've often said it's one of the best highs you can have to write something creative and know it's working and clicking along.

So why do I procrastinate? I have no idea. I don't think I'm lazy. I just have in mind that I will sit down a write after while a little later. Then the next thing I know, I've gotten busy with something and time goes by and it's time to clean the litter box or feed the cats or fix something to eat because I'm starving. Or there is laundry to do or it's time to go pick Cason up from work.

So instead of a new year's resolution, I'm going to try, just for one day, just for today, to set a time frame, shortly after I get up and have breakfast and come sit in front of the computer and write something. Even if it doesn't work as a scene for my latest book. Just write something.

And if I manage one hour then I'll try for two, Or try to write as many words as I can, 250 or 450 or some amount.

Other than writing. I'm going to try to be nicer to people. To help someone in need. To call a friend and invite her to lunch. To smile more.

To just enjoy this brand new year to the fullest.

01 January 2012

Resolutions


by Leigh Lundin

For our special brand of readers…

Paranoiac Resolutions
  1. I'll no longer waste my time reliving the past; I'll spend it seeking revenge.
  2. I'll channel my imagination into ever-soaring levels of suspicion and paranoia.
  3. I'll assume full responsibility for my actions, except when it's someone else's fault.
  4. I need not suffer in silence while I can still whine, whimper, and stalk my persecutors.
  5. I know forgiveness is blessed, but not nearly as satisfying as vengeance.
  6. I'll strive to live each day as if it were my enemies' last.
  7. When insulted, I'll honor and express all facets of my being, regardless of silly laws.
  8. As I let go of feelings of guilt, I'll channel my inner sociopath.
  9. I'll gladly share wisdom, for there are no sweeter words than "Gotcha!"
  10. I'll discover a scapegoat is almost as good as a solution.
  11. A complete lack of evidence is the surest proof a conspiracy is under way.
  12. I am at one with my duality.

A New Year's Poem
(Velma author unknown)

T'was the week after Christmas and all through the house,
Nothing would fit me, not even a blouse.

I recalled the meals I had to prepare,
The gravies and sauces and beef nicely rare,
The cookies I nibbled, the eggnog I taste.
All the holiday parties had gone to my waist.

When I climbed on the scales, there arose such a number!
The trip through the mall, less a walk than a lumber.
The wine and the rum balls, the bread and the cheese,
Never once had I protested, "No, none for me, please."

As I dressed again in my husband's old shirt
And prepared once again to do battle with dirt,
I said to myself, as only I can,
"You can't spend this year wearing duds of a man!"

Away with the last of the sour cream onion dip,
Get rid of the fruit cake, every candy and chip.
Every ounce of snacks I like must be banished
Till all the kilos and pounds again have vanished.

I won't have a cookie, not even a lick.
I'll allow myself one celery stick.
I won't have hot toddies, or ice cream, or pie.
I'll munch on a carrot and quietly cry.

I'm hungry, I'm lonesome, and life is a bore.
But isn't that what January is for?

New Year Notes

Happy new year, one and all. We start 2012 with our 107th article and continue featuring fourteen top crime writers. Janice retired at the end of the year, so we'll announce Thursday's co-columnist shortly.

This has been a good year for us and for me personally. I don't make resolutions, but I pave the road with good intentions. It's said an optimist stays up past midnight to see the new year in, while a pessimist waits up to make certain the old year leaves. Some of us are simply insomniacs.

Happy New Year!

31 December 2011

Why I Don’t Make New Year’s Resolutions


by Elizabeth Zelvin

I write about some variant of this topic every year at around this time, but no matter how many times I say it, a lot of people still don’t believe it. I keep saying it, thinking that this time they’ll get it.
And they keep asking: “Really! You really don’t make New Year’s resolutions? How can you not make New Year’s resolutions? But you must make New Year’s resolutions!” They think that if they ask again, maybe this time my answer will change. And that’s the resolution process in a nutshell.

It’s not as if the millions of people who faithfully list the elements of the fresh start they’re going to make, come January 1, are actually going to keep these resolutions. Year after year’s experience belies their ability to maintain the changes they’ve resolved to make. Take dieting. Americans value being thin more than any other physical characteristic. As a nation, we enjoy greater abundance than anywhere else on earth. Our holidays, our advertising, even our blogs extol the joys of good food. Our health professionals tell us that life-threatening obesity is endemic among us. They also advise physical fitness as a way to ensure good health and promote long life, and a billion-dollar industry has grown up to sell us products and services to enhance our fitness. (Remember when walking and running and climbing stairs used to be free?)

To resolve these chronic contradictions, people diet. On New Year’s Day, they declare, “This year, I’m going to stay away from junk food. I’m going to eat fewer desserts and more vegetables.”
The erosion may set in as early as the neighbors’ New Year’s brunch, at which the pastries look sooo delicious…. If not, a bare six weeks or so away is Valentine’s Day, which can’t be celebrated without chocolate…. If we really expected to make permanent changes in our eating habits, why would we launch them as part of a ritual that we celebrate every single year?

But the fact that resolutions tend not to work in any lasting way is not the only reason I avoid them. As a shrink and as a person old enough to have amassed some life experience, I’ve come to believe that planning for a year is neither an effective nor an emotionally healthy way to live my life.
You know the common expression about seeing no light at the end of the tunnel? Mental health professionals call it projection. We give ourselves a lot of agita anticipating scary things that never happen. A popular acronym for fear is “future events already ruined.” How can we avoid the stress, anxiety, and dread that can feel overwhelming at times? By not looking down the tunnel. Some folks may dismiss “one day at a time” as psychobabble, but it actually makes life a lot more manageable. So on January 1, I’m going to look around me and say, “What a beautiful day—I wonder what I’ll do with it?” And then I’ll do my best to fill my waking hours with as much pleasure, productivity, and love as I can manage. And on January 2, I’ll do it again.

30 December 2011

Gamble Pays Off


Auld Lang Syne

As New Year's Eve rapidly closes upon us, I am reminded of this Scots phrase from Robert Burns. Auld Lang Syne: literally translating into English as “old long since” — or, more colloquially, perhaps: “Long, long ago . . .” A time to look back, to take stock, perhaps to dissect or deconstruct our past actions or thoughts . . .

Dissection can be messy.
I’m no book reviewer. I’ve never been paid to write a book review, nor have I ever written one before. This is not to knock book reviewers. Many do a wonderful job. I read book reviews just like anyone else – hoping to find clues to my next good read.

It’s a job I view with great trepidation however. Because:
(A) I worry about hurting people’s feelings.
(B) To me, reviewing books is just too much like dissecting them.

Whether the type of dissection under discussion is physical, mental or literary, my fear is that after you perform a dissection, you still end up with the guts of a once-living thing cut out, catalogued and stored separately (at least temporarily). Or — if I were handling the job — probably strewn all across creation.

I suspect Lucy Ricardo would make a better M.E. than I would; by the time I completed an autopsy, there’d probably be entrails hanging from the overhead lights. Not intentionally, of course; it’s just the way I do things—you should see what our kitchen looks like after I cook a meal. (Comparing autopsies to cooking . . . can’t tell I recently watched Sweeney Todd on DVD again, can you?)

As for literary dissection . . .

Dismembering story elements for study
Well, it still seems pretty messy to me. And, just as chilling. Even deconstructing a sentence seems to rob it of the life and character it once had. Clauses, sub clauses, words – each forever ripped from the bosom of its family, stored separately, catalogued, labeled.

And, quite dead.

Concerning Self-dissection — well that’s even more tricky.

I suppose dissecting your own writing is easier than dissecting your own body, but only just easier in my opinion. I sometimes have a terrible time trying to tell what’s wrong with a story I’ve written, even when I can clearly feel the “wrongness” within some certain part of it. And that problem increases exponentially when I get involved in novel editing. If you’ve been a faithful reader, then you know that I often turn to a critique group, for help, at times like these.

But one of the stranger tricks I’ve also learned (one which has helped me quite a bit) is to read works by now-best-selling authors, written back when they were in their early years — still “learning the ropes” as it were. The ease of recognizing errors committed in their earlier days is probably comparable to the relative ease of performing an autopsy on someone else, versus pulling one on my own cadaver. (I mean you have that whole “Dead people usually find it difficult to make voluntary movements,” thing to overcome.)

Comparing what went wrong in these early writings, against the way these authors surmounted their “writing problems” in later work, gives me the chance to recognize problem-patterns, then look for them in my own writing. Sort of like a med student learning to diagnose damaged organs contained within live bodies, by examining fatally flawed organs in cadavers. Such study provides the opportunity to seek out and diagnose flawed areas in my own work. It’s not quite as hands-on as an autopsy might be, or as I personally might prefer. But, I’ve learned to try and Go With the Flow! when it comes to the touchy-feely side of writing.

Oddly, perhaps, this is also one of the reasons Felix Francis’s writing appealed to me over the past few years. The son of mystery great Dick Francis, Felix has been finding his way from teaching physics to (and through) the writing thicket.

Not an easy trek.
His writing is much like his father’s in many ways. It’s as if there are similar family features on the faces of both their prose. But, especially in the beginning, there was a certain, unfortunate “flatness” to Felix’s writing — particularly compared to his father’s.

I don’t mean Felix’s stories suffered from flat characters; most were well-rounded and well-drawn. Nor do I mean that he's a bad writer; he's not. He's a good writer. It's just that, where Dick Francis' stories stood up and danced, Felix's seemed to fall flat on my tongue. His writing was flat in the same way that soda left in an open bottle becomes flat. Reading Felix’s work, I felt as if I were reading his father’s work, but it had lost its fizz — and a lot of the flavor along with it.

Now this is a problem I can recognize and sympathize with. I sometimes struggle with “flat writing” in my own work — and I find it one of the most perplexing problems to correct. So I was overjoyed to encounter Felix’s flat writing, because I knew it was so similar to his father’s, that I just might be able to diagnose the cause by comparing the two. In turn, this might open a door to healing my own writing ailments. “Let’s see if we can’t just find out,” I thought to myself, “what the reason for this loss of fizz is.”

Thankfully, I’ve got a pretty full library of Dick Francis paperbacks lying around my office (Yes: “lying around” – all part of that “entrails hanging from the light fixtures” thing!), so I got cracking. And those differences, I discovered, were primarily very small. Tiny even.

Perhaps the truest insight I gained was that the root of the problem (and the reason it’s such a tough nut to crack) lies in the tiny size of the transgressions, multiplied by the number of times they occur.

In retrospect, I decided the nature of the difficulty shouldn’t have surprised me. After all, while lack of carbonation (because it’s all escaped into the atmosphere) lies at the root of flat soda’s problem, it manifests itself through the absence of millions of tiny bursting bubbles. One overall problem -- but, lots of missing bubbles causing it.

One tiny bubble failing to rise to the surface of the soda, and burst there, would hardly be noticeable; a million missing bubbles and the soda is flat, lifeless. It’s no longer effervescent.

In other words: I discovered that (to me, at any rate) flat writing doesn’t seem to be a single problem; it’s a number of tiny problems that snowball, finally combining to rob the piece of flavor.

For example:

One difference I discovered was that Felix Francis’ characters often made outright philosophical statements. Either the reader agreed with those statements, or that reader didn’t agree with the character. I suspect that a little of this goes a long way toward erecting a barrier that keeps a reader, who didn't agree with the expressed opinions, from fully identifying with (and thus caring about) a protagonist, if that protagonist is the character making those statements. And that can be a big problem.

Dick Francis’ characters, on the other hand, seldom made philosophical statements as absolutes. Particularly when working in first person, his POV characters tended to couch such statements in gentle, very subtle ways, nearly always incorporating words such as nearly, almost, sometimes, or some to soften the blow.

It seems to me that using these "wiggle-room" words permits a reader to disagree with the sentiment expressed, but still agree and connect with the character, because the character’s own description has left room for that disagreement. It’s a subtle difference, but over the length of a novel I believe it can have a great impact.

One way to view this recurring difficulty is to think of these little problems as grains of sand at the beach. A beach is composed of millions of tiny grains of sand; if a few grains are misshapen — rough, or sharp edged — it makes little difference to your feet. The beach texture is still inviting. But, keep substituting misshapen grains in place of smooth ones, and eventually the sand texture becomes a little too rough on the toes. The beach becomes uncomfortable to walk on, barefoot. A person finds it hard to settle-in and relax on that beach. Next time they want to spend some time by the ocean, they’ll probably go somewhere else. Though they might have a hard time explaining why.

If I were the kick-ass analyst I wish I were, I would have been able to isolate some sort of Seldon’s Laws (to borrow a term from Asimov's Foundation series) concerning what constitutes the equivalent of “carbonation” in writing. In the real world, however, I’m just not that bright. Consequently, to me, it seems pretty difficult to fix a beach (or manuscript), once it’s filled with a bunch of misshapen sand grains. Because, you can’t just correct one problem to fix the overall flaw. Instead, you’ve got to first find then polish a lot of misshapen little pebbles. Not a quick and easy task — whether we’re talking about beaches, or manuscripts.

For a beach, you might be better off just scraping it clean, then bringing in all new sand. For a manuscript? Well, it might be a good idea to take a tip from the great Asimov and “run it through the typewriter again” completely rewriting that section.

For Felix Francis, however, there seems to have been another solution.
Gamble, Felix’s first book to be published since the death of his father, came out over the summer. Circumstances conspired to keep me from getting my hands on it until last week, however. And, I have to tell you: in my opinion his writing has improved by leaps and bounds. And, it is no longer flat.

In fact, I’ve been thinking a lot about it over the past week. (The kids have been home 24/7 with Winter Break, so it’s not like I was going to get much writing done.)

I’ve never met Felix Francis, haven’t even seen him at a book signing. So I did some online searching and this, coupled with my knowledge that his father died in 2010, has got me contemplating a possible reason for the change.

You see, part of what I think I noticed is that his prose has lost a few of those “family trait” characteristics. Don’t get me wrong; you can still clearly see the resemblance between the writing of father and son.

But, sometimes as a person grows, s/he loses some of the striking similarity in features that were so clearly prevalent in earlier years. It’s just part of the physical metamorphosis of growing up. Other times, a man’s son may do something that would be so uncharacteristic for his father (not necessarily a bad or evil thing—just different from what the father would do) that people are forced to realize the son isn’t just a carbon copy; he’s “his own man” so to speak.

This sort of subtle (on one level), but striking (on another) change, is what I believe I saw in Felix Francis’ writing. You could chalk it up to the idea that his writing is simply maturing, and no one could prove you wrong. But, I suspect another factor is also at play.

This is the first novel he’s written, in which his father has played no role. According to an interview in the British racing magazine Eclipse, Felix said that during the previous novels: “I would write the prose and he (Dick Francis) would then make suggestions or correct me if I had some of the racing not quite right. We never argued much – he seemed to like what I did.”

I’m not saying the earlier problems were being caused by Dick Francis. I’m sure that wasn’t the case. Instead, I’m left wondering if maybe Felix was stretching into a zone, when writing Gamble, which he couldn’t comfortably operate in when his father was alive.

The pressures on a son, writing under his father’s byline — particularly with the knowledge that his father is going to look over what he’s written before it gets sent to a publisher — are sure to be much different than if the son writes under his own byline. Gamble is billed on the cover as: “Dick Francis’s Gamble by Felix Francis.” This is subtly, but powerfully different from the billing Felix received on the previous novels he (evidently) largely wrote. Those were billed as being written by: “Dick Francis with Felix Francis.”

Later in the Eclipse interview, when Felix was asked if his father had left lots of book idea notes, Felix replied: “Sadly there are no notes. It’s all down to me now. It is a bit strange that he is no longer around to read the manuscript and criticise my grammar, but I am confident that he would be happy with the result.”

I believe he’s right; Dick Francis would be happy. Because, what I’m convinced I read in Gamble was a fresh new thing called Felix Francis’ voice. I don’t think he’s got it completely locked in yet. But, I do think he’s got at least one foot in the groove and is closing on target. When he gets there — who knows? Maybe his body of work will even eclipse his father’s.

One thing I’m sure of, however: choosing to write with his new voice took guts. Felix took the risk that long-time Dick Francis fans might slip away. It was a gutsy gamble to use his own voice in the novel. For Felix Francis, however, it looks as if his Gamble will probably pay off.

In Closing:

The great Dick Francis died in 2010, but I didn’t blog back then. So, during this time of Auld Lang Syne when we often look back in remembrance, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge Dick Francis’ legacy through a series of photos borrowed from Felix Francis’ website.




Dick Francis as racing fans must have thought of him.




Dick Francis as I (for some reason) always think of him.





I love the pose here. His stance is so reminiscent of the jockeys he wrote about. And . . . gee, who are those two women he's talking to?





Dick Francis with his wife, Mary.









(L to R) Felix Francis, Dick Francis, and Felix's older brother, Merrick





(That photo at the top of today's blog, incidentally, is Dick Francis finishing a ride he may not have cared to remember too often.)

Happy New Year!


See you in two weeks,
Dix

29 December 2011

A rose is a rose is a rose...



A friend who knows I'm a lover of great mysteries discovered a new-to-me novel and sent it for a non-holiday gift. The copy of David Morrell's THE SPY WHO CAME FOR CHRISTMAS is a delight as only the Rambo creator could write, but also interesting is the tidbit attributed to the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Espionage. It seems the explanation of the rose representing the spy profession links back to Greek mythology when the god of love offered a bribe of a rose to the god of silence in promise of keeping confidential overheard sins of other gods.
When a rose hangs from a ceiling, perhaps someone isn't simply drying flowers for romantic sentiments, but the conspirators dealing in a pact. When a discussion is held beneath a suspended rose, sub rose, the information is agreed by those involved to be kept secret. Perhaps it is as clandestine as two lovers meeting in seclusion. The ideas suggested to me intrigues the imagination.
That is, it did, until I noticed two long-stemmed roses hanging in the teenage bedroom of our home. Since most teenagers are by nature, secretive to "older" relatives, I may have stumbled upon a clue to those "meetings with the Bro's" that accompany the turn of the lock after they file inside the lair I am not often welcomed.
It's okay. I am old enough not to be slighted and feel young enough to remember when I though the same way about some of the older folks in my own life.
Thinking of the James Bond books where the spies led glamorous lives with clever inventions that saved the day, but were to be kept underwraps to the public, I understand.
While other girls were asking Santa for a Barbie dream house, I secretly coveted a spy camera. I still want one.
Spy characters are fun to read about and to write about, too. I like the idea of meetings held undercover with secret handshakes and traditional passwords. What fun we have as readers to live such adventures through a character's viewpoint without having to put ourselves on the line.
Roses hanging by a cord from a ceiling fan probably are dried remains of a lovely memory of prom date and nothing more. That doesn't keep my mind from creating scenarios where something much more interesting is happening behind locked doors with a roomful of bro's.

28 December 2011

The Ranger and the Sheriff's Wife


So, what does the title above make you think of?
a.  a romance novel

b. a naughty movie

c.  one of Leigh's reports on bizarre crimes in Florida

The answer should be none of the above, because what I want to write about today are two excellent nonfiction books I read recently.  They are certainly prime material for some mystery writer but it doesn't seem to be me, so I thought I would spread the wealth.

Nature Noir, by Jordan Fisher Smith 

Twenty-some years ago Jordan Fisher Smith was a top seasonal park ranger.  That meant that every summer he had his pick of jobs in many of the most beautiful parks in the country. But when he wanted the security of a permanent job he had to take what he could get and that turned out to be Auburn State Recreation Area in northern California.  And that turned out to be a pretty weird place.


You see, Auburn wasn't a park exactly.  It was land that had been condemned in order to build a damsite, but the dam was never built (and still hasn't been).  As Smith noted it was a "grand social science experiment....which answered the question: How do people behave in a condemned landscape?"

The answer turns out be: not great.  The American River runs through Auburn and there is enough gold there to make it worthwhile for certain people to drag in dredging equipment to go mining.  Of course, mining in parks is illegal, but it was hard to convince judges and prosecutors - not to mention the miners - why it should be a punishable offense to mine in a place that would eventually be underwater anyway.

Some of the people who visited Auburn or lived there (legally or not) were scary.  Think meth labs, frinstance.  The book begins with a ranger seeing an angry man throwing something through the open window of his girlfriend's car as she drives by.  It was a baby.  Fortunately, the child wasn't hurt, but holy cow.

Smith is as interested in the nature as the noir, so, for example, the chapter that describes the geological flaws that have held up the dam also includes the hunt for a police officer's wife, missing and presumed dead.

And the writing is good, very good.  Here is Smith responding to an emergency call from another ranger.

If the world exists in a perpetual state of uncertainty, if things are half-assed and watered-down and most things fall into a gray area, when you respond to a call like that you are bathed for a few minutes in superhuman certainty.  You put away whatever squabbles you and your partners have had, ready to wade into the fray, to sacrifice yourself for any one of them.  You hit the lights and siren and drive better than you normally do, think sharper than you normally do.  The people in other cars look at you as you pass them on a mountain road and at intersections the cars part for you like the Red Sea for Moses.  It is an ascceptable substitute for reality; it's fleeting but it keeps yo believing in what you do.

Nonfiction books don't usually have surprise endings, but there are twists here for both Auburn and Smith.  A real page-turner.

The Secret Life of the Lawman's Wife, by BJ Alderman


When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992 Hillary told a reporter that the country would be getting a two-for-one deal: two great leaders for the election of one.  Americans didn't enthuse over the idea of an unelected female co-president, so she dropped that campaign approach.

But for hundreds of years there has been an assumption in certain occupations that when you hired a man you got his wife's services for free.  I think the only places where this is still assumed may be with clergymen and college presidents.

However, up until the seventies, especially in small towns, governments seemed to believe that the wives of sheriffs, police chiefs, and jailkeepers came as a package deal.  BJ Alderman found dozens of memoirs and news articles dating back as far as the seventeenth century, and interviewed wives and family members as well.  The result is a fascinating look at the lives of these unsung heroines of law enforcement.

I think the most common complaint can be summed up as an assumption by the town authorities that the wife ought to be able to feed all the prisoners who happened to be in the jail with the family table scraps, and not coming pestering them for provisions. Picture a couple of dozen hungry prisoners and you can see the problem.

Alderman points out that in TV and the movies there was usually a lawman sitting around the jail with nothing to do. but in the true reports it seems like when the action happens the lawman is always on patrol, and guess who's left dealing with the chaos?  Another problem for the sheriffing family was the insane; when someone became dangerous to themselves or others they might wind up in the jail for weeks or months until an opening appeared in an asylum.

Now  picture a teenage boy in Iowa who, one afternoon in 1956, got a phone call from his mother at the grocery store where he was working.  "Dolores asked him if there was anything in particular he wished to save from his room.  Upon inquiry, Larry learned that a juvenile prisoner had set fire to the cell between Larry's room and the bathroom in an attempt to get free.  Yes, Dolores was sure the entire bulding would go up soon so he'd better decide quick."

Or consider this adventure of Molly E. Lattie, whose husband was the sheriff of Des Moines county (also in Iowa, of course) in the 1870s.

A prisoner, intent on escape, fashioned a straw dummy and tucked it into his bunk.  He then hid "elsewhere to wait for an opportunity to get through the jail door.  Mrs. Latty, on duty alone that night thought something looked peculiar and went into the cell to investigate.  When she discovered the dummy, instead of calling for help, she began searching all of the cells, looking for the prisoner.  She discovered him under a bunk...  She reached in and pulled him out, and ordered him to quit 'fooling around; and return to his cell before she became angry.'"  He did just as he was told.

Many of these criminals seem less dangerous than the ones we are used to (like the ones who baby-sat for their jailors' infants!).  But consider Sophie Alberding, sheriff's wife in Lincoln County, New Mexico.  "there was one feature of the new home which I did not enjoy.  The back stairway, up and down which I had to travel many times during the day, was still stained with blood, a grim reminder of the day two years before when Billy the Kid had shot and killed his guard..."

A remarkable book about a remarkable collection of women.

27 December 2011

New Jersey Confidential


I've always liked titles that included 'Confidential' in them.  You know what I mean, titles like "Hollywood Confidential", "Park Avenue Confidential", "Palm Springs Confidential"...well, you get the point.  There's the promise of forbidden knowledge contained within the pairing of almost anything with the word 'Confidential'.  Probably some adult content too, if you know what I mean. 
However, the knowledge that I am about to impart doesn't have any of that.  Okay, so it's not forbidden, so how about not particularly well-known...unless you happen to an insider in the small world of Jersey law enforcement?  "What's that to me?" you might ask.  Maybe nothing; maybe a lot, if you happen to set a crime story in the Garden State or have a character that is a Jersey cop.  So wise up and  follow me, if you dare, and remember, no matter what happens, you didn't get this from me.

We do things just a little differently in Turnpike country.  When you're sandwiched between New York City and Philadelphia you've got to do things differently.  It's not easy playing David to two Goliaths, you know.  So here's what we cooked up on the law enforcement front just to keep 'em guessing: In your part of the world I bet they call a major crime a felony, right?  Cross the big line here, sweetheart, and you get slapped with an 'indictable'.  That's shorthand for indictable crime.  That's what they're called here; it's how it's written in the law books.  And you can keep your misdemeanors to yourself, too, while we're on the subject; try one of those on and we'll write you up for a 'disorderly persons offense'.  That's got more words but is easier to spell.  Makes it better, I think.  And this doesn't just stop with legal violations: We have county prosecutors in Jersey instead of district attorneys.  Okay, so maybe it doesn't roll off the tongue as trippingly as, "Hey Chief, you've got the D.A. on line one," but it is different; kinda homey, and that's they way we like it.

But all that is just words; let's go over a few details on how we get things done.  Here in the "Cockpit of the Revolution" the police are prohibited from going through the garbage you just put out at the curb for pick-up.  In order to accomplish that which your refuse collector, or any other passer-by, may do with impunity, we must obtain a search warrant.  We are not completely unique in this restriction, believe it or not, as our sister state of Hawaii has a similar, cutting edge, law on the books.

Let's say that you just got arrested for driving while under the influence (DWI, we call it; not DUI...yeah, you heard me...DWI).  Let's further posit that you are newly arrived from Kyrgyzstan and are therefore ignorant of the English language.  This will not save you from being read your rights.  The Great State of NJ has thoughtfully provided a website that provides a reading of said rights in any of fifty foreign tongues.  This is the wonder and majesty of Trenton.  Of course, if you happen to be from Kyrgyzstan this may be the first time you've ever had any rights given to you in the first place.




In order to protect the innocent, or at least the not-guilty, NJ further insists that all interrogations for indictable crimes be videotaped.  The cozy chats that we once enjoyed with our clientele are sadly a thing of the past.  Oh for the days before all this invasion of privacy.

Let me give you a scenario: We'll say that you're a uniformed officer on patrol.  You roll up to a stop at an intersection and look to your left.  "What lo?" says you, as Tommy Sunshine comes strolling along; fixes his wee beadies upon your stalwart visage; then turns on his heel and boogies for all he's worth in the opposite direction.  'This cannot bode well for the safety of our citizens,' you thinks.  'Pursuit?' you asks yourself. 

Finish that vente latte, brother...you got nothing.  Not here in the Garden State.  Case law has established that our citizens can decide to hot-foot it anywhere and at any time of their choosing, and Five-0 is not to read anything into it.  People get impulses.

Now, if you can tie little Tommy's sudden urge for distance betwixt himself and his protector-in-blue to something more, such as he's in a known drug trafficking area; there's a warrant for his arrest; or maybe he's just coming out from behind a store that has an alarm clanging away and it's four in the morning, well then, maybe you'll get some exercise after all. 

New Jersey has the death penalty...did you know that?  Neither do we apparently, as there's not been an execution in this state for well over a quarter century and probably much longer.  Courts have sentenced a number of murderers to death during that time but no one ever quite gets around to the dirty deed.  So, let's just say that we have a 'life until death' penalty, shall we?

Lest you think we're soft on crime, let me throw you this curve ball--we don't need no stinkin' probable cause to search someone for stolen library materials!  That's right, Lopresti, all you've got to do is point a finger and we're taking 'em down.  We like our libraries here; make no mistake about it.

So there you have it, gentle reader, a litany of the strange and the zany quirks of Jersey law and its enforcement.  It's not a comprehensive list, but it does give you some of the highlights, as well as a flavor for how we do business in the 'big' little state when it comes to policing.  I hope you enjoyed the tour.  Now if you'll follow me we'll finish our little chat about those 'rights' of yours...Oops...that was a lot of stairs, wasn't it?  Sure, I'll have rescue here in a jiff, but while we're waiting, how about that confession you've been dying to make?  And look, the silly camera is working again...how about that?  



26 December 2011

To Sing a Story



by Fran Rizer








Here I am with two fine, good-looking, talented men I'd love to have known personally. I wouldn't mind having been able to drink a little bourbon or Jack Daniels with each of them. To my left, Mr. William Faulkner. To my right, O Henry. In my youth, I spent a lot of time reading short stories. My favorites include everything O Henry ever wrote and "A Rose for Emily" by William Faulkner.
My published writing so far has been four novels, two children's books, some scientific reports for Clemson University, numerous magazine features, and a few short stories. Lately, I've been thinking a lot about trying more short stories, and short stories make me think of songs. When I taught writing, I used songs to help the students identify some of the writing elements--setting, characters, plot, as well as beginning, middle, and ending.

I grew up on a mix of country music, R&B, classical, and jazz. Two of the finest story songs from my youth are "Stagger Lee" and "Long Black Veil." Both of them involve murder.

On Christmas Eve, 1895, "Stag" Lee Shelton, a Black pimp, shot William "Billy" Lyons in a St. Louis saloon after Billy snatched Stag's Stetson hat. That was immediately cast into a song that swept through the South with several little changes each time it was sung. A myth evolved, described by Julius Lester in "Black Folktales" as, "Stagolee was so bad that the flies wouldn't even fly around his head in the summertime, and snow wouldn't fall on his house in the winter."

Over four hundred artists have released the song about "Stag" Lee Shelton since the first recording in 1923, and the song has been refashioned as Ragtime, Broadway showtune, Blues, Jazz, Honky Tonk, Country, '50's Rock 'n Roll, Hawaiian and Gangsta Rap. The story lives on as a musical, two novels, a short story, an award-winning graphic novel, Ph. D. dissertations, and a pornographic feature film.
Recordings include those by James Brown, Nick Cave, Neil Diamond, The Clash, Pat Boone, Fats Domino, Bob Dylan, Duke Ellington, The Grateful Dead, Woody Guthrie, The Ventures, Ike and Tina Turner, Ma Rainey, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tom Jones, The Black Keyes and Elvis Presley. My favorite is the extremely popular 1959 version by Lloyd Price. (shown below left) These are the lyrics as Price recorded it.

STAGGER LEE

The night was clear, and the moon was yellow
And the leaves came tumbling down. . .

I was standin' on the corner
When I heard my bulldog bark.
He was barkin' at the two men
Who were gamblin' in the dark.

It was Stagger Lee and Billy,
Two men who gambled late.
Stagger Lee threw a seven
Billy swore that he threw eight.


Stagger Lee told Billy
"I can't let you go with that.
"You have won all my money,
"And my brand new Stetson hat."

Stagger Lee went home
And he got his .44.
He said, "I'm going to the bar room
Just to pay that debt I owe."

(bridge)

Go, Stagger Lee

Stagger Lee went to the bar room
And he stood across the bar room door.
He said, "Now nobody move,"
And he pulled his .44.

"Stagger Lee," cried Billy,
"Oh, please don't take my life!
"I've got three hungry children
And a very sickly wife."

Stagger Lee shot Billy.
Oh, he shot that poor boy so bad
'Til the bullet went through Billy
And broke the bartender's glass.

Go, Stagger Lee, go, Stagger Lee
Go, Stagger Lee, go, Stagger Lee

On an occasional Friday or Saturday night, when
I go to a bluegrass jam, I inevitably get irritated when
one of the pickers does my other favorite story song.
The reason is that they don't sing the words as written.
When confronted, the reply is, "Oh, that's an old
public domain folk song. I sing it the way I heard it
at another jam."
"Long Black Veil" isn't an old, uncopyrighted folk song. It was written by Marijohn Wilkin and Danny Dill, and originally recorded by Lefty Frizzell on March 3, 1959, as a country ballad
that became a smash hit.

Wilkin and Dill claimed their inspiration for the song was three-fold: Red Foley's recording of "God Walks These Hills With Me," a contemporary newspaper report about the unsolved murder of a priest, and the legend of a mysterious veiled woman who regularly visited Rudolph Valentino's grave.

"The Long Black Veil" has been covered by artists in country, folk, and rock styles. Sammi Smith had a hit with it in 1974 and other recordings include those by Johnny Cash, Dave Matthews Band, Joan Baez, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Harry Manx, Mike Ness, Nancy Owen with Mama Said, and Rosanne Cash.

THE LONG BLACK VEIL

Ten years ago, on a cold dark night
There was someone killed 'neath the town hall light
There were few at the scene, but they all agree
That the slayer who ran looked a lot like me

The judge said, "Son, what is your alibi?
If you were somewhere else, then you won't have to die."
I spoke not a word, though it meant my life,
For I had been in the arms of my best friend's wife

Chorus

She walks these hills
In a long black veil
She visits my grave
When the night winds wail
Nobody knows, nobody sees
Nobody knows but me

The scaffold's high and eternity near
She stood in the crowd and shed not a tear
But sometimes at night, when the cold wind blows
In a long black veil, she cries o'er my bones

Repeat Chorus

Tag Nobody knows but me
Nobody knows but me

Talk about flash fiction! What a great story in a few words!!


Randall Hylton, songwriter and performer extraordinaire who had more than two hundred original songs cut by major artists, told me, "Fran, story songs are easiest to sell," so I wrote a bluegrass story song. I'm tempted to put it here, but I'll save it for next time. I know that at least two other SleuthSayers are song writers as well. What about you? Do you have an original story song? If so, email it to me at franrizer at gmail dot com and I'll include it two weeks from now.

Wanna win a prize? Answer this question of the day in Sleuthsayers Comments Section. First person with correct answer wins. Instructions how to claim the prize will be given tonight when the winner is announced tonight.

QUESTION OF THE DAY: What did Edgar Allan Poe and Abraham Lincoln have in common other than the century during which they lived?


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

25 December 2011

My Thoughts On The Big Lie— Santa Claus


downtown Knoxville
downtown Knoxville

sad Santa
Santa is crying because he thinks I missed out on the joy of believing in Santa Claus. He is mistaken. Although I knew from the first day I heard somebody mention Santa Claus didn’t exist, I still enjoyed Christmas. My mother told– no, warned– my father, grandmothers, grandfathers, uncles, aunts, and anybody else who dared to mention Santa Claus to me, not to be telling her son that Santa Claus lie.

You’re thinking I must’ve grown up really disappointed during Christmas when all the kids wrote letters to Santa Claus. Nope. I never told my friends he didn’t exist, either because my mother told me not to or I instinctively knew not to. I prefer to believe the instinctive thing. I didn’t write letters to Santa Claus because my mother said she was Santa Claus, and so, I told her what I wanted. Although we weren’t poor, still I wasn’t always sure she would have the money to get what I asked for, so you see, I was as surprised on Christmas morning as the kids who believed Santa Claus, with his fat belly and bag full of toys, came down the chimney.

Santa in chimney I liked the idea of Santa Claus. I liked it so much that I didn’t tell my two cousins, the daughters of my uncle the bootlegger, that Santa Claus wasn’t real. I became Santa Claus to them, helping my aunt or grandmother shop for toys, hiding them, and placing them under the tree on Christmas Eve after they had gone to sleep. Santa Claus may not have been real to me but he was to them. I always wondered, however, why they never asked how he could come down our chimney. He certainly was too fat to squeeze through the stove pipe after he got down the chimney and then into the stove, which had hot coals burning all night.

Christmas is the holiday I enjoy most. I try to forget the fact that the criminals, pickpockets, shoplifters, purse snatchers, carjackers, etc., are out in force during the holidays. What I enjoy most on Christmas morning is seeing the faces of my grandkids, as they open their presents.

But a TV commercial has me worried about the life of Santa Claus. The women in the commercial buy gifts at a store, and when Santa enters their homes, they confront him with smirks on their faces that say they don’t need him anymore. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, you understand, but I can’t help but think that, as Christmas has become more and more commercialized, some merchants may be trying to get rid of Santa Claus. Okay, I’ve seen some positive commercials showing Santa using a smartphone, so all is not lost. He’s fighting back with the help of digital technology.

To keep negative feelings from messing with my mind during the holidays, I listen to soulful Christmas music: Nat King Cole singing the traditional Christmas songs, The Temptations’s interpretation of “Silent Night”; my oldest grandson’s favorite,  gravelly voiced Louis Armstrong singing “’Zat You Santa Claus”; Booker T and The Mg’s instrumental “Jingle Bells”; and Otis Redding singing the all time favorite “White Christmas.” On Christmas morning when my grandkids come for their presents, they hear Nat’s melodious voice coming from the CD player, and I watch with a smile as they open their presents.

MERRY CHRISTMAS