11 January 2012

New Year's Irresolution

by Neil Schofield

I have no Mayan blood in me. Not unless my mother was keeping something from me during all those years. Or my father come to that. Thinking back today, I'm pretty sure that while I was growing up in West Yorkshire, Mayans were fairly thin on the ground. Though we always regarded people from Leeds as Other, a bit weird.

So, I am not genetically predisposed to believe that 2012 will see the End Of Days. I can march into the New Year with confidence, unlike the Mayans, not many of whom I suppose offered boxed sets of Downton Abbey or The Wire as Christmas presents.

Anyway, as we all know, 21 Dec 2012 simply marks the end of a b'ak'tun cycle of 144,00 days and the beginning of another. And since it's only the 13th, as b'ak'tuns go, it's not especially top-notch. Now, if it were the 20th, we might be forgiven for jumping at loud noises and scanning the skies for signs of the Mayan Cosmic Gronk Squad.

I have explained all this to Mimi, without success. I found her rummaging in the desk drawer where we keep Stuff That Really Ought To Be Thrown Out When We Have The Time. I told her that the Mayans didn't sell their calendars door-to-door like the garbage collection men, or the firemen, especially not in this neck of the woods. But Mimi is French and therefore Cartesian. She wants logic and proof. I sometimes suspect her of having been secretly born in Missouri but the physical evidence says not.

So that was my first hurdle sorted out. I can make some resolutions. But which ones Oh Lord, which ones? There are so many out there. I know I am already going to walk more, smoke less, drink less. Not that I drink a lot: I usually spill most of it.

I ned something with more meat on it. I was attracted strangely by Leigh's resolutions for the paranoid, because I go along with Gore Vidal when he said that the man who is not paranoid is a man who is not in full possession of the facts. But no, something doesn't fit the kindly, though sometimes gruff soul I am pleased to think is me.

Then I read Jan Grape's generous article and that struck several chords. The fact is I too haven't been writing enough. I've been procrastinating too much. It's been a case of : Never put something off till tomorrow that you can put off until the day after. Always with a perfect excuse, that goes without saying.

So, in 2012, I am going to follow Garson Kanin's (paraphrased) dictum: Apply seat of pants to chair and don't get up until finished. I am going to write more and I'm going to write better. I am going to send out one story a month and the first went out last week.

Another resolution: I am going to read more and read better. This occurred to me over Christmas. I haven't been reading enough, and I haven't been reading well. I had settled down one evening with a glass of the true, the blushful, to read one of my Christmas presents: a collection of Kurt Wallander novellas by Henning Mankell.

I hadn't read them before, and since one of them first appeared in EQMM in 2003, I was sure I was onto a good thing. But something happened. I got bored. The writing seemed leaden - in English English we might say plonking.

Now usually I get on well with Mankell, and indeed with all the Scandinavian crime writers. But something was up.

It's interesting that Dixon Hill and John Floyd have both written recent articles on 'flat' and 'dull' writing. They were a great help as I tried to analyse the problem, looking for the usual suspects: passive verbs, too many adverbs and so on. It wasn't anything that obvious. The sentences were perfectly well written, but something about the way they were put together didn't feel right. After ten days I still didn't know what the problem was. It might have had something to do with the fact that in the narrative sequences, nearly all the sentences are about the same length, which gives a diddly-dum diddly-dee sort of rhythm.

No, I decided, the problem lies not with the writer, or the translator, but with the reader. I have now been back and read the stories again, while this time acknowledging that I wasn't reading Robert B Parker, or John D Macdonald, but a writer from another country where they do things differently, where they think differently and speak differently. And Henning Mankell is great at providing that Sense of Place which I admire and envy.

Well, it seemed to work well enough. On the second reading, because I was reading perhaps more carefully, more generously, the plonkingness seemed to fade.

So, I am going to try to become a more active and generous reader, and try harder to keep my part of the contract that always exists between writer and reader. I think as a reader, I sometimes forget that that contract does exist.

Well, these resolutions might not seem much but I figure it's enough to be getting on with. I might have re-think around mid-term.

Speaking of the End of Days which I was at the beginning if you recall, I think something much more sinister is going on. On Christmas Day, my daughter Kate who is a theatre stage manager and working on a pantomime in the north of Englnd told me that the day before, on Christmas Eve, the management had sacked Cinderella for Gross Misconduct. Apparently, misconduct is okay, but hers had been grosser than the permitted level. Nothing to do with mice and a pumpkin, just an everyday story of drunken three-o'clock-in-the morning joyriding. Natually the local press had her for breakfast - 'Cinders Fired' - that sort of thing.

Cinderella sacked on Christmas Eve. I am starting to suspect that the Long Hadron Collider is at work here, creating a parallel universe bit by bit. I said it would, ask anyone.

Happily, it seems to be a parallel universe in which Leigh Lundin is still the Supreme Leader and Guide, so not much change there then.

A Happy New Year to everybody.

Oh, and if things turn out right, a Happy New B'ak'tun.

10 January 2012

Big Shot Writers

Not a Big Shot Writer
My daughter, Bridgid, suggested that my next posting on SleuthSayers address the issue of where I got the ideas that became published stories for me. She assured me that there is a large audience of novice writers, and just plain fiction buffs, that visit authors' blog sites everyday for just such info as this. I countered that this audience was most likely for writers with a slightly higher recognition profile than my own. Strangely, she did not deny this. This was during her Christmas visit and the gifts had already been opened. Next year may be a lean one for her.

My son, Julian, the English teacher (or Professor as he likes to be addressed), gave me a huge compendium containing the works of some short story writers somewhat better known than myself. You may recognize a few of these names: Willa Cather, Joseph Conrad, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, James Joyce, Flannery O'Connor, Edgar Allan Poe, etc, etc...blah, blah, blah. Some of them struck a distant chord with me. The name of this book is, The Art of the Short Story compiled and edited by Dana Gioia and R.S. Gwynn, and offering insights by the authors themselves on their stories within, or on some aspect of writing them. The 'professor' added, "You should read this." I thought I detected the slightest of smirks on his face (again, this was after the opening of his gifts from his mother and me).

It seemed to me that, perhaps, my children (who had once been so adorable) were trying to tell me something; it occurred to me that they may have been insinuating that there was room for improvement in my writing efforts, or something along those lines. It is only fair to note, that the two of them act as the unofficial editors (and unwanted critics) of most of my scribblings since they became college graduates. Their older sister, Tanya, lives in Atlanta and has children of her own and therefore no time to pile on with her siblings, thank God. The other two, however, have a certain proprietary air about them when it comes to my so-called writing career.

"I've read a bunch of these," I countered. "A whole bunch. Some of them are pretty good. That Poe dude is a little heavy-handed in the prose department though, don't 'cha think?" Take that, professor. His expression was equal parts disappointment and disdain. "Yeah," I went on, "he does guest features on SleuthSayers from time to time...we call him, 'E.A.' for short." No laughter, no smiles...nothing. Kinda like the photo below.

E.A. (Big Shot Writer)
When the critics finally went away, having stripped the house of most edibles, their mother and I were left behind once more; at least until we should be needed to provide something useful. The 'Book' rested on my nightstand...waiting. After spraining a wrist lifting it, I discovered that I had, indeed, read a number of the stories, though certainly not the majority of them. In fact, as I read, it reminded me of what a wonderful form of expression the short story really is. It also reminded me of why I've always like to write them. You can do things with a short story that just aren't possible in another medium. Imagine The Yellow Wallpaper or The Lottery as novels--they would have become bogged down and tedious with detail; diluting their impact. How about, To Build a Fire? The terrifying urgency of that story would have been lost at book-length. Even, E.A.'s stuff would have collapsed under its own weight had he not confined himself to short stories.

According to the authors of the "Art" the short story is the most recent and modern of literary forms; Nathaniel Hawthorne being credited with its introduction to the English Language in 1837 with Twice Told Tales. I did not actually know this, but I'm sure the professor did. As a testament to his genius (Hawthorne's, not my son's), many of those tales still read very well today and retain a compelling narrative power. It's astounding how really good writing can transcend the barrier of time and the hurdles of archaic language. Poe manages this pretty well, too.

Nathaniel Hawthorne (another Big Shot Writer)
Astounding, also, is the number of writers who have specialized in, or written exclusively, short stories. Heed the following roll call: O'Connor, H.H. Munro (Saki), Poe, Hawthorne, Bradbury, de Maupassant, Doyle, Henry, but to name a few. Additionally, writers perhaps better known for their novels, such as Borges, Chekhov, Conrad, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Joyce, Oats, du Maurier, and Tolstoy contributed mightily to the short fiction realm. When I contemplate the undeniable fact that literary giants such as these believed the short story a worthwhile endeavor, I am heartened to persevere at my modest endeavors.

As I confided to Bridgid and her brother one day: If I only had one story, just one, that ended up being read twenty-five or fifty years from now, or even better, was made mandatory reading in some college class (hopefully one taught by my son; wouldn't that be sweet justice?), I would feel that I had accomplished something. Clearly I'm not in it for the money, though God knows I wouldn't be amiss to a few whopping big paychecks (I give to a lot to charities, you see). So for all of you, my short fiction brethren, take heart and keep writing as we, too, can become big shot writers! Don't let the narrow marketing field discourage you. After all, we write because of our love of the word and, in my case at least, in order to entertain, at my own expense of course, my wonderful children and wife.

As a postscript, I would like to bring your attention back to my photo at the top of the page. You may notice, though it has been subtly framed, that I am holding a really big book of short stories. Now that I have an even bigger one which includes a bunch of foreign authors too, I intend to have another taken. Julian assures me that there's no chance I could look any more pompous with his bigger book, but I'm willing to give it a try even so. He suggests a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches might just do the trick.

I think a pipe would help, as well.

09 January 2012

Leave a Message

Two weeks ago, I asked if anyone wanted to share a story song or answer a new question. Rob Lopresti sent me an excellent song, which is available on the Internet if you query him about it. No one tried to guess the commonality between Abraham Lincoln and Edgar Allan Poe, so we'll move right along.

One week ago, 02/Jan/12, Leigh shared Jan Grape's answering machine message in Comments. In a flat, no-nonsense voice Jan's phone answers with this:
You have the right to remain silent.Anything you say may be taken down and used in my next book.If you understand these rights, please leave a message.
Jan's is now my favorite, though one of my long-time memorable machines said:
Yeah, this is Aaron. I'm not sure if I'm home or not, but I know I've lost my telephone again. If it's around here and I'm home, I may find it and answer before you finish your message. If not, I'll be sure to call you back whenever I'm home and can find the phone at the same time.
I loved that because I'm notorious for misplacing the cordless phone on my desk under a thousand pieces of paper. (That's hyperbole, but I exaggerate all the time. Being a fiction writer is like being given a license to lie.)

This was my message years ago, in a voice like Velma's (or Roxanne's if you're familiar with the Callie Parrish mysteries):
You've reached the machine, so there's no doubt
I'm either busy or out and about,
So leave your name and number, too
And I promise I'll get back to you.
I confess there was a whole lotta promise in the word "promise." Chuck Cannon, Nashville songwriter and performer, used to call my house just to listen to my machine. He also passed the number to friends, so I'd receive messages like, "Didn't want anything. Chuck Cannon gave me your number so I could hear your message." I suppose I should be grateful nobody wrote it on a restroom wall in Nashville!

This afternoon, my grandson texted his dad to tell him we were entering the gate to their house. His dad was home. He opened the door, stood there, and greeted us as we pulled 'round the drive. Just another example of generation differences. I would have called, but they text.

I used to say that I neither give nor take guilt trips. Now I say I neither text nor read text messages. I actually disposed of my cell phone a year ago and have enjoyed being less accessible. I've loved driving without interruption--making up songs and working out plots as I travel. Of course, that changed after Mom's fall. The new cell is with me at all times so the rehab center can reach me.

Cell phones are ultra sophisticated these days with all kinds of apps, but landlines remain my preferred telephone communication. Cell phones usually have a mechanical voice referring to the owner by number or just a quick name blurbed in when they tell you to leave a message. I like to hear a human voice that reflects an individual's personality.

My answering machine is and was my friend. Messages work both ways. My machine gives a message to the caller. The caller leaves a message for me. I learned about my first book contract when I returned from shopping and had this message. "This is your agent Jeff. When do you check your email? I've been trying for days to let you know we have an offer from Berkley for three books with a nice advance. Call me at ### ### ####." (I now check email at least once a day.)

Another great message was "This is Melanie Howard with Harland Howard Music. I listened to your demo, and we want to put a hold on one of your songs. Call me at ### ### ####."

Both of those calls came on days when I'd become so discouraged that I was considering giving up writing.

Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines the noun "message'' as a "communication by writing, by speech, or by symbols." By that definition, all of the Sleuthsayers are involved in messages each time we write a story, novel, essay, poem or song.

Some of us grew up dreaming of writing the Great American Novel. I was one of those kids, but I don't think some cozy-like Callie Parrish mysteries and a southern thriller quite fill the bill. However, I've been thinking this week about messages, and a writer doesn't have to write the Great American Novel to leave a message. In fact, it's not even necessary to write a novel. Think of the timeless messages in Guy de Maupassant's short story "The Necklace" or O Henry's "Gift of the Magi," and for Christians, the message in "Amazing Grace." Though much less global, I'm leaving a message every time a reader "falls into" what I've written or laughs at Callie and Jane.

My wish for all Sleuthsayers and readers for 2012 is that we leave memorable messages.

Until we meet again… take care of YOU.

08 January 2012

The Brazilian Confederacy

Leighton Gage
by Leighton Gage

Leigh Lundin: When writers claim excitement introducing a guest article, you can expect a great deal of hyperbole. Not in this case.

A couple of years ago, a group of eight international mystery writers banded together to form the blog, Murder is Everywhere. I'd already met Michael Sears, Stanley Trollip, and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, and I was pleased to read other contributors, especially today's guest, Leighton Gage.

Leighton Gage lives in a small town in Brazil and writes police procedurals set in that country. A Vine in the Blood, the latest installment in his Chief Inspector Mario Silva series, was called “irresistible” by the Toronto Globe and Mail. Coincidentally, that was the very same word the New York Times used to describe the previous book in his series, Every Bitter Thing. Vine also garnered a star from Publisher’s Weekly.

I touched base with Leighton about the time my AOL account crashed and burned, but his daughter managed to send me a 'fita do Senhor do Bomfim', a ribbon I use as a bookmark.

Leighton created today's article, one I wish my mother, a student of American Civil War history, could read. Indeed, I felt a pleasant frisson of discovery when I first read this exciting bit of history by Leighton Gage.

The Brazilian Confederacy

One day, a couple of years ago, I was in an office in São Paulo chatting to a friend in English. A lady I didn’t know came up to us and joined in the conversation. She spoke with the dulcet tones of the American South, and I asked her where she was from.
    “I was born here,” she said, meaning Brazil.
    “Okay. Your parents, then?”
    “Here. And my grandparents too.”
And then she told me the story of the Brazilian Confederates, which, Dear Reader, I’m now going to pass on to you:

After the War Between the States many families from the old South were left landless and destitute. They hated living under a conquering army of Yankees. They were looking for a way out.

Dom Pedro II
Dom Pedro II
Dom Pedro II, the progressive Brazilian emperor of the time, offered it. He was interested in developing the cultivation of cotton, and he gave tremendous incentives to people who knew how to do it. Land could be financed at twenty-two cents an acre. Passage cost no more than thirty Yankee dollars. Scads of people from Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi and Texas took him up on his offer.

Many of them settled in the State of São Paulo in the towns of Americana and Santa Barbara D’Oeste. The name of the former is derived from the Portuguese for “Village of the Americans” and the latter is sometimes called the Norris colony, named after Colonel William Norris, a former senator from Alabama who was one of the founders.
Colonel William Norris
Col. Wm. Norris

He's the gentleman in the photo at right. If you’re a Civil War buff, and would like to experience a vestige of the Old South, I suggest you go to Santa Barbara on the second Sunday in April. That’s when they hold a yearly party on the grounds of the cemetery. Yeah, that’s right, the cemetery, the one where all of those old confederates are buried.

You’ll find it behind the church that faces the square with the monument.

The folks in Santa Barbara really know how to stage a party.
Santa Barbara church
Santa Barbara Church

You can eat southern fried chicken, vinegar pie, chess pie and biscuits. Banjos are played. Confederate songs are sung. The women dress in pink and blue and wear matching ribbons in their hair.

southern vittles
down-home dancin'
There’s square dancing for the young folks. The men of all ages get drunk and replay the war, looking at first as if they’re celebrating a victory. But at the end of the performance the bearded actor, playing Gen. Robert E. Lee, falls down as if mortally wounded, a Confederate flag wrapped around him.

And, if you visit the church for the memorial services, you might even get to meet Becky Jones, who presides over the Association of Confederates.

Becky learned her English from her parents. They learned it from their parents. And so on. Prompted, she’ll tell you that (even) Damnyankees are welcome to the party, but they have to expect to be received differently than someone from the South.

She might tell you, too, about her grandmother, Mrs. MacKnight-Jones, who survived well into her nineties. Grandma learned from her parents never to call Abraham Lincoln by his name. In their household he was only referred to as "that man".

And that family tradition goes on until this very day.

07 January 2012

Unicorns in Pajamas

by John M. Floyd

Over the past few days I've been thinking about something Dixon Hill said in a recent column, about "flat" writing. He defined it as fiction that has no fizz or flavor.

I see that kind of thing a lot in my students' stories, and we as readers see it occasionally in published novels and short stories as well. On the surface there's nothing wrong--the writing is often technically correct and structurally sound--but there's no magic to it, nothing that would lift the words off the page and make them memorable. (By the way, the same thing can happen with nonfiction, and it's just as dangerous.)

Dix also called it perplexing, and hard to correct. He's right. It's even hard to recognize, when it occurs in our own writing, and if it goes undetected we usually wind up disappointed when those stories and books don't sell.

From the Reader's POV . . .

I should mention here a quick word about the opposite of flat writing.

Friends have told me they're sometimes not aware of excellent writing until after they've finished reading a story, because if it's good enough a reader can be drawn so deeply into the plotline he or she doesn't even think of anything else until afterward. Personally, I do find myself aware of extra "fizz and flavor" during the reading--maybe in a clever plot device, or a particularly elegant phrase, or a piece of information that I never before knew or understood. For me, though, noticing that kind of thing in flight isn't something that takes away at all from the enjoyment of reading.

I also like to find twists and reversals in a story. In the book Spunk & Bite by Arthur Plotnik (what a great author name, sort of like Francine Prose), he says, "Readers love surprise. They love it when a sentence heads one way and jerks another. They love the boing of a jack-in-the-box word. They love images that trot by like a unicorn in pajamas."

From the Writer's POV . . .

I learned long ago to search for dullness in my own work, and when I'm lucky enough to detect it (I wish it weren't there in the first place, but it usually is), I try to fix it. But that's easier said than done.

How do you correct lackluster writing? I know of only one way. I go back through the story, seeing it through the eyes of the reader, and attempt to make every page, every paragraph, even every sentence as strong as it can possibly be. Sometimes this is just basic rewriting: deleting modifiers, substituting action verbs for weak verbs, fine-tuning punctuation, adding exchanges of dialogue in place of description and exposition, changing passive voice to active. Sometimes it can be done via a metaphor or an analogy or onomatopoeia, or even humor--anything that might add sparkle to an otherwise routine and ordinary passage. I'm not saying this kind of search-and-repair operation is always successful; overcorrecting can make things worse instead of better. But I try. Always in the back of my mind is Elmore Leonard's advice: leave out the parts that people skip.

This whole process always surprises me a bit. Even when I think a manuscript is pretty much finished, I can usually trudge back through it with these things in mind and make it shine a little brighter. And when that happens it's a great feeling. It's the difference between functionality and beauty, between settling for par and making an eagle, between getting there and getting there in style. (Whether others will think my creation is beautiful is of course another matter, but I'm careful not to submit a story until I at least feel that way about it myself.)

I would appreciate hearing your views on this subject. Is flat writing something you worry about? If so, do you address it during the creative process or afterward? What are some of the steps you take to add "punch" to your own fiction?

A Sixth Sense

I'm convinced that the more one reads and writes, the more conscious one becomes, of bland and colorless writing. Quoting from Plotnik again: "I can see dead writing. I can see language that follows all the rules, but lacks the vigor and inventiveness ever to rise off the page."

He goes on to say, "I feel the anguish of dead writing, and sometimes as an editor I've applied a stitch here, a jolt there, so that it might stagger among the undead. But the only authentic way to enliven a piece of writing, give it corporeal clout, is to invigorate it at the outset." How true. These days it's not enough to hope an editor can do it for us.

To Fix a Flat

Anytime we discuss the quality and readability of fiction, I'm reminded of To Kill a Mockingbird. That book could so easily have been no more than a coming-of-age story, or a courtroom drama, or a mystery novel, or a lesson about race relations and justice and loyalty and knowing right from wrong. Instead it is all those things, combined. It has elements of both literary and genre fiction, and was written with a style that, after half a dozen readings, still keeps me hooked every step of the way. If it contains any dead spots, any dull, featureless prose at all, I've never noticed it.

But wait a minute. All this talk of flat writing has made me a little nervous. Did I mention that it can apply to nonfiction too?

Maybe it's time to sign off.

06 January 2012

Funnel of Death

You watch today's movies where SWAT hits a house, and you see all these guys dressed up in nice black outfits with bullet-proof vests and they look good and they move good, professional. It wasn't always that way.
Alley Oop Lived
Back in the Jurassic period of law enforcement, we had the Gronk Squad. Its existence was unofficial.

We were the guys that made up burns and kicked the doors when a felon might be sitting on the other side with a loaded weapon at hand. Seems hard core criminals tend to have a certain paranoia that law enforcement might just drop in at any given moment and they like to be prepared, not to mention there might be other bad guys out there with violent intentions toward the subject over some misjudgement concerning money, a woman or a deal gone wrong. Them guys got funny that way.

This Ain't Good
Making up burns was the term for what happened after an undercover made a buy and sent his purchase off to the lab, but then the lab ran a chemical analysis and said the stuff wasn't illegal. Could've been corn starch, agriculture chemicals, or anything that wasn't a Controlled Substance, yet resembled the good stuff. I know it's hard to get your head around, but some criminals would just flat try to cheat you. And believe me, there were plenty of powders which could turn a field test.
In those days, the upper office subtly let it be known that all burns came out of the buying agent's pocket, so naturally there was an incentive to make sure you got the buy money back, or good product in its place, much the same as a real dealer would do on the street. Those transactions led to some interesting developments. Not sure we will ever discuss those times, although some humorous incidents did occur.

The Flood System
Kicking the door on an armed and dangerous criminal was a different animal. We had a twelve pound sledge to open up locked doors. After the door went down, all law enforcement assigned to entry then flooded through the doorway and into the house.

This quickly became a race to get to the criminal, and it was not unusual to be shoulder to shoulder with fellow officers going through the entrance. We definitely had enthusiasim. With all the commotion resulting from the mass influx of enthusiastic entrants, you would probably not be surprised to hear how many defendants decided to depart the premises via the nearest exit. Some even leaped from third-story windows, but that was the subject of a previous Friday blog. (see "Flying Without a Parachute.")

What the Heck Were We Thinkin'
We thought we were doing well. It wasn't until a few years later during a training session that one of the Wise Men taught us about The Funnel of Death. It seems that every doorway funnels or acts as a choke point to channel those coming into a building through a small area where anyone with a gun can direct fire, thus killing or at least delaying those who wish to approach him. Who knew? Maybe we were just lucky in those days or else managed to stun the opposition into inactivity with our thunderous ignorance. There was something to be said for making a loud entry and momentarily freezing the decision making process of your opponent. In any case, our tactics soon changed.

Enter the Snake Line
With the Snake Line, everybody had a number and was paired with another person on the entry team. #1 and #2 were partners, #3 and #4, etc. So here's how it was supposed to go.
When the van or panel truck used for an entry team got the radio call to hit the place, the driver brought them screeching up to the front of the building. The team unassed the vehicle and rushed to the front door, but off to one side, forming a snake line in number order, except for the last two numbers. Other law enforcement covered all remaining exits.
Let's say it was an eight person entry team. #8 holds the screen door open while while #7 swings the hammer, or a one-man door ram if that's what you have. Hopefully, the door opens on the first THUD. #7 then immediately steps out of the way and draws his weapon. 1 and 2 are first in, breaking quickly right and left away from the funneling doorway, and followed by the rest of the pairs. If the first room is empty, then 1 and 2 continue on into the house as previously designated. Pairs break off as needed when other rooms are encountered.
However, if someone is located in the first room, then we used the Fisherman System, also known as the You Catch 'Em, You Clean 'Em technique. In that case, 1 and 2 were tasked with controlling any people found in the first room. All potential bad guys got put on the floor, handcuffed and searched, while Pair 3 and 4 continued on as lead elements into the house or building.

Wait a Minute
Okay, I'm sure that at this point in the dissertation, some of you are going to inconveniently point out that The Funnel of Death is still there. And, you are absolutely correct, every doorway and every set of stairs still funnels entrants into a small zone. The difference is that we now made our entries in a more organized manner to lessen the danger. Plus, we soon acquired new tricks to distract or disable anyone on the other end of the funnel, and had new tactics to help provide cover for those team mates entering the funnel. We also got neat Turtle-Vests with armored plates to insert fore and aft to protect chest and back from any potential incoming fire. Plus, the vests had this nice handle at the back of the neck so your buddies could more easily drag you out of the way if you went down from say, a hangnail or loose shoe lace. We even had Kevlar helmets to render our noggins safe from harm and goggles in case the wind stirred up a little dust. Our gloves, boots and clothing were fire resistant Nomex just in case someone accidently dropped a lit cigarette on the carpet. We became damn near indestructible.
It was a new day. Dinosaurs quickly got retrained, else went the way that dinosaurs went. I'm sure that nowadays, tactics have improved even more, plus regular SWAT teams get neat toys such as Flash Bangs and see-through, bullet-proof shields to move safely through the Funnel. And, they usually have a team sniper or two on board who can reach out and touch the bad guys from a distance when it becomes necessary. Planned arrest situations are getting tougher on the hard case common criminal, but then that's their problem. They should have chosen a more honest form of employment where they wouldn't have to worry about the loud arrival of sudden guests in the dark of early morning.



~a tip of my hat to Fran's son

05 January 2012

Making Books

by Janice Law

I was recently in Pittsburg, Kansas, a former coal mining town on the flat and featureless Kansas prairie. The weather was hot, the cloudless blue sky immense, and the small lakes and ponds, remnants of old-time strip mining, occasionally dubious. This is the southeast corner of the state, the "Bleeding Kansas" of the run-up to the Civil War, when what we would today call "war lords" harassed folk who didn't share their political opinions and all too often killed them.

The immense Kansas plains struck me as a landscape demanding inner resources, especially during the torrid summers and the cold, windy winters. There are few places to hide on those vast grasslands, and trouble approaches from far off in a cloud of dust. A perfect place, one would say, given its history of political, and later, labor, unrest, for the mystery writer.

And yet, where are the frontier mysteries or the mysteries of the coal fields? To the best of my knowledge, nowhere to be found. And nearer to home in my own neck of the woods, mysteries set in Colonial times or around the first contacts with the Algonquins and the Narragansetts are thin on the ground. All those good witch trials might have gone unheard as far as the genre is concerned, while the chicanery surrounding early land claims and land deals, in itself a gold mine, is the province of the archivist, not the novelist.

The neglect of the Colonial period and of what seem to be tempting places like rural Kansas makes a nice illustration of the way that books are made from other books. Nowhere is this clearer than in the mystery genre. Thanks to Sherlock Holmes, gaslight London, and in a pinch, gaslight New York, are so favored we might still be living with belle epoch fixtures. How we love the railroads (see Andrew Martin's charming novels with rail road detective Jim Springer) and the complications of the class system, and the endless difficulties of would-be independent women (try John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman).

The Victorian period is another favorite, as writers continue to prospect in terrain first mined by Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Sheridan Le Fanu, and their colleagues, all of whom found pay dirt in inheritance disputes, female oppression, and false identities. As a result, the UK, especially England, is still favored as the Victorian venue; Anne Perry's Thomas Pitt and William Monk mysteries come to mind.

It might have been otherwise, but our very own Edgar Allan Poe put his detective in Paris, and Poe's psychological dramas are set in the all purpose kingdom of the Gothic, with bows to Mrs. Radcliffe and "Monk" Lewis. The distinctive properties of the United States for mystery were tapped by the much less popular Charles Brockden Brown, whose weird and convoluted novels did not provide so happy, or so easily-followed, a template.

Our side of the Atlantic only came into its own, speaking of mysteries, with the twentieth century. Prohibition gave a big boost to mystery, as well as to crime, with bootleggers and drinking clubs, G-men, and the rise of the Mob with a capital M. As alcohol became criminal and public morals became flexible, the private detective, formerly associated with the Pinkertons, strike-breaking, and low company, morphed into a new, populist type of hero.

Helped, no doubt, by the rapid-fire patter of the movies, smart-mouthed detectives and their witty female companions pranced off the page and into the collective consciousness. Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe have proved irresistible models, while James M. Cain set the template for a tidal wave of pulp fiction. Retro forties style detective novels are still selling (see the Hard Case Crime series) and any number of smart, irreverent guys and gals are still paying the bills for their creators on the page and on the tube.

Sure, other historical eras have had their day. James Lincoln Warren and Steven Saylor have sent their sleuths to ancient Rome and classical Greece. Ellis Peters did wonders for medieval detection, and the Renaissance has its proponents, too. But in almost every case, the mystery follows where earlier literature has tread. "Write what you know," say the teaching gurus. And nine times out of ten, that also means, "Write what you've read" and what the public has come to expect.

So are those hot, open plains, former mine sites, and tiny rural towns teetering on the verge of extinction out of my range? Probably. I can see a lot of work, a lot of reading, and a good deal of imagination required for a novel. But the Jayhawkers and Bushwackers of the Civil War, not to mention the polyglot miners and the womenfolk of the "Amazon Army" have a definite appeal.

I think I hear the library calling, and perhaps a short story isn't out of the question.

04 January 2012

Nothing but the best

by Robert Lopresti

Happy new year to you and yours and the bicycle you rode in on.  It is that time again.  For the third year running I am going to list the best mystery stories of the year, as defined by one simple rule: I liked them the most.

I regret to say 2011 was 8.5% worse than 2010, as proven by the fact that I only put 15 stories on the list this year, as opposed to 17 last.  When I started reviewing my favorite story of the week at Little Big Crimes I suspected it would make me pickier about which stories made the end-of-the year list, and it turns out I was right.

Go to the stats

But enough idle chatter.  What do the numbers tell us?

Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine was the big winner this year, with one-third of the stories.  Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and the Akashic Press Noir City series were tied with three each.  Two more appeared in other anthologies, and for the first time I included stories on my list from e-zines.  That means that two of the best stories of the year were published for free and aren't elligible for most awards.  Amazing.  Oh, another interesting point: two of the winners are first stories by their authors.

In terms of (very loose) categories, we have:
criminal viewpoint 4
private eye 3
victim viewpoint 2
amateur detective 1
legal 1
police 1
other 3

Four of the stories were comic.  Two were historic.  Two were about people with brain damage (and some were about people whose brains don't work that well...)  All were terrific.

But before I launch into them, feel free to tell me in the comments what YOU thought were the best stories of the year.  Even if, God forbid, you disagree with me.

And here are the winners

Allington, Maynard.  "The Appointment."  Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.  June 2011.

As I write up my best-of-the-week favorite I keep a file of the ones that qualified for the best-of-the-year list.  This one wasn't on it.  But today when I went back through the whole year's file I went, "Oh yeah, that one..."  Which is a good sign, isn't it?

Since Afghanistan, I think a lot about death, as if I were being billed for a broken appointment.
If I wrote that nugget of a sentence I would have probably started the story with it. Allington puts it at the end of a long opening paragraph. But it sets the tone, doesn't it?

Danny Malone got back from the war with brain damage that effects his memory and temper. Now he is wandering through Death Valley because someone has been sending him photographs of the park and he thinks, vaguely, that he is supposed to meet someone there.

And meet someone he does. The man wears a hooded parka - in the desert heat - and appears to have suffered severe burn damage.

"Don't you remember me? We met once in Afghanistan. I got to know some of the men in your platoon. I knew your best friend, Robinson. He spoke highly of you."

"Robbie's dead."

"So I heard..."

So who is the mysterious hooded figure? What does he have in mind for Danny? And, more importantly, is the explanation of what happens criminal, psychological, or even supernatural?

The answers come at the end of this elegant, finely detailed story. Allington is a former military man and he writes well about the troubled veteran.

Armstrong, Jason. "Man Changes Mind," in Thrillers, Killers, 'n Chillers. January 4, 2011.

I'm trying to decide whether or not I want to be a serial killer.

I mean, I'll probably just finish up with school and get a good job in management but it just seems like I should be doing something bigger with my life. But I think every young man has this conversation with himself at some point. Don't get me wrong, I'd rather be a superhero. I've had that dream since I was five but there's no such thing as superheroes.

That's the start of this wonderfully quirky tale by Jason Armstrong, which I understand is his first published story. The publisher, Thrillers, Killers, 'n Chillers, described it as flash fiction, and that astonished me because I thought it was longer than that. (When I say a story seemed longer than it was I don't usually intend it as a compliment, because I like short fiction, but in this case I mean the story packs a lot into a small space.)

Which is not to say a lot happens. As the title implies, it is just a meditation inside the character's brain. But the story manages to be authentically funny and creepy at the same time, a good trick, and leave you wondering: is this guy just a not-bright doofus thinking idle thoughts, or exactly the kind of person who goes off the deep end one day?  Definitely worth a read.

Brackmann, Lisa.  "Don't Feed The Bums," in San Diego Noir, Akashic Press, 2011.

Kari has a problem.  Her life is divided into Before and After and what came between those two was a car accident that changed her life, destroyed parts of her memory, and altered her personality.  She's adjusting to her new self, taking care of animals as wounded as she is, and sleeping with two men, one from each half of her life. But eventually Kari discovers that someone is plotting against her, and, as the narrator says "She wasn't what she used to be, but she wasn't stupid."

This is Brackmann's first published story, after one novel.  Once the twists start coming she  keeps them pounding up the beach at you, right to the last perfect sentence, which made me laugh out loud.

Catalona, Karen.  "The Sadowsky Manifesto."  in Mystery Writers of America Presents The Rich and the Dead.  Grand Central Publishing.  2011.

Max Bergen runs a not-too-successful literary agency. One day a pot of gold rolls in over the transom. More literally it is a manuscript from the serial-killer-du-jour, who had just killed himself. The FBI and publishers are clamoring for the book and Bergen stands to make a fortune on commissions.

Of course, there has to be a problem, right? Sadowsky's book is not an angry political rant. It's a science fiction novel, and it's so bad that after fifty pages readers will be rooting for the giant robots to kill the hero. The book is a disaster and there is no ethical way for an agent to make money off it.

But, hey, Bergen is a literary agent. Who said anything about ethics?  I have never heard of Karen Catalona before, but I hope to run into her again.

Crouch, Blake.  “The Pain of Others,” in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.  March 2011.

Letty Dobish, five weeks out of Fluvanna Correctional Center on a nine-month bit for felony theft, straightened the red wig over her short brown hair, adjusted the oversize Jimmy Choo sunglasses she’d lifted out of a locker two days ago at the Asheville Racquet and Fitness Club, and handed a twenty-spot to the cabbie.
 “Want change, miss?” he asked.
 “On a nine seventy-five fare?  What does your heart tell you?”
Great language, great concept.  Letty is a woman of convictions, more judicial than ethical, and during the commission of a crime she overhears a murder plot.  It turns out she does care about something besides money.  The results are surprising and darker than I would have guessed (see title).
Crowther, Brad.  “Politics Makes Dead Bedfellows,” in  Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.  July/August 2011.

This is the winner of the Black Orchid Novella Award, co-sponsored by AHMM and the Wolfe Pack.  The guidelines for this contest specifically say that "We're not looking for anything derivative of the Nero Wolfe character, milieu, etc," but a soft pastiche of Rex Stout is precisely what they got.  And a good one, too. 

Edna Dugué is a  wealthy private eye in Charleston, South Carolina.   She is also an attorney, and teaches at a college.  “I never pretended that my intentions are honorable,” she tells one visitor, but clearly they are.  Her assistant and the narrator of the story is Jerrelle Vesey, an African-American part-time college student.  When Edna was a public defender she had helped him when he was sent to prison for badly beating two white men who killed his brother.

As the story opens a city councilman arrives to tell Edna that his wife has threatened to kill him.  Not surprisingly he ends up dead and the widow becomes Edna’s client.  What follows is classic Stout territory with Archie – Sorry! Jerrelle – going out to interview half a dozen suspects and bringing the results back to Edna, who figures out whodunit.

Two things make the story a treat.  First is Jerrelle's dialog.  Here he is chatting with the councilman: "I don't hold any grudges.  As a matter of fact, I almost voted for you in the last election.  In the end though I threw my support behind  our neighbor's pet rat, Lester."  I like this guy.   Second, are the set of supporting characters.  For example, Edna's police nemesis is a woman, a friend of Jerrelle's family.  

She was the one who arrested him after his crime, and the one who drove him home after he was pardoned.  And we still haven't met Edna's grandfather who lives in the attic.  

These are interesting people in a world that feels fully developed and three dimensional.  Rex Stout would be proud.   

 Faherty, Terence.  "A Bullet From Yesterday,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. January 2011.

A veteran walks into a Hollywood detective agency in the 1950s and says the gun he brought home from World War II as a souvenir may have killed ten million people - it could be the gun that killed the Archduke and started the Great War.  This story has just about everything I want in a private eye tale - humor, action, plot, and compassion for the way people screw up their lives.  Plus historical detail.
Gates, David Edgerley.  "Slip Knot," by David Edgerley Gates, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  November 2011.
Mickey Counihan is not a detective, but he is trying to solve a crime. Mickey is a fixer for the Hannah family, an Irish mob in New York in the 1950s. He usually seems less like a main character than the typical hero of a detective story. More like an observer or not-so-innocent bystander. Because his main job is to watch out for the Hannah family's interests, which may call for him to watch what's going on but not necessarily step in. As someone tells him in this story "You don't have a dog in this fight."  Before the tale is over, he very much does.
The story is about a pool match, or really about the betting that goes on before and during the match. No one, including Mickey, can figure out who is manipulating the odds, and to what end. Before it gets straightened out a bunch of people will be dead.
Gates writes convincingly of dangerous men who expect trouble and know how to greet it. But the main reason the story made this list is the sheer casualness of the last paragraph, that treats a stunning detail as less important than a pool shot.
Kaaberbøl, Lene and Agnete Friis   “When The Time Came,” in Copenhagen Noir. Edited by Bo Tao Michaelis.  Akashic Press.  Copenhagen sunset by fifteeniguana
The building looked like every other place out here.  Glass and steel.  He’d never understood who would want to live in such a place…. The other brand-new glass palaces were lit up as if an energy crisis had never existed, but there was no life behind the windows.  Maybe nobody wanted to live this way after all…
 Chaltu is a very pregnant African woman, desperate to make it over the bridge to Sweden where she can seek asylum and be reunited with her lover.  Unfortunately contractions begin too soon and she is left in an unfinished building in Ørestad.  As it happens three Iranian men have chosen the same night to loot fixtures from the empty apartments.  On discovering 

Chaltu one of them calls the “okay secret doctor,” actually Red Cross nurse Nina Borg, the authors’ series character.
 By the time Nina arrives the situations has gotten worse , in the form of a murder.  (This deserted building seems busier than Tivoli Gardens.)  She has to do some fast thinking to get out of the mess.

This doesn’t feel like a crime story, in spite of the fact that just about everyone in it is at least technically a criminal.  They are breaking the law, but are they evil?
The fact of childbirth has a powerful sway over the characters actions and as long as Nina is managing the labor she can direct the men, but once the baby is born, “Nina’s reign had ended.”   Powerful stuff.

By the way, I took the photo above from our vacation apartment in Ørestad, which is just as grim a neighborhood as the authors describe it... 

Mallory, Michael.  "The Real Celebrities," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  July/August 2011.
Michael and I were buddies when we appeared in Margo Power's Murderous Intent Mystery Magazine back in the nineties.  I seem to recall him mostly writing Sherlock Homes pastiches and nonfiction about Hollywood.  Now he has done a mash-up of sorts: fiction about Hollywood.

Since Marilyn Monroe hardly ever gave me the time of day, her sidling up to me meant that she wanted something. As a rule, Marilyn remained within her own little world, acting as though the rest of us didn't exist...
Okay, he's got my attention.  Is this a historic tale about the real Marilyn?  A fantasy?  Is the narrator insane?

None of the above.  The characters are impersonators who pose for tips outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre.   The narrator dresses as Wolverine and is known as Hugh Jackman.

I love stories that open the doors and let us take a peek into one of the many worlds that float around us.  Listen to "Jackman" explaining the service he and his friends provide:
For tourists, those of us on the boulevard are the REAL celebrities, the ones you can speak to and pose for pictures with. Those other ones, the figures you see on movie and television screens, they're nothing but illusions.
When one of them is murdered our hero feels obliged to try to figure out what happened.  The plot probably won't puzzle you, but the writing contains just the bitter sarcasm you expect from a tale of glitter-land's underclass.
"I'm an asshole' [he] said, by way of greeting.
"You're in the right town for it."

Mosley, Walter.  "The Trial,"  in Freedom: Stories Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by Amnesty International. 2011.

Interesting idea. Each story in this book is tied to one of the articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (Some articles inspired several stories.)  They aren't all about crime, of course, but Walter Mosley's piece is inspired by Article 7: Equality Before The Law. This is not something his characters feel they have been getting much of. They are African-Americans, residents in a housing complex where drug dealers can get an easy pass from the bribe-taking cops, but more "serious" crimes are punished without much consideration of the issues that caused them.

In this case a drug dealer has been murdered and various community members - his lover, his sometime assistant, the oldest resident, a successful businessman, etc. - have gathered to decide the fate of the confessed murderer.

As the story goes on it goes through fascinating shifts - Was Wilfred the killer justified? Does this group of neighbors have the right to rule on him? Do the courts?  Mosley writes with the easy conversational style of a great mystery writer, but he is discussing deep, deep issues here.   

Parker, Percy Spurlark.  “Sweet Thing Going,”  in  Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.  April 2011.

 The thing about Biter Bit stories is that you can usually see them coming.  Percy Spurlark Parker’s story is about a cop named Rycann who is as dirty as they come, squeezing the petty crooks on his beat for money and sex.  You know he’s going to get his comeuppance, so the question is: how will it happen?

This is where the question of story length comes in.  When I turned to the last page I could see that it was the last page and as I read down I was thinking : there’s no way he can pull off a surprising and satisfying ending in the space that’s left.  Obviously I was wrong or it wouldn't be on this list.

Powell, James.  “The Teapot Mountie Ball,” in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.  March/April 2011. 
I am a fan and friend of Jim Powell so I say this with respect and affection: The man is as loony as a Canadian dollar coin.  The average Powell story in a fully realized plot stuffed with wild free associations wrapped around a bizarre central idea that, if they had occurred to most writers, would cause them to swear off late-night enchiladas.

 This particular specimen is part of a series about Acting Sergeant Maynard Bullock of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  But the central concept is this: in order to avoid infiltrators Canadian organized crime has banned members who meet the height and weight qualifications for Mounties.  To foil this strategy the RCMP hires a special squad of undercover agents known as the Teapot Mounties (because they are short and stout, naturally).  The one time these diminutive lawmen can wear their red uniforms is the night of their annual ball.  This year, the regularly sized Sergeant Bullock is present, running the soda stand.  Naturally he stumbles into a fiendish plot…

 So that is the main story line.  Here are some random examples of the free associations that grow up around it:       
* There was a Mountie named “Gimpy” Flanagan who had “sworn never to pull his revolver without drawing blood, an oath that cost him several toes.”       
*Scandanavians underestimate Canadians seeing them as “a frivolous southern people much like the Italians…”       
* The Canadians have sworn to defend the U.S. from an overland attack by Russia, because they knew “that if Mexico ever tried to invade Canada by land, the United States would do the same.”

Mad as a March Hare and twice as fun.
Pluck, Thomas.  The Uncleared,   at A Twist of Noir, Friday September 16, 2011.

R. Thomas Brown pointed this one out.

I have a rule about flash fiction (usually defined as under 1000 words). I think it only works if the story needs to be that short. Either it is a simple anecdote (like a joke, a setup and a punchline) or something so unique that it only makes sense as a very short piece (see Jason Armstrong's above).

But Mr. Pluck has made me break my rule. I can easily see this story as the outline for one of those looong broody tales that EQMM loves so much. Instead he fit it on a postcard, and did it with no sense of cramming or shorthand. Quite remarkable.

Here, in brief, is the brief story. When the narrator is in college his parents decide to sell their house. His mother, a brand-new real estate agent, attempts to do so and is found murdered in it.

We learn what happened to the family afterwards, and then there is a twist that is staggering and yet neatly foreshadowed. It all works perfectly and even though it could be told at five times the length, it isn't missing a single necessary detail.  And my, the last sentence...

Santlofer, Jonathan.  "Lola,"  in New Jersey Noir.  Akashic Press, 2011

I didn't think this story was going to make my favorite list.  It felt like a pretty ordinary piece at first.  But stories, like people for that matter, can surprise you.

The narrator is a would-be portrait artist who makes his living preparing stretchers for more successful painters.  One day riding the PATH trains back to Hoboken he becomes attracted to a young woman.  Pretty soon he is obsessed with her, and this is obviously not the first time he has gone down this path.  I was pretty sure I knew where this journey was headed.

Well.  Can't say much more without giving away the store.  Let's just say Santlofer has some surprises in store for his characters, and for us.

A perfect ending is one that leaves the reader saying: "I never saw that coming, but it is the only way the story could have ended."  "Lola" has a perfect ending.

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


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!