25 January 2012

Going Archival on You


by Robert Lopresti

I have probably mentioned here, oh, a few thousand times that I am a government information librarian. Today I thought I would point you toward a government website that has a lot of ideas for writers - in fact, they even brag about just that.

If you have visited our nation's capital you may have gone to the National Archives to see the original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But the National Archives and Records Administration has a lot more than that, and they have a pretty cool website to tell you about it.

This came to mind because of a page they put up called Inspired by the Archives! Ten top tips for writers!  Here is an example of a poster they thought might inspire you.


Or try this mug shot.

Care to guess what this shady character was being booked for? Would you believe "crimes against butter?" Yes, he was a margarine smuggler. (Cellmate: I'm here because I killed my neighbor with an ax. What did YOU do?)

Care to guess what is the most requested photo in the National Archives? Here it is.

I don't know (or want to know) what kind of story this image might invoke, but here is an early ancestor of the familiar food pyramid. PLease notice the seventh food group, and the helpful advice at the bottom of the page.


What about famous authors in the collection? How about a picture of Jack Kerouac taken during brief naval career (before they threw him out as "delusional.")   His own comment later on his behavior then: "I shoulda been shot."


You may wonder: do any authors really get inspiration from this stuff? Well, how about George Clooney researching his next flick, which he is going to author, direct, and star in?

On beyond the Declaration of Independence. Enjoy.

24 January 2012

Criminal Fashion


by David Dean

During my years as a policeman I noticed that there appear to be fads, or fashions, if you will, within the criminal world. Not fashion as in clothes (though, now that I think about it, that might be true, as well) but criminal techniques and tactics that flare into life, then fade away with time. It also became apparent to me that many writers incorporate these trends into their books and stories which might make the subject a worthwhile blog. But first let me issue the disclaimer that I am neither a criminologist, nor a historian, though I have slept in a Holiday Inn Express. What follows is strictly opinion.

I doubt that I'm telling you anything, dear readers, that you haven't already noticed, consciously or no; it's actually quite apparent when you consider it. A recent example that leaps to mind is carjacking. Whereas car theft has been with us for almost as long as there have been automobiles, carjacking was a new wrinkle. Here in New Jersey we pride ourselves in always placing at the top, or damn near, of the national car theft and carjacking stats. In fact, carjacking may have been invented in Newark– in your face, New York!

Carjacking didn't appear until the eighties and already shows signs of having run it's course. In many ways it never made a lot of sense to me, as both the theft and the thief's description were almost immediately available to the police unless he decided to up the ante to murder. Even so, the jacker had only made his situation more dire. Once murder enters into it the police are going to devote every effort to apprehending him, and now, if and when he's caught, the stakes are far more serious. Cross state lines with the car and occupants and, God help him, the FBI is now involved– it's kidnapping! All of this for the theft of a car that probably wouldn't fetch more than a few grand at the most. Remember, once the fence or chop shop owner gets wind of the jacker's antics, they have him over a barrel and can set their prices. It just doesn't make sense to me in the grand scheme of things. Yet, people do it. It's a little like the fad of the extremely baggy, low-riding jeans that expose one's lack of taste in underwear, while rendering headlong flight from the police a near impossibility. Why? Fashion, of course.

As a side note, carjacking spawned a curious criminal phenomenon that, thank God, was less wide-spread or utilized– the carjacker alibi. I'm sure that most of you remember the heinous case of Susan Smith of South Carolina. She murdered both her children by allowing her car to roll down a boat ramp and into a lake with her sons. She claimed that a carjacker (a black man) had taken her car at gunpoint, along with her kids. A savvy police investigator blew this story up when he was able to prove that her route and timeline were wholly inconsistent. After that, it was just good interrogation techniques.

She was not the only one– a husband in Boston alleged a carjacker (yet another mysterious black male) had attempted to take his car but only succeeded in shooting his wife to death. This was wholly untrue… he had done it himself. There were others, as well. Sometimes it seems, what is bad spawns what is far worse.

But I digress. I'm not saying that a crime fad can't be profitable or successful, I'm just positing that some fads make a lot of sense to begin with; then, due to technology, societal factors, improved policing techniques, etc… they fall to the wayside; some only to be resurrected when conditions once more become favorable. Take piracy…

The heyday of buccaneering, at least in the Western world, was during the 16 and 1700's. It wasn't really a new idea, even then. Both the ancient Greeks and Romans complained of, and did combat with, pirates. The pirates' goal was simply to remove any and all items of value from one boat, or town, and place them onto another– theirs– a redistribution of wealth, if you will. Naturally this required violence, or the threat of it. The payoff could be quite handsome. Some historians believe that piracy on the high seas was simply a nascent expression of man's desire to be truly free of the strictures of class, poverty, and… let's face it, the law… a floating Utopian republic, if you will. I take a slightly more jaundiced view. I think that they were criminals playing the main chance for the most returns and the least possibility of getting caught. And it worked like gangbusters for a little less than two hundred years (that's not to say piracy died out completely, just that the heyday of sea-thieving had drawn to an end): the rise of more efficient navies and tactics, including improved cooperation between nations, had made it a lot less fashionable to go around saying, "Arrgg." Thank God, as this can really get on your nerves after a while.

It must be pointed out, that while buccaneering went largely the way of the dinosaur in the Western Hemisphere, it has remained for very many centuries a threat in the Eastern one. It was never just a fad there. The Somalis are late-comers when compared to the persistent piracy in the China, Malay, and Philippine Seas. The factors necessary for the cessation of sea-thieving have never arisen in these places, it would seem.

Anybody remember train robbing? You can thank those stalwarts the James-Younger gang for the invention of both that and bank robbing. I sometimes wonder where crime would be today without Jesse and crew. These were true innovators. Their kind doesn't often come along… and we should all be glad. They were bloody minded and ruthless disciples of Captain William Quantrill of 'Bloody Kansas' fame during the Civil War. Janice Law recently wrote a very interesting blog on this historical niche.

Quantrill
 In essence, Jesse and friends translated the lessons they had learned as confederate guerrillas and applied them to outlawry. The mounted ambush applying superior and accurate firepower with overwhelming force was their speciality. It was a 'shock and awe' technique that worked quite well on both banks and trains. It also helped that lawmen were pretty thin on the ground in those parts and that the local populace was largely supportive. Those that weren't kept their opinions to themselves. The unsettled atmosphere of Reconstruction provided a perfect breeding ground for crime, just as Prohibition and the Great Depression would in the years ahead.

In fact, it could easily be argued that the roving, and now motorized, desperadoes of the thirties, such as Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, etc… simply applied the James Gang's tactics to the age of the automobile. Whereas, Jesse and crew had armed themselves with the best revolvers and lever-action rifles of their day, it was their numbers that was overwhelming both in terms of firepower and intimidation. The Depression-Era gangsters, however, didn't need to spread the loot so widely, as they arrived with fully automatic weapons, such as Clyde Barrow's infamous .30 cal Browning automatic rifle. Local police had nothing to match it… not even close. This was one of the reasons the bad guys chose to shoot their way out of tight spots with the cops so often– the odds were definitely in their favor.
Bonnie and Clyde

I'm not implying that armed robbery is a fad, far from it; it's always been around and is here to stay. It's the techniques and tactics that have changed to suit the times. Today, a bank robber is most likely a single perpetrator wielding a note. It's an effective technique that would not have been very convincing or fashionable amongst the 'Long Riders' of yesteryear– you would have been laughed out of the saloon… or worse. Apparently, bank and railroad employees of their day were made of sterner stuff, and not likely to yield to the power of the written word, however well-crafted. The enforcement of federal statutes across state lines, the creation of the FBI, and improved armament for the police, effectively brought to a close the era of the roving bank and train bandits.

During the sixties and seventies you could hardly pick up a newspaper without reading about another series of gruesome homicides– serial killers appeared to be everywhere and hard at work. Non-fiction writers had a field day with writing biographies of the likes of Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, The Hillside Strangler (there were two of them as it turned out– uncle and nephew), the Night Stalker, and the rest of this particularly repulsive crew. The fiction crowd followed up, and from the eighties on it seemed every other book and film was about a serial killer. Thankfully the torrent appears to have tapered off to more of a trickle these days, and I, for one, am not sorry.

Ted Bundy
 I'm certain that there are still serial killers going about their deadly business, but either the reporting of it has fallen off, or this unique species of crime has slackened. Perhaps there was something about the groovy days of flower power that incensed these creatures. Certainly, law enforcement's tool box, specifically the use of DNA, the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (a national data base for the collection, collation, and analysis of disparate information concerning criminals, victims, and homicide methods in an effort to discern patterns of violent crimes and their perpetrators), and profiling have impacted the serial murderer's freedom of action to some degree.

Now here's twist on my theory– what about all those Satanic cults of the eighties and early nineties? Remember? Again the media played a big role in this, publicizing what were believed to be cults practicing ritual murder and serial abuse. In one case it was a child care facility believed to be staffed by the devil's spawn. Hell, I was even trained to recognize cult clues at crime scenes. Know what? Almost none of that stuff actually happened. Though perhaps Satanic influence was responsible for the mass hysteria that produced this peculiarly insubstantial crime phenomenon.

As for new trends in crime, I have one word for you, and no, it's not plastics– metal. Metal thieving is rampant and growing. Thieves are stealing everything from the copper plumbing from beneath vacant houses to the grounding wires for utility poles. Some have even been fried while attempting to rip the copper out of power company substations. Manhole covers, lawn ornaments, wind chimes, and, yes lawn lovers, even brass sprinkler heads are fair game. As for this fad… my guess is that it's the economy. But don't go waxing all sentimental about folks stealing to feed their kids; the ones my officers apprehended were mostly feeding their drug habits; kids be damned. Recessions are hard on druggies too. Metal theft doesn't jump out at me as the most fascinating subject for crime fiction, but who knows?

So there you have it, my thesis on crime fads, fashions, and trends. My rundown is by no means comprehensive, as other fads and fashions are occurring to me even now: drive-by shootings and people smuggling to name but two, but I must stop somewhere. Perhaps you've thought of a few yourself.

23 January 2012

Red Rum


Fran Rizerby Fran Rizer



Many readers are familiar with South Carolina's three most notorious killers: Donald (Pee Wee) Gaskins, Larry Gene Bell, and Susan Smith.


Gaskins (photo on left) tortured, killed, and admittedly cannibalized anywhere from one hundred to a hundred and ten victims--some for fun, some for profit. He once escaped prison by hiding in a garbage truck and fled to Georgia, but was recaptured there. Sentenced to the electric chair twice, Gaskins's first sentence was changed to life in prison when the courts reversed South Carolina's capital punishment laws. While serving the life sentence, Gaskins killed a fellow death-row inmate by blowing him up with explosives. This was a hired hit, and capital punishment had been reinstated in South Carolina. Gaskins was electrocuted in "Old Sparky" in 1991. He was known as "The Meanest Man in the World" and the "Redneck Charlie Manson."

Larry Gene Bell (photo on right) chose electrocution over lethal injection for his execution in 1996 for the kidnapping, abuse, and murder of seventeen-year-old Shari Smith and ten-year-old Debra May Helmick. He forced Shari Smith to write a "Last Will and Testament," which he mailed to her family. He also harrassed the family by telephone both before and after Shari's body was found. He obsessed about and threatened Shari's sister Dawn. Bell is suspected of having murdered more young females before these two.


Susan Smith (left) is serving life for the intentional drowning of her sons, fourteen-month-old Alexander and three-year-old Michael. Born 9/26/71, Smith had a tragic childhood. Her father committed suicide when she was six years old, and later she was a documented victim of sexual abuse by her step-father. Smith had hopes of a future with her wealthy employer when her divorce was final, but the man told her he wasn't interested in a "package deal" or raising another man's children. Her sentence start date was 11/04/94.

There are many books, movies, and documentaries about these three, or to make it simple, just look them up on Wikipedia. Our topic for today is also murder in South Carolina, an
account written by Evelyn Baker, who knew the victims. Though less notorious, the case of The Good Twins is as chilling as any of the more famous killings. Here’s the story:

THE GOOD TWINS
by Evelyn Baker

It seems like yesterday when my older friend Cleo said, "Eve, my son Frankie is moving down here from Tennessee. He's divorced, and I'd like you to meet him."

I thought, "If he's anything like his mom, I'll like him." Cleo was a character. That's the best word for this petite, guitar-playing singer from Nashville. She was full of off-the-wall advice like, "Enjoy your youth. When you wake up on your fortieth birthday, take your clothes off and stand in front of a mirror. You'll see gravity drop everything toward the floor," and, "Don't put all your eggs in one bastard."

Frankie moved to Columbia, SC, Cleo introduced us, and we dated, but there wasn’t any chemistry. We simply became friends. Frankie talked a lot about his kids, twin boys who lived with their mother in Nashville. He was worried because his ex was having trouble with them. They were fifteen years old, in special ed classes, and refused to follow rules—their mother’s or the school’s. Frankie talked about his mom, too. Cleo lived in an elegant water-front home on Lake Murray. Unhappy in her
mar
riage, Cleo wanted another divorce.

Soon Frankie had gone to Tennessee to pick up the boys, a
nd Cleo had moved out of her beautiful house. Mother and son rented a mobile home in Irmo to live in while they built a new house on lake-front property Cleo owned. They put a small travel trailer camper on the lot for convenience
when working because they were doing some of the building themselves.

With that good old SC hospitality, I invited Frankie and his twin sons--Craig and Timmy--to my home for a cookout. The twins didn't like hanging out on the patio, and my three children invited them to the upstairs game room. At a reasonable hour, Frankie called the boys down to go home. After they were gone, my oldest child, Susan, told me, "Mom, you don't want those boys around Chris and Jeffrey. They talk ugly, and they're mean."

"What did they do?" I demanded, immediately defensive of my young ones.

"They didn't hurt any of us. They just talk mean. I would have called you upstairs if they hurt anyone."

Susan refused to add anything more, but I didn't invite Frankie to bring his sons back. When he suggested family activities, I made up excuses. He acknowledged that his sons were “a hand full,” but he loved them. I didn’t have the heart to tell him, “My kids don’t like your kids.” We saw less of each other, but Frankie and I still talked on the telephone a lot.

That fall, Frankie's cousin LeeAnn called me one night and asked, "Eve, do you know where Frankie is? Nobody in the family has heard from him for days. Even Cleo doesn't know where he is."

I was able to ease their minds by telling her, "Frankie told me he was going to Nashville for a few days."

Months later, LeeAnn called me again looking for Frankie. I was working at a supper club, and she actually had me paged at work, which was as rare as the snow on the central South Carolina ground that Friday night.

"Do you know where Frankie is?" LeeAnn asked. "Nobody in the family has heard from him or Cleo all week. I called the school today, and the twins have been absent several days."

I admit I was a little irritated to be called at work about this. "You know Frankie and Cleo. They're both free spirits. Probably took off for Tennessee again," I answered. "Don't worry. They're both adults and I'm sure the twins are with them, where ever they are."

LeeAnn continued, "I went by their mobile home in Irmo. I tried to look through the blinds on the window, and it looks like Cleo is lying on the couch, all wrapped up in that afghan she loves so much. I beat and beat on the door, and she didn't move."

"One of them must have dropped the afghan on top of something on the couch," I suggested. "Frankie is so excited about building the new house. I'll bet they're up there and the phones aren't working because of the ice and snow. They're probably fine in the travel trailer," I assured her, eager to get back to work.

"Would you ride up there with me after you get off?" LeeAnn's voice was pleading.

Now the last thing I wanted to do at two o'clock in the morning was ride thirty miles on icy, snowy roads in South Carolina, where most of us don't know how to drive in those conditions. "Call the sheriff," I suggested. "Get them to stop by and check. They'll probably call you back to tell you everything's fine."

"I'll call you when I know something," she said.

"Wait 'til I'm off work," I replied.

A few hours later, at the busiest time of the night, LeeAnn had me paged again. "We're slammed right now," was the first thing I said. Then I realized she was crying.

"They're dead!" she sobbed. "The cops found Frankie and Cleo shot to death in the travel trailer, and the boys are missing. They've been kidnapped."

I personally couldn't think of why anyone would want to kidnap fifteen-year-old boys other than for ransom, and the only ones who'd pay ransom for them had been killed. I'd bet the boys were injured or dead somewhere.

Cleo had apparently been cooking when she was shot standing in front of the open refrigerator. One of the bullets went through her and wound up in an egg stored on the fridge door. Frankie had been shot in the back.

Though I tried, it was impossible to console LeeAnn and other family members who were devastated by the deaths and worried sick about the twins the next few days. Their fear for the twins changed when the cops told them that Cleo's jewelry had been pawned downtown by identical teenagers. Craig and Tim are identical twins. A few days later, the boys were arrested hiding in Nashville. They'd trashed motel rooms on their way.

Craig had always been the dominant brother, and Timmy generally followed along. They confessed that they'd planned to kill their dad and grandmother so they could have money and move back to Tennessee. In 1989, Craig was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Tim was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to fifty-five years and six months in prison. Tim's first parole eligibility is 9/20/12 and Craig's is 11/09/13. The boys have been incarcerated in separate facilities, but neither has a good record in prison, so it's unlikely, though not impossible, that either will be paroled at first eligibility.

Why would anyone call men who brutally murdered their father and grandmother "good"? Because that's their surname. Craig is Craig Layman Good and Tim is Timothy Sean Good.
They are "The Good Twins."

Postscript from Fran: Writers are frequently asked where story ideas originate. Real life is the basis for more than just true crime stories. Truth is, sometimes, indeed, stranger than fiction. If you'd like to see current photos of Susan Smith, Craig Good, and Tim Good, go to
SC's Incarcerated Inmate Search at http://sword.doc.state.sc.us/scdc-public/

Until we meet again… take care of YOU.

22 January 2012

David Dean, Edgar Nominee


David Dean is nominated for an Edgar Award for his story 'Tomorrow's Dead' in Ellery Queen. How cool is that!


Oh, if you want to read that Sunday guy, he's just below.

Deep Schettino


by Leigh Lundin

The tragedy of Greek tragedies is the protagonist often does himself in. I'm not a classicist, but I imagine those ancient plays and stories delivered messages of great moral import.

Costa Concordia

Like most of the world, I was saddened by the wreck of the Costa Concordia. I felt further dismayed by the wreck of the Costa Concordia's master, Francesco Schettino.

Cruise ships are international cities with crews drawn from around the world. Below decks and behind the scenes, you may find dozens of nationalities. The best become ship's officers with privileges separate and apart from the rest of the crew, privileges such as better quarters, better meals, and more freedom for shore leave. To be promoted to master– what most people call 'captain'– is a rare honor.

Giglio Island chart

Preliminary Points

With Schettino facing possible murder charges, I began to ask myself if the man was criminal or merely his behavior. Whatever a judge rules, what could have led a man entrusted with a half-billion dollars of machinery and four thousand lives to act (or not act) as he did?

Early reports claimed the rocks weren't on their charts (maps to non-seamen). I find that difficult to believe as the coast of Italy must be one of the most ancient seafaring lanes in the world. Was it on their GPS? That's a different question, but the answer should be the same.

As far as the grounding, although Costa Cruises denies it authorized the course deviation for a 'salute', it appears Costa had approved this particular course in the recent past. The company and probably Lloyd's would have been aware of their position on virtually a minute-by-minute basis. In other words, a course variation probably wasn't a surprise.

When it became apparent the ship was badly holed, it appears whoever was on the bridge maneuvered the vessel into a position nearer the shore, possibly in an attempt to facilitate rescues. If true, turning a wounded 114,000 gross tonnage ship must have taken gargantuan effort. Unfortunately what the bridge knew wasn't immediately reported to passengers.

A Caution

There are claims that a Moldavian blonde was present on the bridge that may have distracted the captain. Now identified as a former cruise employee, the woman says she was not on the bridge until after the accident where she assisted with translations of announcements. Sensationalism aside, no firm evidence suggests she's not telling the truth. She defends the captain who ordered her at 23:50 to evacuate to the lifeboat deck.

This is a good moment to point out what we've heard and what we think we know may be inaccurate or entirely wrong. News gathering in times of crisis is incremental and constantly correcting. Speculation– including my own– is subject to the vagaries of what is presently thought to be accurate. With that in mind…

decks
plans

Stricken Ship Founders, Captain Flounders

After the impact but before the full extent was realized, Captain Schettino reportedly said, "My career is over."

When it comes to mysteries, I dislike so-called psychological cues, which depend upon the author's knowledge (or guesses) of characters' mental states. Contrarily, when it comes to true crime, I've become very interested in the psychology of criminals.

A dramatist writing of a life about to implode might stage that line as the beginning of his psychotic break. The enormity of his error appears to have unhinged the captain from reality when he was needed most.

Italian newspapers report the captain reached land and grabbed a taxi. This may suggest he was putting as much psychological distance as possible between him and the disaster.

satellite photo

Walking Dead

In modern times, we've taken to calling survivors heroes. To me, a real hero is someone who steps outside his (or her) self to accomplish a greater goal. It might be someone who risks their life to save a swimmer or stand on the HMS Birkenhead's deck to die while others are saved. It might be Police Chief David Dean, Staff Sergeant Dixon Hill, or Special Agent R.T. Lawton who unassumingly put their lives ahead of others. It would be a working stiff father or widowed mother who labors toward an early death to provide for their family.

But what is a coward? Military psychologists point out that successful warfare depends on fear: Most young men are so afraid of being thought a coward by their fellow man that they risk or even sacrifice their lives rather than live with that (perceived) indignity. Heroism is being afraid and doing what needs to be done anyway.

Scathing British and Italian news media express little doubt, but I'm not sure we can classify Captain Schettino a coward in the ordinary sense. Instead, he seems a man who suffered a mental breakdown. He collapsed when he was desperately needed, much like Frank Shaft in the peculiar 1970 movie, Brewster McCloud.

In the radio-telephone conversation with Coast Guard Commander Gregorio De Falco, Schettino's voice isn't of a man afraid of dying, but the echo of a man already dead.

Responsibility

Whatever you think of Schettino, let's turn our focus on the ship's company, Costa. How was a man allowed to rise to the peak of his profession with such a debilitating and disastrous flaw?

Modern police departments in large cities screen potential police officers for psychological stability, seeking men and women who will protect and serve rather than seek petty power, thrills, and self-aggrandizement. Besides drug-screening, shouldn't those in charge of transporting hundreds and especially thousands of lives be no less tested?

Weigh in with your opinion.

21 January 2012

Tricky Diction





by John M. Floyd


Twelve years ago, just before our oldest son's wedding, he sent us an e-mail saying he and his fiancee had decided on St. Lucia for their honeymoon. A couple days later I was chatting with an old classmate of his and told her their plans, except that I pronounced their destination "Saint loo-SEE-ah." She suddenly looked as if she might be trying to pass a kidney stone. Only later did I find out that the correct pronunciation is Saint LOOSH-ah.

Mispronunciation can cause that kind of distress, and it's even worse for the speaker than for the hearer. It's like a piece of spinach stuck in your teeth: you never know it's happened until you get home and realize what an idiot you are.

That's easy for YOU to say

Strangely enough, most writers I know are obsessive about correct pronunciation. Maybe it's because we fancy ourselves knowledgeable in the area of language, or maybe it's because we don't want to come across as fools in the occasional radio or TV interview (a valid concern)--but mostly I think it's just because writers like words and word usage. I was delighted a couple of years ago when James Lincoln Warren (an excellent writer and a good friend of many of us at this blog) did a column expressing his disdain for those who pronounce "short-lived" with a short "i," as in "I lived there," rather than with a long "i," as in "I thrived there." I agreed with him. If something is short-lived, it has a short life. With a long "i."

Not so strangely, we seem to notice mispronunciation more when it involves place names. A local TV weatherman--he's since moved away--once told me that when he hired on at the station here, the first thing his boss did was take him aside and say, "You'll be talking a lot about places like Belzoni and Shuqualak and Sebastopol. What you gotta do is learn how to say those names, and don't ever, ever screw them up." (The "i" in Belzoni is pronounced "ah," as in Jonah. If you say Belzonee, even if you're not a weathercaster, you'll get nothing but sighs and eyerolls. And for God's sake don't mispronounce Biloxi. This runs Southerners crazy. It's ba-LUCK-see, not ba-LOCK-see.)

Unless it's part of your job, getting things like this wrong is nothing to be embarrassed about--I'm sure I'm not the only person who's visited New York City and called Houston Street HEW-ston Street (it's actually HOW-ston)--but it does feel good sometimes, when you're a dumb tourist, not to sound like a dumb tourist.

You ain't from around here, are you, boy?

Some pronunciation rules are as mysterious as they are fascinating. The final "s" is removed from both words in the spoken version of Des Moines, Iowa, but if you did that with Des Plaines, Illinois, you'd not only be wrong, you'd wind up sounding like the little guy in Fantasy Island, announcing the arrival of visitors. And in the case of at least one city I can think of, the correct pronunciation sounds downright silly. The wife of an old Air Force buddy (they both grew up in Norfolk, Virginia) jokingly said they'd been told not to use the following cheer at high school pep rallies: "We don't smoke, we don't chew. Norfolk, Norfolk, Norfolk."

Probably the best way to correctly pronounce a town's name is to visit it, or ask someone who's lived there. A writer friend who was raised in Pierre, South Dakota, says locals call it PEER, not the two-syllable pee-ERR. Whooda thunkit? And an old guy from Port Huron, Michigan, once told me its residents just say "Port Urine."

The town where I went to high school is named Kosciusko, for the Polish general Thaddeus Kosciuszko, and I've heard out-of-towners call it kos-SHOOS-ko. Natives, though, call it kozzy-ESS-ko, or, if they're in a hurry, ky-ZESS-ko. (Mississippi is notorious for wild-sounding names anyway; I grew up twelve miles from the Yockanookany River.)

And Macau jumped over the moon

Foreign place names can be particularly interesting. Leicester is "Lester," Cannes is "Can," Qatar is "Cutter," Curacao is "CURE-ah-soe," and Phuket, Thailand, is (thank God) "FOO-get." And here's a neat little hint that I learned on one of my more pleasant IBM trips: In Hawaii, "ai" is pronounced "eye," "i" is pronounced "ee," "e" is pronounced "ay," "a" is pronounced "ah," "o" is pronounced "oh," "au" is pronounced "ow," and "u" is pronounced "oo." Once I knew that, it was easier to manage the names of all those islands and mountains--and other things too. Luau becomes loo-ow, Pali becomes pah-lee, Maui becomes mow-ee, etc. Another old Air Force friend, who still lives in Honolulu, pointed out that Kauai doesn't rhyme with Hawaii, although many think it does. Break it into its parts and Kauai becomes kow-eye, while the state name is the three-syllable hah-wy-ee.

I often stand corrected, though. Having lived most of my life 150 miles from New Orleans, I've always scorned those who call it noo-OR-lee-uns, in four syllables. Every N.O. resident I've ever known has pronounced it either nyoo-OR-luns or nooWOLLins. And then, the other night, I saw the current New Orleans mayor on television saying noo-OR-lee-uns. Sweet Jiminy. And on top of that, Orleans Parish is always pronounced or-LEENS. Is nothing simple?

Does La Jolla annoy ya?

A lot of place names that should be hard to pronounce aren't, because all of us know them: Phoenix, San Jose, Illinois, Tucson, Greenwich, etc. But here's an extremely incomplete list of some that are often mispronounced:




Spokane, Washington--spo-KANN, not spo-KANE.
Versaille, Kentucky--ver-SAYLE, not ver-SIGH.
New Madrid, Missouri--new MAD-rid, not new ma-DRID.
Worchester, Massachusetts--WOOS-tah, not WAR-chester.
Ouachita County, Arkansas--WOSH-i-tah, not oh-ah-CHEE-tah.
Helena, Montana--HELL-in-ah, not hell-LAY-nah.
Bexar County, Texas (San Antonio)--BAY-er, not BECK-sar.
Martinez, Georgia--MAR-tin-ez, not mar-TEEN-ez.
Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan--SOO-saint-maree, not SALT-saint-maree.
Miami, Oklahoma--my-AM-ah, not my-AM-ee.
Kissimmee, Florida--kis-SIM-mee, not KISS-sim-mee.
Bangor, Maine--BANG-gore, not BANG-er.
Berlin, New Hampshire--BURR-lin, not bur-LINN.
Lancaster County, Pennsylvania--LANG-caster, not LAN-KAS-ter.
Willamette River, Oregon--will-AH-met, not WILL-ah-MET.
Valdez, Alaska--val-DEEZ, not val-DEZ.
Lima, Ohio--LY-mah, not LEE-mah.
Oaxaca, Mexico--wah-HAH-kah, not wah-SOCK-ah.
Terra Haute, Indiana--TERR-ah-hutt, not TERR-ah-hawt.
Cairo, Illinois--KAY-ro, not KY-ro.
Sequim, Washington--SKWIMM, not SEE-kwim.
Mackinac Island, Michigan--MACK-in-aw, not MACK-in-ack.

If you pronounce those words as shown, residents in those locations--or viewers, if you're a TV meteorologist--will thank you, or at least leave their guns in their dresser drawers. And if you think of place names I have overlooked (or mispronounced) please let me know.

A guy walks into a Wilkes-Barre . . .

I simply can't resist two jokes that I heard long, long ago:

1. Question: How do you pronounce the capital of Kentucky--Louisville or Louieville? Answer: You pronounce it Frankfort.

2. An out-of-state traveler stops for lunch in the town of Natchitoches, Louisiana. As he's chowing down, he asks a woman seated nearby, "How do you pronounce the name of this place?" Speaking very slowly and carefully, the lady says, "DAYER-ee-KWEEN."

Tongue twisters

I'm not a poet and I noet, but I think a fitting end to this piece is a little ditty I wrote years ago, after one of my far-flung business trips:

I never seem to understand
Our neighbors overseas;
Names like Vzrgkzyrgistan
Just make me say, "Oh, please."

The problem is pronunciation,
Not mere nouns and verbs;
Hawaiians should delete some vowels
And give them to the Serbs.

20 January 2012

No, no, I really am.....


by R.T. Lawton

Most of the time, an undercover wants the criminal side to believe he really is someone other than that pesky occupational hazard known to them as law enforcement. However, there are also those times when the undercover needs to come forward and reveal his true identity, even if circumstances are not necessarily under the best conditions. This is one of those incidents. Surveillance had gone wrong and the undercover ended up playing the Lone Ranger. Or it could be a John Wayne part. Nah, in my mind, I like the image of Bruce Willis in the movie Last Man Standing, not to be confused with Tim the Toolman in a current TV sitcom by the same name. Although......

It was supposed to be a simple deal. Just me, my senior partner and a future defendant were in the bad guy's house. Several surveillance vehicles were parked up and down the street for backup. Negotiations for the contraband goods had finally been completed. Problem was, the bad guy was either one of those paranoid type people or he was being extra cagey. The goods were not at his residence, instead we had to drive over to another house. He made a quick phone call to tell them we were coming.

"I'm ready to go," says I.

"I'll wait here," says my partner.

This last statement allowed both the bad guy and me to feel a certain amount of relief. The criminal was satisfied because now he only had to keep an eye on one person instead of two during the transfer of goods. As for my feeling relief, my partner and I had zero means of communication with our surveillance teams outside to tell them the deal was moving to another location. By staying at the house, my partner could run outside, after the bad guy and I left, and flag down one of the surveillance cars. Looked like a great plan at the time.

I drove the undercover government car with the soon to be defendant seated on the passenger side. We backed out of his driveway, made a left at the first corner, drove one long block, made another left and immediately pulled into a driveway on the right hand side of the street. With my tail lights still glowing red, I glanced in the rear view mirror and soon saw the parade of surveillance vehicles going past.

"Good," I says to myself, "I'm covered."

I turned off the ignition.

My new friend, let's call him Bad Guy #1, goes into the house we're parked in front of and quickly returns with a large cardboard box. Seated inside the car, he opens the box and shows me the goods. I'm satisfied.

"I'll get the money out of the trunk," says I.

At the rear of the government car, I raise the trunk lid and the light comes on. This is now the bust signal, because we aren't going to let this much money walk. I stand there, confident, with the trunk light illuminating my smiling face as I wait for the cavalry to descend upon the scene and deliver me from the hostiles.

After a while, I'm still standing there. My smile is starting to droop. Where the hell is the cavalry?

Two things now occur.

One, I realize that the surveillance cars missed my last turn into the driveway. They have obviously continued down the street, probably splitting up and commencing to search for their lost undercover. Uh-oh.

And secondly, I look over the top of the government car toward the house. There's a man watching me through the kitchen window. Uh-oh again.

Show time.

Removing a thick envelope of flash money from the trunk, I wave the envelope over the top of the car for the inside man to see. Then I paste a smile back on my face as if everything is peachy keen. There's nothing for it now. I get back into the driver's seat, obvious envelope in hand.

"We've got a small problem," says I.

"What's that?" inquires my soon to be enlightened friend from the passenger side.

"Well," says I, "I'm a federal agent and you're under arrest."

"I don't believe you," says the criminal.

"Well, here's my credentials," says I, having extracted them from my pocket and displaying them in my most professional law enforcement manner like actors do on television.

"I still don't believe you," says the bad guy.

It then occurs to me that maybe the man has slipped into an extreme case of denial. All he needs is a slight nudge back towards reality.

"Well, here's my gun," says I, flipping the safety off on my nickel-plated Colt .45 semi-automatic.
"Okay, okay," he blubbers, evidently making a sudden return to the real world, "but I gotta tell you that the guy watching us from inside the house has a shotgun."

"In that case," I explain in a slow voice just in case I had been speaking too rapidly for him the other times, "you had best get down on the floorboards as small as you can get." Which as a new convert to belief, he quickly did.

Then, in my best Broderick Crawford style from the old TV series of Highway Patrol, I crouched down in the V between my car and the open driver's door with my gun aimed over the hood and at the house.

"Federal agents," I holler, "come out with your hands up." I do all that in a command voice like I know what I'm doing.

To my surprise, Bad Guy #2, the one with the shotgun, appears behind the screen door in the front doorway. He stands there with a clear case of indecision.

Afraid that he too may be a sufferer of Denial Disease, I wave my gun and reiterate my demands at the top of my lungs.

Amazingly, the cure works. He leans his shotgun against the inside door frame and comes out on the porch.

I order him into the front yard.

He goes there.

In order to keep his mind occupied so he doesn't do anything stupid, I tell him to start doing pushups.

He complies.

Wow, this is working great.

Now, Bad Guy #3 from somewhere inside the house picks up the shotgun and stands in the doorway.

Crap. This is starting to look like circus clowns getting out of a car.

I glance back at Bad Guy #2. He's still doing pushups. Must be the adrenaline, but then maybe he's never met a crazy guy with a gun. However, as I look over his back at the sliding glass patio door of the house next door, there's Mom, Dad and two little kids with their noses pressed against the glass to observe goings on in their quiet little neighborhood. Supper grows cold on the table behind them.

Bad Guy #3 is reluctant to come out of the house. I don't know, maybe he's allergic to pushups.

Fortunately, the cavalry now arrives with screeching vehicles and massive firepower.

#3 hasn't seen a show like this before. He quickly decides that maybe pushups aren't so bad after all.

As surveillance subsequently explains, yep, they missed my turn into the driveway. They were only alerted to my possible location when one of them monitoring the local police radio band heard mention of an escalating disturbance involving firearms at a certain residence.

Botton Line: Sometimes it's tough when the undercover operative has to reverse course and come in from the cold, but the criminals don't believe who he really is. Like I said in an earlier blog, it's a strange world we operate in.

19 January 2012

Interesting Books by Not So Big Names


by Janice Law

Devil All the TimeIn the book business today, a handful of big names and celebrity personalities use up most of the promotional oxygen. The result, as any writer knows, is that a host of worthy and interesting volumes get overlooked. Three concerned with crime might be worth your time, although only two of them are strictly speaking category mysteries: Donald Rae Pollock's The Devil All the Time, Karen Fossim's Bad Intentions and Lene Kaaberbol and Agnette Friis's The Boy in the Suit Case.

Easily the most flamboyant is The Devil All the Time, which got quite a bit of literary attention last year, in part because of Pollock's interesting personal history, which includes leaving school at 17 to work in a meat packing plant and thirty years in a southern Ohio paper mill. Clearly this was not someone who rushed prematurely into writing.

His earlier collection of stories, Knockemstiff, was set in the Ohio town of the same name where he lives. The Devil All the Time shares that venue with a West Virginia hamlet, and which is the more toxic venue is hard to decide. Both are full of psychopaths, often of a religious persuasion, and include a pedophile evangel, husband and wife serial killers, a World War II vet, deranged by his wife's terminal cancer, a corrupt sheriff, and a variety of lost souls, revivalists, and small town losers.

The good news about The Devil All the Time is that it is wonderfully written in a vigorous, but not stultifyingly profane, vernacular. The plotting is ingenious, and all the many plot strands and lose ends are satisfyingly, and plausibly, wrapped up. So is it just scribbler envy that produces my reservations?

Maybe, but maybe not. Folks with long memories will recall that periodically a novel about the depraved underclass -this one, the white, protestant underclass of the Midwest and the Appalachians- proves popular. I don't know if the novel's critical acclaim is related to the politics of the moment, but Pollock certainly heaps on the misery without restraint. The serial killers alone would have been a pretty rich blend. Combined with Willard Russell's blood-soaked 'prayer log,' abusive behavior in nearly every chapter, and a truly far out pair of revivalists, one does begin to think that far from being 'gritty realism,' this is fantasy of a particularly gruesome sort and that some really fine gifts have been employed with more 'sound and fury' than substance.

Bad IntentionsThe other two novels are both Scandinavian semi-noir. Norway's Karen Fossum is one of those low key and subtle writers whose books aren't going to be transformed into doorstop sized best sellers. She's not nearly as flashy a writer as Pollock, but she has a real feel for grief and for the consequences of violent action. Bad Intentions is told from the point of view of the perpetrators, an unusual and tricky ploy, given that the initial, fatal, crime is over when the book begins. Fossum pulls it off nicely.

All the characters are well drawn, with the possible exception of one genuine sociopath, and surprisingly sympathetic, and, as a result, the novel is sad. Don't read this when you are in need of something bracing and cheering. For that, you're better with Alexander McCall Smith's The Saturday Big Tent Wedding.

Boy in the SuitcaseThe Boy in the Suitcase is a Danish import with a plot line to give any parent, particularly any single parent, the willies. The writing is functional, using the modern style of short chapters and multiple points of view to keep the plot moving, and once the action kicks in, it's a genuine thriller. Ignore the often shaky motivation and enjoy an effective take on the familiar Scandinavian Noir features of domestic abuse, illegal immigrants and the arrogance and entitlement of top people in a wealthy society.

Like The Devil All the Time and Bad Intentions, The Boy in the Suitcase reflects our changing view of the sexes. In The Devil, almost everyone is depraved but the women are either brain dead or idealized. Bad Intentions is pretty even handed, although women are still seen as especially vulnerable to charismatic men.

The Boy in the Suitcase, reverses all this. The men are either ineffective, unreliable or brutal. The leading women are the crusaders and the avengers, and by the end, one does feel some sympathy for Nina Borg's anxious husband and children, who are left at home to worry while she attempts to save a small piece of the world.

Finally, although not a mystery or even a novel, Van Gogh, The Life, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith not only offers an enormously detailed portrait of this difficult and sad man's turbulent life but a new take on his death. According to the authors, Van Gogh's 'suicide' was more likely an accident or a homicide, and the artist, as quixotic and idealistic as he was violent and unstable, may have claimed suicide to spare the young perpetrators.

Now there's a plot any writer could get behind.

18 January 2012

A little film music, please...


by Robert Lopresti


The other day I was watching a n episode of the cop series Blue Bloods, and a character came into a room where a woman was rehearsing a song for party. The song was Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."

All I could think was that the producers were running a bit late. It was about five years ago that I concluded that the FCC had passed a new rule requiring every TV show to feature "Hallelujah." It was getting bizarre there for a while. They even put it one of the Shrek movies. A great song yes, but children's music? Not hardly.

Anyway, that got me thinking about songs in TV and movies. I am not talking about musicals, but songs that pop up in non-musical shows, either because one character starts singing, or because it simply appears in the soundtrack. Happens all the time, of course, but sometimes the combination is so synergistic that it changes how I feel about the song. So here are a few of my favorites.

An episode of The West Wing called "Two Cathedrals" ends with the staff rushing off to a press conference where they will discover whether their boss intends to launch what they think will be a doomed run for re-election. The music is Dire Straits "Brothers In Arms" which both captures and sets the tone of a determined team going to a crisis.

I used to have friends who played Irish music in an Irish bar. Audience members would often ask for "Danny Boy," which they loathed. They always pointed out that it was written by an Englishman (okay, the tune was Irish traditional). But now when I hear this song I always think of this scene from one of my favorite movies, Miller's Crossing. Amazing use of the soundtrack, no? (By the way, if you haven't seen the movie, and think you might some day. please skip this clip. I don't want to spoil one of the best scenes.)

In this episode of Scrubs the hero, J.D., makes friends with a woman who is waiting for a heart transplant. She tells him that her dream was to be a Broadway star, but she couldn't sing. The song was written by Colin Hays, and like all the songs in this column, it was NOT written for the show.


And now we get back to my favorite Jewish Canadian Buddhist. The first three songs on Leonard Cohen's first album were "The Stranger Song," "Winter Lady," and "Sisters of Mercy." Those are also the songs that appear in McCabe and Mrs. Miller. It's almost as if Robert Altman grabbed the first album he saw and slapped the first few tracks into his movie, except that they work perfectly as themes for the title characters and the prostitutes, respectively. A friend of mine was astonished to hear that there were three songs in the moviie. Not a fan of Cohen's voice, he thought they had all been the same one.



So, what shows changed the way YOU look at a song?

17 January 2012

Gone South


by Dale C. Andrews


To my old friend John Cruickshank Rose
With happy memories of my visit to the West Indies
                            Agatha Christie
                            Dedication, “A Caribbean Mystery”


     The regular contributors here at SleuthSayers have an on-line staging area where we can compose our articles, and then edit and tweak them before they are finally scheduled for publication.  There we each can see not only our own articles as they develop, but also the titles and publication dates for upcoming articles by other SleuthSayer contributors.  If you were to look at this collection of works in progress you would come away with some basic information about the various authors.  Principally you would note that some schedule articles way in advance – sometimes three or four are sitting in the queue, just waiting for 12:01 a.m. of their designated day to arrive so they can strut and fret their day in the sun. 

    That, my friends, is not me.  I usually spend the days just before my every other Tuesday posting looking (sometimes frantically) for an idea that will grow into an article.  I mention all of this because I am going to be battling some challenges over the next few months.

     Let us back up.  My wife Pat and I live in Washington, D.C.  Summers are nice here.  Not so winters.  January is depressing enough, but February – no matter that it only has 28 days – is the longest month of the year.  So we decided years ago that if we were lucky enough to celebrate early retirements (which we did in 2009) we would absent ourselves from Washington every winter for as many weeks as possible.  Lucky for us we have adult sons who can be left behind to take care of the house and the cats.
   
Royal Clipper
    All of this leads up to the fact that this is being written in early January, but by the time it is posted, on January 17, we will already be six days into a three week trip, including two weeks on board the tall ship Royal Clipper, sailing from Barbados to the leeward islands and then down to the Grenadines.  We have other less grand southerly sojourns scheduled for February and March, but more on those later.
   
The library on Royal Clipper
    Whenever we head south in January I try to go armed not only with a good deal of reading material (made easier now that I read almost exclusively on my Nook, which tucks nicely into carry-on luggage) but with a plot outline as well.  So my hope is to make the trip a bit productive.  . 

    Even though I am every bit as retired at home as I am abroad, I still seem better able to adhere to the discipline of writing when we are away.  The Royal Clipper works well for this – while it is a sailing ship, it is very well equipped, and has a nicely appointed library where I can find a desk for my laptop.  There I follow Ian Fleming’s model – I write for an hour or two and then take the rest of the day off. 
      
Goldeneye -- Ian Fleming's Jamaican home
     Thinking of Ian Fleming brings to mind authors who have retreated to the Caribbean not only for inspiration but also in search of a conducive place to write.  Fleming, famously, wrote all of his James Bond novels at Goldeneye, his vacation home in Jamaica.  He refused to write any fiction elsewhere.  It was at Goldeneye that he died of a heart attack in 1964, just after finishing the first draft of The Man with the Golden Gun.

      On at least one occasion Agatha Christie also sought out the Caribbean for literary stimulation and found there  the inspiration for A Caribbean Mystery, as the above dedication indicates.  Apparently she was looking for something of a jump start when she headed to the West Indies.  Christie had received lukewarm reviews for her previous two novels, The Mirror Crack’d  and The Clocks.  The jinx was broken with A Caribbean Mystery, however.  In its December 11, 1964 review of the novel The Guardian  noted
 "Mrs Agatha Christie has done it again. In A Caribbean Mystery she tells the reader explicitly what is going to happen; and yet when it does, nine out of ten will be taken completely by surprise – as I was. How does she do it? For the rest, it is Miss Marple this time who is in charge of the story; and all one can guess is that the setting is a Caribbean island."

    Herman Wouk also went south for the inspiration for his cautionary serio-comedic classic Don’t Stop the Carnival.  The novel tells the story of the hopeless and hapless Norman Paperman, who deserts the bright lights of Broadway to purchase and then attempt to run a small hotel on the imagined Island of Kinja (short for “King George Island").  The book inspired a musical by Jimmy Buffett (sound track highly recommended) and on a more personal note provided the name for our cat, Kinja, who is wandering around my ankles as I type.  The model for Norman Paperman's Gull Reef Hotel in the book was the Royal Mail Inn, now long gone, but which was once was located on Hassell Island in St. Thomas across from Charlotte Amalie, and which Wouk managed for a short time in the early 1960s.  While it can be hard to find Don’t Stop the Carnival in State-side bookstores (and the book has yet to come out in an e-publication) you will find it everywhere in the Caribbean – even in convenience stores.  In the Caribbean it is the ex-patriot’s Bible.

    Who else can we add to the list?  Certainly Graham Greene, who wrote Our Man in Havana after a prolonged visit to Cuba.  And The Comedians, one of the finest novels I have read and a brilliant and scathing send-up of the Duvalier government, was written by Greene following his numerous visits to Haiti.  Reportedly the owner of Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince, where Greene frequently stayed, named a room in his honor.   

    I do not know for certain that the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson frequented the Caribbean, but I suspect that he must have as evidenced by the beginning section of the second book of the Lisbeth Salander trilogy, The Girl who Played with Fire.  There, in a rather strange stand-alone prologue to the book, Salander has traveled down the leeward islands until she reaches Grenada, where we find her, at the beginning of the book,  lounging on Grand Anse beach -- surely one of the finest beaches in the Caribbean. The descriptions of Grenada there, and in the action that follows before the actual book kicks in, are wonderful, and ring true.  Certainly Larsson must have walked Grand Anse himself before he allowed his greatest creation, Lisbeth, to do so.

    We can also add to the list James Michener, who returned frequently to the Caribbean and who lived for some months on the island of  St. Lucia, which is the counterpart for his fictional island of All Saints in his 1989 novel Caribbean.

St. Lucia is also where I will be on the day this article posts.  I should make it to Grenada and Grand Anse the next week. This list of authors who have retreated to the West Indies could go on, but I need to pack!

    It is now several days later. Updated material follows:

Sea U Guest House, Barbados  January 14, 2012

16 January 2012

Little Worlds


by Janice Law

Although most mystery writers would give their eye teeth for a great plot and although the big selling novels of the genre are all heavily plot driven, the story lines of mysteries are not destined to linger in memory. With certain sterling exceptions- the orangutan did it in The Murders of the Rue Morgue and Roger Ackroyd was done in by the sly narrator- we simply do not remember plots.

Indeed, memory seems to decrease in inverse proportion to the intricacy and ingenuity of the story. Thus it is easy to recall that the King killed Hamlet's father and that Oedipus was seized with road rage on the way into Thebes but very difficult to remember even one of Miss Marple's ventures or exactly what Robicheaux was up to in James Lee Burke's latest novel.

And yet, fans continue to ask for their favorites whether Kate Atkinson or Donna Leon or Lee Child, suggesting that while plot is necessary for the mystery, it is not in some ways the essential ingredient. Certainly what is remembered tends to be character first, with fans developing a taste for Inspector Wallender or Marshall Guarnaccia or V.I. Warshawski, detectives whose adventures are followed with pleasure, even if, in retrospect, the details of their cases remain hazy.

He or she who can create a great character rarely wants for readers. But there is another aspect of the mystery that I think is equally important, namely the setting, including not just the physical setting which may be familiar or exotic, but what might be called the tone or atmosphere of the whole. In this as in so many other aspects, the template has to be Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. True, he has a great character in Holmes and a very good one in Watson, but without that particular gaslight London mis-en-scene, I doubt the series of stories would have had their enormous appeal. Which continues: A recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement dealt with no less that six new books about Holmes and/or Doyle, plus the newest Sherlock Holmes film.

The Holmes stories were made for cold, rainy nights, because they depend so heavily on the contrast between the warm, smoky, Victorian chambers of the two friends and the raw, damp weather in the streets and out on the windswept moors. Repetition in the form of the original stories, which Doyle stuck with despite wearying of his creation, and what seems like an unending series of Holmes pastiches, have made Baker Street and the Victorian world and underworld just familiar enough. We travel there imaginatively, knowing that we will get thrills and satisfactions of a particular quality.

Not every writer has the patience to create such a little world. I, personally, disliked adding back stories for the later novels in my mystery series, and I preferred to keep Anna Peters on the move. Clearly the creation of a little world and a stock company of characters was not on my Muse's agenda.

Other writers find creating either a little world or a consistent atmosphere very satisfying. Agatha Christie dealt St. Mary Mead more than its share of corpses - and cozy writers have been mining the territory of garden fetes and parish politics and bad behavior among the gentry ever since.

Thanks chiefly to Raymond Chandler and Ross McDonald, Southern California of the 1940's and 50's enjoys a similar posthumous life. Where would we be without those alcoholic gumshoes, tuxedoed gamblers, ambitious starlets, and gat-packing thugs? Not to mention the secluded bungalows and crumbling apartments, both so convenient for stashing a corpse or two, the roadhouses with sinister reputations, and the seedy digs of the leading P.I.

More recently, Ian Rankin has focused on the east of Scotland with a few forays to Glasgow, but the non-touristy side of Edinburgh is his novels' real heart. And it's a bleak, guilt ridden, hard-drinking heart at that. Further south in the UK, there is an equally distinctive feel to P.D. James's novels, particularly her earlier ones and those set up on the coast and in the fenland of England. Even when Inspector Dalgliesh plays a minor role, the novels have a reflective melancholy that owes a lot to their often bleak and desolate settings.

Alexander McCall Smith's Gaborone is lovingly recreated in each of his novels, along with Precious Ramotswe and the rest of what is now a lively stock company. James Lee Burke has done the same for New Orleans, capturing its baroque corruption and vitality. Equally distinctive is Fred Vargas's Paris, with its layers of history, its whimsy, and its toleration for the rampant eccentricity of Inspector Adamsberg's squad.

With all, the plots are clever but forgettable. What lingers in the mind are the characters and atmosphere, which Adamsberg would probably, and sensibly, define as je n'sais quoi.

15 January 2012

Merchandising Murder


by Leigh Lundin

Warning: Today's topic is disturbing if not outright disgusting. Feel free to peek through your fingers while reading about this backwater of crime, a surprisingly profitable one.

This is how today's article came about. A friend and classmate wrote:
I've been curious why sometimes, when I've finished a task and have time at the computer, stuff about serial killers occasionally catches my eye, as did this article.

I was happy to find on p. 2 a possible explanation for something that hasn't fully made sense to me. The study was interesting.

I haven't seen any of this type of subject in any of the writing you've sent me, so it may not be of interest to you, but I figure you may share my curiosity about it.

Shopping to Die For

The topic is 'murderabilia', the collecting of artifacts from the worst of crimes and criminals. Arguably, we writers profit from crime through entertainment, albeit indirectly, but I like to think we explore the concepts of evil, inspect it through different prisms, help understanding and perhaps heal rents in the human condition.

killers Of further concern to me is building the egos of serial killers and mass murderers. Bundy, Dana Gray, and the BTK killer clearly fed off public attention as if publicity was mother's milk for their dark souls.

Understandably, victims' families often oppose the sale of murder artifacts, encompassing even the art and writings of serial killers. Although bills have been presented to the Senate, one of the largest sellers of murderabilia is… the federal government.

Control Issues

If we outlaw artifacts, where does the slippery slope end? Collecting religious relics is odd enough, but fixating on the hair, bones, and nail clippings of criminals is outright ghoulish. Yet should we end the practice? If the Serial Killer Trivia Game is banned, would Madame Tussaud's be next? Serial Killer Magazine? Or Martha Stewart? Or murder mysteries?

What is the point of murderabilia? The Slate article suggests ownership imbues magical qualities of the original possessor. This derives from earlier witchcraft and religious ceremonies in which relics are thought to offer power and control.

But Is It Art?

I don't object to the distribution of writings and artwork. I've seen intricate art from imprisoned gang members that stand on their own merits, ars gratia artis. But ordinary criminals don't have the cachet and notoriety of the worst killers.

I've not heard of ongoing research, but study may reveal insights into criminal psychology. Clown paintings are scary enough, but John Wayne Gacy's clowns are waaaay eerie even if you don't count those with skeletons and skulls.

If you think the topic might make an intriguing topic for a story, you're not alone. A movie titled Murderabilia produced by Michael Usry, Ryan Roy, and David Matthews stars Tracy Miller as a collector, Opie Cooper as a shopkeeper, and Kevin Broughton as the accused.

Marketplace of the Macabre

Before signing off, here are marketplaces that dabble in the grisly, grotesque, and gruesome.
Ghouls Like Us
Murder Auction
Red Rum Autographs
Serial Killer Central
Serial Killer Magazine
Serial Killer's Ink
Supernaught
  — and —
The US Government

14 January 2012

Novels and Short Stories: Can A Writer Do Both?


by Elizabeth Zelvin

I have writer Mike Orenduff’s permission to quote something he said on the DorothyL e-list a few weeks back:

I’m often asked at talks and signings about how to write short stories. My answer is if you want to write books, don’t write short stories. A short story is to a book what a sprint is to a marathon. Both are worthwhile and fun, but you need to choose just one because training for one actually harms your ability to do the other.

With due respect to Mike, I couldn't disagree more with his statement that training for short stories harms your ability to write novels and vice versa. After all, they’re both storytelling.

Learning the fiction writing skill set (which builds on and differs from the general writing and editing skills I'd been honing all my life) started with the first novel. Creating a coherent structure, pacing, starting and ending scenes in the right place, developing and differentiating character, sharpening dialogue, avoiding information dumps and excessive backstory, and killing my darlings in revision in the first and subsequent novels were all essential in writing short stories.

Writing short stories taught me when to stop, how to tighten structure and pace to the max, literary contraception so darlings that might need killing were never born, and how to end with a twist and a bang, which in turn enhanced my scene, chapter, and novel endings. Writing short stories also showed me that my series character's voice was not the only voice I had in me, and further, that beyond writing the straight whodunit from the detective's point of view, I could explore my dark side, switch subgenres to write historical, paranormal, and flash fiction, and even find the voice of a killer or two. Both of my series, one a series set in today’s New York and featuring a recovering alcoholic and the other, set on the voyages of Columbus, with a young Marrano sailor as protagonist, consist of both novels and short stories. If I may say so myself, both formats work for me.

When I surprised myself by writing my first short story, I was amazed to find how spacious 4,000 or even 3,000 words can be, and that impression has been sustained through a dozen published stories, three of them Agatha nominees. I’ve never had a sense of having to cut description, character, or dialogue. That insight has helped me see when enough is enough in drafting and revising each 70,000-word novel. Just as novelists who used to be journalists find it easier to produce a set number of words every day and take critique better than the rest of us because they’re used to being edited and even deleted, short story writers bring to their novel manuscripts a keen understanding of when enough is enough.

When I first heard of flash fiction, I was astounded that some writers could tell a story in 1,000 words or less.
But when I thought it over, I realized that I had been creating concise narratives of 150, 250, and other limited word counts for decades: some were poems, others were songs. I don’t decide in advance how long a tale I’m ready to tell will be, unless I’m writing for submission on a particular theme with a particular length requirement. It depends on what the characters tell me and where the story takes me as it unrolls in the mist before me. Without getting into any debates between science and theology, I can’t help imagining whoever is in charge of the universe taking the same journey (or is it a voyage?) through the primordial soup, with all of creation unrolling into an endless story.