24 February 2012

Generation: Encrypted


I have to admit it.

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

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

Just take this ad, for instance:


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



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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

And the encryption just keeps getting deeper . . .

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

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

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

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

7h3y w3r3 l1k3 7h15 5h0r7!

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

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

w4n7 60 f457

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

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

So, Why Should Mystery Writers Care?

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

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

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

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

His comment? “You spelled it wrong.”

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

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

Period.

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

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

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

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

--Dixon

23 February 2012

What weapon?


When someone offered me a penny for my thoughts, I laughed, but i didn't say what I was really thinking at the moment because his comment made me realize writers expect – or maybe it's just hope – to get paid a lot more than a penny for our thoughts.

In my original writing group, our members consisted mostly of beginners. We arranged to meet once a week on Tuesday evenings to read and discuss or current work. The feedback grew better with each meeting and I value the imput of those other writers struggling to find what works and doesn't in the publishing world. I don't remember whose idea it was to give ourselves a name, but somehow we decided on Tuesday Knight Writers.

Whether we considered ourselves a knightly realm of writers or simply thought we were being cute for making a play on the word "night" since we met in the evenings or both. I do know that as Texans, we almost always have to repeat our occupation to strangers that aren't from this area of the world. Often accents are misunderstood.

"Do you mean like a horse rider?" a lady asked me when we sat next to each other on a plane to Phoenix.

I remember smiling and being entranced as she knitted something delicate in a deliciously soft baby blue yarn. It wasn't her artistry I considered when I replied, "No, I mean like a mystery writer."

"Oh," she sat and started another row.

I waited a few seconds and asked the question dancing in my mind like sudden water sprinklers turning on as you walk across a lawn. My words tumbled out quickly, almost tripping over each other in my excitement of finding the answer since she'd first withdrawn her work-in-progress. I took a breath and blurted, "How'd you get those needles onto the plane?"

She stopped knitting and looked at me a bit puzzled.

"Couldn't those sharp ended knitting needles be considered a weapon?"

She shrugged. "I suppose so. Nobody said anything when they checked my carry on."

Her answer fed my mind with ideas, spilling over each other like the twisted loops she was making with the yarn, stirring up a plot for a short story I was already creating in my mind.

What sort of items are considered weapons in our modern times? A quick look at what is now vetoed from carry-on luggage provides a clue to some that are unusual to most of us.

One of the best weapons in a mystery – in my opinion– was the one used in "Lamb to the Slaughter", originally a short story by Roald Dahl. The story later appeared as the basis of an Alfred Hitchcock television episode.

I read that Dahl enjoyed horror and black comedy and it influenced his fiction writing. His writing certainly has influenced mine. Dahl thought outside the box when it came to weapons. I bet someone paid him a lot more than a penny for some of those thoughts.

22 February 2012

Get Me Rewrite!


by Robert Lopresti


So, I have been sitting in the 'ol rocking chair with my black notebook full of short stories, trying to do some rewriting.  My trusty assistant has been doing her best to help by stepping on the notebook and sticking her tail in my face.  Thanks, Chloe.  Don't know what I would do without you.  (And when can I start?)

I rewrite a lot.  I should count the number of times an average story goes through the mill but it would probably be too depressing.  Ten?  Easy.  Probably twenty is more typical.

I am old enough to remember the good old days when rewriting meant typing the whole damn thing from scratch every time.  Now the computer remembers it for me and I just have to put in the changes.  Bless technology.

But I still have to read the thing all those times.  As I have said before, my first draft is basically a full-length outline.  Barely literate.  Very few sentences will make it from there to the published (oh, please) version without being changed.  And that's fine with me, but it does  mean there is a long slow process of converting the dross to gold.

What I find most annoying are the notes I leave to myself as I go.  FIX.  CHECK GEOGRAPHY.  CALENDAR?  REWRITE!  I never know when to address these commands: when I am editing with a pen or later at the computer.  So the urgent notes tend to move along from draft to draft.

The music man

It is so much easier it is to rewrite songs.  That happens automatically.  After I write a song I sing it twenty or thirty times while I am doing other things - bicycling or washing dishes, for instance, - and then when I look back at the written version I find that extra words have dropped out, phrasing has improved, etc. That's one reason folk songs tend to be so memorable; hundreds of editors converting it into something better.

Unfortunately, I find that singing a short story over and over doesn't work very well.  However, here is a trick I do find helpful: when you're near the final draft and thinking about sending a story out to the editor, read it out loud.  It is remarkable how many times the ear will catch a gaffe that the eye stopped noticing.  Like a changed sentence that left a remnant behind: "It wasn't not going to be easy."  I thought that I had kicked that "not" out...   The ear will also catch style problems, like using the same word three times in a sentence.

And now, if you will excuse me, my assistant says I should get back to work.  Or feed her some Friskies.

21 February 2012

Animal Instinct


My last posting concerned the grey hinterland of human mind control and was extremely taxing to write, so I often found myself contemplating the family's fifteen year old corgi as a means of  mental relaxation.  She seldom appeared to have a lot on her own mind, but napped in apparent comfort as I labored away.  Occasionally, she might stir herself to stretch and shift positions, or sit up to peer out the window onto our street.  This last would only happen if something truly important roused her, such as a UPS truck going by (she hates UPS...don't ask me why, as I've always equated the truck with Christmas gifts and happy times).  She, on the other hand, has held a grudge against Big Brown since she was a pup many moons ago.  By people years she is 105 and, apparently, has a long memory when it comes to grievances, real or imagined.  She holds the vacuum cleaner (any model) in the same contempt, and just as inexplicably.


A good corgi--not Silke
In case you don't know, a Welsh corgi is an ancient breed of cattle dog.  I found this idea laughable, at first, as Silke (that's her name--she was christened by my offspring who also found her) has short little legs and I couldn't imagine her herding cows, or even sheep, for that matter.  But then, I am a low and ignorant knave.  Corgi means dwarf in Welsh (hence the short leggies) and this allowed them to nip easily at the ankles of their wards while avoiding being kicked--being so low to the ground they can drop quickly beneath the damaging arc of the cow's hoof.  The official book on these furry devils warns, "Not for first-time owners".  That's right; that's what it says.  Care to guess what we were?

It seems this invaluable breed of canine tend to be bossy and are prone to nipping.  Thanks, kids.  I guess that shouldn't surprise anyone who knew what they were bred for--being bossy to a bunch of cows and nipping their hooves.  But I had no idea what the kids were getting us into.  Corgis are highly resistant to Mind Control.  This last is my own admonition as, believe me, I have tried.  But Silke remains serenely impervious to all attempts at training or discipline.  I gave up years ago--Pavlov did not use Welsh corgis in his famous experiment .  This shouldn't have surprised me, really, as my own progeny have also resisted my every effort at mind control.  It makes perfect sense that they should somehow, while on a trip to Virginia, manage to find just this dog in a pet store.  The shop owners claimed that they had no idea what kind of mutt it was...sure they didn't.

Though resistant to all discipline imposed upon them, corgis happily impose their own special brand of rules on everyone else.  For instance, running, and other erratic movements, are greatly discouraged, as are overt signs of physical affection, unless those affectionate overtures are directed at the corgi.  Try cuddling up to your loved one and soon the thick, furry body of the Adversary inserts itself betwixt the two of you like a mobile chastity pillow.  As for games of chase when the kids were younger...this was strictly forbidden!  Silke would fly into action by rapidly circling the offending parties in ever-tightening spirals until all motion was halted.  I cannot recall how many times I have tripped over this beastie.  I suspect that this latter trait is why corgis are so favored by the Queen of England--the herding instinct insures that all in the royal party will move about in a decorous manner; assume a stately progress.  The alternative is to be either tripped or bitten.  I have read that many of her guests (and family) despise the little beggars.

Did I mention that Silke hates all other canines?  With a passion.  She admits of no other dog being an ally or kindred spirit.  She recognizes no kinship.  I don't know if this applies to her own breed, as they are somewhat rare this side of the pond, but I suspect she would be just as unforgiving with them as any other.

Well, of course, those same children who had to have this creature, grew up and went away to college and thence to their own lives.  Silke and me are still here.  She thinks Robin, my wife, is just swell, though I am the one left mostly in charge of her...did I say, "in charge"?  Well, you get the picture.  I do the walks, the feedings, and now, the insulin injections.  Mostly, anyway.  Yes, she has diabetes and has had for the past four years.  The vet gave her a year at most after diagnosing her--if  we gave her the insulin.  I came from a background that was less than sentimental about pets, being descended from farm folk who routinely slaughtered barnyard animals and hunted game.  There were no pets, as such.  Yet, Silke has prevailed even against my notoriously budget-minded ways.  We buy the hideously expensive insulin.  She yet lives.

She has also appeared in a number of my stories.  She has played the protagonist, victim, and villain with equal aplomb.  I get a kick out of working her into my efforts from time to time.  Because the truth be told, her completely uncompromising nature, besides being infuriating, also charms and intrigues me.  Animals have always had this effect on me, and probably a third, or better, of everything I've ever written involves animals and nature in various roles both great and small--by my count, fourteen out of thirty stories.

Sometimes they just provide a bit of atmospheric background, such as the clutch of neighborhood turkey vultures in "The Vengeance of Kali".  In other stories they provide warnings, or are harbingers of something terrible coming--a small dog (possibly a corgi) in "Spooky"; a lizard in "Tap-Tap", while in some they are the victims, as a cat and corgi each in "The Mole" and "Whistle".  But, in the interest of fair-handedness, animals are sometimes the victimizers as well: a cougar and spider in "Natural Causes", a zoo tiger in "Copy Cat", a corgi in "Little Things" and in "The Wisdom Of Serpents"...yep, serpents. 

I didn't start out to write about animals so frequently; it just happened.  In fact, for the first ten years of my taking up the pen, I was unaware that I was doing so.  It was only after I had built up a small body of work that I gradually became cognizant of the recurrent nature of...well, nature, in my stories.

It's not that I write animal stories, as such, it's just that they figure in so often.  I'm not alone in this, oh no; in fact, several Big Shot Writers in the mystery and suspense field have gotten there long before me--E.A. Poe and H.H. Munro of past renown, as well as Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Doug Allyn of more recent note.  I stumble along in the paths of others.  But, I wouldn't be able to exclude wee beasties, and great, even if I wanted to.  They are all around us and figure into our lives though we dwell in suburbs or great cities. 

Just this morning, I was beckoned by a sparrow to open the door to my garage and free her.  This was not an isolated incident.  For some time now, whenever the weather is rough with rain or heavy winds, a sparrow hides herself (or himself) I'll never know which, within our attached garage as we pull the car in.  Come the morning, she begins to sing...loudly.    This is our cue to open the damn garage door and release her from her voluntary confinement.  This is accomplished on a regular basis.  At first, I thought it was just a case of the sparrow having inadvertently entered the garage and become trapped when we shut the door.  But repeated experience has shown me differently.  Is it the same bird, each time?  I will never be sure, but it is always a sparrow.  Additionally, there is no nest in the garage.  And it never happens when the weather is nice.  Also, she never sings while in the garage until daylight comes and the weather has cleared.  Gives the pejorative 'bird-brained' a slightly different slant, doesn't it?  But it does make me think, and whenever I do that I start to have ideas that sometime become stories, and when I write stories I become a happier person.  So, my little sparrow may not be the bluebird of happiness, and my dog may not be Lassie, but they both do me a world of good.

Sparrow

20 February 2012

NO NAME BLOG



by Fran Rizer

When I was a young divorcee, there was a very popular singles club where many of us liked to go listen to the live band. A young, fairly good-looking man stood outside the door every Friday night. When I went with a date, he ignored us, but when I went on girls' night out, he propositioned us as we entered.

"Wouldn't one of you like to save some time, skip this place, and just go home and spend the night with me?" he asked.

One night, I stopped and said, "Don't you think you're being ridiculous? Nobody's going to just meet you at the door and go home with you."

The man smiled. "You don't understand," he said. "Girls and women are hardly ever rejected. Men and boys face rejection frequently. I don't bother wasting a whole lot of time and money only to be rejected at closing time." He winked and ended his comment, "This might seem ridiculous to you, but sometimes I get lucky."

As I've interacted with other writers through the years, I've often thought of that man standing at the door, hoping to get lucky without investing time or money. In the world of writing, females are rejected as often as males, and we hope that acceptances are more than just "getting lucky."

Now, I could go two ways with this opening. I might talk about folks who write without investing time to edit and rewrite, then can't understand why their manuscripts are rejected, or I could take this opening in another direction.

The word - R E J E C T I O N - echoes in my mind to the tune of Elvis Presley singing "Suspicion." But, speaking of Elvis (young photo on right), does everyone remember that when he went to Nashville, the big dogs told him, "Go on home to Memphis and back to driving a truck.
You'll never make it."

When a publisher was presented with the Diary of Anne Frank (photo on left), the reader's response was, "a dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances, and adolescent emotions." He also thought the characters were unappealing and lacked familiarity. Continuing to justify its rejection, he wrote, "Even if the work had come to light five years ago when the subject was timely, I don't see that there would have been a chance for it." His conclusion was that publishing wouldn't be worthwhile.

Am I the only one who was required to read The Good Earth in high school? The book won a Pulitzer and its author, Pearl S. Buck (photo on right), won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The manuscript was originally rejected because, "Americans aren't interested in anything to do with China."

George Orwell (photo on left) had his novel Animal Farm (1945) rejected because "Nobody will print this. It's impossible to sell animal stories in the United States." This allegorical novella, along with the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four have together sold more copies than any other two books by any twentieth century author. George Orwell was a pen name. His real name was Eric Arthur Blair. BTW, if you like biographies, his life is fascinating.

Many of you are familiar with the fifth-grader who cautioned me that Dr. Seuss was rejected eighteen times before his first book was published. In researching this, I found out Seuss was actually declined twenty-seven times for the first book and additionally turned down for some of his works after becoming successful. I'll save Dr. Seuss for fuller treatment on another day.

Several other Sleuth Sayers have already addressed the subject of rejection, and Rob wrote a fantastic piece about being turned down on February 1, 2012. Why am I writing about rejection? To me, it's personal today. A deal that was almost closed fell apart. I comfort myself with the tales of people who were rejected yet made it bigger than I ever even dreamed.

What will I do now? Exactly what all those others did. I'll just keep on keepin' on. Talent and craftsmanship count, but success requires perseverance as well.

I could go on with stories like these forever, but the night is late and I feel the need to call it a day so this can be posted on time. I entitled this NO NAME BLOG because I couldn't think of a good title. My brief tale about Mick Jagger and his picture to the right have given me the perfect name for this article.

When The Rolling Stones sought a recording contract, they were told they'd never get anywhere with "that ugly lead singer."

Here's Mick illustrating my title: THE LAST LAUGH!


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

19 February 2012

In Black & White


Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi

Not long ago I watched a pair of late 1930s films featuring iconic names, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. I know what you're thinking, but you're wrong although one of the movies is monstrously awful. Both turned out to be locked room mysteries.

Mr. Wong Mr. Wong, Detective (1938)

This Karloff film is clever if you forgive a kind of police stereotype and the fact Karloff isn't Chinese, but it tied in with America's on-going fascination with the Orient.

I found myself smiling at a particular 'trope' (for lack of a better word), but discovered the plot hinges upon it. Given that wrinkle, the story turns out to be surprisingly satisfying. If you haven't seen it, it's worth watching.

As much as I like and recommend this film, I'll talk about another with a major failing.

Murder by Television (1935)

Murder by Television In contrast, the Lugosi flick was surprising awful. Bela himself seems resigned to struggling through the movie trying not to tatter his reputation.

What's not to like? It contains everything: corporate intrigue, high tech toys, a musical number, comic moments, and an imbecilic dénouement. Er, but wait, there's more: A half-hearted romantic flame flickers, sputters, and almost dies. Did they forget anything?

Movies in Black & White

The best part of Murder by Television was the cook, Hattie McDaniel, who stole the show with her gentle humor. I heard she sang in this film, though how and why remains a mystery– often films slipped in musical numbers on the flimsiest of excuses.

When I saw no singing, I shrugged it off until I came across a note in IMdb that suggested this particular print may have been intended for America's Deep South and deliberately omitted the scene.
Murder by Television
What a shame. I can't imagine that Miss Hattie singing would have offended Southern sensibilities, so I'm still mystified if she sang in the film and if it was subsequently deleted. If you know details, share them in the comments. Meanwhile, back in the studio…

Television in 1935

A character in the film makes this prediction: "Television is the greatest step forward we have yet made in the preservation of humanity. It will make … a paradise we have always envisioned but never seen."

Presumably they were thinking of Dancing with the Stars and not Jerry Springer or 'rasslin' (which can be synonymous).

In the early years, television was a hot topic in radio enthusiast magazines. Numerous technical contributions from around the world– Russia, France, Mexico, Hungary, Scotland, the UK and US– led to an explosion of television invention in the mid-1920s.

By 1928, General Electric began experimental transmission from two stations in Schenectady and New York City, the figure of Felix the Cat rotating on a turntable. The Great Depression may have devastated the working man, but technical development continued.

Murder by Television was released in 1935 at a moment when the exciting possibilities of TV appeared poised on the threshold. The following year, Germany would broadcast the Olympic games from Berlin and Leipzig and by November, the BBC tele-vising group would begin the world's first public regular 'high definition' transmission from the Alexandra Palace in London.

In that context, the underpinnings of Murder by Television weren't out of place. The value of the props– actual experimental television on loan– was $75,000 for a film budgeted at $35,000. For those familiar with competing technologies, a close look reveals the mechanical rotating aperture that was one thrust of development at the time.

Reel Problem (spoiler)

Professional Tip
First clue when writing a tech thriller: look up interstellar in the dictionary. Hey, I told you the plot was bad!
Most mystery writers go to a great deal of trouble to make the means of crimes realistic. We don't like deus ex machina or too much contrivance and this is where Murder by Television fails.

I won't reveal the howdunit of Mr. Wong, but I'll spare you the drudgery of Murder by Television, not the who, but the how. (Trust me: The movie will gel your mind and you'll forget I told you.) The inventor was murdered by– are you ready– "the interstellar frequency death ray". Verily, I say unto you.

A Noir Treat

From my CB files, I tender this little noir film from the Bristol band Portishead, which perfectly captures the tone and mood of a late 60s spy film. Like many noir films, To Kill a Dead Man is more ambience than logic, but it's satisfying. Fortunately Beth Gibbons doesn't sing until the closing credits, leaving the viewer with a mellow Ipcress File melancholy. Granted she's not so bad here or in Catch the Tear as on other tracks that cause one to wonder why so many bands have their Yoko Ono.

18 February 2012

Night Work


Some quick background info: For the past eleven years, I've taught six night courses every year in the Continuing Education department at Millsaps College here in Jackson, Mississippi. Each course is seven weeks long, and the subject is "Writing and Selling Short Stories." (Actually, there are two different courses. One's intro-level and the other's advanced. The second of my courses has the brilliant and original title "Writing and Selling Short Stories, Part 2.")

Class distinctions



Lest I misrepresent myself, I should explain that I have no formal training that would qualify me to be an instructor on these topics. I was, in earlier episodes of my life story, an Air Force captain and an IBM systems engineer. I am not an English major, I don't have an MFA, and my only journalism experience is that I drew cartoons for my high-school newspaper. What then, you might well ask, steered me to teach courses in writing and selling short stories? The answer is two things: (1) I simply love to talk to other writers about writing, and (2) I've sold a lot of short stories. An added bonus--one I never thought of before agreeing to this "job," long ago--is that it's brought me in contact with some of the most fascinating people I've ever met. At this point I'm three weeks away from finishing up the classes in our winter session, and--as usual--I've been blessed with a number of talented and interesting students.

How interesting? Well, I got to thinking the other day about the several hundred folks who have endured my courses, and what I came up with gives proof to the "from all walks of life" cliche. My students' ages have ranged from fifteen to eighty-six, and their regional and ethnic backgrounds are almost as varied. So are their occupations.


Odd Jobs?

On the remote chance that any of you are interested in this kind of thing, here are some of the day jobs of the writers who have subjected themselves to my instruction in the art (?) of creating and marketing short fiction:

Lawyers -- At least one per class, it seems.
Schoolteachers
Bankers
Physicians -- Two dozen or so.
Pastors
Accountants and engineers -- A LOT of these folks. I have no idea why.
Salesmen
A head chef
A nun
A limo driver
A cartoonist
TV newcasters -- Three of them, so far.
Firemen
Artists and musicians
Full-time students -- Two in high school, several in college.
Veterinarians
Stay-at-home mothers
Journalists
Police officers -- Plenty of grist for the story mill, in that job.
Farmers
English professors -- Enough of them to thoroughly intimidate me.
Computer programmers/analysts
Nurses
Published novelists -- Maybe half a dozen.
Mechanics
Government employees -- Many, many of these. Why? Another mystery.
psychologists
stockbrokers

NOTE: I've never had a career politician as a student, which seems strange since fiction writers are liars by trade. (Not that I'm complaining.)

Things I didn't expect




One fact that's always surprised me is that of the 68 groups of students I've had so far, 66 of them included more women than men, and a few classes were made up entirely of women. Does that mean that there are more female writers, these days? Again, I have no idea. There are almost certainly more female readers.

I was also surprised to discover that the classes are usually equally divided in the following categories: (1) outliners vs. non-outliners and (2) literary writers vs. genre writers. The lit/genre proportions are a little puzzling because, as a nation, we obviously have more readers of genre fiction out there, than (so-called) literary fiction. Of those who are genre writers, though, I've noticed that many are fans of mystery/suspense, which is my first love as well.


Things I expected


Something that doesn't puzzle me is that these adult-education "enrichment" classes are so much fun for the instructor. I think there are two reasons for that. First, the subject taught is usually one that the teacher truly enjoys; second, adult-ed students actually want to be there. Attendance is voluntary, not mandatory. They're even paying to be there. Sometimes that makes a big difference.

I recognize that occasional seminars and workshops and conference sessions are fun to teach as well. But a regular, ongoing, classroom-environment course is especially good--at least for me--in that it always keeps me current and in-touch and busy with the kinds of things I like to do anyhow. It also makes me feel a certain responsibility to try to keep publishing regularly. Students in pilot training need the reassurance that their instructors still remember how to safely and effectively fly the planes, and I think that applies to other kinds of students as well. (Failure on my part, of course, only means rejection letters, not crash landings--but it's still failure.)


Another thing I sort of expected: Nonfiction writers don't seem to find it difficult to make the switch to short stories. Any writing experience helps, whether it's technical journals, legal briefs, self-help columns, or what--and writers who have previously done only nonfiction seem thrilled at the sudden freedom offered by fiction, in both content and style. Their imaginations can run wild. And even the English profs tend to welcome, rather than resist, the chance to occasionally splice commas, fragment sentences, and split infinitives.

Get out of there, Billy--your class is over HERE

The only drawback to this teaching gig is that my classroom happens to be down the hall from a class on belly dancing and another on French wines. Students who have to walk past those open doors (especially when the gyrating and tasting are in process--I'll leave it to you to figure out which group is doing which) are probably often tempted to stop in there rather than continue on to a place where we'll be talking about manuscript formatting and simultaneous submissions and kill fees and dangling modifiers. But continue they do, and I think many of them wind up enjoying this writing stuff as much as I do.

Question: Do any of you teach, or have any of you taught, these kinds of courses? Have you ever enrolled in them? Any insights you might want to offer?

By the way, it just occurred to me that terms like "added bonus" and "continue on" might be redundant. Maybe I should learn to practice what I preach . . .

17 February 2012

Kansas City Shootout


Six Months out of the academy and starting to put into practice what the Wise Men had taught us. Had my .38 caliber, snub nose, Smith & Wesson six shot revolver, standard issue in those early days for Basic Agent Trainees. Most of us quickly learned to wrap large rubber bands around the slender handle in order to give the thing some friction so it wouldn't slide down inside the back of your pants leg and out on the floor. After all, you couldn't really wear a holster if you did undercover work, and you were better off keeping your weapon in the same place all the time so your subconscious knew where to find it when you needed it in a hurry. They say you react in stressful situations according to the habits you've learned.

On this particular Thursday morning, two agents, "Bigun" and "Preacher," had a meet set in a grocery store parking lot on the Kansas side of the river. They'd already bought twice from two burglars (let's call them Lefty and Louie), hard core street guys who sold amphetamine for a second income. This was to be a third buy, followed up with a grand jury warrant for their arrest at a later time. No problems expected.

Being a new guy, I got assigned to surveillance from inside the store while other back up agents sat in cars on side streets and watched for the bad guys to drive in. I had to wear a suit that day, so tried to look inconspicuous. Picking a spot inside the east doorway near the shopping carts, I could look out the huge plate glass windows and see most of the parking lot.

Bigun and Preacher showed on time and parked in the middle of the lot. They'd borrowed their Group Supervisor's brand new government Charger for their undercover deal. Good choice as it didn't have a radio installed yet, so if the bad guys got in the car and looked around there would be nothing suspicious for them to see. Now it was merely a case of waiting for the show to begin.

After 15 minutes of me standing by the shopping carts, the store manager got a little curious.
"Can I help you," he inquired.
To deflect suspicion, I appealed to his male chauvinist side.
"Nah, I'm just waiting for my wife so we can buy groceries. She's running late as usual."
He sympathized and departed to go about his store duties.

Several minutes later, here came Lefty and Louie in their vehicle. Parking on the far east side of the lot, they got out of their vehicle and walked toward the undercover Charger. Our two agents got out and met them halfway.

Murphy's Laws of Combat: Law #29 - The enemy invariably attacks on only two occasions ... when you're ready for them and when you're not.
What we didn't know at the time, was Lefty and Louie didn't have any drugs to sell this go around, but they still wanted the money. Also, what none of us could see except for the two undercover guys, was that Lefty and Louie had drawn automatic pistols on our two agents, with intent to rob or worse.
I watch Louie and Preacher start walking towards the bad guy's car, while Bigun and Lefty start walking toward the Charger. To surveillance, nothing looked out of place.

Rules to a Gun Fight: Rule #19 - Decide to be aggressive ENOUGH, quickly ENOUGH.
Bigun opens the driver's door and gets in. Lefty tells him to slide over because he'll be the one driving. Bigun slides over. As soon as Lefty sits down in the driver's seat, Bigun draws his .38 and at point blank range blows a hole through Lefty's right arm and into the lung.
Lefty leaps out of the Charger, slams the door and blows two holes through the driver's window. Fortunately for Bigun, he leaned forward to go out the driver's side after Lefty, so both rounds passed over his back. Lefty starts running northwest through the parking lot with Bigun chasing him.

Gun Fight Rule #3 - Only hits count.
Now they have my full attention. I draw my trusty .38, step on the electric door pad, get outside and pop one at Lefty as he crosses my front from left to right. Damn, I didn't lead him enough. All that amphetamine in Lefty's system means he is really picking 'em up and putting 'em down, still he manages to cap a round into the store window on my right.

Murphy's Law #6 - Incoming fire has the right of way.
The rest of surveillance storms the parking lot on foot, guns popping here and there. For a moment, it looked like my senior partner and Lefty were going to run into each other, but Lefty ducks behind a car parked right in front of the store, while my partner ducks behind the other side. They then take turns bobbing up like a couple of out of synch Jack-in-the-Boxes and blast away at each other through the car's side windows.

Murphy's Law #24 - The only thing more accurate than incoming enemy fire is friendly incoming fire.
Gun Fight Rule #14 - Use cover or concealment as much as possible.

Having quickly realized that any shots missing Lefty are then coming my way, I duck behind the car nearest to the store doorway. At that time, it appeared to me that the boys had Lefty trapped behind the shot up car, so I look to my left to see what happened to Preacher.

Murphy's Law #3 - Automatic weapons ... aren't.
Turns out, when all the shooting started, Preacher drew his hideout gun, a small caliber automatic pistol. His captor, Louie, with a .25 caliber automatic stolen from the same sporting goods store as Lefty's pistol was, aims at Preacher and pulls the trigger. Nothing. Gun jammed. At the same time, Preacher pulls the trigger on his automatic. Nothing. Gun jammed.
Louie lights out for the tall timber, or in this case, the waist high brick wall at the south end of the parking lot. He finds a thirty foot drop to a sidewalk on the other side, so he slumps down with his back to the wall. By now, I'm using a different car for a shield, pointing my .38 at Louie and commanding him to drop his weapon. He keeps pulling the trigger on his automatic like it will somehow magically work one of these times. His brain has obviously gone into shock. I'm not sure he's really cut out for the business he's in. Finally, I give up, walk over and take it away from him.

So now, You're wondering about Lefty.

Murphy's Law #22 - A sucking chest wound is nature's way of telling you to slow down.
When Lefty ran out of ammo, he bolted from behind the car, gun in hand, ran along the front of the store and went in the same door I'd come out. Damn, thought the boys had him cornered. As it was, Bigun tackled Lefty in the shopping cart area and arrested him.
In the sudden silence that followed, everybody looked around to see if there was a flag on the play. Final situation: bad guys dealt with and no civilians or agents down. Final shooting score: four cars, two store windows, a can of tomatoes and Lefty.

Murphy's Law #15 - Never draw fire, it irritates everyone around you.
I can't say I was requested to never come back to that store again, but the manager did start off our next conversation with, "I thought you said you were here to go shopping." We never did become friends.

Moral:
Gun Fight Rule #24 - Never attend a gun fight with a hand gun, the caliber of which does not start with a "4".
Having witnessed the poor knockdown power of a .38, I soon copied the example of our Marines who fought drug crazed Moros in the Philippines during the 1900's; I got myself a .45.

Just goes to show it helps to know the Laws and Rules if you want to stay ahead of the game.

16 February 2012

Beginnings



In writing, as in so much in life, a good start is vital. Unless it’s the dreaded assigned reading, a novel or story with a flat opening is doomed to remain unread and unsold, one reason why so many contemporary mysteries and thrillers start with the page one discovery of a corpse, preferably young, female and formerly beautiful. While a few writers, like Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell) in A Fatal Inversion and Eric Ambler in Journey into Fear, are content to build up a suspenseful atmosphere and trust to their literary skill, most prefer to start with more visceral excitements.
But the modern preference for a scene of unbridled carnage is not the only option. Since February 2012 marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens birth, we can profitably look at a writer who was supremely confident about his beginnings – and his audience.

He is famous for opening lines like, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” that begins A Tale of Two Cities, and he was no stranger to exciting openings. In the first pages of Great Expectations, Pip is frightened by the escaped convict, Magwitch, and early on in Our Mutual Friend, a body, yes, indeed, is pulled from the river. There’s also murder and all sorts of brutality in Oliver Twist, and, besides Our Mutual Friend, another genuine mystery in the unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

The beginnings of any one of these – or of other Dickens’ works – repay examination, but I will stick with the one I know best, having taught it to many classes of Gen Ed students, most of whom were not enthralled by literature of any type. A Christmas Carol was a happy exception for them, although it lacks the explosions, car chases, and bizarre deaths of the pop fiction and video games they enjoyed.

True, A Christmas Carol does begin with a death or, at least, the fact that Marley, Scrooge’s old partner, is dead. But Dickens doesn’t plunge immediately into the whys and wherefores of Jacob Marley’s demise. He takes time to speculate on whether “dead as a doornail” is really the most appropriate simile, before declaring that it embodies the “wisdom of the ancestors.” He also allows himself an amusing digression on the ghost of Hamlet’s father before he finally turns to the matter at hand, which becomes the immortal description of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Right away, we see two things that appeal to readers. First, an intimate, amusing, and confident voice. Who can resist Dickens’ conviction that we will stay with him through his little jokes and asides? And who wants to resist those energetic sentences with their reckless piling up of nouns and adjectives, all due to be undercut for comic effect. Referring to Marley’s death, he tells us that “Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event...”

And then, there are the characters. When its time to describe Scrooge himself, Dickens really cuts loose, beginning with “Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!” Most writers would be exhausted right there, but Dickens is just warming up. He has a lot to say about his protagonist, much of it funny, all of it sharp, with no wishy washy adjectives, no cliches.

Every character gets similar treatment. There is no such thing as a faceless man or woman in Dickens. The most minor character is sharply delineated and even the holiday display of fruit and vegetables in Carol get the star treatment. This is writing with energy, and I think even reluctant readers respond to the writer’s irresistible enthusiasm.

Of course the passport of genius crosses many borders, but it is not a bad thing to remember energy in writing as well as pyrotechnics in plot. Especially in mysteries and thrillers, there is a tendency to rush to the exciting scenes or to what, in more innocent times, was called the naughty bits. Action writers tend to remember Elmore Leonard’s famous dictum to leave out the parts readers skip, but anyone who has sampled his dialogue knows that if his sentences are short, his high octane prose has been painstakingly distilled.

So can Dickens two hundred years on give us some tips for beginnings? Yes, he can. Write with confidence in your audience. Build up the energy in the prose as well as in the plot, and remember there is really no such thing as a minor character in the hands of a genius.





15 February 2012

Popularity Contest


by  Robert Lopresti

A couple of weeks ago one hundred-plus million people watched a football game broadcast from Indianapolis.  I was not among them.  Instead I was one of about fifty watching Dick Hensold do his stuff in person.  He's the dude on the left in the video below.


The contrast between the audience for these two events got me thinking about popularity.  It seems like a good time for it, since a bunch of politicians are currently spending mult-millions to try to win one of the biggest popularity contests in the world.  On a slightly smaller scale, I also belong to the Short Mystery Fiction Society whose volunteer judges are currently trying to decide on nominees for the best stories of 2011.  Then I and the other members will get to pick the winners.  It seems like everyone wants to be popular.

Of couse we all know that fan-base is not a perfect measure of quality.  Some very bad books have sold like crazy and some very good books vanished without making a ripple.  But I suppose it is the closest thing to an objective measurement we have: people voting with their dollars, their time, their attention. 
I sometimes wonder if there is another measure besides width of the fan-base.  Depth, perhaps?  After all, there are lots of writers I like, but I'm  not equally crazy about them.  Everyone on the best seller list has tons of fans, but are they equal if you ask the desert island question (If you could only bring five books…)  But maybe that would only identify the obsessive fans, the scary folk Elizabeth wrote so well about last week..
After all, if you want attention, you can’t get much more intense than a stalker.  But I suppose most of us would prefer the same amount of attention spread out over a few hundred book-buyers.  Although it might be fun if some big corporation offered to pay a million dollars to put an ad on SleuthSayers....

14 February 2012

Valentine's Day -- Love Among the Clues


    Every once in a while my schedule of alternating Tuesdays coincides with a special day on the calendar.  Such is the case today:  Valentine’s Day.  A day of romance, a day that, while falling in the midst of winter, conjures spring.

    Trying to stay on topic here I decided to offer up my best recommendation for a Valentine’s Day mystery:  a story that will tug at your mind while also tugging at your heart.  Finding a candidate that fits that description is not, however, an easy task.  The Golden Age of detective fiction (my favorite hunting ground) is not exactly riddled with romantic mysteries.  This can be illustrated best by examining some favorite classical mystery authors whose works simply do not fit the bill.

   None of the Sherlock Holmes stories are potential Valentine’s Day nominees.  The closest we get to a romantic involvement for Mr. Holmes is Irene Adler, who actually appears in only one Holmes story, A Scandal in Bohemia..  Irene Adler has no romantic scenes with Holmes in any Arthur Conan Doyle story, and in fact A Scandal in Bohemia ends with her marriage to someone else.  Nonetheless she is frequently linked with Holmes, but in various pastiches, not in the original Arthur Conan Doyle canon.

    The source for these romantic conjectures involving Sherlock and Irene probably stems from a passage in  A Scandal in Bohemia where Watson sets the stage as follows:


To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind.
    This, plus the fact that Irene Adler is referred to, albeit fleetingly, in four other Holmes stories, A Case of Identity, The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, the Five Orange Pips and His Last Bow, inspired other writers, notably Nicholas Meyer and J.S. Baring-Gould, to speculate as to a romantic involvement between the two.  But none of their stories, and certainly none of Arthur Conan Doyle’s, meets our Valentine’s Day requirements of a mystery that is also a romance.

    My favorite Golden Age detective, Ellery Queen, fares no better.  While Ellery engaged in some flirtations over the years, in The Finishing Stroke for example, no actual romantic involvement ever took place during the course of the Queen novels and short stories.  Two recurring female characters appear as quasi-romantic possibilities, but, again, neither suffices for our purposes.

    The first of these is Nikki Porter who for a time was Ellery’s secretary.  Nikki first appeared in the Ellery Queen radio series and movies and was later a character in two Queen novels, There Was an Old Woman and The Scarlet Letters .  Nikki also appears in several short stories, but she and Ellery were never portrayed as a couple.  (Just as Irene Adler inspired other writers to hypothesize romantic involvement with Holmes, so, too, Nikki inspired a similar hypothesis concerning her involvement with Ellery in The Book Case, a conjecture for which I am largely responsible!)

   The only other possible femme fatale in the Queen canon is Paula Paris, a reclusive Hollywood columnist who sparks Ellery’s interest in The Four of Hearts and who also appears in several Queen short stories set in Hollywood.  (Paula also makes a brief appearance in my Queen pastiche The Mad Hatter’s Riddle.)  But, again, whatever spark there might have been between Paula and Ellery ultimately fails to ignite.

David Suchet as Poirot
    What of Agatha Christie?  Well, slim pickings there too.  As far as I can determine there was never any reference to a love interest for Miss Marple, and no love story involving her ever played a part in the Miss Marple novels and short stories.  We get a little closer with Hercule Poirot.  Poirot was apparently smitten at least once --  by Vera Rossakoff , a Russian countess who appears in The Double Clue and then re-appears in The Big Four and The Labours of Hercules.  However, while there is infatuation that is evident on Poirot’s part, at least in the course of Christie’s written word any attraction between the two remains unrequited.  So no Valentine story there.

    With Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe we fare, if anything, even worse.  While there is the occasional female character who earns the grudging respect of Wolfe, by and large the detective is portrayed by Rex Stout as a misogynist.  Archie Goodwin describes Nero Wolfe’s views on women as follows in The Silent Speaker:


 The basic fact about a woman that seemed to irritate him was that she was a woman; the long record showed not a single exception; but from there on the documentation was cockeyed. If woman as woman grated on him you would suppose that the most womanly details would be the worst for him, but time and again I have known him to have a chair placed for a female so that his desk would not obstruct his view of her legs, and the answer can’t be that his interest is professional and he reads character from legs, because the older and dumpier she is the less he cares where she sits. It is a very complex question and some day I’m going to take a whole chapter for it.

    Well, interesting, all in all.  But not the stuff of which Valentines are made.

    As an aside, I should at least mention here the famous "e-o/o-e" theory propounded by John D. Clark, Nicholas Meyer, Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, writing as Ellery Queen, and W.S. Baring-Gould that the combination and order of the vowels in "Sherlock Holmes" and "Nero Wolfe" are a clue that Nero Wolfe is in fact the son of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler.  But, again, while there are Valentine possibilities here, the theory is derivative and appears only in homages and analytic works.

     We get much closer to the mark, however, with The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett.  While it is sort of hard to believe, given all of the movie and television sequels that this book spawned, Hammett only wrote one book starring Nick and Nora Charles.  In fact, it was the last book he ever wrote.  And, even more strange is the fact that the Nick and Nora did not even appear in the original version of the 1934 novel, which was first published in a shorter version in installments in Redbook.  In any event, the romantic and flirtatious interchanges between Nick and Nora push this novel much closer to a Valentine’s Day nominee.  Indeed it was Hammett’s novel that set the stage for later spins on the “romantic couple” as detectives, notably television’s MacMillan and Wife, starring Rock Hudson and Susan St. James, and even Richard Stevenson's characters Donald Strachey and his partner Timothy Callahan, who have been referred to as the gay Nick and Nora.

    Having said all of this, however, The Thin Man is no better than a near miss, as far as I am concerned, for today’s purpose.  While the detectives are a couple, the mystery itself doesn’t tie back to or otherwise derive from their romantic involvement.

    Well, as you have probably guessed, I do have a personal favorite to nominate for best Valentine's Day mystery story.   It is Random Harvest by James Hilton. 

    I know, I know, Random Harvest isn’t a classic Golden Age “whodunit” mystery.  But it is a classic.  And it is also, most certainly, a mystery.  Written in 1941, Random Harvest tells the story of Charles Rainier, a wealthy businessman and politician, who battles his way out of amnesia to search for his long-lost love.  The story is a wonderful and nostalgic depiction of life in England from the First World War to the brink of the second, but it is also one of the finest classic mysteries I can remember reading.

    There is a tendency to say too much when discussing Random Harvest, and this I refuse to do.  As I have said before, “no spoilers here.”  I will offer up a snippet from the New York Times review published back in 1941:  “a strange tale . . . harrowing and romantic and tender.”   The Chicago Tribune, in the same year, called the book “Mr. Hilton’s best novel to date.”  That is saying something since Random Harvest was preceded by Lost Horizon  and Goodbye Mr. ChipsRandom Harvest is, in any event, my Valentine’s Day nominee since, to my mind, it is one of the best blends of mystery and romance ever written.

    So if there are any readers out there who have somehow gotten to 2012 without reading Random Harvest, or watching the 1942 film version starring Ronald Coleman  and Greer Garson, this book is for you.  My advice, however, is that you should look no further for information concerning the book: don't watch the movie, don't search out reviews, don't read about it on Wikipedia.  Just get the book and then read it as James Hilton intended, from start to finish without the “help” of others.

    Happily, unlike many volumes from the 1940s Random Harvest is still readily available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.  There is even a Nook edition for $3.99.  (Sorry, apparently it has yet to be “Kindled”!)

    Enjoy. 

    And Happy Valentine’s Day.

    

13 February 2012

Flim-Flam or Con Artist


Jan Grapeby Jan Grape

For some strange reason I seem to like con artists. Not the ones who set up older people and cheat them out of money.  I mean the guys like Robert Redford and Paul Newman in The Sting. The con to set up bad guys who've wronged people and need to be taken.

The brilliance of a good con is intriguing.  I watched an old Law and Order TV show the other day. It was probably was filmed in the early 2000s. The con was amazing, however, the con artist were not nice people and the people they were cheating were nice people.  And unsuspecting. The story involved two people who had a lot of money.  They were both married, but not to each other.  They were both married to flim-flam artists.  The rich lady had been raped and almost killed.  In fact, she was paralyzed on one side.  Her husband was not suspected at the time and he was very supportive and solitious of her. He was the con man.

As the detectives investigated they discovered another lady living nearby who also had been attacked. Her husband was out of town and he was not a suspect.  She was the con artist.  The two cons set up a lock-smith guy to take the fall. The locksmith had installed new locks on the doors of each residence. When all that failed and the investigation led to the discovery that the con man and woman had been convicted of fraud on Canada and they had different names, the police were charging that the marriages of the two con artist to the rich man and woman were invalid because the cons used fake names.  The DA wanted the rich man and woman to testify against the con artist.  The cons lawyer said they couldn't testify against their spouses. The cons lawyer then gave the DA copies of the both con artists having legally changed their names to the phony ones they were using prior to all this.

The con artist each confessed to their spouse all their previous misdeeds and confessed also to their current misdeeds and the rich man and the rich woman each forgave the con person they were married to and that settled it. Both rich people were in love with their spouses and couldn't believe any of this was just to obtain their money.

Now I won't tell you how the DA and the investigators managed to right this horrible wrong because that would be a spoiler and you might have a chance to see the old episode and you don't want the answer revealed, do you?  (Ok, if you're dying to know, you can e-mail me at Jangrape@aol.com .)

My first thought was whoever wrote this screen play was really an excellent writer.  I don't know who it was because like most of us I don't pay a lot of attention to who the writer is.  Well, maybe I pay more attention than most people because I am a writer and I do have some interest. But I don't remember who the author was and if it had been someone I had heard of or knew about, I might remember.

My next thought was the fact that the story was very entertaining and intriguing.  There were so many twists and turns that everytime the DA thought he had the con artist "dead to rights," they had an answer. Their lawyer was able to produce conflicting evidence and keep his clients out of jail.

As mystery writers we can learn a lot from such programs.  Unfortunately, so many TV shows and movie plots are so full of plot holes that you almost run from the room screaming.  All of us, writers and readers alike really enjoy a good plot.  We like to try to figure out the "mystery," to solve the case along with the detective. I think we can all agree that if we can paint our protagonist into a corner which seems to have no way out, then we have a good story going. The reader had to keep pealing back the layers until they get to the end.

I'll admit that I'm not always the best at plotting.  I think my strongest point is characters.  I enjoy developing good, well-rounded believable characters and hope that my readers like them enough to keep reading even if they figure out "whodunit" by mid-book.  I wish I could plot better and I'm hoping that I can learn more as I continue this journey into the writing game.

But I'll just have to confess that a good flim-flam artist story is one of my favorite reads and I also admit that a good con man is fascinating.  Or maybe it's just Redford and Newman that intrigues me.

12 February 2012

Florida News (Not-so-Hot Sex Edition)


by Leigh Lundin

Florida postcard As you know from past reporting, Florida is one weird state, the only one with its own Fark tag. Sometimes an upstart like Arizona might try to compete, but the Sunshine State is so outlandish that mere cud-a-bin contenders haven't a chance. For example we recently learned pepper spray and tasers trump hi-tech light sabres. And Casey Anthony is never quite out of the news– her attorney went on Geraldo Rivera's show to decry talk show media attention. Apparently José Baez doesn't comprehend irony.

S-E-X

Fair warning: Much of today's report deals with s-e-x, although this time there're no DWS shaving incidents nor intimacy with a handgun.

Personally I like sex. Florida does not. The state actually banned sex, as you shall see, but they weren't satisfied. This is a state with a statute on the books banning sex with porcupines.

Florida doesn't much like nudity either, although visitors to Playalinda Beach tried. You can go topless on South Beach, but good luck elsewhere. Weirdly, some towns legislate swim suits, tops and bottoms, using 9th grade geometry term such as hemispheres and bisected angles. Truly.

Florida Bans Sex

Legislators like to prove to their constituents they're doing something for their money, which usually means passing useless laws. It's true the great state of Oklahoma solved a huge problem when they moved to ban human fetuses in food, but Florida started worrying about tourists having sex with animals, corpses, and presidential candidates. So, the Sunshine State outlawed sex. Really.

Politicians will enforce the ban just as soon as they quit screwing the public.

Florida Golf Wasn't Listening

If you launched a paedophile take-down operation, would you give it the pervy name Operation Red Cheeks? Blech, but that's what Osceola County did in a sting operation near Walt Disney World. Deputies arrested a swim coach and a pro golfer.

A golfing perpetrator really T's me off.

But Kids Are Listening

Fox News climbed right on this story: A 15-year-old called the cops on her mom for having sex. It seems she heard bangin' though the bedroom walls and that meant, yech, mom was having sex. Eew.

Good call, girl. If I'd been as proactive as she, I might not have suffered two younger brothers.

But Not Listening Hard Enough

After a 14-year-old boy hugged his best friend, a 15-year-old girl, his Palm Bay school suspended them. A spokeswoman said the school's focus was on learning, but apparently affection isn't on the books. The girl was punished too, and the suspension was in their permanent records.

That's so they can look back at how ridiculous that ordinance was.

Who's Yer Daddy?

You probably heard Palm Beach Polo Club developer John Goodman just adopted his 42-year-old girlfriend as his daughter to allegedly avoid paying out in a lawsuit.

Okay, here's my question: Won't it be creepy if he tells his new daughter she's ƒing Hot? Won't boffing Heather Hutchins constitute incest? Shouldn't this be doubly illegal?

Busted Big Time

Okay, I'm aware some women suffer keyboard chatter, but driving problems? Martin County deputies stopped a woman driving a Toyota Camry on a suspected DUI who needed to get things off her chest. An operational Camry probably came as a shock, but the officer was stunned when the suspect said she couldn't do the DUI perp walk because her 'big boobies' (no 'ballpark size' specified) overbalanced her and she suffered 'whiplash'. To show she had nothing to hide, she started to strip but the officer stopped her.

Though the lady was in her cups, at least the officer kept abreast of the aforementioned law.

Tastes Like Chicken

Finally, if you were ever curious what human eyeballs taste like, ask a Lynn Haven arrestee.

Me, I want to shower and do something sane like take up writing for a living. See you next week!

11 February 2012

Before Stalking Had A Name


by Elizabeth Zelvin


stalkverb (used without object)
1. to pursue or approach prey, quarry, etc., stealthily.
2. to walk with measured, stiff, or haughty strides: He was so angry he stalked away without saying goodbye.
3. to proceed in a steady, deliberate, or sinister manner: Famine stalked through the nation.
4. Obsolete. to walk or go stealthily along.
verb (used with object)
5. to pursue (game, a person, etc.) stealthily.
6. to proceed through (an area) in search of prey or quarry: to stalk the woods for game.
7. to proceed or spread through in a steady or sinister manner: Disease stalked the land.

Origin:
1250–1300; Middle English stalken (v.), representing the base of Old English bestealcian to move stealthily, stealcung stalking (gerund); akin to steal
Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc.

As the dictionary indicates, “to stalk” is a verb that has existed in the English language since the thirteenth century. Sherlock Holmes dons his deerstalker hat to pursue his criminal quarry, crying, “The game’s afoot!”

However, surprising as it may seem to young people today, “stalking” as the crime we know today was, if not non-existent, certainly not well known and not by that name. How do I know? Well, yes, of course I googled, finding sources from serious discussion of stalking as a crime by David Levinson in the Encyclopedia of Crime and Punishment (Sage, $716.62 on Amazon, excerpts available on Google Books) to a step-by-step description of “How to Stalk A Celebrity” on WikiHow. As Levinson says, the lover who won’t take no for an answer was considered a comic or romantic figure until several high-profile cases in the 1980s, in at least one of which celebrity stalking led to murder—as well as increasingly vocal concern about domestic violence—led to the first law against stalking as a criminal act in 1990.

But the real reason I know is that it happened to me. I was a fifteen-year-old junior in high school in the late 1950s when a classmate developed what everybody laughingly called “a crush” on me. He tried to get my attention in class and in the school cafeteria. He hung around the schoolyard during the girls’ gym classes so he could see me in my blue cotton gymsuit. When I wouldn’t talk to him, he would buttonhole my friends and even teachers and pour out an endless stream of compulsive talk about how wonderful I was and how much he admired me. He wrote me letters filled with obsessional fantasies about me that I found deeply disturbing but didn’t know how to deal with.

My parents tried to help. Eventually, on their advice, I stopped opening the letters. They tried to get the school to stop him “bothering” me, but the school not surprisingly, did not want to get involved.
He was a bright boy, and they didn’t want to jeopardize his chances of getting into a good college. I believe they even contacted his parents, who, again not surprisingly, were outraged by any complaint against their son.

At one point, he left me alone for a few months, but the pursuit, which I certainly experienced as harassment, intensely embarrassing to an adolescent girl, started up again when our math teacher, returning graded tests to the class, requested that I hand him his paper, since he was sitting right behind me.
The use of our names in the same sentence and my turning around in my seat to give back the test constituted encouragement to this disturbed boy, and the persecution began again. (There’s a good article on emotionally disturbed and mentally ill stalkers here.)

Was I scared? I don’t think so, probably because there was no context in which I could consider his behavior dangerous. However, there is no question in my mind that being victimized in this way blighted my junior and senior years in high school, an age at which a young girl is emotionally extremely vulnerable. I suffered agonies over what teachers (whose high regard I valued) and more attractive boys would think of me as a result of what he told and wrote to them about me. (When I started discarding his letters, he wrote voluminously to everyone around me.) I got nowhere trying to enlist sympathy from my classmates. They thought it was funny.

One morning, a week before graduation, I woke up to the sound of the hated voice haranguing my parents outside our house, with my parents trying to reason with him. He was drunk and delusional, and he had brought along a chance acquaintance to whom he’d spun a story that he was in love with this girl and she with him, but her parents disapproved, so he needed help to plead his case with them. Luckily, his companion was not too drunk to see that the reality was quite different, and finally my parents were able to insist that those responsible for him get him away from me and make sure he got professional help.

It would still be another thirty years before California legislation was the first to make stalking a crime. And in the intervening years, old friends who’d known me in high school would periodically say, laughing, “Do you remember X? He had such a crush on you!”

Stalking A Hundred Years Ago

After writing this post and scheduling it for publication, I found evidence that the kind of adolescent stalking I've described existed a hundred years ago, and that the friends of the distressed victims found it as funny then as my classmates did. Like many new Kindle owners, I loaded my e-reader with free or almost free old favorites as soon as I got it. I've been reading my way through the works of L.M. Montgomery, including the Anne of Green Gables books (all in the public domain), and I came across this passage in The Golden Road, her book about yet another group of children in Prince Edward Island, published in 1913. Cecily is 12 or 13, and she is being teased about getting married.

"It will be time enough when I grow up to think of that, Sara."

"I should think you'd have to think of it now, with Cyrus Brisk as crazy after you as he is."

"I wish Cyrus Brisk was at the bottom of the Red Sea," exclaimed Cecily, goaded into a spurt of temper by mention of the detested name.

"What has Cyrus been doing now?" asked Felicity, coming around the corner of the hedge.

"Doing NOW! It's ALL the time. He just worries me to death," returned Cecily angrily. "He keeps writing me letters and putting them in my desk or in my reader. I never answer one of them, but he keeps on. And in the last one, mind you, he said he'd do something desperate right off if I wouldn't promise to marry him when we grew up."

"Just think, Cecily, you've had a proposal already," said Sara Ray in an awe-struck tone.

"But he hasn't done anything desperate yet, and that was last week," commented Felicity, with a toss of her head.

"He sent me a lock of his hair and wanted one of mine in exchange," continued Cecily indignantly. "I tell you I sent his back to him pretty quick."

"Did you never answer any of his letters?" asked Sara Ray.

"No indeed! I guess not!...But I'll tell you what I did do once. He wrote me a long letter last week. It was just awfully SOFT, and every other word was spelled wrong. He even spelled baking soda, 'bacon soda!'"

"What on earth had he to say about baking soda in a love-letter?" asked Felicity.

"Oh, he said his mother sent him to the store for some and he forgot it because he was thinking about me. Well, I just took his letter and wrote in all the words, spelled right, above the wrong ones, in red ink, just as Mr. Perkins makes us do with our dictation exercises, and sent it back to him. I thought maybe he'd feel insulted and stop writing to me."

"And did he?"

"No, he didn't. It is my opinion you can't insult Cyrus Brisk. He is too thick-skinned. He wrote another letter, and thanked me for correcting his mistakes, and said it made him feel glad because it showed I was beginning to take an interest in him when I wanted him to spell better. Did you ever? Miss Marwood says it is wrong to hate anyone, but I don't care, I hate Cyrus Brisk."

"Mrs. Cyrus Brisk WOULD be an awful name," giggled Felicity.

"Flossie Brisk says Cyrus is ruining all the trees on his father's place cutting your name on them," said Sara Ray. "His father told him he would whip him if he didn't stop, but Cyrus keeps right on. He told Flossie it relieved his feelings. Flossie says he cut yours and his together on the birch tree in front of the parlour window, and a row of hearts around them."

"Just where every visitor can see them, I suppose," lamented Cecily. "He just worries my life out. And what I mind most of all is, he sits and looks at me at school with such melancholy, reproachful eyes when he ought to be working sums. I won't look at him, but I FEEL him staring at me, and it makes me so nervous....And he sends me pieces of poetry he cuts out of the papers," Cecily went on, "with lots of the lines marked with a lead pencil. Yesterday he put one in his letter, and this is what he marked:
'If you will not relent to me Then must I learn to know Darkness alone till life be flown.' Here--I have the piece in my sewing-bag--I'll read it all to you."

Those three graceless girls read the sentimental rhyme and giggled over it. Poor Cyrus! His young affections were sadly misplaced.

L.M. Montgomery takes the sting out of the story with that last paragraph, and I'm sorry she did. I'm sure the other girls giggled, but I'm not so sure the real-life girl Cecily must be based on joined them. What fascinates me is how similar Cyrus Brisk's behavior is to my adolescent stalker's. After one of those moments that triggered his delusion that I was encouraging him, I found this poem (by one of the Elizabethans, probably Thomas Ford), cut out of the paper, on my desk: "There is a lady sweet and kind, Was never face so pleased my mind; I did but see her passing by, And yet I love her till I die."