13 March 2012

Blood Relations

If the situation between us were put into a book, it would be damned as utterly incredible

                                                            Frederic Dannay to Manfred B. Lee
                                                            Letter dated May 12, 1949

                                                            Quoted in Blood Relations by Joseph Goodrich

    It is a rare event for Ellery Queen fans to have a new publication to enjoy,  While Queen novels continue to be published around the world – notably in Japan, Italy and Russia –  Ellery’s adventures, and other Queen-related works, can be found in the United States virtually only in used bookstores.  On line you will be searching ABE, not Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

    Swimming against that current, however, Joseph Goodrich has just offered up Blood Relations, the Selected Letters of Ellery Queen, 1947-1950, a slim but thoroughly engaging volume collecting the letters exchanged by Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee during the plotting and writing of three Ellery Queen mysteries – Ten Days Wonder, Cat of Many Tails and The Origin of Evil.

    The book is a great read on at least three levels:  first, it provides a fascinating background on the writing of three of the strongest Ellery Queen mysteries, second it is a great teaching exercise on how mysteries are plotted, including how the suspicions of the reader can be deflected away from the true culprit, and third it is a revealing, and often troubling, insight into the rivalries that festered between two cousins, Dannay and Lee, who collectively were Ellery Queen.

    Throughout their long literary partnership Dannay and Lee were famously at each others' throats.  Lee described the partnership as a “marriage made in hell.”  The friction in the “marriage,” as well as its long-term survival, was borne of necessity -- each cousin depended on Queen for the economic livelihoods of their respective families.  And Ellery's survival could only be assured if the partnership between Dannay and Lee continued.

    As mystery writer, professor and Queen scholar Francis M. Nevins has noted, neither Dannay nor Lee could complete a work of fiction alone.  Rather, each of the Queen novels and short stories followed the same pattern:  Frederic Dannay would supply a detailed outline of a proposed book or story – often running to 75 to 80 pages for a novel that would eventually ring in at around 300 printed pages.  Then it would be left to Manfred Lee to transform the outline into a complete novel, building believable characters and a compelling narrative flow.  According to Nevins, Lee could not plot out a story to save his life, and Dannay was equally incapable of writing a narrative from an outline.  And so, bound at the wrists, and each damned by a resentment fueled by that which only the other could do, the cousins fought their way through over 40 Ellery Queen books.

    Much of this acrimonious writing process was completed through the exchange of letters, particularly in the late 1940s when Lee was on the west coast supervising the production of the Ellery Queen radio show and Dannay was on the east coast editing EQMM.  At a time when long distance telephone calls were unreliable and exorbitant, the cousins plotted (and bickered) in exchanges of very long special delivery letters.  It is these letters that comprise  Blood Relations.

    The book reads as compellingly as good fiction, and offers up a fascinating insight into the minds of Dannay and Lee.  A spoiler alert is warranted, however.  Anyone reading Blood Relations will come away knowing all there is to know about Ten Days Wonder, Cat of Many Tails and The Origin of Evil.

    The bitter and accusatory tone of the letters that comprise Blood Relations is not a complete surprise to Queen fans.  Frederic Dannay’s papers, which contained copies of most correspondence between the cousins, were donated to the Columbia University Butler Library in 2005, the centennial year for Dannay and Lee, and therefore Ellery, as well.  At that time Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine held a centennial Queen symposium at Columbia and Francis Nevins delivered a keynote lecture taken completely from the letters exchanged between the two cousins.  But while the angry exchanges quoted by Nevins during that speech left a lot of the audience wide-eyed in 2005, reading the text of these exchanges in full provides even more of an eye opener. 

Francis M. Nevins at the Centenial
    One of the documents that was on display at the Butler Library in 2005 during the Queen centennial symposium was a legal agreement between Dannay and Lee forbidding either cousin from ever leaving the Queen partnership.  The document seems superficially strange since it is hard to imagine how it could ever be enforced.  But the need for some sort of definitional boundary understanding between Dannay and Lee  becomes evident when the reader has the opportunity to review the cousins’ actual correspondence.  The partnership set forth in the contract between Dannay and Lee is premised on dividing the task of writing Ellery Queen works into two “zones,” each of which was envisioned to be the domain of one, and only one, of the strong-willed cousins.  Under the terms of this arrangement Dannay was to be given complete control over the plot outlines of Queen works, and Lee was to have complete control over the final written work product bringing to life the story set forth in each outline.  Predictably this arrangement was tinder waiting to be ignited.  How could this division of labor work given the fact that plotting and drafting overlap, and that each cousin had very different views as to what any given Ellery Queen project should ultimately should look like?  

    The following exasperated passage from a 1948 letter from Lee illustrates this.  Dannay has asked for a change of one sentence in Ten Days Wonder.  Lee responds as follows:
You say [that the phrase] is “out of key,” “ineffective,” and “tends to spoil the very good stuff that surrounds it.”  I’ve reread the line in context and I don’t agree.  I could take the line out to please you, certainly; but this very minor, unimportant example – by admission on both our parts – raises a major, important question:  Is pleasing you, in the face of my strong affirmative opinion that the  line is in key, effective and helps the stuff that surrounds it, to be my rule-of-thumb?  We divided ourselves into rigid-boundaried “zones” just because our differences of opinion on basic matters of both plot and writing were so strong that we found it impossible to reconcile them either in principle or in practice.  In the face of this, pleasing each other is pointless.  We can only do, in our respective provinces, what pleases ourselves. . . .
    When pages are spent arguing over one sentence in a draft, the reader is left to ponder how the finished products were ever produced.  As Lee notes in a subsequent 1948 letter, “[w]hat began as friendly competition wound up as active and bitter hostility . . . our history as a ‘team’ is a series of explosions.”  The marvel is that even given this the cousins in fact produced over 40 novels, anthologies and critiques.

    On at least one level reading Blood Relations is therefore a bit like watching a rather steamy soap opera.  The reader becomes enthralled, almost against better judgment, by angry tirades that normally would take place only behind closed doors.  In that sense the experience of reading the book is a little akin to the natural tendency to slow down, even when we do not mean to, as we drive past a grisly automobile pile-up.  Dannay and Lee mercilessly pick at each other, neither wanting to give an inch on a point, until the result becomes unbearable to both.  And they do it all before our eyes.  This from Lee, again in 1948 and addressing the drafting of Cat of Many Tails:

I now have the mere job of finishing this story.  What in the good God’s world is the use of anything?  What, I ask you?  Why am I writing to you?  Why do you write to me?  We are two howling maniacs in a single cell, trying to tear each other to pieces.  Each suspects the other of the most horrible crimes.  Each examines each word of the other’s under a lens, looking, looking, looking for the worst possible construction.  We ought never to write a word to each other.  We ought never to speak.  I ought to take what you give me in silence, and you ought to take what I give you in silence, and spit our galls out in the privacy of our cans until someday, mercifully, we both drop dead and end the agony.
    Whew! Time for the reader to take a deep breath.

    The quotes provided here are but the tip of the iceberg that is Blood Relations.  But the book also offers lessons on other planes.  Beyond the vituperations that erupt in many of the letters of Dannay and Lee one finds two headstrong writers, each working to make the final product believable.  Every writer already knows  that despite what we may say, we do not particularly enjoy criticism.  Strong criticism  makes for a better final product, but each of us carries that silent wish that those who read our works will say “Perfect.  Wouldn’t change a thing.”  What Dannay and Lee subjected themselves to was just about the most rigorous barrage of literary criticism imaginable.  Every single thing was subject to debate.  But beyond the pent up hostility they each harbored, their arguments always have the purpose of furthering the written product.  And the differences of approach that were at the core of each man fueled debates during the writing of the Queen novels that are illustrative of the struggles that all good writers go through, although more normally not in dialogue, when a book or story is devised and then executed. 

    The nature and end result of the process that brought about the Queen oeuvre  is summarized by Dannay, also from a 1948 letter.  Dannay's observations offer a denouement  finally concluding the cousins’ blistering special delivery exchanges concerning Cat of Many Tails:

Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay
[A]s I sit in front of the typewriter this morning, I feel extraordinarily calm; and in the calmness I see clearly – [even] without having read your [most recent] letter – that surely the answer is very simple:  I must have misunderstood you, and you must have misunderstood me, and we both keep misunderstanding each other – and probably will keep right on.  And perhaps that really isn’t too bad a thing, wearing as it is on our nerves and lives; it keeps both of us doing the best we possibly can, and while we are eternally suspicious of each other, and eternally hypersensitive to each other, the resultant work – coming out the hard way – is strangely enough, the better for it  . . . [even though] the price is high . . . .
    Blood Relations is available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.    It is a must read for Ellery Queen fans, and it should also be a must read for writers interested in the meticulous plotting and drafting of mysteries. 

12 March 2012

As the World Turns

Jan GrapeTime continuum. Time Marches On. Time to Go. Time To Live or Time to Die. There's A Time for Everything.

How do you envision time? Sixty seconds, sixty minutes, twenty-four hours. Thirty or Thirty-one days, excepting February with its twenty-eight days. Three hundred sixty-five days in a year, except for 2012 when we had 29 days in February.

As long as I can remember I seem to have somehow envisioned time as a sort of elliptical or oblong shape. Maybe when I learned the earth revolved around the moon, and I didn't want to see time as a circle. And as time passes and we reach each season it does somehow seem to be oblong and not a circle. More of a chance for there to be room for four seasons if time is elliptical.

But how do we define time when we write? Often to denote the passage of time a writer will title each chapter with a week-day name or a month's name. Or if they want to show something that happened in the past they might write, March 12, 1989 as the chapter's heading. What about if you're just wanting to show time passing throughout a day? You could put "Morning or Evening or Midnight."

Often a writer will just end a scene with a small climax and skip a couple of extra spaces, make putting *** ellipses to denote the scene change involves time or place. There are many ways to show time in our writing.

But don't forget there are different aspects of time. There is the chronological passing of time but there is also the emotional passing of time. An emotional clock so to speak. Albert Einstein once said when a guy sits with a beautiful girl for an hour it can seem like only a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute and it's longer than an hour."

Remember when you were little and waiting for Christmas to come? It took days and weeks and hours. When you had your first child you turn around twice and he or she is starting to school and you have no idea where time went.

What factor comes into play with emotional time having such a huge range for your reader. Tension or fear are the obvious ones. When your character is relaxed time moves almost quicker than you can believe it. When your character is tense, time stands still.

You can and should incorporate the emotional clock in your writing always. I remember one writing teacher who told my class when your character is involved in an action scene you want to write short, action words and sentences. People punch, jab, smack, slap, or explode. You don't want to drag out a fight scene. Unless you've researched some good karate moves and want to add them so it's more realistic.

At the same time, if details are important to the story and you are building up the tension you probably want to give long descriptions that lead to the action. That lets your reader know that something important is going to happen. Something significant.

If you gloss over things then the reader won't attach any importance to that at the moment. And sometimes that's a good place to hide a clue or a red herring.

Just don't ever use words because you LOVE words and want to use a lot of them. Words need to show in a clear and concise way that your character is going to experience fear or tension. You need to show that your character is going to have to choose a course of action. If he or she chooses wrong it might mean death for him/her or someone he/she cares for.

Words need to move the story along not slow you down. However, after some significant tension is met but it's not yet the climax of the story, that's when you need to slow down to allow your character and your reader to relax, to reflect. Maybe discuss the problem and see if a solution can be found.

I hope I've made a case for you to use a emotional clock when you write. The hour and minute and second hands of your clock are spinning and days are getting longer now so make every moment count in your work.

11 March 2012

Florida News (Pathos and Bathos)

by Leigh Lundin

Florida postcardAsinine Mule

Stuart, Florida.  How desperate is your cocaine habit? Martin County police arrested Roman Blair on drug charges and found crack in his, er, crack. What an ass.

Streaking Justice

Melbourne, Florida.  While one dude had crack problems, another had streaks. Melbourne fugitive Matthew Ibarria was caught napping naked in Georgia. The (alleged) fool decided to outrun police and smartly turned onto a street that dead-ends at a river, where he bailed. Vans don't float and neither did Ibarria's excuses.

Elvis has Left the Asylum

Miami, Florida.  In 1990, Michael Conley was convicted of murdering a Canadian tourist at a Fort Lauderdale motel, but beat that rap due to prosecutorial error. Last month he was back in a motel threatening police SWAT, bomb squad, and FBI with ricin and C-4. He later blamed the threats on 'diabetic disorientation'. Conley is known for another crime: He's an Elvis impersonator who sang outside the courtroom during his murder trial.

Elvis has Gone Bananas

Naples, Florida.  It gets worse: A man monkeying around with a gun claimed to be Elvis' brother, a friend of George Bush, and director of the CIA, also told police he's part orangutan related through 'monkey blood'.

Government Gone Bananas

Miami, Florida. 
2600 high school kids helped shape government response when adults miserably failed.

A top Miami senior honors student and valedictorian who's studying to become a heart surgeon and is courted by Ivy League schools, is caught up in the politics of the day. Even though Daniela Pelaez has lived in this country since the age of four and her father and brother (who serves in the US Army in Iraq and Afghanistan) long ago had been given legal residency, a federal judge last week set an example and denied her and her younger sister a green card and ordered the siblings deported to Columbia.

Shocked at this miscarriage, her fellow students made Miami proud, making posters and planning a protest, joined by Superintendant of Schools Alberto Carvalho. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen wrote ICE asking them to exercise restraint.

Even the White House made its concerns known. Vice President Joe Biden called the decision 'mindless'. He went on to say "Why in God's name would you want to take a kid with this talent and this capacity and deport her? It's against our national interest."

And ICE 'sort of' listened. They postponed Daniela's deportation for two years. It's not a perfect decision, but it's a start.

On a Sad Note

Floorida bleeding

Sanford, Florida. 
At one time, I had an Orlando neighbor who was in his mid-to-latter twenties. He obviously worked out heavily and he cultivated an intimidating stance in which he leaned forward, looming large toward those he was talking to.

Within the first few minutes of meeting someone and often after that, he'd inform people he was a former cop. "Why 'former' cop?" another neighbor mused. "At his age, that would be an awfully short career. I wonder if he was dismissed?"

Two weeks ago in the town of Sanford directly north of Orlando, a teenage boy was strolling down quiet, gated community streets of The Retreat at Twin Lakes, having bought an Arizona Iced Tea and Skittles for his little brother. Minutes after his purchase, Trayvon Martin was shot dead.

To date, there has been no arrest or even hint of an arrest.

There is no doubt who shot him; in fact, the killer readily admitted he killed the boy. The shooter used a licensed 9mm automatic. The killer also happens to be the 28-year-old captain of his Neighborhood Watch who, according to friends, is studying to be a cop.

And… the boy is black and the shooter is white.

Which brings up the question circulating here in Florida– why hasn't the shooter been arrested?

The man, George Zimmerman, violated several rules. First, Neighborhood Watch wardens are not permitted to carry firearms. Secondly, they are supposed to travel in pairs and aren't allowed to confront suspects. Thirdly, the police 911 operator apparently instructed Zimmerman not to follow the 'suspect' and not to leave his car. I say 'apparently' because authorities haven't released the 911 recording.

Zimmerman disobeyed all those instructions and a boy is dead.

His defense is… self defense. He claims he was within his legal rights both in confronting the victim and 'shooting in self-defense' with his legally permitted weapon. This against a teen armed with tea and Skittles.

Debate on the web has polarized: one side questions if Zimmerman was a gung-ho cop wanna-be who started a fight and was possibly getting his ass kicked, or if the boy was a troublemaker recently disciplined in school. Some have absurdly questioned why a teen boy was out strolling at seven on a Sunday evening!

Three things appear obvious to me. One is that Zimmerman can't claim a castle defense. The boy didn't attempt to enter anyone's home or car. His sin may have been WWB, walking while black.

Another is that few of us expect to lose a son on a quiet Sunday evening's stroll. The Martins certainly deserve to see the case in court.

And finally, a family's lost a child and a man his reputation. No matter what happens in the future, he has a death on his hands. There are no winners here.

10 March 2012

Down on the Bowery

by Elizabeth Zelvin

In my new mystery, Death Will Extend Your Vacation, my recovering alcoholic protagonist, Bruce Kohler, and his friends have shares in a clean and sober group house in the Hamptons. But the first book in the series, Death Will Get You Sober, started with Bruce waking up in detox on the Bowery on Christmas Day.

The Bowery in lower Manhattan, along with Seattle’s Skid Row and its namesakes in Los Angeles and other cities, had long been synonymous with down-and-out chronic alcoholism. The area was famous for its bars and flophouses as well as the “Bowery bums” who came from all over the country to drink cheap Thunderbird and sleep it off in the gutter.
Some of my SleuthSayers blog brothers have been dazzling us with action-packed accounts of their experiences in law enforcement and the military. I’ve never fired a gun or made an undercover drug buy. But these are my war stories.

I first went down to the Bowery in 1983. I was not yet a clinical social worker with a master’s degree, and no one dreamed the Bowery would ever become the gentrified, trendy neighborhood it is today.
For a seminar connected with getting my alcoholism counseling credential, I had a choice of places to intern. My professor urged me to pass up the expensive private clinic and go down to the Bowery. “You’ll love it,” he said, and he was right. I caught the very end of the era before the homeless spread out all over the city. There were only a few bars and two or three genuine flophouses left. But walking down the Bowery from Astor Place, you entered another world when you crossed Fifth Street.

The program was housed in the notorious men’s shelter on Third Street, still a scary place at that time. To reach the elevator, you had to breast your way through crowds of not too sweet-smelling men who stood around in a fog of cigarette smoke. The elevator had no buzzer. To get to the program on the fourth floor, you had to pound on the scarred elevator door with your fist, and eventually Wisdom the elevator man would bring it creaking down to get you. (His name was Winston, but no one called him that.) You took your life in your hands if you used the stairs.

My first day as an intern, the last of the cops who’d formed the first “rescue team” in 1967 to bring “Bowery bums” to detox instead of just throwing them in jail took me out with him. It was Check Day, when all the guys on any kind of public assistance or veteran’s benefits got their monthly check. So nobody was lying in the gutter. The cop said we’d find them in the bars. It was 10:30 in the morning. I remember the sun slanting down across the bar, the dust, the bartender polishing a glass, and the row of heads that turned toward us in unison.
They all knew the cop. They knew why we were there. The bartender sounded like an elevator man in Bloomingdale’s. He said, “Fourth floor! fourth floor! who wants to go?” They knew exactly what he meant. They’d all spent many nights in the shelter. Some of them had been in detox 60 times.

One elderly gentleman slid off his stool and announced, “I’ll go!” He was small and grizzled, and I remember his baggy black and white checked pants. Chatty in the police car as we drove the short distance back to Third Street, he told me he’d once been a social worker himself. Not likely, the cop told me.

I kind of telescoped the gentrification of the Bowery in the book. But the shelter was cleaned up by the time I went back in 1993 as program director of an outpatient alcohol program. The building also housed a drug therapeutic community. I once walked up the formerly dangerous stairs in a Santa Claus hat and a red feather boa to help sing Christmas carols in the detox. During the later 90s, chi-chi restaurants and fern bars started moving onto the Bowery. A block east, blue recycling garbage cans stood neatly in front of the Hell’s Angels clubhouse. Their stretch of Third Street curb was painted yellow. The city had put up a sign: “Parking reserved for Hell’s Angels motorcycles only.”

Today, the building has been thoroughly renovated, though it still houses social service programs.
There’s a chic restaurant on the corner and a boutique hotel beyond it, with an outdoor patio bar looking onto the 18th century graveyard hidden behind the facades of the buildings that form the square between Third and Second Streets and the Bowery and Second Avenue.
When I left in 1999, it was still a secret wilderness of spiky grasses, wildflowers, and a gnarled old tree or two, its silence broken only by birdsong and the occasional yowls of mating cats. Now it looks like a park.
Tourists can visit the New Museum, the Bowery Poetry Club, and the Bowery Ballroom. I just took a quick look at the latter’s website and had to smile at some of the “Rules and FAQs” for the music venue:
No flyers, stickers, handbills.
No outside food, beverages, markers, spray paint, weapons (includes pocket knives).
Handicapped seating is available.
You must show proof of age by government-issued photo ID to be served at the bar.
You will be ejected for throwing ANYTHING.

My, how the Bowery has changed.

09 March 2012

Explosives 101: RE Factor

I’ve been busy lately: writing a synopsis for my current novel so I can shop it to agents, working on three short stories that won’t let me alone (drives me crazy in the middle of the night!), writing and assembling a “Parents Packet” for the folks at my church who want to send their kids to summer camp (that took 4 solid days!), and watching my kids (which also means driving them all over creation) this week because they’re home on Spring Break.

This is by way of apology for not having time to post comments on very many SS articles over the past couple of weeks. They’ve all been great; I’ve truly enjoyed reading every single one—but when it comes to posting comments, I’m really sorry. Too often, time management problems have reached out to snag me by the throat!

I wrote this post on Thursday morning in Scottsdale, Arizona. SS posts go up at midnight eastern time, which is 10:00 pm local time, and I’m scheduled at the cigar store from 4:00 pm to 9:30 pm. Which means: I need to put something together that folks will find worth reading, and that I’ll find quick to write. My solution?

A quick rundown on Explosives & How to Use Them.

I got the idea from what Deborah wrote yesterday, in her wonderful article examining the double-edge sword we all call Technology, about needing information concerning “how a weapon would work under certain situations.”

Now, I’ve fired all sorts of weapons — M-16’s, M-14’s, M-21 system (sniper rifle), M-60 Machine Gun (7.62 mm, I can dance with one of these pretty well), M1911 (commonly called a .45 automatic), M-9 (Army issue Barretta 9mm semi-auto sidearm), Ma-Deuce (M2, .50 cal. machine gun – not too good with this one, operator headspace & timing problems lol), M-79 “Blooper” (40 mm grenade launcher), M-203 (M-16 w/ 40 mm grenade launcher attached beneath upper receiver), AK 47 & other AK series, H&K MP5 & MP5SD (an automatic rifle—SD version is suppressed [has what Hollywood calls a “silencer”), suppressed Ruger .22 semi-auto target pistol, Light Anti-Tank Weapons (similar to a collapsible Bazooka – but NOT re-loadable, no matter what you saw in that Dirty Harry movie where they use them at Alcatraz), SAW’s, Glocks and other stuff — and, I’ve used them in the desert, the jungle, the African bush, while riding Zodiac rubber assault boats over the ocean, on the beach (while the weapon’s still wrapped in plastic) after swimming in as a member of a Scout Swim Team, in rain, snow and ice storms, and probably in more places than I care to remember! So, Deborah, feel free to call 24/7; I’m happy to answer any such questions I can. But, she also got me thinking about explosives . . .

Too often in fiction (print, television, films, on-line) I find myself turned off by writing that would have been a joy to read . . . except that the author didn’t know his/her “4th Point of Contact” (That’s paratrooper talk for: rear end) from a hole in the ground! So, I thought I’d post some pointers here that might help. Unfortunately, there’s a lot to explosives (I spent nearly 6 months studying them in the SF qualification course), so I’m going to post it in parts.

On the other hand, I’ve decided to label all the parts. And, if I remember, I’ll add the flags that will help you find the info you want when you need it (like in the dead of night, for instance).

Today’s Subject: RE Factor

Explosives are rated, and charge calculations are based on, what is called the “Relative Effectiveness Factor” (R.E. Factor, or just RE [“are-eee”] for short). I’m sure you’re familiar with the standard number line you learned in grade school, which has “0” (zero) as the baseline. An easy way to envision explosives that are listed by RE is to imagine them hanging from a spot on the number line.

On this number line, however, our base is TNT (Tri-Nitro Toluene C7H5N3O6) instead of zero. And, because charge calculations require multiplication, we’re going to assign TNT an RE Factor of “1” (one) instead of zero, because 1 is the multiplicative identity factor (don’t worry, there’s no test, and I’m not going to make you do math – I just want you to understand what RE is).

Explosive charge size is calculated based on the number of pounds of TNT required to do the job, then you multiply by the RE Factor of whatever explosive you plan to use, in order to convert “pounds of TNT” into the number of “pounds of the explosive you have on hand”.

For example: if we want to cut through a solid steel rod (maybe that rod is part of the support structure for a suspension bridge, for instance), we might use the formula P=3/8A. This means “Pounds of TNT needed to do the job” equals three-eighths of the “Area of the cross-section of the steel rod we plan to cut.” If it’s a rod with an area of one square inch, then we’d need 3/8 of a pound of TNT to cut the rod.

If we are using C-4 (plastic explosive) to cut the rod, then we’d divide our answer in the paragraph above by 1.34, because C-4’s RE is 1.34 (I know I said we were multiplying, but division is just inverted multiplication – it’s the same thing – Trust me!). In other words, C-4 is considered to have 1.34 times the relative effectiveness factor that TNT is calculated to have. And that’s why it’s called a Relative
Effectiveness Factor, because C-4 has an explosive factor of 1.34 Relative to TNT’s explosive factor of 1.0.

Thus: if TNT sits at the baseline of 1 on our number line, C-4 sits at a spot that is labeled 1.34. Dynamite would be sitting just below TNT, at 0.98 and ANFO (Ammonium Nitrate and Fuel Oil – the explosive used by Timothy McVeigh to destroy the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City) is farther down, because it has an RE of only 0.47 (if I recall correctly; I don’t have any of my FM’s at hand, so I’m just working off memory here; it might be 0.42 or 43, but I think it’s 0.47).

A few things to note:

(1) TNT has an RE of 1 in the military explosive charge calculation system. HOWEVER: I’ve worked with civilian blasters who calculated their charges based on an RE system that used Dynamite as the baseline (i.e. in some civilian blasters’ calculation systems, charges are formulated calculating against Dynamite with an RE of 1). This would mean that TNT would have an RE of something around 1. 02 in this system. I thought you might need to know this, incase you write a story about a civilian blaster who’s planted a bomb, or something. His calculations might be a little different than mine, because he’d be using Dynamite as his baseline, instead of TNT.

(2) Don’t be fooled into thinking that a low RE factor means an explosive isn’t potent. Remember what a low RE explosive like ANFO did to the Murrah Building!

3) A good way to think of RE is to compare it to gears on a vehicle. When you need the heavy push of a low gear — to get a heavy load moving — go with a low RE such as ANFO or something. So, use low RE to move dirt, blow out bridge abutments, or push-in the side of a building. BUT: If you wanted to drive your car through a wall, you wouldn’t do it by inching your car up to the wall and then trying to slowly nose through. Instead, you’d get going as fast as you could — in a high gear! — and slam through that wall. So, for breaching a wall or obstacle (or cutting through steel girders, maybe), you want an explosive with a high RE factor, such C-4. High RE explosives go off with a sharp, higher-pitched CRACK! than lower RE explosives that tend to explode with a WHUMP! that you can feel, and which makes the ground jump under your feet (or chest and legs, if you’re lying prone hugging mother earth for dear life as hot lead shreds the air overhead, while you’re counting down and praying your charge goes off on “Zero!” LOL).

(4) For you guys in law enforcement who are sitting there saying, “What’s he talking about? That’s not breaching!” don’t sweat it. The specialized breaching charges you guys use, such as WB, detcord wraps, FLS, etc. are just that — Specialized breaching charges, designed to lower the amount of spalling that occurs. Spalling is the breaking off of fractured concrete, steel or wood from whatever you were breaching; this stuff shoots out from the explosion area in the form of shrapnel and hurts or kills people on the other side of the door or wall you’re going through. The breaching charges you’re familiar with for CQB are designed to reduce that hazard, and are therefore much different than what I’ve described above. (Though Det Cord is filled with PETN, which has a very high RE).

(5) The fireball explosions Hollywood loves, such as the explosion on the ground floor in DieHard is created using gasoline or dust. If you don’t think airborne dust can create a tremendous explosion, talk to somebody who owns a grain elevator; s/he’ll tell you stories that will scare your pants off!

OH! And, one more thing about machine guns . . .

I recently read a story in which a character fired a “60-caliber machine gun” from a helicopter. I’ve never heard of a .60 Cal. I think the author heard of an M-60 machine gun, which fires 7.62 mm rounds (about .30 cal.) and thought the “60” in M-60 referred to the caliber of the round. Please don’t make the same mistake.

I think that about covers it for a “Quick Down & Dirty” about RE Factors. And, your eyes are probably glazing over in boredom about now. So, I’ll call a halt to proceedings. Next time, I’ll cover Blasting Caps and how to Prime A Block of Explosives. And, I promise: Absolutely NO MATH. Lol

Until then . . . Take it easy, and Have a BLAST! (Sorry, couldn’t help it.)

08 March 2012

What If?

A writer spends a lot of time considering the What If's for stories. I sometimes wonder about the What If's of my own life, too.
What if I'd been born in another time and place?

Right smack in the middle of a technological explosion, todays's writers are considerably blessed to have computers with the formatting, spell check and grammatical help so readily available at the touch of a keyboard. Imagine what minds like Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler or Rod Serling could have done if they'd had such conveniences and didn't have to pound out their stories on a manual typewriter? I'm thinking of all the writers who dipped a quill into an inkwell with awe. Today's writers are quite fortunate to have technology on their side.

Thinking about the faster access to research questions is amazing, too. Even turnaround time between most publishers is quicker via e-mail than traditional snail mail submissions. Speedy acceptances keep a writer's soul happy. You notice I didn't mention that rejections also reach us sooner, too. But because we've spent less time waiting for an answer, the pain of a refusal isn't even as dreadful as in the old days where a writer haunted our mailbox and practically attacked our mail carriers for news about a submission.

Ask almost any college-age or younger person how to do something (especially on a computer) and following the inevitable eye roll, will be the answer, "Just Google it!"

While it's easy to find out to do almost anything via the Google search engine, sometimes I miss the one-on-one when another person shares information instead of leading me to directions on a computer screen to dicipher.

However, I admit I appreciate the fact that Google never balks at telling me what it knows. That and being available 24/7 not only is terrific, but soothes my ego by not reminding me I am lame for not already knowing the answer myself. I'm often writing into the wee hours of the morning (or night depending on your half-empty or half-full theory). Most of my friends do not wish to be disturbed when I have a question at that time of the day about whether a law in effect in my state would be the same in another or how a weapon would work under certain situations. Google loves to answer day or night without qualms and is never too tired and rarely uncertain about the information.

I'm sure somewhere in time, some people groused about the telegraph wires messing up the landscape as much as people do about everyone having to have a cell phone (or tablet or computer) at their side, practically attached to their hip. Fearful they will miss "something important" if they aren't plugged in, these people are becoming more and more the majority.

Yes, the telegraph lines did take away some majesty from the scenery, but look what they brought to society; communication capabilities changed the world.

Yes, I get annoyed when people are texting from the bathroom stall, plop their cell on the table while we're lunching and keep more an eye on the device than they do our conversation. (You know who you are! LOL)

But, I do understand the awful sinking pit in the stomach feeling when I realize I forgot my cell and realize I am on my own if something goes wrong with my vehicle or need to get in touch with someone immediately (Have you noticed how few public phones are available these days?)

Technology is like a frenemy. We can't escape them and desperately need to keep a close eye on them.

What if I didn't find inspiration as a writer? Or acceptance for my work? What if no one wanted to read my stories?

Without any chance of publishing, I'd still write. Without any other person beside myself reading my work, I'd still write. It gives me joy to do so ... and because I don't know how to stop. If I were to never find any new inspiration, I'd resort to strictly writing the facts. Nonfiction is also good for the soul.

What if instead of writing about crimes, I lived a life of crime? First, that's impossible for several reasons: 1. I'm too chicken to attempt many of the things I write about. I couldn't personally live with the immoral choices of breaking the law. I have toomuch respect for law enforcement to ever want to be sitting in the back of a patrol car. And 2. I wouldn't do well in jail because I am sure I could not handle those uniforms (the same kind every day???) and especially the shoes they make you wear is enough to make a girl cry.

What if I'd gone into law enforcement or became a lawyer or a judge? Hmm, I'm not certain I'd want to chase a perp down a dark alley or have to represent the bad guys in court (and the prosecutors don't get paid enough to work that hard.) I'd probably enjoy being a judge, but they expect you to work your way up to that, so I guess that's out.

No, it's best I stay where I am and stick to writing. The only What If's I need to employ are the ones that concern my characters. I think that's the best answer for me and I didn't even have to Google it.

07 March 2012

Cover Boy

by Robert Lopresti

Well, who says history doesn't repeat itself?  For the second time since the universe was created  one of my stories has shown up on the cover of a magazine, specifically the May issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  I am okay with that, if "okay" means thrilled to tiny bits.

So, let's talk a bit about "Shanks Commences."  It is the seventh published adventure of Leopold Longshanks, a mystery writer who finds himself reluctantly involved in true crime.  In this case, he is invited to his alma mater to give a commencement speech and gets involved in a murder in the campus library.

And speaking of true crime, there is a little bit more of reality in this story than in most of mine.  Not, thank heaven, that I have ever encountered death in the library, but...   You see, I am occasionally asked if I base my stuff on real people/things/events and I usually reply, no, it's easier to make stuff up.  Which is true, but in this case I did borrow a few details from the real world.
For instance, the Great Hall of the library in my story bears a certain resemblance to the Main Reading Room at the library where I work.   Some of the students call it the Harry Potter Room, seeing a resemblace to the Great Hall at Hogwarts School of Wizardry. 

The Special Collections Room where my crime takes place is not entirely unlike the Rare Book Room at the university where I used to work.  And the library director in my story, Calvin Floyd, shares some elements with the director of the library where I went to college, a heck of a nice guy who was both my boss and adviser.  I'm happy he got through the story without being killed or arrested.

You may have noticed that name: Floyd.   That's another way reality muddled with my story.  When I wrote it I was still blogging at Criminal Brief.  I had to think of a whole lot of names for characters and I thought, what the hell.  So most of them are named for my fellow CB bloggers.  I hope they don't mind making a guest appearance.

And as for you, I hope you enjoy the story.

06 March 2012

Family Plot


Perhaps as a result of the aging process, or as a vain attempt at better understanding myself and my family, I began to do an ancestry search some years ago.  It progressed slowly as we were a humble family seldom noted in history.  Additionally, we were poor, and until my own generation (myself excluded) not generally educated beyond high school...if that.  In other words, we didn't write down much stuff other than grocery lists.  That's not to say we couldn't be interesting, as in the case of Jimmy Don of whom I wrote of a short while ago, but by and large we were not a well documented tribe.  I set out to change this, and therein lies the tale--a tale of stunning twists and turns and crackerjack sleuthing by yours truly.  No crime was committed in the writing of this blog, but you may find it instructive if you ever want to tackle the writing of a mystery tale that hinges on DNA and family history.

Enlisting the aid of my favorite cousin who represented the 'Bama branch of the family, we began to hunt down what clues and tidbits that we could.  Fortuitously, she also discovered a great aunt who had kept a fairly detailed family history since she was young and this turned out to be quite a treasure trove of information; much of which could be borne out through various county records.  Voila!  Just like that, we had ourselves some good ol' family history going back to 'round 1780!  Booyah!  Naturally, having had a little bite of the forbidden apple, I decided I'd take another nibble or two.  And since we couldn't seem to get any further back I hit upon another avenue of exploration---DNA! 

We had already started to use DNA technology within my police department at that point, so it just made sense to me to examine its other uses.  So, through the wonders of the Internet (copyright Al Gore) I made contact with a reputable firm in Texas who specialized in this sort of thing; paid my money; provided saliva samples, and sat down to wait.  It didn't take long.


The results showed that my DNA didn't match any other person by the name of Dean who had submitted their own DNA results.  There were a lot of Deans scattered across a lot of places; many of whom discovered connections to one another through common, and sometime distant-in-time ancestors...but, not me...not even close.  Additionally, my Haplogroup (J2...more on this later) was unique to the entire army of people bearing the same name as myself!  What ho?  I liked the idea of being special, but this was making me uncomfortable.  What could it all mean?

There's a lot to learn about DNA as it applies to family research, and I'm probably not the guy to be teaching it, but for the sake of this blog I'm gonna try.  Firstly, you already know that every individual carries his own unique strands of DNA molecules that make him or her...well, him or her.  DNA science has become exacting to the nth degree, which is great for forensics.  That part is easy--you're you and no one else.  The tougher question, at least in my case, is from whom do you descend?

In the short term the answer is usually easy; especially if you know your parents, grandparents, etc...you will share not only physically observable traits, but also repeating strands of DNA that can only have been inherited through the male line.  This is Y-DNA.  Things get a little more difficult the further back you go, because it is unlikely Great-Grandpa Absalom left behind any usable DNA samples and you have to take it on faith that he was who you thought he was.  Sometimes there can be surprises.

There is also a little thing called Haplogroups that I mentioned earlier.  Haplogroups are genetic divisions within the greater family of man that help to determine the geographic origins and time lines of their bearers.  They result from genetic mutations that occur naturally over time within a male line and result in a different group, or sub-clade as they are called, being created.  For instance, my Haplogroup, J2, derived from the broader J group, and is believed to have originated along the Fertile Crescent that lies between the Nile and Tigris-Euphrates rivers.  You read that right.  I don't look much like someone from that region, but it's been awhile...25,000 years, or so.  You change.

Almost all of the Deans that had registered our surname bore Haplogroups more commonly associated with European ethnic groups.  Mine, clearly, did not.  Yet, our family history, such as it was, indicated pretty strongly that we had arrived in North America during the 1700's from somewhere in Britain.  After I got up off the floor, I resumed searching.


Going back to the site provided by my DNA research lab, I looked for Y-DNA matches under any name.  Surprise!  Surprise!  There was one match and several close matches.  The name Forrester of South Carolina was the exact match--a name with which I was unacquainted.  Yet, our family history had us coming to Georgia shortly before the Civil War from...South Carolina.  Me and this fellow, whose first name I will refrain from revealing for privacy reasons, shared a common male ancestor within, at least, twenty generations, possibly much less.  So how'd we get different names?  And why?

I can leave to your imagination one possibility...but there are others.  Firstly, surnames didn't come into common usage until the 1200's and when they did, the same family, for many reasons, might choose different surnames.  For, instance, many Scots changed their names when their clan, or sept, became outlawed by the crown.  Two brothers living on opposite sides of the mountain might choose different surnames just because they weren't on speaking terms...so forth and so on.  As it turned out, a search of surnames through various sites revealed that a plurality of Deans, and Forresters, lived along the English/Scottish border at least as far back as the 1600's; the Dean name being concentrated in Lancashire and York counties in England and Larnarkshire county in Scotland--an overall and contiguous area less the size of New Jersey.

Yes, this panned out with our family history alright, but I had no way of proving we were in any way related to the Deans, or Forresters, of that region.  Besides...we were J2's, remember...the Fertile Crescent?  More research needed.


As I mentioned earlier, Haplogroups continue to subdivide down through the ages into various subclades.  Hence, my sample was further tested for more specificity revealing that I was a J2a4b.  How's that help, you may ask?  Well, it brings my timeline up a few years to about 2,000 years ago, give or take, a thousand, and pinpoints the geographic origin just a little better.  It appears that the mutating progenitor in this case lived in, or around, the Caucasus region comprising Georgia (the country), southern Russia, Azerbaijan, and northern Turkey.  That cleared everything right up.

Firstly, I thought it was kind of amusing that my people might have come from Georgia to Georgia.  Secondly, I thought, how in the hell did we get from Central Asia to North America?  And if the family history is true, why did we stop off in Britain  for a few hundred years...or did we?

The sad truth is that I will probably never know.  There is almost no way to ascertain the facts that would be needed to retrace that ancient migration.  But, there is history from which plausible theories can be postulated. 

As most of you probably already know, the Caucasus served as a gateway for mass migrations of peoples from Central Asia into Europe, and these were being recorded by historians hundreds of years BCE.  One of these vast tribes, the Sarmatians, inhabited the Pontic-Caspian Steppe (which extends into the Caucasus region) for a few hundred years prior to pushing westward into Eastern Europe.  It appears this move was not popular with the Romans who forthwith set out to prevent them from crossing that great barrier against the barbarians called the Danube, and after a number of wars, the Romans, under Emperor Marcus Aurelius (of 'Gladiator' fame), inflicted a final and devastating defeat on the Sarmatians in 174 AD.  Under the terms  of surrender he demanded the submission of 8,000 cavalrymen to act as auxiliary troops to his legions already manning Hadrian's Wall in Northern Britain.  Not surprisingly, the Sarmatians agreed.  The ruins of the fort to which they were assigned still exist today in Ribchester, Lancashire County, England--smack dab in Dean/Forrester territory.  Are the Deans descended from one of these horsemen?...God only knows.  I do know that I've never gotten on very well with horses.

Sarmatians as depicted on Trajan's column

So, as you can see, my investigation into my family history created more questions than answers.  The Hadrian theory is only one of many possibilities--a Sarmatian tribe known as the Alans also made their way into Central and Western Europe during the course of the early dark ages and settled in France.  Some of their descendants even made their way to England with William the Conqueror; so that's another.  I'm sure there are many, many other possible explanations.  Hell, I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the Dean/Forrester relationship.  It could be as simple as some wandering J2a4b caught a boat to South Carolina and took the name Dean after arrival.  Like I said...who the hell knows? 

So I may have exaggerated when I remarked on my crackerjack sleuthing, as I didn't exactly crack the case of the Dean mystery, but I did stumble upon a yet greater Mystery; hinting at a greater truth--I went from being sure of my place in the world as one certain thing, to arrive at a wholly different understanding of my humanity.  Though DNA demonstrates rather conclusively how wonderfully unique each individual is; it also serves to remind us of our commonality, our shared journey.  Just think how astounding each of our stories are, stretching back into the mists of time, an unbroken string of ancestors leading back to the genetic Adam and Eve from which we all descend--a million unwritten stories.          



05 March 2012

Hidden Gems or Buried Treasure

Jan GrapeI often wonder how other writers research. Whether you write fiction or non-fiction somewhere along the line you surely must look up information about something in your work.

One of my good friends is Suzy Spencer who has written four true crime books. One of them, Wasted made the NY Times Best-Selling List. It was written several years ago but has enjoyed some recent revival due to new television coverage. On I Discovery channel they have a new program called Deadly Sins. Suzy's book was the second story line the program followed. This story features a rich lesbian, Regina, who was only looking for love. A beautiful young girl looking for money and ultimately drugs and a drug-dealer, Justin who killed Regina in a drug-fueled rage. The story takes place in Austin. The deadly sin of both stories featured is gluttony. Nothing to do with food in either case, rather the gluttony of sex, drugs and obsession with those.

The other book I read and thought was a most intriguing read is Breaking Point. The story of the Houston suburban housewife, Andrea Yates who killed her five children. This was such a sad and horrifying story that I can only imagine the mental breakdown this woman suffered. There is still much to learn about post-partum depression and the psychosis that it can lead to.

Suzy has been asked many times how does she research her stories. She says more or less what you might expect to hear...scouring courtroom records, interviewing cops and prosecutors, interviewing friends and families of the victim, friends and families of the killer, attending trials and yet somehow she takes the essence of these interviews and notes and gets into the minds of the people in her stories.

She finds the little gems of reality: the scents, the grittiness, the steamy side, the horror of it all. I think she's a master of putting you in the scene as you read.

As a writer, this is what we have to do to make our stories ring true. If you're writing fiction, you must make as much of your story true as possible. NOW that doesn't mean you have to go out and kill someone...especially one of your in laws...grin. But if you put enough truth in your work then your reader will follow you when you talk of murder and mayhem.

Sometimes the smallest fact will be your hidden treasure of your story. Like detailing a rusty streak on the motel wall or a broken piece of concrete along the entryway to a door. A tiny fact that your research uncovered that becomes a major clue or leads your reader to believe what you've written.
But remember all your research does not belong in your story. It's hard sometimes because you've discovered the most exciting things about Metropolis and it's history for the past 200 years but you don't want to write forty pages about it. Your reader doesn't care. All they care about is getting into your character's head and finding out who the perpetrator really might be.

So if you interview police officers or sales people or attorneys or doctors make sure you find the gem in what they say and that will indeed be your hidden treasure. And as a reader I'll be delighted to read your story.

04 March 2012

Book 'em

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


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

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

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

The Streisand Effect

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

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

Criminal (and other) Composites

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

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

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

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

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

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

03 March 2012

Three Amigos

by John M. Floyd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here's hoping that happens again.

02 March 2012

"Spring Break"

by R.T. Lawton

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

Video Clips for two of the other three episodes:

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

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

01 March 2012

Off the Literary Reservation

by Janice Law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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