27 March 2012

Gone South III -- Play Ball!

Space Coast Stadium, Viera Florida -- Spring Training home of the Washington Nationals

     Several weeks back I mentioned the geographic challenge of uploading timely articles every second Tuesday during the winter months.  Pat and I decided years ago that once we retired we were going to spend as much time as possible each winter away from our home in Washington, D.C.  This year that meant that for three weeks in January we were in the Caribbean – two weeks of which were on a sailboat with the spottiest internet imaginable.  We came back from that trip to spend two weeks at home, making certain that our adult sons had not completely trashed the house, and then took off again to Gulf Shores, Alabama for two and a half weeks in February.  We lucked out there with great internet available in the condo we rented.  Then after another two weeks of checking on the house we are off on the last of our winter trips – a week and a half in Florida devoted to watching the Washington Nationals’ Spring training.  I’ll have some internet access there, but to be on the safe side this article will be scheduled before we leave. 
"Smartie" getting off of the Autotrain.  Everyone laughed.

    While we drove to and from Gulf Shores, our Spring Training tradition sends us south on the Autotrain.  This allows us to leave our bigger "road trip" car in D.C. and travel instead with our convertible Smart car, which would never otherwise see Florida.  (I can’t imagine 900 miles of I-95 in Smartie).

    The train is always a blast. --  dining cars, where, as a couple, we invariably sit across from people we have never met, and lounge cars where strangers sip cocktails together while watching the scenery pass.  No wonder  trains  have always been fodder for mysteries.  I can’t ride an overnight train without thinking of The Lady Vanishes,  Hitchcock’s second-to-last British film.  The 1938 movie (based on the largely forgotten book The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White), together with Hitchcock’s 1959 American film North by Northwest and Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express all capture the microcosm that is train travel – a self-contained slice of life, detached from the rest of the world by movement.  No wonder that trains afford a perfect setting for classic golden age mysteries – how better to contain your story and all of your suspects?  While ocean liners are a close second, nothing beats the tightly cabined setting of a train.

    So to and from Spring Training I have little trouble conjuring up SleuthSayer thoughts.  But what about baseball itself? 

    For whatever reason the nation’s pastime hasn’t provided much of a setting for mystery stories.  Perhaps readers will offer up other examples, but the only ones that spring readily to my mind are the Ed Gorgon stories by the great Jon L. Breen.  Jon started the series way back in 1970 and has written that his original inspiration for Ed Gorgon, the baseball umpire who repeatedly is called upon to solve mysteries between calling balls and strikes, was that Frederic Dannay, then editor-in-chief at Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, liked nothing better than baseball and dying messages.  So Jon served up both in Diamond Dick, the first Ed Gorgon story..  That story, and the further installments in the series, spanning thirty years, are collected in Kill the Umpire: The Calls of Ed Gorgon published by Crippen and Landru in 2003. Jon's collection is a fun read and is available at Amazon, Barnes and Nobel, or direct from Crippen and Landru.   (Tell Doug Greene that Dale sent you!)

Shoeless Joe and Ty Cobb, 1913
    If one casts a wider net other non-mystery baseball stories can be reeled in.  Much of the literature that has derived from baseball seems to have its roots in the Black Sox scandal, in which various members of the Chicago White Sox were charged with conspiring to throw the 1919 World Series.  Even though they were acquitted by a Chicago jury, eight players were eventually suspended from baseball for life, including (famously) Shoeless Joe Jackson, who got his name from once running the bases without his shoes on, and who may have been the greatest baseball slugger of all time.  Ring Lardner was a young reporter covering the scandal, and his impressions of Shoeless Joe were said to be the inspiration for his baseball short stories that were later collected in You Know Me Al, a series of letters authored by a vernacularly-challenged ball player.  Lardner uniformly portrays the White Sox players in You Know Me Al as semi-literate and hopelessly avaricious. 

    A real life episode that has repeatedly found its way into baseball lore followed Shoeless Joe Jackson's appearance before a grand jury empaneled to investigate the conspiracy allegations.  On September 29, 1920, The Minneapolis Daily Star, during the course of reporting on the scandal, published the following account:
When Jackson left criminal court building in custody of a sheriff after telling his story to the grand jury, he found several hundred youngsters, aged from 6 to 16, awaiting for a glimpse of their idol. One urchin stepped up to the outfielder, and, grabbing his coat sleeve, said:

"It ain't true, is it, Joe?"

"Yes, kid, I'm afraid it is," Jackson replied. The boys opened a path for the ball player and stood in silence until he passed out of sight.

"Well, I'd never have thought it," sighed the lad
    The line, and the saga of Shoeless Joe, who may or may not have been guilty as charged, reverberated through baseball literature.  In Bernard Malamud’s The Natural the central character, Roy Hobbs, is offered a bribe to throw a game and is then confronted by a child who says “Say it isn’t true, Roy.”  (The line is only in the book, so don’t look for it in the 1984 Robert Redford film!)   The story of Shoeless Joe is also at the heart of the Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams, based on Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella.  And, finally, anyone who has seen the movie or stage production of Damn Yankees (a story close to the heart of any Washington, D.C. baseball fan) will remember the refrain “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal Mo.”  (Hannibal Mo. had nothing to do with Shoeless Joe, but, hey, a song’s gotta rhyme, right?)

    Well I should stop here and start packing.  We are off on one last winter trip to the south.   Hopefully when we head back to Washington D.C. it will be spring, because if winter persists it will be me who you will hear lamenting “it ain’t true, is it, Joe?”

26 March 2012

Lovely Spring Day

Jan Grape
by Jan Grape

Today is a lovely spring day in Central TX. We've finally had a bit of rain and lots of sunshine and the wild flowers are blooming and the Texas Bluebonnets are awesome. They are all over the place and even a few plants in my front and side yard are blooming. I've always wanted bluebonnets in my yard but this is the first time. I didn't plant them, the wind and birds must have seeded my whole neighborhood. Makes me happy to see them. So happy that I even decided to cook this evening. Now that is a rare treat because I don't usually cook a meal. I eat out at least 2 nights a week, going to my favorite restaurant and listening to local singer/songwriters and visiting with the other regular Tuesday and Wednesday night music lovers. Then at least one night a week, if my grandson, Cason, is home, we order pizza from our local pizza place. They use only fresh ingredients and make your pizza to order. The other nights if Cason isn't home, I sorta eat whatever I have on hand. Maybe only a sandwich or a bowl of soup. But today I made meatloaf and mashed potatoes and green peas. I also had the makings for a salad but forgot to do it. (Never said I was a gourmet...lol.) But it was all good and I had a nice glass of wine. Cason seemed to enjoy it all except the peas which he said he really didn't care for too much.

This week-end I've been doing some copy-editing on the anthology that I'm co-editing. R Barri Flowers and I have co-edited our second American Crime Writers League (otherwise known as ACWL) anthology. This one, MURDER HERE, MURDER THERE is due out around May 25th from Twilight Times Books. Our first ACWL anthology was MURDER PAST MURDER PRESENT. All of the stories are by members of ACWL and include such names as Jay Brandon, Kris Neri, Dakota Banks, John Lutz, Taffy Canon, Ed Gorman, Robert Randisi, Bill Crider, Candace Robb. We have as many members who are multiple winners and nominees for all the mystery awards than any organization around. This new book features some of the same authors as in the first anthology, but also Marlys Millhiser, Noreen Ayres, Valerie Malmont, Edward Marston Claire Carmichael, Jim Ingraham & Lauren Haney. Some of the finest short stories I have ever read are soon to be available to everyone.

I love good short stories and although there's not a big demand for them right now, I think they are perfect when you just have a few minutes and want to read a little mystery but don't have the time to devote to a full-length novel. My daughter, Karla, mentioned several years that because she was a busy, working mother that she really didn't have time to read a novel but she could sit down for a few minutes or an hour and really enjoy the suspense and pleasure in a short story. It's also a good way for writers to stretch their writing and play with some new characters rather than always writing about their series characters. However, sometimes a writer will use series characters in short stories but place them in a different time or place and just have a lot of fun with a shorter length.

My writing career actually began with short stories. I published around twenty-five short stories before I ever sold a novel. For this anthology, I wrote a story with my female private-eye characters, Jenny Gordon and C.J. Gunn. The story is titled, "The Confession." I haven't written anything with Jenny and C.J. in several years and enjoyed visiting their lives once again. I never had a novel published with them but wrote around a dozen short stories with the owners of G & G Investigations. In fact, one story with Jenny and C.J., won the Anthony Award at the Bouchercon in Philadelphia in 1998. The story, "A Front-Row Seat," was published in the VENGEANCE IS HERS anthology from Signet.

If you have time, read a short story and enjoy spring, where ever you happen to be today.


A young soldier, PFC Payton Jones, from Marble Falls, TX, age 19, was killed in Afghanistan a few weeks ago and his body was brought home for services and burial. As usual with many small towns there was an out-pouring of respect for the young soldier and his family. Several hundred people, myself included, lined the street as the procession came into town from a nearby airport. The final leg of the soldier's 7,000 mile journey home.The Kiwanis Club always has flags for patriotic days and for something like this showing support and respect. The Patriot Guard of motorcycle riders, all veterans, came first, followed by Firetrucks, EMS vehicles, police and sheriff vehicles all from surrounding communities, then the white hearse carrying our hometown hero, his family and friends to the funeral home. It was a sad moment but also heart-felt as we all stood at attention along both sides of the street, hands over hearts, most of us holding a large flag on a metal pole or waving a little flag. Only a small gesture, but in some small way letting his family know, we were heartbroken with them. RIP Private Jones.

25 March 2012

Failure of The 13th Juror

As I understand the 13th juror doctrine, a judge can overturn a jury verdict if he or she finds the evidence does not support it. In a carjacking and murder case here in Knoxville, a special judge overturned the guilty verdicts of four defendants and granted the three men and one woman new trials on the ground that the judge in the first trials failed in his duty to act as the 13th juror. 

In 2007, the three men carjacked a couple driving an SUV. They tortured and killed the man and burned his body on nearby railroad tracks. After torturing and raping the woman as the female defendant watched, they stuffed her body while she was still alive in a trash bag and threw the bag in a garbage can. 

Two of males were sentenced to life without parole in the first trials in 2009. The third, the ringleader, was sentenced to death. The female was found not guilty of participating in the carjacking and murder but was found guilty of facilitation and was sentenced to 53 years. 

For the sake of simplicity, I’ll call the first judge “P” and the second one “G.” In 2011, After an investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Judge P confessed to being addicted to pain pills and pleaded guilty to official misconduct. He began having sexual relations with a woman in 2009 who also supplied him with pills. She later introduced him to a felon on parole in his court who began providing him with pills. His criminal activities and association with criminals has caused a real legal mess. All of his cases are being examined. One defense attorney on another case argued that the evidence in Judge P’s case was so damning a reversal was automatically required. 

The DA argued that in the case of the three men that no errors were made. He admitted that during the woman’s trial, Judge P’s behavior was erratic. He decided not to ask for the death penalty for two of men and the woman in the new trials but will again ask for death for the ring leader.

My younger daughter was and probably still is on the prosecutor’s witness list. She wasn’t called to testify at the first trial and is hoping not to be called in the second one. She got on the list because about two or three days before they carjacked the couple, the three men were seen walking around her neighborhood in a suspicious manner. Later that night, they tried to break into her house and were scared off when a neighbor across the street fired his gun in their direction. My daughter called the police but they couldn’t get there quickly due to ongoing construction at both ends of the street. She wasn’t happy about being a witness at the trials because she was afraid the defendants' friends would come after her.

One of the male defendants explained during his trial that they wanted a car to use in a bank robbery. My daughter’s one year old SUV was in her driveway when they cased the neighborhood.

The victims’ parents and many Knoxville residents didn’t like Judge G’s decision. One newspaper columnist thought it was the right decision under the circumstances. The court has denied a request from the newspaper to unseal Judge P’s file. 

Judge P’s criminal activities might have had a negative affect on the trials, but should the verdicts be automatically reversed without a clear showing that he was under the influence of drugs and made errors in the cases of the three male defendants?

What do you think?

Postscript: On Saturday, the newspaper reported that the US Attorney is investigating Judge P’s case to determine if he violated any federal laws.

The Tennessee Court of Appeals has not decided whether to grant the state Attorney General’s request for a review of Judge G’s decision or to let the new trials go forward.

24 March 2012

When the Ferry Is a Time Machine

by Elizabeth Zelvin

Have you ever been to Ellis Island? It’s a short ferry ride from the Battery, at the tip of Manhattan, through New York Harbor to Ellis Island, a trip that costs only $13 ($10 if you’re 62 or over) and allows the visitor to travel more than a hundred years into the past.
The gateway to America for 12 million immigrants from all over the world in search of a better life between 1892 and 1954, Ellis Island has been completely restored and is now managed by the National Park Service as a monument to the melting pot that shaped American culture.

My visit, with a French friend in New York on vacation, was no mere museum trip or history lesson for me. Both my parents came to America through Ellis Island: my father from Ekaterinaslav in the Ukraine in 1905 at the age of six, and my mother from Papa in Hungary in 1906 at the age of four. I’ve always regretted that I never visited Ellis Island with them. They went with a cousin shortly after the restoration in the 1980s, and both said that they remembered the Registry Room with its vaulted ceilings and high arched windows.

My mother’s most vivid memory was of her own mother, my grandmother, crying as she said goodbye to her mother, whom she knew she would never see again. My father remembered being given a banana as he waited to board the ship, and how, puzzled by this strange fruit, he bit into it skin and all.

Before you go, prepare for your visit by going online. The site www.ellisisland.com offers information about the Immigration Museum, while www.ellisisland.org allows users to search for passengers on the ships that brought the immigrants past the Statue of Liberty to Ellis Island. At the click of a mouse, I found both my father, on the ship’s manifest of the Caronia out of Liverpool and my mother, listed as a passenger on the Deutschland, departing from Hamburg. I discovered that my Aunt Anna and my Aunt Sophie, younger than my father, were actually named Chane and Schifre. I already knew that my mother, named Judith (and called Judy her whole life, till she died at 96), got an inadvertent name change at Ellis Island, when an immigration official heard the Hungarian pronunciation Yoo-deet and wrote down “Edith”—which is how she was listed on the records I found. (Her official signature was always “Edith Judith” or “Edith J.”—though the only people who called her Edith were telemarketers.)

The cousin who visited the museum with my parents enrolled my mother’s mother, our beloved Gran, on the American Immigrant Wall of Honor outside the Great Hall, overlooking the harbor and the Lower Manhattan skyline. When I emailed him, he reminded me that at the time, none of the cousins wanted to pay the hundred bucks to list our grandfather, who died long before we were born. I was moved to find my grandmother’s name among the 700,000 remembered in this beautiful and historic spot. Since then, I’ve put both my parents’ names and countries of origin on the Wall and am eagerly waiting for my granddaughters to be old enough to enjoy seeing them there.

23 March 2012

Explosives 102

Welcome back to my series on writing about explosives in your stories. I was hoping to make this last only through three installments, however I now think it will take 4 to 5. If you guys get bored and want me to change topic, let me know.

Additionally, while it’s true that I once held a Top Secret clearance and access, I was granted said clearance and access because certain people thought I could reasonably be expected to keep important secrets. I work diligently to avoid disappointing those people. Consequently, you don’t need to worry: nothing here is classified. And, my pics are all from open source material.

My goal in this series is not to make you an explosives expert; it’s to give you enough information that someone reading your work — assuming you write a passage in which a character employs explosives — thinks it sounds as if you know what you’re writing about. In other words, I want you help make your writing technically convincing.

What do you really do to make it go BANG?
A guy slips a metal tube with fuse on it into a block of something that looks like clay and then smooshes that clay into a crevice in a wall. Then he pours a line of gasoline from the fuse along the floor (evidently to give him greater get-away time). Finally, tossing the empty gas can aside, he lights a match, holds it to the gasoline — and runs like a chased rabbit!

Is that the way explosives work?

What about James Bond? He stabs a pencil into a similar clay-like block, twists the end of the pencil and runs down the hall to avoid the explosion. Does this work?

Well . . . maybe.

Time Pencils — ala James Bond — are quite real. As for the first scenario, however: I can’t see myself using gasoline like that unless I was woefully short of fuse. Even then, it would probably necessitate a decision about which was more important: the explosive going off correctly? Or my staying alive?

The answer to that one would probably be: the explosive going off correctly. If you’re using explosives, there isn’t usually a better way to do the job. And, in situations where I’ve employed them, if they didn’t go off many of my friends might have been in serious trouble. That being the case, I’d probably wind up wishing the explosion had taken me out anyway.

Down to Brass Tacks

One thing you need to understand, if you don’t already, is that explosives are set off by a chain of events usually thought of as the “explosive train.” A very small explosion sets off a larger explosive force through what’s known as “sympathetic detonation.”

Most explosives in common use today, are stable enough to require both heat and shock (or compression) to set them off. But, there are some explosives that require only heat, or only shock, or can easily be set off by either one (such as nitroglycerine, for instance—heat or drop it at your peril!)

So, to set off a very stable charge, such as C-4, you need to first set off a relatively unstable charge that’s snuggled up next to your C-4. This initiating charge doesn’t necessarily have to be large. But, it does need to be volatile enough to create enough heat and shock to set off the C-4. Otherwise, your charge fizzles and the bad guys laugh at you. So . . . what can you use to set off a stable charge like this?

Blasting Caps

There are primarily two types of Blasting Caps: Electric and (wait for it … wait for it …) Non-Electric (Surprised you, huh?).

A non-electric blasting cap can mean different things to different people, but there’s no question about what an electric blasting cap is, in most blasters’ minds, so we’ll start with that one first.

An electric blasting cap (similar to the one labeled “Solid Pack Electric Type Blasting Cap” in the picture below) is encased in a small, thin metal tube—closed at one end. You might think of this tube-like container as being sort of similar to a very tiny, extremely thin soda can that has the top cut off.

Most electric caps I’ve dealt with were probably about an 1/8-of-an-inch to 3/8’s-of-an-inch across, and 3 to 7 inches long. This metal tube is filled with an initiator (labeled “primary explosive” in the drawing), a detonator (labeled “output explosive”) and has two wire leads that run in through the top and down into the initiator.

Viewed from the outside, these two wire leads disappear into a plastic-looking (or sometimes sort of clayish-looking) substance in the top of the cap, which acts as an insulator, and as a “lid” for the blasting cap. Sometimes, these wires are completely bare. On other caps, they may be plastic-coated with only a few inches of bare wire at the far end from the cap.

Either way, there will be a “shunt” on the wire. The shunt is often a thin metal ring; it connects the two wires, completing the circuit, helping to ensure that a stray electronic impulse doesn’t excite the initiator inside the cap until the blaster wants it to. Military electric blasting caps often come in a small cardboard tube that has the cap’s firing wire wrapped around it (pic on right). Civilian electric caps often look like the picture below.

Now remember: a blasting cap has an initiator and detonator inside it — and those two wires sticking out of the cap, run down into the initiator. When an electric current is passed through the wires, quite a bit of heat is generated down inside the initiator (primary explosive). The initiator is a relatively unstable explosive that is extremely sensitive to heat. So, when the electric current heats it up, the initiator explodes. This explosion sets off the detonator (output explosive), which is a bit more stable, but creates a larger explosion through its superior size and/or higher RE Factor. When the detonator goes off, this nearly always creates enough heat and shock to set off the larger, more stable charge that’s going to do the real work for you — such as that C-4 we were looking at earlier. [Yes, I wrote “nearly always.” This is the reason that a good blaster always “dual primes” his/her charges, by using two blasting caps. If the first cap fails to do the trick, hopefully the second will get the job done.]

So, now you see the explosive train in action: a small unstable explosion initiates a slightly larger, more powerful explosion — which in turn sets off a whopper! But, what sets off the blasting cap?

The Blast Machine

We’ve all seen cartoons with a plunger, similar to the one on the right. But, would you be likely to run into one? Are they even real — outside of movies and cartoons, that is?

To answer the second question first: Yes. They’re real. The one to the right is an older model 50-cap blast machine. A Blast Machine is just what the name implies: a machine that creates a big blast or explosion when you use it correctly.

To explain in very general terms: a blast machine has a flywheel inside it, attached to a dynamo that generates electricity. In this case, when someone pushes down on that handle, the long vertical rod connected to it is driven into the case and starts that flywheel spinning. The flywheel spins the dynamo, and an electric current is generated. (You’ll hear a high-pitched metallic whirring when this is going on.) If the two loose ends of an electric blasting cap are connected to the metal terminals (the two screws with wing nuts toward the left side of the frame in our photograph), enough electricity is going to pass through there to set off that blasting cap.

Naturally, it’s not usually a good idea to be sitting right on top of your explosives when they go off. Consequently, blasters run “firing wire” — a thin, plastic-coated wire that looks similar to the cord you might find on a cheap table lamp — from the blasting cap wires back to the blast machine. (You don’t run it the other way, because — and, R.T., I think you will like this — you don’t want to hook up the firing wire to the blasting cap just as somebody trips and falls on the plunger of the blast machine you’ve already hooked your firing wire to. KABLOOEY!!)

Firing Wire

Firing wire comes in big spools, often with hundreds of feet of wire so you can be sure you’re far enough from the blast to avoid getting badly hurt. I’m used to spools of about 500 feet of wire — though the more you use the wire, the shorter it gets. Because, of course, the end closest to the explosion keeps getting blown off.

Firing wire has two ends, of course: one that’s attached to the spool, and one that’s on the end of the wire that is wrapped around the spool. The latter end is going to be attached to the blasting cap, so you can unroll your firing wire on the way back to the blast machine. This end, which gets attached to the cap wires, is called the “running end.” The other end — the one attached to the spool, which you’ll later attach to the blast machine — is called the “standing end.” And, please don’t forget, though we call it “Firing Wire” (singular noun), there are actually two separate wires inside it.

To hook the firing wire to the blasting cap wires, and then to the blast machine, the following steps are taken:

1. If the “standing end” wires, on the firing wire, are still covered in plastic, cut the plastic with a knife and peel the plastic back (trimming off any excess plastic) until you have bared at least two inches of both of the wires at this end. If your story character setting the charge is either smart or lucky, s/he will have wire cutters that have a wire stripper on them, and s/he can use this to more easily strip the wire.

2. Twist the two newly-bared wires, on the standing end of the firing wire, together.

3. Be sure you have at least two to three inches of bare wires at the “running end” of the firing wire.

4. Lightly twist the ends of the blasting cap wires together. (This is called “shunting the wires” and serves the same purpose as the factory installed shunt, which you are about to remove.)

5. Remove the shunt from the blasting cap wire.

6. Untwist the cap wire ends and twist-tie one of them to one of the two bared wires at the running end of the firing wire. (Your character, if s/he’s been well-trained will use a “Western Union Pigtail Splice” [WUPTS] to tie each cap wire to its respective firing wire.)

7. Quickly attach the other cap wire to the other firing wire end, again using a WUPTS.

8. Pound a stake into the ground about three feet back from where you’ve tied-in, pay out several feet of firing wire, then tie the firing wire around this stake so that the wire is slack between the stake and the cap wires. This will prevent you from accidentally dragging your charge back to the blast machine with you, when you unroll your firing wire. If you don’t have a stake, tie your firing wire to the trunk of a tree. Or, maybe wrap it around a heavy rock.

9. Pay out the wire by hand, carefully, walking backward so you can watch your charge and be sure nothing comes loose. If you want your explosion to surprise the bad guys, be sure to camouflage the wire as you go. Do this until you reach the blast machine.

10. Now hook the standing end of your firing wire to the metal terminals on your blast machine. If you’re using the plunger-type blast machine, be sure the plunger is in the “down” position before you hook-up. Otherwise, if somebody trips . . .

Common Blast Machine Types
Plunger-type blast machines are fairly rare in the U.S. these days. You’re far more likely to run into something like the 20 or 30-cap machine on the right. (That handle comes off incidentally, so you can carry it in your pocket and nobody can use the machine but you – unless they have another handle.) Or, you may encounter one like the 50-cap machine (below left), which I’m very used to.

And, just as their names imply, a 30-cap machine generates enough electricity to set off 30 electric blasting caps all at once, if they’re hooked in series, while the 50-cap machine generates enough to set off 50 caps at once. Some plunger-style machines are rated for 100 or even 150 caps, and these machines are still widely in use throughout the world, particularly in less-developed countries. I suspect that machine on the right is a 20-cap machine, but I'm going to call it a 30-cap machine because they look nearly identicle.

The 30-cap machine is operated by twisting the handle. It may take more than one twist to generate enough power to do the job, but don’t worry: Just keep twisting until a loud BANG! tells you it’s time to stop.

Though the handle can be removed and pocketed, there is also usually a chain attachment. This permits soldiers who’ve hooked up FUGAS, or some other anti-personnel devices around their perimeter, to keep the firing wires hooked to the blast machine, while providing a “safety” of sorts, by keeping the handle disconnected but attached to the machine by the chain. That way there’s less fumbling around if the bad guys try to overrun your base camp at night. And, you don’t have to worry that the guy guarding the blast machine might sneeze and accidentally knock the blast machine over, thus unintentionally twisting the handle.

The 50-cap machine is operated by rapidly squeezing the handle on the right side 3 to 5 times. This is because it takes a few pumps to get the flywheel up to speed. Along with the high-pitched metallic whirring that’s endemic to most blast machines, this one also tends to go “zing, zing, zing, ZING!” getting louder with each “zing,” until the explosion drowns out the sound.

The D-ring on the bottom right is the safety clip. Prior to hooking your firing wire to the terminals on top, compress the handle up against the machine, then use the D-ring to lock the handle in place. When you’re ready to fire, simply pop the D-ring down, freeing the handle, which will push out on its own.

The terminals have rubber coverings, and a spring-loaded top. To insert your firing wire, simply push down on the top of the terminal. This will open the hole in the terminal side, and you can slide your wire through. Release the terminal top, and the hole will close back up, trapping the firing wire between the metal terminal jaws.

Remember: you have two separate wires in the Firing Wire. You’ve hooked one of those wires to a terminal (doesn’t matter which one), so you now have to repeat this process with the other wire, connecting it to the other terminal. Then you’re all hooked up to fire.

The last blast machine we’ll look at is the one on the left, below. This is a Claymore Clacker, which is used to set off a Claymore Mine.

A Claymore is a very handy anti-personnel mine shaped sort of like a large soap dish. It contains a strip of C-4 inside the back, and a strip of metal that’s perforated into nearly-separated ball bearings inside the front. There is “wadding” between the C-4 and the metal strip. This wadding acts as a sort of shock absorber, preventing the C-4 from completely destroying the metal plate when it detonates.

The plastic casing of the mine has two sets of metal “scissors legs” attached. It is employed by driving the legs into the ground, then aiming the mine at head height at about 50 meters distance. Thus, the Claymore fires sideways.

When the C-4 goes off, the wadding is obliterated (along with the plastic casing of the mine itself) and the metal strip is shattered into a bunch of ball bearings that act as BB’s or shotgun pellets (the wadding helps keep those BB’s from being vaporized). The result is that the enemy is shredded by a sort of GIANT shotgun blast.

The Claymore comes self-contained, in a kit containing: the mine, 50 feet of firing wire (w/ electric cap factory-attached), the clacker (blast machine), and a small tool that may be used to test the clacker and cap-circuit (kit components in photo on right are missing the tester).

The Claymore Clacker, itself (close up on left), is basically a 2-cap blast machine. In the photo, the clacker is standing on it’s hind end. The handle on the right is the lever you depress in order to detonate the blasting cap. That black rubber bump between the handle and body of the clacker is the switch that closes the circuit so the electronic pulse can be sent through the firing wire. That black thing at the top of the clacker, in this photo, is a rubber cover. It protects the male end of what is essentially an electrical socket.

If you look closely, you may see a small notch cut into the clacker handle near the end. Near the bottom, right hand corner of the clacker body in this photo there is a small square-shaped D-ring. To set the clacker on “safe” simply flip the D-ring up, so that it clicks into the notch on the handle. This will keep the handle from being inadvertently depressed. To fire, just pop the D-ring back down, and squeeze the handle against the clacker body. It almost always works with just one pull, but occasionally likes to be pulled a second time before it fires the cap.

The firing wire for the Claymore (photo on right) has a female end with holes for two round (as apposed to rectangular, as you’re probably used to at home) metal prongs be inserted. This female end is also protected by a rubber cover, which doubles as a shunt. To hook the firing wire to the clacker, simply open both rubber covers (the one on the clacker and the one on the end of the firing wire) and plug the male end into the female end. Once that’s done, you can fire the cap by simply squeezing the clacker. In this case, there is no zing, zing — or even a metallic whine. Instead, there’s a just a dull “clunk” or “clack.” Hence the name “clacker.”

Claymore Clackers can be modified by cutting off the male-connector end of the firing wire along with 6 to 18 inches of the attached firing wire, and plugging it into the clacker. Often, this connector is then taped to the clacker body to keep it from easily working loose. Then the wires on the other end of the firing wire are bared, so that they may be attached to normal firing wire and hence the blasting caps.

A clacker isn’t a super-terrific blast machine; it’s just not powerful enough to set off caps at a great distance. However, it is often employed when you want to set off a nearby explosion very quickly and easily, with near-instant effect. If, for instance, your characters are cops using electric blasting caps to set off a charge that will blow open a door, give them a modified Claymore Clacker to do this job. It works very well.

Priming a Block of Explosives

You recall, hopefully, what I wrote above about “snuggling” that small (but relatively unstable) charge up to your larger (more stable) charge in order to set off the big bang.

The way you do this with a blasting cap is pretty simple: you make a hole in your larger charge and shove the blasting cap down inside it. Seems kind of stupidly simple, doesn’t it? The specific method used, however, depends on the explosive you’re trying to set off. And, since we’ll need to take them one-by-one, we’ll have to cover that in a subsequent installment.

In Explosives 103 (in two weeks) I plan to cover Military Non-Electric Blasting Caps, and civilian NON-EL blasting caps. Then we’ll touch lightly on unclassified Time Pencil info, and begin (if there’s time) looking at how to prime different explosive charges — probably beginning with dynamite.

After we examine how to prime a few kinds of common explosives, I’ll provide a short wrap-up and toss in a few extra tips that should lend a little “icing” of extra verisimilitude to any passage you invent about somebody using explosives.

If you guys don’t like this, let me know. I can always drop this subject and write about something else. I thought, however, that you might enjoy having a little “primer” you could refer to when (or if) it comes time for somebody in one of your stories to blow something up.

See you in two weeks,

22 March 2012

Lawyers and Writers, Oh My!

Whether they are prosecutors, defense attorneys, ambulance chasers, or out and out shysters, lawyers have become a major part of the mystery genre. Comedians have made careers from joking about lawyers, but mystery writers with a background as lawyers have been the ones laughing all the way to the bank and to the New York Times bestseller lists.

One of the first American lawyer as sleuth characters was Mr. Ephraim Tutt, created by Arthur Train in 1919. Mr. Tutt, a "wily old lawyer who supported the common man and always had a trick up his sleeve to right the law's injustices", appeared in several volumes of short stories from 1920-1945.

What's the difference between a lawyer and a catfish?
One is a slimy, bottom dwelling scum sucker. The other is a fish..

Erle Stanley Gardner practiced law for two decades before creating the most recognized name of a lawyer in literature, Perry Mason. Mason debuted in 1933 in The Case of the Velvet Claws. More than eighty novels, a series of movies in the 1930's, a radio show and the acclaimed television series, "Perry Mason" starring Raymond Burr which ran from September 1957-May 1966 followed. As the dapper lawyer whose skilled examination of cross address, Mason deduced the real culprit when the police could not and practically compelled the guilty party to confess on the witness stand. Burr became the quintessential Perry Mason and reprised the rolein a series of made-for-TV movies in the 1980's.

If you are stranded on a desert island with Adolph Hitler, Atilla the Hun and a lawyer, and you have a gun with only two bullets, what do you do?
Shoot the lawyer twice.

Scott Turow was a former assistant United States attorney before he became a successful writer. His first legal thriller published in 1987 was Presumed Innocent featuring Rozat "Rusty" Sabich accused of murdering his colleague, prosecutor Carolyn Polhemus.

D. R. Meredith worked as a legal secretary for her lawyer husband. Her first mystery concerned a body discovered beneath a large barbecue pit during a city celebration in The Sheriff and the Panhandle Murders published in 1984. Meredith writes the John Lloyd Branson mystery series from her home in the Texas panhandle, beginning with Murder by Impulse, published in 1988.

How many lawyers does it take to change a light bulb?
How many can you afford?

Linda Fairstein is a former prosecutor specializing in crimes against women and children and served as head of the Sex Crimes Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney's office from 1976-2002. Her mystery series feature Manhattan prosecutor Alexandra Cooper.

Richard North Patterson was a trial lawyer who won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for his first legal thriller, The Lasko Tangent, with his character, U. S. Attorney, Christopher Paget.

What's the difference between a dead dog in the road and a dead lawyer in the road?
There are skid marks in front of the dog.

William Manchee is a Dallas attorney who writes a series about a Dallas attorney, Stan Turner.

William Bernhardt is a Tulsa former attorney who writes the Ben Kincaid legal thrillers.

Southerner John Grisham is a handsome former lawyer who writes tales about (sometimes) Southern lawyers who invariably are portrayed by handsome actors with or without Southern accents. (But the stories are always accented by backgrounds of knowing the laws and how people break them and try to get away with it.)

Whether you are interested in reading about a lawyer who is out to right the injustices of the world or simply one trying to do the best job he can for his client to one who will take any case he can get just to pay the bills, the mystery world has something out there just for you. And often, one of those lawyer-types are the ones writing them. Thank God for lawyers. Without them, comedians would have to find someone else to make fun of and the readers everywhere wouldn't have half as much fun in the bookstores finding a great thriller to curl up with on the couch.

*** Many thanks to comedian Jason Love for authorized use of his great cartoons. Find him at jasonlove.com and doing a terrific standup comedy routine when he isn't writing his own brand of lawyers jokes and cartoons.

21 March 2012


Two weeks ago John Floyd wrote about which authors he had appeared in magazines with.  I said I had been thinking about writing on the same subject, and -- hey presto!  -- I have done so.  My predictive abilities amaze even me.
I was not surprised to find out that the author I have shared the most mags with is Michael Mallory.  We have graced no less than 6 issues together (and he sometimes had more than one story in them, the glutton)..  This is because we used to share a mutual admiration club with Margo Powers, the editor/publisher of Murderous Intent Mystery Magazine, and were found there, it seems, more often than not.  Michael used to write wonderful stories narrated by Dr. Watson's second wife. 

Next, with 5 stories is Toni L.P. Kelner. We have shared pages in MIMM, Alfred Hitchcock's, and Ellery Queen's  -  the latter being surprising, since I have only made it there once. 

I have shared the shelf with Ron Goulart 4 times.  I consider than an honor because I remember his hilarious stories in Twilight Zone Magazine,  where I got some close-but-no-cigars.  I fell in love with a story of his called "Groucho," which was about a Hollywood mover-and-shaker who was reincarnated as a cat.

Dick Stodghill was in three issues with me, including the very first issue I ever appeared in, in the late not-very-lamented Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine.  Some of you may remember Dick as one of our most faithful and interesting commentors. on Criminal Brief.

A few more of my friends and favorites: Gary Alexander, Richard Lupoff (3 stories each), John D. Floyd, Edward D. Hoch, Martin Limon, R.T. Lawton, Leigh Lundin (all 2 stories),  and Jon L. Breen, Herschel Corzine, Brad Crowther, Loren D. Estleman, Ed Gorman,  Steve Hockensmith, Janice Law, Jack Ritchie, and James Lincoln Warren (all 1).

But let me end with my favorite story on the subject.  Not long after I started getting published I attended one of the Edgar Symposiums run by the Mystery Writers of America.  A woman saw my name tag and introduced herself.  It turned out we had shared the pages of an obscure magazine called P.I.

S.J. Rozan and I have been friends ever since.  Of course, not all writers have equally successful careers and I am sorry to report that she has not had quite as many short stories published as I have.  I hope her string of bestselling novels is some comfort to her.

And wishing you the same.

20 March 2012

Jenny's Ghost

Last week, I went to one my editors pleading brain-freeze on the subject of my next post.  Actually, I did this in the figurative sense, in that I called my daughter, Bridgid, and asked for her advice.  It should be noted that Bridgid is intolerant of foolishness and dithering in general, and my lame pleadings and excuses in particular.  She is what is sometimes known as a harsh task-mistress.  She also has a very heavy hand when it comes to editing my stories even though I am her natural father and deserve better.  But, I dither.
"Write about how you write," she demanded.  "That's what people are interested in--they want to know how writers come up with their ideas and how they put them to paper!"

She stopped short of adding, "Duh!"

"Yeah, but..." I began; anxious not to be chastised further, "I've kinda done that in a few previous blogs...you know, talked about animals and nature and things..."

The sigh on the other end of the connection was long and heartfelt.  "You've got some stories coming out this year, right?"


"Well, there you go then--just write about how you came up with the plots, characters, etc...I enjoy reading Neil Gaiman's intros and essays on his stories almost as much as the stories themselves."

"I forbid you to invoke that name in my presence," I commanded.  "You know he's one of my competitors for the Edgar Award in April!  I won't have it!"

"He's terrific," she agreed.  "I wish I could go with you and mom to meet him."

"We're not going there to meet him!  There will be no fraternizing with..."

"Gotta go, dad, Robbie's home and we're going out to dinner.  Love you; love mom."

The connection went dead.  My only question at this point was, 'Why did I have children?'

The following day, however, the blank screen loomed ever more largely.  'Okay,' I muttered.  'Alright then!  If that's what she wants, then that's what she'll get!' 

Jenny's Ghost:  This story is scheduled for the June issue (the next out) of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, both a publication, and editor (the wonderful Janet Hutchings) with whom I have enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship.  It's not a long story, as my stories go, and has all of its action contained within a major American airport modeled after Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International (except for a brief flashback to the main character's college days).  Why there?  Simple answer: I've spent weeks of my life in this place.  When you live in New Jersey, but have family in Georgia, it's where you must go...over...and over...and over....  You get the picture.  I've been to a lot of airports in my life; everywhere from JFK to Amsterdam; Dublin to Frankfurt, and nowhere have I been in a busier airport than Atlanta's.  It's a city unto itself, and not a small one in either size or population.  It even has it's own subway system.  Not a place for ghosts you would think.  But when you spend a lot of time waiting for planes it's easy to get melancholy; especially if both ends of the journey entail leaving people that you love behind, as in my case.  So, as I have sat so many, many times in this teeming, heaving micropolis, thoughts of remorse and sadness have sometimes pervaded my thoughts.  Generally, I am a pretty optimistic and cheerful person...but not always and in all circumstances.  The airport seems to be one of these.

During one of these enforced meditations awaiting a return flight to Philadelphia, I wondered what it might be like to meet the ghost of someone once held dear in such an unlikely place.  The idea would not go away and kept returning to mind for several years after it's inception.  I was getting haunted by it and so had to consider exorcism in the form of a story. 

Haitian Voodoo culture, amongst many others, has always considered crossroads a place to avoid after darkness, as wraiths and apparitions haunt them.  They believe crossroads can form an intersection between the living world and that of the dead.  Well, what is an airport other than a great big crossroad comprised of many dimensions?  So, maybe not such a bad setting after all?

I also had to consider why my protagonist ( I had decided upon a young family man in his early thirties awaiting a plane for home) would experience this unlikely phenomenon...and how?  After all, I didn't think a ghost story, as such, would sell to EQMM.  So, I came up with a different sort of ghost.  I know that sounds like a teaser, but I don't want to give the plot away.

It appears that much of the lore concerning ghosts and hauntings regard suicide and murder as the premier causatives.  Violent death begets unquiet spirits.  I would add that violence in general instills a disquiet in the living, as well.  Remorse and regret play a big role, too.  How many of us wince when we recall something from our past that we wish we could take back, un-do, or conversely, have acted to prevent, but didn't?  I suspect there's no one reading this who hasn't longed for a chance to remedy something that they regret not doing, or repent for having done--sociopaths, perhaps...but they stopped reading several paragraphs ago.

It's no different for me--Catholics have always had the sacrament of confession in order to obtain forgiveness for their sins, but this does not always serve to erase a thing from one's mind.  Knowing that one is forgiven by God, sadly, does not lead to selective amnesia.  The human conscience can be a bleak and frozen landscape, and it is in just such a place that we find my protagonist, Connor, at the opening of the story.  He hears a young woman's laughter ring out above the tumult of the crowded airport concourse...a laughter that he recognizes and loves; but a laughter that cannot possibly be real...and therein lies the tale.

I hope you enjoy it. 

19 March 2012

What's My Line?

I think there was an old television show called "What's My Line?" but I'm not sure. I'm either too old or too young to remember it. Too old if my memory is slipping; too young if I was just a toddler then.

Lines fascinate me, almost, if not more, than words. When a songwriter comes up with a great line, it usually becomes the hook in a chorus. When single folks come up with a great line, it sometimes helps them get "lucky." When I hear a great line, it goes into my little black notebook of ideas and may later appear in a story or novel.

Flipping through the notebook's pages, I found this: In response to, "How are you?" the answer line is, "I'm always good; sometimes I'm excellent!" (Ask Velma to read that to you. I'm sure she'll know exactly the right intonation!)

Some of you might be relieved if I didn't share with you the best "line" a guy ever used to get a date with me, but I'll tell you anyway. I was in my forties, had gained ten (okay, fifteen) pounds, and attended a rockin' wedding reception. This man kept talking to me, politely hittin' on me, and being overly charming. I said, "This place is full of younger, beautiful women giving you the eye. Why are you hanging here with me?"

His reply: "Women are like cars. Depends on whether a man wants to drive a Pinto or a Mercedes. You, my dear, are a Mercedes." (Yes, I did date him for several years, and if men are also like cars, he was a Jaguar.)

Since the general emphasis of SleuthSayers is writing books and short stories, let's turn our attention to what I consider the most important sentence in either: the first line.

One of my favorite books since second grade has been Huck Finn. I learned recently that Twain changed that first line three times before settling on:

"You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain't no matter."
— Mark Twain - Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Other favorites include:

"Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anyone else, these pages must show."
— Charles Dickens - David Copperfield

"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."
— J. D. Salinger - The Catcher in the Rye

"Through the fence, between curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting."
— William Faulkner - The Sound and the Fury

"Mother died today."
— Albert Camus (tr. Stuart Gilbert) - The Stranger

"All this happened, more or less."
— Kurt Vonnegut - Slaughterhouse-Five

"There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it."
— C. S. Lewis - The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

"He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish."
— Ernest Hemingway - The Old Man and the Sea

"Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there's a peephole in the door, and my keeper's eyes is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me."
— Gunter Grass (tr. Ralph Manheim)-The Tin Drum

"Call me Ishmael."
— Herman Melville - Moby Dick

I've read that many people consider the opening line of Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens as the greatest opening line of all time.

"It was the best of times; it was the worst of times." The problem is that those twelve words are not the opening sentence of the book. The opening line goes on for about fifty words more than that last "times," which is followed by a semi-colon, not a period.
— Charles Dickens - Tale of Two Cities

My two favorite opening sentences are both short and a bit gritty.

"The guy was dead as hell."
— Mickey Spillane - Vengeance Is Mine

… and …

"Elmer Gantry was drunk."
— Sinclair Lewis - Elmer Gantry

Closer to Home

All this thought led me to take a look at my own first sentences.

A Tisket, a Tasket, a Fancy Stolen Casket - "Eager to pump up my new underwear, I dashed into my apartment just as the phone rang."

Hey Diddle, Diddle, the Corpse & the Fiddle - "The sweat trapped in the bottom of my bra was making me crazy."

Casket Case - "Melvin Dawkins floated facedown in the steamy, bubbling water of the hot tub." No underwear in the first paragraph but she does mention she's not wearing any in the second paragraph.

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, There's a Body in the Car - "A fly sat on the old geezer's nose." What? No underwear in the first paragraph? Nope, but Callie mentions fanny-padded panties on the first page.

What about you? Do you have a favorite opening line (short story or novel) from your or another author's work? Please share it with us. Meanwhile, I've got to check with Liz to see if Callie's tendency to open with statements about underwear show any deep, underlying psychosis in her creator.

Until we meet again… take care of you!

18 March 2012

Flash Fiction– A Night Out

John Floyd and R.T. Lawton not only routinely cram mysteries into less than 700 words, but John is a master of flash fiction, a subgenre I thought beyond me until I found myself thinking about titles. I suddenly realized a title I had in mind could make a (nearly) complete crime story.

Some might think I'm channeling Elsin Ann (Graffam) Perry's Wide O, a popular single page story published by Ellery Queen, which I highly recommend if you can find it. I title my opus (clearing throat) 'A Night Out'. And now… Wait for it…

A Night Out
by Leigh Lundin

"Darling, doesn't this hankie smell like chlorof…"

17 March 2012

Show Me

by John M. Floyd

No, I'm not from Missouri. The title of this column refers instead to what readers expect from us, as writers, when they pick up a piece of fiction. They expect--and deserve--a story presented in a way that makes them feel they're actually seeing the characters and the setting and the action. In a perfect world, fictional events would be as vivid and compelling as if the readers were witnessing them firsthand.

Show business

All writers know it's better to show than tell. I once read that being "told" is like hearing a friend describe a movie he's seen; being "shown" is like going to see the movie yourself. I've also heard that when you use action and dialogue, you're showing; when you use description and exposition, you're telling. That reminds me of one of Elmore Leonard's "Ten Rules of Writing": Don't start a story with the weather. Good advice, unless maybe someone gets struck by lightning or the only bridge to the mainland gets washed away in the dark and stormy night. Nobody wants to begin a story--especially a mystery/suspense story--with nothing happening, and too much detail or explanatory writing usually means nothing's happening. Whenever possible, both the advancement of the plot and the development of the characters should be accomplished not through description or narrative summary but through the actions of the people in the story.

Example? That night Betty arrived in Chicago would be telling. That night Betty eased her ten-year-old Cadillac into the storm-littered parking lot in south Chicago would be showing.

Don't just TELL me you love me . . .

Is the "showing" version harder to write? Sure it is. According to Renni Browne and Dave King in their book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, "It's easier to simply say 'Erma was depressed' than to come up with some original bit of action that shows she's depressed. But if you have her take one bite of her favorite cake and push the rest away (or have her polish off the whole cake), you will have given your readers a far better feel for her depression than you could by simply describing it."

In The First Five Pages Noah Lukeman says, "A writer can spend a page telling us that his protagonist is a crook, or he can show it in one sentence by simply describing him taking a twenty-dollar bill from someone's pocket, and letting the reader judge for himself."

How can we spot "telling" in our own story manuscripts? Longtime editor Sol Stein said the best way to recognize whether a writer is showing or telling is to determine if the passage is "visual." Here's one of the examples featured in Stein on Writing.
Telling: Polly loved to dive in her swimming pool.
Showing: With clumsy jubilance, Polly hurtled her body from the rattling board and surfaced grinning through the kelp of her own hair.

Stein also says, "Tell me, and I'll forget. Show me, and you'll involve me."

The scales of injustice

The trouble with any discussion like this is that it almost always leads to a contradiction between show, don't tell and another rule that is at least as important: write tight. It's a balancing act, and a problem that all writers struggle with--especially, I think, writers of suspense fiction. On the one hand, we want to paint a sharp, clear word-picture of what's happening, and on the other hand we want to keep the narrative compact and tight and focused. It is, however, possible to do both. Even the most visual fiction, if it's good, is written "tight." (Cases in point: Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove and Stephen King's The Stand. Combined, my hardback copies of those novels run more than two thousand pages--but there are very few wasted words.)

I can't help mentioning the current gaggle of Presidential candidates. I find it interesting that while we writers try to use as few words as possible to say as much as possible, politicians use as many words as possible to say as little as possible. Maybe there is indeed something to be learned from all those endless (and mindless) campaign speeches.

I'll take my inspiration any way I can get it.

16 March 2012

Buddy, can you spare a.....recipe?

As writers, you know all too well how it is when you're writing right along and then you get that phone call, notice in the mail or have that unexpected event happen. Some are little things, short things, like reminders of a dental appointment or notification for jury duty. And then, some are far more reaching. From other posts and comments made on this site, it appears the last few years have been tough on parents.

The way it's been here, my wife and I have been gone a lot, off and on, since Thanksgiving. Then, right after Christmas, we drove 800 miles one way for another trip, so Kiti could help her 87-year old Mom who started chemo and radiation at the end of December. I drove home alone a few days after New Years. There wasn't a lot I could do there, however back home, we have two young grandsons we do daycare for during the school year, something we've done since they were born. Normally, the boys arrive at our house about 7:30 AM, we feed them breakfast, take them to elementary school, pick them up in the afternoon and deliver them to after school activities.

January and into February had a sudden change in the lineup. Yours truly got drafted as the mess hall cook. Prior to then, most of my culinary displays were confined to the grill in the back yard. So, here's how it went. On Day One of batching it, the boys frankly informed me I didn't know how to make oatmeal. Didn't take me long to call Grandma Kiti and find out her oatmeal secrets. On Day Five, when oatmeal came around on the menu again, the boys gave me a Two Thumbs Up. Whew, I was finally getting the hang of this cooking thing.

Then, one morning I overheard the boys talking about how they liked biscuits and gravy. Hey, I could do that. So, come a Wednesday, I opened the refrigerator, popped a tube of flaky style biscuits, arranged them on an ungreased cookie sheet, stuck them in the oven and hustled to the computer. A quick Google for sausage gravy turned up a simple recipe. Racing back to the kitchen, I slid a skillet onto the stove, got out the sausage and commenced to create gravy. It was only after placing everything on the breakfast island that I learned another lesson about cooking for discriminating young-uns. The boys promptly proceeded to tease their biscuits into four flaky layers. The bottom layer got butter, the second layer got grape jelly, the third layer got ONE SPOONFUL of gravy, the fourth piece went on top of the stack and they ate it like a sandwich. Who knew? I had to eat the rest of the biscuits and sausage gravy by myself. I'm sure it was good for my figure.

In an attempt to vary the morning menu, I've also created Grandpa R.T.'s version of a bacon, egg, cheese and biscuit McMuffin. (NOTE: I put those together myself, so we don't end up with more of them multi-layered sandwiches with purple jelly oozing out the sides. Don't think I'll ever have to worry about McDonald's suing me for infringement on their version.) Gotta love the convenience of those pop tube biscuits though. Of course, the boys being the savvy grocery shoppers they are, recently informed me those biscuits do come in smaller cans, so we wouldn't have so many leftover ones ending up in the bread toaster the next morning. Good thing they know what we're doing here.

On a high note, the boys confided in me that they like my fruit smoothies better than Grandma's, but they don't want to hurt her feelings, so I can't tell her. Naturally, I cheat when I make the smoothies, and throw in some vanilla Blue Bell ice cream to get a richer taste. (Those of you residing in states surrounding Texas know what I mean about Blue Bell.) Seems only right that everybody should have ice cream for breakfast.

Anyway, March is here and Grandma Kiti is 800 miles away again for a few weeks. That elevates me once more to the prestigous position of chief cook and dishwasher. Soooo, do any of you out there have any tasty, but simple recipes for a breakfast meal you'd care to share? This is no time to be shy. Just go ahead and put them in the blog's Comments Section. That way, if anybody reading the column sees a mouth watering recipe, it's right there for the trying.
And, to sweeten the pot, I'll try all the recipes out on the boys. Sorry, judges' decisions are final. The breakfast recipe they like the best gets a free personalized copy of the July/August 2012 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine mailed to them. Hint: It will have the tenth story in my Twin Brothers Bail Bond series and I'll autograph it any way you want. Hurry up now, I've got hungry mouths to feed.

15 March 2012

The Long and the Short

Recently, I was asked to write a four page mystery for a forthcoming anthology. While our Sleuthsayers colleague John Floyd constructs such tidbits for Woman’s World, this is unknown territory for me. However, there’s nothing like a contract in hand and promises of a check to focus the writer’s mind and once I had a plot idea, the story went surprisingly easily. And fast.

This was because I have learned one of the invaluable aspects of the writing game, writing to length and having a sense of how many words take up how much space. Obvious, apparently, but anyone who has worked with beginning writers knows that writing to a set length is one of the difficult things to master. Ask a class for a two page essay, and you will get one and a half skimpy paragraphs with looks of anguish from half the class, and prideful four and a half page torrents from the other half.

Of course, journalists acquire a sense of length with their mother’s milk – or by their editor’s pencil. Well before they earn their first byline the decent journalist can hit his or her word count or, in bygone days, the allotted inches, on the nose.

And how does one acquire this useful skill? By writing over and over again pieces of the same length. I learned by doing two page movie reviews for a West Hartford newspaper. After several months, I not only could hit my page count, I had a new confidence in writing in general, and composition ceased to be a matter of tears and angst.
Now, everything I write (and with twenty books published and more than I’d like in the drawer I’ve written plenty) is just a multiple of those old two page reviews. I’ve acquired a sense of length.

So the little ultra-short story was not quite two reviews length or slightly more than the old Criminal Brief blogs. I figured a half page to set up the situation, a half page for the conclusion and just under three pages for the meat of the story. QED, as we used to say in geometry class.

The matter of length, though, has another aspect. I am convinced that writers all have an optimal length (or lengths). In my case the Anna Peters mysteries consistently came in around 275-290 pages. My contemporary novels are a tad longer, between 300 and 350 pages. My short stories without the incentive of a contract run between 10 and 14 pages, rarely longer – or shorter.

Other writers, I believe, follow the same sort of pattern. Stephen King clearly writes long. The Portuguese Nobelist Jose Saramago wrote short – check Cain, his posthumously published novel about the first murderer.
The great Edwardian humorists, P.G. Wodehouse and Jerome K. Jerome liked short. The classic American novelists were divided. Melville liked long as did Stowe; Hawthorne liked short and was better even shorter. The great UK Victorians and the great Russian novelists needed amplitude, though one of the best of the era, Emily Bronte, brought in Wuthering Heights at a modest length.

Perhaps if penicillin had been available to knock out her TB, Bronte might have evolved into a long writer. More recently, this been the pattern of successful mystery novelists. While Christie, Chandler, and Simenon all stayed with compact books, all too many of our contemporaries have moved from short and tight to brogdingnagian. Dick Francis, he of the thrilling Nerve and Flying Finish, grew rich on doorstop novels of multiple plots – and abundant padding.

P.D. James has grown longer, too, over the decades, if with fewer ill effects, but Elizabeth George’s Believing the Lie suggests that she may have reached the tipping point. Ruth Rendall has resisted the trend; indeed her most recent novel was shorter than usual, but she has had the outlet of the Barbara Vine novels, suggesting she has two ideal lengths.

Surprisingly, given the cost-cutting in the publishing world with lower advances – or no advances at all – cheaper paper, and cheesy construction, there seems to be a preference for the massive. Big novels, big books suggest big ideas or, at least, big sales and big sticker prices. Big suggests important, though many a savvy reader knows it really means inflated. But in this economy, who can blame writers, if like me with a contract in hand, they are tempted to venture beyond their muse’s favorite territory?


14 March 2012

Me, Hitch and Hollywood

by Neil Schofield

I was cock-a-hoop last month, well, two weeks ago, when Rob and John and everyone else was celebrating Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, because I realised I have an anniversary in February. February 2001 in fact, which was when my very first story appeared in AHMM. Actually it was a dead heat because I also had a story in EQMM that month but that's by the way and neither here nor there. 2001 was a good year for me: I had six stories published including my only ever cover story. I know how Rob feels. I was tickled to bits, and wanted to kiss the postwoman, but I didn't because you never know where that sort of thing is going to lead.

The editor then was Cathleen Jordan, whom I never really got to talk to because she died tragically and too soon. I did get an e-mail from her with a rare rejection of one story. She made it clear that she was onto me, had seen the end coming a mile off, but that she like the 'particularly good title'. I still have that title which is waiting for the particularly good story to come along to fit it. I was in Short Crime Fiction Heaven, happily getting used to the ferlap of a contract coming through the door or the flump of the complimentary copies hitting the deck.

Another anniversary comes along this month. In March 2004, I had a story in AHMM. A little story actually, no more than 4500 words. I had originally sent it to Zoetrope, who returned it with a nice handwritten note saying very enjoyable, but not for them. So, I mucked it around a little, changed the title and sent it to Linda Landrigan for her to have a butcher's. And it duly appeared in the March number in 2004.

A week later - no more - I had a phone call. From a Hollywood producer. It was a Sunday night, and Mimi was out - doing something, I don't quite know what. I never quite know what. When she finally hove up alongside me I told her I had one word to say to her and the word was Hollywood.

Tell you what, though, the paramedics are quick off the mark in France. When Mimi had been pronounced out of danger, I filled her in: a female Hollywood producer wanted to option the story with a view to making it into a feature-length film. You can imagine how the champagne flowed that night. You can imagine it if you like, but the sad truth is we didn't have any in the house and it was too late to buy any.

Anyway, the following week all sorts of negotiations went on, and to my boyish delight I was involved in long-range early morning discussions about option payments and percentages of net receipts. I had conversations with the amiable Scott Lais in Contracts and Permissions at Dell, and from him I learned that there was another production company in the frame, for whom my producer had worked.

"We're in a bitter bidding war," I said to Mimi. I had to translate and explain and that took the shine off a bit.

I spoke to the second production company and they seemed lukewarm, so I decided that all things being equal I would go with the original candidate.

A contract came, and was signed and was sent back. A three-year renewable option with staged payments. I thought I had died and gone to paradise.

The first cheque bounced.

It was then I realised that there is Hollywood and there is Hollywood.

That hiccup was sorted out after a fashion after a while. But the pattern or something like it was repeated: getting the instalments of money out of Ms Producer was like pulling teeth. Still, I stuck grimly to it, telling myself that even hotshot Hollywood producers can have little administrative problems. I invented an Accounts Person called Marsha who was the bane of everyone's life and who hated signing cheques would do anything not to sign a cheque even when she was ordered to and her job, livelihood and two-bedroom apartment depended on it.

We carried on like this, me in my fantasy world, and Ms Producer in hers, into 2005, when Ms Producer up and announced that she would be going down to the Cannes Film Festival to sell her film wares, and wouldn't it be great if, while she was traversing Paris, we could lunch. Her treat. My choice of restaurant.

I was now going through mental contortions such as only the most feeble of minds can produce. Suddenly Ms Producer was back on the A-List, the problems with the cheques had been simple Marsha-based aberrations. I resolved that I would ask - no, demand - a new clause in my contract under which Marsha would be told to hit the highway. I think I was in what psychiatrists call a fugue state. Elizabeth might be able to help me out here.

I had chosen the Closerie des Lilas, on the corner of the Boulevard Montparnasse and just round the corner from where Hemingway lived. In fact the Closerie was one of his favourite watering holes, and today it is very posh. I sat at the bar with before me a small brass plaque which told me I was in the very seat where Hem used to park it on his frequent visits. I could imagine Hemingway nailing the plaque to the bar with his very own hands.

Ms Producer made it on time, and lunch ensued. A superb lunch, needless to say, outside on the terrasse, in the sunshine. Sunshine without and sunshine within. I was being lunched by a Hollywood producer. Ms P talked about her plans, showed me the press pack - the press pack! -for the film, including a mock-up of the poster. Wine was taken, casting was discussed: names were bandied about and I remember that Hugh Jackman was the principal bandyee. I bandied for all I was worth. Ms P told me that the South Koreans were interested in the project.

"What, all of them?" I quipped, up for for anything and eager to promote my sardonic Brit humour.

"No, just the ones that matter." said Ms P tersely.

Apparently, down in Cannes, she had hired a hospitality suite, had wined and dined various film coves. And covesses, I suppose. She presented me with a bottle of her specially-labelled champagne. And, remember, all this for a fourteen page short story turned down by Zoetrope.

Ms P produced plastic, we collected our personal belongings and parted on good terms, me with my press pack and bottle of champagne and the feeling that we were that close, Ms P with her high hopes.

And it finished there; more or less. The tooth-pulling recommenced in the autumn, and as the effects of a Closerie lunch slowly wore off, the option slowly expired. There was some loose talk about renewing it, but I knew by then what anyone else would have known from the start: that I was in the hands of a wannabe who wasn't gonnabe. I knew that we weren't that close, we were that far away.

Ms Producer, when I Google her name today, is flogging wine and dating services on the Net. In a spirit of nostalgia, I Google the name of the story sometimes, and up pops Ms Producer's company site, with embedded somewhere in it the mock-up poster of a film that was not to be.

So what did I get out of all this? Quite a lot, actually.

I got several thousand bucks - however hardly won - about twelve times what I had been paid for the original story.

I got a great lunch.

And for two or three years, I had the warm winds of Hollywood fanning my cheeks and ruffling my hair.

Which is a lot, I say.

And all that because AHMM published a little story of mine. Life is full of surprises, my mother used to say. And in this, as in most things, she was right.

I haven't given the real name of Ms P. A gentleman doesn't. And in any case, one day, who knows? Life is full of surprises.

Vive AHMM. And all who sail in her.