16 August 2012

In Search of Lost Books

A while back, a friend of mine was going through treatment, and I read the 20 questions they give you to see if you're an alcoholic.  I looked up at the end and said, "Well, if you replace the word alcohol with books, that's me."  I am a bookaholic.  I get up planning what I'm going to read that day.  I have books in every room, and a stack of books by every chair that I claim as mine.  I read new books, re-read old favorites, and I am still searching for a few books that I read as a child but either can't find or never did find out what they were. Proust can have his madeleines; I have books.
When I was a little girl, in first, maybe second grade, in Escondido, California, our teacher read a Western aloud to us.  I’ve been trying to find it ever since.  Our teacher was Hispanic, with lustrous black hair and eyes.  Her voice read steadily, with meaning and accents in all the right places.  It was about a cowboy who came down into what was then northern Mexico, and today is Southern California:  the Salinas Valley, perhaps, or Escondido, or one of many other valleys. 
He came down over the hills, I remember.  The description of the brown hills, that look so bare from a distance, but are covered with tall grass, yucca, sage, short cactus, poppies, and all the plants of the chaparral, the description was perfect.  They were the same hills behind our house, once you went over the main hill, the one on which a thin ribbon of a one-street suburb rose to lemon and orange groves, which in turn gave way to avocado groves, which in turn broke open under the blue sky to a mansion on a hill, a mansion with fir trees, a pool, and a view.  Those belonged to the grove's owners, and they also had peacocks, which wandered, crying in the afternoon for love or rain as the clouds piled high and purple behind the dark glossy green of the avocado trees. 

I walked my way through the groves, avoiding the mansion – they didn’t like trespassers, even or especially not children – and emerged on the crest of rolling hills that went on forever.  Scrubby, brown, endless; mottled with color, blazing with poppies – I don’t remember the cowboy’s name, but I knew where he had been, and could hardly wait to see where he would go.

He ended up with a Spanish wife, another woman with lustrous black hair and eyes, whose voice was accented and soft.  They had a son, and I still remember the scene where they decided what to name him.  They chose his first name, which I have totally forgotten.  What I do remember was when his wife said that only one name wouldn't do.  You named a child after everyone who was important to you:  grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, best friends, and acquaintances.  But our cowboy was all alone, and I think what impressed me was that it was the first time he realized how alone he was, because I felt much the same.  He could only think of one friend, Joe.  “d’Joe” she said, pronouncing the “j” as “h”…  And it became the son's middle name. 

I remember that.  And no more.  I asked the teacher, at the end of the year, what the name of the book was – and she couldn’t remember.  But I’ve wanted to read the rest of that book for a very long time.  I want to know what the rest of his - their - journey was.  Maybe some day I'll find it.  If it rings a bell with anybody, please let me know. 

15 August 2012

Imaginary Friends

by Robert Lopresti 

It has been an interesting summer, in many ways, but not least because I have been listening to a lot of fascinating conversations between people who, technically, don't exist.

I suppose that means that I am either in the middle of a first draft, or having a psychotic breakdown.  I think it's the former  but, hey, if it was the latter would I know?

I have written before about the fact that I started writing a novel last month and I hope you pardon me if I go back to the same old topic.  They say that writing a novel only teaches you to write that novel, and  I see the wisdom in that.  This book is coming a little different than my past efforts.  Mostly the characters are so damned lively.

I have heard thousands of writers talk about characters who come alive and develop minds and wills of  their own.  I have always said that doesn't happen to me, but this time it has come close.

Take Ray Ray, for instance.  I have mentioned him before.  He literally popped up from nowhere because I needed a delivery boy to make a chapter longer.  But the little rat seems to be trying to take over the book.  It makes a nice change from a lot of characters in the past who have seemed desperate to get out of my stories.

And then there is the computer nerd.  My book contains gtwo opposing groups and I knew that at some point the computer nerd was going to change sides.  Problem was, I had no idea what his motive would be for doing so.

But last week I was biking home one day, thinking about the fact that one of my major characters was due to die of natural causes.  It seemed like such a waste.  After all, this is a crime novel.   Why not have somebody kill the dude, seeing as he was about to die anyway?

And as I pedaled I realized who would want the fella dead, but this guy wouldn't do the killing himself.  Immediately another actor arrived on the stage in my skull, the hired killer, and she is as close as I have come to  that experience of having a character argue with me.  Techically she argued with the guy who hired her, refusing to fall into certain cliches of her profession.   Her employer had to respond by calling in his computer nerd --

And then I started laughing so hard I had to stop my bike.  I grabbed my notebook and started writing  brief outline for four more chapters.  Now I knew why the nerd changed sides.

So, like I said, it's been an interesting summer.  I assume at some point the inspiration will dry up and it will be a matter of grinding out the words.  Who knows whether the novel will ever get finished, much less published?    But it's a wild ride what it lasts...

14 August 2012

Oscar Wilde and Gore Vidal

    On the last day of November, 1900, Oscar Wilde gazed up from his deathbed at the walls of the dingy hotel room in Paris that was to be his last refuge and reportedly muttered “either that wall paper goes, or I go.”  He then died.  One hundred and twelve years later, on the last day of July, 2012, Gore Vidal, a man described as the twentieth century answer to Oscar Wilde, died in his bed in Hollywood, California.  There are many common threads shared by these men of different centuries.   Each was a celebrated author of novels, mysteries, and plays.  But each was also known, perhaps even more so, for their celebrated caustic wits.  And each grappled throughout their respective lives with their own complicated sexuality.

Oscar Wilde
Gore Vidal
    Wilde and Vidal were each blessed with the privileges that come with having been born into aristocracy.  Oscar Wilde’s parents were Dublin intellectuals, Sir William Wilde and his wife, the poet Jane Francesca Wilde.  Oscar Wilde was raised with the assistance of a French governess, and later studied the classics at Trinity College, Dublin, and at Magdalene College at Cambridge.  Gore Vidal’s lineage was just as august, but seeped in the aristocracy of the New World.  Vidal’s father, James Lucas Vidal, served as Commerce Secretary under Franklin D. Roosevelt and then went on, in partnership with Amelia Earhart, to found Eastern Air Lines, Northeast Air Lines and TWA.  (If you have seen the 2009 movie Amelia you may have noted a young Gore Vidal, portrayed by William Cuddy.)  Gore Vidal’s mother, Nina Gore, was the daughter of a former Oklahoma Senator and later, after divorcing Vidal’s father, was the wife of Louis Auchincloss, who was later to become the stepfather of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.  And like Wilde, Vidal’s education was robust – he attended Sidwell Friends School and St. Albans in Washington, D.C., and then Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.  Unlike Wilde, Vidal did not attend college, but instead enlisted in the Navy and served as a warrant officer in the Pacific during World War II.

    Both Wilde and Vidal also shared what can only be described as complicated sexual identities.  Wilde was married for a number of years to Constance Lloyd, a wealthy London heiress, and they had two children, Cyril and Vyvyan.  The marriage crumbled, however, soon after Wilde became enamored of Alfred Douglas, a brilliant but incorrigibly fey Oxford graduate and frequenter of the London gay nightlife community.  The ensuing flamboyant relationship between Wilde and Douglas soon became a cause célèbre in London.  Wilde, unlike Vidal, had the bad fortune to be borne into a less forgiving era.  The relationship in any event infuriated Douglas’ straight laced (even for Victorian times) father the Marquess of Queensberry, who on February 18, 1895 left a calling card for Wilde at his London club, the Albemarle.  The incorrectly spelled message said simply:  "For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite"
The Marquess of Queensberry
(in all his rabid glory)

   While Wilde had embraced Douglas he could not bring himself to embrace his own sexuality, and his response was an outraged denial.  In short order Wilde sued the Marquess of Queensberry for libel.  There was, to say the least, ample evidence that Wilde was, indeed, homosexual and, no surprise, the Marquess of Queensberry was acquitted.  The acquittal rendered Wilde liable for the defense of the case, which ruined him financially.  But even worse, it provided the basis for Wilde’s own conviction for sodomy, his incarceration in London, the collapse of his health, and (doubtless) his death in that cheap Paris hotel room in November of 1900.

    By contrast, Vidal led his life in a far more open and less judgmental time.  He, too, reportedly was involved with a number of women – Vidal, for example, was engaged to Joanne Woodward just before her marriage to Paul Newman – but his longtime companion was Howard Austen, who died in 2003, and his essays and novels – notably The City and the Pilar and Myra Breckenridge are rife with homosexual themes.  And while Vidal never stooped to denial (the catalyst to Wilde’s downfall), this is not to say that he did not stoop to litigation.  The analog to Wilde’s libel suit against the Marquess of Queensberry was Vidal’s 1969 court battle with William F. Buckley.

William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal
    The feud between the two began, for all intent and purpose, in 1968 when ABC News decided to pair Buckley and Vidal for contrasting views on the Democratic convention in Chicago.  The pair had debated before, but by the penultimate Chicago broadcast – as the Democrats’ convention was descending into anarchy and ruin, and riots spread throughout Chicago, any hope of civility between Vidal and Buckley also washed out with the tide.  A report of the climactic exchange that took place on the broadcast, preserved in the archives of the University of Pittsburg, provides as follows:
[B]efore long the men began exchanging words that one simply didn’t hear on TV at that time. Vidal called Buckley a "pro-crypto-Nazi," a modest slip of the tongue, he later said, because he was searching for the word "fascist" and it just didn't come out. Inflamed by the word "Nazi" and the whole tenor of the discussion, Buckley snapped back: "Now listen, you queer,” he said, “stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”
    That ended the face-to-face appearances of the two:  the last ABC "debate" featured Vidal and Buckley in separate rooms.  But the feud continued in various published articles authored by the two and culminated in a libel suit, brought initially by Buckley, charging that Vidal had defamed him by referring to him as “anti-black and anti-Semitic.”  Vidal counter-sued alleging that Buckley libeled him by describing his novel Myra Breckenridge as “pornography.”  Both cases were dismissed, although pursuant to a settlement agreement, damages were paid by Buckley.

    The difference between the 1800s and the Twentieth Century was significant for Vidal.  While Wilde, for all of his intellect, was nonetheless forced into denial, even in the face of his own open behavior, Vidal had the option to more freely embrace who he was.  It is true that earlier in the 1950s homosexual themes in Vidal's novel The City and the Pillar affected his ability to sell books.  Indeed, that is why his series of three detective novels written at that time – Death before Bedtime, Death in the Fifth Position and Death Likes it Hot were written under the pseudonym Edgar Box.  But by the late 1960s sexual orientation had become less of a public concern and Vidal’s litigation with Buckley, and his flamboyance, if anything, simply increased his notoriety.  Regarding his sexual preferences Vidal openly wrote “[t]here is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person. There are only homo- or heterosexual acts. Most people are a mixture of impulses if not practices.”  Gore Vidal frequently described his role in life as “Gentleman bitch.”

    In any event, and as mentioned at the outset, both Wilde and Vidal are known, and will continue to be known, for their caustic wit.  So let’s end with a salute to that.

Oscar Wilde:

  • A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone's feelings unintentionally.
  • A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.
  • A man's face is his autobiography. A woman's face is her work of fiction.
  • A poet can survive everything but a misprint.
  • Alas, I am dying beyond my means.
  • All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.
  • All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his.
  • Always forgive your enemies - nothing annoys them so much.
  • America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.
  • America has been discovered often before Columbus, but it was always hushed up.
  • An excellent man; he has no enemies; and none of his friends like him.
  • A man is very apt to complain of the ingratitude of those who have risen above him.  
  • Biography lends to death a new terror.
  • Anyone who lives within his means suffers from a lack of imagination.
  • I think God in creating Man somewhat overestimated his ability.
  • One should always play fairly when one holds the winning cards.

And, Gore Vidal:

  • A good deed never goes unpunished.
  • All children alarm their parents, if only because you are forever expecting to encounter yourself.
  • A narcissist is someone better looking than you are.
  • Andy Warhol is the only genius I've ever known with an I.Q. of 60.
  • Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.
  • Fifty percent of people won't vote, and fifty percent don't read newspapers. I hope it's the same fifty percent.
  • It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.
  • One is sorry one could not have taken both branches of the road. But we were not allotted multiple selves.
  • Television is now so desperately hungry for material that they're scraping the top of the barrel.
  • The four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so.
  • There is no human problem that could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.
  • Always a godfather, never a God.  
Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal
    One of my favorite Gore Vidal stories involves another television appearance, this time on Dick Cavett’s ABC show in 1971  Vidal was scheduled to appear with Norman Mailer, and while the two were in the green room, prior to their introductions, an argument erupted.  Vidal had recently published a not-so-glowing critique of Mailer’s latest work.  Mailer groused about the critique and an exchange of words ultimately culminated in Mailer decking Vidal.  Bloodied, and lying on the floor, Vidal reportedly looked up, raised one eyebrow and said, “Once again we find Mr. Mailer at a loss for words.”

13 August 2012

Olympics Withdrawal

As I write this I am recording the closing ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympics from London. Nooooo, I'm not ready for it to be over. What will I do every day now? What to do every evening. No swimming, no gymnastics, no track and field, no beach volleyball. It's not fair. I'm not ready.

Just when NBC gets us all revved up and excited and hooked then they take it away. Dang, all I can see that I can do is read. But I'm out of books to be read. I could play Words with Friends on my telephone, but I seem to get beat regularly by almost everyone. I could write, but dang, I've almost forgotten how to do that. I mean it took me two days to come up with this idea and I'm not sure it's exciting enough. How could they do this to me?

I've watched NBC every day, every night. Cheered for USA, USA, USA. And Go! Leo! Go! Okay, I can guess I'd better tell all y'all (that's the plural of y'all, right Deborah?) why I'm rooting for Leo. Leo Manzana is the young man from Marble Falls, TX who ran the 1500 meters in the 2008 Olympics and got caught behind some big guys and couldn't get out. Leo broke all the high school records and won a scholarship to University of Texas and then broke NCAA records. This year, 2012, he made the Olympics again. He made it to the final heat just by the skin of his teeth. And the final was run at 3:15 pm on Tuesday, August 7th. A local bar and grille in downtown Marble Falls held a "race watch party." Strangely enough I decided to go and watch. I just thought it would be more fun to watch with a group of local people. So I got ready and went. When I got inside R Bar & Grille, I spotted a friend, Ann who happened to have a table and an empty chair. I sat down. Someone had hooked up their computer to an NBC live feed to one of the TVs on the wall.

I ordered a big glass of iced tea and a snack and got ready to watch. The clock rolled around to 3:15, the runners took their places and the gun sounded to send them off. Leo took off and seemingly as usual got behind some of the big guys. Everyone was yelling, GO! LEO! GO! The bell rang for the final stretch to the finish line...Leo had moved up a little and was in 10th place. Suddenly he was on the outside running his heart out. He passed everyone except the leader and he WON SILVER!! It was so exciting. And it absolutely was fun to watch with my friend Ann and a group of strangers. All of us were thrilled that our hometown hero had won a medal.

Leo is quoted in today's (Sunday) Austin newspaper: "My legs just felt like they were bricks, but something inside me said keep going, keep going, keep pushing, keep pushing."

One of my other friends, singer songwriter, john Arthur martinez, wrote a song several years ago for Leo. The song is titled, "Dare to Dream Out Loud." You see, Leo was born in Mexico. His parents moved to Texas when Leo was four. When he first came out for track in school he was running in a pair of old boots because he didn't know nor could he afford track shoes. But the coach could see Leo was fast and he had heart. And Leo had a dream. A dream to go to the Olympics. A dream to win a medal for the USA. And Leo Manzano didn't give up. His family didn't give up. They made a better life for their family. They became citizens of the USA because they dared to dream.

A dream is all many of us have. A dream to write. A dream to be published. A dream to succeed.
Dare to Dream. But remember as you dream you must also work towards that goal. I'm going to miss watching the summer Olympics. Every single athlete who made it there had a dream, but they also worked like crazy for four or eight or twelve years. For some their dream came true.

Leo's dream came true and so can yours.

Congratulations to Leo Manzano, winner of the Silver Medal in the 1500 meter run in the 2012 Olympics in London.

12 August 2012

Flash Fiction– Throw in the Towel?

As I mentioned before, John Floyd and R.T. Lawton not only routinely cram mysteries into less than 700 words, but John is a master of flash fiction, which I attempted a few months ago in A Night Out.

Brace yourself; I'm taking another stab at it. In thinking about the wisdom of writing another flash fiction, I was tempted to title it Throwing in the Towel, but I'll let you decide if I picked a better title.

by Leigh Lundin

Bubbles was a slippery one. She tried to soft-soap me, but I strangled her in the bathtub, no trace, no prints, no evidence.

Me, I hate wet work, but the cops, they said it was a clean kill.

11 August 2012


by Elizabeth Zelvin

Among the lessons I learned at my mother’s knee is this one: the ocean is better than the bay; a lake is better than a pool. I grew up spending as much of every summer as I could on the world-class beaches of
Long Island, including Jones Beach, which was an easy drive from where we lived in Queens, and Hampton Bays, which was not at that time considered one of The Hamptons, since its year-round population was working-class conservative and its summer people, at least the ones we knew, were a small band of “progressives,” many of them teachers like my aunt who had a house there. The big social event of the season was always a Labor Day party to benefit the latest leftist martyrs, the Something Seven or the Something Ten. But let’s talk about the beach.

The modest little house my husband and I were lucky enough to snap up during a “soft” period for real estate in 1990—having rented unwittingly to a trio of drug dealers who set the neighborhood on its ear, the local businessman who owned it was glad to get rid of it—is only seven miles from one of the superb beaches maintained by the Town of East Hampton, which stretches from Bridgehampton to Montauk.
At low tide, you can walk for miles along the beach if you’re so inclined. If you want less wind, you can lie back against the pillowy dunes—not ON or IN the dunes, please: every spike of beach grass was lovingly planted by the hands of environmentalists, and the humps of sand have only recently recovered their full roundness after being sheared off by a hurricane nine or ten years ago. Or, as I do, you can choose a front row seat, where a cool breeze is always available, even on the hottest day, and if you don’t watch out, a curl of wave on the incoming tide may swamp your beach towel and carry your sandals off to Spain.

My mother, who if asked, “How was your vacation?” would respond by enumerating the swims she’d had, taught me not just to observe but to revel in the fact that the ocean is always different. At least that’s true of the Atlantic off Long Island.
My mother always maintained that there’s nothing like the morning swim. When I was a kid, we’d stay at the beach all day, “earning” our lunch by leaping and diving through the waves (“Over!” “Under!”) in that icy morning water. Now, between adult responsibilities and the hole in the ozone, I seldom get to the beach before 3 PM. But I still miss that morning swim.

It’s not just a matter of the weather: bright and clear one day, hazy and humid the next, overcast on the third day, with a storm rolling in overnight.
Even if the skies stay blue, flat silky seas on which it’s easy to swim laps (without having to turn every sixteen strokes as you would in a pool) can be replaced by rearing “seahorses” of foam and crashing breakers. In 1995 I spent several days on the campus of the University of California at San Diego for a conference, and I was amazed by the way the turquoise waters of the Pacific in La Jolla remained consistent over time. If I went to the same spot near the jetty every day, I could jump the same gentle rollers day after day after day. It was nice for a change, and La Jolla itself is probably one of the most beautiful places in America. But I’m an East Coast girl, and I like an ocean to surprise me.

10 August 2012

Who Framed Pot Boiler??

A while back, here on SS, there was a bit of a question concerning the meaning of the term potboiler.  Was it a term you wanted applied to your story, or not.

I found this interesting, because I've long been of two minds about the word potboiler.  On the one hand, I knew it could be pejorative. But, on the other, I seem to recall seeing it used in descriptive praise for some suspense works.

So, I began to wonder: Does potboiler have two meanings?  Or only one?  And, what is -- or are -- the word's defining terms?

To begin my search, I pulled my old friend, Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, from atop the pile of books littering my desk.  This wonderfully humongous tome, which my daughter uses to press flowers (and I sometimes use as a doorstop, since I bought it at a garage sale for five bucks!), was published in 1996, and defines potboiler as "a mediocre work of literature or art produced merely for financial gain."

Calling something mediocre is not terribly complementary, but that was in 1996.  English is far from a dead language.  It continues to morph and grow into new forms, sometimes adding definitions or nuances to previously familiar words and phrases, as usage changes over time.  So, I checked out some contemporary definitions in online dictionaries.

Mirriam-Webster online dictionary defines potboiler in much the same way, except that it replaces the word 'mediocre' with the phrase 'usually inferior', which would seem to make this definition even more derogatory than my Webster's.

The definition under Dictionary.com precisely matched that of my old Webster's, while The Oxford Dictionaries Online defined potboiler as "a book, painting, or recording produced merely to make the writer or artist a living by catering to popular taste."

The idea here is that potboiler refers to some type of food that can be tossed in a pot and left to boil – such as a stew that might feed a person for several days if properly maintained.  Thus, a potboiler piece is something an author writes so s/he can buy food, thus avoiding starvation when later writing something higher brow.  Lewis Carroll may have used the term, in just this manner, when writing a letter to A.B. Frost in 1880.

But, I was still left wondering about my recollection of seeing potboiler used as praise on some book jackets. Googling the term potboiler, however, eventually led me to an Amazon webpage entitled: Books: Mystery, Thriller & Suspense – Potboiler  

Surely, I thought, Amazon wouldn't categorize any of its stock as being mediocre.  And, indeed, the books listed didn't look all that mediocre.  They included several rather well-known or popular mysteries. Among them: Who Censored Roger Rabbit? by Gary Wolf, the cult sensation that was loosely translated into the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Now, this list matched up with my previous impression: that potboiler could also refer to a suspense novel wit a plot bubbling under constant tension -- like a stew pot with the lid securely fastened, though left on HIGH.  A sort of pressure-cooker plotline, in which tension keeps building until the id blows off near the end.

One online retailer, however, can hardly be counted as a trend when it comes to altering the lexicon. So, as I often do when faced with a problem ...

I headed for the cigar store.

What happened there?  

I'll tell you in two weeks!

P.S. Two weeks ago, I told you about the dust storms around here.  Here are pics my wife took.  These are pretty small storms, this year.  But, it gives the uninitiated an idea.

09 August 2012

Daydream Believers

Yes, I am a daydream believer. (And I dare anyone born in the latter part of the last century not to mentally humming right about now. (Missing your smile and sweet voice, Davy Jones!) But, it's about more than a song's lyrics and melody. Daydreams lead to interesting ideas.

Daydreamers may incite teachers to insist their students stop and pay attention to their instruction, but for most of us, daydreaming transports us to other places and times and relieves many  boring moments in our lives.
For a writer, daydreams inspire many stories yet to written.

While night dreams may also lead to plot ideas or characters, for me those sometimes head into darker places. I have written those stories, too, but I appreciate where daydreams take flight. The initial trip to Daydream Land may be innocent enough, but often leads me to an intricate plotline that turns sinister.

Daydreaming has led me to ask What if? Why? and How?

They've led me to wonderful dark thoughts that transpired into Noir storylines. Admittedly, I have an affinity for hardboiled detectives, so those day trips to my imagination brought fun to write short stories where I get to plack (my mother's made-up word when she was a kid that was an abbreviation for "play like") as a hardened private eye chasing down a bad guy that was really bad.

Some of my personal recent daydreams include:

  • What if I'd been in a bank where a robbery was about to take place?
  • What if I were in that movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado?
  • What if I were on a campus that had a sudden lockdown?
  • What if I were stuck in an elevator? Which person would I want to be in there with and how long would be to long?
  • If I had just one author to read the rest of my life, which would I choose?
  • What is worth most: good looks, money or brains? (Thinking Marilyn Monroe, Bill Gates or Einstein)
  • If I had to live in cartoon land, what characters would I most enjoy sharing my time?
  • If I had my choice of mentors, which would be best suited for me?
  • If I could meet with a fictional character for coffee, who would be most interesting?
  • What super power would I most like to posess?

Do you live part time in fantasy land, too? Maybe we'll meet up in a daydream or two! What fun that would be!

08 August 2012

John Buchan: The Power House

Hey folks!  Rob here to tell you we are pleased as can be to welcome a new blogger to the second Wednesday of the month slot.  David Edgerley Gates lives in New Mexico and has had a ton of stories published in Alfred Hitchcock's and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazines.  His work has been  nominated for both the Edgar and Shamus Awards.  He is probably best known for his "noir westerns" about Placido Geist.  We look forward to hearing from David for many months to come...

by David Edgerley Gates

John Buchan is probably most celebrated and best remembered for THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS, and more for the Hitchcock picture, not the novel itself.  (It’s a good movie, even if Hitchcock changed the ending of the book.)
Buchan was an interesting guy, who served in the Boer War and was actually a spy, later, in the First World War.  He was ambitious in politics, but too liberal for the Tories, and too conservative for Winston Churchill---like Churchill, he was mothballed between the wars---and eventually wound up Governor-General of Canada, a more or less ceremonial post.  He died in 1940.  

Aside from THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS, he wrote some three dozen novels, some of them thrillers, many of them historical romance.  His titles were terrific, THE BLANKET OF THE DARK, THE GAP IN THE CURTAIN, A PRINCE OF THE CAPTIVITY, a book I always thought to be about Lawrence of Arabia.  

He wrote them fast and loose.  He called them penny-dreadfuls, or ‘shockers,’ and they were, depending overmuch on coincidence and accident, but they have enormous momentum, and on occasion genuine emotional power: the scene in MR. STANDFAST, for example, when Hannay encounters the Kaiser himself on a train platform, and sees the man, weighted down by his responsibility for this cruel folly.  Buchan understood the primary job of a storyteller, don’t spin your wheels.

THE POWER HOUSE was published in 1916, a few years into the war.  The character of the villain is almost certainly influenced by Nietzsche, as is, we might well imagine, Professor Moriarty.  Conan Doyle and Buchan, as well as Kipling, another extremely invested writer, in the sense of believing deeply in the social fabric, although Kipling was by far the better craftsman, were conservatives of an older order, keepers of the flame. 

THE POWER HOUSE could be seen as a parable, but I don’t believe Buchan meant it that way.  A century later, a century that saw Hitler and Stalin, delusional maniacs who murdered millions of their own people, and many others, the book is still frightening in its prescience.  Buchan’s frame of reference, though, is different from ours.  We know the slaughter of the Great War, the Holocaust, or the genocides of Africa and the Balkan wars, so we look at a novel like THE POWER HOUSE, or PRESTER JOHN, through a lens of historical irony.  Buchan was in ignorance of the horrific future.  But he saw it in its lineaments.  THE POWER HOUSE is Hitler, unfortunately not strangled in birth, Yeats' rough and slouching beast.  Buchan had the gift, or curse, of foresight.  Cassandra, unheeded. 
THE POWER HOUSE, essentially, is about a guy who doesn’t think the rules apply to him.  This basic model of the sociopath is a character Buchan anticipated well before Hannibal Lecter, but one we’ve come to know.  Buchan, and Conan Doyle, got in on the ground floor.  Fu Manchu, or Dr. Mabuse, came on stage later, and they were avatars of an evil that could already be seen, off-stage.  The genius of THE POWER HOUSE lies in imagination.  The brute force of reality caught up with it.  Buchan saw the Fascists and Nazism lying in wait, tinder waiting for a match.  He was a voice in the wilderness. 

John Buchan, or Arthur Conan Doyle, or Rudyard Kipling, might in all justice be called apologists for British imperialism.  I don’t think, however, that they countenanced a philosophy that led to the death camps.  Yes, the Boer War, which was a slippery slope, with the British the first to embrace internment of non-combatant women and children.  Buchan was there, one of Milner’s acolytes.  Perhaps it suggested something else to him, that this way lies madness.  And it did. 

Much of Buchan’s work dates badly, because he’s essentially a 19th-century guy, with a late-Victorian cultural and emotional mindset.  There’s little graphic violence in his stories, and of course no sex at all.  But the men of his generation came to be marked by the Great War, with its unthinkable slaughters, Ypres, the Somme, Verdun, the introduction of tank warfare, the use of poison gas.  There were inspiring heroics, but at horrific human cost.   

The world that came after, as Paul Fussell points out, was very different, different in both temperament and imagination.  The key to THE POWER HOUSE is that Buchan foresees not the horrors to come, or even their political foundations, but the fertility of an individual capacity for evil, the earth from which the dragon’s teeth would spring.

07 August 2012

The York Boys

If you've watched any of the coverage of the Olympics, you may have noticed a few shots of the Tower of London.  It's the most visited spot in that most visited city, and also contains the fabulous crown jewels of the royal household.  It was also the last place that Edward York, and his younger brother, Richard, were ever seen.  Edward was twelve and awaiting his coronation as King Edward the Fifth.  Richard, nine, would have been next in line to the  throne.  The year was 1483, and their Uncle Richard, shortly to become Richard the Third of Shakespearean infamy, was the Lord Protector of the Realm.  He had placed the boys in the tower in order to protect them as befit his title.  A little over the top, perhaps, placing them in what amounted to a prison, but Richard never did anything by halves.  After all, his recently departed older brother, King Edward the IV, had charged him with guiding and protecting his heir until he should attain his majority.  Richard insisted that he was doing just that.  What was he protecting them from, you might ask?  Their mother and her meddling brothers, quoth he.

Since coming out as the winners of the War of the Roses, as it came to be known, the Yorks had been top dogs in Britain for a number of years.  Those who had opposed them and supported the Lancaster branch of the Plantagenet family had been largely silenced and suppressed.  As King Edward's trusted lieutenant, and youngest brother, Richard had been a large and heavy hand in the undoing of their enemies.  Neither his courage or loyalty had ever been an issue.  Upon learning of his impending death, Edward had entrusted him with the welfare of his heirs, as well as that of his kingdom.  At this particular juncture in history, the future Richard the Third, was not a villain, but one of the most respected men in England.  What happened?

Simply put, the princes were seen less and less, until they were seen no more, to paraphrase a famous quote.  What happened to them, and why, has haunted historians for centuries, resulting in near-countless books and theories on the subject.  Kings and clergy, commoners and laity, have been bedeviled by this mystery, at the heart of which lies two young boys torn from their mother, imprisoned, and most certainly murdered.

Traditionalists, from St. Thomas More to Shakespeare, have long laid the blame squarely at the feet of Richard.  The Defenders, as we'll call them, cry nay; that he has been unfairly framed and libeled for crimes he never committed.  Josephine Tey's famous mystery novel, "The Daughter Of Time" lays out an alternate history in which Richard is exonerated. 

Let's look at what is known: The boys' father, Edward IV, died a successful, and largely well-liked king.  He had wrested the crown from Henry VI, a sad fellow prone to extended bouts of insanity, then proceeded to rule in a pretty even-handed manner to the betterment of the nation.  His personal life was a bit bumpy, as he was a serial philanderer and all-round sensualist, but hey, he was king.  His over-indulgence in wine, women, and song, would ultimately result in his death.  It also gained him a wife in the form of Elizabeth Woodville.  The Woodville Clan were a large and ambitious family of climbers that scored big time when Elizabeth reeled in Edward.  She quickly produced the required male heirs and they were set.  All of her brothers, whom Edward got along famously with, received titles and vast estates.  In the blink of an eye they had gone from obscurity to peerage and power.  Times were good.

One problem lay on their horizon, however--Richard did not trust them.  And with his brother's death, he felt it imperative to separate Edward's sons from their baleful influence.  Accusing them of  plotting treason, he succeeded in having one of the uncles executed.  It's possible that he believed his personal estates and titles might be at risk should the Woodvilles poison the young king-to-be against him.  In any event, it's clear he intended to tightly box them in.

What followed is perplexing in the light of Richard's history up to this time.  Firstly, let me point out that unlike his depiction in Shakespeare's play, there is no evidence that he was either club-footed or afflicted with a hunched-back.  It is possible, based on a few portraits, that he may have had one shoulder slightly higher than the other--hardly the debilitating afflictions portrayed by so many actors over time.  The fact that he was a successful horseman and warrior argues against such depictions.  Secondly, he had been his elder brother's right-hand man and strong arm, particularly in the restive North.  There, Richard had brought the tempestuous lords to heel and gained their respect.  The only hint of something sinister in his character stems from the death of their middle brother, Clarence.  Like the boys that would come after, the accusations leveled against him were never fully proven and composed mostly of innuendo.  Clarence had been untrustworthy during Edward's climb to power, switching sides against his brother and then back again; being critical of his actions.  This kind of behavior never bode well for any practitioner in medieval courts.  Remember, this was the age of Machiavelli, Vlad the Impaler, and the odious Gilles de Rais.  Clarence did not appreciate this sufficiently and was said to have been drowned in a cask of malmsey--a type of sweetened wine popular at the time.  That is the legend that has survived and not necessarily the truth of the matter.  He was dead, killed for treason, and that is indisputable.  Life was short, brutal, and nasty even for royals in the 1400s.

It was no different for the princes--by the end of the summer of 1483 they ceased being seen at their windows.  Richard, in the meantime, had discovered a mistress of late brother Edward's that he had "betrothed" prior to his marriage to Elizabeth...and in front of a bishop, no less!  A betrothal at that time was tantamount to a proposal of marriage today, but carried legal, and more importantly, moral weight--it was regarded as an enforceable contract in both civil and ecclesiastical terms.  Edward had routinely used this ploy in order to gain access to attractive young ladies' boudoirs.  It would now come back to haunt his heirs.  It meant that Edward's marriage to Elizabeth was invalid...and much more importantly, that their issue were illegitimate!  This was promptly endorsed by the Privy Council and Richard was suddenly the next in line to the throne.  These glad tidings were put out to the people who greeted them with a subdued, and directed, chorus of "For He's A Jolly Good Fellow."  A few voices enquired as to where the "former" princes might be...as they were not a threat to the throne, perhaps they could be produced.  As might be expected, the Woodvilles and their supporters were keenly interested in the answer to this.  They were to be disappointed.

Richard's coronation went forward as planned, and he simply refused to produce the boys for inspection.  He did deny that they were dead, or that he had murdered them.  He remained their protector, it seems, though they were no longer heirs and therefore should have needed no protection.  He got on with ruling his kingdom and eradicating a few problem subjects along the way.  The muted clamor became more an urgent whisper rarely heard. 

By 1485 Richard the Third was dead--betrayed by the Northern lords he trusted, and slain on the field of Bosworth in yet another contest for the crown.  Henry Tudor, with far less claim to the throne than Richard, was now Henry VII of England.  He seems not to have found any princes in the Tower of London.  Or didn't he?

Some theorists, including Tey's bored detective, come to the conclusion that it was Henry that had the boys killed.  That after discovering them, and understanding the threat they represented to his newly-won crown,  he promptly had them murdered and their bodies hidden away.  It's a good theory, but it is predicated on the boys being alive in 1485.  If so, then where were they for all that time?  And why wouldn't have Richard produced them?  It could have made life easier for him.  Of course, young Edward V might have become a rallying point for Richard's enemies in spite of his so-called illegitimacy--there were many who did not buy the betrothment story or Richard's claim to the throne.  But, it would also have demonstrated that he had been a true protector of his brother's children and not their murderer.  In any event, he didn't do it, effectively damning himself as a usurper and regicide...not to mention a really bad uncle.

Others claim that the boys were murdered by the Duke of Buckingham, an early supporter of Richard's who may have acted on his own in hope of preferment.  Some split hairs and blame James Tyrrell, a lackey of Richard's who got a lot of nasty work done for him.  If so, he did it on Richard's orders, which is all of one piece to me.  He had no known motives but that of pleasing his boss.  Henry VII later had a confession tortured out of him, for what that's worth.

As to what really happened to the princes, we shall probably never know.  Yet I will side with the traditionalists on this one.  It just makes the most sense to me.  I'm not sure, of course, that Richard set out to murder his nephews, or even to assume the throne.  But once he had them, I suspect it dawned on him rather quickly the chance he had seized--why settle for only maintaining his estates upon the ascension of young Edward and his grasping family, when he could have it all?  He simply couldn't resist.  Perhaps, at first, he was content to only make them bastards in the eyes of the law, but at some point, after gauging the simmering opposition, he decided to remove them altogether--there would never be an heir to build a rebellion around.  But as Sir Walter Scott pointed out, "Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive."  Richard had created a conundrum for himself--he could no longer produce the boys, though by his own words, there was no legitimate reason for him not to do so.  Perhaps it wasn't just a new king that arrived less than three years later at the Battle of Bosworth, but justice.

As a somber postscript, the disarticulated skeletons of two children were unearthed in 1647 during renovations to the tower.  These were believed to be the remains of the two, long-missing princes.  Befitting their status, they were reinterred in Westminster Abby.  Their grave was reopened in 1933 for modern medical examination, and the remains determined to be between the ages of seven to eleven, and eleven to thirteen, respectively; closely matching that of Richard and Edward.  This was all that was definitively learned, and there has been no permission given since for further examinations.   


06 August 2012

Surprise Endings

O. Henry was one of my favorite writers when I was a child.  I loved the surprise endings in each of his tales.  Almost everyone is familiar with some of his short stories, especially "Gift of the Magi" and "Ransom of Red Chief."  My favorite was "Mammon and the Archer." 

Periodically, I survey my universe and eradicate the negatives, which has frequently led to breakups with gentlemen friends. This tends to correspond with "cleaning out my library" which results in my giving away books which I later wish I'd kept.  Inevitably, I've changed my mind and wanted those stories back, (though not the gentlemen friends), so I've bought numerous copies of the Complete Works of O. Henry through the years. I enjoy his work now as much as I ever did.

William Sydney Porter
aka O. Henry
aka Olivier Henry
William Sydney Porter was born in Asheville, North Carolina, but began receiving recognition for his writing under the pseudonym Olivier Henry while living in Texas, where he was convicted of embezzlement and spent time in prison.  Upon his release, he moved to New York City and began writing under the pen name O. Henry

Since his death at age forty-seven, O. Henry has had several supporters offer evidence that he was innocent of the embezzlement.  There is an O. Henry Museum in his honor in Texas. 

Regardless of  his youthful guilt or innocence, O. Henry remains one of my favorite writers and an inspiration for the unexpected ending.  Needless to say, he immediately came to mind when I discovered PARAPROSDOKIANS.

Sir Winston Churchill
PARAPROSDOKIANS are figures of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected and frequently humorous.  Sir Winston Churchill loved them, and I'll bet O. Henry would have, too.

Some examples:

1.  Where there's a will, I want to be in it.

2.  The last thing I want to do is hurt you, but it's still on my list.

3.  Since light travels faster than sound, some people appear bright until you hear them speak.

4.  If I agreed with you, we'd both be wrong.

5.  War does not determine who is right--only who is left.

6.  To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research.

7.  I thought I wanted a career, turns out I just wanted paychecks.

8.  I asked God for a bike, but I know God doesn't work that way, so I stole a bike and prayed for forgiveness.

9.  I didn't say it was your fault; I said I was blaming you.

"I'm sexy and I know it!"
10.  Women will never be equal to men  until they can walk down the street with a bald head and a beer gut and still think they are sexy.

11.  A clear conscience is a sign of a fuzzy memory.

12.  You don't need a parachute to skydive; you only need a parachute to skydive twice.

13.  I used to be indecisive; now I'm not so sure.

14.  To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target.

15.  Nostalgia isn't what it used to be.

16.  Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.

17.  Going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.

18.  I am neither for nor against apathy.

19. Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.

20.  Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it into a fruit salad.

How about you?  Do you have a favorite of the twenty PARAPROSDOKIANS above or perhaps one not listed?  Better yet, make one up and share it!

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

05 August 2012

I Write Like…

IWL sounds like a labor union but it stands for "I write like…" found at a web site called IWL.com. I don't recall if this came up in Criminal Brief, but it's fun to tinker with it, sort of a literary horoscope.
Crawling Through the Carpal Tunnel

At the moment, writing anything has become irritating because of pain, possibly carpal tunnel related. Some people's wrists go numb, mine hurt like hell, especially when picking up silly things like a cup or turning a doorknob.

I know, I know…gotta take care of myself. When I'm heads-down writing, I tend to block out my environment– chills, hunger, fatigue, and paying bills. ADD specialists call it 'hyper-focusing'. (Note to self: Been cutting those emergency bathroom dashes a bit close recently.)
A. Conan Doyle
Stephen King
Anne Rice

Making the Grade

I'd been editing math textbooks, grades 5-7, and was 'rewarded' (he says dryly) with an assignment to write for grade 9. A number of equations are involved, so I'm using MS Word 2011's new internal equation editor. It's not bad, not bad at all as long as colleagues don't try to edit in an older version of MS Word.

Anyway, a note in my eMail drew my attention to IWL, so I gave it 'I write like…' a whirl. My first attempt said I write like Arthur Conan Doyle. Yay! My second submission came up Stephen King. Wow. And analysis of my third story claimed I wrote like William Shakespeare. Forsooth!

Biting the Neck that Feeds You

And then I tried a fourth sample—Anne Rice? Hmm? This particular piece might have been a bit dark and sexy but there was nary a vampire to be found.

The IWL web site's for fun– I imagine even the worst writing will be given a positive twist and attributed to a great author. Is it possible someone's writing is so bad it could be linked to that kid in the third grade who picked his nose?

Nah, not me. My editor thinks I write like a 9th-grader.

04 August 2012

Just for (Side) Kicks

by John M. Floyd

I watched--actually, rewatched--a movie the other night that made me think of a plot device that fiction writers often use: giving the hero a sidekick.  The movie is Rustler's Rhapsody, and its sole purpose is to poke fun at the traditional Western.  If you've seen it you'll know what I mean, about sidekicks, and if you haven't seen it I suggest you put it in your Netflix queue.  I'm not overly fond of the term LOL, but this movie will make you do it.  It'll even make you ROFL.

By the way, I said "giving the hero a sidekick."  The villain's sidekicks are usually called "henchmen," and the Oddjobs and Rosa Klebbs of the world deserve their own column (in fact, I gave them one, in the old Criminal Brief days).  A sidekick and a henchman do, however, sometimes serve the same purpose: each gives the author/director someone the boss can confide in, thus revealing needed information to the reader/viewer.  One of the differences is that if he's a henchman he usually dies, and usually does it earlier in the story than the boss does, in order to save the biggest confrontation until the end.

Note 1: I find it interesting that most fictional heroes and villains do have some kind of sidekick, whether it happens to be a friend, colleague, relative, employee, or spouse.  I can think of only a few bad guys who didn't; among them are Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter, and it might be argued that those two didn't need a lot of help in the villain department.

May the dark side of the Force be with you

The kind of hero-helpers I'd like to consider here, though, aren't along the lines of Dr. Watson, Friday, Tonto, Huck Finn, Kato, and Samwise Gamgee--or even Nora Charles.  The ones I'm talking about are the ones you wouldn't expect the hero to have.  The kind that come from the dark side, and in fact often reflect the protagonist's dark side.

I'm reminded of three of these lethal "weapons": Robert B. Parker's Hawk, Harlan Coben's Windsor Horne Lockwood III, and Robert Crais's Joe Pike.

Guardian angel

Hawk, Spenser's best friend and sparring partner, was introduced early in the series and served several purposes, including the aforementioned role as sounding-board to the hero.  He also saved Spenser's bacon on a regular basis and added a level of pure menace to Parker's already suspenseful plots.  But Hawk's biggest contribution to the series--and its success--was that he could do things that the hero's moral code would not allow the hero to do.

Here's what I mean.  I'm paraphrasing, but in one of the novels Spenser and Hawk had just had a shootout with the opposition, and one of the bad guys was lying there suffering but still alive.  Both of them knew they'd have to kill him or he'd come after them.  Spenser said something like "I can't kill somebody who's lying on the floor."  Hawk said, "Hell, I can," and shot him.

Note 2: Supposedly, Hawk's and Spenser's paths first crossed when a Boston crime lord hired Hawk to kill Spenser--but I suspect they really met at one of those conferences for People With No First Names. 

Me Myron, you Win

Another example is Windsor Horne Lockwood, the longtime friend of sports agent Myron Bolitar, in the series novels of Harlan Coben.  Like Hawk, Win is fiercely loyal and fiercely fierce; he thinks nothing of breaking the law, or of breaking the necks of anybody who stands in his way.  Myron (despite his name) is no wimp himself--he is, after all, the hero of the series--but Win is a killing machine with absolutely no conscience or scruples.  He can do things without blinking an eye that Myron would never be willing to do, even if he physically could--and thus Win allows us readers to meet our violence quota while we continue to like and admire the main character.

Win (again, like Hawk) is a complex and mysterious guy, and a flashy dresser as well.  He is, however, flashy in a different way: he's an aging-preppie corporate executive, a buttoned-down and pinstriped product of Old Money.  As such, Win is even more dangerous, because he doesn't look like a killer.

Not your average Joe

A third example that comes to mind is Joe Pike, from Robert Crais's novels featuring L.A. private eye Elvis Cole.  I think of Pike as occupying the middle ground between the other two sidekicks I've mentioned--he's neither as physically intimidating as Hawk or as unfeeling as Win.  But he's just as deadly.  And, once again, he steps in--usually unrequested, of course--anytime the situation demands the kind of ruthless and often illegal solutions that would violate Cole's sense of right and wrong.  Elvis Cole remains the hero with the strict code of honor; Joe Pike is the loose cannon who'll do anything to help his friend.  We wind up rooting for them both, but we have more respect for Cole.

Note 3: I've used the present tense in discussing Win and Pike since Coben's and Crais's series are ongoing, and I've used the past tense in discussing Hawk since Bob Parker passed away in 2010.  The good news is that my fellow Mississippian Ace Atkins has been chosen by the Parker estate to continue writing the Spenser novels, and I'm pleased to report that the first one (Lullaby) was excellent.  My only regret is that Ace didn't instruct Spenser to throw Susan Silverman over a cliff--but that's a subject for another day.

Seconds in command

Other "dark-side" assistants to protagonists are Bubba Rogowski (author Dennis Lehane), Clete Purcell (James Lee Burke), and Mouse Alexander (Walter Mosley).  I know I've left out plenty of them, but those top my personal list, or at least fit easily into slots alongside the ones I mentioned earlier.  If any of  you know of others, I'd be happy to add those to the roster.

Bottom line is, as long as there are heroes there will be sidekicks.  Their duties will always be (1) to help their bosses get out of trouble and (2) to help them look good to readers.

As writers, we know the second task is as important as the first.

03 August 2012

Me and the Mini-mystery

I hesitate to write this article, mainly because there is one amongst us who has much better credentials than I do in this particular area. And, that area now in discussion is writing mini-mysteries for Woman's World Magazine, I feel pretty good about having recently sold then my 10th story (that's a total of $5,000 so far), and I don't feel too bad about my .400 batting average. However, it seems to me that our John Floyd has placed at least four times as many mini-mysteries with them as I have and while I have no idea what his batting average is, I suspect it is a lot higher than .400.
Okay, I'll admit to being slightly hard-headed and making my own learning curve in this market. Sure, I could have purchased a copy of the magazine on a regular basis to study how other authors were getting accepted, but I always feel like the person behind the cash register is looking at me funny when they hand me my change and inquire if I'd prefer paper or plastic to carry this woman's magazine out of the store.

Anyway, trial and error showed me that the WWM editor did not want anything related to spies, violence, scary suspense and several other ideas I tried in order to differentiate my stories from the mass in the slush pile. I also found that the stories could not be too complicated.

In my mind, the mini-mystery has similar components to a joke. With a joke, you have the setup and the punch line. In the mini-mystery, you have the setup and the close out.

The setup in a mini-mystery is the plot or storyline which the author uses to present the mystery to the reader for solving. Like any mystery, appropriate clues must be planted in order to give the reader a "fair" chance to come up with the correct solution. Naturally, these clues may be hidden in plain view by throwing them  in with false clues, planting them at a distance in the story from a description of the crime, or even distracting the reader's attention to some other action going on.

 Any character arc is so short as to be almost negligible. As for setting or character description, the author has a maximum of 700 words to move around in. In one of my stories, in order to place a memorable image of my detective (sporting a large mustache) into the mind of the editor and that of potential readers, I once described him as looking like a soaked cat coming out of the rain. And, yes, the rainy weather also had to do with a clue to the solution in this one.

Since it often becomes difficult to create a mystery plot for these stories, much less 25 of them, I have adopted the strategy of mining plots from other books, such as those series which present five-minute or two-minute mysteries. I type up all those solutions in a long list and number them. Then, the next time I need to write a mini-mystery, I merely go down the list until one sparks an idea I think will work. This method saves me a lot of downtime scratching my head trying to figure out what to write from Square One. Instead, I get a running start from Square Two. Naturally, my settings and characters are different from the original mining operation. Look at it this way, there are only so many plots or "tribal lays" (according to Rudyard Kipling, there's nine and sixty), so I'm merely acquiring them in the order someone else wrote them and then forming those plots to my own purpose.

The close out part of the mini-mystery actually consists of two separate  parts, the Question and the Solution. They look similar to the following.

Question:  Why did (your detective) think (something) was wrong with the scene or the suspect's alibi?
Question:  Who does (your detective) think committed the crime?

Solution:  (Author explains the clue(s) which solve(s) the mystery.)

Simple, huh? Just write short.

A couple of suggestions. You can write Why-dunnits, where the reader has to figure out what the detective is suspicious of and why, or write Who-dunnits, where the reader uses clues to select from a variety of suspects. Hey, I just realized I haven't tried a How-dunnit, where the reader has to figure out how the crime was committed. Well, there goes my learning curve again, unless John can give me some tips here. Actually, I'd like to see a column on this subject from John or at least hear how he managed to come up with those 40+ sales to WWM. That's amazing.
And now I must confess that a few days after receiving a contract from WWM for my 10th mini-mystery as mentioned in my last blog, I went to the mailbox and found another white, #10 business envelope postmarked from Seattle. Sadly, there was no contract in this one. My .400 batting average just took a dip.

It's my own fault. I violated one of my own learning curve rules, the one about not having the solution depend upon a little known fact. Rob can tell you I mentioned this rule to him last year, long before I wrote this latest rejection. One of these days I've got to start listening to myself. But, it was such a good story and I was in a hurry to get on the road to South Dakota for a few weeks to help take care of my mother-in-law (my biggest writing fan), so I sent it anyway. Otherwise, I'd have run it by Rob and he could have saved me the postage. Next time.

02 August 2012

Sovereign Citizens

by Eve Fisher

Every once in a while I can't help but wonder what is in the water.  Something is making people crazy. Conspiracy theories abound, general insanity rules, and most of them revolve around various schemes to get rid of government (national, local, whatever).

We have a wide variety of crack-pots up here.  I remember one who showed up in court stating that, since there is no mention of traffic laws in the Constitution, therefore said laws were unconstitutional and illegal to enforce.  That was fun.  But we also have the real jerks who tie up the court system with endless bulls**t lawsuits, from suing lawyers and judges, down to trying to claim their neighbor's land using bogus "quitclaim" deeds.  And we have endless tax protestors, from the casual kind who just mouth off (includes all of us, I'm assuming, at some point), to the Sovereign Citizens (or any of a hundred other names, from expats to strawmen) who decide that they not only don't have to pay any taxes (including local), but often are up to their necks in some of the shadiest "investment" deals you've ever heard of.

Yes, they don't just claim tax immunity for themselves, they make money in the process.  They sell phony insurance, fictitious United States Treasury obligations (so-called “private discharging and indemnity bonds”, “private offset bonds”, and “bonded promissory notes”), and "sovereign citizen" ID cards.

The ID cards supposedly let you out of obeying the laws of the United States by making you an American Citizen, rather than a United States Citizen, which (!) are two different things.  (Or you can claim to be a non-resident alien, which makes me think of blue skin and gills.)  According to Florida Barrister Austin Gary Cooper of Taking Back America:

“American Citizens are to abide six laws; U.S. citizens are subject to 60 million statutes.  What would you rather do -- obey six laws or try to obey 60 million statutes?"  He claims that the split came with
  1. the 14th Amendment, the one that freed Negro slaves and made us all U.S. citizens and thereby slaves &
  2. the Expatriation Act of 1868, passed by the 40th Congress which says:  “An Act concerning the Rights of American Citizens in foreign States...Be it enacted by the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that any declaration, instruction, order or decision of any Officers of this government which denies, restricts, impairs or questions the right of expatriation, is hereby declared inconsistent with the fundamental principles of this government.”
 — United States Statutes at Large, Volume 15, Chapter 249, page 223, 40th Congress. [MY NOTE:  This Act was passed to stop British impressment of American sailors into the British navy.]

Now,  Cooper  says that the use of the term "American Citizens" had a hidden meaning:  that the United States is the proper name for the federal government and its territories and possessions and is, therefore, a state foreign to a person born into American citizenship. “The 40th Congress, knowing what was coming the following day, gave us the ability to expatriate ourselves from the U.S. side, and repatriate ourselves back into the American side, where... you [have] all the power in the world to do anything you want so long as you don't injure a person or his property, or take the rights of others.  As a U.S. citizen, you are a possession of the United States government and therefore are subject to its 60 million statutes.”

You also don't have to pay taxes.  If you buy one of Mr. Cooper's packages (they're $1,600 each, but what price freedom, eh?), you never have to pay federal income taxes again!  You'd be amazed at the number of people who buy these packages, at least up here.  Some just have them; others try to live by them, and end up in court.  And then they end up in prison, because neither Mr. Cooper nor any of his ilk come to anyone's aid.  They take the money and vanish.  It would all be hilarious, except one of the most famous members of the Sovereign Citizen Movement was Terry Nichols of the Oklahoma City bombing...

01 August 2012

Two Golden Threads

by Robert Lopresti

Talk about procrastination... I have been meaning to write this one since John Mortimer died  in 2009.  When that news came out I had just written memorials to Westlake and McGoohan and I couldn't bear to write another one.  Then time, as is its habit, slipped away.   But today we have a moment; let's seize it.

John Mortimer was a British barrister turned author, and his greatest creation was Rumpole of the Bailey, a series I  loved before I saw (or read) it, because I knew it was going to star one of my favorite actors, an odd one-eyed Australian named Leo McKern.  I had admired him in Help, The Prisoner, A Man For All Seasons, and a weird movie I saw in college in which he played Socrates in a tuxedo.

Which brings us to one of the oddities of Horace Rumpole.  Unlike just about any other character in crime fiction he is a true hybrid.  There are countless detectives in books, and others who have been created just for the screen, but how many float freely between the two?  Sure, there have been thousands of "novelizations" creating new episodes of TV shows, but I don't think any of them other than Rumpole were written by the same author who created the character and wrote all the TV episodes.  Mortimer provided us with original Rumpole stores for the screen, the page, and even the radio.

But I think most of us agree that Horace's finest incarnation was the aforementioned McKern.  As our own Janice Law said "John Mortimer is a good writer, but I suspect that I am not the only reader to find the Rumpole stories a tad on the thin side without Leo McKern's rotund person and orotund phrasing..."

I have often pondered the attraction of the series.  The plots are, generally, not brilliant.  Often they relied on Rumpole accidentally being in the right place at the right time to notice something he would otherwise not have known.  There were flashes of brilliance: Rumpole's Return and "Rumpole For The Prosecution" both turned on extremely clever clues, for instance..

Not surprisingly, Mortimer often reused plot ideas.  (Rumpole defended clergymen three times; in each case the defendant had the same innocent reason for his behavior).  Like many series there was a problem with stretching it out indefintely.  After all, Rumpole was supposed to be an Old Bailey hack who lost more cases than he won.  As years went by he started scoring more and bigger wins, because Mortimer kept finding new dragons in British society and wanted Rumpole to succeed in slaying them.  

Mortimer noted that one reason he created the Old Bailey hack was that opinions that would sound dangerously radical from his own mouth seemed charming coming from Horace. (McKern himself was much more  conservative than the character he played, by the way.)    Mortimer's  other reason for creating Rumpole, of course, was for money to see him through his retirement from the bar.

I think it was also a desire for variety that caused Mortimer to send his hack to courts far from the Old Bailey.  Rumpole fought cases before military courts, medical tribunals, medical panels,  an African court (with death penalty on the table), and, least likely of all, even a Church of England investigation of one of those clergymen I referred to earlier.  In one case he was the defendant, in one and one only he worked for the prosecution (inevitably scuttling it).

I suppose it was character that made the series so carming and rewatchable.  Rumpole -- manipulative, vain, stubborn, opinionated - was like so many great characters, a person you would probably want to avoid in real life, but a treasure to watch.  And when he went into the courtroom he was always the underdog and relished the role..

Surely the person who knew him best was Phyllida Trant, "the Portia of our chambers."  In one episode his son suggests that Rumpole should be thinking of retirement because he is "in a hopeless postion, with the judge and police dead against him."  Trant responds "I should think by now, he's just starting to have fun."  (When Trant became a judge Rumpole lamented that she was scrupulously fair, which was the worst thing in the world for the defense, since it deprived the jury of a reason to side with the defendant.)

Another attraction of the series was the language: the jargon of the other barristers and government officials versus the flowing phrases and quoted poetry of our hero.  Rumpole often noted "the Golden Thread" thar runs through British justice:"the immutable principle that everyone is innocent unless twelve good men and women and true are certain that the only possible answer is that they must be guilty."  But he also noted that there is another such thread: "Rumpole presumes every case to be winnable until it's lost!"

And perhaps it is that spirit of defiance, personified by McKern, that kept us watching so long.