17 January 2013

The Last Five Minutes

One of the great new trends (imho) in movies these days is indie movies that take semi sci-fi/fantasy concepts and run with them, using minimal (if any) special effects and lots of really good writing.  I include in this category the haunting "Another Earth", and the two comedies "Safety Not Guaranteed", and "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World".   (I recommend all of these, even though I thought Keira Knightly's narcolepsy in the last was a bit much.)

The latest one I watched was "Ruby Sparks," about a young, genius writer with severe writer's block, who manages to write his dream girl into life.  And it's great, really great, taking the whole concept and going balls to the wall with it - until the last five minutes.  At which point, a happy ending was tacked on, a happy ending of such unbelievable proportions (to me) that I was screaming at the TV set. (NOTE:  I do this a lot; my husband has learned to live with it.  In this case, he agreed with me.  And I will not give any more away except to say that any good working psychiatrist would not be using phrases like "beautiful" and praising the hero for his behavior, but would be recommending something intense, like in-patient treatment...  I also think that the estate of David Foster Wallace could sue the writers, but that's another rant.)  Anyway, I still recommend the movie, but only for the first hour and 40 minutes. 

But don't you hate when that happens?  When someone takes a great idea, and does it so well that you are absolutely hanging on, breathless, can't wait to see what happens next...  and then the balloon just doesn't even pop, it deflates and you're sitting there wondering what the hell happened.  I felt that way about Woody Allen's "Love and Death" and "Sleeper", both of which I still think are genius - until the whole plot line of "let's kill the leader" takes over.  (These days, I just fast forward to the little gems at the end.)

Great endings don't have to be happy; they don't have to be tragic; they don't have to be funny (although what would "Some Like It Hot" be without Joe E. Brown's magic line?).  But they do have to fit what's happened before.  They have to match the characters.  My husband and I watched "The Third Man" again the other night, and the ending, with that last long shot, always deeply satisfies me, because there's no way after all that has gone before that Anna Schmidt would ever go for Holly Martin. 

I think this beats the heck out of "Great Expectations", where Dickens made the mistake of listening to Bulwer-Lytton - the original author of "it was a dark and stormy night" - and rewrote his ending to put Pip and Estella together.  But to be fair, Hollywood pairs people up come hell or high water all the time.  What was House doing with a girlfriend?  Why do the modern turns on Sherlock Holmes feel the need to make Irene Adler a romantic interest?  (And, now that Watson's female in "Elementary", how long until she and Sherlock hook up?)  Why did the Geraldine McEwan version of Miss Marple have to give her a heartbreaking romance?

But back to endings.  A lot of endings are, as we all know, entirely different from the book.  James Thurbur once wrote that if Hollywood were to do "Antony and Cleopatra", they'd have Antony saying, "I am mending, Egypt, mending." But to be fair, in the 18th and early 19th century, most Shakespeare tragedies were given happy endings.  Romeo and Juliet live; Ophelia is saved from drowning; Cordelia wakes up; etc.  Dickens skewered this in "Nicholas Nickleby."   And sometimes the changes work, as in "The Big Sleep."  In the novel, Marlowe falls for Mona Mars - "silver-wig" - and ends up with nobody.  In the Bogie/Bacall movie, he falls for Vivian Sternwood and goes off with her.  I think both work, for different reasons, and that's fine with me. On the other hand, I hate the movie "The Natural," because of course when you have Robert Redford playing the hero, he has to save the day, even though that ruins the whole spirit of the piece.  I prefer the novel, where Hobbs is indeed Everyman, a sinner, a failure - a human being, not a hero... 

But now, of course, I'm faced with ending this blog entry.  All I can say is that if I really like a book or a movie, I invest in the characters, in the story, in the concept.  And I want all of those, whenever possible, to stay true to their promise. I know.  It's hard to pull off.  Sometimes it will break your heart.  But if it's right, you have a classic.  Here's perhaps the ultimate example:  would we remember "Casablanca" if Ilsa had stayed with Rick? 

16 January 2013

Nothing but the Best

It is that time of the year again.  For the fourth time I am listing the best short mystery stories of the year as determined by a distinguished panel consisting of me.  In fact, I would like to take a moment to thank me for all my hard work.

Sixteen stories made the cut; one more than last year.  None were from websites, but that is probably because I looked at fewer of those in 2012, having plenty of paper stuff to occupy my mind.

The big winner was Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, with seven hits. Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine had four.  No other market had more than one.

For the first time ever one author has two best stories in the same year.  They had oddly similar plots, showing that a talented chef can make two very different dishes with the same ingredients.  Five stories are by friends of mine from the SleuthSayers/Criminal Brief mafia.  You can read that as blatant favoratism or an indication of the talent of that stable.

One honoree is a first story.  One is by a German (last year it was two, oddly enough).  Two have supernatural elements.  Five are funny.

And by main character we have:
criminal 5
cop 4
victim's relative 3
amateur detective 2
victim 1
witness 1
spy 1

Yes, that adds up to 17.  One character is multitasking.  And now, let us present the winners... 

Allyn, Doug.  "Wood-Smoke Boys,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2012.  

When I was ten years old, my favorite uncle murdered my favorite aunt.

Thus begins a wonderfully-written story of country folk versus city folk in the north woods of Michigan.  Dylan LaCrosse is the narrator and his back woods family suffers some terrible times, but they don't suffer quietly, which leads to the local warning: "Never cross a LaCrosse."

Now Dylan is a cop and state police are coming in to investigate the murder of a state legislator who caused tragedy to the LaCrosse family.  Can Dylan stay alive and solve the puzzle?  And whose side is he on?

 Anthony, Ted.  "A User's Guide to Keeping Your Kills Fresh,"  in Staten Island Noir, edited by Patricia Smith, Akashic Press, 2012.

Manny Antonio is a hit man, but he isn't very good at it.  This is the story of his last contract, told by someone who knew him well, and didn't like him very much, nor respect his mental agility. 
If complete clarity were an all-you-can-eat buffet of Chinese food, Manny would ask for the menu and order the chicken and broccoli.

And so we see what should have been an easy assignment turn into a disastrous trek around the metropolitan area with a trunkful of forensic evidence that grows smellier by the hour.  When we are told that shooting a rent-a-cop between the eyes was "the last rational thing he will do on the final night of his life," you know Manny is not having a good week.

Beck, Zoe.  Out There,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, February 2012.

Among the other changes that e-mail has wrought in the world is an improvement in epistolary fiction.  It is possible to exchange letters a lot faster than when DIego de San Pedro wrote the first epistolary novel in the fifteenth century.

And that's what German author Zoe Beck presents with, a story written entirely in e-mails.  Most of them are written by Gil Peters, who is a successful author despite having agoraphobia so fierce that she hasn't left her apartment in eight years.  But that's okay, she has adjusted to it, and with her computer and her shrink on tap she is do fine.

Then her doctor goes on vacation just when an unacceptable change happens to her home.  Things start to go rapidly out of hand...The only thing I love better than a twist ending is multiple twists, and Beck provides them.

Clerici, Louisa.  "The Rose Collection,"  in Dead Calm: Best New England Crime Stories 2012, edited by Mark Ammons, Katherine Fast, Barbara Ross, Leslie Wheeler, published by Level Best Books, 2012. 

Obsession is either comic or tragic, depending on how close you are standing to the fallout.  The narrator is Laura, a woman who lives a pleasant if slightly stir-crazy life in rural Indiana.  Her life is changed when an elderly neighbor leaves her a piece of costume jewelry: a brooch that was "all sparkly with a pale gold intricate rose."  Get used to detailed description, because Laura provides them for whatever she thinks is interesting, while glossing over things she considers less important.  And that, you might say, provides the key to her character.

Laura starts studying about jewelry at the library and discovers that the best chance to get more is a big flea market in Cumberland, Indiana. Problem is her husband doesn't want her to go.  That doesn't turn out to be a problem for long, because he dies.  In fact, it is best not to get between Laura and her jewelry plans.

"Halley's Comet," by Reed Farrel Coleman, in Crime Square, edited by Robert J. Randisi, Vantage Point, 2012.

The setting is the 1970s, the time of Serpico and the Knapp Commission, when the NYPD was full of dirty cops and the dirty cops were full of fear of the Knapp Commission.  In this story two police detectives are being pushed into a n action that will move them  from being bent to being totally rotten.  And just as the point of no return approaches, well, police work intervenes.  A wild and twisty climax ensues.

Dean, David.  "Jenny's Ghost,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, June 2012.  

Picture the setting: you are in an airport, stuck in that endless half-life between flights and suddenly you spot something that can't possibly be there: a woman who died a decade before.  Hell of a set-up, isn't it?

David noted that this is a story about consequences.  Not surprisingly it is also about guilt, and the chance of redemption.  These are subjects for fiction I am very much drawn to.

DuBois, Brendan. "The Final Ballot,"  in Mystery Writers of America presents Vengeance, edited by Lee Child, Mulholland Books, 2012.

Beth's daughter was brutally attacked by a son of the senator/candidate.  The man-of-the-world described above is the problem solver.  "In other words, I'm the senator's bitch."  He offers her two choices which he insists on calling "avenues."  She can pursue prosecution of the senator's son, guaranteeing herself years of being stripped naked by the press, attacked by his supporters, dragged out as a symbol by his enemies... or she can agree to let the culprit get psychological treatment and accept financial aid from the senator to cover her daughter's long-term medical needs.She makes her deal but things go wrong and...

Two old sayings apply:  Never fight with someone who has nothing to lose.  And: the most dangerous place in the world is between a mother and her children.

DuBois, Brendan.  "His Daughter's Island," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 2012.

Zach Ford is a mild-mannered accountant in a small town in Maine.  His beloved daughter goes off to a party at the home of a millionaire and dies.  The millionaire's son is whisked out of the country, far from the possibility of justice.

In some stories the next step would be a whole lot of guns and blood, but Mr. Ford has a different idea.  He studies up on the millionaire, and then he studies the state and local ordinances.  And starts plotting a completely legal vengeance.

Gates, David Edgerley.  "Burning Daylight,"  in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2012.

Hector is a deputy in Montana, near a national forest.  When two kids report seeing a double-wide trailer explode he knows it was a meth lab.  Since the drug-maker went up with his product Hector could have let it go at that but he is a good cop and wants to know what happened: specifically, how did a Gulf War vet wind up making drugs out in the wilderness?  And which comes first, supply or demand?  The trail becomes darker and grimmer.

"With all due respect, don't preach the law to me."

"The law's all we've got between us and the stone age."

"Frank, for Christ's sake, this IS the stone age."

Goree, Raymond.  "A Change of Heart," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, October 2012.

Goree's first story is a wonderful debut.  The narrator is a Las Vegas cop who, at around age 40, suffers a heart attack.  Turns out his ticker is in horrible shape.  ("Like trying to sew Jell-o together," says the surgeon.)  After some more horrible luck ("Jokes on you, says God.") he gets a heart transplant.  By coincidence he had met  the donor, a cancer patient named Sammy, in the hospital.

But after the operatioon our hero gets visited by Sammy the donor.  Creepy, huh?  And Sammy wants him to prevent his daughter from getting involved in a crime.  "I can't get through to her," Sammy  complains.  "It's like I'm not even there."

Wonderfully written, one-of-a-kind plot.  

Hockensmith, Steve, "Frank," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, October 2012.

Frank is a retired police detective, living in an assisted living complex.  Frank's memory is, at best, shaky.  He can't always remember what day it is, or the names of his neighbors (although in the case of at least one neighbor's name, Hockensmith notes drolly, "forgetting it had been a choice.")

But now a series of crimes are happening in the complex -- maybe.  Unless someone is imagining it in senile dimensia.  Can Frank pull himself together long enough to catch the culprit?  And what if he is the culprit?

Witty, touching, and a  twist at the end.  What more do you want?

Howe, Melodie Johnson, "Losing It,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, August 2012.

My friend Melodie has built a story is so twisty it makes a corkscrew look like a knitting needle.

Callie Taylor is a mousy manicurist.  Mike is the boyfriend, supposedly working on a screenplay, but apparently only working on the groceries Callie brings home on her paycheck.

One night Callie rebels against her life by spending a thousand dollars she can't afford on a shawl.  Mike hates it because it keeps her from looking "normal," the ordinary person he wants her to be.

And then, late one night in a bar, she loses the shawl.  And worse, one of her wealthy customers shows up wearing the shawl.  How can Callie get it back without losing her job?

Where ever you think this story is going you're wrong.

Law, Janice, "The Double"  in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Issue 7

My friend Janice has created a little gem here, I think.

Malik has the fortune, good or bad, of resembling the General, his country's beloved dictator.  Naturally he is assigned the job of impersonating the General, saving him from boring meetings and assassingation attempts.

But the General is a far-thinker and he sends Malik, with proper supervision, to set up a new life for himself in Miami, just in case at some time in the future the General turns out not to be so beloved.  And that works fine until the inevitable happens.

Because only one person can live that new life, right?

Modrack, Barbara Arno, "Acting On A Tip,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 2012.

 This is the only story on the list that didn't make the best-of-the-year cut when I first read it.  But going through my weekly bests at Little Big Crimes in preparation for this review I went oh yeah, THAT one.

Marty had been a reporter for the Detroit Free Press for decades when the buyouts started.  One day his editor urged him to take the proffered buyout, and the reason clearly had less to do with his age than with the booze Marty was drinking for breakfast.  Marty's wife made him the following offer:

They would sell the house and move Up North to the family cottage she had just inherited.  Ryan, their youngest, would complete his senior year in high school there.  Jenny would refresh her nursing license and become the breadwinner.  And if they did all that and Marty quit drinking, they could do it together and Jenny would not leave him.

A few months later Marty is clinging to sobriety by his fingernails when he wakes to a radio report of three murders in the little town where they are living.  Maybe the Free Press would like a reporter on the scene?  Maybe he can drag a scrap of self-worth out of the ruins?
Warren, James Lincoln.  "Shikari,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, February 2012.

This novelette is the best Sherlock Holmes pastiche I have read since Nicholas Meyer turned the field on its ear with The Seven Percent Solution.

James explains in an introductory note that the idea came when he read that during the nineteenth century the British intelligence service used doctors as spies in Asia.  Of course, Dr. Watson was an army doctor in Afghanistan.  And who was the head of British intelligence?  Sherlock Holmes's brother Mycroft.  If Watson was one of Mycroft's spies, than surely it was no coincidence that he wound up in a position to keep an eye on his boss's eccentric brother...

A treat from beginning to end, with shrewd explanation's of some of the canon's puzzling elements, and some genuine shocks along the way.

Warthman, Dan.  "Pansy Place," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January-February 2012.

Jones is fitting into retirement. Bought his condo in Elmwood Village, voted a couple yers ago one of the country's ten best neighborhoods. Second story, corner unit, overlooking Bidwell Parkway...

At first we don't learn much about Jones, just about the young cleaning woman he hires and makes friends with. Then we are introduced to her boyfriend.

Trouble erupts in the life of the young couple and Jones shows his true colors. We meet a few new characters, finely drawn bad guys who cherish the use of the right word and the right action even while they are doing objectively wrong things.It can be good to have a tough guy on your side, even he is allegedly retired.

15 January 2013


    If all goes according to schedule, the day before this piece posts we will have flown back to Washington, D.C. from the Caribbean, where we will have spent two days in St. Maarten and then one week aboard Sagitta, a tall ship run by some long time friends of ours at Island Windjammers.  So, while I am not one to plan far ahead with my SleuthSayers articles foresight is nevertheless called for here.

    I’m also not usually inclined to “re-gift” past columns, but I am going to make an exception there, also.

    Today, January 15, is the day after my younger brother Graham’s 60th birthday.  Attaining that age can be a rather shocking experience (although we should continue to remind ourselves that these “big” years are dictated only by the number of fingers we have on two hands.)  In wishing Graham a happy 60th I thought I would resurrect an article I did for Criminal Briefs celebrating, among other things, the birthday of Manfred B. Lee, one half of the team that gave us Ellery Queen.  As my friend Mike Nevins (who’s new retrospective on Lee and Dannay, Ellery Queen:  The Art of Detection, will be the subject of a column here in a couple weeks) has often observed, Lee can easily become the forgotten member of the Ellery Queen team because he had the unfortunate luck to die early.

   So, for Lee, for his birthday, for birthdays in general, for the somber air that often accompanies birthdays that are divisible by ten, and for my brother Graham, I resurrect the following article, which posted on Criminal Briefs just over four years ago, under the title:

January 11, 2009 – A Birthday Essay

    This year [i.e., 2009 when the article was written], as in many previous years, over the holiday season I re-read Ellery Queen’s The Finishing Stroke. As those of you who have read the novel already know, while The Finishing Stroke was written in 1957, the narrative is presented in three books and spans three different periods. The story principally takes place in “Book Two,” over the Christmas and New Year’s holiday in 1929, but it begins with “Book One,” set in 1905, and ends with “Book Three,” set in 1957. The three books comprising the story therefore span much of the lives of Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay, who created Ellery Queen.

    Like many Queen novels, The Finishing Stroke is best read on many levels. There are clues that have to do with the mystery at hand, but there are also clues that have to do with other things altogether. Expanding on this premise, it is a good rule of thumb in a Queen novel for the reader never to let a referenced date slide by without pausing to ponder whether the date has a hidden significance. A good example of this appears in the early pages of Book One of The Finishing Stroke, where we learn that the father of a central character died 104 years ago on this very date – January 11, 1905.

Doing the Numbers

    While an idle reader might brush past this, there is a significance to the date – on January 11, 1905, Manfred B. Lee, one half of the Ellery Queen writing team, was born. The other half of the Queen partnership, Frederic Dannay, was also born in 1905, but in the month of October. While Dannay remains, perhaps, the better known of the pair, it is Lee, the writer half of the collaboration, who I celebrate today, on what would have been his 104th birthday.

    Although Queen returned with a final series of books in the 1960s, it is common knowledge that The Finishing Stroke, the thirtieth Queen tome, originally was intended by Lee and Dannay to be the final Ellery Queen mystery. As such, it is a particularly interesting work, which can be read as a culmination of the series, at least as of 1957. The book spans the life of Ellery as well as his creators, and is, in many respects, a retrospective of Ellery Queen both as detective and as writer.

    As noted, The Finishing Stroke opens in 1905, the year that Lee and Dannay were born, but its narrative focuses on the year in which the first Queen novel, The Roman Hat Mystery was published. However this writing is hardly early Queen. Rather, The Finishing Stroke evidences a tight approach honed over many years, and in fact pokes fun at the early somewhat foppish Ellery and at the early more pompous Queen narrative style. This evidences a good deal of self awareness and self-deprecation on the part of both Lee and Dannay. While The Roman Hat Mystery may have opened the series with a flourish by winning a prize, it is the earliest of the Queen novels, and as such it simply can’t hold a candle to The Finishing Stroke and other late Queen works. It has been said that an author must either move forward or backward – staying the course is not an option. Ellery Queen’s novels got better and better as the series progressed.

Prior Significance

    In order to understand and appreciate the evolution of Ellery Queen’s writing, a little bit of detective work is required of us. We know the basics of how the Queen collaboration worked and evolved. We know, for example, that Dannay, in many respects, was the more public face of the Ellery Queen partnership. He performed the editorial tasks at Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and, we are told, more readily assumed the role of public persona. But while Dannay crafted the intricate outlines for the Ellery Queen novels and stories, we also know that it was Manfred B. Lee who in fact provided the written words, who crafted the Queen novels and stories, and whose writing skills continued to evolve over the decades.

    Mike Nevins observed at the Ellery Queen Centenary hosted by EQMM in 2005 that Dannay’s more outgoing nature – together with the unfortunate fact that Lee died early, in 1971, while Dannay lived on until 1982 – may have lessened the world’s perception of Lee’s importance to the partnership. But the simple fact remains that when Lee, who began his life on this date in 1905, died of a heart attack on the dressing room floor of his Roxbury, Connecticut home on April 3, 1971, Queen also died. After Lee’s death, there would be no more words.


    What do we know of Manfred Lee’s approach to wordsmithing? Rand Lee, in his essay “The Temple of his Words: Growing up with Ellery Queen,” which comprises one chapter of the Queen centenary volume The Tragedy of Errors, offers an invaluable insight into his father’s approach. Rand lists Lee’s “rules for budding authors” as follows:
1.    Read everything you can lay your hands on.
2.    Write what you know.
3.    Edit ruthlessly.
4.    Don’t bother with writing courses. You learn to write by writing.
Rand also expands on rule (3). “The editing advice Dad gave me was explicit, and I still try to follow it, however imperfectly: When you finish your first draft of a story, go back and cross out every adjective and adverb. Then put in only those adjectives and adverbs you feel you really need.”

    Lee’s writing, by his own admission, continued to evolve and mature. Rand writes that in his father’s view, the Queen novel Halfway House “marked the transition from his and [Dannay’s] youthful excesses to their first hint of writing maturity.” Rand also notes that his father, with some embarrassment, tried to dissuade his then-young son from reading the early Queen works, remarking that they were not all that good. This, again, is reflective of the fact that Ellery Queen’s writing never stood still – it always evolved. As a Queen fan, it is for me the second half of the Queen library – the books following the aptly-named Halfway House – that are the gems of the series. The writing is spare, the plotting is ingenious, and the cluing is scrupulously fair.


    Collaboration is always a difficult task, and by all accounts the Ellery Queen partnership was a contentious one. Had the partnership been a marriage, it would have been a rocky, yet enduring marriage. Lee was said to have resented the fact that his role, as the writer in the partnership, was to breathe life into the more convoluted Queen plots concocted by Dannay. The bickering between the two cousins became famous. Rand recalls in his essay that the two “had fallen into the routine of working long-distance between Connecticut and Larchmont, New York. And frequently I would pick up the extension phone to hear them arguing with one another.”

   At the Queen Centenary Symposium, Mike Nevins regaled the audience by reading the angry letters sent back and forth between the two cousins as they battled their way through drafts of various Queen novels. Jon L. Breen, in his essay “Ellery Queen,” also comprising a chapter of The Tragedy of Errors, similarly observes that a “casual reader of their correspondence would marvel that they managed to work as a team for over forty years, and might even conclude the two cousins hated each other.”

    Despite this, what is obvious to the fans of the series is that the cousins needed each other, and that but for the collaboration, however contentious, there could have been no Ellery Queen. Tellingly, when Frederic Dannay’s papers were exhibited at Columbia University’s Butler Library in 2005 to mark the Queen centenary, they contained a legal agreement, signed by Dannay and Lee, committing each of the cousins, on threat of damages, never to leave the partnership.

    Amazingly, through all their bickering, the Ellery Queen collaboration not only hit its stride early, it also continued to produce and improve for over forty years. Doubtless this success was anchored on the fact that each cousin found in the other that which he himself lacked. Rand writes that “by his own admission”, Lee “could not plot to save his life.” But, as a master of the written word, he excelled. And as already noted, when Lee was gone, so, too, was Queen: without him the writing stopped.

    This is not to say the process of writing was easy for Lee. We are told that he brooded over the fact that he wrote only mysteries, and (again, according to Rand) hoped that he could “elevate the mystery genre to the ranks of serious literature.” By all reports he battled recurring and, at times prolonged, bouts of writer’s block. But even when some later Queen novels were completed with the help of ghost writers, Lee’s hand is still apparent and integral to the crafting and editing process, and before his untimely death he returned as the writer of the final Queen volumes.

    It was perhaps because of all of this that The Finishing Stroke was to have been the final Ellery Queen mystery. Rand and others have written of how Lee wished that he could achieve success on his own and in a different genre. While this never happened, the evolution of Lee’s writing throughout the Queen series, including the volumes that eventually followed The Finishing Stroke, instead raised the mystery writing bar within the genre. Rand reminisces that “[i]n Kabbalah, God creates with Word. Words were worlds to my father.” The worlds he created he left to us in the Queen novels.

    But as I noted at the outset of this piece, Ellery Queen novels are often also about numbers. Numbers, and dates, are used cleverly to set up surprise endings, or to hint at an unsuspecting order that may lie just below the surface of perception. The significance of numbers and dates often extends beyond the plots of the books themselves. In keeping with this, it is interesting to note that from the beginning of The Finishing Stroke until its conclusion 52 years elapse, and from that date in 1957 until today, yet another 52 years have gone by.

Dates and Plums

Graham and me at the Bomba Shack beach bar in Tortola
    For my own reasons (which will yet become painfully apparent), over the last few months I watched the days march down toward this particular January 11. Now that the eleventh day of the first month of 2009 has arrived, let us celebrate Manfred B. Lee who was born 104 years ago today and who wrote the Queen novels from Frederic Dannay’s plot outlines. I offer this celebration to Lee, to his writing, and to Ellery Queen on a day that, like the reference to January 11, 1905 in The Finishing Stroke, has, at least for me, a secondary significance that has little to do with the main theme of this essay but much to do with a secondary theme and with the underlying order of things. There are only a finite number of days in the year, and birthdays therefore are often shared events. Today, for example, is my 60th.

    At the beginning of Book Three of The Finishing Stroke, Ellery tells us “with some alarm he realized that he was getting old.”

                                              *          *          *          *         *         *          *

     By way of postscript, and as a testament, once again, to the cyclical nature of time, and to the order in the universe that often defies inclusion within the definition of "random," today, January 15, 2013, it turns out, has become the birthday of our newest niece -- Taytum Grace Connor, born at 8:03 this morning.  Welcome!  Notwithstanding the foregoing, this is YOUR day!

14 January 2013


When I was reading a review of a new biography of Thornton Wilder, I came across the information that he had collaborated with Mrs. Hitchcock, among others, on the screenplay for the great Shadow of a Doubt. Any who do not know this classic psychological suspense movie from 1943 are in for a treat. It’s Hitchcock at his bland, safe, suburban best (but don’t you relax for a minute) and Joseph Cotton is perfect as the visiting relative who may, or may not, be a lady-killing serial  murderer.

Thoughts of Shadow of a Doubt led me to think about the importance of doubt in mysteries in general. Sure, we tend to think of mysteries as the genre of certainty. Detectives spend their time trying to establish the perpetrator to prosecutors’ satisfaction, and much of the pleasure of the genre rests in a tidy wind up with a ‘sure thing’ result.

But on the way to certainty, doubt can be a very useful device and one that produces a maximum amount of painful reflection and anxiety in the characters it afflicts. Young Charlie in Shadow loves her uncle, enjoys his company, and appreciates the whiff of big city sophistication he brings to sleepy Santa Rosa. The arrival of a detective with suspicions arouses first, her indignation, then her suspicion, and finally a realization that all is not right with her beloved uncle.

I’ve used a similar progression twice in novels. In Night Bus, the heroine must decide if she is paranoid or if her husband and sister-in-law are really plotting against her. This is an admittedly venerable story line but a useful variant of the much-favored ‘woman in jeopardy’. In Voices, the shoe is on the other foot. A family must decide if the earnest and vulnerable young woman who comes to call really is their long lost child or a deluded (or larcenous) intruder.

Doubt in short stories presents a greater challenge than in novels because everything must unfold quickly, preferably, as close as possible to the climax of the action. Nonetheless, I’ve tried stories with a high doubt quotient several times. In The Armies of the Night, a return to her old home forces the narrator to confront fearful, but hitherto suppressed, suspicions. In The Helpful Stranger, a woman is caught between her natural courtesy and a fear that the helpful stranger with his offer of a ride has another, more sinister, agenda.

I found these fun to do, especially The Helpful Stranger where I was able to combine rising doubt with a reversal of the two character’s roles. But in every case, doubt adds another layer to suspense. Someone pursued about an old dark house by a bad guy lives in straight-forward terror. But someone who is uncertain whether to be wary of a companion is in a different, more complex place, where fear of bodily harm is enhanced by fear of making a crucial social gaffe. The latter is often a feature of older UK mysteries, Eric Ambler making good use of it in Journey into Fear for one.

Film buffs and mystery fanatics will undoubtedly have a long list of stories with ambiguous characters and doubtful situations – Gaslight and Notorious come instantly to mind. But one of the great masters of doubt is neither a mystery writer nor a filmmaker. Nathaniel Hawthorne summed up the psychology of doubt as well as anyone: “Blessed are all simple emotions,” he wrote in Rappaccini’s Daughter, “be they dark or bright! It is the lurid intermixture of the two that produces the illuminating blaze of the internal regions."

This is literally so in perhaps his greatest story, Young Goodman Brown. Young Brown ventures out to the night woods (bad idea) to attend a witches’ Sabbath (worse idea) for just this once (one of the few things my students understood immediately about this tale). He meets a stranger who strongly resembles his father, but neither Goodman Brown nor the reader has any doubt that this is the Prince of Darkness or, as the old Calvinists termed him, the Old Deceiver.

Rather, Brown’s doubt turns out to be of a fundamental and existential nature. Should he believe the fantastic events in the forest, the evidence of his senses? Should he conclude that his neighbors are all bound to the devil and only he has escaped damnation? Or is the deception the other way around, and is he the one, who, succumbing to momentary temptation, has had his life, his faith, and his happiness destroyed by the devil?

Now that is doubt with a capital D.

13 January 2013

Professional Tips – John Lutz

At Bouchercon in Baltimore, several of us from Criminal Brief were going out to dinner. Along for the ride was a couple I didn't know, so I introduced myself.
John Lutz
John Lutz

If I could have picked any one person to meet, it would have been John Lutz, and here I was with my hand in a frozen clasp and my jaw unflatteringly prolapsing.

Gushing– I detest gushing. I hope I didn't gush. Gushing would have been the ultimate uncool. But I may have prattled on a bit about Nudger, maybe Frank Quinn or the Night series. Maybe a little. Or a lot.

Carving a Place for Himself

John Lutz rose to the top of my favorite American mystery authors long before I began writing and long before I realized how much he was honored by his colleagues. This man manages not only to be a prolific writer– both short stories and novels– but he avoids the death trap of an occasional contractual dud.

Usually writers excel at either characterization or plot. John Lutz handles both with ease. His protagonists are real, they're accessible, they're ordinary people with extraordinary barriers to overcome. Jack Reacher they are not but neither are they Tom Cruise.

Nudge, Nudger

My favorite is Nudger, a gentle PI with a carnivorous ex-wife, crushing debts, an unreliable car and a very reliable girlfriend. Indeed, he has a few very good friends even when, like Danny the doughnut man, they can be too much. Nudger doesn't bounce out of his rut, but he manages to climb up a centimeter at a time. That's good enough for most people.

My favorite novel plot comes from the Fred Carver series. Carver has a bad leg and bad enemies… one of them a corrupt police lieutenant. Carver finds an ingenious way to keep the lieutenant in line.

And premise? Imagine a cameraman taking time lapse photos of an office building and realizes one person doesn't move… all day long. Dum, de-dum, dum.

John Lutz's Top Ten Tips

While I was in South Africa, I received an eMail mentioning John Lutz'stop ten tips for writers. I haven't provided famous author tips in quite some time, so I was pleased to see this. Recently published by The Strand Magazine, I paraphrase here for the purposes of discussion.

What can we learn from John Lutz? Let's recap and study his recommendations.
  1. Appeal to a broad range of readers.
    This should be obvious, but clearly many would-be authors miss the point. We've all known writers like that. When others question who their intended market is, they become defensive and talk about artistic merit and avoiding the crush of the mainstream– no problem there.
  2. Write characters your readers will enjoy, likable and interesting. Bear in mind the importance of chemistry between characters.
    You'll remember an outstanding plot for a long time, but if you keep coming back to a book, a series, or an author, chances are it's for the characters.
  3. Know the ending before beginning. John calls this a 'magnetic north' that keeps the writer from meandering.
    I'm relieved John makes this point. So many of the start-writing-and-see-where-your-story-takes-you school eschew having a fixed plot that I started wondering if I was the odd duck out. I may sketch a scene and then dream up the circumstances surrounding it, but I like to have a goal when I start writing. That doesn't mean an initial target can't be revised, but I have to know the ending first.
  4. Build your characters as if you were to act them on stage. In other words, what is the motivation of each? Corollary: How can you make them distinctive?
    John asks what drives a character: respect, love, wealth, power, forgiveness, revenge? Figure that out and turn to method acting. Then give your players distinctive characteristics in looks, speech, and catch phrases.
  5. Practise your craft in the same place and time each day. John says this makes it easier to lose yourself in your writing so readers might lose themselves in your work.
    This is where I fall short. I like to work at night because it's quiet where I can think and paint pictures on the dark screen of my mind. Unfortunately crazy people (merchants, schools, government offices) think I should remain available during the day. Ah, the privations and tribulations of an artist!
  6. Read chapter endings and beginnings. End each chapter with a question, actual or implied.
    I believe John is suggesting making chapters sort of cliffhangers. In chapter 33, the good guy breaks away from the bad guys who were chasing him and turns onto the mountain road just as the brakes fail… turn the page to chapter 34.
  7. Concentrate on the particular. Make the smallest details singular and real.
    This is somewhat related to (4) above. Romance writers recommend employing all five senses when describing, but good genre writers of any stripe should follow suit. Consider an amazing paragraph from Sue Grafton:
    As a child, I was raised with the same kind of white bread, which had the following amazing properties: If you mashed it, it instantly reverted to its unbaked state. A loaf of this bread, inadvertently squished at the bottom of a grocery bag, was permanently injured and made very strange-shaped sandwiches. On the plus side, you could roll it into little pellets and flick them across the table at your aunt when she wasn't looking. If one of these bread boogers landed in her hair, she would slap it, irritated, thinking it was a fly. I can still remember the first time I ate a piece of the neighbor's home-made white bread, which seemed as coarse and dry as a cellulose sponge. It smelled like empty beer bottles, and if you gripped it, you couldn't even see the dents your fingers made in the crust.
  8. Read dialogue aloud.
    I am a believer in reading not just dialogue, but everything aloud. There's something about the exercise that catches errors and rotten writing like no other tool. And to vary the equation, I sometimes instruct my computer to read to me.
  9. Let your writing 'cool off' before re-reading and revising.
    Again, I 'm a believer. Days, weeks, even months later, the brain sees a story in a new light. My reaction is often disgust. Only when I reach a point where I no longer detest what I've written do I begin to think it might be ready for someone else.
  10. Double check you're satisfied with the four elements: character, situation, setting, and theme.
    If you're not fully comfortable with your writing, others won't be comfortable either. It all has to fit and work together. Don't 'make do', find a way to make it all work.
  11. Pat yourself on the back.

Now you know why John Lutz is a favorite of mine.

12 January 2013

New Year's Resolutions: Why I Don't Make Them

by Elizabeth Zelvin

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. No matter how many times I say it, a lot of people still don’t believe it. I keep saying it, thinking that this time they’ll get it. And they keep asking: “Really! You really don’t make New Year’s resolutions? How can you not make New Year’s resolutions? But you must make New Year’s resolutions!” They think that if they ask again, maybe this time my answer will change. And that’s the resolution process in a nutshell.

It’s not as if the millions of people who faithfully list the elements of the fresh start they’re going to make come January 1 are actually going to keep these resolutions. Year after year’s experience belies their ability to maintain the changes they’ve resolved to make. Do you consider it odd and irrelevant that I'm still talking about New Year's resolutions on January 12? I rest my case.
Take dieting. Americans value being thin more than any other physical characteristic. As a nation, we enjoy greater abundance than anywhere else on earth. Our holidays, our advertising, even our blogs extol the joys of good food. Our health professionals tell us that life-threatening obesity is endemic among us. They also advise physical fitness as a way to ensure good health and promote long life, and a billion-dollar industry has grown up to sell us products and services to enhance our fitness. (Remember when walking and running and climbing stairs used to be free?)

To resolve these chronic contradictions, people diet. On New Year’s Day, they declare, “This year, I’m going to stay away from junk food. I’m going to eat fewer desserts and more vegetables.” The erosion may set in as early as the neighbors’ New Year’s brunch, at which the pastries look sooo delicious…. If not, a bare six weeks or so away is Valentine’s Day, which can’t be celebrated without chocolate…. If we really expected to make permanent changes in our eating habits, why would we launch them as part of a ritual that we celebrate every single year?

But the fact that resolutions tend not to work in any lasting way is not the only reason I avoid them. As a shrink and as a person old enough to have amassed some life experience, I’ve come to believe that planning for a year is neither an effective nor an emotionally healthy way to live my life. You know the common expression about seeing no light at the end of the tunnel?
Mental health professionals call it projection. We give ourselves a lot of agita anticipating scary things that never happen. A popular acronym for fear is “future events already ruined.” How can we avoid the stress, anxiety, and dread that can feel overwhelming at times? By not looking down the tunnel. Some folks may dismiss “one day at a time” as psychobabble, but it actually makes life a lot more manageable. So on January 1, I looked around me and said, “What a beautiful day—I wonder what I’ll do with it?” And then I’ll do my best to fill my waking hours with as much pleasure, productivity, and love as I can manage. On January 2, I did the same thing.

And this morning, I did it again.

Note: I posted just about all of the above last New Year’s, but SleuthSayers was just getting started then, and I’m counting on most of this year’s readers not to have seen it before—and the rest to be old enough that they’ve forgotten it in the interim. My opinion about resolutions has not changed at all in the past year.

11 January 2013

The Silence of the Animals

by Dixon Hill

[Sorry not to include photos, but Blogger won't let me upload a single photo today. It keeps letting me load them into my draft, but then refuses to save if there are any photos contained therein.]

The screaming of animals is one of the most viscerally frightening things I have ever encountered.

I suspect the human mind is hardwired that way. Probably a survival mechanism throughout history. Some guy's walking along through the woods when suddenly a big cat screams, and the fellow instinctively high-tails it. Runs away, and maybe lives another day.

I recall a few times, while patrolling in jungles, when the scream of a nocturnal animal really made my ears prick up -- and my hair stood up right alongside them! Though, the time I was most frightened, was the time I sat alone, on a "point" -- a location that other soldiers had to find on a nighttime land navigation compass course -- in Panama.

There, I encountered an animal that never screamed, but chilled me to the marrow.

What does this have to do with writing?

Perhaps nothing.

Or, maybe somebody can use some of this information in a story some day. I don't know.

Frankly, I sometimes don't know what to do for my SS post. I'm happy to blissfully write fiction at the drop of a hat. But, nonfiction often gets me tied up in knots. Do I remember this incident correctly? What the heck was that guy's name? I need to do more research, before I'd feel comfortable saying that.

And, unfortunately, this was one of those weeks, though perhaps I may be excused since I've been wrestling with four cats that had to be stuffed into cardboard carriers then driven to the vet's office to be "fixed". And, I've been fighting a losing battle with the fuse box, which has left me writing this post in an office that contains one working lamp, a small heater and my computer -- thanks to an industrial strength power cable. I'm not one for surrendering, however, and I've gathered plenty of G2 that I believe will permit me to vanquish the fuse box within the next few days.

Meanwhile, I discovered, yesterday, that my dad's been riding around on his recumbent trike with the back wheel flat -- for about four weeks! Worried that the rim might be bent (and that rim holds the high-tech gears of his 8-speed inside the hub), I drove the bike downtown this morning and let the bikeshop guys take care of it. At 65 bucks, I think we got off light. And, when I got home, and called my wife to complain that I still hadn't come up with a good topic for my post. She suggested writing about The Silence of the Lambs, and tying it into a problem my youngest son had at the veterinarian, when we took the cats in to be fixed.

That was sort of problem for me, because I think there's undoubtedly enough already written about The Silence of the Lambs (both movie and book), that I don't have anything new to add. As for Quen, his problem was that he perceived the animals in the vet's office to all be "screaming". I think he heard a dog yip in the back, when it was probably getting a shot or something. And, he transferred that yip to the gentle whines and sniffs of the animals in the waiting room. Quen was worried that his cats might feel pain, when the vet operated on them. And, he felt the animals were all afraid and "screaming" so he asked if he could wait out in the jeep, since this made him feel sad. I was happy to unlock the jeep and let him go wait, just outside the glass office door, in our jeep, until my daughter and I got the cats turned over for their operation.

But, my wife's suggestion did remind me of that time in Panama. So I thought I'd tell you about it. Maybe you'll like the story.

Panama: About 6 mos. before we removed Noriega from power

Special Operations Command (SOCOM) had decided they'd like to submit each active duty A-Team to an annual examination, to be sure everyone was still tough enough to be on a team. (Or, something like that. It never made much sense to those of us on teams.) Thus,SOCOM officers at Ft. Bragg were busily formulating different events each team should have to accomplish, in order to be "certified" each year. And, part of that formulation, was seeing how well their plans actually played-out on the ground.

So, since my unit had been sent to Fort Sherman in Panama for six months as "Security Enhancement," a small gaggle of officers had come down from Bragg, to where we were staying in The Bat Cave -- an old gun battery along the approaches to the canal.  The place earned its nickname because, when it was first opened up, artillery simulators were thrown inside to clear out any animals lurking in the gloom, and about a million bats came exploding out the metal hatch entrance ala the opening to that old cartoon Scooby Doo.

These SOCOM wunderkind didn't stay in the Bat Cave with us, of course. They had a house on one of the posts. And, they had come up with a plan (formulated back at Bragg) to have A-Teams in 7th Group run a night land navigation course -- using map and compass -- through the land navigation course that the Jungle Warfare School only used during daylight hours.

And, no. They were not impressed by the fact that we'd been practicing day and night land navigation through the jungle, ever since we'd arrived in-country a few weeks earlier. They had planned to use this specific course. And, this specific course was the one that would be used.

This didn't surprise my other team members, because they'd been participants in a 20-mile rucksack run, up in Bragg, a few months before I hit the team, for very similar reasons.  And they got pretty surly when they talked about the experience.

Not that they objected to running twenty miles up a dirt road, while carrying a 75-pound rucksack. The thing they constantly griped about was that a SOCOM lieutenant -- who had never been through the Q-Course, let alone spent any time on an A-Team (this was an important part of the litany which had to be gone over each time the story was recounted) -- had insisted on monitoring their speed for the entire distance. This, in his mind, meant climbing into the back of a HUMVEE, and having the driver hold his speed down to the A-Team's pace -- which would have been okay, if he'd kept the jeep at the rear of the column. Instead, he insisted on leading the column with his jeep just a few feet in front of the lead man. Which, meant the team ate dust for every inch of those twenty miles.

The only thing that made them happy, when recalling this incident, was the recollection that certain team members had subsequently bumped into the lieutenant in a bar called "The Pub" -- a basement beer joint in Fayetteville, which was an old-time SF hangout. After that encounter, the SOCOM lieutenant in question evidently decided to do his drinking somewhere else from then on.

For the land nav course, however, my A-Team was not the group in the barrel. This "honor" fell on six members of another A-Team with us. Those six had to navigate the course.

The guys on my team were all designated to help set up and operate the course. We'd been permitted to wear our LBE (Load Bearing Equipment: a pistol belt and suspenders, which held magazine pouches, a field dressing, strobe light, two one-quart canteens and a small butt-pack in which I kept some food, a hammock and other sundries). My M-9 Baretta rode low on my right hip in a knock-off Eagle quick-draw rig, which -- as had been "suggested" on my first day in the team room -- I bought from the team (ODA 711).  I also had two railroad fusies in the cargo pocket on the left side of my BDU pants.

Railroad fusies are basically over-sized highway flares, used to signal trains during emergencies. To use one, you tear off the top, then turn it around and strike it against the portion below, which is a lot like striking a matchbook across the top of a giant match.

The guys running the compass course had issued a pair of fusies to everyone manning a point, since we'd each be alone, ostensibly so we could use it to signal somebody if we ran into trouble. However, when questioned, the guys running the course admitted they had no idea how anybody else was supposed to see a railroad fusie burning out in the middle of the nowhere, amid such dense foliage.

I was very familiar with railroad fusies, since we used them to initiate certain charges in the Engineer portion of the Q-Course.  And, I followed what I'd been taught there, loosening the top on one, so that I could snap it into life lickety-split if needed.

The guys in charge then led us down a trail and dropped us each off at our points. Some of those SOCOM guys were supposed to pass back through to take up positions on the trail, between points, to ensure the six-man team being tested on the compass course didn't use the trail. None of them passed back my way, however.

My point was located in a small clearing (15-or-20-foot diameter) amid deep undergrowth, with a high canopy above me, and a river about twenty feet downhill from where I strung a hammock between two trees. We were dropped off just before dusk, and the guys being tested would start out at 11:00 pm "to be sure it's dark enough".

That has to be one of the stupidest things I've ever heard, because once the sun goes down in a place like that, it's dark as the inside of a cave. The overhead canopy blotted out any starlight, and I had no fire since that would have helped the guys following the compass course to find my position. The nearest person to me was at the next point, about four kilometers away.

I was permitted to use a red-lens flashlight, if I wanted light, but had to turn it off if I heard the land nav group approaching, so they wouldn't see it.  I didn't use mine much, because the open area of the river let in some ambient light from the night sky.  Thus, I could see most of my little clearing, right up to the line of dense foliage that curtained-off three sides of it.

Opening my butt-pack, I ate an MRE and strung-up my hammock.

A little after midnight, monkeys got busy throwing things at me (I won't tell you what, 'cause it's pretty gross), and this drove me out of my hammock. Unfortunately, it didn't stop the monkeys, who continued to bombard me. Finally, driven to sufficient rage, I pulled out my M-9 Baretta and -- before I could threaten to shoot any monkeys (an empty threat anyway) -- they all screeched and rustled away through the trees.

I guessed they'd seen a sidearm before.

But, maybe I was wrong.

I put my M-9 back into my rig, and snapped the thumb catch.. I opened a paperback and struggled to read, using a red-lens mini-mag flashlight, but my attention was arrested by a crunching of heavy feet and the sound of something moving through the underbrush. It sounded like the six land nav guys might be approaching my point, so I twisted my mini-mag flashlight to extinguish the red glow.

I stood in the dark and waited.  But, the movement had stopped.  I could hear the river washing slowly by behind me, and a distant splash that I equated with a Cayman entering the water some distance downstream.

In front of me, however, there was only silence. & Stillness. Maybe the land navigation group had stopped to do a map check, not realizing how close they were to the objective. I stood and listened, peering into the black-green before me. I didn't even have a cigar to smoke, because the guys running the course thought the odor might give my position away.

Then, the sound of stealthy movement came to me from within the undergrowth. If this was the land navigation group, and they were looking for my point, they were pretty good at the sneaky Pete thing, no easy trick in such dense foliage.

I thought that was a bit odd, since there was no real reason for them to be stealthy, unless they just wanted to practice their silent night movement. And, these guys hadn't impressed me as the sort who would combine two types of training into one. They were more like a pack of jokers, freeloaders almost, except that most of them were old time SF guys who knew the ropes so well that they just couldn't stand being forced to toe the line on what they saw as a silly land navigation course. (And, quite frankly, I didn't blame them.) I wondered if they might have decided they were close to the point, and that it might be fun to jump out of the darkness at me. After all, I was a newbie. I was only a few weeks out of the Q-Course, and this was my first trip on an A-Team. We didn't really know each other.

The movement inside the undergrowth began circling to my right. I saw some branches bending as if someone down low were shouldering them aside, and wondered if the group had missed my point. Then it stopped again, and I heard something strange.

It sounded sort of like someone with a low voice emitting a long, low, quiet belch. You know the kind -- it makes sort of an elongated low-pitched burbling noise. This was like that, but different in a way I find hard to explain.

Bushes rustled, and I saw branches quiver as the invisible noisemaker approached me.

Something about that low, quiet rumble spoke to a part of me that lived far down in my spine. My body tensed on its own as adrenaline electrified my system. Eyes snapped wide open, my ears seemed to grow as if trying to scoop in the merest hint of noise and transmit it strait to my brain for instant analysis. Maybe three feet of foliage separated my tiny clearing from whatever was slowly creeping in through the undergrowth.

I drew my M-9, coming up in a two-handed grip pointed at the location where the bent stalks indicated the intruder was located. & But, I couldn't fire, because it might be one of the land nav guys trying to scare me. If I put a nine-ball round through somebody, even if he recovered, the guys on my team would never let me live it down.

Then, I remembered the railroad fusies in my cargo pocket. I whipped one out with my left hand, holding the M-9 with just my right. A second later, it was tangle-finger time as I quickly fumbled with both hands, to tear the fusie cap the rest of the way off and strike it, while trying to keep my M-9 (which I had a death grip on) trained on-target.

Whatever was out there was closing in through the underbrush. When the fusie burst into life, I caught a glimpse of quick motion out of the corner of my eye -- something jerking back into the foliage. I don't know what it was, but it looked like a giant paw to me. Of course, I'd seen a Jaguar at the Jungle Warfare zoo, a few days before, so maybe my mind was playing tricks on me. The paws on that thing were the size of manhole covers.

Whatever was out there made a scrambling noise as it backed up through the underbrush.

But, it didn't leave.

The noise and waving branches began circling to my right again, a little farther out, probably to stay outside the circle of light thrown by the fusie.. Whatever it was, was maintaining a fairly constant distance, though, as it moved. I pivoted my body to follow it, keeping the blazing fusie out and high, and the M-9 trained where I thought the base of those bending branches would be.

The thing moved around me until it got pretty close to the river. Then it stopped again. A moment later, it began circling back left. I pivoted myself the other way, eyes straining to peer into the green curtain that masked it.

Suddenly, the sound of running feet and snapping branches came from my far left.

The thing in the undergrowth heard it, too.  It stopped, went silent again.

A moment later, I identified the sound coming in from the left. It was the group of six -- the guys following the land navigation course. Instead of following compass headings that would have forced them to bust brush every step of the way, they had navigated to the trail and were running along it. In step, no less!

A second later, the thing out in front of me burst from cover and crashed away through the undergrowth. It was loud as heck, sounded as if a high-intensity dust devil had whipped up and torn its way through the jungle. Snapping branches and scattering animals as it went.

A man's voice called, "Whoa!  What the #*@% was that?" Then the Team Sergeant of the six guys sort of tripped into my little clearing, the other five guys following close on his heals. The Team Sergeant saw me and blurted, "Hill!  What the hell just lit out, out of here?"  He and the other guys dropped their rucks on the ground to take a breather.

I shook my head and holstered my M-9. One of the guys saw it and asked, "What happened? Why'd you draw your weapon?"

I explained and asked, "You guys weren't messing with me, were you?"

The guys all shook their heads.  "We weren't messing with you.  Not that we wouldn't mess with you, like that.  But, we didn't do it this time!  And we sure as hell would have told you it was us when you whipped your weapon out!"

They asked which way it had gone, and pointed.

The Team Sergeant laughed.  "Thank God the trail goes this way instead!"

I looked at him. "How can you guys follow the trail? The guys who came down from SOCOM, to set this up, said they'd be sitting on unknown trail points to catch you, if you did?"

The Team Sergeant shook his head. "Those SOCOM garri-trooopers aren't comfortable anywhere outside their offices up in Bragg. They're not about to campout on a jungle trail at night. They'd wet their pants!"

"But, how'd you know ..."

"We took off, following the azimuth, then we circled back around through the jungle, crawled up and did a recon on 'em. They're all up by the Start/Finish point drinking coffee. We shook a few branches at 'em, and they just about jumped out of their skin!"

Everyone laughed.

Except me. "You weren't 'shaking branches' at me, just now, by any chance?"

The team members all shook their heads and swore they hadn't. The Team Sergeant said, "Look, Hill, we just came from over there." He hooked a thumb over his shoulder at the trail they'd come from, over on my left. "And, you say that thing took off that way." He pointed out in front, a little to the right. "Whatever that was, it had nothing to do with us, buddy. I swear. And, we know you weren't imagining things; we heard it tear out of here."

I nodded. The guys saddled-up. They had to run the course with a 75-pound rucksack, full combat load of ammo, plus all their weapons. Once they were up and ready, they started off, running up the trail.

I took down my hammock and packed up my butt pack, then walked up the trail toward the Start/Finish point. A couple of kilometers later, the guy from the next point caught up to me. As we walked together, he ;said, "Man, that was messed up. They stuck me down in a swamp with Cayman all around. It was crazy!"

I nodded. "Yeah, that was pretty wacky, buddy."

The next day, we weer informed that Jungle Warfare instructors had encountered Jaguar prints in the Land Navigation area. It was suggested we avoid the place for a while.

I, for one, happily agreed not to go back there any time soon.

See ya' in two weeks (if I can get out of fuse box hell),

10 January 2013

Hello, My Lovely

by Robert Lopresti

Agatha Christie
said it was a myst'ry
what in the world you see in me.
Dashiell Hammett
said Goddamnit
you won't solve this one with a pot of tea.

Dorothy Sayers
turned to prayers
hoping for clues from worlds divine
Raymond Chandler
and David Handler
said oh lord, I wish that she were mine

Even Rex Stout
couldn't figure it out
so he turned the whole case over to Nero
Robert Parker
took a view much darker
and mumbled 'bout the state of the modern hero

Edgar Allan Poe
said he couldn't know
'cause all of his love affairs ended gory
Walter Mosley
says this ends coz'ly
but I prefer a hardboiled story

Ed McBain
and Mickey Spillaine
muttered some words about physical attraction
Ngaio Marsh
said don't be harsh
It's probably just an artistic reaction

Arthur Conan Doyle
said no need to roil
I'm sure that the answer is elementary
Amanda Cross
said who made you boss?
You're a dead white male from the nineteenth century

Then you come in
wearing a grin
and give me one of those looks.
There's method I see
and opportunity
but the motive doesn't show up in one of those books

What you see in me
that's a mystery
and I don't even have a clue.
But it would be a crime
if I'm
not glad you do.

08 January 2013

What's In A Name?

"What's in a name?  That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."  Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (as if I needed to tell you that).

Easy for Juliet to have said, after all who doesn't know her name?  I often think when I'm writing that all the good names have been taken.  If there's one thing I find vexatious when conjuring up characters it's the naming of them.  I blame Shakespeare and Dickens mostly.  They got all the good ones.  Let's face it, how are you going to top names like Romeo?  You can hardly think of young love and lovers without it popping unbidden into your brain.  As for villainy, how about Iago, or better yet in my book, the obsequious and insinuating Uriah Heep of David Copperfield?  If you give a thought to pick-pockets what name jumps up at you?  The Artful Dodger, perchance?  Indecisiveness--Hamlet, anyone?  Decay and bitterness?  Need I say Miss Havisham?  Need I go on?  Those two guys used up all the good names!  Never mind that they actually had to think them up.  I'm sure any of us could have done it given enough time.

I'm seldom satisfied with the character names I come up with, they're all so ordinary and common.  No Prosperos or Micawbers amongst them.  I blame my generation.  We all had common, ordinary names, nothing special to distinguish us.  Every kid I knew was named David, Ricky, Susan, Rita, Mary, Tommy, Terry, Steve, Laura, Keith.  Of course this was in the era before color was introduced into the world.  Everything was in black and white, so our names had to be suitably bland as well.  We didn't know any better during that gray time and thought it was just fine.  As a result we are name-challenged...or at least I am.

I've tried different tactics with only low levels of success.  In the beginning I worked the names of family into my stories.  It was sort of an inside joke and they seem to get a kick out of it.  But sometimes a name borrowed from one of my kids didn't fit the character I was creating.  Then I was thrown back on my own creativity--not a happy place for me when it comes to names.  So I would sit in front of my computer listlessly staring at a cursor pulsating with impatience for the "name".  Lacking true inspiration I fell into lifting names from the authors of the books stacked up on my desktop.  I would mix and match them.  Clever, no?  No...not particularly.  None of them rose to "Ebenezer Scrooge" status and distinction.  When I penned the suspense-filled actioner, "Tomorrow's Dead", the best name I could come up with for it's rugged protagonist was Byron.  Byron?  I ask ya.  Not even a second cousin to a Mike Hammer, or a Sam Spade.

Mostly, I just stick with the near-generic names of my youth and experience.  A story due out this year features a Terry, another a Helen.  You can see my problem here.  I did kinda go out on a limb with "Mariel" in a recent work--downright exotic for me.  One of the few times I thought I got the name just right for the character.

So these are my trials and travails when it comes to the damnable name game.  Don't even get me started on the more minor characters!  I'm considering going to numerical designations when it comes to them, sort of like the bad guys in a 60's Bond film.  I'd love to hear your thoughts on this subject, as I know from reading many of my fellow SleuthSayers works, no one has this problem but me.  Everyone else is clever at naming.  How about a little support? 

Brother, can you spare a name?  Got some loose monikers on ya?  Hey, don't walk away from me...I know you got a few extra handles in your pocket!

07 January 2013

New Project For a New Year


We are seven days into the new year, so a blog about resolutions is not really timely, and besides, other SSers have  addressed that issue.  Aside from the moment having passed for my resolutions, most of mine never lasted a full week anyway.

So...why am I going to tell you what I am resolved to do in the next six months?
Probably for two reasons.  First, because I'm excited about it, and second, because I don't really have anything I'd rather share today.

On December 18, 2012, Dale's post "Christmas Stories: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" set me thinking.  Why haven't I ever written a Christmas story?  I decided it wasn't too late to remedy that situation, but first, I had to consider whether to write a Callie Christmas story or a pen-name Christmas story. I chose Callie although there's already a Callie book coming out in 2013 --Mother Hubbard Has A CORPSE IN THE CUPBOARD.  

Would Bella Rosa Books publish two Callies in one year?  After all,  the publishing big dogs didn't think Stephen King's readers would want two novels in less than twelve months.    Get real, Fran, I said to myself, you're not a female Stephen King-----damn it!  I called my publisher and explained the situation. 

His response: "We'll do it if you have the completed manuscript to me by June."  That wasn't disturbing  because I wrote my second and third Callies in six months each. It did mean setting aside a half-written project, but it will be there when this is finished. My next concern was a title because while titles of pen-name books usually come to me during the writing and are frequently changed often during the process, I always want a title before beginning a Callie mystery.

Out came the Mother Goose book.  The only rhyme that lent itself to a Christmas theme was "Little Jack Horner sat in a corner, eating his Christmas pie." Nothing there.  Discussing it in the car, Aeden came up with On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me A DEAD MAN UNDER A CHRISTMAS TREE.  My titles have been long in the past, but nothing that long.  Then we got the idea of incorporating the opening words into a visual that might be a cover idea which would get the message across yet diminish the effect of the length of the opening clause.


A Callie Parrish Mystery

I envision the above on a white background with author's name in black Edwardian script at the bottom and a chalk outline of Santa with A DEAD MAN UNDER A CHRISTMAS TREE superimposed over him.  One of the many things I like about Bella Rosa Books is that they give me far more input on production than my previous publishers, while their art department can take an idea and create a professional version of it.

Ten axes grinding instead of
ten lords a leapin.'
Seven guns a smokin'
instead of seven
swans a swimmin.'
Singing "The Twelve Days of Christmas" all the way to Jacksonville resulted in exchanging the gifts.
Nine doggies howling instead of
nine ladies dancing.
We have substituted mystery/murder presents for each line of the song, and I'm using the new lines as chapter headings.  I won't share them all with you, but the plot and chapter headings are working well together.

What about you?  Did you make resolutions?  Do you have a new project for the new year?

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

06 January 2013

A Hemingway Punchline

Hemingway's passport photo
Previously, we brought you Ernest Hemingway’s popular story 'The Killers' and a historical perspective that fills in many gaps. Today, thanks to research and the skills of Robert Lopresti, we bring you its precursor that possibly explains why 'The Killers' may have pursued the Swede.

Hemingway’s 'A Matter of Colour,' published in the April 1916 issue of The Tabula during his junior year of high school, may be forgiven its twist, clever in its own way. Indeed, this story demonstrates the skills of the teenager who'd become one of America's most famous writers.

Colorful Clout

Two weeks ago, we learned Joe Gans was historical, a real fighter, the first black World Lightweight Champion. We also discovered Andreson, the Swede, was patterned after Andre Anderson, who'd once knocked Jack Dempsey off his feet, later killed by the Chicago mob for blowing a match.

One commentator suggests the story should be read aloud for its accents, slang, and a near punchline. With that in mind, we present:

A Matter of Colour

by Ernest Hemingway
“What, you never heard the story about Joe Gan’s first fight?” said old Bob Armstrong, as he tugged at one of his gloves.
“Well, son, that kid I was just giving the lesson to reminded me of the Big Swede that gummed the best frame-up we ever almost pulled off. The yarn’s a classic now; but l’ll give it to you just as it happened.
“Along back in 1902, I was managing a sort of a new light-weight by the name of Montana Dan Morgan. Well, this Dan person was one of those rough and ready lads, game and all that, but with no footwork, but with a kick like a mule in his right nn, but with a weak left that wouldn’t dent melted butter. I’d gotten along pretty well with the bird, and we’d collected sundry shekels fighting dock-wallopers and stevedores and preliminary boys out at the old Olympic club.
“Dan was getting to be quite a sizable scrapper, and by using his strong right mitt and stalling along, he managed to achieve quite a reputation. So I matched the lad with Jim O’Rourke, the old trial horse, and the hoy managed to hang one on Jim‘s jaw that was good for the ten-second anesthetic.
“So when Pete McCarthy came around one day and said he had an amateur that wanted to break in, and would I sign Dan up with him for twenty rounds out at Vernon, I fell for it strong. Joe Gans, Pete said, was the amateur‘s name, and I’d never heard of him at that time.
“I thought that it was kind of strange when Pete came around with a contract that had a $500 forfeit clause in it for non-appearance, but we intended to appear all right, so I signed up.
“Well, we didn’t train much for the scrap, and two days before it was to come off, Dan comes up to me and says: ‘Bob, take a look at this hand.’
“He stuck out his right mauler, and there, just above the wrist, was a lump like a pigeon egg.
“‘Holy smokes! Danny, where did you get that?’
“‘The bag busted loose while I was punchin’ it,’ says Danny, ‘and me right banged into the framework.’
“‘We1l, you’ve done it now,’ I yelped. ‘There’s that 500 iron men in the forfeit, and I’ve put down everything I’ve got on you to win by K.O.’ 
“‘It can’t be helped,’ says Dan. ‘That bag wasn’t fastened proper; I'll fight anyway.’
“‘Yes, you will, with that left hand of yours, that couldn’t punch a ripple in a bowl of soup.’
“‘Bob,’ says Danny, ‘I’ve got a scheme. You know the way the ring is out there at the Olympic? Up on the stage with that old cloth drop curtain in back? Well, in the first round, before they find out about this bad flipper of mine, I’ll rush the smoke up against the curtain (you know Joe Gans was a ‘pusson of color’) and you have somebody back there with a baseball bat and swat him on the head from behind the curtain.’
“Say! I could have thrown a fit. It was so blame simple. We just couldn’t lose, you see. It comes off so quick nobody gets wise. Then we collects and beats it!
“So I goes out and pawns my watch to put another twenty down on Dan to win by a knockout. Then we went out to Vernon and I hired a big husky Swede to do thc slapstick act.
“The day of the fight dawned bright and clear, as the sporting writers say, only it was foggy. I installed the husky Swede back of the old drop curtain just behind the ropes.
“You see, I had every cent we had down on Dan, about 600 round ones and the 500 in the forfeit. A couple of ham and egg fighters mauled each other in the prelims, and then the
bell rings for our show.
Joe Gans
the real Joe Gans
“I tied Dan’s gloves on, gives him a chew of gum and my blessing, and he climbs over the ropes into the squared circle. This Joe Gans, he`s champion now, had quite a big following among the Oakland gang, and so we had no very great trouble getting our money covered. Joe’s black, you know, and the Swede behind the scenes had his instructions:
“‘Just as soon as the white man backs the black man up against the ropes, you swing on the black man’s head with the bat from behind the curtain.‘
"Well, the gong clangs and Dan rushes the smoke up against the ropes, according to instructions.
“Nothing doing from behind the curtain! I motioned wildly at the Swede looking out through the peephole.
“Then joe Gans rushes Dan up against the ropes. Whunk! comes a crack and Dan drops like a poled over ox.
“Holy smoke! The Swede had hit the wrong man! All our kale was gone! I climbed into the ring, grabbed Dan and dragged him into the dressing room by the feet. There wasn’t any need for the referee to count ten; he might have counted 300.
“There was the Swede.
“I lit into him: ‘You miserable apology for a low-grade imbecile! You evidence of God’s carelessness! Why in the name of the Prophet did you hit the white man instead of the black man?’
“‘Mister Armstrong,’ he says, ‘you no should talk at me like that— I bane color blind.’”