04 November 2012

faceless



facebook button
by Leigh Lundin

facebook— People have a love-hate relationship with facebook. I have a hate-hate thing going. It doesn't like me and I don't like it.

Although I maintain a professional profile on LinkedIn and CrimeSpace, some of us aren't particularly geared toward social media. The phrase "my life is an open book" isn't my cup of tea; I value privacy too much.

But authors must reach out to fans, right? 'Yes' is the obvious answer and John Floyd advised me to give facebook a try. That… didn't… work out so well.

I signed up. It asked for my address book and I refused– I always refuse to allow programs access to my address book– too many ways trust can be misused and facebook is notorious for abusing trust. It has one of the worst reputations when it comes to privacy and security of information. It frowned at that.

Next thing it wanted me to join 'apps', things like the Birthday Book and Farmville. I carefully read the fine print which gave them and the 'app makers' rights to do pretty much what they want with my personal information. Not cool; I refused. The face of facebook glared at me.
block

I started looking for people– family members, friends, Criminal Briefers, SleuthSayers… I found a few. facebook looked at those people and offered me 'friends' of friends. So sure, I knew Margery Flax, James Lincoln Warren, Lee Goldberg, and I sort of knew J.A. Konrath.

face to faceless

So I picked out dozens of authors I'd met at through MWA and Bouchercon and blithely clicked them as they popped up. Then I clicked on Rhys Bowen. It asked "Are you sure you know this person?"

Well, yes. I hadn't danced with her or been there during childbirth, but I sat next to her at a conference and we chatted. I'd made her acquaintance, hadn't I?

I clicked 'yes'. Moments later facebook sent a message it was banishing me for claiming friends I don't know.
shattered

Uh-oh. They offered her as a suggestion, and now they took her away?  Maybe it had been a trick question. Did I know she was English but lived in California? Did I know her real name is Janet Quin-Harkin? Did I know about the mole above her third rib? But they didn't ask me.

Not for a moment do I think Rhys Bowen hovered over her keyboard waiting to pounce when I clicked her name: "There's that damn Leigh stalking me again, first at conferences and now facebook. I'll show him, ha ha!" *poof*

faceless Bureaucracy

I'd heard stories of facebook booting people off for little or no reason. The problem of such one-size-fits-all software is it has no 'heuristics', no sense of judgment, no way to fit square pegs into round holes. I don't take well to being told what to do and a peremptory decision by a software program galled me. It felt like a parental smack by an arbitrarily awful parent.

thumbs down
But okay, I'd try one more time with a different eMail address. I set up again but it must have picked up cookies from my previous attempt. It asked me if I knew my own niece. I clicked yes, and this time found myself terminated.

My niece! A facebook page said I could appeal but they don't have to give a reason for their decision, and they didn't. At least I didn't have crops spoiling in Farmville. Do people pay for that game? Does anyone pay for things they can't access when barred, banned, or terminated?

Well, fu2

Months went by and someone suggested I try facebook again. I tried to log in and there was that page saying I could appeal, but I'd already appealed and arrived nowhere.

But Velma could join! And so she did. She experimented and learned about using facebook. She's flip-lip, funnier and more gregarious than I am and she built a solid circle of friends. A few times a week new people clasp her to their bosom in digital friendship.

Naked Animosity

Vicariously, I followed Velma's exploits. Because anyone could say anything, odd conversations took place. For example, a woman berated an art page blathering on how offensive it was and that children were present. She complained about a mix of monochrome art prints, pin-ups, and romantic pics with less skin than Vero Beach.
art erotica

A couple of things struck me. When she first 'Liked' the page, what did she expect? It reminded me of the woman who said, "But officers, if you climb on the chair and peer over the hedge with binoculars, you can see he's stark naked!"

Frankly, hysteria more than nudity will damage kids, but I grew up in a family where art was understood and appreciated. If children were present, why wasn't the woman supervising them? Initially she claimed she'd lined up 600 people to complain to facebook then later said she'd formed a petition with 389 names to ban the page.

Okay, facebook was started for college students, but sometimes adults like to have adult discussions. For reasons beyond me, that woman didn't agree. I would come to remember that incident…
'F's

face-2-face

These days, facebook boils with election tirades. My eMail inbox overflows with political rants that when scratched, turn out to be falsehoods, dozens upon dozens. I hate lies but some people buy into them.

I find it equally offensive when people claim either candidate is a liar. While their facts might be a bit wobbly, a difference of opinion doesn't make a candidate a liar. If we wrongly over-use a word, the word become meaningless.

Upon rare occasions, a message crops up where Velma can't keep her mouth shut. Most are good things: How can you not applaud Margery Flax volunteering to help others in need? How can you not appreciate the Hair Plus Day Spa in Hillsborough, New Jersey offering free shampoos and showers? How can you not like a Republican governor and a Democrat president working together?

In Your face

But not everyone likes the positive. From crime writing, I developed a nose sensitive to bullshit. Thus it came to pass, a picture popped up that offended sensibilities. The photo from an account called 'Tax Payer' purported to show Muslims rioting in Michigan with comments ranting about freedom versus satanism and the usual tripe that the liberal or libertarian press is covering up this important story. A familiar alarm went off: another lie, photographic hate speech.
Dearborn fake

It took only a few minutes to discover the photograph was not taken in Dearborn, Michigan but from news agency file footage shot three to eight years earlier in Afghanistan. In fact, there's a recent Radio Free Europe Afghanistan story using that same file photo.

Velma posted a single comment, one and only one: "This is hokum. The photo is real, but taken more than 3 years go in Afghanistan, not the USA. Check your photo source, you may be in copyright violation."

Before they deleted that comment, one guy actually wrote back: "It may not be accurate but it represents truth."

What? How can compounded lies reveal truth?

thumbs down
Velma's comment was quickly eradicated as I suspect were others inconsistent with the lie, deleted and barred from further commenting.

And then a funny thing happened. A facebook message popped up saying due to complaints about spamming, Velma was barred from sending messages and contacting people she didn't know.

Okaaay. That punishment thing again, for what? Daily messages about colleagues surely didn't imply spam. One single message to 'Tax Payer' didn't constitute spam, did it?

face-off

But I remembered an article about author Deborah MacGillivray and her coven who manipulated Amazon with 'clickies', negative reports of abuse they used to ban critics. facebook has a similar 'click abuse' button. I recalled the woman who claimed she'd gathered 389 people to take down the art page. Had 'Tax Payer' and his sycophantic cronies ganged up and clicked the abuse button to silence the truth?

Due to facebook's lack of transparency I'll never know for sure, but the site certainly doesn't treat people like adults, especially those who act adult. It's ironic that the teens facebook was created for are fleeing to other social networking sites where they can converse out of the shadow of parents while we're stuck on a site with rules for children.
facebook

face down

I sometimes see messages like "I'm back from my most recent 30 day ban." This raises at least three questions: Why were they banned? Why did they return? Why do I suspect they're going to be quickly banned again?

SleuthSayers readers are fine, upstanding citizens but have you faced facebook problems? What is your experience? Tell us face-to-face.

03 November 2012

Not Being Preachy



by Elizabeth Zelvin

The theme of my mystery series is recovery from alcoholism, other addictions, and codependency—a lot harder sell than, say, man against nature or puppies and kittens. Over the years, I’ve been asked to participate in panels with other authors whose crime fiction tackles various social issues, from the environment to human rights violations to animal rights.
(I also had the memorable experience of being assigned to “the booze panel” at Bouchercon, but that’s another story. Suffice it to say I declined to do it a second time.) The one point on which all such authors agree is that it’s crucial to avoid any taint of preachiness while getting their point across. Storytelling trumps theme or issue—always.

Authors sneak their point of view into their mysteries in a variety of ways. The most popular way to avoid preachiness is revision. Put all the pet peeves, hobby horses, and heavy-handed passages that come to mind into the uninhibited first draft, by all means—and then delete them.

As I’ve become a more experienced writer, I’ve become more willing to slash, slash, slash. Ever since a powerful workshop a number of years ago, I’ve found the offending passages leap out at me when I reread the first draft. And when I review each revision, even more cuttable preaching pops up. Most recently, I’ve realized there is more to why these passages must go than simply to avoid irritating the reader. Preachiness is the enemy of pace. My biggest temptation is to overexplain the recovery process and try to demystify the twelve-step programs. When my protagonist Bruce muses about AA, it stops the action. I have to find ways to make the AA principles serve the action, build character, and advance the story.

My point of view is that alcoholism is a disease and recovery is transformative. But Bruce would be unbearable if he constantly plugged that point of view. Instead, I’ve given him a sardonic ambivalence that is much more palatable to the reader. Bruce’s mixed feelings about recovery create internal conflict, one of the key elements in building a fictional character, while they also get the point across. A T-shirt expressing Bruce’s attitude toward recovery might say: “Gimme a break!” He is constantly rolling his eyes over some AA platitude—and then experiencing its inner truth.

My sidekick character Barbara carries another theme that is important to me, that of codependency. Barbara is addicted to rescue and control and to minding everybody’s business out of an excessive desire to help. Barbara is a helping professional as well as an Al-Anon member. She understands that becoming overinvolved with or even giving advice to others is a way of distracting herself from her responsibility to manage her own life. She knows that fretting over what other people think undermines her self-esteem, that she can’t “fix” anybody but herself, and that she can’t blame others for her feelings or choices. If Barbara had all the virtues she’s striving toward, she’d be insufferable. So I’ve made her a chronic backslider. She is constantly being derailed by nosiness, embarrassment, and a desire to run the lives of others. Her T-shirt would say: “Oops!”

One way for the author to gain some distance from the character who represents an issue is to put that character in third person rather than first. That’s what happened with Barbara. In the early drafts of my first book, she was a co-protagonist who alternated first person chapters with Bruce. Bruce’s voice is sardonic and clever, with a lot of feeling underneath. He’s a New York smartass with a heart of gold. The original Barbara was self-conscious and digressive and, yes, preachy, no matter how much I revised the manuscript. The result was alienating to readers. Demoting her to third-person sidekick made her much more palatable and more successful as a character. Reader reactions to Barbara vary: some find her endearing, some hilarious, some inspiring, and some annoying. But they don’t forget her, and I think they come away knowing more about codependency and why codependents need recovery.

I’ve learned a few additional techniques for avoiding preachiness from authors with whom I’ve discussed this challenge. “Show, don’t tell” serves not only the roundedness of characters but also the integration of serious themes. It also helps not to make the the Cause and the Opposition too absolute. Readers may come to the story with a variety of experiences and points of view, and we don’t want to alienate everybody but the True Believer who doesn’t need convincing. The same goes for heroes and villains. It’s good technique to present flawed good guys and let the reader empathize a bit with bad guys. Maybe what saves the character-driven mystery from turning into a sermon is simply: Nobody’s perfect!

02 November 2012

Mysterious Signs


by Dixon Hill

Well, it's the first Friday in November. And, if you're reading this, you've  managed to survive another Halloween (and the accompanying storm, if you're on the East Coast).

We've got just one more night of terror to come, this year:  Election Eve.

That's right, come next Tuesday night -- no matter who wins -- polls indicate about half the nation will be upset about it, certain that we're entering a new era of a "long national nightmare."  But, there's also something fun going on .  And, that fun stuff involves not only elections, but also a real-life mystery of sorts.

Signs of the Times





Mysteries come in many shapes and sizes.  So do political campaign signs.








Those signs seem to multiply like rabbits!  Don't they?  They sprout up just about everywhere -- at least around my town.







Here's a mystery for you:  Which of these campaign signs isn't really campaigning for the candidate on the sign?






























If you picked the sign below, you're right!




















But, you may ask, if it's not campaigning for Mitt Romney, who or what is this sign campaigning for? And, Dixon Hill, how do you know it's not campaigning for Romney?


To answer the last question first, let me show you another sign put out by the same group.  This sign clearly does not support Romney.















Now . . . To answer that first question, let's do a little investigating.  Shall we?

Since a fairly recent Supreme Court decision, Political Action Committees (PACs) have been granted much freer range for advertisement associated with political campaigns.  The PAC behind this sign is shown below.

Citizens for Sushi?

Who the heck are they?  Are they really a Political Action Committee?  Or are they something a little different?


The Answer is BOTH

They're a real PAC, but the members are people in the restaurant industry.  Very particular members, in fact.  To see what I mean, let's take a closer look at part of that Obama sign.  You see, the Stingray Sushi restaurant uses this logo -- complete with the anime girl -- on much of its advertisement.


Below is a shot of the Stingray Sushi restaurant, here in Scottsdale.  See any signage similarities?


Stingray Sushi is a sushi bar for young, hip kids with lots of cash to drop.  The owners have worked like crazy to promote their restaurant, using an anime girl -- the same one you see on the political signs -- on signs around town, for several years.

Scottsdale and most towns in The Valley, however, have very strict sign codes.  There are almost no billboards in The Valley of The Sun.  So, Stingray Sushi opted to plaster their signs on city buses and other locations that they could buy access to.

The problem is, that little anime gal sometimes gets a bit risque.  Note the look on her face (and the use of her hand) to lend a slightly different meaning to the words "Mitt bit my sushi!" in the Romney ad.

She wound up being too risque for city buses in at least one instance -- resulting in the restaurant having to pull their ads.

What's a restaurant owner to do???

Well, in this case, they take advantage of a fairly recent Supreme Court Decision and create their own PAC.  Then they go out and make signs supporting both candidates, and post them all over town.

This is a type of guerrilla marketing -- meaning that it's low-key, and relatively unregulated.  It flies beneath the radar of most cities, because state law doesn't permit cities to mess with campaign signs.  In fact, federal law is pretty strict about what you can do to limit campaign signage and advertisement, I believe (some of you feds might lend a correcting voice here, if needed).  And, this permits companies like Stingray Sushi to make a little advertisement "hay" while the political "sun shines".

Maybe you don't think that's a sort of fun idea, but I do.  I think it lends a bit of whimsy to a political season filled with scare tactics and negative advertisement, dumping virtual gallons of garbage into my living room every day.

And Stingray Sushi isn't the only business engaged in this practice.  A few more local samples are pasted below.

















 These guys are giving away free gelato -- all you have to do is cast your text-vote!!



And, you might want to note: KJZZ is our local NPR station.  
If you've been thinking this practice is "low brow" maybe this shot lends a different feeling to the idea.


So, have any of you seen examples of guerrilla marketing masquerading as campaign signs in your neighborhood?  Let us all know -- in the comments section.





























See you in two weeks,
--Dixon

01 November 2012

Falling into a Story



by Deborah Elliott-Upton

The weather is cooling, the leaves are falling and hopefully, the East coast is drying out from Sandy. We come to the time of year when we stop and catch our breath and remember our blessings and the reasons we give thanks near the end of every November in the United States. It's a perfect time to fall face-first into a novel or collection of short stories.

My subscriptions are up-to-date and I find happy surprises in my mailbox to help me fill a more slow-paced couple of weeks before the holidays pluck us into tizzies of wild living with parties, get-togethers and all those answers of "What do I give to people on my list?" questions. But before we delve into all that hustle and bustle, let's find something to take us away from it all ala Calgon for a bit of time we can call our own.

I am an avowed lover of short stories. In fact, my bookshelves are literally overflowing with collections of short works of fiction. When I first started writing, I was advised that short stories didn't sell as easily as novels and no one wanted anthologies of short works unless they were authored by someone with the background of a Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates.

Let's be polite and just say they were partly wrong. I own several anthologies of short fiction (and my stories are included in a few, too) or writers who have yet to bust through to a mention in Forbes magazine. That doesn't mean the stories aren't just as good. Returning movie videos, I ran into a friend who was raving about a movie she'd just watched that neither of us had heard of before. It must have been straight-to-video, which used to mean second-rate. Now it seems to mean less than stellar backing. Marketing isn't everything for movies and books, but it does make a difference. Movies have a shot at gathering additional backing and promotion when they are presented at film festivals like Sundance and Cannes.

Books are judged somewhat by their covers, meaning not just the illustration, but also the name of the publisher promoting them. Short story collections are not always in high demand by publishers, unless -- yes, it's true -- they are authored by a brand name. That doesn't mean the stories aren't worth your time, and yes, money.

One of the best written short story collections I've read recently belong to our own John M. Floyd, published in CLOCKWORK. This isn't exactly a plea to buy his book. It's a head's up to alert those who don't already own a copy, you are missing out on some excellent reading.


But John's is not the only short story collection worth reading!
    

Try just one and let me know if you agree short stories are fabulous.

31 October 2012

Zombie Jamboree


by Robert Lopresti

 Don't forget you can still enter our contest for a free copy of David Dean's book.  Details are in his column, right below mine...

 Before we get to the main topic of today's lecture, a brief musical interlude.

Michael P. Smith, one of my favorite songwriters, released a new CD last  week, and what do you know?  The very first track, "Accokeek,"  is perfect for a mystery website on Halloween, involving both a murder and a ghost story.  I found this concert recording of that song  on Youtube.  Alas, the soundtrack is a bit fuzzy, but it is worth the effort.


Now then.  A happy, safe, and spooky Halloween to each and all.  And speaking of spooks....

At the university where I work a lot of the students have been engaged in an activity called Humans versus Zombies which is, as near as I can tell, a, elaborate and  humongous game of Tag. The players wear orange headbands or armbands depending on which team (species?) they are on, and race between points of safety.

Okay.  Makes more sense then streaking, which was popular on campus when I was a wee laddie.  So when I say I don't get it, I don't mean the game, I mean the current fascination with zombies.

The weird thing is that the world is dealing with, so to speak, two unrelated types of zombies.  The first are the revived dead persons we think of as a piece of Haitian folklore/religion, but which apparently originated in Africa.

Novelist Zora Neale Hurston, doing anthropological research in Haiti in the 1930s, was apparently the first to suggest there might be a pharmacological explanation for zombies; i.e. drugs that simulate death and/or controlled their will.

But zombies had already staggered into popular culture.  White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi had appeared in 1931.

And it is in movies that the second wave of zombies arrived.  George A Romero is credited (blamed?) for starting it with his 1968 hit The Night of the Living Dead.  And the odd thing about this, of course, is that the movie never calls the stumbling brain-seekers zombies.  But those are the ones that people have in mind when they use the term today.

People who think hard (maybe too hard) about society have suggested that we can learn something about the current world view by noticing which monsters are popular in a given time.  For example, see the movies in the fifties in which the monsters are the productions of mutations caused by nuclear weapons.  What were people worrying about then?  You bet.

Or consider the rash of vampire movies in then 1980s when AIDS made contact with blood a terrifying issue.

So what does it say about our society today that a prominent monster is the mindless, undead, seeker of brains?  Insert political joke here, I suppose.

And speaking of politics, our favorite federal government joined the zombie industry this year, with predictable results.

The illustration on the right is from a comic book created by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, using a character's dream of a zombie attack as an opportunity to explain how to prepare for an emergency.

I'm sure it seemed very cute and clever, but when, a few months later, some people were accused of doing nasty cannibalistic things the CDC was forced to issue a statement:  "CDC does not know of a virus or condition that would reanimate the dead (or one that would present zombie-like symptoms).”

As I have said before, if a government author thinks he is being clever and hip, he is probably making a tragic error.

Let's go out with some more music.  Do it Rockapella!...





30 October 2012

All Hallow's Eve


by David Dean
Before we begin I have a very important announcement: We here at SleuthSayers love our readers, so we are going to offer a special treat. We authors are going to give away copies of our books (or similar goodies), one a month, starting now, and continuing until we run out of gifts or readers. This month's prize will be a paperback edition of my book, "The Thirteenth Child", signed by yours truly. All you have to do is email us at Velma(at)secretary(dot)net by midnight, November 3. The winner will be selected at random. Please put the word "Contest" in the subject line. Best of luck...and now back to our regularly scheduled blog.


Halloween has always been one of my favorite days on the calendar. It falls during one of the most beautiful times of the year, involves costumes, the chance of being frightened (and hopefully nothing more), running around at night, and at the end, actual rewards--candy! What's not to like? Of course, some of those enticements are more meaningful when you're a kid, but I guess the spooky charm of it all has never lost its appeal to me--or my wife, for that matter.

When I was a boy growing up in Georgia, I thought it was the next best thing to Christmas. During that long-ago time and in that far-away place, we kids were allowed to pretty much roam at will for blocks in every direction during the daylight hours. It was generally understood that grown-ups would keep an eye on you wherever you went, and certainly report to your parents any code-of-conduct violations they observed. At least this was what we believed and trusted in at the time. But even with this almost unfettered freedom, we seldom ventured beyond our own neighborhood. I think we had a "Beyond this be dragons," philosophy as children. Halloween night, however, all this changed, if only for a few brief hours.


Donning masks, that today would be laughably simple and unfrightening, we gathered into packs with our friends, snatched paper grocery sacks, or old pillow cases, from our moms' hands, and tore off into the darkness--even if it fell on a school night! Besides being a genuinely scary sensation, this roaming through the night, it was also a race with consequences. Every other kid in the known world was trying to get the last of the candy at the next house along your way! An intolerable possibility! When we would begin our scavenging, porch lights winked like a vast constellation across the city, but within a scant few hours, those same lights began to vanish, one by one, returning the world to its previous drab and unmagical state--they had run out of candy. Intolerable, indeed.

This inevitable consequence would force us to race from house-to-house, and eventually to leave our neighborhood for parts unknown. There was no need to discuss our direction of travel, as only one direction made true sense--east. To go west was to cross Hamilton Road and venture into a vast shanty town of mill-workers and their very tough kids. As these same kids were running roughshod over our own neighborhood, their sheer numbers and determination an unstoppable force, Gothic in both number and consequence--we flew east ahead of them. A neighborhood called "Winchester" was our bountiful target. I think they viewed us kids from "Lester's Meadows" in the same fearful light we did the trolls from "Bealwood"--Beal as in Beelzebub. But no matter, we were swift and artful, and returned to our homes laden with booty!

Dumping all the goodies onto the floor we would sort through the takings, setting aside treats that did not suit our particular palate. Then, using these as barter, we would engage in furious trading sessions--you would have thought we were young Wall Street brokers--hard-nosed and keenly avaricious. It was a great night!

This was all vastly different from the true origins of All Hallows, or its earlier incarnation of Samhain. Samhain was an observance by the ancient Celts of Gaul and Britain commemorating the loss of the sun with the coming winter and celebrating its eventual return in the spring. Perhaps because of that descending darkness, this was also the night that the dead returned to walk among the living. Encounters with the dead were not generally considered a good thing, as it could signify that your own time amongst the living was at an end. As if this was not a frightening enough situation, the Celtic priests (Druids as they were called), made this a night of human sacrifice, piling prisoners-of war, criminals, and other undesirables, into a wicker framework designed to resemble a giant man, and setting them ablaze. By the light of this titanic, and gruesome, torch, everyone feasted and danced the night away. I often suspected the kids from Bealwood had similar plans for me and my friends. Even Julius Caesar, not known as a squeamish man, was affronted by this practice, which apparently he witnessed during his invasion of Britain in 54 BC. In a righteous fury he had thousands put to the sword--much better; more civilized certainly. When one pines for "the good old days" one should be specific...and careful.

With the coming of Christianity, and the adoption of the cross by various Irish, Scottish, and British (not to be confused with English) kings, things began to change--but not quickly. Old habits die hard as they say, and the Celtic belief that Halloween was a night when the spirits of the dead walked amongst the living, just would not die a natural death. Not wishing to alienate these new Christians, the Holy Roman Church did something smart--they just co-opted the occasion. Making the day after Samhain a church feast (Holy Day) to celebrate the unknown saints--All Saints (as opposed to a specific saint), the evening prior became All Hallows Eve, or in the vernacular of the day, Hallow e'en.

"It Is Dawn; We Go"
It only took a millennium or so, for the terror of Samhain to be tamed into the costumed trick-or-treating we know today. Treats were often left to propitiate wandering spirits, as well as ancient gods and monsters, and certainly my friends and I were often labeled little monsters even when out of costume. Failure to play by the appropriate rules would lead to tricks being practiced on the un-believers. A just arrangement, in my opinion. Costumes of demons and ghosts incorporated some of the darker elements of the earlier pagan practice; being also useful in avoiding identification as regards the aforementioned tricks, and therefore practical, as well.

So, from dark and bloody beginnings, children now cavort through the evening in the service of their sweet-tooth, their costumes giving them a sense of anonymity, and therefore, freedom, even as their parents trail mere paces behind ( a concession to a different, and once again, darker time). The night is filled with laughter, and not screams, or at least not ones as fearful as Caesar must have heard issuing from within the wicker man. The dark side is held at bay, even on the eve of its commemoration, and I, for one, am not sorry. Happy Halloween!

29 October 2012

Guest Blogger


by  Callie Parrish


EXCERPT FROM Mother Hubbard Has A CORPSE IN THE CUPBOARD

 CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Anyone who’s read a Callie Parrish Mystery knows I’ve never written a thirteenth chapter.  I’m not superstitious, but I, Calamine Lotion Parrish, have not and will not write a Chapter Thirteen.  It started with my first book when I thought about buildings with no thirteenth floor and why that might be. 

                     When I was a child and went to Charleston or Columbia with Daddy, we rode in elevators, and he let me press the buttons. I didn’t realize there was no floor called the thirteenth.  I thought they just left out the number between twelve and fourteen because there was something evil associated with thirteen.  I believed the thirteenth floor existed, but it must have been a place of secrets.  That fascination with hidden doings behind closed doors and the slight fear triggered by those thoughts probably account for my enjoying horror stories along with the mysteries I’ve loved since my first Encyclopedia Brown and Nancy Drew books.

                     This time, I have a really good reason for being scared of thirteen and refusing to write a Chapter Thirteen.  I just finished reading The Thirteenth Child by David Dean.  I’m telling you:  When I got to the last fifty pages of that book and what happened on Halloween, I wet my panties.  I’m not kidding.  Problem was where I was reading.  In bed.  I was snuggled all cozy under the blankets reading when my bladder protested being full of Diet Coke, and I was  too scared to get up and go to the bathroom by myself.   
Big Boy

                     All one hundred and forty pounds of my full-grown dog Big Boy slept like a puppy on the rug beside the bed, but by the time I woke him up to go with me, it was too late.  Of course, then I had to go to the bathroom for a shower, to the kitchen to put the wet things in the clothes washer, and to the linen closet for dry sheets.  After we did all that, Big Boy wanted to potty, so I took him outside.  He thought we’d go for a walk, too, but I only let him hide behind the oak tree and do his girl-dog squat to tee tee like he always does.  Made him come right back into the house. Feeling a little guilty about refusing to walk him, I gave Big Boy a banana Moon Pie. His vet doesn't like for me to feed him my favorite--chocolate--so I have to keep two boxes in the cabinet at all times.

                     I’m not telling anyone why David Dean chose The Thirteenth Child as the title of his book.  Let ‘em read it, and find out for themselves.  I will say it was a good decision, and I’m going to visit  that book again.  I might read it in the bathtub next time so that I won’t have so far to go if it scares the—oops!  I’d better not go there.

NOTE FROM FRAN RIZER:  Thanks to Callie for blogging for me this week.  I thought with Halloween upon us, it would be nice to hear what she thought of David Dean's new book, but please excuse her references to bodily functions. I try to control Callie, but she says and does as she pleases.  There's a great Halloween scene in The Thirteenth Child.  Check it out, but you might want to read near the bathroom.  .

28 October 2012

A Non-iconic Writer


by Louis Willis
She came into my office like a gal out in the woods in one of those sexy movies, smiled at me, flowed across the room with fluidity of hot molasses, sank into the big leather chair opposite my desk, and crossed her legs slowly, gracefully, gently, as though taking care not to bruise any smooth, tender flesh.
… is how Hollywood PI Shell Scott, the sole owner of Shelton Scott Investigations, describes the lady who enters his office in “The Guilty Pleasure,” the first story in Richard S. Prather’s The Shell Scott Sampler. The lady turns out not to be a bimbo or floozy or dame or babe or gal, but a very rich, respectful lady asking for help.  

Richard S. Prather (1921-2007) introduced readers to his hardboiled detective, Shell Scott, in the 1950s. I don’t remember when I began reading his stories, but it was about the time I also discovered Hammett and Chandler. I liked his novels and stories best  because “he also saw the banana peel on the sidewalk. And then he dispatched his Hollywood private eye...to take a little walk” (thrillingdetective.com). It is the banana peel on the sidewalk that separates Shell Scott from the other hardboiled PIs. He doesn’t take life too seriously. Like all hardboiled detectives, He uses his fist, gun, and intuition to solve crimes and catch criminals. Though he’s always thinking about sleeping with which ever woman comes his way, he is no sexist.

“Eye Witness: Richard S. Prather: 1921-2007” an article by Kevin Burton Smith in Mystery Scene Magazine (No. 99, 2007) reminded me of how much I enjoyed the Prather stories. After reading the article, I exhumed from one of the boxes of books where they were buried the four books of Prather’s that hadn’t been lost in my move from California back home to Tennessee and put them in my to-be-reread box. I didn’t think of him again until I started reading Stephen King. They have nothing in common, except both are writers, and I can’t explain why reading King reminded me of Prather.

To revive my interest in this non-iconic writer, I reread the five stories in The Shell Scott Sampler. The best story is “The Guilty Pleasure” in which Lydia wants Shell to find out what the little thing she found under her bed is. No spoiler here, so I’m not saying what it was. Okay, I know some of you will guess.

The worst story is “The Cautious Killers” in which Shell has to find out who shot at him and why as he and his date and another couple exited a restaurant. Too much descriptive baggage surrounds an acceptable plot. More telling than showing, especially the descriptions of the women, which slows the action. I thought maybe Prather was writing to increase the payment for the story, you know, a penny or two per word. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed the story.

Shell seems more familiar to me than Hammett's Continental Op or Chandler’s Marlowe, so much so that I feel comfortable referring to him by his first name. Of all the hardboiled PIs, Shell is the one I would rather have drink with in a bar in Hollywood as I listened to his stories about his cases, provided I could keep his attention from straying every time a beautiful woman walked into the bar.

Dean Davis' excellent Prather web site appears off-line at the moment, but for more on Prather, try Eddie Stevenson's Gold Medal pages on Prather.

Warning to all writers of murder mysteries: do not plan any murders on Halloween. I have it on good authority that the victim will come back to haunt you. This authority also warned me not to use my computer on Halloween because the gremlins that cause so much frustration– frozen hard drives, lost files, missing fonts, etc.– become zombies and vampires and werewolves and attack the user– namely me.

You have been warned!

Have a 


27 October 2012

The Gifted Child




by John M. Floyd


Like most of my writer friends, I enjoy reading different genres.  In fact I read books and stories in almost all genres, except maybe romance novels--and now and then I even like a good love story.  As for authors, my favorites run from Bradbury to King to McMurtry to Cormac McCarthy, with a lot of offbeat writers in between.  One of my absolute favorites will probably always be Nelson DeMille--I love his novels and his style--and only a couple of years ago I discovered another great author, someone most crime/suspense readers have known about for a long time: Lee Child.

For some reason I didn't start reading his Jack Reacher series at the beginning.  I started with the twelfth installment, a novel called Nothing to Lose.  But after that one I was hooked.  I went on to seek out and devour every Reacher novel I could find (no Child left behind?), and I only recently finished the latest, A Wanted Man.  Unlike any other series I can recall, this one had not a single misfire; I enjoyed every one of these books.  Yes, some were better than others--I consider The Killing Floor, The Enemy, Die Trying, and The Hard Way to be among his best--but all of them are darn good.  Apparently a lot of readers agree.

If you don't know Jack . . .

Reacher is one of those rare characters that both men and women seem to like.  He's a former West Point grad and Army major who has since lost most of his respect for authority and conformity, and has a strict personal code of honor that sometimes reminds me of Robert B. Parker protagonists like Spenser and Jesse Stone.  Reacher is tough, smart, and resourceful; he owns nothing but a foldable toothbrush, an ATM card, and whatever clothes he happens to be wearing at the moment; he has no attachments, no home, no car, not even a driver's license; and he travels mainly via bus or hitchhiking.  Maybe that's why he's so appealing--he's nothing like the rest of us.  He also doesn't talk much.  One of the few criticisms I've heard of Child's writing style is that the sentence "Reacher said nothing" happens too often.  But, hey, Reacher often does say nothing.

The only drawback I've found to the series is that the titles usually aren't related at all to the content, which means I sometimes can't remember what title goes with what adventure.  And in the grand scheme of things, that ain't much to complain about.

Child psychology

The author, I'm told, is a native of England and a former television director--and I would guess that his background in TV probably influenced the entertainment value of his novels.  His books are always smooth, fast reads; there's a lot of action and excitement, and very few slow spots.  That's exactly what most TV productions strive for (although they don't always deliver), and is a perfect illustration of one of Elmore Leonard's famous Ten Rules of Writing: leave out the parts that people skip.

I think the best thing about Child's writing is that the stories themselves are fascinating, with plot reversals throughout.  I once heard that the creators of Cheers chose a Boston bar as its setting because in a neighborhood tavern different people would be coming in and going out all the time, thus there would always be stories available.  I would suggest that Lee Child made Reacher a drifter so that he could have limitless opportunities to run into interesting situations.

Short (?) subjects

As a movie lover, I must say a few words about the upcoming and long-awaited film adaptation of Child's novel One Shot, called (believe it or not) Jack Reacher.  I was a bit surprised by the casting of Tom Cruise in the lead role, mainly because Reacher's size--six-five and 200+ pounds--is, in the novels, a big factor in what he can accomplish and the impression he makes on the other characters.  I don't doubt for a minute Cruise's star power or his acting ability, but from a physical standpoint he does seem an odd choice.  (Russell Crowe isn't a giant either, but it seems to me he would've made a perfect Reacher.)  Having said that, I do understand that Child himself approved of the casting decision, and that helps dispel some of my doubts.  I suspect that I'll wind up enjoying the movie.

Something else that's close to my heart is short stories.  There are now two shorts starring Jack Reacher: "Second Son" and "Deep Down."  Both are available on Kindle, and I heard that the paperback version of The Affair contains a copy of "Second Son."  Apparently there is also one more Child short story featuring Reacher, although not as the main character: "James Penney's New Identity."  I look forward to reading all three.

Reaching Reacher readers

Have any of you read Lee Child?  If so, do you like his work?  Which book in the series is your favorite?  Your least favorite?  Are you familiar only with his novels, like me, or have you read his short stories as well?  What do you think of the Reacher character?  If you were producing the new movie, who would you choose for the part?

For those of you who haven't read the novels, here they are, in order of publication:

Killing Floor
Die Trying
Tripwire
Running Blind
Echo Burning
Without Fail
Persuader
The Enemy
One Shot
The Hard Way
Bad Luck and Trouble
Nothing to Lose
Gone Tomorrow
61 Hours
Worth Dying For
The Affair
A Wanted Man

Next up: Never Go Back

I can't wait.


26 October 2012

It Lives !!!


by R.T. Lawton

According to the old story written by Mary Shelley in the early 1800's, Dr. Victor Frankenstein stitched several body parts together in order to make his creation a whole being. Then to give it life in his laboratory, he jolted it with bolts of lightning on one dark and stormy night. At that pivotal moment (in the movies) as his creation began to stir, he cried out, "It's alive." How great to see one's creation live. Hey, it's five days to Halloween and I needed a theme, so hang in here.

I, for one, don't have a laboratory, only a study where I write. However, I have on separate occasions, in the not too long ago, taken two very dead short stories into my study and laid their little rejected carcasses out for autopsy in the dead of night. After much contemplation, and perhaps a jolt of Jack Daniels (sorry, but that's as close as I can get to white lightning in furtherance of this Frankenstein analogy), I went to work on resurrecting their possibilities.

The first corpse was a reject from Woman's World magazine. Because of the strict structure for these 700 word mini-mysteries, a second paying market is rather difficult to find for these creations. I poked it here, prodded it there, and tried to slide a whole new skeleton underneath the flesh of the story, but it just wasn't working. In the end, I left the old skeleton in place for the structure, massaged the body a little and spruced up the outside for appearance's sake. I then, surprise, surprise, sold it to an editor named Dindy at a little known market, Swimming Kangaroo, for the grand sum of $25. Yeah, I know, $25 is quite a come down from the $500 that Woman's World pays, but at least this was better than having the little monster running around loose in inventory. Amazingly, this editor liked the WW structure, plus I would now be published internationally. Think Dindy. Think Swimming Kangaroo. Had to be Australia. Right? I was gonna be an internationally published author! Time to get out the bubbly.

And then the check came. Turns out the return address was in Texas. So much for the international part. Even so, I was preparing to send Dindy another one of these resurrected mini creatures, when Swimming Kangaroo evidently lost a stroke (or had one) and went under.

My next attempt at bringing life to the recently deceased came when Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine rejected one of my standalone stories. It was one which Rob had critiqued approximately nine months earlier and had made some good suggested changes. I thought we had it made after my 2011 re-write, but nope, here it came back in a body bag during the middle of February 2012. It may have been cold outside, but the timing for the deceased' toe-tagging and autopsy turned out to be quite fortuitous.

A few months before, when the call for submissions to the 2013 MWA anthology came out, I had not been able to brainstorm any ideas for the anthology's theme of something mysterious in a box. And then at the last moment, right here on the autopsy table in front of me was laid out a corpse named "The Delivery." Oddly enough, it was about something mysterious in a box, a story written long before MWA's call for submissions. Kismet was obviously knocking at my door. Who was I not to answer?

I gave my dead creation another jolt. It stirred, so I packed it up along with five of its clones and shipped them back to New York City just before deadline. And waited. And waited. And waited, just like any anxious mad scientist would whose creation had gone off to the Big City.

At last, notice arrived back through the ether. My creation had been accepted. It was then that I knew for sure and cried to the heavens, "It lives, it lives!"

Coming to a book store near you, the Mystery Writers of America anthology The Mystery Box, April 2013.

25 October 2012

The Victorians, Redux


by Eve Fisher

Victorians loved a good mystery.  Quite a few Victorian authors used murder, theft, financial malfeasance, and investigations as a major plot device.  Certainly Charles Dickens did in Edwin Drood, Bleak House, and Martin Chuzzlewit.  More unexpectedly, Elizabeth Gaskell's first novel, Mary Barton, revolves around a murder mystery, as does Charlotte Yonge's The Trial.

But today I would like to give special attention to Anthony Trollope, that unbelievably prolific author, who for some reason has long been labelled a "serious", even dull author.  All I can say is that he had a wicked sense of humor, and understood - and wrote about - women better than any other Victorian author I've ever read.  Granted, his novels were the opposite of fanciful, set in the realities of middle-class and upper-middle-class Victorian life. Yet he used a lot of sensational material, including murder, arson, forgery (Orley Farm), theft, bigamy, and illegitimacy.  He did the most realistic portrait of a working prostitute (as a major character!) in The Vicar of Bullhampton that I've ever run across in Victorian literature.  So where did he get his reputation for respectability?  I have no idea...

Anyway, some of my favorite novels, which revolve around crime, are:
The Eustace Diamonds:   Lizzie Eustace, is a very shady Lady; she marries a baronet for his money and gets it all when he dies of consumption very early in the novel, including a fabulous diamond necklace that is the bone of contention between her and her husband's attorneys.  They say it's an heirloom, and belongs to the estate; she says possession is ALL of the law, and it's hers.  When the necklace is stolen, everybody is under suspicion, and the repercussions of the investigation range from the tragic to the hilarious.  (One of the great subplots of this, by the way, is Lizzie's suitors - a wealthy baronet's widow, no matter how scheming, is going to be sought after.  There's the Corsair, Lord George de Bruce Carruthers; Lord Fawn, who is only one minim of intelligence above Bertie Wooster; and her cousin, Frank Greystock, the standard strong-jawed Victorian hero; and the Reverend Emilius, the Victorian equivalent of a televangelist.  Don't count on knowing who will end up with whom...)

In the sequel, Phineas Redux, a hero from another novel, Phineas Finn, returns and is accused of murdering political rival Bonteen by bludgeoning him to death on a dark night (and you thought politics was dangerous today...).  But Lizzie Eustace is back (how I love that character!), and has parked herself with the victim's widow, where they condole and support each other until Lizzie's current husband turns out to be one of the other major suspects... 

Moving from murder to high finance, there's The Way We Live Now, which is all about stock manipulation (mostly stock in railroads in Patagonia and elsewhere, all mythical, but the London pounds are real) by the masterly dastardly Augustus Melmotte.  Everyone is up to their neck in financial malfeasance, life is sweet, profits are high, and no one can understand what's wrong with it- until the whole thing comes crashing down.  This was made into (imho) an excellent PBS miniseries with a scenery-chewing David Suchet as Melmotte (which must have been a nice change for him after the tight-buttoned Poirot).

Besides crime, women, hunting, and politics, Trollope did madness and obsession frighteningly well:

The Reverend Josiah Crawley in The Last Chronicle of Barset.  A recurring character in the Barchester novels, Crawley is desperately poor, fiendishly proud, with a wife and children who are always on the verge of starvation, and for whom he will accept nothing in the way of charity.  In this novel, Crawley is accused of theft - and as the investigation goes on, he comes to believe that he may well have done it. 

But Crawley has nothing on Louis Trevelyan in He Knew He Was Right who becomes so jealous of his wife - on such extremely insufficient grounds that Othello seems fairly reasonable - that he takes their baby away and flees to the continent.  Nor on Frank Kennedy, whose descent into madness is charted over two novels, Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux.  By the end of them, Mr. Kennedy has become a religious monomaniac who demands that his wife return simply so they can suffer together - and who tries to kill Phineas in the name of God and morality. And, just to prove that Trollope was no sexist, there is Mrs. O'Hara in An Eye for An Eye, who, when the dastardly Fred Neville seduces and does not marry her daughter, pushes him off a cliff.  (Yes, she goes insane afterwards, but personally I think she was just trying to avoid a hanging.)

So, for those of you who are looking for some old-fashioned crime and punishment and madness, check out Anthony Trollope - available in paperback and on Kindle.

NOTES:
  1. We are, God willing and the creek don't rise, on a cruise as this is published, so forgive me if I haven't responded in a couple of weeks to any postings!
  2. Links to novels on one of the many sites offering free Trollope eBooks have been included.

24 October 2012

Flash Fiction


by Robert Lopresti


I walked up to the counter in the public library.  "Excuse me.  Did anyone turn in a thumb drive yesterday?"

Wordle: Lost and Found
"Several," said the clerk.  "What color was it?"

"White.  Well, more of a cream."

She nodded and sorted through a box behind the counter.  "One of these?"  There were five, almost identical.

I gave them a careful look-see.  "That's the one!"

She handed it to me.  I said thanks and took it back to my seat.  I plugged the flash drive into my laptop and started scrolling through the files. Based on their titles the drive's previous owner had had a great interest in knitting and cake recipes.  Not much of a speller either.

Pretty boring.  But I would keep looking.

There had to be a story idea in there somewhere.