13 February 2013

Herbert O. Yardley: The American Black Chamber


by David Edgerley Gates

Herbert Yardley was never a household name, but among his peers, he was almost godlike.  He was, in effect, the father of American codebreaking.  (He was also, it happens, one hell of a poker player. You do the math.)

Yardley started out as a code clerk at the State Dept., in 1912.  His first significant coup de theatre came when he intercepted a coded message to President Wilson from Wilson's close personal aide, Colonel House.  This was before America entered the European warm and House had been sent to meet the Kaiser: here was his confidential report.  On a dare, we might say, Yardley broke the encrypted traffic in two hours, and realizing just how vulnerable American diplomatic cipher systems were, he took the results to his boss.  The fuse was lit. In 1917, with America now in the war, Yardley got a commission and went to work for the War Dept., heading up MI-8, codes and ciphers, and eventually turned it into the first real U.S. cryptographic intelligence operation.  1918 found him at Versailles for the peace conference, and his shop encoded American traffic, while secretly decoding those of their Allies.  Of course, the French and the British were doing the same thing, and Yardley by this time was no innocent in duplicity.




The war over, Yardley headed home, assuming he was out of a job.  But meanwhile, Military Intelligence and the State Dept. had decided to pool their resources, and establish a full-time clandestine eavesdropping organization, with a black budget, hidden from the Comptroller General.  Yardley was given the mandate.  They were up and running by May of 1919, and in December, Yardley hit the jackpot, when he cracked the Japanese encipherment protocols, and opened up their coded military and diplomatic cables.  This was a big deal, and it gave the American negotiators at the 1921 disarmament conference an enormous advantage.  The object of the conference, between the five major naval powers, the U.S., Britain, France, Italy, and Japan, was to stabilize the ratio of seapower tonnage.  Basically, each navy would agree to a limit on warships, relative to the navies of the other countries.  Japan was aggressively pursuing a higher limit for the Imperial Navy, and even at this stage, U.S. and British military strategists were disturbed by Japanese ambitions in the Pacific.  But what Japan's admirals said publicly at the negotiating table was undercut by their secret instructions from Tokyo, which conceded political realities.  Yardley, knowing his way around a game of stud poker, compared this to knowing your opponent's hole card, and in the end, the Japanese caved.  It was high-water mark for American intelligence capacities, and for Yardley, personally, who never minded the attention.

There were, however, clouds on the horizon. Wartime cable censorship was over.  Communications were supposed to be private.  Yardley, or high-ranking military surrogates, approached the major telegraph companies, and strong-armed them into continuing to supply their cable traffic.  This was, of course, completely illegal, unless you got a search warrant, and Yardley couldn't blow his cover by doing any such thing.  His operation flew under the radar.  He turned to the Signal Corps, but State spiked the idea of setting up Army listening posts. Yardley had started his operation with fifty people, and expanded with the heavy demand.  By 1929, with the Depression, his staff was down to seven, and badly demoralized, their astonishing successes forgotten.  Times had changed.  Hoover was president, now.  Yardley gambled it all on one last throw of the dice.  He went to the Secretary of War, the newly-appointed Henry Stimson, and put his chips on the table.  Here, for example, are the recent Japanese decrypts, he told Stimson.  And perhaps as a joke, or just to show off, Yardley said he could read the Vatican's private communications.  Exaggeration for effect?  We don't know.  The joke apparently fell flat.  Yardley had bet into a stronger hand.

We imagine a moment of stony silence.

Stimson then comes up with a next to legendary line, in the clandestine world.  He looks at Yardley, and says---wait for it---"Gentlemen don't read other gentlemen's mail."  And with this, Yardley is put out to pasture, his operation dismantled, and their efforts ignored, if not disgraced.

Yardley, in his uppers, writes a book, THE AMERICAN BLACK CHAMBER.  Published in 1931, it's a sensation.  Washington hunkers down.  William Friedman, another big-time cryptologist, now chief of Codes and Ciphers, is in a fury, because Yardley's book gives up sources and methods.  He has a point, since the Japanese immediately change their encipherment programs.  Friedman won't break the Purple Code until late in WWII.  But the government can't embargo Yardley's book.  He's not in violation of any existing security laws.  And it's something Yardley's thought about.  He himself wonders if he's letting the genie out of the bottle.  But, he decides, men like Stimson have their heads in the sand.  He goes ahead with publication, in spite of his own doubts, and the ship pushes slowly back against the iceberg. Inertia bows to necessity. 

Yardley works for the Canadian government, and later the Nationalist Chinese.  He writes another book.  Suppressed, for whatever reason, by the U.S. government, but afterwards declassified.  Not exactly a victim, like Alan Turing, but sort of forgotten.  Yardley was a tireless self-promoter, a guy who never shunned the limelight, and maybe took credit for other people's labors, but for all that, he's still the man behind the curtain. 

NSA is the largest of the American intelligence agencies, dwarfing CIA.  National Reconnaissance had the bigger budget, because they put satellites in orbit, but Ft. Meade has the personnel, and the brute mainframes, and the black budget.  They can suck the air out of a room.  This is perhaps Herbert Yardley's legacy.  Not that he thought of it that way.  I doubt if he imagined a world where they can read all our mail.

He would have preferred to read all the cards.

[Many of the specifics here are taken from David Kahn's book THE CODEBREAKERS, and James Bamford's THE PUZZLE PALACE, two excellent resources.]

12 February 2013

Gone South (with Travis McGee)


Sunset, Gulf Shores Alabama

    Just like last year, this month finds my wife and me transplanted from Washington, D.C. to the sunny south.  February, despite those limited number of days, is clearly the longest month in the year when spent in North Eastern climes, a fact that Boston has recently seen underscored.

    It always seemed to me that whoever made February the month with the fewest days was on to something.  Better still, it should have had 21 days – allow it three weeks and no more.  Then slip that extra week into June where it would be  appreciated instead of cursed.

    Anyway, when Pat and I retired back in 2009 we vowed to never spend February in the District of Columbia.  That is why on this “Shrove Tuesday” (or “Fat Tuesday,” as it is more popularly referred to) we find ourselves ensconced in a rented condo unit on the beach in Gulf Shores, Alabama. 

John D. MacDonald
    As in the past I try to keep my every-other-Tuesday from becoming a travelogue simply because I am away from home.  But I also try to find inspiration in locale, and that is particularly easy to do as I look out onto the Gulf and think one state (and one shore) to the left.  What first got me thinking about the Florida Atlantic shore this year was an article by Jonathon Yardley that appeared in the Washington Post back on January 13 reporting (joyously) that virtually the entire John D. MacDonald library is being re-issued this year.  This includes all 21 of MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels, each of which is being offered by Random House in brand new, handsome trade-paperback editions. 

    Two weeks ago in my article on Francis Nevin’s new Ellery Queen work The Art of Detection I quoted Mike Nevin’s observation that as a general matter “when the author dies, the work dies.”  In a similar vein, Jonathan Yardley’s article in the Washington Post noted that while
[t]he McGee novels have remained in print in mass-market editions . . .  most of the other books by this prodigiously proficient writer long ago vanished. . . .  To be sure, some characters in suspense fiction have long outlived their creators – think Lord Peter Wimsey, Sam Spade, Miss Marple and Philip Marlowe – but mostly they just fade away, a fate that surely seemed in store for Travis McGee.

What a shame that would have been.  Kurt Vonnegut once predicted that  “[t]o diggers a thousand years from now . . . the works of John D. MacDonald would be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen.”

    And what has been the catalyst for this MacDonald (and McGee) revival, saving us (at least in the near term) from such excavation?  Well, according to Random House it is (counter-intuitively) the blooming e-book market.  The anticipated new appetite for e-book versions of the McDonald library is projected to be strong enough to propel new issues of e-books and paper versions as well.  So this rising tide appears to be enough to lift all boats.

    And that happily  includes the Busted Flush.  For any of you unfamiliar with the series, the Busted Flush was Travis McGee’s 52 foot houseboat, on which he resided at Slip F-18 in the Bahia Mar Marina in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  The ship’s name is derived from the poker hand that allowed McGee to win the Busted Flush from its previous unnamed owner.

    And Travis McGee?  Well, McGee advertises himself as a “salvage consultant.”  He recovers otherwise hopelessly lost property for a fee of one-half the value.  As McGee explains it in The Deep Blue Good-by, the first volume in the series, “I like to work on pretty good sized [projects].  Expenses are heavy.  And then I can take another piece of my retirement.  Instead of retiring at sixty, I’m taking it in chunks as I go along.”  As McGee also explains, there is always a need for the services he offers.  We live, McGee notes, in “a complex culture . . . .  The more intricate our society gets, the more semi-legal ways there are to steal.”  His simple role is putting things back to right.

    What made these novels such great reads?  Well, principally the taut writing and prolific imagination of John D. MacDonald.  The books follow a formula, but a pretty wild one.  All the reader really knows is that the hero, our friend Travis, will prevail and will still be around by the last page.  This is also true of his sidekick, Meyer, an economist who lives (first) on his neighboring ship the John Maynard Keynes and later on the successor vessel, the Thorstein Veblen.  But aside from those two compadres, all bets are off, and virtually every other character struts and frets the pages in danger of extinction.   

    The success of the series also rests on the likeable shoulders of the characters MacDonald created.  Some writers leave their central character to the imagination of the readers (Ellery Queen, for example, unraveled mysteries for decades virtually un-described; Bill Pronzini’s hero doesn’t even have a name.)  By contrast, we know a huge amount about Travis McGee, including what he looks like and how he thinks..

    McGee, we are told, is a shambling brown beach bum with a 33-inch waist, who wears a size 46 long jacket, and a shirt with a 17½" neck and 34" arms.  He is likely to rail against anyone abusing the fragile ecosystem of his beloved Florida, and he wears his views on his shirt sleeve.  MacDonald, writing for the first-person narrator McGee, describes our hero’s views as follows in The Deep Blue Good-by:
 I do not function too well on emotional motivations. I am wary of them. And I am wary of a lot of other things, such as plastic credit cards, payroll deductions, insurance programs, retirement benefits, savings accounts, Green Stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants, check lists, time payments, political parties, lending libraries, television, actresses, junior chambers of commerce, pageants, progress, and manifest destiny.
I am wary of the whole dreary deadening structured mess we have built into such a glittering top-heavy structure that there is nothing left to see but the glitter, and the brute routines of maintaining it.
. . . .
I am also wary of all earnestness.
We get the picture.

    The Travis McGee series spanned 21 volumes, beginning in 1964 with The Deep Blue Good-by and ending in 1985 with The Lonely Silver Rain.  Each volume sported its own color.

     Rumors persisted for years that a final volume, usually titled A Black Border for McGee, had been completed and that the book would kill off McGee.  MacDonald himself alluded to the volume in several interviews, saying that it would be published following his own death.  Almost certainly no such volume was ever written, and McDonald stated in later years that he would never kill off McGee since this would create a brooding ending hanging over the heads of new readers discovering the series.  We do know, according to letters written by McDonald to Mickey Spillane and to Stephen King that at the time of MacDonald's death following heart surgery in 1986 he had completed four chapters of what was to have been the 22nd Travis McGee adventure.  MacDonald also said that the story would be in two parts, spanning twenty years, and that it would end with with McGee still very much alive but slipping the lines off the pier and moving the Busted Flush to new moorings.  The completed chapters alluded to by MacDonald have never been found.

    Since MacDonald’s death in 1986 various offers to otherwise end the series, including one from Stephen King, have been rejected by MacDonald’s heirs.  Just last year MacDonald’s son Maynard explained this decision to leave the series at the 21 volumes written by MacDonald:
[T]he offers to extend my father's work have run from a tacky, blatant, commercial knock-off to a respectful, professional postscript to his work by a true friend [i.e., King]. And between those extremes there have been many well-crafted manuscripts that were done with warm regard and sincere admiration for my old man.
As these offers and manuscripts continued, and the enthusiasm from Random House snowballed, I was forced to finally define and face my own personal resistance to the idea of a sequel.
Given that I am not immune to the money, why refuse?
It is because I have never seen a really good imitation, be it art, literature, or music, that carries that poignant echo of the original artist- as a man. Even if the work itself is excellent, there is an inevitable flatness on that most intimate level, the level where the artist reveals himself.
To me, a work of art is a souvenir of the artist. It is a reflection of his inner and outer experience. It represents who he is and where he has got to at that moment of his life. In this sense, the creative process defies copying. I enjoy my father's work immensely. Part of him is still there, present on each page. Trying to echo that by imitating it is like trying to paint like Van Gogh by cutting off an ear. It also strikes me as a question of fairness. The dead cannot answer back and I feel it is presumptuous and disrespectful to play with their work.
    As someone whose published mystery output consists solely of pastiches I have some perhaps understandable quibbles with Maynard’s view.  But hey, it’s not my decision.  So while we can expect no new McGees, we, in any event, will soon have new editions of all 21 existing McGee novels.  As for what might have eventually happened to McGee, we are left to our own musings and those of others, including Carl Hiaasen:
Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Ft. Lauderdale
[P]ossibly the old houseboat is tied there still; McGee on deck, tending to fresh bruises, sipping his Boodles; watching the sun slide from the sky over Las Olas Boulevard.  Anyway, that's what I want to believe. If he's gone, I prefer not to know.
Welcome back, McGee! 

11 February 2013

Travel In Style


Jan GrapeOn most Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, I go to a nearby restaurant on Lake Marble Falls to hear live music. (That's opposed to Dead Music, which I can’t seem to ever understand because they're dead.) On Tuesday nights, it's Mike Blakely and friends singing Tex-Americana. Mike not only writes and sings his original songs, he is also an author of Western Historical fiction, and has won Spur awards for a book and also for a song. He has a new book due out early summer, written with Kenny Rogers about the music business (www.MikeBlakely.com).  

On Wednesday nights, it's john Arthur martinez (small caps on first & last name is correct). jAm was on Nashville Star a few years ago and placed second behind winner Buddy Jewel. Miranda Lambert came in third this same season. jAm sings a wonderful mix of original Tex-Mex-Americana-Blues-country-funk ( www.johnArthurmartinez.net). Anyway, another fan of the live music nights is Lenora, who happens to be a great travel agent. She set up a Texas Music Cruise with Mike and jAm on Carnival Triumph, which left Galveston last Saturday, February 2nd, and sailed to Progresso and Cozumel. The cruise was for friends, family and fans of the musicians and I signed up last summer to go. 

I drove with my cabinmate, Lottie Issacks, to Galveston last Friday as we planned to spend the night in a hotel before boarding the ship on Saturday. We followed the instructions to the hotel, which was located on Seawall Blvd, but I think we got turned around when we stopped to refill the gas tank so we ended up lost in the dark, driving around for about an hour. I mean, Seawall Blvd runs for blocks and blocks along the beach but we just couldn’t seem to find it. Adding to the confusion was the fact that many of the downtown streets were blocked off because Galveston has a mini Mardi-Gras celebration and parade. Every time we thought we could get somewhere we'd run into blocked dead-end. Finally, after passing a parked taxi the second time, we pulled over and asked the driver for directions. He hemmed and hawed and started to tell us three different times then said, "Ladies I'll have to show you, I can't direct you from here." He led us through several turns and eventually we wound up on the back parking lot of the hotel. We got checked in and into our room a 9:15 pm. We washed our faces, smoothed our hair and headed down stairs to the bar for a much needed glass of wine. We asked our server about dinner and were told that the dining room closed at 10:00. Since it was only 9:35 at this time, we did get food. The next morning, we watched the Mardi-Gras parade from our eighth floor balcony.
 
At 1:30 we hopped on the shuttle which took us to the Pier. Aboard the Carnival Triumph, we had a wonderful cabin with a balcony so we were excited about being able to watch for dolphins. This was Lottie's first cruise and at first she couldn't believe all the food was included. There were two dinning rooms that served three meals a day. If you didn't like what your ordered, say your grilled fish wasn't all that good, all you had to do was send it back and order Lasagna. Or, if your lobster tail and shrimp didn't fill you up, you could order a prime rib. And the desserts were out of this world! My favorite was the molten chocolate cake which is sort of a pudding cake with vanilla ice cream on the side. Yummy. Besides the dinning room, the aft deck had deli food, burgers & fries, hot dogs, soups, Chinese, Italian and pizza. If you were still hungry, you could order room-service 24/7. No wonder people complain about gaining weight on a cruise. 

Our musicians put on a two-hour show on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. They were listed as private functions but we could invite anyone we wanted and if someone wondered in, that was okay. The music was super and everyone had a great time. 

Our first port of call was Progresso, Mexico. Lottie and I accompanied jAm and his wife, Yvonna, and we walked to the oldest restaurant in town and had a wonderful meal. We were sitting near an open window with a wonderful view of the water and beach. After lunch, we walked over to the beach and while jAm got a massage, we gals sat under a palapa and drank margaritas. A young man came along, selling silver jewelry. We each bought something and within seconds, we were set upon by people selling everything. They hit like vultures to fresh roadkill! Our next port of call was Cozumel. Since I had been there twice before, I stayed on board ship and read one of my books.

 Later, we all dressed up for formal dinner night and enjoyed a great meal. Then it was on to the casino, where I managed to win enough to keep playing for a while. That last night at sea, we experienced a rather wild storm that had the boat rocking. It wasn't enough to make us sea-sick, but it was a little scary for Lottie who said that if the first day had been like this she would have put on a life-jacket and swam back to shore! Because of the storm, our captain put the pedal to the metal and we docked two hours early at Galveston Pier Thursday morning.

To me, this is a fantastic way to travel. Even without our musicians, there's so much to do on a cruise ship: bingo, trivia, Broadway shows, comedians, magic shows, shopping, card-playing, swimming, sunning, fitness room…the list goes on and on. However, you are constantly walking while on a ship. It seems like everything I wanted to do was almost always at the other end of the boat from our cabin. Good thing, as it keeps you from gaining too much from all that wonderful food!

  Then, just tonight on the news I heard that the Carnival Triumph, the ship we were on for five days, and that put out to sea for a new cruise just hours after we disembarked, had a fire in the engine room and was adrift in the Gulf! No one was injured and all the passengers are safe but the ship will have to be towed back to Galveston. I didn't know anyone going on board the ship, but the stewards and wait persons we met and who befriended us are on board. May they all be safe. But please, don’t let that deter you from taking a cruise...it’s one of the best ways to travel.
 

10 February 2013

Spy in the Sky


by Leigh Lundin

Dones part 2: Spy in the Sky

Last week's article sparked debate both on-line and off. I hadn't planned a followup article, but from our friend Vicki comes another Hightower newsletter that addresses questions that have arisen. A couple of days later, the President announced he'd make available the legal justification for drones, presumably military UAVs. Now, a handful of officials in Washington, both liberal and conservative, are asking questions. How far can spying go?

unmanned Predator drone
Limitless, if we do nothing. Suppose your friend (because you wouldn't do such a thing), thinking her property is sacrosanct keeps a few marijuana plants in her back garden, away from prying eyes. What happens when her property's seized now that police eyes in the sky? Is this a warrantless search?

Sty in the Eye

What if a police drones sporting IR/UV capability peeked in your neighbor's house and discovered five people instead of three thought to be living there? It could mean Constitutionally protected free assembly, but it might also imply illegal aliens, a terrorist cell, or… visiting cousins from Michigan or a private prayer meeting.

Of course an armed UAV with penetrating audio capability might sort that out. Whether illegal pot grower, terrorist, teenage boyfriend, secret Christian prayer group, or someone wanting to get away from the spy machine– a drone can take them out with a variety of weapons from tear gas and tasters to live ammunition.
all-seeing eye
US Government seal

Posse Comitatus

Our military is not supposed to operate on US soil, but again, these fine points of the law have been swept under the carpet. Not counting a myriad of police agencies rushing to embrace these new gadgets, our own military has built 64 drone bases throughout our nation and the Pentagon plans to add 33% more in the next few months. Military bases, with drones, watching you.

And beware: Insect-sized nano-robots are presently flying in nano-technology laboratories. Leave a door or window open in the not-too-distant future, and they could be inside your house or your office. Singly, current weaponized capabilities are barely there, but en masse, the potential could be powerful like a swarm of bees. Recalling some of the sophisticated Soviet assassination techniques, might we some day encounter a nanobot that stings or drops a radioactive pellet in a cup of tea or glass of beer? (13:00 paragraph update to the original article)

We are supposed to have government oversight. The House Unmanned Systems Caucus, led by funded supporters of drone manufactures, doesn't view their rôle as defending individual rights. Instead, they promote "the overwhelming value of these systems." They clearly state their intent to "rapidly develop and deploy" more UAVs.
eyes
© FreeWorldAlliance

Drone of Another Sort

In other words, your congressmen have become a Chamber of Commerce for manufacturers who want to spy on you. Lobbyists forced through a law written by the industry instructing a reluctant FAA to speedily approve new drones– brainless machines sharing the same airspace as our passenger airliners. Experts calculate drones will outnumber airplanes almost five to one. If a seagull can bring down a passenger plane, what can an electronics-packed drone do?

On and On


When the misnamed US PATRIOT Acts I and II were implemented with barely a whimper within Congress, a colleague flummoxed me when he said he was happy to trade civil liberties for better security. It reminded of a line in the film Little Murders where barbed wire was going up around apartment buildings and a character approved. "We're talking about freedom," he cries.

Yes, we are, but I'm not sure our definitions are the same. I welcome other opinions.

09 February 2013

Chipping Away the Stone


by Elizabeth Zelvin

Everybody knows that Michelangelo, widely accepted as the greatest sculptor ever, explained how he created his magnificent marble statues, including the David and the Pietà, by chipping away the stone until only the form imprisoned within remained. Writers, at least those who know that every first draft needs some revision, go through a similar process.
Instead of quarrying the raw material, they create it by putting words together in a form determined by the mysterious process we call creativity. In fact, what writers initially do with words is much like what sculptors in clay do: building up one small bit at a time until a rough form is achieved.

After that, how sculptors revise a clay figure is a combination of of building, removing, and smoothing. We could say that writers do that too. But recently, after many years of writing, I think I’ve reached a new level of ability to critique my own work, and it feels more like chipping away the stone to reveal the story pared down to its essence, containing not one wasted word. At least, that’s the goal. Not being Michelangelo, I never achieve perfection. But the process feels much the same.

When I first joined Sisters in Crime’s Guppies chapter with the first draft of my first novel burning a hole in my computer, among the first pieces of advice I heard were these:
  • Don’t query agents or editors with a first draft.
  • Join a critique group.
  • Kill your darlings.
If I had followed all these dicta immediately, I might have sold my first mystery a lot sooner than I did. Or maybe it was meant to take the time it took to learn by my mistakes. I was so excited about my manuscript that I couldn’t wait to send it out, so I experienced many rejections—and got many good suggestions—before it got published in a form far different from that original first draft. I did join a critique group. I understood what “kill your darlings” meant. But for a long time, I couldn’t do it. Every clever phrase and carefully chosen word was so precious to me. How could I take any of them out, even in the interest of a tighter story? And not only my attachment to them, but also the fear that my creative well might run dry at any moment, prevented me from revising as ruthlessly as the material needed.

I know exactly when the shift took place: in 2006, during a three-week writers’ residency with Edgar-winning author SJ Rozan, who builds rather than chips (she used to be an architect) but doesn’t waste a single word. (I’ve said before that her prose is built like a brick you-know-what. Read her novels, and you’ll see.) Some time during the second week, she said, “Liz, you need to give us less, not more. Two clever lines in a paragraph are enough—three or four are too many.” I went back to my room and took another look at the manuscript I was working on. What I needed to cut leaped off the page before my eyes. I could suddenly see the difference between the shape of the story and the bits of literary marble I could chip away.

Writing short stories has accelerated my ability to chip. As a rule, the first draft is the story I need to tell, which I write without thinking about how long it’s going to be or leaving out anything that needs putting in, whether it’s plot, characterization, dialogue, or setting. Sometimes they need a lot of revision, sometimes not so much. And depending on my motivation for writing the story, eg for submission to a particular market, I may need to abbreviate a particular story. Seldom do I have to extend it. The most recent story I’ve written was on the way to becoming a first draft of 2,800 words when I realized I needed between 3,500 and 7,000 words to submit to the anthology I meant it for. But rather than continuing on and then padding, I thought through a structural improvement—three encounters between the protagonist and the antagonist instead of just one, building tension with each one—that made the story organically longer.

So just as I’m an into-the-mist writer (I hate the term “pantser”) rather than an outliner, I’m a chipper rather than a padder. I’m particularly proud of a recently published work that started life as a substandard 70,000-word novel and ended up as a tight, funny 20,000-word novella from which a lot of the adverbs and, I hope, all the preachiness had been purged. If I say so myself, that’s some chippin’!

08 February 2013

The Reins of Narration


Perhaps you’re like me, and you sometimes find yourself wrestling with a story or novel that has developed an explosive side-tension which threatens to derail your plotline. Sometimes, this is a good thing. On other occasions, however, you may want to continue to explore the plotline you’ve already established, but can’t quite figure out how to quell the raging tension you’ve stirred up in the wrong location. If you’re like me in this way, and you’ll bear with me through what may at first appear to be a bit of meandering, I believe you’ll appreciate and enjoy learning about a discovery I recently made, which may help to address this specific type of problem.

When I think of “Narration” my mind usually leaps to two recollections before all others.

The first thing I tend to recall is the voice of John Huston when he narrated the 1982 film Cannery Row, based on John Steinbeck’s books Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. I wasn’t a Steinbeck lover back then. I’d read some of his stuff, but couldn’t seem to gain any traction. John Huston’s film narration changed all that.

Suddenly, within the deep timber of Huston’s voice, I heard what I’d been missing -- that little “twisted-lemon rind” of humor that tinges so much of Steinbeck’s work. It renders his prose in a tart life-giving flavor, the way a bit of rind or an olive enlivens certain cocktails. Thanks to John Huston, I learned to love Steinbeck, and -- odd as this may seem -- through this experience, I also came to love Hemingway.

And, for some reason, recalling John Huston’s narration always conjures memories of The Hobbit in my mind. The Hobbit is a novel written in a format that clearly mirrors the inflections of an ancient oral tradition. Read aloud, it sounds like the sort of story that’s been verbally passed from one generation to another, verbatim, so that a storyteller many generations down the line recites the words as if s/he were present and personally saw the events described as they happened.

Yes, the voice of the narrator can have a great impact on a story: setting the tone, establishing a cadence, pulling a reader in deep, or serving to hold the reader at arms length if needed.

I knew the power that a narrator can have. I believed I understood that power. As, I suspect, we all do.

However, prior to two days ago, I’d never realized how the age of a narrating character might permit a fiction author to rein-in extremely powerful – or even potentially overpowering -- aspects of a storyline.

The Lone Rider

As I’ve noted before, here, many mysteries -- both stand alone and series -- contain an element we might call the “Lone Rider”: a person (usually male) who roams the countryside seeking solace for a yearning heart.

The Lone Rider is a searcher. His past has left him emotionally scarred, or perhaps with a psychological void that he longs to fill. He’s like an anthropomorphized puzzle-piece doomed to wander about the table, looking for the spot in the puzzle where he fits -- the piece he’s designed to click into. The forever-missing piece, which could fill that hole gaping in his side.

When well-handled, the Lone Rider plotline introduces an instant sense of mystery (Who is this person and where did he come from?), a tingle of danger (Is s/he bad or good?), and an inverse sense of the “Call of the Wild” (inverse, because the protagonist is usually led by a call from his Wild or lonely existence, into Civilization and connection with fellow wo/men). In the very best case, the story achieves a transference of this “yearning feeling” from the protagonist’s heart into the reader’s.

In the series format, we usually follow the Lone Rider. Every time he spots somewhere he might fit, he stops and tries to click-in-place, but something prevents him from achieving success. These attempted fittings, and the obstacles overcome during the resulting course of events, comprise the episodes of the series. They make mighty fine reading, at times, and -- when handled well -- can result in major authorial success, such as the Reacher series.

In the stand-alone version, the reader usually meets the missing puzzle-piece element (the “set piece”) first, then the Lone Rider appears and the plot kicks-in in earnest. Because the reader often encounters the people and place where the Lone Rider is going to try to fit in, before encountering the rider himself, additional tension can be garnered -- such as sexual tension, when the reader wonders if the rider will become romantically entangled with a certain set-piece character. Overall tension may be greatly increased, as the reader tries to forecast the incoming rider’s impact on the carefully balanced little “ecosystem” already established.

I’ve read quite a few Lone Rider-type books and stories, both stand-alone and series versions, because I tend to enjoy them. But, I’d have to say that few could match, and none exceed, the one I read earlier this week: Jack Schaefer’s Shane, first published in 1949.

Shane

This is the Lone Rider’s name.

He arrives in a Wyoming valley in the summer of 1889, a valley in which farmers have staked-out and homesteaded on land claims where a large rancher used to run his cattle. The rancher has obtained a contract that will require the use of the land now occupied by the homesteaders, who don’t want to move.

This much of the plot was probably well-worn, or even worn out, by the time the novel was written.

Schaefer introduces an element, however, that charges the novel with a power surge on the quantum level. That is to say, it infuses the novel with a force that is not immediately apparent to the eye, but is none-the-less all-pervasive and even subtly dictatorial in nature.

Early on, when Shane reins-in at the Starrett homestead, to wash the trail dust of a long ride off his skin, he’s invited to stay for supper by Joe Starrett and his wife, Marian. But, the story is told neither through the voice of Joe Starrett, nor Marian -- nor even through the voice of their young son, Bob Starrett.

Instead, the narrator’s voice is that of Bob Starrett -- after he’s grown, and (one gets the idea) is perhaps now an old man -- telling us how he saw things transpire when he was a young boy. That’s important. The narrator is not a young boy, incapable of understanding why certain elements he doesn’t understand need to be brought to light, which can lead to confusion on a reader’s part. Nor is he just an adult, fully versed in the nuances of sexual desire, human greed or lust.

The genius of Schaefer’s narration, is that the old man tells us the story as he saw it, through the eyes of a young boy. This permits him to sometimes let the reader know that he, as a boy, knew there were undercurrents going on that he didn’t understand, but it relieves Schaefer of having to explain those undercurrents -- without ignoring them.

What do I mean?

Well, for one thing, this odd narrative juxtaposition results in one of the most fascinating literary experiences I’ve ever encountered: when love blossoms between two heterosexual men as they work in concert to pull a large tree stump.

Described directly, like this, it sounds ridiculous perhaps, certainly somewhat melodramatic. Yet, the scene, as written, is vital, virile, beautiful – full of sound and fury, and signifying EVERYTHING. The two men grow to love each other in the bond of friendship, as Shane comes to a personal understanding that farm work can actually provide the sort of challenge he knows that he needs in life, if he’s to enjoy living.

The scene lasts for thirteen pages. In the beginning, Shane works alone, feverishly chopping at the stump’s roots with an axe. But, soon, Joe Starrett works with him, chopping at the roots on the other side of the stump. Neither of them speaks. They just keep working like fury, sweat pouring out, axes ringing against ironwood, stopping only to sharpen their blades or to eat.

During all this, the boy, Bob, watches for awhile, then tries to go play, because – on the surface, at least – watching two men spend hours pulling a stump is tedious and boring. So, Bob wanders off. He tries pitching stones across a nearby stream, he tries to do other things. But, the hidden undercurrent of what’s taking place at the stump keeps drawing him back, magnet-like. He can’t stay away, but as a boy he can’t understand why he’s so fascinated by what’s transpiring.

The adult, narrating what he saw as a boy, however, can deftly tell us: “I simply could not grasp how they could stick at it hour after hour. It made no sense to me, why they should work so when routing out that old stump was not really so important.” And, he can describe finding his mother spying on the two men through a barn window, displaying behavior that clearly indicates she has become excited by watching them -- very probably sexually excited. And, when he describes helping his mother in the kitchen as “the steady rhythm of double blows” carries clearly to where mother and son sit, we realize her libido is very definitely aroused by the mysterious and exciting stranger who only recently appeared at their doorstep.

The boy understands none of this. The adult he has grown into, however, understands it all. And, telling the story through the eyes and ears he had as a young boy, he can render the story in a manner that makes it very clear to the reader that Mrs. Starrett is smitten with Shane, and later becomes torn between her passion for the mysterious and exciting stranger, and her love for her steadfast husband and young son -- all the while using the boy’s perception to keep a firm lid on the burgeoning psycho-sexual tension, as well as the fear and jealousy of potential cuckoldry.

And, the reader understands, as the boy does not, that it’s the love between the two men, which holds Shane in check. Shane’s philia (as the Greeks might put it) for Joe Starrett is what keeps the love triangle from possibly morphing into another dimension -- a dimension with the potential to destroy everyone involved.

All of this creates a tension so great, it could hijack the plotline, if the narrator weren’t relating the story as he experienced it when he was a young boy.

And, this is what I learned by reading Shane. Which, by the way, is a darn good story!

See you in two weeks!

--Dixon

07 February 2013

Why Can’t I Listen To Audio Books?


Back in the days of cassette tapes, I experimented with the idea that listening to audio books would help me get through my growing to-be-read list. To get started, I bought the novel  A Dark-Adapted Eye by Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara, with Sophie Ward doing the reading. The total listening time of the two cassettes was three hours. I wish I could tell you how much I enjoyed the novel, but I don’t remember whether I enjoyed it or not. I don’t even remember what it was about.
The problem was as I sat in my easy chair listening to the book, I couldn’t keep my mind on what the reader was saying because I kept nodding off. I think, but I’m not sure, that I finally fell asleep. No, it wasn’t the voice of the reader. Later that same year, I bought a CD about ancient cultures and, as with the novel, I don’t remember finishing it because I believe I fell asleep again.
I can listen to old radio programs like “The Shadow,” “The Green Hornet” or “Inner Sanctum” without dozing off because I hear the different voices of the different characters. Listening to the single voice reading a book on a cassette or CD, however, seems to put me to sleep no matter how good the reader is.
No matter how much I think about it, I can’t solve the puzzle of why I can’t listen to audio books. So, I’ve decided not to try to listen to War and Peace on an audio book. 
Any method that encourages people to read should not be dismissed. Audio books are not only good for readers with poor eye sight but also for readers who, provided they can stay awake, want to reduce that pile of to-be-read books or reread the classics.

06 February 2013

Invitation to a dinner party


by Robert Lopresti

Gyles Brandreth is an Englishman who writes mystery novels featuring real-life Victorians.  He recently pointed out this interesting group. Ponder if you will:

J.M. Barrie
Arthur Conan Doyle
E.W. Hornung
Robert Louis Stevenson
Bram Stoker
Oscar Wilde

What do these six men have in common, besides being famous British authors? 

They made up the roster at a single dinner party.  That's right, the creators of Dracula, Dorian Gray, Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Jeckyl, Peter Pan, and A.J. Raffles once sat down for a festive meal together.

The only one of these who may not be instantly familiar is Raffles, the creation of Doyle's brother-in-law Hornung.  Raffles was a "gentleman thief," an early example of a rogue hero, and deliberately intended as a sort of anti-Holmes.








Imagine for one horrible second how literature would have changed if, say, a boiler had blown up the restaurant that night.  My word, for one thing, cyberpunk might have died before being born.









And don't you wish we had a recording of what these six gentlemen discussed that night?  And would anyone bet against me if I guessed it was taxes and the weather?







For more thoughts on that very subject, read the Mary Killen column in which Brandreth brought up the dinner party.  Bon appetit!




05 February 2013

Criminal Connections


I begin with an apology: For reasons beyond my ken, I have been unable to upload photos for my last several postings--sorry; I just don't understand it.  It used to be no problem at all.

Here's a pop quiz for you.  What do Jesse James, Cole Younger, Louis Dalton, Bill Doolin, Bill Cook, Henry Star, Al Spencer, Frank Nash, and Pretty Boy Floyd all have in common? 

If you answered, "They were all criminals," you get half credit.  You're on the right track, but it's not the answer I'm looking for.  The correct answer is cunningly concealed in the title of this post--there's a line that runs through the careers of these outlaws that begins during the Civil War with Quantrill's Raiders and extends right into 1933 with the Kansas City Union Station massacre.  How do I know these things?  Let's just say that having been a crack police officer that I've got my sources ...

Okay, I read a book--a very well-researched and fascinating history of American outlawry by Paul I. Wellman titled, "A Dynasty of Western Outlaws," and published by Bison Books.  It's a great read for those interested in crime and its practitioners, and their effect upon our society.  While telling some fascinating stories along the way, Mr. Wellman details the human chain that entends, link by link, from that era to the stunning massacre in 1933 of four law enforcement officers, and their prisoner, in a failed escape plot that signaled the beginning of the end of one of America's most notable crime waves. 

As I've written in an earlier posting titled "Criminal Fashion," a lot of the tactics employed by modern criminals were originated during the Civil War by guerrilla fighters.  These "irregular" cavalry were employed by both sides during the conflict and operated mostly in the western theatre of Missouri and Kansas. Their methods were harsh and bloody, employing ambush and sudden raids against both military and civilian targets (mostly civilian) and frequently involved the liberation of money, goods, and effects from the "enemy". 

One of the most successful, and notorious, of these hard-riding units was William Quantrill's Confederate raiders.  They are the ones that conducted the infamous raid on Lawrence, Kansas.  They are also the ones that had Jesse and Frank James amongst their riders, as well as Cole Younger and his brothers.  These fellows learned their trade well and when the war ended in their defeat, refused to come in from the cold and resume what passed for normal lives at that time. 

The James-Younger Gang became their very own crime wave, originating the practice of both bank and train robbing that would become the standard for decades.  During the lengthy career of this bloodthirsty band, which continued from 1865 until Jesse's assassination at the hands of turncoat, Bob Ford, in 1882, many members came and went; learning their violent trade from the James brothers.  Several of these graduates went on to have their own less notable, if no less violent, careers.  One such example being Bill McCarty, who taught his younger brothers the art of armed robbery, and went on to provide training and experience to novice Butch Cassidy of whom you may have heard.

But the next important link in the chain was more tenuous, being the aunt of the Younger brothers and a cousin to the Jameses, Adeline Younger.  It was she that gave birth to the Dalton boys that grew up vowing "to beat Jesse James" whose legend they had been fed on since their nursery days.  And they certainly took a good whack at it, engaging in numerous hold-ups and shoot-outs.  Their careers culminated (and ended) in a final attempt to beat the James-Younger Gang at their own game, by attempting to rob two banks at once in Coffeyville, Kansas.  This division of forces ended no more happily than it had for Custer at the Little Big Horn.  An outlaw by the name of Bill Doolin would likely also have died in this fiasco had his horse not gone lame on the ride in.  Young Mr. Doolin survived to found the next link in the criminal chain--The Doolin gang.

Taking his experience with the Daltons, Bill and his long riders went on to terrorize Oklahoma and the Indian Territory during the 1890s, quickly proving themselves the equal of, if not better, than their predecessors.  Interestingly, one of the surviving Daltons, Bill (yes, there seem to be a lot of outlaws named Bill), was a member of this new outfit, but did not contest leadership with Doolin.  Perhaps the fate of his brothers dissuaded him from a leading role. 

The Doolin boys committed one bank heist in a manner that may strike you as startlingly modern--they kidnapped the teller from his home and had him open up the next morning, as was usual, then hand over the cash to the gang.  After tying him up and gagging him, they rode out of town without having drawn the least suspicion.  This was an exception to their more usual method of guns drawn, and often blazing, during the course of a robbery.  And it was in this manner that nearly every member of the gang met their fate.  All, save one--Little Dick West (I don't make up these names).

Little Dick was to provide the gravitas required for a band of extremely unlikely, and spectacularly unsuccessful, bandits--The Jennings Gang.  The brains of this operation was one Al Jennings, attorney-at-law, a poor lawyer and a worse outlaw.  What possessed this scion of a family of lawyers to abandon his practice and throw in with the likes of Little Dick will probably never be fully understood.  What is known is that he was a rather weak-willed and histrionic character who relished notoriety.  This he would attain...but not much else other than a prison term.  The brief, almost comically inept reign of the Jennings gang lasted but two years, during which they accomplished little more than becoming impoverished and hunted fugitives.  Even lucky Little Dick West grew so embarrassed by his association with this amateur troop, that shortly before their capture, he mounted up and rode away--lucky once again.  But his luck ran out when two lawmen got the drop on him while he was grooming his horse.  Game to the end, Little Dick went for his guns and was killed.

Though it may appear the through line of outlawry would have come to a close with the death of Little Dick, this would not be true.  In order to pick up the thread that continues the chain of connections, it is necessary to return to Cole Younger for a moment.  Cole of the roaming eye and reported good looks, and a young courtesan by the name of Belle Shirley, later and more famously known as Belle Starr--the last name of one her later amours.  For it is through Belle and and Sam Starr that the Belle Starr Gang originates, undoubtedly having benefited from association with the seasoned Youngers and Jameses.  And it is through this line that we arrive at a descendant, Henry Starr, who having practiced his trade of robbery and murder with the Cook Gang (contemporaries of the Doolin boys), forms his own little band of wealth redistributors.  Amongst those stalwarts was a young fellow by the name of Al Spencer, the outlaw destined to bridge the gap between the revolver-wielding, horse-riding bandits of the previous era with the automobile driving, machine gun artists of the next.

In 1921, Henry Starr, known for his good looks, refined manners, and a sense of restraint when it came to violence, was nonetheless visited with it, having his handsome head blown off with a double-barrelled shotgun during a bank robbery gone wrong (or right, depending on which side of the counter you were standing at the time).  And so young Mr. Spencer, having survived his association with Henry and graduated with honors, so to speak, took his trade into the new and exciting industrial age; there to meet one Frank Nash.  Nash, well-respected planner of heists, and now number two in Spencer's gang, is the last, save one, of the more important figures of Wellman's narrative.  It is Nash who provides the flashpoint for the next great crime wave after the lawlessness of the Reconstruction era.

Nash went on to head up his own gang after the death (yes, another one bites the dust) of his one-time boss, Spencer.  In fact, after learning a few tricks of urban banditry from an old Fagin named John Callahan, he set up in Kansas City and became wildly successful as a 30's style gangster.  Yet, in spite of the spiffy face work he had received from an underworld doctor, Frank was recognized by a lawman while vacationing at Hot Springs, Arkansas and arrested.  The officer, along with two of the newly minted FBI agents, loaded him on board a train bound for Kansas City's federal court and a reckoning with justice.  Enter Pretty Boy Floyd (any relation, John?).

Sadly, for Frank, Pretty Boy and his two associates, all three of whom knew Nash through the Moriarity-like, Callahan, were tapped to act as his rescuers.  Their coming into the unfolding events surrounding Nash occurred less than twenty-four hours prior to his up-coming demise, and was hastily organized.  Not known for extensive planning (totally unlike the man they were told to rescue), the three apparently did what they did best: they showed up with guns as the police were placing Frank into the back seat of a car and shouted, "Up! Up!"

The result was not a happy one: Pretty Boy and crew managed to kill both the person they were supposed to be breaking out, and four of the officers transporting him.  Additionally, two other officers were wounded, and Pretty Boy took a round through the shoulder.  The gang escaped and were never identified at the time to stand charges for their crimes.  Pretty Boy Floyd, however, like almost every other human link in this chain that ran from the bloody days of Quantrill's raiders to the Kansas City massacre, met his end in a hail of bullets, brought down at last by the law they all hated.

In keeping with the old adage that, "It is an ill wind that blows no good," out of the carnage at Union Station a new era in law enforcement was born.  The public's reaction to the cold-blooded brutality shown by Pretty Boy, and his fellow gangsters of the time (Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly, etc, etc...) was swift and mostly unanimous--they demanded action.  The government rapidly enacted new laws granting the FBI actual arrest powers (they were largely advisory up to this point) and arming them.  Bank robbery and kidnapping became federal crimes when state lines were crossed, freeing the officers to pursue their quarry anywhere they might flee.  The murder of federal agents also became a federal crime.  Once enacted these laws forecast the end of the roving bandits that had plagued America for over seventy years, and brought to a close a long, bloody era of lawlessness and violence that had begun in the "Bloody Kansas" of the Civil War.      



   



04 February 2013

And Where Is THAT?





St. Mary, SC, is my town, and Surcie Island is my island.

When I wrote the first Callie Parrish Mystery, I created St. Mary, a small town on the coast of South Carolina, not far from Beaufort and Fripp Island. It's located near Highway 17. To get to Columbia or Charleston from St. Mary, take I-95 north to I-26 where a turn to the east leads to Charleston and circling round to go west leads to the midlands. I Googled carefully to be certain neither St. Mary, SC, nor Surcie Island exist. Surcie is actually based on Edisto Island before it was commercially developed (with a little Daufuskie thrown in), yet inevitably, at book signings, readers assure me that they've been to St. Mary or Surcie Island. I don't attempt to enlighten them, but it does set me thinking about fictional places I've been.

Most photos of William Faulkner are formal and solemn head
shots, possibly because of his height of 5'5".
I like this one because it's more relaxed than most..
The first and most memorable is Yoknapatawpha County in northwestern Mississippi. I traveled there frequently in my youth and return occasionally even now. It's bordered on the north by the Tallahatchie River and on the south by the Yoknapatawpha River. William Faulkner referred to it as my "apocryphal county."

Fourteen of his next seventeen novels after Sartoris were set in Yoknapatawpha County, including my personal favorites: The Sound and the Fury; Absolom, Absolom; and The Reivers. The eight short stories set in Faulkner's own county include my favorite Faulkner short story of all time--"A Rose for Emily."


This marker directs visitors to William Faulkner's
grave in Oxford, Mississippi.


William Faulkner drew this map of
Yoknapatawpha County for
The Portable Faulkner (1946).

Now travel with me from Mississippi to Maine where we'll visit Stephen King's town of Castle Rock. This town is part of King's fictional Maine and first appears in The Dead Zone. Writings set in Castle Rock include Cujo, "The Body" (which became the movie Stand By Me), "Uncle Otto's Truck," "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut," The Dark Half, "The Sun Dog," Needful Things, and "It Grows On You."

Castle Rock is also referred to in about ten short stories as well as fourteen novels, including 11/22/63, Bag of Bones, The Stand, Gerald's Game, and Pet Sematary.

Stephen King's Maine
King openly admits to being a fan of H. P. Lovecraft who created a series of fictional small towns in New England. King follows this idea of Lovecraft's with Jerusalem's Lot (in Salem's Lot), Castle Rock, Derry (in It, Insomnia, Dreamcatcher, and 11/11/63), Little Tall Island, and Haven.

There are several real Castle Rocks in the United States in southwest Washington and in Colorado, south of Denver. King denies his Castle Rock evolved from those real places and acknowledges that he got the name "Castle Rock" from the fictional mountain fort in William Golding's 1963 novel Lord of the Flies.

Stephen King, creator of Castle Rock, Maine
King's Castle Rock has been referred to in several works by others. A signpost in Peter Jackson's alien invasion movie Bad Taste points to a town named Castle Rock. This has been confirmed as a reference to King's town. In her 1993 novel One on One, Tabitha King mentions Castle Rock and thanks "another novelist who was kind enough to allow me to use the name."
Angela Lansbury as Jessica
Fletcher in Murder, She
Wrote
While we're in Maine, let's stop off at another fictional place I've visited many times: Cabot Cove, Maine-- the small fictional fishing village where Jessica Fletcher lives when she's not flitting around New York and Europe in the Murder, She Wrote series. I have friends who will argue that Cabot Cove, Maine, really exists. "After all," they say, "we see it all the time." The fact is that the television series was filmed in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, and in Mendocino, California.

David Dean revealed a few weeks ago that a reader of his The Thirteenth Child pointed out "mistakes" he'd made about their town, not noticing that Dean's town had a different name. I'm an avid Faulkner, King, and now Dean fan, but I confess I think a writer creating his or her own location is the easiest way out. (That's why I took that route, but now I'm finding that as I'm working on the sixth book in the series, I'm having to check back on some geographic facts that I myself created.)

I admit that I have even greater admiration for those who recreate accurate, believable, historical settings in their fiction. An example of that among SSers is Janice Law's Fires of London. For more examples of impressive locations, see David Dean's recent blog Location, Location, Location.


This began with my emphatic statement that St. Mary, SC, and Surcie Island, SC, are my creations. I'll close by telling you that a writer friend of mine has sold a story he set in St. Mary, SC. He used a low country ruins scene I made up for another series and actually had his character mention Emily from my story Leigh likes: "Emily's Ghost Story." He called me on the telephone all excited about the sale (and when he has a publication date, I'll share it with you), but I confess that though he called it "homage," I wasn't really joyful about it. However, if Stephen King gives his wife permission to use his town in her novel, my friend can borrow some name from me.

I never introduce a song performance nor a prose reading with an explanation. I feel that the work should stand on its own. I also am not fond of books that begin with a list of character descriptions and/or a map of the location. I prefer to learn these things as I read, yet, after writing this, I actually considered making a map of St. Mary, SC, showing locations of events such as where Bill was caught making out with Loose Lucy during the candlelight vigil when Jane was kidnapped and where Little Fiddlin' Fred is buried in his gold-plated casket as well as recurring places like Callie's apartment, Middleton's Mortuary, Pa's homeplace, June Bug's burned out "Club," Rizzie's Gastric Gullah Grill, and other spots.

On second thought, that sounds like far too much work. Callie's readers will have to be satisfied with word descriptions.

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

03 February 2013

Eye in the Sky


by Leigh Lundin

Drones part 1: Eye in the Sky

If you don't know the acronym UAV, you're so out of date! Predator drones and the overhead gadgets police use to spy on your backyard barbecue are called UAVs– unmanned ariel vehicles– UAV, for short.

unmanned Predator drone
Those drones we've read about in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq? They were developed for use in combat territories, not against our own citizens. But once out of the bag, did anyone seriously expect they wouldn't be deployed here at home?

I'm torn, partly from techno-geek attraction, partly because I don't like putting soldiers in harm's way, but partly because I don't like the idea of killing from the heavens. But now we face another factor– unarmed drones are being deployed against American citizens. Not only can they violate your air space, they can violate your personal space.

Since 9/11, civil liberties have been pouring down the rathole of 'homeland security', most notably from the Orwellian-named US PATRIOT Acts I and II. They've been stripping basic rights when you weren't looking and now we have one more way to spy– against ourselves. Wasn't this what we were taught was so evil about other governments?

That's not to say I don't think domestic drones can have a positive purpose, but without well defined rules, expect them to be misused and abused. Cases have already surfaced of drones spying on ordinary citizens going about their own business on their own property.

The Little Plane that Couldn't

Like boys with the latest R/C plane, our local law enforcement is delighted with their new toy. While issuing solemn assurances to the press they won't use drones to observe security precautions of, say, Mrs. Trudy Boomdacious tanning by her pool at Nº 31 Sunkist Lane, they can hardly contain themselves until they can go out and play. Hey, I can't blame them.

But, as we learn from time to time, high technology is beyond some officials. From our Texas reader Vicki comes this article by Jim Hightower about Montgomery County's new flying gadget. When showing it off, it seems the sheriff dragged out all his goodies including a Bearcat troop transport with full swat team. It looked great, but unfortunately, the sheriff's department hasn't learned how to drive… or at least fly.

Yep, they crashed their spanking new drone.  The little plane committed suicide when it smashed into their armored transport.

Hightower reports the Bearcat survived, but not the Constitution.

Boys and Their Toys
child predator

But wait! There's more!

The drone that grew out of R/C toys has itself become a toy. On Amazon, people like me of twisted mind and sense of humor have been piling on the review comments. Warning: I said twisted, for example:
"At last! A Child Predator!"

"With my son's birthday fast approaching, I simply couldn't fathom what to get him. Last year we had purchased for him the Home Waterboarding Kit and buying him the same present two years in a row just seemed wrong...fortunately I found this! I love to watch the maniacal gleam in his eye as he imagines seas of Pakistani women and children before him and screams 'Death from above!'. It reminds me of all the joy I got from the My Lai Massacre playset I had as a child. Shock and awe!"

"(My son) just loves flying his drone around our house, dropping Hellfire missiles on Scruffy, our dog. He kept saying that Scruffy was a terror suspect and needed to be taken out. I asked him if Scruffy should get a trial first, and he quoted Lindsay Graham, Senator: "Scruffy, you don't get a trial!" I was so proud. I think I'll buy him some video games that promote martial law for Christmas."

"I just have to say that the educational value of this toy is GREAT. I just tell my son: This is what the West is using to kill the Rest. We fly these wonderful planes carrying bombs and we drop them on people we sort of think are terrorists and other people…"

"Not very educational, as the software is point-and-click, and the targets' death screams all sound the same. Not durable either, since they tend to crash between smoking, charred corpses."

"This is the best toy ever. Finally, I can pretend that I'm a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize!"
Oops, I'm droning on and on…

02 February 2013

In Pursuit of Mystery Trivia


Last week I did some housecleaning, in the form of thinning out my vast collection of hardback books. I do that every now and then only because I'm forced to--by my wife and by the fact that no matter how big our house is, it's still not big enough for a steady inflow of non-e-books--and as a result I always wind up giving some to the library, some to friends, and some to the garbage crew that comes by every Tuesday and Friday.

The point is, in every one of these sad (for me) "inventories" I seem to find something that gives me an idea for a SleuthSayers column.  This time it was a delightful little collection of questions called The Mystery Trivia Quiz Book, by Kitty Reese and Regis Sinclair. I've long since forgotten where I bought it, or even why I bought it, but I couldn't resist sitting down and paging through the questions. (Now my problem is deciding whether to keep the darn thing or toss it overboard.)
Here is a sampling of the brain-teasers I found there, plus a few of my own. Some are easy, some are tough, and some are just plain silly, but I hope all of them bring back for you (as they do for me) fond memories of mystery novels, stories, authors, movies, and TV shows.

1. What was the full name of Sherlock Holmes's landlady?
2. In what magazine did Dashiell Hammett's first Continental Op story appear?
3. What was Evan Hunter's best-known pseudonym?
4. Who killed Richard Kimble's wife in TV's The Fugitive?
5. What's the name of Bill Pronzini's famous detective?
6. Who played the gangster who carved up Jack Nicholson's nose in Chinatown?
7. What fictional series character hitchhikes across America carrying only a toothbrush, an ATM card, and the clothes on his back?
8. Where did Nick and Nora Charles stay when they were in New York?
9. What mystery (and former Western) author wrote the novel Hombre and the short story "3:10 to Yuma"?
10. What Poe story is considered to be the first "locked-room mystery"?
11. What was taken in John Godey's novel The Taking of Pelham One Two Three?
12.  Who played a judge in the final episode of Perry Mason, telecast in 1966?" (This one isn't as hard as it sounds.)
13. In what city was Spenser based?
14. How do you pronounce Ngaio Marsh's first name?
15. In North by Northwest, what is Cary Grant's reply when Eva Marie Saint says, "Roger O. Thornhill. What does the O stand for?"
16. Who shot J.R., on TV's Dallas?
17. What was the basis of many of the titles of Martha Grimes's detective novels?
18. What was Mike Hammer's secretary's name?
19. What did BullittVertigoThe Maltese Falcon, and Dirty Harry have in common?
20. Who lived on a houseboat called The Busted Flush?
21. Edgar Box is the pseudonym of what writer?
22. Who always includes a number in the titles of her mystery novels?
23. Who played the murderer in Rear Window?
24. In Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd--how did he die?
25. How did Nero Wolfe finish the following line: The only safe secrets are . . .
26. What TV character's name was taken from the British film industry expression "man-appeal" or "M-appeal" (which is what the series producers were looking for)?
27. What was Robert B. Parker's middle name?
28. What was Dick Francis's only collection of short stories?
29. Who was the voice of Charlie in TV's Charlie's Angels?
30. How did Hitchcock manage to do his trademark cameo in the cramped setting of the movie Lifeboat?
31. What's the name of the bog that borders the Baskerville estate?
32. In Richard Diamond, Private Detective, who played Sam (RD's answering service)?
33. What mystery writer is actually Dr. Robert William Arthur?
34. In which of the Thin Man movies did James Stewart play a suspect?
35. Who had to turn down the role of Indiana Jones because he was tied up filming a P.I. series?
36. What's unique about the settings of Nevada Barr's mystery novels?
37. In The Maltese Falcon, what was Sam Spade's partner's name?
38. Who were the two cousins who used the pen name Ellery Queen?
39. What Ben Gazzara/Chuck Connors TV series had the following format: the first half was spent catching the crook and the last half was spent convicting him?
40. What do P.D. James's first two initials stand for?
41. Who writes mystery novels starring sports agent Myron Bolitar?
42. Who was the producer's first choice to play Lt. Columbo?
43. The movie Heavenly Creatures was based on a crime actually committed by what popular mystery writer, when she was in her teens?
44. What musical instrument did Sherlock Holmes play?
45. What TV private detective frequented a bar called Mother's?
46. What was used to simulate blood in the Psycho shower scene?
47. What do Robert B. Parker's Jesse Stone series and Steve Hamilton's Alex McKnight series have in common?
48. What did the dying man tell James Stewart in The Man Who Knew Too Much?
49. What is romance author Nora Roberts's mystery-writer pseudonym?
50. Which Agatha Christie novel featured Alice Ascher, Betty Barnard, and Carmichael Clarke?

That's it--put down your pencil and turn in your paper. By the way, if you felt comfortable answering half of these or more, I don't know whether to congratulate you or feel sorry for you. I will say that you probably spend more time reading and watching mysteries than you should. (I certainly do.) And shame on you, shame I say, if you Googled any of them.

In case anyone's interested, I will supply all fifty answers in my SleuthSayers column two weeks from now. Meanwhile, it's time to get back to my sorting and trashcan detail. Anybody want a copy of Tommy Chong's autobiography?

Didn't think so.