14 December 2012

Maze of Bones

I must confess: I really enjoy helping my son with his homework. It gives me the chance to teach him important little facets of the subject he's studying. Facets that I believe will not only interest him, but also facilitate the future practical application of what he's learning.

That's something it can be hard for a teacher to accomplish, when confronted by a room full of 36 students, so it pleases me when I get the chance to work one-on-one with my son.

Since I tend to employ the Socratic Method in my teaching, however, this feeling may not be mutual.  My son doesn't exactly relish having ideas teased from his brain through a series of pointed questions, but I feel it's important that he come up with an idea himself, so that he can better understand it.  Meanwhile, Quentin's eye-rolling and pained gasps tell me he'd much prefer that I simply tell him the answer.

Our latest foray into this practice of passive mutual combat took place over the weekend, when I helped him with a book report.  Of course, I couldn't fully help him if I wasn't familiar with the book.  So, after he finished it, I took it into my office and read the thing. And, it was GREAT!

The Maze of Bones is the first installment of the ten-book The 39 Clues series put out by Scholastic Books.  But, Scholastic points out that it's not just a book series. As the company says online, it's: "an interactive and multi-platform adventure series combining books, collectible cards, and an online game..."  

The 39 Clues

The protagonists of the series are Dan and Amy Cahill, two kids (Dan is 11 and Amy is 14) whose parents died in a fire seven years before. Since then, they've lived in a Boston apartment with an au pair, managed by their Aunt Beatrice who lives across town.  But, the true source of the finances clearly lies in the hands of their grandmother, Grace Cahill.

Grace is a wealthy woman who resides in the old Cahill family mansion in Worcester County.  She clearly enjoys the children's company on weekends, but refuses to let them move in, telling them "There are reasons..." why she can't let them.

The story opens with the two kids on their way to the funeral of their beloved grandmother Grace. There, they discover that their extended family is even larger than they had known, and that the four branches of the Cahills have "helped shaped civilization."   Amy and Dan are among family members who are given a choice: accept a one-time inheritance of $1,000,000 -- or forfeit the money and participate in a world-wide scavenger hunt for the lost treasure of the Cahills.  A treasure that will make the finder "The most powerful Cahill in history."  .The reader is also aware of something the children don't know:  The fate of the world may hang in the balance; if the treasure falls into the wrong hands, it could spell the end of civilization.

Dan and Amy have scarcely begun their search, starting in the mansion's library, when a fire breaks out and burns the house to the ground.  Barely escaping with their lives, they also manage to save their grandmother's cat and some of her jewelry before crawling to safety through a tunnel that comes up in the family graveyard. Then -- with the assistance of their young, IPod loving au pair, Nellie, the two kids are off on a whirl-wind adventure to Philadelphia, PA, the catacombs of Paris, France and beyond.

Rick Riordan wrote The Maze of Bones, thus proving he can scribe a story that appeals not only to both boys and girls, but also to their parents as well.   Though other books in the 39 Clues series are written by other authors, the multi-platform series and its over-arching plot line were Riordan's creations.

And, what a creation!  Not since Harry Potter, have I so greatly enjoyed reading books aloud to my children.

Rick Riordan

This is a name which may be familiar to many of you, because he also writes the Tres Navarre mystery series, which won the Edgar, Anthony and Shamus awards.  Additionally, he writes the children's Percy Jackson series (such as The Lightning Thief).

Riordan says, "I read mostly fantasy and science fiction in high school, then got interested in mysteries when I got to college." He graduated with a double major in English and History, having published a few stories in his university literary magazine.  After college, he entered teaching, where he says he managed to teach his first love -- mythology -- nearly every year, before leaving academia for a full-time writing career.

His knowledge of history, and love of teaching are clear to an adult reading The Maze of Bones.  My son, however, was too caught-up in the heart-pounding action and adventure to realize he was also learning about Ben Franklin, early printing methods, and even mathematics.  A real Win-Win, when you're a parent!

I knew about the Percy Jackson books and film, because Percy is a favorite of my son, but I'd never read any of the books.  The Maze of Bones, however, impressed me so much that I've placed a hold on a copy of the first Tres Navarre mystery, down at the Poisoned Pen, and intend to go pick it up as soon as I'm finished with this post.  (I also plan to get some more 39 Clues books for my son and me.) So, if you'll excuse me . . .

I'll see you in two weeks!

13 December 2012

I Never Saw A Strange Red Cow

Late last year I was interviewed by a researcher for a Canadian radio show about advertizing called Under The Influence.  This was for an episode about classified ads,  although you won't find my name in the credits.  Fame slips through my fingers once again. 
But what fascinated me in this broadcast was the reference to a book called Strange Red Cow by Sara Bader.  Bader explains in her introduction that she had been looking through eighteenth century newspapers for reactions to the Declaration of Independence when her eye was caught by the following classified ad:

CAME to my plantation, in Springfield, township, Philadelphia county, near Flour-town, the 26th of March 1776, A STRANGE RED COW.  The owner may have her again, on proving his property, and paying charges.  - Philip Miller, May 1, 1776. Pennsylvania Gazette.

(I should say that the ad actually said townfhip, but in the interest of your time and sanity I have changed all the extraneous Fs in this piece to Ss.)

So this is a book about old classified ads, and it is endlessly fascinating, especially to a writer.  Each of these ads in an unfinished short story, a beginning with no middle or end.

$15 REWARD - LOST, ON THE HUDSON RIVER Railroad, in the quarter to 5 o'clock train from New York, a set of teeth on a gold plate.  They were dropped out of the window on the right hand side of the way, supposed between the Tarrytown and Sing Sing stations, or at a short distance this side of Tarrytown...  -April 4, 1855, New York Herald.

$50 REWARD - STOLEN, ON WEDNESDAY (17th) evening, between 9 and 10 o'clock, a curiously deformed Hen, without a beak, and head shaped somewhat like a monkey; highly valued as a curiosity. -May 19, 1865, New York Herald. 

ELOPED from the subscriber, living near Nashville, on the 25th at Hune last, a Mulatto Man Slave, about thirty years old, six feet and an inch high, stout made and active, talks sensible, stoops in his walk, and has a remarkable large foot, broad across the root of the toes -- will pass for a free man, as I am informed he has obtained by some means, certificates as such...  ten dollars extra, for every hundred lashes any person will give him, to the amount of three hundred. -ANDREW JACKSON, Near Nashville, State of Tennessee

Yes, it was THAT Andrew Jackson

Information Wanted
Of PATRICK FITZGERALD, a native of Ownscoil, county Kerry, who came to America about three years ago, leaving his wife and one child in Ireland.  He was seem in Boston 3 weeks ago.  Any information respecting his hereabouts at present will be thankfully received by his wife, Bridget, who has lately arrived in Boston in search of him....  July 14, 1849, Boston Pilot.

MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE - LEFT his lodgings a short time since, a young man of rather prepossessing appearance, dark eyes and florid complexion, hair dark brown and inclined to curl. When last seen he was dressed in a broadcloth coat, peppered breeches, and silk hat.  Any information concerning him, left either at the Granite hotel, Lester place, or at this office, will be thankfully received.
P.S. A very curious kind of written poem has been found in his room in his own handwriting.  I should be obliged if some of our best critics would call and examine this queer poem.

One type of ad still popular today in alternative papers, is the personal, which Sherlock Holmes lovingly referred to as the "agony column."

J.A.R. - SARCASM AND INDIFFERENCE HAVE driven me from you.  I sail in next steamer for Europe.  Shall I purchase tickets for two, or do you prefer to remain to wound some other loving heart?  Answer quick, or all is lost.  EMELIE.  1865.

ROSE -IT IS USELESS - YOU ARE TOO LOVELY TO be trifled with.  I am married.  BENEDICT.

A YOUNG LADY, COUNTRY BRED, BUT EASILY tamed and civilized, would like to correspond with a city gentleman, with a view to matrimony.  It is necessary for him to be wealthy, and not less than forty years of age, as she would "rather be an old man's darling than a young man's slave."  The advertiser is 21, and presumes her manners and apparance will recommend her to tastes not over fastidious... 1861.

NIBLO'S, MONDAY EVENING -- OCCUPIED Adjoining seats in parquet; repeated pressure of arm and foot and hands met when seperating.  If agreeable, address Bruno... 1867.

And then there is that old favorite, the want ad.

At the Bennington Cotton Factory,
SEVERAL FAMILIES     that can furnish a number of children each.  To such constant employ will be given, and wages paid according to the ability of the children....1821, Vermont Gazette.

WANTED, A YOUNG HEALTHY WET NURSE.  One who has had the smallpox will be most agreeable... 1765, Georgia Gazette.

One mandolin, with all its strings, dulcet tone for basket of vegetables.  - December 1835.

Now, that last one is tragic.  But don't you wish you could read all those stories? Or write them?

12 December 2012

Cold War Berlin: A Whiter Shade of Pale

by David Edgerley Gates

David Morrell's forthcoming new thriller, MURDER AS A FINE ART, takes place in Victorian London, and he remarks that his research and the writing itself so completely immersed him in the time and place that it became more real to him than the contemporary, so-called 'real' world. Anybody who's ever written period stories, whether in the distant past or more recent history, can relate. The language you use changes from modern usage– not so much "prithee, sirrah," as perhaps word order– and even the thoughts of your characters are different, because their view of themselves and the world are different from the present day. The easiest trap to fall into is anachronism, a modern viewpoint bleeding into the past, which could be something as simple as cause and effect: we know the Black Death was caused by a bacillus; the people it killed thought it was the hand of God. Specific details are simpler, as in, when did Lucky Strikes go to war? 1942, as it happens.

In both the bounty hunter stories, which take place in the years just before America's entry into World War I, and the Mickey Counihan stories, which take place immediately after World War II, I've found myself slipping into a habit of mind, not so much a slavish devotion to accuracy ('the smell of the lamp') as a mental device, or discipline, trying to think my way into the characters' heads, which is more than just the correct vocabulary. It's time travel.

I've had a much different experience e-formatting my Cold War spy novel, BLACK TRAFFIC, for upload to my website. I hadn't actually taken a close look at the book in over a year, so it came as a surprise to me how evocative, to my mind, the story-telling is, an era and a city that might as well be as distant and foreign as the Mexican Revolution, or postwar New York. It's time travel, but into living memory. The book takes place in Berlin, in the mid to late 60's, and I was in fact there. Much of BLACK TRAFFIC is based on my personal experience of both Berlin and the spook trade of the times. In other words, it's firsthand recollection, and the problem, often, wasn't a lack of specificity, but too much, an overwhelming flood of significant detail. How to pick and choose? Memory is a chancy thing, an unreliable guide to history. I found I second-guessed myself a lot, was such-and-such a thing for real, or something my subconscious overheard, a trick of the mind's eye? Authentic reconstruction is a false hope.

So what I was left with, after filtering out the generic and over-familiar, while keeping the untidy and simply bizarre---the story of the would-be U.S. defector to the Russians returning to West Berlin to feed his cat is based on fact, for example---was still an indigestible stew, underdone and lumpy, needing better seasoning and more time in the pot (which was true of the book as a whole), but in the end, I could only follow my own likes, and forgetting caution, there were a couple of things I cherished too much to discard.

Berlin had a soundtrack in those years, Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale." Actually, you heard it all over Europe in the spring and summer of '67, but I always associated it most closely with Berlin, and so did a lot of Berliners. It remains an anthem, even today, for that certain generation, both triumphal and melancholy. Why that particular theme song? I've got no idea. Germans can be a sentimental lot.

The other totemic association I have with Berlin is currywurst. All over town there were food stalls set up in the street, and wurst stands were the most popular. You got brats or a knock with potato salad and a hard roll, with a dab of mustard on the side, on a paper plate. The odder iteration was currywurst. Basically pork sausage slathered in ketchup mixed with curry powder, and served with French fries. An acquired taste, as you might imagine, but once acquired, not forgotten.

I saw a recent news article saying that landmarks which had been inaccessible when the Wall was up, the Brandenburg Gate, for instance, were now overrun with people, both native Berliners and a raft of tourists, and of course they were teeming with so-called Schnell-Imbiss, fast food. A new wrinkle is that they aren't even stalls, but guys with a hot-top rigged up to a shoulder harness, so they can work the crowd, and your wurst comes to you, not the other way around. Interestingly enough, this has generated some political controversy---not the serving method, but the perceived disrespect of public monuments. It's just part of the urban scene, in my opinion, but the politics of Left and Right in Germany often fixate on irrelevancies. The presence of all that cheap food is is seen as an insult to the historic significance of these symbolic places.

Germans are often accused of wanting to conveniently erase or reinvent the uglier passages of their own history, not just Hitler, say, but the Soviet occupation of the East, and the reinterpretations have a definite bias, Liberal or Conservative, depending on your sympathies. In other words, which history, and who appropriates it. Symbols mirror desired meanings, old wine in new bottles. It seems odd to me that currywurst has fallen afoul of politics and now wears a badge of dishonor, in some quarters. It's only sausage links and tomato paste, after all, and has no dog in the fight, so to speak. Then again, one man's relish is another man's distaste.

11 December 2012

The Dark Valley of Unpublished Stories

As I have mentioned in earlier postings, I have a few unpublished stories concealed in my trusty desk.  It's not important how many; we're not bean counters, right?  No, we're writers, artists of the highest order, sensitive people who see the world a little...oh, alright then, more than ten, but less than fifty.  How's that?  And yeah, a couple of novels stuck in a drawer somewhere.  You happy now?  Sheesh!

Sometimes, when I've run out of writing ideas, I take a little walk down memory lane and enter the valley of unpublished stories.  It's usually twilight in the valley and a little misty.  The path, overgrown and difficult to follow, threads its way through years of literary endeavor; an elephants' graveyard of lofty aspirations.  Here and there, nearly hidden in the undergrowth, headstones lean drunkenly, lichen covered and barely discernible.  Approaching with a mixture of dread and nostalgia, I wind my way through their titles: Anti-Intruder, Wisdom (I must have been channeling De Maupassant when I picked that title), Green Messiah, The Writer's Wife, The Book of Yaroes, etc...   All so young...so beautiful...and they never had a chance.  What a loss to the world, I cry.

Then, when I'm feeling especially foolish, I'll dig one up and flip through a few pages.  That's when I get the cold water in the face and couple of sharp, stinging slaps for good measure.  Not every time, mind you, but a lot.  So I get a little flushed and ask myself, "You did not submit this...did you?  What were you thinking?  Your writing sucks, dude!"  Said walk through the valley comes to a screeching halt and I get busy with the old shovel and spade.

They're not all bad, of course, and some show a little promise--some more than others.  But they all offer a few lessons in writing, as well as illustrating a little personal history.  It's a bit like thumbing through the high school year book--yeah, that's you alright...but not anymore, Sonny Jim, not anymore.  My choice of subjects is revealing in terms of where I was in my life at that time.  Happily, my efforts appear to improve as they march through the years.  Two reasons occur to me for this: Firstly, practice makes perfect--my craftsmanship improved with repetition, as well as a lot of trial and error.  Secondly, I hesitate to say I've grown wiser, but I've certainly matured since I began, and the writing shows it, I like to think.

One thing that I notice is that in the earliest stories I relied more on atmosphere and a sense of place than I do now.  They were more like walk-through paintings, murals, perhaps--action and dialogue were clearly aspects of story-telling with which I was less comfortable.  As the years passed it became evident that my confidence in those areas improved, though I still approach dialogue with trepidation--sometimes it flows well, and at others it's a struggle.  I hear that I am not alone in this.

Writing action sequences has become one of my favorite things to do now.  It seems the easiest to me, which is probably why I like it--you don't have much dialogue to worry about, the setting is generally already established, and it's a great way to reveal aspects of the characters without a lot of obvious narration. 

My stroll through the graveyard of stories reveals that I have almost consistently avoided use of first-person.  It seems that, from my earliest days as a writer, I have side-stepped this convention, in spite of the fact that some of my favorite stories are told in exactly this way.  I have no explanation for this.  Perhaps some psychological insight might be contained in this observation, if only I had the psychological insight to do so.  Writer, know thyself.  Or is it better not to?  Do we become too mannered the more self-aware and, possibly, self-conscious that we become?  Or is it liberating in the sense of making one comfortable enough, and confident enough, to make the most of one's own talent and experiences?  I am of two minds on this subject, as I am on so many when it comes to writing.  Mostly, I just want to write, and write real good, without having to work too hard at it or know myself uncomfortably well.  This seems funner to me.

But the revenants in the Valley of Unpublished Stories seem to say otherwise.  "Go thou from this vale of tears," they command.  "Go dwell in the sunlight amongst your progeny...and work, work, damn you, so that this sad place will have no further interments.  We are your victims, do not increase our number--even if it means that you work like a dog and have less time for drinking than you'd like!  Learn from us and never, ever, repeat the mistakes that brought us to this forsaken place.  And, oh yeah, on you way out close the gate behind you and pick up that candy wrapper--that wasn't here before."

I not only close the gate, I put a padlock on it.      


10 December 2012

Worse than Rejection

Sleuth Sayers have addressed the subject of rejection several times in the past.  It’s painful, and even the most successful authors have been (and are) rejected (and dejected) at times during their writing careers. 

Personally, I’ve been blessed with a fairly easy road to publication.  I began submitting magazine features while still in my teens, and most of them were accepted.  The ones that weren’t brought encouraging letters rather than form dismissals.  When I completed the first Callie Parrish mystery, I found an excellent New York agent who was able to place that book with the Berkley division of Penguin in a great deal with an advance and contract for two additional books, but I’ve recently begun writing and submitting an occasional short story.  Rejection HURTS!

             Rejection has been dealt with very well in SS, however, so today I’ll focus on an issue that’s just as excruciating at times—reviews.  My present publisher for the Callie books is wonderful, and the publisher of my pen-name efforts is almost as accommodating, but neither can protect me from that curse of the Internet—the occasional bad review.

Most of Callie’s reviews are and have been positive. She’s a little extreme, her vocation is unusual, and her friend Jane is atypical.  What this means is that most readers either like her or hate her and thankfully, those who hate her don’t usually bother to post reviews, but some do.  When I read the reviews from those who love Callie, I want to seek them out and give them all great big hugs.  When I’m interviewed on radio or television and the interrogators obviously like Callie, I want to take them home and cook them a fine southern dinner (and then hug them).

Recently, I Googled myself and read reviews going back to the first Callie in 2007.  Most of them made me think warm, fuzzy thoughts.  Those who bad-mouthed me, my writing, or my characters, did, however, create in me a strong urge for reaction. If the criticism was constructive, it made me consider changes. If not, it made me want to respond.  I don’t want to harm them, but I feel compelled to ANSWER them!

Prior to suggesting how to handle that feeling, I want to share two negative reviews with you as well as what I would say if I were foolish enough to try to answer them,

My favorite (or should I say least favorite?) bad review of all time:

I don’t read books about or by stupid, uneducated people. 

My response to that is, “Are you insulting the University of South Carolina where Callie received her BA in Education or me personally or the universities where I earned two Master’s degrees?”  Then I read the next part. 

I hated the first book, and I didn’t like the second one either (Hey Diddle, Diddle, the
Corpse & the Fiddle.) 

My reaction:  “If you hated the first one, why did you buy and/or read the second in the
 series?  If ‘stupid’ were a word I used, I’d say it describes those actions.”
The Reviewer

            My next least favorite review is over a page long and compares the Callie being reviewed to the second and third books in this series.  Actually, at that time, the new one was the third. (Gross error tends to discredit opinions.) It continues by saying that Jane feels entitled because she’s short, blonde and blind.  Jane is taller than Callie (5’4”) and a natural red head.  The only thing right in that sentence is that Jane is blind.  Callie talks too much. Callie books are first-person narrative.  If she doesn’t talk, there’s no book.  Same review says there are too many men in the series—Daddy, MANY brothers, TWO male bosses, and a former BF who is a Dr. @ the ER.  My response to that is to remind the reviewer that he/she (can’t tell from the initials) left out the sheriff, who is also male. Of course, the review mentions Callie’s use of “puh-leeze” and “ex-cuuze.”  I admit that was overdone in the first books, but I’ve toned it down recently. What I object to is that the reviewer accuses Callie of saying “looooooooooooooove” and a few other words that aren't stretched out in any Callie stories.

This same reviewer dislikes Callie barfing when she's frightened, then calls Callie a nauseating Southern belle.  The review closes with Get rid of Jane and the other problems in these books, and I might/could read another Callie Parrish mystery. 

How do I deal with a review like that?  Do I even want this person to read another Callie Parrish mystery?  I remember that I'm a professional and a lady.  I imagine myself purchasing  expensive linen stationery and responding through the mail in my finest cursive handwriting.  I've gone to great effort to locate the perfect clipart of that reply and you are welcomed to mentally mail this to anyone who deserves it.  Do remember that the message on this clip is directed ONLY to the above reviewer and not to other reviewers nor to SleuthSayer writers or readers.  Please scroll down to see that perfect clip.

Keep scrolling.

Keep scrolling.

Just a little more.

'Don't give up.

Keep scrolling.

Here it is:

09 December 2012

The Woo-Woo Farm

by Leigh Lundin

save your life

trim your tree

kangaroo down

get you sober

help leave him

extend vacation
This past week, I've been reading Elizabeth Zelvin's Death Will Save Your Life, one of her Bruce Kohler Death Will… series. Not having read Elizabeth before, I wasn't prepared for the fast, snappy, almost furiously funny story.

Let me put it this way— If you're aware the three main recurring characters– best friends– are either recovering alcoholics or co-dependents and you know the author is a very serious top flight New York psychotherapist, those preconceptions may set you up for, well, sober expectations. And you'd be wrong.

Published by booksBnimble, the feel is witty with an ambience between cosy and chick-lit, at least if the latter allowed male main characters. Originally intended to be a novel, the author slimmed, trimmed, and streamlined the tale to novella length, enhancing its bright and light drollery.

The story takes place in what New Yorkers call 'the country', meaning upstate at a new age retreat named the Aquarius Institute but referred to by the cynical as the Woo-Woo Farm. Yep, I side with the cynical.
Crystal Mary

We interrupt this programming with an aside. An acquaintance, Crystal Mary, would fit in well with the farm. To outsiders, she's a strident psychic feminist lesbian, a Premie, a believer in all things paranormal, and a psychosomatic practitioner of new-age healing. Friends worry when she follows guru Prem Rawat to India and Australia without seeing the sights and that she spends too much on phony gadgets to ward off nasal scoliosis and electrical appliance radiation burns. Privately, she enjoys art, collects beautiful healing crystals, and confesses lesbianism isn't sealed in stone. Mary would fit right in the Woo-Woo Farm.

Underlying the humor, the author's command of dialogue is superb, possibly a listening skill developed in her psychotherapist profession. Zelvin's dialogue is at its best when she does banter. I especially enjoy the patter between the main characters.

And those protagonists are fun. Bruce prays the vegetarians haven't screwed up breakfast and his friends advise him to take the line to the right– the left one is all veggie. Just my kind of people.

Bruce's friend Barbara talks a mile-a-minute while driving, oblivious to the outside world. She seems to glide among other characters like an Indian scout through a forest. She makes us smile when she criticizes another woman for her 'thin shiksa thighs'. Husband Jimmy is her anchor in a positive sense.

The book slips in a wide variety of conversational detours from flowers and foods to subtle references of kinkiness. And for the romance-minded, the story, er, lays a foundation for that too.

The author manages to murder two victims, both with remarkably unpleasant dispositions. This follows the tradition of cosies where we don't much mind liquidating odious characters. If it weren't that good people could be falsely indicted, we might be willing to give the murderer a pass.

The detective on the case, while not a bad guy, isn't exactly a fine fellow either. Of course being a good guy isn't his job, but he gets under the skins of our three intrepid sleuths.

There are a raft of suspects– literally. The baddie– well, can't tell you that except to say you wouldn't want to swim with this perpetrator.

I've offered Elizabeth my own title in the series: Death Will Get You Laid (to Rest) That oughta sell!

Rating: lots of stars. When you're up for a light, fast and funny read, pick up Death Will Save Your Life by Elizabeth Zelvin. It will make your day.

08 December 2012

Old Dogs and New Tricks

As usual, I've been reading almost as much as I've been writing, lately.  What's unusual is that in a few of the crime novels I've read, there are some new techniques--or at least seldom-used techniques--that caught my attention.

A reborn identity

The first "different" approach I'll mention was used by the late Salvatore Lombino--much better known by the pen names Evan Hunter and Ed McBain--in his novel Candyland.  Those who have read him know that the Evan Hunter name appears on his "literary" novels while Ed McBain writes police procedurals, notably those set in the fictional 87th Precinct of the fictional city of Isola.  In fact Lombino legally changed his name to Evan Hunter many years ago, although I would imagine the pseudonym Ed McBain is more familiar to the reading public.  (Genre writers are almost always better known than literary writers.)

Anyhow, the reason Candyland is unusual is that it's two different books in one.  Billed as a collaboration between the two authors, the first half is written by the more sophisticated Hunter and the second half is written by the crime writer McBain.  (It's as if there really were two different authors rather than the same person; both names are even listed on the book cover.)  Also interesting is that the situation introduced by Hunter is then turned into a tale of murder investigation by McBain.  The viewpoint in the first half is that of the killer, and the viewpoint in the second half is that of one of the homicide detectives.  An intriguing approach, and an entertaining novel.

Don't I know you from someplace?

Another (fairly) rare technique is bringing characters from different series together in the same book.  I know it's been done a number of times, but I've encountered it most recently in two novels by two of my favorite writers.

The Panther, a new book by Nelson DeMille, pairs the characters John Corey and Paul Brenner, both of whom were already known to DeMille fans as protagonists in some of his previous novels.  John Corey was the head fred in DeMille's Plum IslandThe Lion's GameNight FallWild FireThe Lion, etc., and Paul Brenner was the hero of the novel Up Country.  Corey and his wife Kate Mayfield are the main players in The Panther, but Brenner is onscreen for most of the book as well.  As with all series characters, it was fun to meet them again, and also to see how they (when thrown together in the same cage) reacted to each other.

Robert B. Parker did the same kind of thing, occasionally teaming up folks from his three series starring Spenser, Jesse Stone, and Sunny Randall.  In the novel Blue Screen, two of the three series protags even become romantically involved (no, it's not Spenser and Stone), and Parker regularly interchanged minor characters like Rita Fiore, Martin Quirk, and Vinnie Morris.  Again, whenever that happens, and readers discover unexpected but familiar faces, it's fun.  It's like running into old friends while on a faraway vacation.

A Grisham switchum

I'd also like to mention a recent novel by John Grisham, an author I would describe as extremely talented but not extremely innovative. Grisham seems to know what works for him and sticks to it. Except for the occasional lighthearted project (Skipping Christmas) or sports theme (BleachersPlaying for PizzaCalico Joe), the only time I've seen him stray very far afield was with A Painted House, which is a literary, Southern, coming-of-age novel told from the viewpoint of a seven-year-old boy.

But in his latest, The Racketeer, he does some things I haven't seen him do before, stylewise, like mixing present and past tense, and writing some chapters in first person and others in third person.  He even writes the first-person sections in the POV of an imprisoned African-American lawyer.  I can't say it'll be a great story--I only just started it--but it looks pretty good so far.

Hey, Mom, watch this . . .

The kinds of things I've described above are merely different literary approaches, not so-called experimental writing.  Experimental, to me, means something like stream-of-conscienceness, or putting all dialogue in italics, or using second-person plural POV, or omitting all quotation marks, or writing the whole story or novel without using the letter "n."  That kind of writing I don't usually enjoy; I think that's just being different for the sake of being different.  (On the other hand, Cormac McCarthy has been known to employ some pretty wild techniques, and he's an author I like a lot.)

How do you feel about "pushing the envelope" in terms of writing style or other literary devices? Have you done that, in past novels or stories?  Would you consider it, for future projects?  Do you enjoy reading fiction that uses new and different writing techniques and approaches?

Since I don't consider myself particularly innovative or adventurous, I was surprised to find myself enjoying most of these recently-read books I've mentioned.  Who knows, maybe I've learned from them.  Maybe one day I'll try something different myself.

And maybe not.

BREAKING NEWS: The winner of last week's drawing is C.S. Poulsen, who will choose either Death Will Get You Sober (hardcover), the first in Elizabeth Zelvin's mystery series, or her brand new e-novella, Death Will Save Your Life.  Congrats to C.S.!

07 December 2012

Tradecraft: Surveillance 101

At some point in your life, you've probably wished you could follow a person to see where he or she was going, maybe find out more about them. It could have been a loved one you suddenly had reason to mistrust, or it could have been an errant child you feared was running with a bad crowd and about to get into trouble. Or perhaps it was merely a whim on your part concerning a stranger who suddenly piqued your curiosity by something he did. Of course if you're a writer, you can always fall back on the excuse that you were simply conducting research to make your latest story seem more real.

It makes no difference to me what your reasons are. For twenty-five years, I conducted surveillance on bad guys from on foot, in moving vehicles, from airplanes and helicopters, from blinds in the woods and from stationary positions such as adjacent buildings and undercover vans. Each method has its own procedures and its own reasons for use. Just know that this is an adrenaline filled activity, and if you try it, you'll find it's actually fun to do. In fact, I've put on a couple of surveillance workshops for one of the chapters of Mystery Writers of America, a Left Coast Crime Conference and repeat performances for the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. Amazingly, some civilians can be quite good at foot surveillance after only an hour briefing and then placed directly into a field exercise.

See how many of these celebrity authors ("rabbits") from the Denver Left Coast Crime Conference you recognize.
Roughly, here's some of the knowledge you need to know, a shortened version of what I teach civilians before forming them into teams to follow "rabbits" on foot in a downtown area or large shopping mall.

The first things to learn are what to wear and how to act. Wear only ordinary clothing for the area you'll be working in, nothing flashy or anything that will stand out. You want to become invisible or at least un-noticeable. Think for a minute, when you arrive at a big city hotel, the doorman opens the door for you. That's his job. He's in uniform. You thank him and go in. But, did you really take note of him? Could you pick him out in a lineup of other uniformed doormen? Probably not. You saw what you expected to see and soon dismissed any facial image. He blended in to the surroundings because he belonged there. That's what you want to do when you are following someone. Sometimes, it doesn't hurt to carry a backpack or shopping bag containing a rapid change of outside clothing and hats. Changing appearance helps keep you from becoming noticeable.

As for how to act, you act the way you're dressed. Do not draw attention to yourself, plus have a cover story as to who you are and why you are there just in case you are suddenly confronted by the one you're following or even by someone in the vicinity, such as a storekeeper or a security guard. At this point in the lecture, I usually tell my story about the Safeway Store Shootout in Kansas City. At the time, I was doing good surveillance on the parking lot from inside the store and had told a convincing tale to the store manager as to why I was lingering in the front of his store, right up until the guns came out. But, I've already related that little fun filled event in an earlier blog, so we'd best move on.

The best surveillance operatives are of average size and average looks. I know a six-foot tall lady of extreme intelligence and ivy-league background whom the CIA did not hire because of her height and good looks. They thought she would stand out in a crowd and therefore be too noticeable. Point in case, blend in as much as possible. Disappear, disappear, disappear, or at least become un-noticeable.

So now let's discuss what you want to learn or verify from your surveillance. This may determine how close you have to get to your subject. For instance, if you're looking for information leading to a divorce action, then your object of interest will probably be large, such as a meeting between subjects or a motel room being used. If you're looking for evidence against a stereo thief or shoplifter, then what you're watching for may be of medium size. However, if you're following a spy, then you may need to be on the outlook for small objects transferred in a handoff between two people or something picked up from a dead drop. Distance quickly becomes a factor.

The simplest form of moving surveillance is the One-Person Foot Surveillance, a tough way to operate because you are the only one out there, no team member to assist or rely on. Since one-person foot is usually conducted on the same side of the street and reasonably close to the subject in case he makes a sudden turn into a store or building, if you get burned by the subject or lose The Eyeball, then you are out of business for that day.

However, if your subject has a regular routine, you can usually come back the next day about the same time and pick up where you lost him and start following until you lose the subject again. Then come back on the following day and start from that point. Continue until you find his destination. That's how the Isrealis found out exactly in which town and house that Eichmann lived. This process helped them decide where and how to best take possession of him in order to spirit him out of that country.

The above info should be sufficient for a start on this topic. If it turns out there is enough interest, then I will continue in future blogs to cover the A B C Method of Team Surveillance, vehicle surveillance, other surveillance and the ever popular list of how the other side detects your surveillance. In the meantime, keep looking back over your shoulder. Who knows?

06 December 2012

Subtlety Is a Wrapped Sledgehammer

"In real life people don't bother about being too subtle, Mrs. Oliver," said the superintendent.  "They usually stick to arsenic because it's nice and handy to get hold of."
                                                                            — "Cards on the Table", Agatha Christie

Every once in a while someone asks me if I read up a lot on poisons to come up with new ways of killing people.  No, I don't.  I stick to what's nice and handy to get hold of.  I do this for a number of reasons:

First of all, I believe that most murders are done spontaneously, in the heat of passion, blind rage, or similar emotional storms, which means the killer uses what's at hand:  hands, scarves, blunt instruments, knives, guns, bathtubs, the occasional pond or car or equivalent.

Secondly, I set most of my murders in a small town, so even if murder is premeditated, it's hard to get high-tech stuff to kill people with.  Our local hardware store just doesn't carry the latest in James Bond type equipment.  (On the other hand, our drugstores have needles right out there where anyone can get them any time without any prescription, which still amazes me.)  Thus, antifreeze and ant killer are probably as high-tech as it gets.  Usually, our murderers still just shoot them, pound them, or drown them.

Most killers - no, let me change that - most criminals are not very bright.  They watch a lot of TV, which gives them many interesting ideas, but does not provide them the A to B's of things, and even if it did, they would ask, in the immortal words of Otto in "A Fish Called Wanda", "What was the middle part?"  Plus, they are easily distracted.  If you gave them a high-tech untraceable poison dart that could be administered from a distance via laser technology, there's a good chance they'd drop it on the way home and end up using a sledgehammer because it was handy.  Or they'd trade it for drugs and again use the sledgehammer.  If you told them they really need to be more subtle, they'd figure you meant to wrap the sledgehammer in duct tape or something.

So, in Laskin, South Dakota, people are shot, drowned, stabbed, smothered, strangled, run over, bludgeoned, and frozen to death.  Poison is indeed arsenic or antifreeze, or the occasional overdose of prescription medication.  Just call me an old-fashioned kind of girl.  But don't get me wrong - if I can come up with something new, I will!  :)

Latest news from the pen:  Donald Moeller, a child molester who kidnapped, raped, and murdered a nine year old girl back in 1990, was executed October 30th.  A number of inmates threw a party, and I'm told that the cheering could be heard all the way to the death chamber, where, just before they plunged the needle home, Mr. Moeller supposedly said, "That's my fan club."  He was wrong.  Some people saw this as horrible, horrible, more proof that inmates are basically violent, etc.  Personally, I saw it as totally predictable.  The one group all the inmates can/do look down on is child molesters.  And, if everyone would just be honest, they are encouraged to do so.  "They'll take care of him in the pen," is often said at conviction, knowing (without saying it) that that means beatings and gang rape and even murder.  So what did everyone expect?  Oh, and here's a no-brainer:  who let the inmates throw that party and didn't break it up? 

On the lighter side, my favorite line so far this year:  "It's not my fault I'm in here.  My baby mamma turned me in for dealing drugs because I cheated on her."  I'm not sure whether he's living in the Land of the Unconscious or floating down the Mighty River of Denial, but I do know he's got a lot of company.

05 December 2012

I'm Dreaming of a Black Orchid

Last week I mentioned that the Wolfe Pack was having their annual Black Orchid Banquet on Saturday in New York City.  One of the highlights of that event is always the announcement of the Black Orchid Novella Award.  Last year the winner was James Lincoln Warren and we published his acceptance speech here.

This year the winner happened to be, well, me.  "The Red Envelope" will be published in the July/August 2013 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  My acceptance speech is below.

I grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey, back when the city had a lovely old Carnegie Library.  But there was a problem: by the fifth grade I had used up the children's room, wrung it dry of everything I wanted to read.  And that was a problem because children were not allowed in the adult section.

So I would make guerilla raids down the narrow book-lined hallways that led to the cathedral-ceilinged main reading room, keenly aware that if I were caught the librarians would banish me back into exile with Dr. Seuss and Mary Poppins.

I quickly figured out that the best place to hide was the area directly behind the reference desk, because the librarians there seldom turned around.  That happened to be the mystery section.

And so it happened that among the first adult books I read were The Mother Hunt and Gambit. Of course over the years I read all of the Rex Stout corpus.  And reread it.

The results was that I became a lifelong mystery reader and a mystery writer as well.  Which brings us to tonight.  So I would like to start by thanking Rex Stout, without whom, as they say.

And I  want to thank the library staff in Plainfield, New Jersey.  I don't hold a grudge, you see.  I even became a librarian myself.

I want to thank the Wolfe Pack, and especially the awards committee, which has shown such excellent taste.

And my favorite editor, Linda Landrigan of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Linda, I believe three of my stories are waiting in your slushpile.

Also, the librarians and staff of Western Washington University, where I did my research.  "The Red Envelope" is set in Greenwich Village in 1958, so there was a lot to check up on.

I need to thank my first readers, last year's winner James Lincoln Warren, and R.T. Lawton.  Who knows?   Maybe he will be next year's winner.  Couldn't have done it without you guys.

Finally there's my wife, Terri Weiner, who puts up with my work even though she really prefers science fiction.  Thanks, honey.

And to all the rest of you, please keep reading mysteries.

04 December 2012

Growing the Language

Barney and Clyde, The Washington Post, December 1, 2012
Hear the sledges with the bells -
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells -
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.
                                      The Bells, First Stanza
                                      Edgar Allan Poe

America's present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration.
                                      Warren G. Harding

    So, you are doubtless wondering, what exactly does Edgar Allan Poe have in common with Warren G. Harding?  The italicized words set forth above are the clues – both “tintinnabulation” and “normalcy” basically did not exist until used by Poe and Harding, respectively.  Poe’s made up word, derived from the Latin word for "bell", tintinnabulum, entered the English language largely because it fit Poe’s pentameter.  Harding’s invention, or at the least popularization, of the word “normalcy” is predictably baser, deriving from the existing word “normality” and Harding’s political aspirations, which required a less high-falluting word to garner the support of the voting public. 

    These two words eventually gained entry to most dictionaries, but prior to besting that bar they were “sniglets.”  “Sniglet” is itself a made-up word, and one that, I will admit, I had not encountered until I heard a weatherman in Washington, D.C. use it several weeks ago.  A sniglet is defined (simply) by the Urban Dictionary as a word that should be in the dictionary but isn't.  The “should” part of this may be a bit generous – the word “irregardless,” for example, an illegitimate progeny of “regardless” and “irrespective,” qualifies as a sniglet and is used often.  At least for me it continues to grate.  (With apologies to my Tuesday partner in crime Mr. Dean, my wife and I had a law school professor who used to scratch through "irregardless" whenever it appeared in a paper or exam and write in the margin “this is only a word in New Jersey!”)

    As noted, “sniglet” is itself a "sniglet".  The word was invented by Richard Hall, a comedian and actor in the 1960s.  Hall published several books of sniglets and also, for a time, had a newspaper column devoted to these wannabe words.  While Hall coined the word sniglet, the concept was previously more broadly encompassed by the word “neologism,” which encompasses not only a newly coined word or phrase, but also a newly offered idea or theory.  Some skips and jumps through the internet reveal that neologisms or sniglets often make their assault into accepted speech from the springboard of literature.  Science Fiction, for example, has reportedly given us the then-new words “laser,” (Light Amplification through Stimulated Emissions of Radiation) in 1960, and “robotics” in 1941.  (Thank you, Mr. Asimov).  Other then-new additions to the language that sprang from literature include “nymphet,” from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, “Orwellian,” from the themes set forth in George Orwell’s 1984.  And as descriptive nouns we have a “Scrooge,” a “Pollyanna,” someone who is “Quixotic” as well as those who are “Sadistic,” (derived from the practices of the Marquis de Sade). 

    Commenting on the need for the English language to fluidly grow, Thomas Jefferson stated the following in an 1831 letter: 
I am no friend, therefore, to what is called Purism, but a   zealous one to the Neology . . . .    The new circumstance under which we are placed, call for new words, new phrases, and for the transfer of old words to new objects. An American dialect will therefore be formed; so will a West-Indian and Asiatic, as a Scotch and an Irish are already formed.

So, it is often we, the writers, who are either responsible for all of this or, at the very least, carry the ball by repeating, in dialog, that which we hear around us.  Print adds legitimacy.

    As we approach 2013 it is interesting to look at previously aspiring words and phrases that “passed their finals” and gained admittance  into the Merriam Webster Dictionary in 2012.  Newly legitimized words for 2012 include:
  • Man-cave
  • Sexting (Alexander Graham Bell must be rolling in his grave)
  • Earworm (denoting a song you can’t get out of your head)
  • Bucket List
  • Energy Drink
  • Aha Moment
  • Game Changer
  • F-Bomb (as in “Dropping the F-Bomb”)
  • Gastropub
  • Mash-up (Something created by combining items from two or more sources).
    Although writers can nudge the language in new directions, as the foregoing discussion and examples illustrate, there are some places that the language simply will not allow itself to go.  Thus, while Lewis Carroll is discussed prominently as a contributor of sniglets or neologisms, more often than not Carroll’s imagination proved too great for the more conservative tastes of evolving language.  No greater example of this exists than his poem Jabberwocky from Through the Looking Glass, composed almost completely of substantive words that are still aspiring to existence but never made it.
Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
  And the mome raths outgrabe.
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
  The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
  The frumious Bandersnatch!"
He took his vorpal sword in hand:
  Long time the manxome foe he sought --
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
  And stood awhile in thought.
And, as in uffish thought he stood,
  The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
  And burbled as it came!
One, two! One, two! And through and through
  The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
  He went galumphing back.
"And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
  Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!'
  He chortled in his joy.
`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
  And the mome raths outgrabe.

03 December 2012

Cure the Common Cold??

Jan Grape
Okay, I guess I really can't complain, I haven't had a cold in ages. Don't even remember the last time. I've made up for it by having a doozy. On Thanksgiving Day I went to the University of Texas football game where there were thousands and thousands of people. However, my interacting with people was limited to the people in the UT Club, courtesy of my sister and brother-in-law who are members. Then it was even more limited to the people who were partaking of the fabulous buffet. But there were still a large number of people any number of whom could have been sharing their cold germs. By last Saturday night, less than 48 hours later my throat was getting sore. Just a little mind you but by Sunday night the throat was raw and the head was stopped up. I had a couple of degrees of fever and felt what could only be described as yucky.
I doctored myself with all my home remedies, Airborne drinks, salt water gargle, sinus medicine, extra vitamin C and by Wednesday the fever was gone and the throat was better and I was on the recovery road. I didn't go out of the house for anything or anyone. Just rested and took care of me. On Thursday evening I needed to go help decorate for a charity event that I'd been involved in since last July. The event was scheduled for Friday, Nov. 30th and was to raise money for the Andy Roddick Foundation. Yes, that super tennis player who lives in Austin. His foundation is building tennis centers for school children and one of the locations is in a small town a few miles down the road from me, but it includes all the small towns and elementary schools in the Hill Country area. Our committee was decorating for a Casino Night Gala to be held in the Lakeside Pavilion in Marble Falls only five miles from my house.

We all worked Thursday evening and knew we need to be back at the pavilion by noon on Friday. On Thursday night late, I realized my cold had moved down to my chest. I wasn't coughing much but just enough to know I probably was losing ground. I ignored it all, could NOT not go help finish the decorations...this was a huge project. And we only had a small number of worker bees. On Friday afternoon I worked as late as I could then rushed home to rest for 15 minutes, then hopped up and dressed in my thirties gun moll best and head over to the gala. It looked fabulous.

We had hired a company who brings roulette, poker and blackjack tables, slot machines and a craps table with all the equipment and dealers and pit bosses needed. We had a silent auction going on with some wonderful items donated for people to bid on and door prizes and donated food and drinks including alcohol. One of our major features besides the gambling was the wonderful musician/singer/songwriter john Arthur martinez and his fantastic Tex-Americana-Mexican-Bluegrass Band. john came in second at the Nashville Star TV show a few years ago. Miranda Lambert, a big country star married recently to another big star, Blake Shelton, came in third. So that lets you know what good company he was in. The winner was a guy named Buddy Jewel.

I helped at the sign-in table taking tickets, greeting the close to two hundred people who attended the $100 per ticket crowd. The tickets included a gaming chip worth $10,000 (only at this event not at any place else.) Then the chips you won you traded in at the end of the evening for tickets which  then were drawn for prizes. The ticket also included all the food and drink, you could also dance or listen to the music, visit with people and bid on the silent auction items, all of which were great items. I made two lovely baskets with copies of my books, 2 small bottles of wine, a package of hot chocolate, a sack of chocolate gold coins and a purple Christmas ornament and donated those for the auction. I also did something this group had never heard of, but authors do it a mystery conventions all the time. I auctioned the right to be named a character in my work in progress. It was a hit and we got a nice price for it.

By the end of the night however I was exhausted and my cold was dragging me down. Still no fever or cough so am hoping I didn't share. I stayed afterwards, helping clean up for as long as I could, and happy because our event was a success and everyone had a good time. Got home and went to bed and stayed there for twelve hours. Didn't sleep solid that  time but slept as much as I could and got some needed rest.

Yet my cold is still with me, I tried not to share it with anyone all week so am still hoping I'll get better soon. I got some new medicine and a refill of another one today. BUT why oh why can't someone come up with a cure for the common cold? Maybe some company needs to offer a ten million dollar prize to the person who cures the cold. If I were rich I'd offer it. If I were a scientist I'd go for it. Until then, try to stay away from germs...they are unhealthy.

ONE FINAL BIG NOTE: Congratulations to our own Robert Lopresti for winning the 2012 Black Orchid's Novella award. Way to go, Rob!!

02 December 2012

Crime History– Archibald McCafferty

Losing a child affects parents in a myriad of terrible ways, some damaged worse than others. This is a story about one of them.
The birth of a son was one of the few gentle things in the life of Archibald Beattie McCafferty, a 24-year-old Scottish-born Australian with an extensive criminal sheet. McCafferty's marriage to Janice Redington lasted a scant six weeks, just long enough for her to fall pregnant. One evening, she fell asleep nursing her infant and awoke to the horror she'd accidentally smothered her own child.

Then things turned worse, far worse.

In and out of mental and correctional institutions, Archie McCafferty wasn't firmly seated to begin with, but the death of his baby unhinged his teetering mental balance. More than ever, he embraced drugs and drink. Combined with grief, they may explain his 'vision' seeing his son hovering above the child's grave. In his hallucination, his son told him he could be brought back to life if McCafferty killed seven victims.
first murder scene
first murder scene

Se7en Incarnate

McCafferty had forged a Fagin-like bond with a 26-year-old woman and four teens, a relationship that involved alcohol, dope, and thievery. He described his son's visitation to them and demanded their assistance in carrying out his gruesome intentions. They acted immediately.

The first victim they choked, beat and stabbed in a bar's back alley before they came up with a better plan. Posing as hitchhikers in the rain, the teens rounded up and shot two more victims, wrongly described as tramps. The car they seized from the third victim ran out of gasoline, forcing the gang to postpone the final kills until the following night. That delay saved lives.

One of the teens didn't trust McCafferty and he sensed McCafferty didn't trust him. Rightly fearing he'd become one of the seven victims, Rick Webster nervously returned to work at the Sydney Morning Herald. Glancing out a window, he spotted his fellow gang members waiting in a van. He correctly guessed they intended to kill him as soon as he stepped into the street.

Certain he couldn't leave the building alive, Webster phoned police and asked for an investigator to come to the newspaper office. When detectives grasped what Webster was telling them, they called in a team that swooped in and arrested the entire gang. Without question, Webster's call saved McCafferty's wife and her family.

In court, the news media compared the case to the Charles Manson gang. Throughout, McCafferty had to be drugged with a quadruple dose of tranquilizers. Candidly telling the court he'd kill until he reached seven victims, he was sentenced to three life terms.


Only 26-year-old Carol Howes escaped a guilty verdict. The four teens were sentenced to prison. Gang member Julie Todd hanged herself days after her 17th birthday.

in court
in court
McCafferty proved to be the hardest criminal in Australia's penal system. He was convicted of murdering another prisoner and, as part of an internal 'murder squad', may have been involved with three other deaths. Interestingly, he denied killing the inmate, but a disbelieving judge sentenced him to an additional fourteen years.

Over time, his rage seemed to abate. McCafferty gave testimony about corrupt prison officials and other criminals. Eventually, wardens moved him from a maximum security prison to a minimum security farm. He was admitted to a work release program and allowed him to spend weekends with his brother's family. A judge agreed to consider him for parole.

Meanwhile, parole officials discovered a legal wrinkle. When McCafferty's parents brought young Archie to Australia as a child, the proper paperwork for citizenship hadn't been taken care of. Technically, McCafferty was still a British subject, meaning the state could make him someone else's problem.

Escape the Past

McCafferty today
McCafferty today
Upon parole, authorities put him on a plane bound for Scotland along with his jailhouse bride, Mandy Queen. McCafferty changed his name to James Lok, whereupon he found work as a painter and then a toymaker. Against all odds, the marriage lasted– he'd become a family man. As far as Australia was concerned, the case was closed. And so it seemed for more than two decades.

Twenty-five years after he landed in Scotland, he again fell under the influence of alcohol. After a drinking and driving binge, he threatened his wife and police. That was peaceably resolved.

On a trip to New Zealand, authorities arrested and deported him for failing to declare his criminal past. But, when all is said and done, McCafferty, one of the more feared of killers, kept up his end of the parole bargain better than expected.

That Manson Label

Manson's motivations embody pure evil, self-serving to the extreme. His followers long repented and, harmless if not toothless, should be released. But Manson– I can't imagine him other than the self-created monster of malevolence, incapable of interacting with society in a rĂ´le other than predator.

McCafferty isn't anything close. Although branded as Australia's Charles Manson, the label doesn't fit. We can at least understand the sorrow and pain that drove the man. And, McCafferty made great efforts to turn his life around. Life's imperfect, but he, his wife Mandy, and the court system deserve high marks.

01 December 2012

Authors Who Blow My Mind: Michael Gruber

by Elizabeth Zelvin

SleuthSayers Monthly Giveaway: It's my turn to play elf and conduct a drawing for a copy of Death Will Get You Sober, first in my series of mysteries featuring recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler and his friends OR a copy of my brand new e-novella, DEATH WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE. To enter: leave a comment on today's post any time this week and check back next Saturday (above John Floyd's post) to see if you're the winner.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about readers in my years in the mystery community, it’s that every individual’s taste is different. You may hate the books I love, and vice versa. My own husband and I are yin and yang in this regard. Even within the narrow range of books that we may both pick up—a certain kind of high-quality historical or fantasy fiction—I get bored if the battles go on too long, while he gets bored if the relationships and feelings go on too long. (Same with movies, but that’s another story.) This is the first of what may turn into several posts about authors on my personal list.

Michael Gruber is usually referred to as a thriller writer, but he isn’t highly visible in the crime fiction world, although his last book, The Good Son, was short-listed for the 2011 CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger award in the UK. His best work has in abundance what I consider the three essential elements of great novel writing: storytelling, writing, and characterization. My favorite is The Book of Air and Shadows (2007). I’d call it literary crime fiction in the best way. There’s an element of caper, and it’s certainly a whodunit.

The McGuffin is a completely unknown Shakespeare manuscript, a play about Mary Queen of Scots. The plot is twisty and clever, and the tension never lets up. The writing is superb, and the characters are vivid, complicated, and memorable. Then there’s voice, that mysterious element of the writer’s craft that distinguishes a master. The voice is delectable; it puts a big grin on my face page after page. He treats the reader to a literate sentence filled with educated vocabulary and felicitous turns of phrase—and then pop in a zinger, some colloquial term or trendy reference, to remind us that we’re in the real world and not some ivory tower. Or sometimes he’ll drop an apposite apple reference into a grove of oranges at just the right moment.

Here’s an example. Jake, one of the protagonists, is talking about a literary forger who almost got away with faking a new bad quarto (don’t ask) of Hamlet.

“And it might have become part of the critical canon had not L.H. Pascoe delighted in delicious young fellows with smoky eyes and pouting lips, and having such a taste, not promised one of these a trip to Cap d’Antibes, and a new wardrobe with it, and having so promised, not reneged, causing the young fellow, naturally enough, to drop a dime on his patron.”

The whole passage is delicious, but it’s that “drop a dime” that makes it sublime.

Here’s another, as Jake describes what started as an ordinary day in the practice of intellectual property law.

“Quiet meetings, billable hours, the marshaling of expertise, and the delicate suggestion that lawsuits in this business are largely a waste of time, for Chinese piracy of rock album cover images is an unavoidable cost of doing business in our fallen world.”

The zinger in this sentence is “fallen world,” a reference, if I’m not mistaken, from born-again Christianity.

I’m not a big fan of explicit sex scenes, but I don’t mind Gruber’s, because his descriptions are so perfect. Here’s the end of one such passage.

“In the end she made a sharp single cry, like a small dog hit by traffic. Then she rolled over without a word and seemed to go to sleep, in the manner of a guy married for years.”

Believe me, those monkeys with the typewriters could not come up with lines like these, not in a million years. And while he’s writing up a storm and entertaining the reader with this fantastic voice, he’s unrolling the twisty, twisty plot, keeping that feather in the air by blowing it steadily and gently.

This Gruber is a very, very smart guy. I don’t know anybody who does multiple points of view with such panache. In The Book of Air and Shadows, his fictional 17th-century character (the protagonist of the manuscript within a manuscript) describes the unknown play in such a way that you can tell it could have been written by Shakespeare at the height of his powers. The playwright’s commission is to make Mary Queen of Scots a sympathetic character and make Queen Elizabeth look bad. Instead, he shows the nuances and ambiguities of both women’s characters. The character telling us about it thinks this is a bad thing, while the author knows that the 21st century reader will think it’s a good thing. In short, it’s the sneakiness of a master storyteller.

I could go on. This is the kind of read that makes me want to say, “Listen to this!” But instead, I’ll say, “Read the book.” And read the rest of Gruber’s work, especially The Good Son, which engages our sympathies with a terrorist, no mean feat, and the Jimmy Paz trilogy, hardboiled detective stories with a little magic, and all in that gorgeous and hilarious prose.