14 January 2013


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now that is doubt with a capital D.

13 January 2013

Professional Tips – John Lutz

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

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

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

Carving a Place for Himself

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

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

Nudge, Nudger

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

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

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

John Lutz's Top Ten Tips

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

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

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

12 January 2013

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

by Elizabeth Zelvin

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

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

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

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

And this morning, I did it again.

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

11 January 2013

The Silence of the Animals

by Dixon Hill

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

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

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

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

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

What does this have to do with writing?

Perhaps nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I guessed they'd seen a sidearm before.

But, maybe I was wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, it didn't leave.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They asked which way it had gone, and pointed.

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 January 2013

Hello, My Lovely

by Robert Lopresti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

08 January 2013

What's In A Name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

07 January 2013

New Project For a New Year


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

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

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

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

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

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


A Callie Parrish Mystery

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

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

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

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

06 January 2013

A Hemingway Punchline

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

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

Colorful Clout

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

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

A Matter of Colour

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

05 January 2013

Problems and (Re)Solutions

by John M. Floyd

Since everybody around me seems to be talking about New Years's resolutions, I figured I should make a few.  Not the kind that one usually makes, though--we all know we won't really stop eating jelly doughnuts or get to every meeting on time or do three miles on the treadmill every morning.  My resolutions will be on the literary front, and therefore might stand a better chance of success.  (For some reason I seem to take my writing more seriously than other things, and I'm certainly more organized there than in the rest of my life.)  Besides, I needed something to put in my column for today.

Without further ado, here are my resolutions for 2013:

1.  Use fewer cliches.  Cliches are slippery little creatures, and often manage to sneak their way into my stories without my ever noticing them.  I realize they're tiring and amateurish and distracting, and I'm quick to spot and criticize them when I see them in the writing of others, but somehow I remain guilty of using them myself.  As a southerner, I can't seem to speak for two minutes without using a few cliches--I grew up with them.  As a writer, though, I should know by now that they have no place in good fiction, unless maybe as a part of dialogue.  Or unless you can change them around enough to make them original.  (To quote Mork from Ork, "You've buttered your bread, and now you'll have to lie in it.")

2.  Don't use passive voice.  This is one of my biggest faults, probably because I once did some technical writing, where passive voice works just fine.  In fiction, however, saying something like "the ball was hit by the boy" is not only dull, it's as backward-sounding as Yoda saying, "Down your weapons put."  I hereby resolve to try to write more sentences that have their subjects and verbs in the correct order.

3.  Put in more character development.  I know what you're thinking.  This is a basic rule of fiction, right?  Of course it is--your characters must be believable and interesting and "deep" enough that readers will care for and/or relate to them, and I think I do a fair job of that in most of my stories.  But I have to work at it.  My favorite kind of writing is dialogue and action scenes, and as a result, most of my characters' traits are revealed via what they do or what they say or what others say about them.  When description and exposition are needed as well, that doesn't come easy for me.

4.  Don't overuse pet phrases.  All of us have little sayings that we like to use, in our fiction.  Maybe your characters like to squint into the distance or impatiently drum their fingers on the tabletop.  Such things are fine when mentioned occasionally--they're part of a writer's voice, sort of like Lee Child's frequent use of the phrase "Reacher said nothing."  On the other hand, their verbatim overuse can be irritating.  I was unaware that I have so many "pets" until I prepared the manuscript for my first collection of short mystery stories several years ago--and found that certain phrases showed up a lot in my grouped stories.  Even some words (blink, turn, stare, sigh, pause) were repeated way too often.  Since then I've tried to prevent that, but--like cliches--pet words and phrases enjoy scooting in under the fence when I'm not watching.

5.  Don't use too many commas and semicolons.  I'm one of those people who like commas and semicolons, and for some time now I've been trying to cut back.  Why?  Well, I've finally come to the conclusion that any commas that aren't absolutely necessary to either grammar or clarity are no more than speedbumps that slow the reader down, and as a writer I want my story's path to be as smooth and uncluttered as possible.  As for semicolons, they feel a little too stiff and formal for my kind of fiction writing.  I still use them now and then because they're so good at their main function: to separate complete sentences that are too closely related to need the long pause provided by a period.  But I'm trying to weed out as many as possible.  I once heard that using too many semicolons can make you an embarrassment to family and friends, and my cliches are already embarrassing enough.

6.  Read more literary novels.  When I do, I usually find that I like and admire them.  (The Shipping News, Daniel Martin, Beach Music, The Cider House Rules, etc.) but I confess that I don't actively seek them out.  I'm just one of those folks who'd rather spend a few hours with Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief than with Schindler and his List.  Sincere apologies to my more learned relatives and colleagues.

There.  Those are my resolutions for this year.  The truth is, if I follow through with them, I'll probably be a better writer.  The question is, can--or will--I do it?  Maybe so, now that I've written them down.  And maybe, like a southern lady I once read about, I'll just think about it later.

Right now I need a jelly doughnut.

04 January 2013

Tsagaan Sar

Our traditional New Year has come and gone. Some of us sat at home watching celebrations from various parts of the globe on TV and tried to keep our eyes open long enough for the clock to say it was midnight somewhere and that a new year had rolled in. Others, no doubt, went to parties and celebrated this year's turnover to the next with friends, libation, snacks and loud noise making. Either way, the past was hopefully behind us and we looked forward to a good future. New Year's resolutions were probably made with the best of intentions and then sometimes broken before the week was out. And that pretty much covered most of the Western World as we know it.

Musician with Horse Head Fiddle
On the other side of Mother Earth, in the vast northern steppes of Asia, is an ancient celebration continued on into present times for their new year. For centuries, the Mongols have gathered in large groups to sing, eat, dance and drink to celebrate an occasion known to them as Tsagaan Sar, or the white moon, the first day of their new year. One of their biggest festivals, it comes during January or February, and is celebrated two months after the first new moon following the winter solstice.

At these large gatherings, small bands of people see relatives again after long absences and also meet other Mongols they had not previously known. Many times, a celebrant met his or her future spouse at one of the Tsagaan Sar celebrations. The traditional greeting at this festival can be roughly translated as "Are you rested?" [NOTE: In the old days, if I were resting on New Year's Day, it was probably because I had been over-served, but then that has been Western tradition.]

Days in advance, the women prepare buuz, a dumpling stuffed with minced beef or minced mutton seasoned with salt and onion or garlic. Some flavor their's with rice or cabbage or various herbs according to personal tastes. The dumplings are then frozen until ready for eating, at which time they are steamed. Other dishes eaten are dairy products, rice with curds or raisins, a grilled side of sheep and a large platter filled with traditional cookies formed into a mountain or pyramid. Airag, fermented mare's milk, is served and gifts are exchanged.

The Communist government once banned Tsagaan Sar and tried to replace it with a Collective Herder's Day, but after the 1990 Democratic Revolution in Mongolia, the Mongols returned to their old holiday and they still celebrate it today.

A Ger, or traditional Mongol residence
Bituun, the name for their day prior to the new year day, is a time for cleaning around the home and for herders to clean their livestock buildings in order to have a clean start. This day is also a time for the immediate family to be together before the large celebration of Tsagaan Sar begins. Candles are burned and three pieces of ice are placed near the doorway so that the horse of the deity who visits each household that night can have something to drink. All old issues for the Mongols are settled and all debts for the year repaid by this day, so as to start out the new year with a clean slate.

My reason for researching the Mongols was that early on I had inserted a little Nogai boy into my Armenian series as a piece of local flavor for some of the many peoples residing on the steppes along the Terek River during the mid-1800's. Then later at a breakfast with my editor in NYC one April, I happened to ask if there was anything she would like to see in my future writing. She immediately replied, "Yes, a story from the POV of the little Nogai boy." Prior to that, the kid only had a few lines of narrative at best in any of the stories. Now, he had to have his own story. Much research soon followed.

SHORT HISTORY: After the death of Genghis Khan, the Mongols separated into two groups: the greater horde also known as the Golden Horde, and the lesser horde also known as the Nogai Horde which carried the name of their general. Now you know where the name Nogai came from.

Anyway, this once-minor character, the little Nogai boy, soon ended up with his own story. Being an orphan on the frontier, he needed to be tough, so I named him Timur, the old Turkish word for iron. The editor bought this story and it became a Derringer Nominee in 2011. Well, there's your history lesson on Mongol culture and one of the characters in my Armenian series.

Hope all of you have an excellent and prosperous new year.

03 January 2013


We all have our little interests in life.  Mine is cult-shops and apocalypses.  I am to them as the Mentalist is to psychics.  I love to hear about them, read about them, and laugh my head off at them.  Every "Apocalypse" show has me riveted as I watch previously ordinary people succumb to fear and greed, stocking up on ammunition, food, water, and miscellaneous crap in underground cells in order to live through the next mutation.  Classic. 
Some of this is because I grew up in southern California, where it seemed like every cult in the world bloomed, flourished, and spread crazy ideas like wildfire.  1970 was the prime year, if I remember right (which I may not; like so many of my contemporaries, I enjoyed the hell out of the 60s and early 70s):  the very first Church of Scientology and the first Hare Krishna temple opened up in Hollywood, and began what would be an amazing rise for the one and a near disappearance for the other.  (At the time, you wouldn't have bet that way, because the Hare Krishnas offered free food daily - which meant huge crowds showed up - while the Scientologists charged - which meant attendance was minimal. I guess it proves that if you want to last, you'd better charge - heads up, Internet!) We also had Jesus Freaks, Moonies, Children of God, the Urantia Foundation, Wicca, Satanists, Rosicrucians, and innumerable independent cult-shops that ranged from worshiping aliens, drugs, sex, the leader, and/or all of the above.  And - very rare - the occasional really weird one that seemed to actually practice something like peace, love and tolerance. 

Apocalypses fit into the whole cult mentality very well, of course.  Both are based on fear and exclusion:  if you don't join, you will be lost, perhaps even die.  If you do join, you will be among the lucky few who will survive, thrive, and start a new heaven on earth, either all by yourself in your hard-won enclave (battling zombies and orcs with your endless supply of weapons), or in a loving cocoon of community that will always nurture, love, and support you, until you piss the leader off.  

Anyway, here are some of my favorites from the Apocalyptic hit parade:

Y2K, the Steampunk edition - I could sort of understand when they said that payrolls and Social Security checks would get all screwed up.  But when they said that our coffee machines would roll over to January 1, 1900, and quit working because somehow the machine would know that that was before modern electricity...  then I knew we had launched into crazy land.

By the way, remember all the ads on TV for Y2K?  the see-in-the-dark-tape to let you find your telephone?  The places you could order your Y2K supplies?  100 pound tins of whole wheat?  Gold coins?  And all those people who set up in bunkers in the desert?  Did any of them ever come out?

I'll Figure This Out Sooner or Later, or The End of the World Keeps Changing -   In 1844, William Miller - founder of the Seventh Day Adventists - predicted the end of the world and the Second Advent of Jesus Christ for March 21, 1844.  Didn't happen. Changed it to April 18, 1844.  Didn't happen.  Then October 22, 1844.  Still didn't happen.  Now, Mr. Miller wasn't the only man to predict the end of the world and then change the date, multiple times:  So did Cotton Mather (multiple 1700's), Herbert W. Armstrong (1936, 1943, 1972, and 1975), Harold Camping (September 16, 1994, May 21, 2011, and October 21, 2011), Ronald Weinland (September 29, 2011, May 27, 2012), and many, many others.  (To be fair, Mr. Weinland was in the process of being tried and convicted for tax evasion, so he might have seen this as his way out of a jail cell.)  I understand their thinking, if at first you don't succeed, change the date:  what I don't understand is the followers, who are just as fervent believers the second/third/fourth time. 

The Planets are Coming!  The Planets are Coming!  Or, Planetary Alignments are Going to Destroy Us All:  the earliest prediction I found was (thanks, Wikipedia!) was that of Johannes Stoffler, who in the 1500's said that an alignment of all the planets in Pisces would wipe us all out on February 20, 1524 (didn't happen, so he changed it to 1528).  Jeanne Dixon - who in the 1960's was America's Favorite Psychic - said that the alignment would come on February 4, 1962; and the 1974 book "The Jupiter Effect" warned about our threatening neighbor to the north - or whatever direction Jupiter is.  And of course we all remember that the whole universe was going to align along an inter-galactic fault-line on 12/21/12 that would tear the earth apart.  HINT:  The earth is always in alignment with something very large, very heavy, and very far away.  Get used to it.

Future Apocalypse Alert (again, thanks, Wikipedia!):

  • May 19, 2013 - Ronald Weinland is back, but this may be his get-out-of-jail card.
  • 2129 and 2280 - Two Muslim predictions of the end of the world by Said Nursi, a Sunni and Rashad Khalifa, respectively.  And, according to some Orthodox Jewish Talmudic scholars, you can split the difference, because D-date begins 2240.
  • The Year 10,000 - Yes, folks, some people are already getting nervous about the upcoming Year 10K problem - how are they going to get 5 digits in a 4 digit date-space?  (Repeat everything that was said about Y2K here.)  Before  you buy any more gold coins, however, two points:  (1) none of us are going to be around then and (2) come on, we can't even read 5 inch floppies from 1982. I don't think the Morlocks of 10,000 are going to be reading Huffington Post via pdf files... 
  • 500,000,000 – James Kasting says that, despite our best efforts, by this time the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will drop, making the Earth uninhabitable.  Keep driving?
  • 5,000,000,000 – the Sun will swell into  a red giant, and that’s it.  
I still prefer Red Dwarf.

02 January 2013

Being Resolute, Third Person

by Robert Lopresti

January 2 seems like a good day to make New Year's Resolutions.  Not for me of course.  If I got any closer to perfection I might be carried bodily off to heaven, and then poor David would have to blog every Wednesday.  But since it is better to give than to receive I have developed some resolutions for other people.  I hope they take them to heart.

Sherlock Holmes resolves to lay off the 7% solution.

Miss Marple resolves to patent her formula for removing bloodstains from hand-knitted woolens.

KInsey Milhone resolves to join the twenty-first century.

Jack Reacher resolves to buy a second pair of underpants.

John Dortmunder resolves to stick to the straight and narrow, as soon as he can steal a compass.

Doctor Watson resolves to write a piece for a medical journal about the curious case of his ever-moving wound.

The Black Widowers Club resolves to get through one damned meeting without investigating a mystery.

Nero Wolfe resolves not to work so hard, and to spend more time at home.

Perry Mason resolves to let the D.A win one for once.

Father Brown, Lieutenant Columbo, Parker, and Spenser all resolve to get first names.

Archie Goodwin resolves to memorize the address of the brownstone where he has been living for forty years.

Trompie Kramer and Mickey Zondi resolve to stay the hell away from Winnie Mandela.

Hawk, Win Horne Lockwood III, Joe Pike, and Snake resolve to form a Union of Sociopathic Sidekicks, and demand  better treatment.

The boys at the 87th Precinct resolve to make a list of all variations of  "The Deaf Man" in all romance languages, so they'll recognize his pseudonym if the bastard shows up again.

Professor Moriarity resolves to avoid chills, such as may be found on Alpine hills.

Sam Spade resolves not to play the sap for you.


01 January 2013

New Year's Day

The old order changeth, yielding place to new.
                                    Alfred Lord Tennyson
 The times, they are a-changin
                                    Bob Dylan
Things aren't the way they used to be.  And they never were.
                                    Lee Hays

    What better day to contemplate change than New Years, the day when many of us re-resolve and the world goes through its latest re-boot.  I tend to get a bit contemplative at this time of year, and it is not simply out of concern lest auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind.  It is also a recognition of how the world around us, with speedy abandon, sheds that which had been commonplace while rushing to embrace things that previously were the unimaginable.  Try to find a television set for sale today that is not a flat screen, go shopping in search of a package of VHS tapes, or an album on a cassette tape.  Remember when LP records disappeared from the stores?  It happened almost overnight.  And now the same thing may be happening with CDs and the whole concept of album music as musical appetites turn to downloads and individually created playlists.

Isaac Asimov
    While ruminating over all of this I recalled (dimly) a science fiction story that I read when I was an adolescent – so that would be about 50 years ago, probably in 1962.  The story was set in a future so remote that computers did all calculations and, as a result, the ability to solve simple math problems in one’s head became a lost art.  Well, apropos of the theme of all of this, all I had to do today to find that story, The Feeling of Power, written by Isaac Asimov and first published in 1957, was to run a simple Google search -- “science fiction doing math in your head.”  In Asimov’s story (readily available, of course, on line) one man manages to re-invent the ability to work out multiplication problems in his head.  At first there is disbelief among his contemporaries, but this eventually gives way to sheer awe. 
Nine times seven, thought Shuman with deep satisfaction, is sixty-three, and I don't need a computer to tell me so. The computer is in my own head.
And it was amazing the feeling of power that gave him.
     Asimov’s story is not as far-fetched as it at first seems.  A recent issue of Harvard Magazine comments on studies conducted by Dr. Daniel Wegner, Professor of Psychology at Harvard, that bear witness to Asimov’s conjectures of over 50 years ago.  What Wegner’s studies suggest is that search engines such as Google and Bing make obscure knowledge so readily available that we are remembering fewer and fewer facts on our own.  The reason for this is simple:  Like the contemporaries of Shuman in Asimov’s story there is, as a practical matter, no reason to clutter our minds with such things.  It is true that to write this article I had to remember that there was a relevant story written 50 years ago (and maybe, in that respect, I get closer to Shuman).  But finding the story, and then jumping to Dr. Wegner’s study, can all be done with a laptop and a good wifi connection, all in the comfort of my living room.

    Similarly, as Wegner’s study suggests, we tend no longer to memorize telephone numbers because they are stored on cell phones.  We are less likely to remember how to drive to a given address because we more and more depend on GPS to take care of that for us.  Such matters were previously either committed to our own memories or to the memories of others who we knew we could rely on for the phone number or the directions.  These latter situations, where we keep track of those who are, in turn, keeping track of factoids we may need, Wegner refers to as “transactive memory.”  The Harvard article explains this as follows:
[T]ransactive memory exists in many forms, as when a husband relies on his wife to remember a relative’s birthday. “[It is] this whole network of memory where you don’t have to remember everything in the world yourself,” he says. “You just have to remember who knows it.” Now computers and technology as well are becoming [the] virtual extensions of our memory.
And what we lose (can you hear Asimov chuckling in the background?) is the ability to accomplish these same tasks without depending on others, and now, on the computer.
    If you keep your eyes open you will see other examples of this same phenomenon.  One of the most apparent, it seems to me, results from the evolution of the cell phone.  With the advent of Apple and Android “smart phones” the telephone, a device previously used for spoken communication, has evolved into one predominantly used for internet access and message texting.  A recent New York Times story reports that the CTIA wireless industry association has found that the average number of voice minutes used per consumer in the U.S. has dropped, while the number of text messages sent per user has grown almost 50%. The report also notes  that data usage (e-mail, Internet browsing, streaming video, etc.) has also surpassed the amount of phone calls on a mobile phone made last year.  We purchased a new car last year, and among its bells and whistles is the ability to read incoming text messages to you as you drive.  And my Droid smart phone allows me to compose text messages by talking them into my phone.  So.  I talk to the phone, my voice becomes a text message, and the reply is spoken back to me by my car.  How would the Asimov story end?  Doubtless with someone coming up with the idea of actually speaking directly to someone using a phone.

    Another example:  An attorney who worked in the same office as me before I retired had an eight year old daughter who, according to the attorney, came home from school one day absolutely bubbling with news.  It turned out, she explained, that someone had brought the most amazing machine in for show and tell.  It was called a typewriter and, the girl explained eyes wide with incredulity, when you typed something onto it it printed the words out immediately, right there on the machine, without a printer or anything.  Yet another Asimov moment.

    Not all things left behind by the passage of time are completely lost.  It has been theorized, particularly in the arts, that each evolving mode of expression frees the previous mode from the need to speak to the public at large, thereby allowing it to be utilized more freely for artistic expression.  Thus, the theory goes, movies freed the theatre to become more of an art form, and color movies did the same thing for black and white films, allowing them to become a media of the artist.  And CDs did it for LPs, which are now in the midst of a mild artistic resurgence.  One wonders if there will be a similar effect on hard cover books once the revolution to e-books, seemingly well underway, claims the major market share toe hold.

    And then there are some things that float into the past not because they are outmoded, but for other reasons.  Fifty years ago, about the time I was reading that Asimov story, my grandfather used to talk to me about the days of his youth, when people traveled by horse drawn carriage.  I don’t as yet have grandchildren, though I am just about the age my grandfather was 50 years ago, in 1962.  What would I tell my grandchildren?  Why, you won’t believe this, kids, but back when I was young we walked on the moon.

    Good night Dr. Asimov, wherever you are.

    Happy New Year.