20 July 2013

Hiaasen on the Cake

I have an interesting, if not always accurate, theory. A two-part observation, actually. Country music singers seem to make good actors, and newspaper writers seem to make good novelists. Case in point: Miami Herald journalist and mystery author Carl Hiaasen.  (I won't get into examples of country singers/actors, but I still defend my theory.)

Another observation. Hiaasen has developed a pattern, with the titles of his books: most are two words each. Tourist SeasonDouble WhammySkin TightNative TongueStrip Tease, Stormy WeatherLucky YouSick PuppyBasket CaseSkinny DipNature GirlStar Island. His young-adult novels, oddly enough, feature one-word titles. HootFlushScatChomp.

I've read 'em all. I finished his latest, Bad Monkey, a few days ago. It's a delightful read, with a great setting and an intriguing plot. The location is, as usual, Florida, and this one's set in the Keys, which is even more fun. As for the plot, it's complex but believable, consisting of Medicare fraud, arson, drug trafficking, bribery, murder, and a host of other crimes, and makes for a suspenseful story.

But all that, as good as it is, is only icing on the cake. The main attraction of any Hiaasen novel, the reason most of his fans read him, is his quirky characters. No, make that outrageous characters. And yes, it doesn't hurt that they're residents of the Sunshine State--we already know from Leigh that most of the peninsula can be a loony bin. It's an extension of the old joke-theory that at one point the nation bowed up in the middle and all the loose nuts rolled to both coasts; in popular fiction, those on the east side seem to have rolled all the way down and collected in Florida.

The folks in the latest Hiaasen book remind me of those one might find in a Coen Brothers movie (Raising Arizona, maybe). Here's a sampling of the players in Bad Monkey:

Andrew Yancy -- Former police officer, demoted now to restaurant inspection duty (also known as roach patrol).

Dr. Rosa Campesino -- Miami coroner who yearns for more excitement in her life, probably because all her patients are deceased.

Bonnie Witt, a.k.a. Plover Chase -- sex-offender and fugitive from Tulsa; also Yancy's former (and sometimes current) love interest.

Evan Shook -- Hapless real-estate developer who's attempting to build a McMansion between Yancy's beach house and his cherished view of the ocean sunsets.

Nicky Strickland -- Ruthless killer and con artist, always wears an orange rain poncho. The discovery of his severed arm sets the novel's plot in motion.

Eve Strickland -- Nicky's plump, upscale, greedy, screwball wife.

Sonny Summers -- Lazy but opportunistic sheriff who busts Yancy from detective to roach inspector.

K. J. Claspers -- Freelance pilot who specializes in drug smuggling but isn't really out to get rich. He just loves to fly.

Johnny Mendez -- Retired Miami cop who made a fortune calling in tips about crimes that had already been solved.

Neville Stafford -- Island native engaged in a fight with corporate bullies who want to spoil his natural homeland (a recurring Hiaasen theme).

The Dragon Queen -- Deranged voodoo priestess who tricks Neville into selling her his "bad" monkey.

Cody Parish -- Scatterbrained, lovesick kid who fancies himself the Clyde in Bonnie Witt's criminal escapades.

Egg -- Bald, hulking henchman, real name Ecclestone. He's the Dragon Queen's boyfriend, and one of the book's worst (meaning "best") villains.

Caitlin Cox -- Nicky and Eve's daughter, and just as goofy and conniving as her parents.

John Wesley Weiderman -- Tough but sympathetic FBI agent who mistakenly figured his Key West assignment would be a vacation.

Driggs -- A demented, pipe-smoking, feces-flinging monkey who supposedly once starred with Johnny Depp in his pirate movies and has since suffered a reversal of fortune.

This is only some of the cast. How could a novel populated with characters like that not be fun?

In closing, let me say that I've always enjoyed reading humorous authors: Janet Evanovich, Christopher Buckley, Steve Martin, Charlaine Harris, Kinky Friedman, Douglas Adams, Tim Dorsey, Woody Allen--even Nelson DeMille, who writes novels with serious themes but includes something witty on almost every page. In my opinion, that kind of talent is a true gift.

Carl Hiaasen's one of the best.

19 July 2013

A Legend Gone Wrong

On Wednesday, July 10th, our David Edgerley Gates wrote his blog article about Legends, the deep cover for a spy who needs to appear as someone completely different from his actual being. In David's article, he brings up the premise of possibly reinventing "yourself in order to escape your personal history, to slough it off like a chrysalis, to create an entirely new identity, to become a different character, cast in an altogether different drama."

Which Reminds Me of a Story

I was quietly enjoying life after about ten years of retirement when the telephone rang at home on a nice spring day. By the simple act of answering the phone, I was dragged at least fifteen years back into the past. On the far end of this long distance call was an Assistant United States Attorney in the judicial district of my last Post of Duty. He wanted to know if I remembered a Mister X.

Of course I remembered X. I was the case agent who testified in grand jury about Mister X's trafficking in large quantities of illegal drugs. Most of us in law enforcement, both local and federal, were aware of X's business ever since he had taken an earlier fall on state drug charges, went on to do his time as required and then slid back into society. Naturally, he was more difficult to build a case against the second time around. Seems that during his leisure hours spent in stir he had learned some valuable lessons about survival and being more careful with his transactions. He also made some good criminal connections for his future.

Before trial on his federal charges came up, Mister X disappeared into thin air. No one talking to us seemed to know where he went. Therefore when I retired, Mister X's case remained an open file with him listed as a federal fugitive. Yep, one had gotten away from me. But, this call from the AUSA was about to change all that.

Back to David and His Article

"The problem being that the world around you  wouldn't change." "Putting on the clothes of concealment isn't safety." "The legend is a trap, an illusion of choice."

The Disillusion

According to the AUSA, Mister X had been arrested in the mountains of Venezuela where he was running a camp for tourists. It was a small camp with fewer than a dozen cabins. Mister X was posing as a German national, had a comfortable life, but by no means extravagant existence. The locals had accepted him for who he said he was and had done so for several years. So, what went wrong for him?

Back to David Again

"We become what we pretend, and fade into the background noise. The danger is that when we shed our skin, and grow a new one, older habits of mind have to be discarded as well." "Living a lie, we trust it to protect us. As the Russian proverb has it: 'If you play the sheep, you'll meet a wolf...' "

Old Habits

Knowing he might have legal situations again someday, Mister X had used his criminal connections to build himself a rabbit hole in advance. He'd set up a new identity in another country, with paperwork to go with it. The man had successfully acquired a legend. Problem was he couldn't let go of family ties.

Before he left the States, Mister X arranged a method of getting money to him, which would supplement his meager income, by using a cutout or middle man. His Mom, who owned a legit business, would send money every month to a trusted friend in Florida (the cutout). After receiving these monthly transfers, the trusted friend would then drive south to Miami and transfer the money to Venezuela. Supposedly only three people knew about the financial corridor. It should have been safe. But, as the Hells Angels say, "Three can keep a secret if two are dead."

The Wolf

The trusted friend in Florida had a girlfriend who also knew everything, the fugitive status, the financial corridor, the whole can of beans. But, all was well, the secret was kept, right up until the trusted friend and his girlfriend had a knock down fight one night and he threw her out of the house. As we all know, Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. In revenge, she went straight to the authorities and spilled the beans. The U.S. contacted Venezuela who soon descended upon Mister X and his legend was blown. Turns out for him, there were no hearings in Venezuela courts for extradition. Their Prez Hugo Chavez (before cancer got him), who did not like Americans to begin with, promptly threw Mister X out of the country without bothering about legal technicalities. When Mister X arrived on U.S. soil, he was immediately arrested.

The only saving grace to be said for Mister X is that he quickly took a plea bargain rather than go to trial. As part of the bargain, his dear old Mom would not be prosecuted for her part.

The Moral

Our David knows what he's talking about. If you are going to create a legend, a new life for yourself, then you not only have to become someone else, you also need to cut all ties to the old life, old habits as it were. One small slip can reveal your disguise. And, sometimes you have no control over who the slip comes from. You can run, but you had better really be good at it if you want to continue to hide.

18 July 2013

The Road to Damascus - or Somewhere...

Brian Thornton blogged a couple of weeks ago about the importance of both a strong plot and well-written characters.  Now I like certain characters straight up and traditional - Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Nero Wolfe, etc.  You learn more about them - Holmes' brother, Nero's daughter, Miss Marple's flirtation so deftly nipped in the bud by her mother - but the characters are there, fixed, sure and solid.  The down side is that they are done growing.  Luckily, I never tire of them as they are. 

But I also honor the authors who manage to transform their characters over time - who change and grow into something different than the person we first met.  They mature.  Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane both changed over the course of the 8 novels and 2 short stories Miss Sayers wrote.  The posh, flighty eccentric with a taste for flagrantly expensive, professionally beautiful women and old books became a man who wrestled - through his avocation - with his own PTSD and fell passionately in love with an intelligent woman whose main beauty was her voice.  And Harriet discovered self-esteem and freedom from her fear of a cage - both in marriage and in prison.

And then there are those who pull a 180, changing to their exact opposite to the point that it's unbelievable.  Except in real life, it happens all the time.

There are the obvious religious transformations, i.e., the roads to Damascus - Paul, Buddha, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius of Loyola, Abba Moses (old black guy, used to be a professional thief/murderer, became a hermit monk in the Wadi Natrun back 150 CE), etc. 

There are those who were knocked sideways by sorrow:

File:Ary Scheffer - Franz Liszt.jpg
Young Liszt, Brooding and Burning
File:Franz Liszt 1858.jpg
Liszt, Older and Mourning

Franz Liszt (1811-1886), the famous composer and pianist, and a formidable womanizer, lost his son and one of his daughters (by the Countess d'Agoult) in 1859 and 1862, respectively.  (NOTE:  His surviving daughter, Cosima, a musician in her own right, would marry first Hans von Bulow- does anyone know if he's an ancestor of Claus? - and then Richard Wagner.) He became a Franciscan, received the tonsure, took the four minor orders porter, lector, exorcist, acolyte, and from then on was known as Abbe Liszt.  His whole life style calmed down considerably, and he spent much of his time, outside of playing, in solitude and prayer.  

File:Liane de Pougy postcard.jpgLiane de Pougy (1869-1950) - infamous courtesan of La Belle Epoque, she ran through men at a merry clip, accumulating massive wealth and dominating the gossip columns along with her co-courtesans, La Belle Otero, et al.  She married the Romanian Prince Georges Ghika in 1910 and settled down.  But her son by a much earlier marriage(?) was killed in WWI, and she became a Dominican tertiary, devoting herself to the Asylum of Saint Agnes, which took care of children with birth defects.  A recent French biography of her has the subtitle "Courtesan, princess, saint..."  The last might be extravagant - I haven't read the biography - but her life definitely took a different turn.

Speaking of courtesans and such, there are many throughout history who decided that repentance became them.  Among my favorites are the rivals Louise de La Valliere and Francoise-Athenais, Marquise de Montespan:

File:Lely-Vallière-et-ses-enfants-Rennes.jpgFile:Francois-Athenais de Rochechouart.jpg
Louise de la Valliere and children on left; Athenais de Montespan on right

Louise was the first "maitresse en titre" of Louis XIV, bearing him four children, which was part of the problem.  Childbirth changed her fragile beauty and she was succeeded by her supposed best friend, Athenais, who held on to Louis' attention through seven pregnancies and innumerable side affairs (Louis never met a woman he didn't want to have, and, as king, he had most of them).  She was finally ousted from the royal bed by the combination of a huge scandal involving multiple poisonings - next time's blog alert! - and her own governess for HER royal bastards, Madame de Maintenon, who was trying to use God to embarrass the king into morality.  Louise retired to a strict Caremlite convent early in the game.  (My favorite part is that the abbess of this extremely strict convent agreed that Louise had already done much of her penance in court).  Interestingly, and entirely out of character, in old age, the almost heathen Athenais also turned to strict penance.  Louis and Maintenon were morganatically married, and Louis remained reasonably faithful (by now he was forty-five which, at the time, was definitely middle-aged) and, as always, convinced that he was God's favorite son.  (Louis would NOT be on the list of people who change over time.) 

There are also those who, apparently, get a burr in their butt, such as the Wanli Emperor (1563-1620).

File:明神宗.jpgThe Wanli Emperor came to the Dragon throne near the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).  He was 9 years old, but had an excellent chief minister who trained him well before dying when Wanli was 19.  The next 20 years were a golden age for China - Wanli was a vigorous, active, hands-on emperor who stopped attempted invasions by the Mongols, an attempt by Japan (under Hideyoshi) to take Korea, and a major internal rebellion.  China prospered.  And then - one day he stopped doing anything.  No meetings, no memorials, no signing things, nothing.  Government came to an absolute standstill until the day he died.  Why?  We don't know.  There are two possibilities given by most historians:
(1) he decided to spend the rest of his reign building up his wealth and his tomb, thus he had no time for work.
(2) he was angry because he wanted one of his sons by his concubine, Lady Zheng, to be the next crown prince, and strict court etiquette demanded that the office be passed to his son by his Empress (the future Taiching Emperor), thus bringing government to a halt was his revenge. 
Personally, I don't know that either of these pass muster.  I mean, for a while, but for 20 years?  What would explain something like that?  Depression?  Addiction?  A combination of both?  In any case, with government at a standstill, China floundered, and the last few emperors couldn't get it back.  The Wanli Emperor's dereliction of duty was one of the major reasons why the Ming Dynasty fell 24 years later to the Manchus. 

And there are those who appear to really grow and CHANGE:

Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821-1877) enlisted in the Civil War as a private and rose through the ranks to become a field commander.  And he was brilliant.  My favorite story is from the Battle of Parker's Cross Roads, 12/31/1862, when he was surprised by a Union brigade attacking his rear.  Trapped between two Union forces, he told his troops "Charge 'em both ways!" - and they did, and he won.  It seems like every Civil War historian is fascinated by this military genius who never attended West Point or took any military classes.  But what makes Forrest fascinating to me is that he was an antebellum slave trader and millionaire, who in the 1860's was one of the founders (perhaps the first Grand Wizard) of the KKK.  But barely ten years later he repudiated the Klan, and went around giving speeches advocating reconciliation between the races to both white and black organizations.  In one of them, before a black organization, he said, "Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I'll come to your relief. I thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for this opportunity you have afforded me to be with you, and to assure you that I am with you in heart and in hand."  Yes, it sounds a little condescending to modern ears - but this is the sound of a man who had changed profoundly...

17 July 2013

Two writers, One set-up

by Robert Lopresti 

The great picture on the right is the illustration by Tim Foley which appears with my story in the October issue  of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  It is used here with his gracious permission.  You can find much more of his work at his website. 

This particular issue of AHMM has stories by two SleuthSayers: David Edgerley Gates and yours truly.  I thought I would write about one of those stories and since I haven't read David's yet, what the heck, I'll discuss mine.

Which brings me to Jack Ritchie.  As I have said before I have probably stolen more from Mr. R. than any other single author.  He was a master of the comic short crime story.

A while back I was pondering one type of story he was fond of.   These stories begin with two men in a room, one of whom is holding a gun on the other.  (Two examples you can find in his Little Boxes of Bewilderment are "Shatter Proof" and  "A Taste For Murder.")

As a set-up this has a lot to recommend it.  Suspense?  Built-in.  Starting in the middle of the action?  Absolutely.  Character motivation?  Well, we can assume one guy is hoping not to get shot.  As for the other guy's motive, that''s how a set-up turns into a plot.

While pondering this concept I came up with what I hoped was an original take on it, and "Two Men, One Gun" was born.  As for motivation, here is how the tale begins:

"Here's the story," said the man whose name was probably not Richard.  "Once upon a time there were three men who hated each other."

That's the gunman's motive.  He wants to tell the other guy a story.  Surely there must be more going on.  Why choose this man as the audience?  Why use a gun to hold his attention.  But I make it clear right at the beginning that this is a story about storytelling.  The act of telling this tale will change lives, Richard's included.

By the way, last year when my short story "Brutal" appeared in Hitchcock's I told you that it was one of two stories that begin in the same seedy office building I visited years ago.  No idea why that run-down place made such an impression on me, but "Two Men" is the other story set there.

One odd thing about this.  Although it was inspired by a great writer of humor, my story isn't particularly funny.  There's some wit, I hope, but it's more about suspense than guffaws.

 And if you don't like it, try David's!

16 July 2013

First Person

       In choosing a narrative voice most authors historically have opted for the “third person,” which, in many respects, simplifies the writing process since the voice telling the story can be omniscient and removed from the story itself.  The author, as a result, does not need to establish a personality for the narrator or worry about what the narrator knows and does not know.  

       “First person” narration has always had a somewhat larger presence in the mystery genre however, and there is evidence that it may be on its way to becoming the preferred voice there. There certainly are some interesting advantages in telling the story as a personal narrative of a character.  Since a character narrator knows only what that character would, in real life, know, use of the first person adds a complexity to the author's task and to the story’s narration.  As such, first person narration calls for some creativity and has often been used as a device for narrative experimentation.   It is a voice that can invite the author to get a bit sly.   Think of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5, in which the narrator, while present throughout the story, is not clearly identified as Vonnegut until the firebombing of Dresden when the narrator is standing next to the central character, Billy Pilgrim, and breaks the fourth wall by saying “[t]hat was I.  That was me.  That was the author of this book.”
        The classic example of using the first person in a mystery is, of course, the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, in which Dr. Watson is the narrator.  And the classic example of experimentation with the first person in the mystery genre is Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, narrated by Dr. James Sheppard, who serves as Hercule Poirot’s assistant.  While Dr. Watson, assisting Holmes, is very forthcoming, in Christie’s novel we know only what Poirot's assistant, Dr. Sheppard, wants us to know.   While he may be close to omniscient vis-a-vis what is going on in the story, we, the readers, are anything but.   Dr. Sheppard is, in fact, one of the earliest examples of the "unreliable narrator."

        The feat Christie pulled off in Roger Ackroyd in any event has been a gauntlet cast to other mystery writers.  It stands at the head of its class in terms of what it accomplishes with first person narration and using that voice as a means to spring an unexpected result.  As such the book stands as a challenge to other writers’ experimentations with first person narration.  Some recent mysteries have stepped up to that challenge and have continued to plow new ground with this narrative mode.

       Reminiscent in some respects of Christie’s approach is the first person narration in Gillian Flynn’s best seller Gone Girl. The book offers up “dueling unreliable narrators,” as it were -- Nick Dunne and his wife Amy. Like Christie’s Dr. Sheppard, each holds back crucial information as the reader attempts to figure out exactly what has happened to the missing Amy. Through the use of two unreliable narrations Gillian Flynn leaves the reader guessing as to what is going on and what is being held back. The result, in the words of The New York Times' review, is “a house of mirrors.”

        In The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold tells a haunting story narrated in the first person by the central character, Susie Salmon.  Discussing Sebold’s narrative technique requires no spoiler:  When the story opens Susie is already dead, the teenage victim of a rape murder.  She narrates the story from heaven -- a first person narrative that grants the narrator the omniscience Susie gains from her perspective in heaven, where she grapples with her family’s grief, her own demise, and the quest of everyone to bring down the monster responsible.  Little Brown and Company agreed to publish Sebold’s 2002 novel even though their view was that given the premise of the book they would be lucky to sell 20,000 copies.  In fact, The Lovely Bones sold well over one million copies and was on The New York Times bestseller list for over a year.  Susie's circumstances, so steeped in sorrow and horror, have caused many (my wife, included) to not give the book a try.  But I strongly commend it to you.  Read it and watch the catharsis that Sebold weaves amidst the sorrow, and watch how she uses Susie’s first person narration to pull it off.  
       Alice LaPlante’s debut novel Turn of Mind in fact turns any idea of omniscient first person narrative on its head.   The central character and first person narrator in Turn of Mind, Dr. Jennifer White, is an Orthopedic surgeon suffering from Alzheimer's disease.   She is not our typical unreliable narrator.  Rather than holding things back from the reader, here there are simply things that occurred previously that Dr. White, our narrator, no longer remembers.  As readers we are imprisoned in her mind, a mind that Dr. White herself describes as:
This half state. Life in the shadows. As the neurofibrillary tangles proliferate, as the neuritic plaques harden, as synapses cease to fire and my mind rots out, I remain aware. An unanesthetized patient.
       And, as readers, that is our state as well.  Dr. White may or may not have killed her friend and neighbor from down the street.  Unlike Dr. Sheppard in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Dr. White holds back no information.  But, unlike Susie in The Lovely Bones, she is no where close to omniscient.  She, and we, have no idea whether she was involved in her friend’s murder. LaPlante uses this constricted first person narrative to deliver a taut thriller built on a growing fear and paranoia on the part of the narrator as, before our very eyes, she declines into dementia.

        Another recent debut novel displays yet another example of a constrained first person narrative.  In Before I Go to Sleep, by S. J. Watson, the central character and narrator, Christine Lucas, is a 47 year old woman suffering from a rare but recognized disease -- anterograde amnesia.  She awakens every morning with no memory of her previous life.  She, in effect, has to re-learn who she is anew every day.  The thriller therefore progresses with the reader closer to omniscience than the narrator -- we know all that Christine has discovered in previous days, which, each successive morning, is more than Christine herself knows. John O’Connor, writing in The Guardian says this about S.J. Watson's narrative choice:  “The structure is so dazzling it almost distracts you from the quality of the writing. No question, this is a very literary thriller.”

        And, finally, let’s end with a more subtle experimentation in first person narrative.  In Laura Lippman’s The Most Dangerous Thing all of the flashback chapters, chronicling underlying events that transpired when the central characters in the story were children, are written in the first person. As mystery fans, when you read this book you will doubtless attempt (as did I) to figure out precisely which one of those characters is the unnamed and unidentified narrator of the flashbacks.  But if you investigate carefully you will find that for various reasons every single one of the characters can be eliminated -- there is no one in the book who individually could supply the first person narration in the flashback chapters.  Lippman hints at what is going on when, in several passages, she refers to the children as having been so close that they were like appendages of a single creature.  The strange but inescapable conclusion, then, is that the narrator of these chapters (like the collective narrator in Jeffrey Eugenides The Virgin Suicides) is the entire group, speaking to the reader in first person plural.  In an interview following publication of her book Ms. Lippman has confirmed this conclusion and explained her decision to use first person plural narration as follows:
The decision was intuitive at first—that is, I knew it was right, without knowing why it was right. When I finished the book, I realized that these passages are a consensual version of what happened in the past, that the survivors have agreed on what happened and that’s why the story is, at turns, unflattering to each of them. They are working out their level of culpability in several tragedies and they just can’t face this alone. And that voice allowed me to include a subtext of gloom and foreboding—the story is being told by people who know how badly it ends.
        All of which goes to show that the choice of narrative voice has a direct effect on how the story is told.  The advantages of opting to tell your story in the first person also can mirror the disadvantages.  Following a more standard third person narrative approach gives the writer the relatively easy task of telling his or her story from the perspective of omniscience.  The narrator need not be given personal characteristics and the author can expect the reader to accept the narration as gospel.  

       By contrast, the first person narrator is a character that the author must bring to life and then employ consistently.  The narrator must speak -- throughout the entire story -- as that character would, and must act with consistency as that carrier also would given his or her background.  And particularly in the mystery genre, we have all (thank you, Agatha Christie) been taught to expect the unreliable narrator. The reader may not trust your narrator, or even like him or her very much.  But, as the works discussed above illustrate, writing within the constraints imposed by telling the story through the eyes of a first person narrator can spark an author's creativity and can be exhilarating and fun, both for the writer and for the reader.   

15 July 2013

A Book, A Story, A Picture

The last thing a writer wants
is to make the reader yawn.





The ultimate goal of writers is to engage their readers.  I shy away from generalizations and tend to want to qualify anything I say, but I doubt anyone will disagree with that statement.  An unengaged reader becomes bored.

Regardless of what is being written--an amusing detective story, a how-to article, an instruction manual, something you want posted on Wikipedia, a political essay, or anything you can imagine--the goal is to engage the reader.

Many long years ago, as a college freshman, I managed to get myself into a graduate level course on writing magazine articles.  It was taught by a former editor of The Saturday Evening Post before its demise and recent resurrection.

I wound up becoming his hired chauffeur and driving him to and from Philadelphia on university holidays for a few years, but that's a different story. (Actually quite a few stories which I may one day write.)

Back to the class, the biggest, most important fact that I learned from him was:  IDENTIFY YOUR TARGET AUDIENCE.

I check every week to see if
John has a story in WW.
He does this week, and it's a
good one as always!

Look carefully and you'll
see the cover story of
this issue of  issue of AHMM
is by Janice Law.
This seems obvious and easy when planning magazine pieces. Most periodicals have an identified audience, so the writer knows who is likely to be reading the work if it's accepted by a specific magazine.  I believe John would agree with me that his target audience in Women's World is somewhat different from the readers of AHMM or EQMM even though he writes mysteries for both

My target audience might make a good Venn diagram when writing for Bluegrass Unlimited or Field and Stream, both of which have been kind enough to purchase and publish my articles.
The red circle represents readers of Field and Stream.  The blue circle represents readers of Bluegrass Unlimited. The purple overlap area represents readers who like to hunt or fish and pick or listen to string instruments.

There might be very little overlap between my readers of Field and Stream and Ladies Home Journal, and not only is what I have said in these magazines different, so is how I said it.

                         Have I bored you yet? Are you                                           yawning?

Perhaps you're not interested in magazines at all and write only novels.  The same principle applies.  Though many of us enjoy almost any kind of mystery, others are very specific in their tastes.

I read Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum, but don't care for her other books.  I also read Mary Daheim along with Jeffrey Deaver and James Patterson and dearly love revisiting Agatha Christie. My tastes are personal, but they might be represented as separate circles with an overlap including readers, like me, who just love mysteries--almost any kind.

The target audience for my Callie books is different from that of some of my other writings.  The point I wish to make today is that what we write and how we write are influenced by the readers we want to reach.

My grandson wrote an essay about me last year when he was twelve.  I want to share it with you.

by Aeden Rizer
October, 2012

     "Read a book, write a story, paint a picture."  These are always her answers to, "I'm bored."
     My grandmama is the most supportive, brightest, and most pleasant person to be around in the world!  She's very smart and witty.  I mean, she was a school teacher, so it's sorta required.
     Being an author makes her a better storyteller than Aesop in my book.  She's very clever and supportive.  She's always got something funny to say, and she's always gonna cheer you on.  No matter what the sport, she'll be there, roaring your name.
Aeden and his dad, who is my older son.
     Grandmama is our matriarch that holds our family together.  She's the mediator who settles every dispute.  She's lots of things to many people.
     But me, I just call her G-Mama!

If you're an old curmudgeon with no grandchildren, that might be very boring to you.  Of course, I'm not bored by this essay at all.  In fact, I love it!!  I'm proud that he spells and punctuates correctly, but I'm even more pleased that he feels that way about me.  The first paragraph goes back to what I've told him for years because grandchildren will, as some of you know, complain of boredom at times. I'm certain you can tell that he wrote it as a gift for me.  That young man knows to write toward his targeted audience!

As Dixon says, "See you in two weeks."
That's when I'll continue this with a discussion of "voice."

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

14 July 2013

Florida News

Illegal Blogging

Be advised: In posting this article, I am violating one of Florida’s most recent laws. Signed by our illustrious Medicare governor, it bans internet cafés… and computers and tablets and smart phones. Yep, I’m a criminal. This comes two years after Florida banned sex. I can’t get away from my criminal past.

Florida bleeding
George Zimmerman Trial

Two stories dominate the news here in central Florida. First is the George Zimmerman trial which went to the jury Friday.

I happen to know one of the defense attorneys, Don West, his wife and family, although I haven’t seen him in some years. He’s a decent man and it was from him I learned that even male criminals have a back story, that most were dysfunctionally forged in childhood, some by events so terrible most of us cannot imagine.

After doing my small part to bring the Sanford shooting to the attention of readers, I haven’t written about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman in quite some time. Opinions appear to be as polarized as the prosecution and defense: Some see Zimmerman as a hero defending his neighborhood from marauding criminals ‘who always get away’ and that he merely defended himself against a violent teen who ambushed him. Using eMail blasts and doctored photos, the neo-nazi StormFront.org has partially succeeded in polluting opinions, so that casual followers might imagine Trayvon was a gang-tattooed, gold-toothed, junkie with a criminal record.

As brought out in testimony, yes, he wore two tattoos: One honoring his grandmother and the other a depiction of praying hands.

The state’s case is simpler: An innocent teen boy, minding his own business, was stalked and then waylaid by a Neighborhood Watch ward captain and wannabe cop operating outside his purview.

I suspect the truth is that George Zimmerman isn’t a vicious person and I don't conclusively intuit he’s racist. Instead, Florida’s Shoot First / Stand Your Ground law disfavors the black community and defies common sense, but in Florida, that’s no reason to change a bad law.

The news media here referred to the ‘racially charged’ testimony of Trayvon’s friend, Rachel Jeantel, sneered at by Sean Hannity. To my mind, the scene wasn’t so much racially charged as it was sadly funny, exposing the gap between a 60-something white man and a teenage black girl. A baffled Don West simply couldn’t fathom what the girl was saying. I kept thinking of the scene in Airplane when Barbara Billingsley pops up, “Oh stewardess, I speak jive.

The prosecution handed the defense several gifts, including most of their witnesses exploited by Mark O’Mara and Don West. I couldn’t believe prosecutors put Zimmerman’s best friend, Mark Osterman, on the stand, giving him a platform to present Zimmerman’s claims virtually unchallenged. WFTV’s local legal analyst, former criminal attorney Bill Sheaffer, scathingly criticized the state’s ongoing gaffes, mostly for putting forward Zimmerman’s testimony making it unnecessary and even risky for him to testify.

It does appear Trayvon took Zimmerman to ground and straddled him. After all, Zimmerman was an armed guy following Martin in the dark (against the instructions of the police 911 operator). The defense made an issue whether the pistol was pressed against Trayvon’s chest or not, whereas I’m not certain that’s critical. Indeed, the key to the defense was to portray Trayvon as the aggressor and Zimmerman the victim.

Other problems with the gun disturb me. The defense echoes Zimmerman’s contention that Trayvon grabbed Zimmerman’s weapon and yet Zimmerman somehow wrested it from Trayvon’s grasp despite the boy’s purported overwhelming strength. The big problem: How would Trayvon know about a concealed pistol in a waistband holster under George’s rain jacket in an unlit area on a rainy night? If, as Zimmerman claims, Martin managed to get him on the ground and pummeled him, I can’t imagine the boy knew Zimmerman had a gun. Either Zimmerman had already announced or even pulled out his pistol whereupon Trayvon defended himself, or Zimmerman didn’t pull out his Glock until he was already under Martin, which implies Trayvon couldn’t have known he had a pistol. To me, that’s the biggest hole obscured in the defense’s case. The state asks another question: If Trayvon straddled a supine Zimmerman and the gun was in the waistband holster as Zimmerman claims, wouldn’t Trayvon have had to climb up off the man to reach for the concealed pistol?

One other issue dismays me although it doesn’t affect the other facts of the case. Not for a second do I believe the comic book dialogue Zimmerman attributes to Trayvon: “Tonight you die, MF.” And later, after Zimmerman fired, he claims Martin stood and gasped, “You got me!” Beyond the bad B-movie lines, the medical examiner testified that after the Martin boy was shot through the lung, drowning in his own blood, he wouldn’t have been able to move, let alone stand or speak. To be clear, Mark O’Mara managed to slightly dislodge the ME’s certainty, but the overall gist remained– the shock would have prevented Trayvon from moving.

Note: We haven’t been told why, but local channel 6’s WKMG has been banned from the courthouse amid Twitter speculation it may have something to do with their interview of Sanford’s ex-police chief who’s openly critical of the mayor and city manager. WKMG was the dominant all-Casey-Anthony all-the-time news station and had been a major news source following the Trayvon Martin shooting.

Note: The trial is over. Two hours before this article went to press, the jury announced their verdict: Not Guilty.

Shooting for Fun

We don’t know many details yet, but for weeks a number of random shootings of houses and cars have plagued Kissimmee and nearby Saint Cloud, which included at least one killing and possibly two. This week, Osceola sheriff arrested four youths: two 20-year-old males, a 17-year-old girl, and the primary shooter, a 15-year-old boy.

On 24 June, Lothar Schafer bought himself and his teen son a .45 calibre Hi-Point carbine. The following day, the shootings began when the quartet of friends rode around Osceola County from midnight to dawn, shooting at houses and cars. At six one morning, the 15-year-old decided to shoot a young man at a bus stop ‘for fun.’ The same boy also stands accused of stabbing a robbery victim in the throat.

Jorge Muriel, the anguished brother of one of the accused said, “I wish I didn't grow up when guns were so common. … If people didn't have guns this wouldn't have happened.” ‘People’ in this case were all less than 21.

Details how investigators zeroed in on the youths remain sparse. We do know the Osceola Sheriff’s Department called in the local Florida Metal Detecting Club which proved its, er, mettle by finding the shell from the bus stop shooting, which linked the murder to the other shootings.

Remember the chief prosecutor in the Casey Anthony trial? Jeff Ashton announced a few hours ago he’ll prosecute the shooters. Stay tuned, my friend.

13 July 2013

Music and Murder

by Elizabeth Zelvin

I was brought up on folk music, including the high lonesome murder ballads of the Appalachians: “Pretty Polly,” “Banks of the Ohio,” “Down by a Willow Garden.” All these tell basically the same story: a man murders a woman because she’s pregnant and he doesn’t want to marry her. Then there’s the great “Long Black Veil,” written in 1959 and performed by just about everyone, from Lefty Frizzell, Bill Monroe, and Johnny Cash to Bruce Springsteen and the Chieftains. In that one, the first-person narrator is hanged because his lover, his best friend’s wife, won’t speak up and give him an alibi. In fact, the song’s a paranormal: “She walks these hills in a long black veil/Visits my grave when the night winds wail.”

I didn’t discover country music until 1988, when the New Country was just getting started, although I discovered that many of the “folk songs” I’d heard in college were by country singers like Johnny Cash, such as “Folsom Prison”: “I killed a man in Reno just to see him die.” At the time, as an addictions treatment professional, I was more interested in alcoholism and codependency than I was in murder. And country music certainly had more than its share of stories about my area of expertise. Why do you think these guys went so far as to kill their girlfriends? They’d probably been drinking. And why did their girlfriends stay with violent men who got them pregnant and refused to marry them? Codependency, of course. They were hooked on love, the victims of addictive relationships.

I once gave a workshop at a professional addictions conference on alcoholism and codependency in country music. I had a great time making the tape. Some of the greatest country singers were alcoholics. Hank Williams, a legendary alcoholic, died of an overdose of pain medication at the age of 29. Keith Whitley was a rising star of the late 80s who got sober and then died of alcohol poisoning during a relapse. And loving a no-good man was a staple of cheatin’ songs, songs about women who loved alcoholics (“Whiskey, if you were a woman/I’d fight you and I’d win, you know I would”), and such classics as “Stand By Your Man.”

I talked about how drinking beer (rather than effete wine) was considered a virtue of the working-class culture hero in dozens of songs. I pointed out how dysfunctional some of the love situations in these songs were. “I Will Always Love You,” written by and a hit for Dolly Parton and then a megahit for Whitney Houston, was used for the soundtracks of two movies, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and The Bodyguard, in which lovers don’t live happily ever after. As a therapist, I assure you that if you don’t see somebody for thirty or forty years and have a modicum of emotional health, love passes. Then there’s Linda Ronstadt’s gorgeous “Long, Long Time,” in which there is no love affair, only unrequited mooning over a man who isn’t interested: “I’ve done everything I know to try and make you mine/And I think I’m gonna love you for a long, long time…I never drew one response from you…Living in the memory of a love that never was.” Does this woman need therapy or what?

When I listen one of the many “darling, please let me come home” songs that male country singers still write and perform, I always think, “There are three reasons she could have thrown him out: infidelity, alcoholism, or domestic violence.” When you read between the lines, his request doesn’t sound so reasonable or his declaration of love so sincere. Nowadays, there are many other ways than murder to deal with a failed relationship or an illegitimate child. And sometimes the woman turns the tables on the man, as in Martina McBride’s “Independence Day,” in which an abused wife takes a burning-bed revenge. But underneath the surface, when they’re chirping about love, I can still see death.

I can even see a serial killer in an upbeat country song. Take Sara Evans’s “Suds in the Bucket.” It’s about an 18-year-old girl, and it’s sunny as a day in July. “She was in the backyard…when her prince pulled up - a white pickup truck…Well, he must have been a looker - smooth talkin' son of a gun/ For such a grounded girl - to just up and run/… you can't stop love/…She's got her pretty little bare feet hangin' out the window/ And they're headin' up to Vegas tonight/…She left the suds in the bucket and the clothes hangin’ out on the line.” It’s love at first sight, right? Does the image of those “pretty little bare feet” fill your heart with romance? Not me. Maybe it’s because I’m a mystery writer. Maybe it’s just me. But I don’t listen to that song any more, because every time I hear that line and think of that young woman going off with a stranger, I think of Ted Bundy, and I shudder.

12 July 2013

The Crazy Crawl

I’m busy today, so I’m stealing a page from Leigh’s book on Florida News, but crumpling it up my own way.

I’m sometimes rather disappointed by television news. Many of the stories are interesting – at least on network evening broadcasts – but, with the exception of the NewsHour on PBS, I find most stories seem to get a bit short-changed.

Few bits, however, are less informative than the “crawl” on the morning news broadcast of a local station here in The Valley of the Sun.

The “crawl” I’m talking about, of course, is that strip of text, which slides slowly by along the bottom of the screen, as an anchor or reporter covers the day’s stories. It doesn't often have much to do with the story being reported, but is instead, I believe, supposed to serve as a sort of televised headline, letting folks know what major stories have transpired since the last news broadcast.

Evidently the idea had its origin with the thought that some viewers might tune-in after a major story had already been covered, and the newscasters wanted to be sure all viewers got at least a clue about what happened.

At any rate, that’s how the crawl seemed to make its debut.

And, these days, I’m hard-pressed to find a televised news broadcast that doesn't include a crawl. Even sportscasts tend to have recent game scores sliding inexorably by along the bottom of the screen.

On that local station I mentioned earlier, however, the crawl is something else entirely.

What is it?

Well, I’m not sure. But, I think it might be some form of odd advertisement.

Either that, or maybe somebody at the station has a problem that needs immediate attention.

Items entered in the crawl, on this station, tend to be completely disassociated with any reality that I’m familiar with. Often barely complete sentences, they usually fail to provide important information, almost invariably leaving a reader to fill in the blanks. 

Here are just a few examples, gleaned over a recent period:

The dog was found in a car at a downtown Phoenix Circle K. 

THE dog?

This begs the question: “Which dog?”

Was it this dog, or that one?

And, I’m confused: What was going on that caused its being “found” to be important? Was the dog missing, or did he do something wrong? Were the police searching for this dog, because it had committed a crime? Assaulting a Post Office employee, perhaps?

Maybe s/he (we don’t know the gender) was a circus dog with special training; perhaps s/he was driving the car, but when police tried to pull him/her over s/he sped away, only to stop at a local Circle K, with tongue lolling. Is that what happened?


Perhaps there was no dog. Maybe a woman with an abrasive personality was found in a car at a local convenience store (that’s what a “Circle K” is, for those who don’t know), and the witness who relayed events to the reporter described the woman in unflattering terms, and the reporter misunderstood what the witness said, thus concluding that a dog had been in the car instead of a woman.

I don’t know. There was no story about ANY dog, that I saw, on that morning’s broadcast. On the other hand, I didn't see any stories about a woman being found in a car, either.

The family was living in a rented home, when it burned down according to Mesa Police. 

No, I can’t tell you anything about this family. There was no story on the broadcast about a home fire, or a family that had been burned out by one. Not even the Mesa Police showed up on the broadcast – even though the way the sentence was written, it would almost appear that the police have been implicated in arson. 

The car fire has been extinguished and the city says the intersection will be open at 10:00 am today. 

Thank god this one was posted on a different day, or I might have been led to believe that the family above was living in their car. I wonder what intersection was closed for awhile?

Tito said Thursday, baseball’s drug agreement could be undermined by leaks to the media about whether players are cooperating with an investigation by the commissioner. 

TITO said???

THE Tito? The one who used to rule Yugoslavia?

Or, is one of Michael Jackson’s brothers perhaps involved in baseball negotiations?

And, just which drugs are they all agreeing to take, here?

The man and a woman approached an apartment near 29th Avenue and Camelback road, drew a gun and demanded to talk to someone they believed was inside. 

At least this one gave me a good visual. I mean, whoever opened that apartment front door must have been wearing a mighty surprised face.

“The man and a woman … drew a gun…” Well, that must have been awkward. Did they both reach into the top of his pants (or inside her jacket) at the same time? And, which one is left-handed? (I would think that’s an important consideration when two people are drawing the same weapon.)

I can’t help wondering: Why is it “THE man”? I read that, and I get the idea I should know who this guy is. 

And, why is he with “A woman”? That makes it sound as if there’s a certain distance between the two. Maybe they had an argument over breakfast that morning. Or, maybe they just happened to approach the apartment at the same time. After all, it doesn't say, “The couple approached…”.

The latter is doubtful, of course, because: How could two people know to draw the same weapon at the same time, if they’d never previously met? Drawing a weapon together, it seems to me, connotes a fairly intimate relationship.

Conversely, perhaps the reporter was simply being chauvinistic. “THE man and A woman… yeah, that’s how it should read! Gotta keep those women in their place(s).” To wildly misquote Rudyard Kipling: “The man is THE MAN, a woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a SMOKE!”

The President of Chattanooga State Community College said he didn’t know Federal Wildlife agents would kill the geese they removed from the campus.

As long as the geese were removed from the campus of Chattanooga State Community College at the behest of the school president, I think this one almost gets the green light.

Why almost?

Well, certainly Chattanooga State has a very pretty campus – even including a river walk – but, I can’t help wondering why residents in the greater Phoenix-Mesa-Metro area of Arizona would be interested in the ignorance of a guy who heads-up a small school in Tennessee.

On the other hand, Chattanooga is a fun word to write -- so maybe that’s why it wound up in the crawl this morning.

And, the geese– approximately 100 of them– were actually removed from the college campus, last week, and subsequently put down because no alternate location could be found for them. I know because I googled it.

And, that’s what makes me think this whole thing may be nothing but a form of advertisement.

I strongly suspect my local news station is putting incomplete and puzzling stories on their morning crawl in an attempt to make me google the story – hopefully including their station identifier in the info I type into google – as a way to drive more readership into their website.

If so, the plan is brilliant in its conception, and confusing to the end!
(Note: No dogs, bow-tied men, or books were harmed in the writing of this blog post.  And, I'm not the one who did-in the geese.)

See you in two weeks,

11 July 2013

The Straw That Stirs The Drink

by Brian Thornton

Don't let the title fool you, I'm not talking about Reggie Jackson (which is who I lifted this line from). Rather, today I'm going to talk about the prime mover in most any work of fiction- the antagonist.

In other words, let's talk "villains."

In my own work over the years I've had to do a fair amount of wrestling with the notion of what constitutes a "villain," and of course I've read the thoughts of others on this. The list of sources I've got on this subject includes but is no way restricted to: Christopher Vogler, Alexandra Sokoloff, James Scott Bell, James N. Frey, Donald Maas, and Stephen King, just to name a few. So going forward, my thoughts as expressed herein are my own, but any credit for originality of thought on this subject likely goes to one of the folks listed above, and anything that stirs up violent disagreement amongst any and all who read this should fall squarely at my own doorstep.

Point the First: The Importance Of The Villain.

Not THIS kind of villain.
Without question the villain is the second-most important character in a good story, nearly as
important as the hero/protagonist. Some of the folks I've credited above even maintain that the entire creative process behind a good story must begin with the creation of the villain. Either way, to be truly effective the villain must be fully-realized, well-drawn, and pretty much the mirror-image of the hero.

That last part is important. If you can work it so it seems that your hero and your villain are two sides of the same coin in some ways, Thesis and Antithesis, Yin/Yang, you've got the beginnings of a truly compelling story.

And just like it's crucial to have a protagonist your readers can relate to (whether or not they like him, are sympathetic to his situation, etc.), it's equally important that your villain/antagonist and his goals/reasons for doing what he's doing are believable. Even if it's a crack-pot idea to build a Dr. Evil-type of doomsday weapon and extort money from the governments of the world, it doesn't have to be plausible that the scheme would work, so long as it's plausible that this villain would believe that such a scheme would work. So it's pretty much a rule of thumb: the more improbable the villain's plans, the harder you as the writer must work to make it clear that your villain absolutely believes that he can and will prevail in the end. If you can establish that, you're on your way.

Next all you have to do is write the hell out of your story such that your villain very nearly succeeds. So again, the more improbable the villain's plans, the harder you have to work to make all of this come together.

What happens if you don't?


Nor THESE two, either.
You could very well wind up with a villain who falls into one of two particular types. Either a cartoon villain or what I call an ubervillain.

Cartoon villains are exactly what the name implies: one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs of characters with no real feelings, no depth, no self-doubt, nothing but palm-rubbing elation at the thought of doing evil somewhere, anywhere, to anyone, but most especially to (insert name of your protagonist here). And you just know they're planning to victory dance all the way home afterward, rubbing their palms and cackling, waylaying widows and orphans for rent and lunch money along the way.


If this type of character appeals to you, I suggest you devote yourself to more time spent with the Cartoon Network.

As for the ubervillain, you know the type: the guy who is so good at what he does, such a chess
player, so meticulous and brilliant, that for a good 245 pages of your 250 page novel, he's out-thinking your protagonist every. step. of. the. way.

I'm sure others will disagree with me here, but I find ubervillains even more tedious than the one-dimensional cartoon variety. Not least because they're even more improbable to find in real life.

Look, because of my day gig, I know a ton of really smart people. And among those smart people are a fair number of folks who are flat out, impressively, couldn't hide it if they wanted to brilliant. We're talking full-on genuises, here, including some chess champions.

And every one of them is a deeply flawed human with weaknesses, blind spots, vanity, prejudices, etc., that cloud their ability to do everything all the time exactly perfectly. No human being can have that fool-proof a run of luck. Not. One.


 (Wait for it....)

They're BORING!

And what's the one cardinal sin we as authors must never commit? Like Oscar Wilde in his prime, we must never be boring. But don't just take my word for it. Let me give you a couple of excellent examples from two different yet thematically similar televisions series that have revamped a beloved fictional detective and updated his story for the modern day.

I'm talking, of course, about Sherlock Holmes.

And for the purposes of this discussion, also about his arch-nemesis: Professor James Moriarty.
The only mis-step by the producers of the BBC's excellent Sherlock.

The otherwise excellent BBC update, Sherlock, completely drops the ball when it comes to updating Moriarty's character. The modern day Moriarty is an ubervillain to trump all ubervillains. Not only does he out-think Holmes at any number of junctures, he has him in his sights (literally) from the first time they officially meet. He even (SPOILER ALERT!) fakes his own murder, committing suicide and perfectly framing Holmes for the crime.


Both Adler and Moriarty! Both floor wax and a dessert topping!

Balance that against NBC's surprisingly superb Elementary, and there's no basis for comparison. In Elementary, with Sherlock Holmes (played to the hilt by Johnny Lee Miller) a recovering heroin addict (sounds cliched, but boy do they make it work) relocated to New York as part of a deal with his wealthy, absent father, working with a female Watson (seriously, I didn't know Lucy Liu had this in her!). This Holmes was driven to heroin by remorse over the murder of the only woman he ever loved: Irene Adler.

And just who was responsible for Irene's murder?

Yep, you guessed it. A shadowy figure, spoken of (if at all) only in hushed tones, known by the name of Moriarty. Holmes is convinced of this. And he's right.

Sort of.

Because as it turns out at the end of season one (SPOILER ALERT REDUX!) Irene is alive! And it appears that she's been taken captive by Moriarty!

Needless to say, the discovery of this plot point turns the carefully recovering Holmes' world upside-down.

But there's more.

Turns out appearances are deceiving.

Irene wasn't kidnapped by Moriarty. She is Moriarty (watch it, seriously. It's brilliant how they layer all of this stuff together). Holmes being Holmes soon uncovers this, and then it's really on. Turns out that Moriarty, intrigued by the possibility that there might be someone out there just as exceptional as herself, created the identity of Irene Adler, at first just to get close to Holmes and study him. But she stays (for a while) because she falls for him. That scares her. She bails, only to turn up later where Holmes can easily (for him) find her in New York.

And when, after a see-saw back-and-forth, this plotline plays out to its inevitable conclusion with a final confrontation between the two of them, Holmes and Moriarty, Thesis and Antithesis, at her moment of apparent triumph, Irene admits what Holmes had already surmised and used against her: that he was her on-going, never-get-past-it, completely captivating weakness.

The writing and acting in this completely sell this plotline. AND it buttresses the earlier assertions about the best villains being grotesques, mirror images of the heroes they face.

More THIS kind of villain
Point the Second: Does Our Villain Actually Know He Is The Villain?

In Paradise Lost the great English poet John Milton famously put the following words into the mouth of the fallen angel Lucifer as he is being cast down into the pit (and equally famously echoed, if indirectly in the "Spaceseed" episode of the original Star Trek by Ricardo Montalban's character Khan Noonien Singh):

"Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven."

This single line provides the reader with such a wonderful insight into the mindset of "God's antagonist," Lucifer. He does not see things God's way (obviously), hence their conflict. In fact it's pretty obvious that from Lucifer's perspective, he's the aggrieved party, not the Almighty, and by association, Mankind.

And since the reader is ostensibly on God's side, the reader sees Lucifer as the author of the troubles between himself and the Almighty. Milton hardly takes Lucifer's side, and he certainly does not excuse the fallen angel's actions.

But what he does do is offer insight into our antagonist's viewpoint. In the antagonist's mind he's not a "bad guy." He's "misunderstood." He's a "rebel." The Good Guy is a "tyrant." "Someone has to stand up to him," and so on and so forth.

This sort of insight can only help make your "antagonist" more well-rounded, more believable, more (forgive the phrase, especially since the example I've used is of an angel-become-devil) "human." And humanizing a villain in the long run both makes the story more interesting and the writer's job more clear. (See "believability" above).

Point the Third: The Villain Is "The Straw That Stirs The Drink" In Any Good Story.

Think about it. Who sets the tone in a great story? The Bad Guy. I'm not talking about those stories with antiheroes as the protagonist, like Breaking Bad. Nope, I'm talking about the real "Good vs. Evil" stuff. Moby Dick? Either Ahab or the whale (personifying Nature, in which Nature is seen as the embodiment of Hobbes' dictum that life is "nasty, brutish and short"), take your pick. These twin antagonists drive the action, as Ahab's quest helps both define and doom his crew. Take Pride and Prejudice. The charming, smooth-talking Wickham is the real villain of the piece, and as such it's his execution of his own agenda that throws the Bennett household into such turmoil. And doesn't Mr. Darcy come off so much the better when finally compared with the sly, deceitful Wickham?

And then there's The Lord of the Rings: Sauron's return to power sets off alarm bells among elves, dwarves and men, and our intrepid heroes set about marshaling their forces in response to him. In the Harry Potter novels Voldemort has the good guys so cowed that they fear even speaking his name, and this is even early on in the story, when they think Voldemort (Which is French for "Deathwish") is dead after his confrontation with Harry's mother in front of Harry's crib!

The role of the hero in any good story is, by nature, a reactive one. S/He rises to the occasion and saves the day. BUT there has to be an "occasion" to which to rise. Absent Grendel, no Beowulf. Without the Alien, no Ripley. 

I've heard it said that our choice of heroes helps to define us. In the best stories, those who oppose/challenge our heroes help to define them.