03 May 2013

Open the Gates for Black Traffic

by Dixon Hill

Imagine reading a novel with the feel of one of Mystery’s best: you’re reading along, caught up in the plot, caring deeply about the protagonist, whom you hope can save his/her lover from impending doom while trying to penetrate the darkness of the mystery; perhaps you’re even feeling a bit awed by the author’s abilities -- when, suddenly, the protagonist whips out a flying carpet and rides it into his next gun fight.

That flying carpet …. A bit startling isn’t it?

All too often, when mystery writers attempt novels in which a protagonist is in the military, or is an ex-soldier – or when authors write a novel in which the mystery itself runs across an active battlefield, or up against a military situation -- I get startled in a very similar manner. In fact, I’ve been known to throw books at the wall, after I found myself driven to distraction by said authors’ obvious ignorance of military life, tactical necessity, and proper soldierly conduct.

Now I’m sure more than one person reading this has just chuckled, thinking how inconsequential such items might seem when considered within the overall context of a novel. Unfortunately, however, these aspects ruin such novels for me, because my suspension of disbelief comes crashing down each time I read an offending passage.

Thus, when I learned that two of my fellow Sleuth Sayers had published books with military ingredients mixed in, it was with some trepidation that I read them.

Imagine my joy, when I discovered that they’d both gotten it RIGHT! And, that both novels were a joy to read: engaging, clever, well-plotted and suspenseful.

Janice Law’s excellent Fires of London has been reviewed on SS before, so I’ll skip it for now – except to say that her depiction of the Blitz is spot-on! and, that her choice of protagonist was not only daring, but one of the greatest ideas I’ve encountered on the written page in some time. If enough folks want to know why I feel this way, I’ll be happy to explain some other time. But, today’s post will concern the other book of the pair:


David Edgerley Gates’ novel Black Traffic is a sprawling espionage story that opens during the closing days of World War Two, then continues and concludes in Cold War Berlin -- with action going down on both sides of the wall!

In April,1945 Graf von Woldegk, a colonel in the Nazi intelligence apparatus, approaches members of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, offering to turn over an established network of German agents (cover name: AUROCHS) working under deep cover within the Soviet Union, if the Americans will promise safe haven for those in the network and their families.

Unfortunately for Woldegk, however, he’s been beaten to the punch by Reinhard Gehlen, a Nazi running another spy network against the Soviets. The OSS has already promised safe passage for the Gehlen Organization (one of many non-fictional elements in the novel) and their family members, and they figure one network is enough, so Woldegk is told to hit the bricks.

Fast forward to Berlin in 1966. Army CID investigator Andy Wye is trying to find out who’s stealing large quantities of alcohol from the Army Class XI ration supply and selling it on the black market. His investigation takes an unexpected turn, however, when a man who is a suspected KGB-controlled operative pops up in the mix, and Andy begins hearing hints about a tie-in called AUROCHS.

A particularly interesting note about Andy is that he’s a Spec-9 (which stands for Specialist 9). This means he draws Sergeant Major pay, but is NOT a Sergeant Major.

How is this possible? 

The Army created the “Specialist” category of soldiers, in response to a problem: certain military jobs such as cook, radio operator, intelligence analyst, etc. relied on enlisted soldiers with experience. The army knew it needed these folks to reenlist, in order to hang onto that necessary experience. Thus, these jobs required room for promotion. After all, who wants to stick around in a dead-end job?

Problem is: the soldiers who filled these positions were by-and-large not people who had ever led anyone. They had technical knowledge and technical experience, but no leadership experience. And the army didn’t quite trust them to effectively lead other soldiers; they wanted them to exercise their technical skills instead. It was that technical skills experience the army was paying to keep, after all, not leadership ability.

On the other hand, Non-Commissioned Officers (Sergeants) do lead other people. So, the army assigned NCO’s to the units these soldiers were in, in order to provide much-needed leadership. At the same time, however, the army also needed a way to promote technicians to higher pay-grades (E-4 through E-9), without promoting them above the authority level of their NCO leadership.

The solution was the creation of the “Specialist”: a soldier who does not have leadership authority, but can work his way up the pay grade ladder anyway.

Thus, Andy doesn’t have any of the command authority that would normally come with his pay grade. Nor, to an extent, does he get the respect that a Sergeant Major would enjoy. Instead, he’s worked his way up through the ranks, to a well-paying position, with a lot of perks, but he’s not really in charge of anyone. On the other hand, he has a lot of power when it comes to managing a criminal investigation.

Gates’ decision to make Andy Wye a high-level Specialist is a stroke of pure brilliance in my opinion.

Why “Brilliance”? A Couple of Reasons: 

I can think of a very successful mystery series that I can’t stand to read, because the protagonist is an ex-CID officer, but the author clearly has NO IDEA what Army CID personnel actually do, or how soldiers behave. And this is frustrating to me, because the plotlines, the characterization, and the tone are -- otherwise -- rather appealing (judging from the two books I’ve beaten against my walls).

To explain: CID stands for Criminal Investigation Division. Army CID is extremely similar in operational nature to a detective bureau in a municipal or state police agency. CID personnel investigate crimes that occur on military installations, or -- in certain, very limited instances -- crimes that occur off-post, but involve military personnel. Given: CID personnel are federally sworn, because they operate for a department of the federal government, but they are not FBI agents. And, the CID guys I’ve met never tried to claim they were. 

When it comes to combating espionage, however, this work is performed not by CID, but by CI: Counterintelligence. Army CI is subordinate to the Military Intelligence Branch, while CID is subordinate to the Army’s Military Police Branch. And almost never the twain doth meet … partly because the two jobs require different types of procedures, and -- of necessity -- are governed by very different rules of conduct. Only in extraordinary circumstances would the two elements work together.

In the mystery series I mentioned earlier, however, while the main character is an ex-CID officer, his history is one of having worked multiple counterintelligence operations, as well as other ops that would be more akin to something an officer in a Ranger battalion might do. Additionally, his attitude in one book, which was set back in time when he was still in the army, was much closer to that of an old (and I mean pre-1980’s here) Special Forces officer, than to that of an MP or CID officer. [In my experience: MP’s and CID tend to place a high value on law-abidance and maintaining order, while SF officers – particularly back before SF was an officially recognized army branch -- tend to value mission accomplishment more greatly than law-abidance and maintaining order.]

Thus, not only this protagonist’s experience, but also his behavior, was very improper, given the type of officer he was supposed to have been. I found him just as difficult to believe, as I would if I were to read about two police patrolmen who were widely respected, honest and efficient, and who then went to arrest a suspect and -- after cuffing him -- raided his liquor cabinet and got drunk while watching TV wrestling in his living room, leaving the suspect to lie on the floor at their feet. This behavior wouldn’t match the character aspects the two cops are supposed to have. I can believe they’re respected, honest and efficient, or I can believe that they’re bad cops who raid the liquor cabinet, get drunk and watch wrestling when arresting a suspect – but I CAN’T believe BOTH at the same time.

Just one more thing, ma'am..

I met probably a half-dozen CID or ex-CID soldiers, during my time in service. From what those guys told me, most CID personnel are enlisted folks; not officers. Which makes sense to me, because there are far more enlisted slots in the army than there are officer slots. Yet, authors sometimes seem to love casting their characters as officers. So, the protagonist of Black Traffic being an enlisted man was like a breath of fresh air. Honest air.

And, it also added a layer of detail and complication to the plotline.

Andy is an E-9, but he works for a First Sergeant. A First Sergeant is an E-8, one pay grade below Andy’s. But, the First Sergeant (sometimes called a “First Shirt”) is an NCO. He has leadership authority, while Andy is a Specialist and thus has none. This is why Andy works for the First Sergeant, even though he makes more money than his boss does.

Also, because he’s an E-9, people like myself immediately understand that Andy probably has a couple decades of experience, that he started out as a regular MP but was promoted quickly and reassigned to CID during his second or third enlistment, and that he’s quite intelligent, is a good soldier who does his duty, and has closed many successful cases. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be an E-9; he’d be a retired E-7 or E-8. That’s the way the system works.

The thing is: the First Shirt has the authority to pull Andy off a case. And, once CIA and British MI6 get involved, after that probable KGB-controlled guy pops up, that’s just what he wants to do. Andy, on the other hand -- though he has no authority -- does have a lot of unofficial weight he can lob around, because he’s an E-9. Plus, he’s got a lot of experience that the First Shirt ignores at his own peril. Andy doesn’t want to give up the case. To stay on it, he tells the First Shirt that he wants to find out who’s stealing government property and selling it on the black market. His argument is that he’s not interfering with an intelligence operation; he’s working to plug an illegal leak in the army’s supply chain. Beginning to see what I mean about added layers and complications?

Spooks on the Loose 

CIA -- at least, at first -- is happy to use Andy as a cat’s paw, letting him work his criminal case, because the criminal aspect is one of the few threads of the mystery that anyone can pull on to unravel the espionage knot lying hidden at the heart of things.

MI6, however, is not so sure they want that knot unraveled. And, before it’s over KGB, GRU, and East and West German police and intelligence agencies will begin muddying the waters for their own reasons. Some find it advantageous to help Andy, or at least not to hinder his efforts, while others will stop at nothing -- including murder -- to keep him from succeeding.

All of this goes on in a richly drawn, well explained world of the military and intelligence communities of that time, grafted onto then-existing real-life German cultural norms in Berlin, while Gates seamlessly weaves history, such as the Gehlen organization, into the fictional plotline of his story. In fact, this “procedural” aspect, coupled with the historical inclusions, are highly reminiscent of the best of John le Carré.

Meanwhile, David Edgerley Gates also gives us a prose that’s filled with the true to life vernacular of army soldiers -- much of it uproariously funny. And, he’s careful to keep to the straight and narrow, so that his characters remain soldiers if they’re soldiers, and spooks if they’re spooks. Though it’s impossible to predict what anyone is going to do next (and surprises abound!), nobody does something that flies against what might logically be expected of a person who was actually working that job in that place at that time – thought some do push the envelope. In fact, the way he handles the military and intelligence aspects of the book remind me of some of best-selling author W.E.B. Griffin’s best works.

I bought a lot of Griffin’s books when I was in the army, purchasing many at my local PX stores. I read and loved them, but they tend to be about military or police life and aren’t necessarily everybody’s cup of tea.

I believe Black Traffic, however, would not only do well at military exchange stores, I think it is a book that deserves to be read by anyone who enjoys well told espionage tales that reveal many of the complex procedures involved. It’s one of those rare works that is ‘gritty’ yet doesn’t leave a reader feeling soiled by what he’s read.

And, I downloaded my copy from Amazon, so I didn’t even have to drive across town to buy it.

See you in two weeks!

02 May 2013

Some Thoughts on "Cosplay" Fiction

by Brian Thornton

Eve Fischer, with whom I alternate Thursday entries in this blog, and I share several things in common. For starters, we've both published short stories with (among other venues) Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (her stuff is better, though), we both are fascinated by larger-than-life characters who spring from the pages of history (like this globe-trotting rascal). And we're both professionally-trained historians (She's got a PhD., while I putter along armed with a mere M.A.) who write historical mystery. If you've not read her latest post about the Antikythera computer and her take on why we do (and should) study the past, give it a look here.

Eve concludes this terrific post with an examination of two distinct types of biases that people down through the ages have used to ignore the past: the first (often held by the young) is that history is irrelevant and has nothing to teach us, because, after all, if ancient people were so valuable to society as a whole, why didn't they invent a better mousetrap? The second is the rose-colored glasses view, where "everything just made so much more sense, back in (insert fondly remembered decade here)."

Pretty astute, my colleague from the Dakotas.

Reading her post got me to thinking about historical fiction and those who write and read it. Historical fiction (and by association its combination cross-genre/sub-genre historical mystery) is supposed to be at least somewhat rooted in fact. That separates it from other genres such as literary, sci-fi, fantasy, romance, and so on. And while it's possible to play fast and loose with the details (something every writer of historical fiction does to a greater or lesser extent), if you stray too far from the customs/events, etc., contained within the historical context, you're not writing historical fiction, you're writing a type of speculative fiction known as "alternate history" (like Harry Turtledove), or, if you go even further off the beaten path, steampunk.

I've read and enjoyed examples from both of the genres listed above. What's more, I certainly enjoy creative takes on existing subjects, otherwise I wouldn't have spent so much time writing and reading historical mystery lo these many years. And when it comes to respecting the work of writers in other genres, I yield to no one in my admiration for the professionalism, hard work and dedication of folks who write romance, be it contemporary or of the historical variety (and anyone who looks down thier nose at romance writers and is a fool. These folks are the very definition of "pros." AND they're usually the hardest-working people you'll find at any gathering of writers from the various genres).

That said, there is a particular variety of "historical mystery" that absolutely drives me up a tree.

I'm talking about what I call "anachronistic historical fiction."

Is "anachronstic historical fiction" contradiction in terms?


But that's because the stuff I'm talking about, which, admittedly is incredibly popular and sellssellssells, is not really historical mystery.

So why not call it what it is? To borrow a phrase that has recently popped up in the geek world: let's call it "cosplay" (short for "costume play").

 This type of "historical" usually involves characters with refreshingly (and familiarly) modern attitudes, displaying them in times/situations that, if this were historical fact instead of historical fiction, would have gotten the people displaying said modern sensibilities, hung, shot, drawn and quartered, excomunicated, burned at the stake, or worse.

But the cosplay world in publishing these days seems to be a largely reality-free zone.

Let me give you an example (and since I'm not interested in picking on anyone in particular, it'll be a general one). In, say, early 19th century London, a plucky female protagonist stumbles across a dead body in her family's garden and decides to solve the mystery surrounding the person's death.

Well and good. You have my attention.

Now, let's say that this heroine strikes out alone, in the dead of night, to "interview" the street sweeper who was the last person to have a drink with the dead man in her garden. Big deal, you say.

Well, yes, it is. A small but important point- up until just a few years ago it was considered at the least bad form for a woman to go out unescorted in most European societies, and especially at night.

"But," you say, "this heroine is plucky!"

"And stupid," would be my reply. Big cities tended to be neither particularly clean, nor particularly safe during the period in question. A woman out unescorted during this time would have been considered fair game by some of the rougher element and deserving of whatever trouble came her way by most of the rest of society.

Now an occurrence like this placed in a story by the hand of a historical fiction master such as Ruth Downie, Jenny White, Iain Pears, Jason GoodwinMax ByrdSusanne Alleyn (whose book about people screwing up history can be found here and is not to be missed!), Kenneth Cameron or a host of others, would no doubt be a large and important part of the plot. Great writers such as those listed above can take an otherwise unbelievable occurrence and wordsmith it to the point where it's believable.

That's not what I'm talking about here.

What I'm getting at is that this is the sort of pretty anachronistic occurrence that gets thrown into cosplay fiction on a fairly regular basis. And usually without seeming remarkable to either the author or the character in question.

And then there's the language.

Which will be the subject of my next post!

01 May 2013

Restless Brain Syndrome

by Robert Lopresti

(Happy May Day!  All the photographs are by my brother Tom LoPresti, used by permission  See more of his work here.)  

I have written before about the seasons of  a writer's lfe, which have no necessary connection with the weather the natural world is producing  Nonetheless I seem to be experiencing a writer's spring this season.

Writer''s spring is the period when ideas seem to be popping up everywhere like seedlings out of the ground.

Here is a for-instance.  Normally I average about one song per month.  (By no coincidence I belong to a songwriting group that meets once a month.  I like to have something to bring there.)  But in the first seventy days of this year I wrote zero songs.  In the month that followed I averaged one a week.  Welcome to spring!

My brain seems to be open to stimuli right now in ways that don't happen nearly often enough.  Last week I was in a grocery store and I saw a young couple walking into the store.  I heard her say "..was an impulse buy."

I'm sure the missing word was "It" or "That" but my restless brain immediately went in a different direction.  I yanked out my notebook and started scribbling.

He was strictly an impulse buy
Not exactly her kind of guy
But he might just be worth a try
Filling a lonely night

By the time I was home and the groceries were unpacked the whole song was waiting to be typed.

 I have mentioned, probably too often, that I won the Black Orchid Novella Award last December.  I have lately been pondering writing another story with the same characters.  Thje first one was titled "The Red Envelope," which was a hat-tip to Rex Stout's novel The Red Box (the BONA is given out by the Wolfe Pack, which promotes Stout's works and menory).

I have a list of possible titles based on other Stout books, for future stories in the series.  I have been pondering "The Second Audition," suggesting Stout's The Second Confession.  But until a few weeks ago I had nothing but a title.  Then I got an idea I really liked, involving a mystery much more puzzling than a murder: a why-done-it.  The only problem was, I had no idea what the solution to the puzzle should be.. 

Then I woke up at three AM and the solution was staring me in the face.  Easy!

Recently Jan Grape wrote a lovely piece here about the middle-of-the-night-idea dilemma.  Do you get out of bed and write it down, or trust your memory?  I pondered that question for several minutes.  The idea seemed so good that I didn't believe it would vanish by morning.  On the other hand, putting it to paper might calm my restless brain and help me sleep.  Besides, Jan's piece was a good reminder of what can happen if you go nighty-night, so I dug up a pen and paper and wrote down two sentences.

That idea is still sprouting branches.  We will see if I ever get around to writing it.

A day, a week, or a month from now the writer's spring in my head will die away and I will need to start growing the little blossoms into something that can be harvested.  But this is my favorite time of the metaphoric year.

30 April 2013

Journaling and Outlining

This column continues threads from (read "leans heavily on") two recent posts, one by Brian Thornton on journal keeping and one by John Floyd on outlining. I'm both a journal keeper and an outliner, and I don't know which is more important to my writing. Prior to reading the aforementioned posts, I probably would have said that outlining was a defining characteristic of my approach to mystery writing, while journaling was merely a secondary or even incidental one, like my preference for writing in longhand. (It was good enough for Cervantes.) After all, you can divide a group of writers into warring camps--or at least into debating teams--by mentioning outlining. Journal keeping doesn't provoke that kind of response. But since considering Brian and John's posts together, I've come to see how fundamental journaling is to my work habits, in part because it makes my outlining possible.

As as aside, I have to say that, like John, I've always enjoyed hearing writers talk about the nuts and bolts of writing. I don't even mind the rare occasions when a writer bangs the podium and insists that there's only one right way to do something. When I hear "this is the way," I always mentally translate it into "this is what works for me." And when I speak to a group of aspiring writers, I always tell them to make the same mental translation if I should pound the podium, though that would be wildly out of character.

As an aside to the last aside, it fascinates me that writers seem to outline or not because of some inherent predisposition. You may be able to influence a few fence sitters, but most writers are firmly in one or the other pasture. Great writers reside on both sides of the fence. My favorite examples are two Southern novelists who happened to be friends, Shelby Foote (outliner) and Walker Percy (non-outliner), and two mystery writers who happen to be friends, Peter Lovesey (outliner) and Michael Z. Lewin (non-outliner). Their photos are reproduced here in the order named. You may notice that the outliners (on the left) appear less stressed and more serene in general. (I refuse to comment on the respective hairlines of the two pairs, but I can't stop you from drawing your own conclusions.)

I start my writing day with my journal, a spiral bound notebook. If I'm at work on a book or a short story, I record my progress from the day before (pat myself on the back) and write about the new day's challenges. From there, if I'm lucky, I move right from the notebook to my latest yellow legal pad and start the actual writing. This priming of the pump or stretching of the writing muscles is one of the things I value most about keeping a journal. It's a non-threatening way to get the pencil moving, a defense against the writer's-block-inducing pressure of writing for posterity right out of bed.

My journal is a writer's block defense in another way, of course. It's a storehouse for book and story ideas. If I'm not writing a book or a story, my journal entry will probably be about a new idea or a reconsideration of an old one. Some ideas demand to be written fairly quickly. Others are improved by "blue skying," a term I picked up from software designers back when I was a technical writer. For me, blue skying is simply kicking an idea around, asking questions like "What if X happens?" or "What would Y do then?" until the story starts to take shape. Brian mentioned that he sometimes writes himself into a corner when he's working on a story. That sometimes happens to me in the idea development process, and this is also when I back out of the corner, if I can. (If I can't, it's on to the next idea and no hard feelings.)

At this point, if the idea is for a short story, I'll probably just write a first draft. For a book idea, I'll next write a step outline, also in my journal. It's just one line for each major event (usually a chapter) of the novel-to-be. This process will be interrupted by more blue skying as I encounter breaks in my plot chain that require new links. Say I'm writing a book for Owen Keane, my ex-seminarian amateur sleuth. My questions to myself will now be "What does Owen believe to be true at this moment?" and "Believing that, what would he do?"

Next, I turn to the legal pad and write an outline--by which I mean a plot summary--cribbing from the plot notes and character sketches in my journal. My mystery novels average around 75,000 words. My plot summary for a book that length will run around 6,000 words. When it's time to write the book, I place the outline in the three-ring binder that will hold my daily pages. Now the outline is not only a prompt to my memory; it's also yet another anti-writer's-block device. I never have to figure out what Keane is going to do on a given day, though I may still have to work out exactly how he'll do it. For example, the outline may only tell me that Owen has to interview the manager of an apartment complex to find out what happens to the belongings of a tenant who skips out (and maybe wheedle access to those belongings). On the day I write that scene, I still have to come up with an interesting setting, cast the part of the manager, and write some deathless repartee. (And make lunch.)

To me, this process answers one of the common criticisms of outlining, which is that it's somehow less creative than simply following one's muse. That might be true if I were getting my outlines from Plots "R" Us or producing them using a complicated formula and a calculator. In reality, I acquire an outline by--gasp--following my muse. I'm just recording a high level or macro view of that muse's traipsing around. In fact, I see outlining as being creative of the macro level and writing the book as being creative on the micro level. But I'm always being creative. (Except when I'm making lunch. If it's turkey on rye on Monday, it's turkey on rye every day that week.)

A second criticism of outlining--one that John mentioned in his post--is harder to answer. It's the fear some non-outliners have that they will lose interest in a story if they know how it ends. Such a writer is motivated by the suspense of not knowing. For a certain type of storyteller, though (and perhaps the Irish are overrepresented in this group), there is something compelling about knowing the story you're telling, knowing where every shock and laugh is, knowing that the payoff is worth the effort of the telling. Think back to some favorite story you love to tell (the one that makes your children or grandchildren elbow each other and roll their eyes or, perhaps, lean forward in anticipation). Writing from a solid outline gives the same kind of satisfaction.

Where I think the chase-the-muse writers may have a true advantage is in the all-important matter of pacing. But that's a subject for another post.

29 April 2013

I Found My Thrill (but not on Blueberry Hill)

The original title at the top of this was simply "Thriller."  When my grandson stood behind me and saw that, he asked, "G-Mama, are you writing about Michael Jackson?"  I'm not, so I changed the title though I'm not writing about Fats Domino either.  (BTW, my grandson is the ONLY person who can stand behind me while I write without igniting my wrath.)

Somehow I don't believe this photo really
needs a cut line.
As some of you know, my Callie Parrish Mystery series is so close to cozy that I don't object to being classified as a cozy writer.  I wrote the first one following what I thought were the guidelines for cozies, but Berkley Prime Crime thought not and  marketed them as Mainstream Mystery.  I've also done some writing under pen names because I didn't want to offend or upset those wonderful people who read about Callie and Jane nor disillusion any of my former students that Ms. Rizer might say something that wasn't "nice."

I'm presently trying to find a publisher for a new thriller, and when I do, it will be published under the name Fran Rizer.  I've decided I'm too old to try to protect my reputation any longer, and the students I last taught are now grown. It's not going to hurt for my readers to realize that while Callie Parrish doesn't use profanity, Fran Rizer knows how to spell those words!

Since my genres sometimes cross, I researched genres again when I finished this book to see what I'd written. Yes, there are several murders (way more than the maximum of  two  allowed in a cozy), but I wasn't quite sure what  to call this book.  After all, I researched cozies before the first Callie book, and didn't hit the target. My agent helped me.  He calls this a southern mystery thriller.  Everyone knows the meaning of southern and mystery, but what exactly IS a thriller?

I'll share my findings with you, but please don't think I'm comparing my thriller with the ones mentioned in this article.

First off, I don't believe in writing "formulas."  There is no formula for writing a thriller, but there are shared characteristics.  The biggest one is obvious:  thrillers "thrill."  The plots are scary with great risk to the characters, making the reader either eager to turn the page or scared to turn the page and see what's next.

Thrillers cross many writing genres and can be divided into different categories:  action thrillers, military thrillers, psychological thrillers (like Hitchcock's Psycho), romantic thrillers, sci-fi thrillers, spy thrillers, and even more.  The stories begin with a major, generally life or death, problem and a protagonist who attempts to solve it only to find the threat grows bigger and bigger and more and more dangerous.  The confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist is dramatic, and the book ends with a short wrap-up.

Recognize these people?
The thrillers that most interest me are the thriller murder mysteries. Some are classic "Who-done-its?" Thomas Harris's Silence of the Lambs is that kind of thriller.  We don't know who committed the murder(s) until the end.
Ken Follett's The Eye of the Needle and Peter Benchley's Jaws are "How-done-its?"  The readers (or movie viewers) know who the bad guy is from the very beginning.  The tension and thrill is in the question, "Will they catch him/her/it before more people are killed?"  Note that the bad guy doesn't have to be human.  It can be an animal like in Jaws.
Dick Francis died in 2010.  He had
received numerous awards including
three Edgars, the Crime Writers'
Association Cartier Diamond Dagger,
 and the MWA Grand Master Award.

Not all murder mysteries are thrillers.  Many are puzzles that are interesting and entertaining but don't sweep the reader into a thrilling action-filled ride. Dick Francis's works don't fit that category.  He was a master of the mystery thriller.

There are mystery/thriller writers whose works surpass the genre and become serious art.  Examples are:

Raymond Chandlers Phillip Marlow novels, James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice; John D. McDonald's Travis McGee novels; and Ross McDonald's Lew Archer novels.  They all make serious social commentary and have existentialist undertones. Somehow, I don't think I'll fall into that category, but I'm pleased enough with my new southern mystery thriller under my own name.

Wish me luck finding a publisher for this new venture.

Until we meet again… take care of you.

28 April 2013

Ecstasy of Eva Braun

This review is not of a crime novel in the normal sense, but a sketch of perhaps the greatest crime in modern history.

Eva Braun An ARC arrived at a time I was traveling between continents, indeed between hemispheres, but I kept returning to the novel, snatching paragraphs in planes and airports and at odd moments otherwise. These readings were punctuated by looking up facts and figures to track the progress of the novel: i.e, was Gotz Rupp a real figure? Who was Gunnar Eilifsen? And then I needed time to digest the writings.

Paean of Pain

The Patient Ecstasy of Fraulein Braun is an unusual novel, a rarity in how it worms into the minds of Germans and especially Nazis of the era. A sly encomium, it creates a seemingly naïve but subversive panegyric to Adolf Hitler. Unlike genre novels, suspense is notably absent; virtually no tension arises even though we know the rough outlines of the ending. Albert Speer once said, "Eva Braun will prove a great disappointment to historians," but author Lavonne Mueller begs to differ.

We know Braun primarily from her films and photographs of Hitler, whose intimate relationship wasn't revealed to the public. Braun (through the hand of Lavonne Mueller) discusses 'Adi' in glowing tones of worship, her Juliet to his Romeo. To categorize Eva Braun as a groupie would be to trivialize her because her character exhibits startling whitecaps of profundity in a shallow sea of insipidness. The book offers a convincing peek into a personal side of Hitler, although it's more a dissertation describing those who loved and admired him.

Führerbunker Mentality

Mueller helps us comprehend the immoral, the insane amidst the then political landscape, how normal became horrific and horror passed as normal, a beastly beauty and rightness seen only by willingly indoctrinated Nazis. At one point Eva asks herself, "Why doesn't the world understand?"

From historical documents culled from the time, we know this isn't an aberration. Consider sources such as a letter Magda Goebbels sent her eldest son, Harald Quandt, shortly before she 'euthanized' her remaining six young children and committed suicide the day after Hitler's: "Our glorious idea is ruined and with it everything beautiful and marvelous that I have known in my life."

Now you begin to sense the underpinnings of the novel. Nazism encapsulated a peculiarly twisted view where those not of the Aryan ideal were exploited and then destroyed. Jews were dehumanized until they were less than livestock, where they'd become 'bacteria' to be eradicated. A good German might feel angst at the loss of a prized housekeeper or craftsman, not of the loss of human beings.

Guns and Roses

Intellectuals and protesters like the White Rose were 'patriotically executed' for the betterment of the German state, which had become synonymous with the Nazi Party. The concept of 'blood guilt' gave sanction to wipe out the families of those considered traitors.

The Party had become not only the government, but the religion. Thus developed a disconnect between good and perceived good, between evil and perceived evil, a topsy-turvy madness where wicked was wonderful. The killing aped John Ruskin to the extreme, that war is peace and death is artful.

In this story, Braun becomes emblematic of the German citizen, a token, an exemplar of Germanic thought condensed in one woman. She strives to humanize the inhuman, helping us understand what enamored the German nation. Whatever the country felt precipitated in her, distilled and refined. Hitler wasn't merely her hero, he was her god. In Him (her caps), all things were beautiful and perfect, a being who could do no wrong. Naziism exemplified beauty, all else was tainted.

Adolph and Eva

The book's blurb calls Patient Ecstasy 'a disturbing, erotic novel'. True, the author is at ease with kink and sexuality and is clearly skilled to sketch dark, erotic paintings inside the recesses of the human mind, and yet the story isn't erotic in any expected sense. Arguably it's not erotic at all, no more titillating than, say, a nightshirt Eva wore to her wedding bed confiscated from the body of a dead Russian.

Other than a brief 'banana drama' and a strong bent toward submission, the casual reader will find no lingering scenes that dawdle over exploration of sexual feelings and body parts. Braun's baring of her breasts comes off as clinical, a self-serving shadow of a gesture in the midst of war. Here Mueller merges Naziism and the horrors of battle with Hitler's prim and stunted sexuality, not that Braun has the least doubt her paramour is the most perfect male, the most virile potentate on the planet.


The historical accuracy is impressive, if sometimes overly detailed down to minute observations such as street numbers. I compared a few of Mueller's events against the known timeline and variance, if any, appears so slight as to be negligible. The author's research gives us virtually a history with an overlay of imagined personalities and conversations, a way to make the reader comprehend the incomprehensible.

Therein lies the power of the book, indeed what fiction should do but rarely accomplishes. Most historians say events cannot be grasped without submersing oneself in the mood and period. This text helps us understand what cannot be understood, not Hitler himself, but his admirers and the mad sense of the day.

Read at Your Own Risk

And that makes the book frightening, because we begin to realize the possibility history could repeat itself. Therein lies the suspense I considered missing from the novel. Suspense hides the horror that writhes barely buried beneath the skin waiting to erupt again upon an unsuspecting world.

27 April 2013

Creating Deception

by John M. Floyd

Let me start by saying this is an interesting time, around our house. As of this writing, our third child (and only daughter) is expecting her first baby, and since he (it's a boy) is due shortly, it means my wife Carolyn and I are expecting as well. Every time the phone rings, Carolyn jumps like she just sat on a cactus plant.

Less important but still stressful is the fact that my fourth book is due to be released next week. (I've already done one signing, in my hometown some seventy miles north of us; the "official" launch of the book here in the Jackson area will be a signing and reading at Lemuria Bookstore this coming Wednesday.) Why should that be stressful, at this point? Well, because my publisher has arranged a boatload of signings and interviews over the coming days and weeks, and with a new grandchild about to make his appearance we could have some last-minute scheduling conflicts.

Taking up the collection

Writingwise, this book--it's called Deception--didn't require a lot of work, because it's a collection of thirty of my short stories, and twenty-eight of those stories were previously published. The actual writing was of course done some time ago, before the individual stories were originally sold to magazines and anthologies. But--believe it or not--the task of arranging stories into a collection can be harder than most folks realize. The very fact that they were written at different times and for different markets can make it difficult for them to exist together in the same volume.

Before I get into that, though, I should probably say a little about the books themselves. All four of my short-story collections were produced by Dogwood Press, a small traditional publishing house owned and managed by Joe Lee, who turned to publishing almost ten years ago after a career in broadcasting. All four contain stories that are primarily mystery/suspense, and that originally appeared in places like The Strand MagazineWoman's WorldMurderous IntentAlfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, etc. And each title, so far at least, has been taken from the title of one of the included stories.

My first book, Rainbow's End (2006), included thirty of my previously published stories; Midnight (2008) had thirty more; Clockwork (2010) had forty. The latest book, Deception (2013), again contains thirty stories, only two of which are new and have not been previously published. Those two original stories were included not because I'm running out of inventory for reprints but because the publisher felt it would be a good idea to (for the first time) throw a couple of new ones into the mix. I've already picked out thirty more stories for a fifth collection in case the publisher eventually decides to go through the mental and financial anguish of producing another one.

The good thing about including only pre-pubbed stories in a collection is that those usually don't require much editing. If they were good enough to sell (depending of course on where they sold), they're probably good enough to be reprinted. The bad thing is that, as I said earlier, there are a few more things to think about than whether the individual stories are properly written.

Writers' guidelines

Here are some of the points (rules?) that my publisher and I had to consider, for each collection of stories. (By the way, he allowed me far more input into the process than an author usually gets, and I'm grateful for that.)

1. Intersperse shorter stories and longer stories. Assuming that the reader will go through the book from front to back and not skip around, you don't want several very long stories grouped together, and the same things goes for very short ones. Like sentences in a paragraph, a variety of lengths seems to work best.

2. Vary the moods and intensity levels of the stories. We tried to arrange the sequence such that there's a mix of lighthearted vs. gritty subject matter.

3. Choose a theme. All the included stories should have something, however small, in common. Setting, characters, genre, etc. In my case, that was easy: all of them involve mystery/suspense.

4. Don't repeat character names (unless the stories are part of a series). Since most of these stories were originally written to "stand alone," we had to make sure we didn't accidentally place a story featuring, let's say, a protagonist named Jerry alongside another story featuring a protagonist named Jerry. In fact we tried to limit the occurrence of any characters having the same first or last names, especially if the names were unusual. When we did find repeated names--unless they were series characters--most of them got changed. I discovered that for some reason I seem to have an odd fondness for first names like Charlie, Jack, Lucy, Eddie, and a few others, and I use them too often.

5. Don't group other genres or subgenres within the book. Even though almost all these stories can be classified as mystery/crime/suspense, they're sometimes cross-pollinated with other categories, like fantasy, humor, Western, romance, horror, or even sci-fi. And we didn't want the reader encountering several space operas (or horse operas) back-to-back.

6. Don't allow pet phrases to sneak in. I came to realize that I often use expressions like "heaved a sigh" and "as pale as chalk" and "stomped into the room" in more than one story. When that kind of thing happens, and you put those stories together in a collection, the repetition of those phrases sounds almost as bad as it might be if you repeated them in the same story. Bottom line is, we went through and tried to catch those "favorite" and overused phrases and change them up a bit. I became extremely familiar with, and grateful for, the search utility in MS Word.

7. Pick appropriate stories to open and close the collection. For each book we've tried to start out with a story that was both engaging and typical, to set the stage for what follows. We also tried to close with a story that was in some way especially memorable. I think it was Mickey Spillane who said the first chapter sells the book and the last chapter sells the next book. The same thing applies to the stories in a collection of shorts.

8. Vary the crimes. Since these are mysteries, we made sure not to create clusters of stories that featured the same crime: murder, robbery, kidnapping, and so forth. With the first book, we almost didn't catch the fact that two jewelry heists were featured back-to-back. If we'd left them that way, readers would certainly have found that distracting.

9. Be consistent in matters of layout and appearance. Case in point: throughout the book, we used the same kind of designator (three asterisks, which is my publisher's preference) to signal a scene break. Some of these had to be changed when the stories were incorporated into book format. For example, those shorts that had previously sold to AHMM  had used a single pound-sign (my preference) to comply with that magazine's scene-break guidelines. Also, all the stories in this latest book begin on a right-hand-side (odd-numbered) page.

10. Finally, we decided not to group stories that had been previously published in the same magazine. In other words, we put some space between stories sold in The StrandAHMM, or wherever. The only exception to this occurred with some of the "series" mysteries I'd written for Woman's World. Each book so far has featured between six and eight of those mini-mysteries (which use recurring characters), and we've always placed those together, one right after the other, in the exact center of the book. I can't tell you why we did that, except that it just felt right.

One for all or all for one

Some of the points mentioned above also come into play if one is editing an anthology rather than a collection, but the placement of the stories and the avoidance of repetition isn't quite as difficult for anthologies because those stories are--by definition--written by different authors. Pet phrases and duplicate character-names obviously don't happen as often when different authors are involved. In the case of a mystery anthology that I edited several years ago--it included our own Liz Zelvin, Herschel Cozine, and Deborah Elliott-Upton--my main concern was making sure that stories with certain crimes and certain "moods" didn't get grouped too closely together. And I also tried to maintain a good mix of short vs. long, and to choose appropriate stories to begin and close the book.

Have any of you had to wrestle with these kinds of choices? (If you've put together an anthology you probably have, or if you've been allowed some "say" in the process of creating a collection of your own work.) If so, what are your thoughts on the subject? Did you find the selection and placement of the stories difficult? Challenging? Frustrating? How big a task was it to update and retrofit and otherwise edit the stories themselves? Did you run into any issues I haven't mentioned?

Regardless of the difficulties, we probably agree on one thing: it's worth the trouble.

26 April 2013

The After Story

In novels and movies, the story usually ceases right after the climax. We, the audience, feel good or bad depending upon how the story ended for the protagonist, antagonist or minor characters whom we've grown attached to, but that's the last we know of them. Unless there's a sequel, we seldom get a look into what happened afterward.
Sure, in the fairy tale, the Prince woke up Snow White with a kiss which earned him a luscious lady and we're told they lived happily ever after. End of story. But, when you think about it, this independent bachelor suddenly acquired spousal duties, plus immediately inherited seven little people, at least one of whom was Grumpy. You can't tell me those two love birds didn't have a squabble or two. That's the after story, that's reality.

Occasionally, a movie such as American Graffiti or Animal House provides some after-story notes to let the audience know what eventually happened to their characters beyond the climax. After all, inquiring minds have an attachment to the characters they became emotionally involved with and they want to know how those characters ended up much later.

So, here's one of my street stories of how the deal went down.

Bennie dealt in kilos and had two Green Cards who brought him the coke in from California. In turn, the two Green Cards obtained their high quality product from family members in an area one of the larger Mexican cartels called home. Our boy Bennie was no virgin to the world of crime, seeing as he had two priors for homicide. He'd also been a member of a radical group. Not the kind of guy you'd invite over to the house for Sunday dinner.

Slim, a guy with one foot in the outlaw world, had managed to put Bennie and me together for a meet in a hotel at the other end of the state. Bennie was bringing coke to the table and I was bringing thousands of dollars in US currency. Everybody expected to leave the hotel room happy,...except I got to the room first.

The local police techs installed a video camera in the air duct high up in the wall overlooking most of the room. Naturally, on the other side of the wall in their own room they had set up monitors to keep track of what was going on in the buy room. They also placed a tape recorder underneath the plastic liner in a waste basket located next to the coffee table in the buy room. Then, in a room across the hall waited a SWAT team on standby to make the arrest. After all, Bennie did fall into the deadly and dangerous category.

All equipment worked, everyone in place, our side was ready.

The phone rang. Slim, our informant, said the four of them were downstairs. When I inquired about guns, he replied that he hadn't seen any, but they did have the stuff. I said to bring them on up.

A knock at the door. I opened it. Slim made introductions as each man filed in. Since the two Green Cards had a little trouble with English, Bennie did most of the talking at first. They brought in and set a large ice chest on the coffee table. To anyone else, it would appear that we were about to have drinks.

Being as this was the first time Bennie had ever seen me, he acted a bit standoffish. To make him more comfortable, I took the stacks of money out from under the couch cushions where I'd been sitting and placed said currency on the coffee table. Nothing like lots of high denomination bills to make people talkative. The two Green Cards dropped to their knees and started counting in Spanish, right next to the concealed tape recorder.

At this point, I'm talking to the two Green Cards, asking how often we can do this and how much quantity can they deliver. My talking keeps interrupting their counting. Finally, Bennie, being a more efficient type guy plus feeling left out of the conversation, tells Paco to give him the money to count. Paco should open the ice chest and give me the coke.

Paco and Green Card #2 open the chest lid, take out the beer and pop, and then start pouring the ice and water into the nearby waste basket beside the coffee table. I can mentally hear a large gasp from the cops monitoring us from the next room. I wait to see if smoke is going to start coming up from a suddenly shorted-out recorder. No smoke appears, the plastic liner must be holding.

Using a screwdriver, Paco dismantles the ice chest and hands me two large plastic bags of white powder that had been concealed in the walls of the chest. One bag has a small hole covered with Scotch Tape. Bennie finally admits they sampled the coke earlier to make sure it was good. But of course.

While Bennie and the Green Cards go back to counting money, I speak the bust signal and Slim opens the door. SWAT floods the room. Bennie is truly hurt that he doesn't get to keep the money. Some of it is still possessively clutched in one hand when SWAT stretches him out on the carpet.

End of story, the deal is done, the bad guys caught, all is as it should be. But, since this is reality, there is an after story, a what happened later.

Slim eventually dropped off the radar. Not a bad idea considering his work for us, even if he did have a girlfriend who carried two concealed automatics under her shirt to protect his back. At some point later, Slim and his pistol-packing girlfriend acquired an exotic dancer to round out their little family. I didn't ask, but they probably figured an exotic dancer was more fun than having seven little guys running around underfoot. Seems everybody has different ideas on what they want in life.

Paco, one of those happy-go-lucky type of guys, flipped, so we brought in a translator to help with the debriefing. I'd ask a question, then he and the translator would chat for several minutes before I got a simple answer. At one point, he tried telling me his source was a guy he barely knew who recently got killed in a train wreck. I pretended to study my debriefing notes and then told him in Spanish that he was lying and any sentencing deal was off. Surprised and not knowing how much Spanish I really knew (not much), he immediately changed his story about the source. Paco did his time and then got deported. I had grown slightly  fond of the rascal and often wondered if he lived after going back to Mexico. Them boys down there didn't care much for people who talked to the law. But knowing Paco the way I did, I figured he probably jumped the fence the very next night so he could return to his favorite California bar in order to play guitar, drink tequila and eat shrimp. In which case, I hope he got out of the coke business.

Bennie took his fall and went to Super Max. Ten years later, I'm standing in the lobby of the federal building when I hear this well-modulated voice. "Robert, good to see you." And there's Bennie waiting to get through the security line. "I always liked you," he said. "I have no hard feelings."

Well, that's damn good, cuz now Bennie is obviously back on the street. Seems he got good time in the joint and is now headed upstairs to report in to his federal Parole Officer. Bennie assures me he has changed his life. I wish him well.

After he goes up in the elevator, I tell the two lobby guards that Bennie won't last six months on the outside. Sure enough, three months later, his parole is revoked for assault. Somebody ended up lucky, that could have been Bennie's third homicide. As long ago as all that has been, he may be out again. Hope Bennie meant what he said in our last conversation, about the no hard feelings.

As for me, I get to continue telling tales of the street on the Sleuthsayers blog. Guess I was the one to draw the happy-ever-after card.

Now, about that exotic dancer..........

25 April 2013

The Real Asian Bad Girls

A long time ago I read a pretty good book called "The Asian Mystique:  Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient" by Sheridan Prasso.  (The "our" being the West, of course.)  The sleek, dangerous, powerful, seductive Dragon Lady; the submissive, elegant, sexually available geisha/concubine; the perky, young bar girl who can be saved by the right man - and if it sounds familiar, it should, because most of it is just endless repetitions and variations on the whore with a heart of gold. I can say this because each and every one of these fantasies exists in Asia, too.

But there are real characters behind them.  We're going back in time to the Tang Dynasty in China (618-907 CE), considered by many to be the high point of Chinese culture - the great age of art - painting, ceramics, poetry - and power.  Its capital, Chang'an, was the largest city in the world.  It was also a great age for Chinese dynastic conquest - as you can see from this map: 

File:Tang Dynasty circa 700 CE.png

And during the early Tang, two women rose to power within 100 years of each other, two women who are household names, who once held great power, seduced emperors, and (depending on who's telling the tale) nearly ruined China in the process. 

The Empress Wu (625-705 CE)

File:Gaozong of Tang.jpg
Gaozong Emperor
In 638, Wu Zetian became a concubine of the Taizong Emperor.  She was beautiful, smart, and mind- bogglingly ambitious.  But the Taizong Emperor died in 649 CE, and Wu, like all imperial concubines at that time, was ordered to become a Buddhist nun, complete with shaven head.  She did.  But somehow, in seclusion, drab robes, and with a shaved head, she attracted the attention of the next emperor, her dead husband's son, Gaozong, who brought her back to the palace.  His empress was not amused.  Nor was anyone else - this was completely shocking to both Confucian and Buddhist morality - a man taking his father's concubine who was also a nun?!?!?! 

Anyway, he took her to the palace, and she went to work at gaining power.  She had the empress executed on the grounds that the empress had poisoned Wu's daughter by Gaozong.  (Legend has it that Wu killed her own daughter herself so that she could blame it on the empress.)  She had another concubine, a former favorite, killed.  The Gaozong Emperor himself had a series of strokes in 665 CE that incapacitated him (legend says poison administered by Wu), and Wu began sitting behind a screen behind the throne and giving orders. For the next 18 years, she ruled in his name.

File:Wu Zetian, Empress of China.PNG
Empress Wu
When the Gaozong Emperor died in 683 CE, Wu became the Dowager Empress Wu, ruling as regent for her two sons who never quite made it to adulthood (legend has it...  you can guess).  Finally, in October, 690 CE, she officially took over.  She declared herself Emperor - not Empress - Emperor Shengshen, head of the new, Zhou Dynasty (named after her own family).  She was the only woman in 2100 years of  Chinese history to sit on the Dragon Throne itself.  She bolstered her claim by citing a Buddhist sutra (that I for one have never been able to find) that said a woman would rule the world 700 years after the death of the Buddha.  She ruled for the next fifteen years and, other than trying to wipe out the remaining Tang heirs, she was pretty good at ruling.  (She had a thing for young men, but then so did Catherine the Great.  So did Frederick the Great, but we won't go into that...)  She was finally deposed at the age of 80, and died nine months later. 

The Empress Wu has gone down in Chinese history as one of the most duplicitous, salacious, lustful, evil women in history, and she's been used ever since her death as the reason why women should never rule China.

Yang Guifei (719-756 CE)

File:Tang XianZong.jpg
Xuanzong Emperor
After the Empress Wu died, her son became emperor, who was succeeded by her grandson became the Xuanzong Emperor (685-762 CE).  He was a great emperor in many ways, and a major patron of the arts, but he was dominated by his favorite concubine, Yang Guifei.  This led to one of the few great love stories of China, and, like the tale of Empress Wu, was given as a reason to keep women out of politics.

Yang Guifei was the wife of Xuanzong's son when he met her.  He ordered his son to divorce her, which of course the son (as a good Confucian) did, and had her put in a Buddhist nunnery.  A couple of years passed, and probably a lot of people had forgotten about that obscure ex-wife in a monastery - but then she was brought out, brought to court, and made Xuanzong's concubine.  Which was sort of fine (Father is always right), except he was obsessed with her. 

Yang Guifei mounting a horse.
Her family all got promotions, imperial messengers traveled night and day to bring her her favorite foods, and he never let her out of his sight.  Ever.  His work suffered.  Yang Guifei's favorites were taking over administration.  Eventually, one of her favorites, a strapping young man named An Lushan, launched a rebellion in 755 CE that actually captured the capital.  She was blamed for all of it.  The rebellion was crushed, but the army forced her execution.  She was strangled at a Buddhist shrine and the Emperor was forced to abdicate.

Yang Guifei and the Emperor have had innumerable operas, plays, and, later movies and television shows written about their love, and their great disaster.  Some present her as the author of all the trouble, others as a scapegoat.  (She's also a favorite subject in Japan, where there have been Noh plays and a legend that she actually escaped to Japan.)  The most famous is the Chinese poem "The Song of Everlasting Sorrow" by Bai Juyi: 

File:Jiang qing yanan 001.JPG
So, a Dragon Lady and a Concubine.  The sexy bar girl?  Well, try Jiang Qing, (1914-1991) who began life as the daughter of a failed concubine, became a fairly poor film actress, and met and married the most powerful man in China, Mao Zedong.  She was his fourth and last wife; he was her fourth and last husband.  He modeled himself on the Qin Shihuangdi Emperor; she modeled herself on Empress Wu.  She called herself, after his death, when she was on trial for the crimes of the Cultural Revolution, "Mao's Dog".  She is called to this day the "White Boned Demon".  Who says that only the West has fantasies and cliches? 

NOTE:  On vacation - will be back next week!

24 April 2013

Famous Last Words

Years ago, I read Clancy Sigal's novel GOING AWAY, which is a terrific book about the decline of the Old Left, in the 1950's, but I bring it up because of the epigraph, a guy on his deathbed.
"Take it away," he says.
"What, the pillow?" he's asked.
"No, the mute. I want to play on the open strings."
Nowadays, in this age of antibiotics, we forget that people used to take some time dying. I'm not talking about AIDS or cancer, but more generic, commonplace infections, like pneumonia, which today can usually be cleared up, but before penicillin, were pretty much fatal. People would take to their bed, and in their slow decline, their family and friends would gather around, to bring comfort and prayer, and nobody thought it odd to make note of what you said in your final moments. It might be despairing, or funny, or brave, and often very graceful. There's also the sub-genre of those facing the scaffold. Here are a few.

Give Dayrolles a chair. Lord Chesterfield
All my possessions for a moment of time. Elizabeth I
A dying man can do nothing easily. Ben Franklin
Let not poor Nellie starve. Charles II
Give the boys a holiday. Anaxagoras
I shall hear in Heaven. Beethoven
I want nobody distressed on my account. Ulysses Grant
All is lost! Monks, monks, monks! Henry VIII
I always talk better lying down. James Madison
More light. Goethe
Kiss me, Hardy. Lord Nelson
I owe Asclepius a cock. Socrates
My neck is very small. Anne Boleyn

Some of the best lines seem absolutely unrehearsed, naive in their sincerity. And some are poetry. Stonewall Jackson, shot by one of his own sentries: "Let us go across the river, and into the trees." We can easily imagine being surprised by death, but sometimes it comes by inches. My own mom died a protracted death, and it wasn't easy on her, or anybody else. When my sister and I took her to the hospital for what turned out to be the last time, she was so weak she couldn't even talk. But she looked at me, and made a scissors gesture with her fingers, snipping across her hairline. She meant it was time I went to a barber shop. In effect, my mother's last words to me were a grooming tip. It made me smile then, and it makes smile now. It was so human, and so much in character.

Perhaps the question is whether we die with grace. My favorite quote is attributed to the late actor Sir Donald Wolfit. Close to breathing his last, a friend asked him if he found death hard. Wolfit shook his head.

"Dying is easy," he said. "Comedy is hard."

23 April 2013

Gratuitous Violence

Gratuitous Violence:  In literature, violence that is “unearned,” “unwarranted,” or “unjustified.” 
Collateral Damage:  Used euphemistically to refer to inadvertent casualties and destruction in civilian areas in the course of military operations.
                                                              — The Free Dictionary

        Last month driving back from the Gulf Shores of Alabama Pat and I (finally!) finished listening to World Without End by Ken Follett.  It took us a little over a year to get through this magnum opus since we only listen to audio books on car trips and since the narrated version of this particular novel weighs in at something over 45 hours.  The book is a sequel to a Follett classic -- Pillars of the Earth, which we also listened to and which deals with the building of a cathedral in the imagined town of Kingsbridge, England.  World Without End picks up the story two hundred years later, and focuses on the same church and the surrounding community and priory.

      Pillars of the Earth came in at number 33 on the BBC’s survey of 100 best loved books and was introduced to U.S. readers by Oprah Winfrey.  Ken Follett is also the author of a new trilogy focusing on world history from the late 1800s through the Cold War, two volumes of which, Fall of Giants and Winter of the World have been published.  I've listened to the first of these, and the second is queued up for our next car trip.  So, as you can see, we are Ken Follett fans.  He is is a great writer, and I read or listen to virtually everything he writes.  It was therefore with high expectation that we downloaded World Without End.  Probably 95% of the book was a very good read (err, listen).

      The rest was not.

        Stated simply, Follett (like a worrisome number of other authors) has what I find to be an unpleasant penchant for serving up detailed and unnecessary violence, inviting the reader to join him as he wallows in the torture, the blood and the death throes of others.  Lord knows we have enough of this in the real world without being subjected to it in the fiction we choose to read.

        Wait a minute, I hear you mutter.  This is SleuthSayers.  Virtually everyone here writes murder mysteries.  Certainly I have to plead guilty on that score – every Ellery Queen pastiche I have written kills off at least one character.  And various Ellery Queen parodies over the years have joked that those who allow themselves to stand too close to my friend Ellery must have a death wish since, invariably, someone in close proximity to the famous detective will die. 

        But there is a difference between the manner in which a Golden Age mystery typically portrays death and how it is handled by others, including Ken Follett, who, for whatever reason, allow themselves to become obsessed with the death itself.  The focus in the mysteries of Holmes, Christie, Wolfe and Queen almost invariably is not the violent act, but rather the detective's ability to use the deductive process to determine who committed the act and, even more importantly, how and why.  The violent act – the death of a character – is a necessary prerequisite to the deduction.  But that is it -- the stories are not about how people die, they are about how mysteries are solved.  As a result, the author generally does not force or expect the reader to sit through the details of the process of dying.   Indeed, more often than not writers of golden age mysteries leave death neatly off stage, or at the least take a deep breath and then try to get past the fact of death as rapidly and respectfully as possible.  Death is not, after all, why we are there. 

       And to me this captures what is wrong with Ken Follett’s handling of violence and death.  Winter of the World, like those mystery stories discussed above, is also not about death -- it is about the cathedral, and the lives of those living in its shadow.  True, death is a part of life, for Follett's characters as much as for the rest of us.  But unlike many of his writing colleagues Follett renders his kills in excruciating  detail and on center stage.  Thankfully a reader can skip pages, and a listener can fast forward, but if one reads, or listens to, every page of World Without End -- which, I emphasize, again, is otherwise a very well done piece of literature -- he or she will learn all there is to know about various ways to impale people, what it is like, minute-by-minute, to be burned at the stake, how to skin a thief while he is still alive so that his hide can eventually be nailed to a church door, how to bate a bear while killing it, the detailed process of how best to torture a cat to death while onlookers bet on how long the creature will continue to breathe.   I cover these incidents in three lines of text, but each (and others) comprise many pages of World Without End.  (I haven’t seen the miniseries version of World Without End but I am told that there the producers decided -- what the Hell? -- to set fire to a central character who otherwise survives the book version  un-charred.) 

      And why, one must ultimately ask, does the story vector into one of these episodes every 100 pages or so?  Unlike the deaths that must occur in order for a classic mystery to progress, or that are otherwise necessary for Follett to tell us the story of his cathedral, each of these incidents, particularly in the degree rendered by the author, is completely unnecessary to the progression of the story.  If anything, much of the violence interrupts Follett’s narrative of the church, the community, and the priory.

        Which leads me back to the quotes at the top of the article.   I do not like the notion of “collateral damage” in the real world – the premise that some innocent death is necessary in order to render a greater good – but I understand it.  I can also understand, and use, the concept in fiction.  It is what mystery writers do to an unfortunate few of the characters that we create.  Our victims may be innocent, but they sometimes still need to die, and at our hands.  We accept that they must do so in order to progress the story, to portray the character of the killer, or to lay a foundation for the deductive process that will ultimately unravel the murder in order that the villain can ultimately be unmasked.   However, while our characters are only born from our imaginations, this is no excuse to subject them to unnecessary violence – if we are good at what we do, we commit a great deal of effort attempting to bring our characters to life.   So why kill them without a reason?

       I can push this analysis uncomfortably further down the spectrum.  For example, I have enjoyed the entire Hannibal Lecter series by Thomas Harris.  The violence that Harris subjects the reader to may at times be every bit as graphic as that portrayed by Follett in World Without End.  But there is a difference – each act is necessary to understand Hannibal, and therefore to progress the story.  The same can be said of the new NBC series Hannibal -- you may not like the underlying story but it cannot be told without also depicting the underlying violence.
      By contrast, nothing in Mr. Follett’s story is furthered by devoting pages to describing how to skin the thief alive, how to bate the bear, or how to torture that cat to death.  Those episodes  serve no purpose other than to perhaps titillate a reading public with tastes far different than my own, and I hope, different than most of ours.  When Follett stoops to this in the course of an otherwise interesting plot the violence is (again hearkening back to the top of the article) “gratuitous.”  It is “unearned,” “unwarranted,” and “unjustified.”

        In the end, we each have the freedom to write to our own tastes and within the constraints we impose on ourselves.  In the marketplace it is the reading public that will ultimately determine what and how much it is willing to take in.  But at base I share the view of writer and educator Jack Harrell who has grappled with the ethics of violence in What Violence in Literature Must Teach Us, an essay that comprises one chapter of Ethics, Literature, Theory, edited by Stephen George (Rowan & Littlefield 2005).
When the writer inflicts violence in fictional characters, three conditions must be met in order for the violence to be warranted, in order for it to have moral and aesthetic value.  First, the character must be presented in such a way that the readers are able to care about them.  Second, given the plot and circumstances, the violence must be inevitable.  And third, there must be sufficient tension in the story:  the violence itself must be challenged by an equal, opposing force.
      I think that Harrell comes close to nailing a general rule for the use violence in fiction.  But I also think that any rule, or approach, is difficult to apply with certainty in the writing process since there are, after all, an infinite number of stories out there.  There are churches, and there are also cannibals.

      Broader guidance may be gleaned from a source a bit further removed from the field of fiction -- the late Supreme Court Associate Justice Potter Stewart.  When the Court grappled with the issue of how to craft a useful and generally applicable definition for “obscenity” in the 1964 case Jacobellis v. Ohio, Stewart, in a concurring opinion, offered the following rule for situations amorphous enough to make the articulation of specific guidelines difficult.  Justice Stewart’s proposed approach to identifying obscenity was this:  “I know it when I see it.” 

     So, too, gratuitous violence.

22 April 2013

Reading To Learn

Jan GrapeLike most writers I love reading. I guess I could be perfectly happy reading all day every day. I loved reading so much that my late husband, Elmer and I opened a bookstore in Austin in 1990. We titled it Mysteries and More. The "more" part was because we also had science-fiction, western, and general fiction. But all of those genre were used books. The new books were all mysteries and we had a huge number of used mysteries. I used to say we had 75% used and 25% new books. That was probably accurate. M & M was only the second mystery bookstore in Texas. Murder by the Book was the first and I think it's the only one currently still in business.

It wasn't too long that I realized that we had more books than I could ever read even if I live to be a hundred. That was a sad realization. When we liquidated the store in 1999 we had had nine years of great fun and great adventures, met a large number of mystery authors and had read a great number of books. However, we had decided to realize our dream of traveling the USA and my husband was ready to retire. We took a lot of books with us to read in the late evenings when we couldn't go sight seeing. Both of us loved to read.

I learned a lot about writing by reading. I read books about how-to-write and books about how to market and how to find an agent. I had reference books galore when I still had my house. But after three summers of RV traveling we decided to live full-time in our fifth-wheel, RV. That meant I had to give up about three thousand books I had kept from the store. It was sad to leave "good" friends and I do mean friends because books have always been my friend.

Books took me to far-away places that I'd never be able to travel to and I learned how to do so many neat things from my friends. Besides how to write, I learned how to collect depression glass, old mason fruit jars, stamps and coins. I learned how to make quilts, make cookies & candies, how to make jelly and jam and how to make a Better Than Sex Cake. I learned how to identify wildflowers, how to look for constellations in the stars and the capitols of every state in the union. As Elmer used to always say, "You can learn how to do almost anything, if you can read."

The intriguing thing to me is how you can learn many things about writing from reading other writer's books. I often stop and marvel at a well-turned sentence that somehow seems to say so much. It might be a character description or the way a place looks that immediately puts you there. I don't copy them down but I know they park themselves in the file cabinet in my mind. Not to plagiarize but to remember that there are way to construct a sentence or to construct the character who always lies or the construction of the faded dress worn by the mother of your suspect.

To remember "good" writing especially when you think yours is lacking. I remember a writer friend who wrote children's mysteries telling me once that you must engage the senses on every page. Sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste because that will capture a child's imagination. It will also capture the imagination of anyone, no matter their age.

When I first saw the Mississippi River, I was in my thirties and my mind went back to reading Huckleberry Finn. That mighty old river had been so strong in my mind, the sound, the sight, the smell that Mark Twain brought to the pages of his book made me catch my breath. That old river was familiar because I had read so much about it.

Another way to learn from reading is to volunteer to read for awards or contests. The Edgars and the Shamus nominees and winners are books read by writers who themselves have been published. By a jury of peers as it were. There are contests given by the Private Eye Writers, by the Agatha writers, by the Thriller writers and probably even by the Romance writers. Those contests often offer a prize of publication. If you belong to one of these organizations, volunteer to read for the awards or contest. You might be surprised at how much you learn.

Another opportunity might offer a chance for a writer to help an aspiring writer. Our local Sisters-in-Crime chapter has a mentoring program for aspiring writers. This program is to honor Barbara Burnett Smith, who was tragically killed in 2005. She often mentored aspiring writers and each year aspiring writers can turn in a couple of chapters and a synopsis. These partial manuscripts are read by published authors from our chapter and critiqued. Then after our May Mystery Month meeting the author and aspiring writer have a chance to talk and sometimes the mentor will continue to help the aspiring writer complete their work. No prizes are given but just having your work critiqued by a published author is priceless.

Through the years I've read for awards, contest and for our mentoring program. You read the opening of a book and realize how a writer has "hooked you." Right from the first paragraph. Suddenly you realize what's wrong with your own work in progress. You haven't hooked anyone in the first paragraph or even the first page. Wow. I've always known this, but somehow forgot it when I started this manuscript, you tell yourself.

More likely you'll read a character description that blows you away. Maybe it's short but, so pointed, so precise that you can actually see that character walking down the street. And you see what you need to do to a character who moves the plot along. Maybe a fight scene comes to life and helps you understand your own scene.

There is so much to learn from reading. In fact, I'm going to sign off and get back to the book I'm currently reading, one that I'm sure will help me with my own. I suggest y'all go and do likewise.