12 May 2013

Prophet and Loss

On Thursday, Eve Fisher set aside her usual article and wrote a heartfelt piece about opinion-mongers that judge the three young women who survived imprisonment by Ariel Castro. In a one-size-fits-all society, some people find it hard to understand different people react differently in differing situations. Patty Hearst paid for such judgment after her abduction because prosecutors and the public couldn't understand she'd been brainwashed and probably remains affected to this day.
A person can never tell how they'll react until events overtake them. My own reaction to armed robberies has been an out-of-body distancing: I felt like I was above it all looking down, not fearful or angry but sort of an unreasonable reasonableness. I patiently argued with them: No, I wasn't going to give up my watch and wallet. It wasn't the smartest response and there wasn't anything brave about it, but it was my reaction, one of an untrained man in a dangerous quandary who can't bear being pushed around. Perhaps that's part of the answer: in tense situations our innermost instincts emerge.

Subnormal or Supernatural?

money in the hand
As much as sick Cleveland abductor Ariel Castro disgusts me, another type of predator preys upon victims in the guise of 'helping' others. They call themselves…


Whenever a personal disaster strikes, slimy, slippery-tongued parasites crawl out of money-lined holes. They dispense advice and 'readings' to anyone who'll listen, hoping to make money from another's misery. Marc Klaas, father of a little girl who was raped and strangled, says "You become increasingly desperate and afraid. Every day the police don't find your child, you think they're not doing their job. So you go elsewhere, and psychics put themselves out there as a very viable solution." He goes on to say, "I call them the second wave of predators. First you lose your child and then these people descend. Every time."

Shock and Awww…

Contrary to public relations and opinion, study after study demonstrates predictions are almost always wrong. Nevertheless, psychics invariably find a way to reflect wrong predictions in their favor. In the Caylee Anthony case, close to ninety psychics descended upon Orlando to 'help direct' the search with spirit-guided 'blind driving'. A blathering Nancy Grace went on the air to beg the public to let the "professionals, the police and the psychics, do their job" to find the missing girl.

In fact the psychics, all 86 of them, got the location absolutely backwards, pointing the police in the wrong direction. Out of the first 2500 tips, all but two were from psychics, all of them wrong. And yet by the time of the trial, at least one medium managed to insinuate he'd been right although he hadn't managed to pinpoint the body even after Roy Kronk stumbled across the remains. Blind monkeys throwing darts at a map could have done better.

Nor is Caylee Anthony the only case occultists botched in Florida. The state boasts its own clairvoyant town– Cassadaga. You'd think with so many preternatural mediums gathered in one spot, crime should become a thing of the past, if not abolished at least rapidly solved. Sadly, that's not been the case.

Palmist Predators

In 1979, St. Cloud police relied upon Cassadaga fortune tellers rather than criminal science to assist in a then-rare homicide of a preacher's wife. They failed miserably. Years later, a new police chief and detective reopened the cold case in 2010 and, with proper investigation, came up with the killer.

But Cassadaga wasn't done embarrassing itself. In 2001, Lillian Martin and her grandson, Joshua Bryant, disappeared from nearby Deltona. Psychics tormented the family and variously predicted the grandmother had kidnapped the boy –or– the parents had killed them –or– they were abducted by a long-hauler at a truck stop. Psychics failed to predict they were apparently murdered by confessed killer Douglas McClymont and that the body of Joshua would be found three years later virtually on Cassadaga's doorstep.

But even Florida has its limits. After a dozen states complained, the Feds and the attorney general managed to take Miss Cleo, the actress with a fake Jamaican accent, off the air, but not before she'd conned a handsome living out of her bogus 'readings'.

Bacon Bits

The human mind has a way of convincing itself of things that aren't true. Therefore, I admit a few people may honestly believe they have prophetic dreams or psychic powers. They may be exceptionally good at reading people. I knew one of these for many years and she insisted she was never wrong, and indeed, she was right at least 49% of the time.

Her sister had an amazing talent too, that when she gambled, she never lost. Ever. And yet, when I was with her when she played slots or bought lottery tickets, I never saw her win once. Ever. And yet, she continued to insist, even to me, that she always won. Rob Lopresti quoted Francis Bacon who said the root of all superstition is the human tendency to remember hits and forget misses.

These sisters (two of five) were part of a family fractured by a radio psychic. Their mother's gold cross had gone missing. After months of anger and accusations, another sister phoned a 'world famous psychic' to ask about the missing cross, revealing suspicions about a nephew. The psychic agreed it was obvious the young son of yet another sister had stolen it. The old woman immediately disowned that daughter and her family. Years later, the case for the cross turned up– in the house of the sister who'd originally phoned the psychic.

The Magic of Mental Meddling

Multiple studies of paranormal predictions have discredited psychics and clearly proved several frauds. Subjects respond that scientific approaches and apparatus disrupt the metaphysical fabric of the other world and make it impossible for spirits to function on our side of the curtain. They claim the scientific community is out to get them. They claim the spirits won't speak in controlled environments.

But science professionals aren't the only fronts exposing fraud among spiritualists. A handful of magicians have taken on the task, most notably the Amazing Randi who offers a million dollars ($1,000,000) to any psychic who can prove their mettle. None has passed the test, including Uri Geller.

On Halloween night 2007, magician Criss Angel challenged Uri Geller's psychic ability, offering him a million dollars to prove he was the real thing. Geller could not. Criss Angel wasn't the first to discredit Geller and the list of his skeptics includes Johnny Carson. As far back as the 1970s, a French magician duplicated Geller's so-called feats of mentalism "even more convincingly than Geller." Eventually, Geller's stage manager, Yasha Katz, admitted Geller used simple stage tricks.

Geller blew his big crime chance when he was called in to investigate the disappearance of model Helga Farkas. Geller predicted she was alive and well, when in fact she'd been abducted and murdered.

And now, back to our story…

Sylvia Browne
And so we return to the case of the Cleveland kidnapper. To the disgust of many and the surprise of few, in 2004 infamous psychic Sylvia Browne told Louwana Miller, mother of Amanda Berry, her daughter was dead. The mother died the following year of, according to friends, a broken heart.

And yet after Amanda Berry's release, her cousin Sherry Cole "reached out to Browne" on Wednesday to offer support. "Our family in no way blames Sylvia. … We still love her and believe in her."

Jon Ronson, columnist for The Guardian, believes people are too polite to challenge the celebrity psychic. He's made sort of a project out of Sylvia Browne. Over the years, he's documented one failed prediction after another.
  • Browne claimed missing Texas 6-year-old Opal Jennings had been sold into slavery in "Kukouro, Japan," a place that doesn't exist. An autopsy revealed the little girl had been killed within hours of her abduction and buried in Fort Worth.
  • She told the parents of missing 11-year-old Shawn Hornbeck their little son was dead. The father said, "Hearing that was one of the hardest things we ever had to hear." Four years later, the little boy was found alive and well. Browne's ex-husband, Gary Dufresne, said of his wife: "I try to get her out of my mind as much as possible, but the damage she does to unsuspecting people in crisis situations is atrocious."
  • She claimed 19-year-old Ryan Katcher had been murdered and dumped in an iron mine shaft. Katcher was found in a pond, an apparent victim of accidental drowning.
  • She told Lynda McClelland's daughters in a 'reading' their mother was alive and had been abducted to Orlando, Florida by a man with the initials "MJ". McClelland's body was found buried near her home in Pennsylvania, killed by David Repasky, her son-in-law, who'd shaken Sylvia Browne's hand at the reading.
  • She changed her position three times within an hour in the rapidly unfolding events of the Sago Mine Disaster.
  • She predicted Michael Jackson would be found guilty of child molestation, when in fact he was found innocent.
  • She predicted Osama bin Laden had died in a cave in Iran when in fact he was subsequently killed in a compound in Pakistan.

The Big Lie

Extensive studies of Sylvia Browne proved false her claims she's more than 85% correct, concluding she erred in virtually every substantive prediction,  although in the majority of cases, Browne's 'help' was too vague and watery to be useful, e.g, "I see two boulders somewhere…"
  • Skeptic Robert Lancaster, creator of the web site StopSylvia.com, details a plethora of missing child cases Browne got wrong, noting James Randi calls her a "callous fraud".
  • Steven Brill is the founder of CourtTV, American Lawyer magazine, and the magazine Brill's Content, which examined fourteen cases of known outcomes. Law enforcement officials and victim family members evinced Browne was unable to provide any useful information.
  • Ryan Shaffer and Agatha Jadwiszczok of the Skeptical Inquirer found in 25 cases of known result, Browne was completely wrong.

In other words, if you find yourself blest or beset with a Sylvia Browne prediction, you can pretty much bank on the opposite outcome. Again quoting her ex-husband, Gary Dufresne, after a tarot reading party: "I said to her as we were washing dishes and she was wiping, I said, 'Sylvia, how can you tell people this kind of stuff? You know it's not true, and some of these people actually are probably going to believe it?' And she said, 'Screw 'em. Anybody who believes this stuff ought to be taken.'"

The Big Question

It's bad enough Nancy Grace puts psychics on an equal footing with police investigators, but it's truly embarrassing when police listen to psychics and follow up their 'leads'… which are almost invariably wrong.

The Guardian's Jon Ronson asked CIA psychologist Dr Ray Hyman why the agency and police departments bother to employ psychics. "People are basically nutty, which means there are just as many nutty people within our government and our law enforcement agencies as there are outside them."

Ah, so that explains it. Special Agent Chris Whitcomb of the FBI and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children maintain that to their knowledge, psychic detectives have never solved a single missing-person case, not one, not ever.

Unfortunately, I predict desperate families and police departments will continue to hire clairvoyants. I must be psychic.

11 May 2013

Losing the Edge

Lately I've been reading a lot of mysteries by James W. Hall. His series protagonist lives in the Florida Keys and enjoys, among other things, tying fishing lures. In Hall's fifth novel, Buzz Cut, the hobby has become sort of a business venture, and the lures don't seem to work anymore. They won't catch fish. Here's an excerpt:
His flies had lost their allure. He had always tied them for himself. Sold his extras. The compulsion behind each one was the simple desire to snag his own bonefish. To concoct his own bait so appetizing it would guarantee the thudding strikes and wrenching excitement he had relied on for more than thirty years. But he'd lost something, tying them exclusively for others. His fingers committing the same act, tweezers and scissors, Mylar and feathers, hackle and ribbing. Everything exactly the same. Identical to the eye. But now they were duds. Failures on some level so subtle, so subatomic that only the fish could see it.
That got me to thinking. Can that kind of unconscious burnout happen in other creative endeavors as well? Can it happen in writing?

Sure it can.

The Over the Hill Gang

How often do you find that certain authors whose work you've been reading for years suddenly don't seem to write as well or as compellingly as they used to? I won't call any names here, but I can think of at least half a dozen bigtime novelists whose latest work doesn't seem to be able to deliver the same punch that their earlier (and sometimes earliest) books did. The style and voice are the same, but the stories themselves just aren't as entertaining. They don't pull you in and hold you the way they once did.

If that's true--and I believe it is--then it's certainly a contradiction. One would expect a craftsman of any kind to get better the longer he or she practices that craft. So the question is, what could cause a writer to lose some of his or her appeal, and effectiveness?

Part of it could be the fact that doing something--anything--day after day, year after year, can grow boring for the person doing it. The old saying "familiarity breeds contempt" was probably meant to apply to relationships, but it could also apply to fields of endeavor. The quality of the product can be directly proportional to the level of enthusiasm of its creator. I recall reading someplace that the cars that go through the assembly line on Monday usually don't turn out as well as those assembled later in the week.

Or maybe, as in the case of the fly-tying fisherman, the artisan starts doing things more for the end user than for himself or herself. I realize we should all try to "write with the reader in mind," but we must also write in a way that pleases ourselves. I've said that even if I knew I would never publish another word of fiction, I would continue to write it anyway because spinning these tales is so much fun to do. For me it's therapy as well as recreation. The process itself is enjoyable and satisfying and relaxing.

But what if you're writing under a tough deadline? I once heard a well-known novelist tell a group of beginning writers that "your first novel will probably be the only one that's really fun to write--and might be the only one that you're ever completely satisfied with." The reasoning is that if that first novel is successful, your agent and publisher will probably want another book from you every year. Maybe more. And when that happens, what started out as play can quickly become work. All of a sudden you have responsibilities, your audience and your publisher have expectations, your hobby has become gainful employment, and your merry romp in the fictional clover is now a real job.

(By the way, when I say "first novel," I'm referring to published work. All of us have stories and novels that never saw the light of day, and for good reason. I suspect that many famous authors have a few unpublished books--truly first novels--stuffed underneath their beds or in the back of their closets.)

The Top of the Hill Gang

I can think of several ways that writers might prevent or recover from "losing their edge." Intentionally or not, some authors seem to have extended their popularity--and probably their careers--by writing in different genres (Larry McMurtry, Nora Roberts, Evan Hunter), writing both series and standalone novels (Harlan Coben, Elmore Leonard, Robert Crais), creating more than one series (James Lee Burke, Robert B. Parker, John Sandford), writing both novels and shorts stories (Lawrence Block, Stephen King, Jeffery Deaver), and collaborating with other writers (James Patterson, Tom Clancy, Janet Evanovich). It might also be said that authors like Thomas Harris and John Irving stay at the top of their game by going more than a year--sometimes several years--between novels. However effective these kinds of things are, I suspect that they are done more for personal reasons than commercial reasons. Maybe they ward off the boredom we talked about earlier.

In closing, let me mention that some authors seem to have kept their ability to thrill and entertain throughout their careers. Lee Child, Carl Hiaasen, Greg Iles, and Dennis Lehane come to mind, and I think some of Michael Crichton's later books were as strong as some of his early ones.
As for Stephen King, his novel The Stand remains one of my favorites, but his 11/22/63, published 33 years and thirty novels later, was just as good, and possibly better. That's comforting news to me, in more ways than one: King and I are the same age--well, he's two months older--so maybe if he can still think clearly, so can I.

Hey, I'll take inspiration wherever I can get it.

10 May 2013

May in Manhattan

When I was on the MWA Board of Directors, they would pay my freight twice a year (once in January and once in May) to attend board meetings in Manhattan. I always took Kiti along so she could see NYC. While I sat in meetings, she got to run around the city and see the sights. Turned out she enjoyed the place and wanted to go back again, but I went off the BOD about five years ago and thought I was safe. Then in a rash moment, I happened to utter one of those throwaway statements to the effect that if I ever got nominated for an Edgar (didn't happen) or got a story accepted into one of the MWA anthologies I would take her back to New York City for another trip, this time completely on our own dime. I don't know who she bribed, but Brad Meltzer and the five submission judges accepted my short story, "The Delivery," for The Mystery Box anthology. Next thing I knew, reservations were made and airline tickets got bought. We were going.

Mysterious Bookstore
United landed us at La Guardia mid-afternoon on Tuesday and a race car taxi whisked us to the Grand Hyatt before I could change my mind. Since the book launch was in Lower Manhattan, we had to figure out the subway system in order to get to there. A very helpful sales lady in a bookstore down in the bowels of Grand Central Station explained the necessary procedure and told us to catch the 6 Train. Thanks to her, we didn't end up in the Bronx or even Georgia by mistake. The 6 Train screeched up to the Grand Central stop and we squeezed in. Kinda had a sardine feeling to the whole operation. Nice thing was I didn't have to worry about my wallet because there was no room in that crowd  for a pickpocket to bend his elbow far enough to get it out of my hip pocket. I'm not saying we were close in that container, but I may now be related to some of those people in that train car.

Brad Metzler on ladder
With the use of a good folding plastic map from Barnes & Noble, we managed to locate Otto Penzler's Mysterious Bookstore. What a large turnout for the book signing. Otto climbed up the store's ladder for a pulpit to address the crowd, then Brad Meltzer got on the ladder and had all the anthology authors introduce themselves. James O. Born made it a point to take me over and introduce me to Otto and Brad before everybody got too busy. A very friendly group. Not sure, but I think I signed about 70-80 anthology books. Even ended up signing my own copies in all the mass confusion.

Signing books inside the Mysterious Bookstore
On Wednesday morning, we again caught the 6 Train south to the same area and met with Linda Landrigan (AHMM) and Janet Hutchings (EQMM) for breakfast at a nice little restaurant named Edwards. The editors were kind enough to buy, so we all ate well. Also got to converse with Steven Steinbock and Doug Allyn. (Note to David G.: If your ears are ringing, it's because Doug and I talked about you.)

Spent the rest of the day riding the double-decker Red Bus like common tourists, from the new World Trade Center building under construction on the south end and up to Central Park in the north. That night, we went to our first Broadway play, something we hadn't been able to schedule during prior trips. Newsies is a high energy musical with great singing, excellent dancing and acrobatics, plus fantastic use of constantly moving stage props. If you get the chance, go see the play. www.newsiesthemusical.com/

Brooklyn Bridge
Thursday morning was a hike on the Brooklyn Bridge. Surprisingly, no one tried to sell it to me. Probably just as well, it wouldn't have fit in my back yard anyway.

That afternoon was the AHMM/EQMM cocktail reception for their authors. I got to talk with fellow Sleuth Sayer Dale Andrews again, plus meet with fellow bloggers David Dean, Janice Law and Liz Zelvin for the first time. Nice people. At this get-together, David Dean  received a plaque for 2nd Place in the EQMM Reader's Award for "Mariel' and Doug Allyn got his tenth First Place plaque, this time for his "Wood-Smoke Boys." Me, I just feel grateful that Linda buys some of my stories for AHMM.

Breakfast: Janet Hutchings, Steven Steinbock & Linda Landrigan
Since we still had 48 hour passes in our pockets, we hopped the Red Bus north to 49th Street and went up to the top of the Rock (Rockefeller Tower) to watch the sun set from on high. After that, it was time for some liquid refreshment back at the Grand Hyatt bar and pack our bags for the return leg to Colorado. Fortunately for us, we had flown out of Denver on one side of Snow Storm Achilles and come back on the other side, thereby missing the closing of Denver International Airport due to all the white stuff on the ground. Not sure when the weather people started naming big snow storms, but since this one's name began with an "A" it may have been the first.

Now that we're home, Kiti says she would like to go back to New York City one more time. Guess I'd better get to writing something new just as soon as I hear what the next anthology theme will be.

09 May 2013

Why Didn't They Just Leave?

I had a nice little blog post all set up and ready to go for today, but you're going to get it next week because I am pissed off and need to get this off my chest:
Some days you get up, watch the news, and just get pissed.  I did after hearing about the 3 women, held captive for 10 years in Cleveland, who were finally set free, thanks to one of them screaming loudly and a neighbor who (God bless him and keep him) came to her rescue.  That was wonderful.  What wasn't, what pissed me off so badly I am on a rant, was all the pundits, raising as always the ugly, stupid, evil question of why didn't they escape before?  Why didn't they run?  Why didn't they disarm their captors?  Why didn't they -

And which point, gentle readers, I went into a profanity enhanced symphony in F Major, screaming at the TV set, and at everyone who has ever thought, "Why didn't they get out sooner?"

Disclaimer:  I have never been kidnapped and held captive against my will.  But I did grow up in your classic alcoholic prison home, the kind full of secrets and violence, where no one from outside was allowed in (they might find out!) and no one was allowed out without specific permission and very specific threats if any mention was made of the crap that was going on.  As a child, I wasn't allowed to participate in extracurricular activities, from band to sports - I wasn't to be trusted.  At the time, I thought it was that they didn't trust what I would do, that they thought I was going to go hog-wild with sex, drugs and rock and roll (which I did, later, after I left, and had a hell of a time, which I rarely regret).  Now I know it was that they didn't trust what I would say.  No one could know what was going on in our three bedroom ranch with the nice lawn and the two car garage...   And it wasn't nearly as bad as some of the other situations in our lovely little suburb, like the family across the street, where the father raped his three daughters regularly. 

Second disclaimer - this was the late 50's, early 60's, where everyone knew that things like rape and incest didn't happen, any woman or child who showed up in public with a black eye or other obvious bruises deserved it, and any child who reported such behavior was obviously a pervert themselves.  The result was that all of us kids knew what was going on in that house - but we never dared tell anyone.  Whenever someone talks about the good old days, I bring up the house across the street, and how no one did - or seemingly could do - a damn thing about it.  At least now you can call Social Services.

Why don't people leave horrible situations?  Because.  It is frighteningly easy to convince almost anyone that they are worthless, that they deserve what they are getting, how they are being treated, abused, beaten, etc., that no one cares about them, that no one will ever care about them, that they have no future, no hope, no nothing outside of the current situation, the current power-holder.  It is frighteningly easy to isolate someone from everyone else on the planet - and that's in "normal" relationships, without locks and handcuffs and cells in the backyard or basement.  It is frighteningly easy to threaten someone not with death - death would be easy to face - but with the forever of it, with it always, always, always getting worse.  And worse can be, and usually is, manufactured at any time. 

And that's with adults who chose each other.

Now, think about kidnap victims, who are usually kept tied up, imprisoned (closets, basements, etc.), threatened, beaten, raped, drugged...  When exactly are they supposed to get free?  How?  And when the kidnap victim is a child...

Jaycee Dugard was eleven years old; Elizabeth Smart was fourteen; Steven Gregory Stayner was seven; these three women were teenagers.  What were they supposed to do?  Act like Rambo?  How?  Steven Stayner actually did escape, but that was after his captor, 8 years later, had kidnapped a five year old (!) and young Stayner was so upset by the poor boy's distress that, while their captor was at work, Stayner took the five year old and went into town (I'm sure he was scared out of his wits the whole time), where they were found by the cops.

It's amazing that any of these eight came out alive.  Ever.  What's frightening, what is unbearable to think about, is to think of the ones who don't.  Right now there are people who are being held in someone's basement, back yard, closet, house.  Who have been held for days, weeks, months, years.  Who will never be found, never come out, never be set free, unless someone spots something wrong. 

So, let's all agree that the next time someone says "Why didn't they get out sooner?" we will bust their chops.  And pray for everyone held captive.  And if you know of someone who's doing terrible things - in the house across the way perhaps - what the hell.  Call the cops.  Call Social Services.  Make someone listen.  Maybe someone else will finally be released.

End of rant. 

08 May 2013

The Beachcomber

This is a true story.

Years ago, I went down to the U.S. Virgin Islands on a brief trip, and I'd been told to look a guy up. He lived on St. John, above Cruz Bay. I flew into Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas.

Back in those days, the islands were nowhere near as developed as they are now. You took a bus to Red Hook, at the east end of St. Thomas, and caught a ferry over to Cruz Bay. There was no marina at Red Hook, then, just a jetty and a parking lot of beaten earth. There was a gal who sold sodas and sundries out of a shack. The ferry wasn't a high-speed catamaran, either. It was a water barge, with low gunwales and a one-lunger diesel, the skipper and a crew of three. It didn't make more than five knots, so it took maybe forty-five minutes to get across. That early in the day, I was the only passenger.
Red Hook

Cruz Bay was a sleepy little town. A few miles up the coast, RockResorts was breaking ground at Caneel Bay, but that was the first sign of bigger investments to come. It says something about my lack of local knowledge that I'd assumed I could rent a car. No such luck. The lady at the rental agency, which served more than one purpose, she was the postmistress, too, among other hats she wore, explained kindly that they only had a dozen or so vehicles, and they were spoken for weeks in advance.  I asked her, by chance, if she knew somebody named Yuri Ivanov. Why, of course she did. She pointed me up the hill. Not far at all.

It was dusty. It was hot. The sun in the Caribbean is a lot more intense than you expect, if you're not used to it. But it was a nice walk, some scattered shade along the sandy path, the climb gentle. There were few people about. How he knew I was coming I don't know. He didn't have a phone. It didn't look like anybody did. There he was, though, standing outside a small cottage tucked into the hillside, as if he were waiting for me. I called his name, and scrambled uphill the last twenty or thirty feet.

He wasn't unwary, but neither did he seem surprised. I wondered how many visitors he got, in this out-of-the-way place.  Hot and bright, with the sea on every side, a quiet kind of exile. I'm a friend of Gorodny's, I told him.

"Aah," he said, smiling, and we shook hands. "I took you for KGB. You're so pale, you could have come straight from the winter streets of Moscow."

He was short, and thick through the chest, wearing a pair of cut-offs, and flip-flops. I guessed him to be about sixty. His skin was sunburned darker than walnut. I found out he snorkeled the reefs, almost every day. I asked him if he saw many sharks. "The water's full of them," he said to me, with his quick smile.

We sat on the flagstone patio in front of his cottage. The sun beat down. He was used to it. I felt a little faint. There were sea-grapes growing all around. Ivanov suggested we move our chairs into the shade.
 St. John

"How do you know Gorodny?" he asked. He was one of my Russian instructors, I said. "Nu, govorite po-Russki?" Da, nemnozhka, I answered. "Khorosho," he said.

He got up and went into the cottage, and came back with some herring sandwiches. "Selyedka," he said, putting them down. Where did he get the black bread?  He baked it himself.

After elevenses, we went down the hill a few yards to the pump house. Ivanov brought a dented metal pitcher. Inside the little stone building, there was a fifty-five-gallon drum on a wooden cradle. He drew a pitcherful of Bajan rum the color of molasses. Well, it was made from molasses.

We sat under the sea-grapes, drinking rum and grapefruit juice. There was no ice. The sun passed the meridian. As the day drifted toward afternoon, his English got shakier, and my Russian got more persuasively fluent, or at least that's how it seemed. We were drug s drugom, fast friends. I was also half in the bag. The rum, the drowsy heat.

Ivanov drew me out, my family, where I'd studied Russian, what I figured to do with my life. He was an easy listener and asked only the simplest of questions. Finally, it was late afternoon. "Well, you'll miss your ferry," he said. He walked me back down to the harbor, waved me on board the water barge, and wished me well. "Do svidanya," he said.

Cruz Bay

Next time, I thought. I was in a stupor. Back across the channel, I bought a Coke from the woman at the beachfront shack in Red Hook. She fished it out an ice-cold cooler the size of a coffin. I went to wait for the bus.

It came, I got on, I found a window seat at the back. It was all local people, Thomians, women for the most part. A very nice lady sitting opposite me remarked that they didn't see that many tourists off the cruise ships at this end of the island. I didn't tell her I wasn't off a cruise ship. She offered me a slice of fresh mango.

Sitting there, looking sleepily out the window, my fingers sticky with fruit, the bus yawing through the curves on the one-lane macadam, back to Charlotte Amalie, I was thinking to myself, Boy, that was the worst debrief ever. I got nothing out of the guy, and he got everything. I must have been a slow learner.

The lesson is, when you match wits with an old pro, he's going to take you into his confidence, and win your trust, and turn you inside out like a sock. Or, as the saying has it, when you sup with the Devil, use a long spoon.

NOTE:  I've changed the names, although they say you can't compromise the dead, but who knows? Any embarrassment here is my own.

07 May 2013

Day Trip to New York, May 2, 2013

On 2nd May 1952, the era of commercial jet passenger service began as a BOAC de Havilland Comet carrying 36 passengers took off on a multi-stop flight from London to Johannesburg, South Africa.
                              Associated Press
                              Today in History
                              May 2, 2013

           Fast Enough to get there,
           Slow enough to see,
           Moderation seems to be the key.

                              Jimmy Buffett
                              Barometer Soup
The reception:  Mystery writers everywhere!
     What better way to celebrate the anniversary of jet passenger service than to follow Mr. Buffett's advice and take a train trip?

    The beginning of May is many things to many people. To mystery writers there is a special anticipation that comes with the first Thursday in May, this year May second, since that is the day when the annual Edgars award celebration takes place in New York City. And for a smaller subset of mystery writers, those whose passion is the mystery short story, the day offers up a related treat -- the annual authors cocktail party hosted by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.

     I’ve never been a fan of air transportation. it is a necessary evil when my family heads off to favorite vacation spots in the Caribbean, and sometimes one surrenders to the indignities of air transportation when held hostage by time constraints. But I fail to understand anyone who travels between Washington, D.C. (my home) and New York City by any means other than rail. And that is why this piece begins as I find myself  signed on to Amtrak’s wifi service, comfortably ensconced in a window seat and typing away on Amtrak’s Acela headed north. The trip is 2-1/2 hours each way, and deposits me a pleasant 30 minute walk from the Andrew Haskell Braile and Talking Books Library where the cocktail party takes place at 3:30.
Janet Hutchings
   Now that walk in Manhattan is not as easy as it sounds -- 14 Manhattan short blocks followed by 2-1/2 Manhattan long blocks is exercise, but it should otherwise be pretty simple.  New York City, however, has always been a little daunting fot me. So the walk is always just long enough to convince me that my chances are equally divided between finding the party and roaming forever on the streets of Manhattan. (At least Charlie got to sit down on the MTA.)
Janice, Liz, R.T.
     But, as always, I get there. And, also as always, the party makes up for all of the investment. The EQMM/AHMM pre-Edgars parties have descended a notch from the glory days of yore, when they were held at the Manhattan Club and other storied locales, with several full bars and waiters hovering with platters of shrimp. But the wine bar, served up by magazine employees, and the table of hors d'oeuvres is just fine.  And it is also not why we are here.  What this occasion offers is the opportunity to visit with those who share common interests in mystery short story writing, to connect with people who otherwise are known only on-line.   Janet Hutchings meets me at the door, and a few minutes visiting with her, and then with Linda Landrigan, is itself worth the price of admission.

      At last year’s reception SleuthSayers was represented by David Dean and me, but this year we are out in force. R.T. Lawton and his wife Kiti are standing near the window as I enter, and within a short time Janice Law Trecker, Liz Zelvin, David Dean, R.T. and me are together for the first time in the non-cyber real  world.
Liz, me, David and R.T.
     Another great thing about the reception is getting that first lead on  things mystery-related that are about to happen. This year Peter Kanter, who presides over Dell publications, announced a pending major re-vamp of the Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock websites, which promises a new level of interaction among writers and readers.  This could be fun!

     Awards, of course, were announced, including the second place Readers’ Choice award won this year by our own David Dean for his story Mariel, which appeared in the December issue of EQMM.   David also reports that he is making good progress on his new novel, which has kept him away from SleuthSayers for some time now.

Joe Goodrich
     Some of the best tidbits I picked up during this year's party were from Joe Goodrich, who, as SleuthSayer readers will recall, is the author/editor of Blood Relations, the recent volume collecting the letters of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee.  Joe recently adapted the first  Ellery Queen Wrightsville novel, Calamity Town, for the stage.  The work, as previously reported, had a read-through performance last January at the New Dramatists Playhouse in New York City.  This summer Joe reports that the play will have its first full-stage production, under the directorial hand of fellow Queen scholar Arthur Vidro.

     Equally interesting is the locale for that presentation:  the play will be performed by the Off Broad Street Players in Claremont, New Hampshire.  The Off Broad Street Players are no stranger to the works of Ellery.   In fact, beginning tomorrow the company is presenting an on-stage production of two classic Queen radio dramas.  But the claim to fame of Claremont itself runs even deeper. Those familiar with some of the more obscure clues in the Queen backstory may recall that Claremont has been rumored to be the model for Queen’s New England town of Wrightsville.  What better site for the world premier of Calamity Town? The troop's production of Calamity Town is likely to run only two nights, probably this coming September 7 and 8.

    On other fronts, Joe also spent time this last year adapting a Rex Stout mystery, The Red Box, for the stage.  The play has already been scheduled for an extended run next summer at the Park Square Theater in St. Paul.

     Oops.  It’s 5:00. Time for me to see if I can find my way back to the train station!

06 May 2013

Procrastination? Who knows?

Jan Grape by Jan Grape

Desktop computer acting up. Laptop acting up. Difficult to write an article on my mobile phone. Still fighting sinus infection, coughing & blowing a whole lot. So am I procrastinating or fighting the fear of writing? Who knows? The thing is my blog article is due to be posted tonight. So I sit down at the laptop and although it's acting up, I think I can write something noteworthy. Who knows?

I have a good dozen books on writing on my bookshelf. Before I moved into my RV and began traveling full-time I had many more books on writing. Most of them were helpful but I was short on book space in my RV so donated most of them to a library. I only kept a few and I'm not sure even now if I kept the best ones. Do books on writing really help? Who knows? I just know I feel better knowing I have those books nearby if I need them. How To Write Mysteries. How To Write Thrillers , Writing Techniques, From Print-out To Published, Courage To Write. Titles similar to these are helpful at times. I remember many years ago when I finally decided that I wanted to write a mystery, I went to the library and checked out a book on writing and one on how to find an agent.

Both books were helpful. I quickly learned that no matter how much I wanted to write a mystery, I honestly had no idea how to write one. I read that first book, went back to the library and checked out 3 or 4 more. I learned a lot. But one major thing I learned was that no one else can write the book for you. You have to sit your behind the chair and write. Back in those days people didn't have computers. I bought an electric typewriter. I actually wrote in long-hand on a yellow legal pad and transferred it to typewritten page when I thought it was in good shape.

The major thing I learned from how-to books is my books or stories won't write themselves. I have to sit down to the computer and write, write, write. Find excuses not to write, if you want but still you have to write.

And who knows? Despite this being somewhat short, I did managed to finish this article in spite of my named reasons to procrastinate.

05 May 2013

Prohibit Singing and Bible Reading

Last March, I wrote a post about the “Failure of the 13th Juror” in which I discussed the trial of three men and a young woman who carjacked and murdered a young couple in 2007. In 2009, all four were tried and found guilty. However, the original trial judge (whom I called Judge P) was later discovered to have been using two parolees in his charge to obtain pain pills. Consequently, he was removed from the case and a new judge (whom I called Judge G) was appointed.

Over the prosecutor’s objections, Judge G granted new trials to the three men without holding a hearing, ruling that Judge P’s conduct was enough to warrant new trials. The State Appeals Court ordered him to hold hearings. He refused. So, he was removed and a new judge (I call him Judge T) was appointed. 

The prosecutor agreed that Judge P had been under the influence of something during the trial of the young woman. She was granted a new trial and again was found guilty of facilitation in the rape and killing of the female victim and sentenced to 35 years.

As for the third male, the prosecutors had argued that, although he did not participate in the crimes, he benefited from them when he used the car to run errands and stayed in the house where the young woman was raped and murdered. Judge T, acting as the 13th juror, concluded that there was no forensic evidence connecting him to the carjacking and murders and granted him a new trial.

The second male, the leader’s young brother who was sentenced to life in prison, wanted a new trial because he was beaten up in prison. Since forensic evidence connected him to the crimes, Judge T denied his request.

The ringleader’s argument for a new trial is the most interesting. His defense team argued that the jurors were influenced by religion when they convicted him. One of the jurors admitted that after dinner one night he got permission from the court staff, picked up his guitar, and began singing Christian songs. The other jurors joined in. They also read Bible verses. Since DNA tied the ringleader to the crimes, Judge T also denied his request for a new trial.

Jurors are not supposed to discuss the case outside of the jury room. I guess the defense felt that singing gospel songs and reading the Bible could be interpreted as discussing the case. I’m not sure how, but it might be possible.

Another twist to the case: the previous two judges allowed relatives to wear buttons showing pictures of two victims and sit where the jurors could see the buttons. Judge T nixed that bit of theater. The relatives must sit two or three rows back from the front bench if they choose to display the buttons.

Should singing and Bible reading during jurors’ down time be prohibited because it could influence their decision?


And yet another twist: The original judge, Judge P, was found guilty of misconduct in state court, dismissed from the bench, and allowed to keep his pension. The Justice Department stepped in and tried him for misprision of a felony, i.e, lying to other judges and officials to keep his drug-supplying mistress connected to her supply network. He was found guilty and sentenced to six months and loss of his pension. His defense team filed a motion to allow him to remain free pending an appeal of the conviction. However, Judge P later changed his mind and decided to do the time. His appeal could take a year or more, and he’ll  be free by the time it is completed. Still, he wants it to go forward because he could get a new trial or dismissal, even though he will have already paid the price for his actions.

Well, I guess six months in the prison of his choice, humiliation, and loss of pension could be considered a high price to pay for breaking laws he was sworn to uphold. Were the scales of justice truly balanced in his case?

04 May 2013

Malice Domestic

by Elizabeth Zelvin

As you read this, I’m in the thick of the lovefest for readers of traditional mystery that’s known as Malice Domestic. It takes place in Bethesda, MD, and this year it’s celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary. This is my eighth Malice, and as I write this, I think I can safely predict that I’ll be having a wonderful time.

Malice bills itself as “an annual ‘fun fan’ convention saluting the traditional mystery—books best typified by the works of Agatha Christie. The genre is loosely defined as mysteries which contain no explicit sex or excessive gore or violence.” While cozies are unquestionably queen at Malice, traditional mysteries with more grit, depth, or darkness than true cozies allow are also appreciated.

Liz with Carolyn Hart, Hank Phillippi Ryan, & Kaye George
Liz with Louise Penny, Meredith Cole, & Stefanie Pintoff
Winners of the Agatha Awards, nominated by Malice registrants and elected by attendees, have included Margaret Maron, Louise Penny, Nancy Pickard, Katherine Hall Page, Jacqueline Winspear, Carolyn Hart, Rhys Bowen, Donna Andrews, Earlene Fowler, Laura Lippman, Kate Ross, Sharyn McCrumb, and Elizabeth Peters.

Malice Guests of Honor have included Patricia Moyes, Charlotte MacLeod, Aaron Elkins, Anne Perry, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Ellis Peters, Peter Lovesey, Robert Barnard, Mary Higgins Clark, Simon Brett, Edward Marston, Barbara D’Amato, Dorothy Cannell, Joan Hess, Rochelle Krich, Charlaine Harris, Lindsey Davis, Parnell Hall, Carole Nelson Douglas, and Jan Burke. This year’s honorees are Laurie R. King and Peter Robinson.

My Malice-Go-Round buddy Deb Sharp
wore an over-the-top wedding veil.

This year marks the first time since 2008 that I haven’t participated in Malice-Go-Round, a speed dating event for readers and authors of new work that sets the tone for a weekend of cameraderie between authors and fans. (Silver lining: since I didn’t have to get to Bethesda by early Friday morning, I was able to attend the annual Edgars Week party hosted by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and meet some of my SleuthSayers blogmates face to face for the first time.)

On panel with Dan Stashower, Penny Warner,
Jack French, & Nan Higginson
Panels and signings take up much of the weekend, along with interviews of the honorees. These include recipients of the Lifetime Achievement Award, which among those not previously mentioned have included Mary Stewart, Emma Lathen, Dick Francis, Tony Hillerman, H.R.F. Keating, and Sue Grafton. (Seen anybody you read yet? I bet you have!)

I won’t be sleeping in on either Saturday and Sunday, because the two don’t-miss breakfast events start early. One is a New Authors breakfast at which every first-time novelist present gets a five-minute interview. There’s no better mystery con than Malice for a writer making her (or his) publication debut. The other is Sisters in Crime’s semi-annual breakfast meeting. (The other takes place at Bouchercon.)

The crowning event of the weekend is the Agatha Awards banquet. It’s always fun, whether or not I’m nominated (three times for Best Short Story) and whether or not I’m asked to host a table (this year is my third time). I was sitting at Nancy Pickard’s table when she won her third Best Novel Agatha for the superb The Scent of Rain and Lightning, an exciting moment with much whooping and screaming.

With fellow nominees Dana Cameron,
Barb Goffman, & Sheila Connolly
As at the Edgars, everybody dresses to kill, and fancy hats can still be seen, though the tradition is fading. In fact, until a few years ago, the closing tea party on Sunday (little sandwiches and pastries galore) included a hat contest. I won the last one myself in 2008 with a fetching confection that included a bobble-headed Edgar Allan Poe, a bloodstained tombstone, a hanging bat, and a blood red rose.
The winning cha-Poe

My personal high point, however, was the time a reader approached me in the Ladies and asked me to sign a copy of my book. She was very apologetic, explaining that she’d been looking for me all over and had a train to catch. But I was thrilled. That’s what I’d call, to use a friend’s phrase, a “made-it moment,” as well as a quintessential Malice moment.

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.