09 August 2013

That Time of Year


by Dixon Hill 

A jeweler in town used to run a radio spot in late August every year, in which a man said: 



Imagine you set out in the morning without your car keys. 

You didn’t have your wallet or purse. You had no ID, and didn’t even know your address or phone number.  

You had to walk to where you were going, and when you got there you knew almost no one. 

Sound pretty scary? 

Would you be willing to do this? 

Well, every year, this is what thousands of brave little children do — on their first day of kindergarten. 


 Things have changed a lot. 

In my neighborhood, at least, not many kindergarteners walk to school. Most get rides from a parent. But it still takes courage.




And … it’s that time of year, again, in Scottsdale. 

This past Wednesday, my son climbed aboard his bike and set off for his first day of 5th Grade. (Thankfully, our kindergarten days seem to be behind us!) 


My daughter will start her classes at the local community college in about a week. 


And I am finally free to sit, in peace, before my computer, without worrying that my office door will burst open any moment so my ten-year-old son can complain about being bored. 


Ahhhh ... a writer, a desk and a cigar.  

I feel I'm in pretty good company.


Of course, I still watch over my dad. So, the phone calls come at inopportune times. 


On the other hand, I just set him up with breakfast, before driving myself back home and coming into the office. 


So…if you’ll excuse me … I’m planning to dredge up all the courage of a kindergartener   and start writing while I can!












See you in two weeks, 
--Dix

08 August 2013

Some General Thoughts on Character


by Brian Thornton

 As I mentioned at the beginning of my previous turn in the Sleuthsayers blog's rotation, I've spent quite a bit of time lately prepping for a class on "character" which I will present as part of this coming Saturday's MWA-University Seattle event (an all-day session of writing craft-related classes presented by writers from all over the country). It ought to be a lot of fun. (If the fun-to-prep-work ratio is even close to one-to-one, it ought to be at least as much fun as the first day of vacation, a Rush concert, and winning the lottery, all rolled up in one!)

So, needless to say, I've been doing a whole lot of thinking about the literary/thematic notion of "character."

Which begs the question: just exactly what the hell is "character"?
 
Henry James around the time he wrote The Art of Fiction.

When faced with life questions such as these, I turn to those giants who have come before. In this case I  started with that sage of writing sages, Henry James, and see what he has to say about what constitutes literary "character" in his classic rumination The Art of Fiction (1884):

"What is character but the determination of incident? And what is incident but the illumination of character?"

Sounds a lot like Aristotle's definition of "plot," that it is "character revealed by action." Which makes sense, James being a product of his times and education. And gentlemen in 19th century America were hardly considered "educated" unless they had made a great study of the likes of Aristotle.

So, yes, helpful, but I was looking for something less esoteric. More concrete. So I went a bit more modern. Next I tapped noted writing teacher Dwight V. Swain, who had this to say in his wonderful book Creating Characters: How to Build Story People (1990):

"The core of character, experience tells me, lies in each individual story person's ability to care about something; to feel, implicitly or explicitly, that something is important."

So Swain has a different take on it: rather than tying the question of what constitutes character to how it is revealed (through action), he posits that a literary character is defined and in ways constituted by what that character cares about, its "passion." Again, helpful, but also a bit out there.

I needed something more....succinct and to the point. So who better to consult on this weighty issue than that most succinct of fiction writers, Ernest Hemingway?

Here's what Hemingway had to say about the question in Death in the Afternoon (1932):
Hemingway around the time he wrote Death in the Afternoon.

"When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature. If a writer can make people live there may be no great characters in his book, but it is possible that his book will remain as a whole; as an entity; as a novel."

Wow- kinda long-winded for Ol' Papa, there, huh? And believe it or not, I cut that quote off before it got out of hand. Our man Hemingway waved rhapsodic for several long sentences about why characters should not be "fake," but not really on how to keep them from being so. Since to him the point of fiction was to make it as "real" as possible, he even suggests that perhaps the true test of literary realism in a novel is how dull it is? I got news for Papa's ghost: I've read far too many "realistic" novels in that vein. As much as I love a whole passel of his work, I gotta disagree with him on that note.

Plus, you know, his quote is really not exactly on point.

So where to go next? I figured that if Hemingway couldn't get to the point of what "character" actually is, then perhaps his friend, rival and in many ways literary opposite, F. Scott Fitzgerald, might be able to do the trick. I love Fitzgerald's writing. Elegaic, expansive, deeply personal– perhaps he would give me a comprehensive view of what exactly literary character is?

This I got from Fitzgerald's notes for his final novel, the unfinished masterpiece, The Last Tycoon:
Fitzgerald around the time he began The Last Tycoon.

"Action is character."

That's it.

Huh.

Who knew there was actually a topic out there on which Fitzgerald was orders of magnitude more succinct than his terse pal and occasional drinking buddy (during their Paris days), Hemingway? But again, not all that helpful, and kind of harkens back to the beginning with Henry James/Aristotle.

And then I found it. And I found it in, of all places, a wonderful blog published by an editor named C.L. Dyck. In an entry over there she sums up the words of such writing sages as Randy Ingermanson, Jeff Gerke and Rennie Browne on exactly this question, and does so quite well:


"Characters feel like real people. with a past, present, and future, uniquely varied in creative ways and revealed–as with real people–through the things they say and do."

Thanks C.L.! Way to put it all together! If you'd like to read her complete blog post on this topic, you can find it here. And in fact I highly recommend checking out any number of other interesting topics in her blog, which can be found cataloged here.

So there you have it, folks. My first step down the road to teaching a class on character: being able to speak intelligently as to what it actually is!

So how about you? What is your succinct working definition of "Character"? Feel to chime in with a response in the comments section below!

07 August 2013

Separated at Birth III





by Robert Lopresti

This is a little game we played twice back at the old shop.  (Here and here)

Each pair of actors below played the same character,  one well-known in mystery fiction. No character is repeated from earlier quizzes.   The questions get harder as you go down the page. Oh, I admit there is a ringer: one actor only played the character in a failed pilot for a series, but that one is too good  to resist.

Answers are at the bottom. Don't cheat.  Have fun!

1. Morgan Freeman and Tyler Perry.

2. Raymond Burr and Monte Markham

f




3.William Shatner and Timothy Hutton
http://www.startrek.com/legacy_media/images/200307/shatner02/320x240.jpg

4.Peter Lawford and Jim Hutton


http://queen.spaceports.com/images/Photo_Hutton_main.jpg

5.Alec Guinness and Barnard Hughes

\\

6.   Shaun Evans and John Thaw



7. Charlotte Rampling and Rachel McAdams
http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_hslaXOf9JwY/TNxeIpxYewI/AAAAAAAAAkY/TE-q2xGGJ2A/s320/600full-charlotte-rampling.jpghttp://www.media-courses.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/rachel-mcadams-60.jpg


















8.Richard Harris and Michael Gambon.  (No, the answer is not Dumbledore.)


http://www.theastralworld.com/ghosts/pics/richardharrisdumbledore.jpghttp://www.lahiguera.net/cinemania/actores/michael_gambon/fotos/4555/michael_gambon.jpg

9. Carla Gugino and Jennifer Lopez
http://content8.flixster.com/rtactor/40/53/40538_pro.jpghttp://www.billboard.com/files/styles/promo_650/public/stylus/105358-jennifer_lopez_617_409.jpg

10. Ben Kingsley and John Hurt

http://content9.flixster.com/photo/12/30/83/12308343_gal.jpghttp://3.bp.blogspot.com/-2U7-t7gVov8/TjfwHPWDeoI/AAAAAAAAKYQ/tpuUdB9lPFI/s1600/l.jpg

ANSWERS
1.  James Patterson's Alex Cross.  Morgan Freeman in Kiss The Girls and Along The Spider.  Tyler Perry in Alex Cross.
2.  Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason.  Raymond Burr in Perry Mason.  Monte Markham in The New Perry Mason.
3.  Rex Stout's Archie Goodwin.  WIlliam Shatner in the failed pilot for TV series Nero Wolfe.  Timothy Hutton in A Nero Wolfe Mystery.
4.  Ellery Queen's Ellery Queen.  Peter Lawford in Don't Look Behind You.  Jim Hutton in Ellery Queen.
5.  G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown.  Alec Guinness in The Detective.  Barnard Hughes in Sanctuary of Fear.
6.   Colin Deavor's Endeavor Morse.  Shaun Evans in Endeavor.  John Thaw in Morse.
7. Arthur Conan Doyle's Irene Adler.  Charlotte Rampling in Sherlock Holmes in New York.  Rachel McAdams in Sherlock Holmes.
8.Georges Simenon's Jules Maigret.  Richard Harris in Maigret (1988).  Michael Gambon. in  Maigret.(1992)
9. Elmore Leonard's Karen Sisco. Carla Gugino in Karen Sisco.  Jennifer Lopez in Out Of Sight.
10. Fyodor Dostoevsky's Porfiry Petrovitch.  Ben Kingsley in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.  John Hurt in Crime and Punishment.

06 August 2013

Mystery Film Series


by Terence Faherty

In my recent post on obscure and forgotten mystery films, I intentionally omitted any entries from mystery film series, a very popular form of crime film in the thirties and forties.  I did say, however, that I would return to the subject of film series at some later time.  Well, it's hot outside (and inside, my office is under the peak of the roof), vacation is looming, serious thought is even harder than usual, so here are some unserious thoughts about three of the best series from Hollywood's Golden Age.

A Little Background

With one notable exception addressed below, all mystery series were B pictures.  The term "B picture" might make one think "low budget," and most of these films were made for what passed for shoestring spending back then.  But the term also refers to the function of these films in a standard film program of the day.  In addition to an A picture, movie goers in the thirties and forties expected to see some combination of a newsreel, a two-reel comedy or a cartoon, a travelogue or some other informative short subject, and one or more B picture.  (Because of their role in filling out a film program, B's are sometimes referred to as "programmers.")  Being appetizer courses, these films were necessarily brief.  The average running time was just over an hour.

Series were popular with audiences because they were familiar:  same stars, same music, same sets, etc.  This recycling is one of the things that made them inexpensive to produce.  They were popular with the studios because they gave them a place to try out new talent.  So, for example, you can catch early performances of Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart in Thin Man films, Jean Arthur in two Philo Vance entries, and Ray Milland in a Charlie Chan.  All those actors would go on to win Academy Awards.  Mystery series were also a place where studios could use older stars at the ends of their careers.  Warner Baxter (another Academy Award winner) finished up as the Crime Doctor (ten films) and Richard Dix (Academy Award nominee) in the Whistler series (eight films).

The Thin Man Series

The exception to the B picture rule mentioned above was the Thin Man series, which starred the great team of William Powell and Myrna Loy.  It could be argued that the first film, The Thin Man, based on the Dashiell Hammett novel of the same name, was modestly budgeted by MGM standards.  But it earned a pile of money, ensuring that subsequent films would be unquestioned A products.  They appeared at long intervals for a series; only six films were made over thirteen years.  The closest thing to the Thin Man phenomenon was probably the Road pictures Bob Hope and Bing Crosby made for Paramount:  A picture follow-ups to an unexpected smash hit, released at irregular intervals as special event films.

William Powell, Asta, and Myrna Loy
 on the set of The Thin Man Goes Home 
The Thin Man films depended heavily on the charm and chemistry of their two stars:  Powell, the husband detective repeatedly pulled out of his boozy retirement, and Loy, the detective-wannabe wife who often did the pulling. They may have been the most happily married couple in Hollywood history.  Early on some name confusion arose.  "The Thin Man" actually refers to character from the first film whose disappearance sparks the plot.  The earlier titles in the series reflect this:  After the Thin Man and Another Thin Man.  But soon, probably because Powell was no weightlifter, the Thin Man came to mean the character Powell played, Nick Charles, in the public's mind.  Eventually, MGM gave up the fight (as Universal did when the Frankenstein monster usurped the last name of Dr. Frankenstein).  So the fifth entry is called The Thin Man Goes Home.    

In addition to the drinking and the leads' banter (and the participation of Asta, a fox terrier), a standard feature of the films was the denouement scene that ended each entry, in which all the suspects were brought together and Charles winged a summation of the case, hoping that someone would make a slip ("just one slip").  According to Loy, Powell complained about the pages of dialogue that he had to learn for these scenes, and the scriptwriters probably felt the same way about it.  But as payoff scenes, these really pay off.

The series declined gently after its great start, as the actors aged and the characters were softened (meaning they drank less).  My favorite is After the Thin Man, from 1936.

The Sherlock Holmes Series

My favorite film series when I was a kid was the Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson.  This was actually two series, made by two studios.  20th Century Fox got the ball rolling with two films set in the proper Victorian time period:  The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, both released in 1939.  The box office wasn't what they'd hoped for, so they dropped the project.  But Rathbone and Bruce didn't drop the roles.  They began instead what would be a long run playing the famous duo on radio, also in period.  So the public was primed for a return to the big screen.  But when it happened, in 1942 courtesy of Universal, Holmes and Watson were in what was then modern dress, facing off against the Nazis.

Nigel Bruce, Basil Rathbone, and Evelyn Ankers
on the set of The Voice of Terror
This updating has bothered purists ever since, but the Universal series was simply reverting to what had been the norm prior to 20th's Hound.  The strange-but-true fact is that every Holmes sound film prior to 1939 had been updated to the then current period.  This was true of an earlier series, Arthur Wontner's six-film effort, of Clive Brook's two films as Holmes, and of a number of one-offs by various actors.  Unfortunately for the Universal series, all Sherlock Holmes theatrical films that followed it were done as period pieces, making this second Rathbone/Bruce teaming seem like an aberration.  One of the things I like about PBS's Sherlock and CBS's Elementary, which were written about in this space recently by Brian Thornton, is that they again reimagine Holmes and Watson for the modern age, offering the Universal films some retrospective cover. 


Like the Thin Man films, the Sherlock Holmes series banked on the playing and chemistry of its two leads, who, like Powell and Loy, were good friends in real life.  Basil Rathbone's Holmes, perfect in stature, profile, and voice, seems to be enjoying life in the two 20th Century Fox outings.  In the Universal films, he is often serious and even somber.  I'm always grateful for the occasional smile he gets from the carrying on of Nigel Bruce, though my gratitude is not universally shared.  Many Sherlockians deplore Bruce's trademark buffoonery, wishing for something closer to the Watson of the stories.  This wish ignores the reality that Watson's function in the series isn't the same as it had been in the stories.  Here he's comic relief.  With the exception of the Thin Man films, which were basically comedies with mystery relief, all the mystery series had comic relief sidekicks.  Nigel Bruce was the best. 

The twelve Universal films only paid lip service to Doyle's stories, but they always moved along briskly.  Other assets include a stock company of English bit players that almost makes you believe these were shot in England and great title music by Universal's house composer, Frank Skinner (who also scored some of their horror films).    

Many commentators pick The Scarlet Claw as the best of the Universal films, but my favorite is 1942's Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror.  I mean, if you're going to bring Holmes into the forties, he might as well be helping with the war effort.  Plus this one has some strikingly noir photography and the beautiful Evelyn Ankers. 

The Charlie Chan Series

It is not uncommon these days to hear the Charlie Chan films, based on the character created by Earl Derr Biggers, referred to as racist, which is sad and silly in equal measure and says more about our times than it does about this series, the longest running mystery film series of them all.  There were two or three precursor films starring Asian actors as the detective, but the run really began with the casting of Swedish actor Warner Oland as a globetrotting Chan.  (In one four-film stretch, Chan jumped from London to Paris to Egypt and on to Shanghai.)  Oland's claims of Mongol ancestry might have been studio moonshine, though costar Keye Luke, himself Chinese, has testified that Oland wore no special makeup for the part, other than a fake goatee.  But Oland's genetic makeup and his dependence upon makeup are equally beside the point, in this writer's opinion.  Oland was an actor playing someone he wasn't, which is what all actors do.  And he played this particular someone better than any actor before him or after him.

Warner Oland and Keye Luke
on the set of Chalrlie Chan
at the Opera 
Oland's Chan was smiling and genial, much of the time.  This is one of the charges brought against it: that its geniality reflects subservience. For me, it places Chan in the long tradition of detectives who encourage their opponents to underestimate them.  I always loved the moment in the Chan films when Oland would drop the smile and intone "you are murderer."  This phrasing brings to mind another charge against Chan:  his English isn't perfect.  But I don't think Oland/Chan was ever ungrammatical.  He merely dropped the occasional article and struggled with American idioms.  Unless they lived in very small towns, audience members of the thirties probably knew immigrants of many ethic backgrounds who fought the same battles with English.  Many had fought them themselves. 

Moviegoers of the period were also familiar with another part of the immigrant experience reflected in these films:  the conflicts between immigrants and their Americanized children.  This source of comedy relief was introduced to the series when Chan's "number one son" Lee, played by Keye Luke, debuted in Charlie Chan in Paris.  After that, this series, like the earlier two I've described, profited greatly from the chemistry of its costars, in this case a Swedish pretend father and his Chinese pretend son.  

Oland died in harness and was replaced by Sidney Toler, who did depend on makeup and could never be accused of smiling too much.  He received a new sidekick son, Jimmy Chan, played by Victor Sen Yung.  A third son, Tommy, would be played by Benson Fong while Yung was in the service during the war.  Around that time, Toler died and was replaced by Roland Winters.  When the series sputtered to an end, there had been over forty entries and it had proven popular all over the world, including China.

Since I'm picking favorites, I'll name a Chan film, 1936's Charlie Chan at the Opera.  It's from the series' peak period and features Boris Karloff as the skinniest baritone in the history of grand opera.  Plus they hired Oscar Levant to whip up a phony opera for the picture.  How's that for attention to detail?

In Conclusion

I don't have a conclusion; I just needed another heading for balance.  Someday, when it's hot again, I'll write about some of the lesser movie series.  In the meantime, stay cool.

05 August 2013

What R U reading?


Jan Grape by Jan Grape

With the current heat wave in TX there's only one thing you can do to stay cool. Find a comfortable chair and a good book.

For some strange reason, my favorite thing to read is a mystery. Honestly, I don't try to figure out whodunit, I'm more interested in the characters. I have many favorites. If I start listing them, I'll get carried away and even then I'll leave off someone. Then I will get upset with myself because I left off one of my all time favorites, so I won't name names.

However, I recently read an ARC, titled The Last Whisper In the Dark by Tom Piccirilli. The book just came out from Bantam.  Unfortunately, I had not read the previous, The Last Kind Words, I will be purchasing it soon. It's the story of the Rands, a family of criminals...but not your usual criminals. They are creepers, cat burglars, grifters, con artist .It's in their blood and what they do is just their destiny. And to add to the strangeness they're all named after dogs.

Our protagonist is Terrier, father is Pinscher (who is creeping up on Alzheimer's,) grandfather, Shepherd, who is in the latter stages of the disease and who Terry calls, Old Shep. There is a brother, named Collie, who for some strange reason, (if you haven't read the first book you don't know why,) goes on a killing spree and has been executed for his crimes. Terry's sister is named Airedale, he calls her Dale. There are two uncles, Mal (amute) and Grey (hound.)

Terry is in love with Kimmy, who now is married to Terry's one-time best friend, Chub. And I think Kimmy's little girl, Scooter, is Terry's biological child. I don't think I was ever sure about that but it's obvious he loves her and her mother dearly. The locale is Long Island, NY but that is incidental to the story.

Mr. Piccirilli has written an unusual cast of character who slowly become real folks as you continue to read. The mystery is not so much who does what, although there are twist and turns as Terry becomes involved with his estranged maternal Grandfather. Terry's mother was disowned when she married Pinscher and Terry doesn't know any of the maternal side until the man calls and wants to see his daughter before he dies. The old man is on his deathbed. Mother Rand goes but Terry goes with her and it soon becomes apparent the old man wants to talk to Terry too, and he wants Terry to steal something for him.

If that's not complication enough, Terry's sixteen year old sister is involved with some hooligan thugs and looks as if she could be in big trouble almost immediately if not sooner. And Kimmy's husband Chub is involved with some really bad guys and Terry's got to try to save Kimmy and his daughter.

Some reviewers compare the writing to Raymond Chandler and call The Last Whisper very dark. I suppose it is more in the noir category than anything else but it's such an intriguing cast of characters that all I could do was keep turning pages to see what would happen next. It's also probably much better if you read Last Kind Words first because without that background you're a bit lost until about a third of the way into it.  But it is definitely worth your time, especially if you like that sort of thing. Great characters and a well-written story, I mean.

The other ARC I read lately is NOT exactly a mystery. It's A Wilder Rose, by Susan Wittig Albert. It's the surprising true story of Rose and Laura Wilder and the Little House on the Prairie books. I'm not going to review it here as Susan is going to write an article in my place in the very near future and I don't want to step on her toes, but is a fascinating story within a story of the collaboration of a mother and daughter and the blending of facts and fiction unraveling the mystery of these books.

So what are you reading?

04 August 2013

PINs and Passwords, Part 1


by Leigh Lundin

Needles…

More often than you might imagine, financial institutions deploy inadequate security protection, the type of inadequacy where the word ‘woefully’ often finds itself used. I don’t know how much Discover has beefed up its on-line security since I last owned a card, but its password protection was weaker than some porn sites (so I’m told, ahem). It took Capital One and Washington Mutual a while to come up to speed, but my present bank still allows only a ten character password.

If a bank left the keys in their door at night or even left it unlocked, you could hardly blame the curious– or the wicked– for coming inside and wandering around. But that’s happened in the on-line financial world. Institutions lobby for harsh penalties, but their rantings and ravings are meant to detract attention from their own failings.

But a third party is involved, you, the customer. What do you have in your wallet?

From the aspect of a consumer, we can use the following to protect ourselves. From the standpoint of crime writers, we can use the information below to plot clues within a story.

… and PINs

Think about your PIN number, ‘PIN’ singular because most people use one for everything, even their security alarm code. And past behavior suggests people will continue using an easily exposed code even after reading an article like this.

But wait. Doesn't a 4-digit PIN imply guessing one is only a 1-in-10,000 chance?

Not at all. Knowing a little about you (Social Security Number, birth date, etc.) might help hackers, but the PINs and alarm codes of one in four customers can be reduced to sixteen or so numbers.

Does yours begin with 1? Or 19?

The vast majority of PIN numbers begin with 1 or 0. If yours starts with 1, you’ve reduced the possibilities from 10,000 to 1000. If 19, your herd's shrunk to 100.

Do you use the internationally ubiquitous top N° 1 PIN? 1234? Or another of the popular sequential variants, 4321, 5678, 6789?

Does your number begin with 19xx, perhaps a date? The possible numbers are now one hundred, probably a lot less, maybe twenty possibilities if you’re young and eighty possibilities if you aren’t, but a few more if the number represents month-and-day (MMDD) or day-and-month (DDMM). Popular dates that go beyond birthdays include George Orwell's literary 1984 and historical years 1492 and 1776.

Take 2486, which has two strikes against it: It not only comprises semi-sequential even numbers, but it's also a visual pattern, a diamond on a keypad. Other popular visuals are a square (1397), a cross (2046), an X (1937), and the most popular of all, a straight line down the middle (2580). Visual patterns produce deceptively random-looking numbers, but statistics demonstrate they offer little security. And let's face it: Security and convenience find themselves at odds with each other.

'heat' map

statistical moiré
PIN-stripes

Using graphing tools and such visuals as 'heat maps', researchers can determine less than obvious patterns. Some stand out like stars in the sky while others exhibit a warp and woof of woven fabric revealing unconscious human subtleties we're unaware of.

People love couplets, paired digits such as 1010, 1212, the ever-popular 6969, Intel’s 8080, or that Zager and Evans song, 2525. Even when not using 9898 or 2323, people exhibit a preference for pairs one numeric step apart such as 2389 (2-3,8-9) or 5478 (5-4,7-8)) instead of 2479 or 5668. Perhaps we still hear childhood chants in our head from when we learned to count.

A few users exhibit a distinct lack of imagination, to wit: 0001. Others look to pop culture for inspiration, especially fans of James Bond (0007 or 0070), Star Trek (1701), or George Lucas (1138). The 1980s hit 867-5309 peaked at #4 on both the Billboard Hot 100 chart and the hottest 7-digit PIN list.

Some people can’t be bothered at all: 0000, 1111, 2222, 9999, etc. These same overall patterns persist with PINs longer than four digits although people tend to pick phone numbers when forced to select 7-digits, thus adding artificial randomization to the mix.

The problem with guessable PINs surprisingly worsens when customers are forced to use additional digits, moving from about a 25% probability with fifteen numbers to more than 30% (not counting 7-digits with all those phone numbers). In fact, about half of all 9-digit PINs can be reduced to two dozen possibilities, largely because more than 35% of all people use the all too tempting 123456789. As for the remaining 64%, there's a good chance they're using their Social Security Number, which makes them vulnerable. (And as we know, Social Security Numbers contain their own well-known patterns.)

To reemphasize, the greater the number of digits required, the more predictable selections become. Why? Why does the problem worsen with additional digits? As people are forced to use more digits, I hypothesize they react by falling back on easy-to-recall patterns such as sequences. Someone might remember 3791, but they won't easily recall 379114928, and they may reason 123456789 is as difficult as any other number.

PIN-pricks

The bad guys know these things. They don’t need high-speed analysis engines or intensive code-cracking software. They know the numbers and work the odds. As often as not, they can hack into an account– or your house or your medical files or your life– within moments.

Armed with only four possibilities, hackers can crack 20% of all PINs. Allow them no more than fifteen numbers, and they can tap the accounts of more than a quarter of card-holders.
PIN-ups
If you absolutely cannot remember little used numbers and carry a reminder, at least code the number in some way.
• Some take a cue from old-fashioned costing codes that used alphabet substitution for digits: I=1, J=2, K=3, …
• Roman numerals might be another idea, e.g, 2009=MMIX.
• One handy method is to subtract your PIN from 9999 and write that down. When you need your PIN, you simply subtract the code from 9999 again. (For those who know hexadecimal (base 16: 0-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-A-B-C-D-E-F), this geeky technique is even more effective: Where F is 15, subtract your PIN from FFFF, e.g, 9531=6ACE. I used this method to label keys in an apartment complex: 1422B=EBDD4.)

Your job– you should choose to accept it– is to make breaking into your account as difficult as possible, not that institutions tell you what you really need to know: Their usual advice is to cover ATM and store keypads with your hand. Don’t tell anyone your PIN. Don’t write it on a stick-em and carry it in your billfold.

But you can do a lot more than that: Make your number as difficult to guess as possible.

PIN-wheel

So what numbers are rarely used? Generally, the higher the first digit, the less common the password. Of the ten least used PINs, four start with 8, two with 9, and two with 6. Just don’t blow your efforts with 8888 or 8000, or 9999 or 9000.

Tip: Sure, you want a number you can remember. Toward that end, I suggest picking an easy four letter word (or a word with the same number of letters as the number of PIN digits) you can remember, say ‘easy’ itself. Look at E-A-S-Y on a telephone keypad and you’ll see the letters correspond to 3279, which breaks the most obvious patterns. Reverse the digits if you like to make the combination harder. If your ATM doesn't show letters, then open your cell phone. See more tips in the box at right.

PIN-points

In the following table* of the twenty most used numbers, it becomes painfully obvious any baddie who’s learned only the first four or five most popular numbers can suck the money out of one in five ATM accounts. With a crib sheet of these twenty numbers, he can boost his takings to 27%.

Most Common PIN Numbers
rank PIN freq %
1 1234 10.713
2 1111 6.016
3 0000 1.881
4 1212 1.197
5 7777 0.745
6 1004 0.616
7 2000 0.613
8 4444 0.526
9 2222 0.516
10 6969 0.512
11 9999 0.451
12 3333 0.419
13 5555 0.395
14 6666 0.391
15 1122 0.366
16 1313 0.304
17 8888 0.303
18 4321 0.293
19 2001 0.290
20 1010 0.285

Least Common PIN Numbers
rank PIN freq %
9981 9047 0.001161
9982 8438 0.001161
9983 0439 0.001161
9984 9539 0.001161
9985 8196 0.001131
9986 7063 0.001131
9987 6093 0.001131
9988 6827 0.001101
9989 7394 0.001101
9990 0859 0.001072
9991 8957 0.001042
9992 9480 0.001042
9993 6793 0.001012
9994 8398 0.000982
9995 0738 0.000982
9996 7637 0.000953
9997 6835 0.000953
9998 9629 0.000953
9999 8093 0.000893
10000 8068 0.000744
* Credit for this table and the heat maps goes to math mensch and privacy professional, Nick Berry.

PIN-out

Now go forth and protect thy accounts. And drop me a line if you use these clues in your own stories.

03 August 2013

Writers on the River


by John M. Floyd

"I'm away from the office right now--leave your name and number and I'll call you back."

That answering-machine message, thank goodness, isn't one I use anymore. Mainly because my only office these days is my home office, and also because I seldom venture too far from it. After all the globetrotting I did in my job and in the military, I now try to avoid any trip that might take me beyond the boundaries of my zip code. Imagine Paladin's card with the words HAVE GUN WON'T TRAVEL on it. (Also imagine Paladin unemployed but stress-free.)

Today, though, I am traveling--or, more accurately, I'm already there. While you're reading this, I'm participating in a two-day writers' conference in Vicksburg, Mississippi. (Only fifty miles west, but still away from wife and home and easy chair and mystery DVDs.) Here's a link to the conference info.


I've been told I'll conduct two sessions this morning--one on writing short stories and one on marketing them--then I'm supposed to be the speaker at lunch, then this afternoon I'm scheduled to repeat the morning session, and then I'll take part in a panel discussion and a book signing. I have a feeling that tonight I'll be ready to prop my feet up higher than my head and shift my brain into neutral for a while. Actually my brain will probably be in neutral during the day as well; maybe nobody'll notice.

Conference call

Truth be told, I've been looking forward to the conference and I feel fortunate to have been invited. It's being run by a good organization and has become an annual event that draws aspiring and established writers from throughout the South. (Everyone seems to know by now that a writer can't open his or her car door in Mississippi without bumping into another writer. Our literary history includes Faulkner, Welty, Willie Morris, Tennessee Williams, Grisham, Shelby Foote, Carolyn Haines, Thomas Harris, Richard Ford, Stephen Ambrose, etc. – there must be something in the water, down here. Either that, or there just isn't much else to do.) Anyhow, as with any conference, it's a chance to see old friends again and to meet new ones, especially some authors that I might have read but have not yet had a chance to get to know.

I'm also aware that many of the attendees will be poets and writers of nonfiction. As a fiction writer, I always enjoy meeting those folks, but I admit to being a little intimidated by them. I've always felt that authors of poetry and nonfiction are more perceptive and more serious and more, well, dedicated than I am. After all, most contemporary poetry is so profound I can't even understand it, and writing nonfiction seems more like work than play– sort of like the term paper that you know you have to finish by Monday or you'll flunk the course. In other words, I respect those writers but I can't really relate to them; I feel as if I'm the little kid with the lollipop and the cowboy hat in the amusement park and they're the adults who make sure everything works and runs the way it's supposed to. (But, since we're being honest here, it's also the kids who have the most fun.)

Dreamers Anonymous?

As for the authors of fiction--whether they're short or long writers of short or long fiction--I find them not only interesting but helpful. I've gotten a lot of great information from fellow fiction writers, both in and out of the classroom environment, and if you've ever taught school, or night courses, or even conference workshops, you know that the instructor sometimes learns as much from the students as the students learn from you. The bottom line is, it's just fun to meet and visit with others who like the same kinds of things you do, whether it's in a seminar or on a cruise ship or on a barstool. Writing has always been a lonely pastime, and I believe no one understands fiction writers except other fiction writers.

Which brings up several questions. What kind of writers' conferences have you attended, or do you attend regularly? Have you found them worthwhile? Too long? Too short? Too expensive? Do you prefer main-tent presentations where everyone attends, or smaller concurrent sessions geared to specific topics? What do you think of "fan" events that include readers as well as writers? Do you ever pay extra to schedule individual one-on-one sessions with editors? Publishers? Agents? If so, have you found that to be productive? Do you prefer genre conferences like Worldcon or Bouchercon, or those that feature all flavors? Do you get tired of SleuthSayers who ask too many questions?

Great Expectations

One more thing, regarding writing conferences/workshops. A few months ago I received an e-mail from the Gulf Coast Writers Association (a well-run group, headed up by my old friend Philip Levin) asking me to come down to the Coast and conduct a two-hour fiction-writing seminar. I replied with an e-mail saying I'd be happy to come and thanks for inviting me, and included a question of my own: What would you like for me to cover? I said I could discuss any of several topics: plot, characterization, POV, dialogue, style, manuscript formatting, marketing, etc.– just let me know. Well, several days passed, and when I'd heard nothing back from them, I checked their web site. Imagine my surprise when I found this announcement there: "John Floyd will be at the Biloxi Public Library on Saturday, February 23, 2013, to teach a fiction-writing workshop from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m." It listed the street address and the price of attendance and added, "Topics John will cover are: plot, characterization, POV, dialogue, style, manuscript formatting, and marketing." Whoa.

I wound up covering all those things, and all within the two-hour time period. For the fifty or so students in attendance, it probably felt a bit like drinking from a fire hose, but we did it, and they seemed to like it, and we had a good day. It did teach me, however, to be careful what I propose, when I agree to a session like that. You know what they say about best-laid plans.

Thankfully, I shouldn't have that kind of problem today in Vicksburg. They told me I could talk about anything I want to.

Maybe I'll cover mystery movies …

02 August 2013

Anybody Down Range?


by R.T. Lawton

In the Hollywood version of our Old West, the movie makers would have us picture the hero stepping out into the dusty street of some cowboy town to face the story's villain. The two opponents stare at each other for a while to increase tension, and then the bad guy draws first. Naturally, our hero draws his weapon faster and shoots first. If he's really good, it only takes one shot to polish off the soon-to-be-deceased. And, the entire scene occurs at a distance of several paces between the combatants.

In reality, from what I've read in non-fiction, many of the Old West gunfights took place in a local store or saloon with roughly about ten feet separating the two arguing parties. In their anger/excitement/adrenaline, a nearby stove or innocent slow bystander was as likely to get plugged by the first shots as was the opposing shooter. How you ask, could this possibly happen at such close range?

Well, I'm glad you asked that question. In reply, here are a few antidotes and anecdotes to help tighten up your own shot group.

As most of you who have fired a handgun know, you line up the notch in the rear sight with the blade of the front sight. The top of the rear sight should be on a level line with the top of the blade of the front sight and there should be equal daylight on both sides of the front blade in order to make a correct sight pattern. The target to be shot then goes on top of the front blade, depending upon the distance to said target. Simple, huh?

Now we get into various factors affecting this simple process.

The Length of the Barrel

In 1971 when BNDD Class 15 graduated, all trainees were issued a S&W, .38 caliber, subnose, six-shot revolver. The short barrel was supposed to make the weapon more concealable when going undercover. Experts -- I have no idea who they were -- had determined that most shootouts in undercover situations took place at about the distance of six feet. Therefore, a short-barreled weapon should be suitable. Naturally, this did not help in situations where your opponent was at a greater distance. You see, assuming the same error deviancy in sight pattern between the rear and front sights, means a short-barreled weapon will increase the width of your shot grouping a lot more as the distance increases than will a long-barreled weapon. And that is if you are doing everything else correctly. For that reason, many agents soon changed over to personally owned weapons such as the Colt Combat Commander, and later to the larger of the Sig Sauers and Glocks. True, the larger calibers of these weapons had more knockdown power, but the longer barrels also provided more accuracy.

The Twitch of a Finger

One summer day, a law enforcement buddy of mine was off-duty at a lakeside park when a pickup truck drove up to where he was standing. The truck driver, a felon, appeared to suddenly recognize my friend. Whereupon the driver said a few unkind words and drew a pistol. Fortunately, this felon was drawing from an awkward sitting position. My friend beat the felon to a shooting readiness and blew three holes through the driver's side door at a distance of about six feet or so. Luckily, one round hit the felon in his shooting arm and the situation was concluded without further violence. How did the other two shots miss his intended target? Well, let's see, there's excitement/adrenaline, anticipating the shot and the position of the trigger finger for three possibilities.

Adrenaline coursing through a person's veins allows some people to lift a car off a loved one, or some soldiers to storm an enemy position without feeling the effects of wounds until the action is over, or lets some humans conduct super human efforts for a short time period. This naturally produced chemical in the body also affects the nervous system and makes for twitchy movements. A trigger finger does not do well with twitchy movements as you will soon see.

Anticipating the shot means you know the recoil and loud noise are coming, which usually means you react in advance by flinching and yanking the trigger. This reaction pulls up the nose of the barrel and your shot goes higher than you want. To see if you have this problem, dry fire your weapon (no ammo in the chamber or magazine, please). If you flinch when the hammer falls, you're anticipating a recoil and need to relax. Keep dry firing until the flinching stops.

Now we come to the position of the index finger on the trigger. Look at your shooting hand. The pad of the index finger, from the fingertip to the crease of the first knuckle, should be evenly centered on the trigger. If the fingertip portion pulls on the trigger, then the barrel gets pulled to the right and the round goes to the right of target center. However, if the crease of the first knuckle pulls the trigger, then the barrel gets pushed left and so goes the shot. The finger pad also needs to be centered up and down on the trigger. Put the finger pad too high and the barrel gets pulled up when fired; too low and the barrel gets pulled down. So, how do you correct these problems?

Practice, Practice, Practice

Go to the firing range and work on your anticipation and trigger finger position. When you have acquired a tight shot group, then start drawing and firing your weapon. Always practice as if you were in a real life situation. Use the same weapon you will be carrying and keep it in the same position on your body that you will be drawing it from. If from a holster, then always use a holster. For undercover purposes, most of us did not use holsters, the weapon went in the back of the waistband. For muscle memory and to help counterbalance the effects of adrenaline, keep as many circumstances the same as is possible, time after time. Then, when the action starts, your movements become automatic and natural.

In the early years, our range officers, to keep their firing ranges neat and tidy, would have us clean up as we went. When we finished firing from behind barricades (which simulated reality) the range officers would tell us to empty the casings from our revolver cylinders into nearby brass cans. Problem they found out later was that agents reacted in the field as they had been trained in the academy. When field agents got into a shootout, they would look around for the brass cans to empty their guns before they reloaded. You don't have time for that in a shootout.

Moral: Practice for reality. Train the way you will use it.

Now, go out and have some fun with paper targets. Hope you never need to shoot at the real thing, but if you do, do it right for your own safety and for those around you.

01 August 2013

The Affair of the Poisons


by Eve Fisher

Scandal!  Murder!  Secret poisons!  Death in high places!  Welcome to the 17th century, specifically the reign of King Louis XIV, the Sun King, or, as one of my students once put it, the first king to live as a rock star.

Marquise de Brinvilliers
(after torture, on her way to execution)

The year was 1676, and a middle-aged woman, the Marquise de Brinvilliers, mousy, quiet, of minor nobility and married to same, was arrested for trying to kill her husband.  The investigation concluded that she had poisoned her father, her two brothers, and various strangers in hospitals upon whom she'd experimented with various types of poisons.  She tried to flee the country, but she was arrested in Liege, and tried and tortured.  She was executed (beheaded, and then her body was burnt).  During her trial, supposedly, she talked about how unfair her execution was since everybody did it.

File:Gabriel-Nicolas de la Reynie.jpg
Gabriel-Nicolas de la Reynie
And maybe they did.  The chief of police in Paris at the time was Gabriel-Nicolas La Reynie, rich, smart, urbane.  He cleaned up Paris, protected Protestants, and did a better job than most, or at least more of what we'd recognize as a police chief's job.  He'd been warned by a priest that a lot of people were confessing to poisoning their relatives.  The break came, however, at a party when a Madame Bosse got drunk and started talking about selling poison to the quality trade.  Someone reported it, and an undercover officer went to her later, bought a bottle of poison, and then arrested her.  She started squealing, and soon the authorities were arresting every fortuneteller, alchemist, and self-proclaimed witch or seer they could find.  And there were a lot of them.  Interrogations followed, and this is where it gets dicey, because the standard criminal justice procedures of the day called for questioning prisoners under torture.  Subjected to the water torture (16 pints poured down a funnel in the throat for starters), the boot, the rack, thumbscrews, pincers (sometimes red-hot) and other "standard methods", they named names galore.  And one of them was Madame Voison, self-proclaimed witch and fortuneteller to the stars.  (Think Nancy Reagan's astrologer; or Elizabeth I's Dr. Dee...)

File:La voisin .jpg
Madame Voison
At this point, La Reynie knew he was playing with very dangerous people, who quite literally could have HIM arrested for investigating them, so he went to Louvois, the Foreign Minister, who in turn went to the King, who agreed to a very private investigation so that they could hush up what needed to be hushed up and arrest those who needed to be arrested.  They created the "chambre ardente" ("burning court" - burning being the punishment for witches and witchcraft) to be the central investigation/court.   And names came tumbling out:  countesses, duchesses, counts and dukes.  Even people in the royal family.  The only one not named was Athenais de Mortemart, Madame de Montespan, either because Athenais didn't do more than have a few spells cast or because Voisin was scared of being charged with treason. 


Why treason?  Simple:  Madame de Montespan, daughter of one of the oldest families in France, was the then official mistress of Louis XIV, by whom she'd had 7 children.  Supposedly, it was La Voison who got M. de Montespan her place in the King's bed, because, despite her undoubted beauty, tremendous lineage, acknowledged wit, and extreme willingness, at first Louis just wasn't that into her.  It might have been that Louis was still besotted with Louise de la Valliere, it might have been that Louis didn't appreciate Athenais' incredibly sharp tongue, it might have been that he liked blondes better (who are we kidding, Louis liked everybody), but in any case, until La Voison (supposedly) arranged a Black Mass for Athenais, complete with blood, blasphemy, and spells - all performed on Athenais' nude body or so the rumor went - Louis didn't look her way.  After that, he was hooked on Athenais for years.

File:Francois-Athenais de Rochechouart.jpg
Madame de Montespan
Now the truth is, there was never any proof of all the poisonings, spells, and witchcraft but the word of a group of tortured prisoners who all claimed to be witches.  (Yes, there were deaths - but people died suddenly and quickly all the time, from bad food, infections, blood poisoning, aneurisms, and everything else under the sun.  Remember, this is a world without antibiotics or vaccinations.)  But at the same time, Athenais did admit to buying love spells for Louis (he was not amused).  And even a love spell could be harmful, because no one was checking out the ingredient list - Louis remembered that he'd had terrible headaches during the time in question, although that could have been a retroactive reaction.  And poison of all sorts was widely available (as late as 1892 our own Lizzie Borden could walk into a store and expect to buy prussic acid over the counter), easy to manufacture, and widely used (arsenic and antimony and belladonna were all used for cosmetic as well as homicidal reasons).  And poison was instantly suspected in any sudden death.  When Louis' brother's wife, Madame (who, incidentally was another of the King's lovers - the man got around) died suddenly at the age of 26 in 1670, even she, as she was dying, believed she'd been poisoned and said so.  (Suspects included two of her husband's lovers; the primitive CSI team of the day performed an autopsy and concluded cholera morbus, a/k/a gastroenteritis; the dispute continues to this day.) 

The results of the Affair of Poisons were:  36 people burned to death after torture, 4 sent to the galleys, 36 banished or fined, 81 imprisoned by lettres de cachet.  A lettre de cachet was an unappealable, unexplained order signed by the king, locking someone away for life - it was frequently used by the nobility to imprison difficult relatives.  One of the ones who vanished was Eustache Dauger de Cavoye, who (like Athenais) had played around with Black Masses (on Good Friday, no less!) and other debauchery.  For a long time, he was believed to be the Man in the Iron Mask - but it's been proved that his family had him locked up in the Prison Saint-Lazare in Paris.   One of the most interesting trials was that of the Duchesse de Bouillon, who arrived in court surrounded by relations and fans, hand in hand with her husband and the lover for whom she was accused of trying to murder the Duc.  She was tart, saucy, pert, and laughed her way through the whole trial.  She was acquitted, but the King banished her anyway.   And there was the Marechal de Luxembourg, who was tried (for 14 months) for using spells to get rid of people, including his wife.  He was also acquitted but his secretary was sent to the galleys.  (More on the galleys next blog.)  The King banished Luxembourg for only a week before recalling him to command the King's armies. 

Basically, all the society people were acquitted, despite admitting that they'd been customers of La Voison - but only, they swore, for spells and love potions.  And then, under torture and threat of burning, Madame de Montespan's name was finally said - all the stuff about the Black Mass and love potions came out - and Louis XIV shut the chambre ardente down.  All those who had even whispered Montespan's name were put, by lettre de cachet, in solitary confinement for life, where they were whipped if they even spoke to their jailers, to prevent the mention even of her name.  Faced with a King who was determined to cover up everything (Louis XIV even burned all the records in his possession), La Reynie implied that he believed the worst when he said "the enormity of their crimes proved their safeguard."  We know as much as we do because La Reynie kept his copies of the records safely locked away until they were rediscovered a few centuries later.

Madame de Montespan - well, Louis forgave her.  At least to the point where he kept her at Versailles for 11 more years, until she finally left in 1691 for the Convent of St. Joseph, with a half a million francs annual pension. 

I'm also happy to tell you that the sale of poison was strictly controlled from then on (official date August 31, 1682).  Private laboratories were abolished, and all occult arts forbidden. 

File:Olympia Mancini by Mignard.png
Olympe Mancini
But perhaps the most important result of the Affair of the Poisons is linked to another major society woman under suspicion, Comtesse de Soissons, Olympe Mancini.  A warrant was issued for her arrest in 1680, but the King warned her ahead of time that they were coming for her and she fled the country.  He said, later, that he would have to answer to God for that, but she was an old lover of his, and if she wasn't, her sister definitely was (there is no end to former lovers of King Louis XIV), and he had his own notions of gallantry.  She was suspected of killing her husband, and since she fled, people assumed she was guilty.  

File:Prinz Eugene of Savoy.PNG
Prince Eugene
Anyway, her son, Prince Eugene of Savoy, never believed that she was guilty, and was so furious at his mother's exile that he renounced his French citizenship and joined the Austrian army under the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I.  This was a disaster for Louis XIV, because the Hapsburgs and the Bourbons were mortal enemies, and Eugene was a military genius.  He served 3 successive HREs, and beat Louis like a gong in every battle in the War of the Spanish Succession.  Even more importantly in terms of European history as a whole, Eugene was a major player in the war to take back Vienna and Eastern Europe from the Ottoman Turks.  His most spectacular victory was the 1691 Battle of Zenta, where his casualties were 2,000 to the Turks' 25,000, as well as capturing the sultan's harem, treasure chest, and Imperial seal.  The peace treaty after that Battle restored Transylvania, Bosnia, and Hungary to the Austrian Empire and, thus, to Europe, and put an end to Ottoman expansion in Europe. 

So.  Poison.  Murder.  Scandal.  And we end up with a free Eastern Europe.   You figure it out.

NOTE:  For further reading, while there are an infinite number of books on Louis XIV, and a variety on the Affair of the Poisons, I recommend Nancy Mitford's, "The Sun King", which captures perfectly the breathless, "Entertainment Tonight!", celebrity-obsessed world of 17th century France.