06 December 2013

Days of Treachery


In The Art of Warfare, Sun Tzu says: "All warfare is based on deception."


Tomorrow marks seventy-two years since the Japanese military forces pulled a sneak attack on America's navy at Pearl Harbor. At the time, the U.S. government didn't expect much to happen because the Japanese diplomats were still negotiating in Washington, D.C. to avoid war. We all know how well that turned out. Even though the Japanese had several previous incidents of engaging in military action in other countries without first declaring hostilities, the U.S. did not prepare itself against this same type of incident. Afterwards, president Franklin D. Roosevelt called it "a day to live in infamy." You'd think we'd not only remember that day, but would also learn a lesson from it.

Sun Tzu says: "Attack him when he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected."

Turn the clock forward in time twenty-seven years plus a couple of months from Pearl Harbor. At this point, the U.S. had already been at war in Viet Nam for three years. Our commanders and experts should be prepared for anything, but this is a guerilla war and we have a conventional army. We haven't used guerilla tactics since the American Revolution. Other than several Special Forces teams out in the bush, most commanders are still using strategies left over from Korea and WWII.

Happy New Year to you!!!


For centuries, the calendar used in Viet Nam has been the same as the Chinese one, a lunisolar based calendar. Their new year, called Tet Nguyen Dan, generally falls during late January or early February in our western calendar. Tet is the most important celebration of the year for the Vietnamese. Special foods are cooked and the house is cleaned in preparation for this three-day holiday. On the first day, lucky money in red envelopes is given to children and elders, ancestors are worshiped and there is much wishing of new Year's greetings to friends and family. It is a believed custom that the first person to set foot in the house on that morning determines good luck or bad for that house during the rest of the year. To that end, most families took care to invite whoever was to be the first person stepping into their house on that first day. Sometimes, to avoid any bad luck, the owner himself would leave the house just before midnight and return a few minutes after both clock hands had touched twelve.

It had also been a long standing custom in Viet Nam for both warring sides to call a truce during this holiday period. All of the Vietnamese, soldiers and civilians alike, if they could, went back to their family home to celebrate. The American troops weren't able to return to their homes in the U.S., but since the South Vietnamese and the North Vietnamese had both agreed to the upcoming cease fire, then the Americans could relax for a few days. After all, nothing had happened in-country during the last few Tet holiday truces. Wrong choice again.

Marines retaking the old capital city of Hue
The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese had long planned a guerrilla uprising in the south for the first morning of Tet. What better way to show the South Vietnamese their future than to have a Communist guerrilla fighter be the first one to step into their house on this special holiday. In the early morning of January 30, 1968, the Viet Cong and troops from the north attacked about one hundred major towns and cities, to include Saigon and the U.S. Embassy. To us, it was treachery in breaking the cease fire they had agreed to, but to them it was just good strategy set forth by an ancient Chinese warrior/philosopher.

American troops quickly rallied and defeated the guerrillas. Some places took a day, some took a month to bring back under control. The Communists lost an estimated 45,000 combatants killed in action. The Americans won the battles, but soon lost the war due to pressure from back on the home front.

So, could the Americans have  been better prepared?

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." ~ George Santayana

In 1941, the Japanese already had a record of attacking countries without warning. The American intelligence agencies got caught sleeping on the job, or else they ignored the danger signs. They paid no attention to history. Thus the Pearl Harbor attack found us with no good defense in place.

Then, in early 1968, our military and intelligence agencies got caught short again. They failed to remember the lesson from Pearl Harbor. Perhaps if they'd delved into the history of Viet Nam, they'd have found the example left by the Trung Sisters and taken heed.

Trung Sisters on war elephants
For centuries, Viet Nam (or parts of it) had fought for independence against various invaders: the Chinese (at least three times), the French (twice), the Japanese (during WWII), and the Americans and their allies, not to mention several ancient civilizations and kingdoms long gone to dust. During the first Chinese occupations centuries past, the Trung Sisters grew tired of their oppressors, raised an army of Vietnamese patriots and threw the Chinese out for a few years. What was the date of their uprising? Strangely enough, it was February 6th, right about Tet Nguyen Dan for that year.

There have long been shrines to the Trung Sisters and their rebellion, especially in the north and around Hanoi. It's not like their existence was a secret or something forgotten over the centuries. Evidently, we didn't pay attention to the history of the country we were in.

What next?

History is still out there teaching lessons, both to those who care to learn and with hard lessons to those who don't pay attention to her. Which leaves us with the question; do we have more surprises coming in the future, or are we paying attention yet?

05 December 2013

The Great American Novel - Yeah, Right


by Eve Fisher

First of all, thank you, Fran, for a great idea for a column!  Fran wrote on Monday a blog called "What's Lit Got To Do With It" -  http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2013/12/whats-lit-got-to-do-with-it.html - in which she unveiled her new Callie Parrish novel, which is great, and I can hardly wait to read it.  But something she said - "it's not the Great American Novel..." - triggered a whole range of responses in me, beginning with,

WHY do we always say that?  (Except of course, for those who think they have written the GAN, and all I can say is, God bless you and just keep moving on.  Nothing to see here.  Nothing to do with you.)  Really, I have heard this rap - "well, thanks, but it's not the Great American Novel" - from all sorts of mystery writers, fantasy writers, romance writers, sci-fi writers...  And here's my response:

(1) Most "literary" novels, most "great" novels, are depressing.  I know this because I have read a lot of them.  They are mostly about how crappy life is, how disillusioning, how people make bad choices, and very few of them have happy endings.
File:Huckleberry Finn book.JPGSIDE NOTE #1:  I believe the only humorous novel that the critics agree is a Great American Novel is Huckleberry Finn - surely there are more than that.  And the last comedy to win Best Picture was "Annie Hall" in the 1970s...  Tells you something right there, doesn't it?  And a lot of people today are embarrassed about "Our Town" winning a Pulitzer Prize "because it's so sappy" - no, it isn't.
SIDE NOTE #2:  Interestingly, the Russians - who always get a bad rap for depression - are much more hopeful than the British and the Americans, but I think that's mostly because Dostoevsky and Tolstoy both had strong spiritual beliefs, and so believed that there was a way out of hell.  (And if you want ribald humor with that, try Gabriel Garcia-Marquez or Gunter Grass.)  But there's a whole lot of authors who simply provide hell, and no way out, and I'm not just talking about Kafka.  Back in Victorian times, after reading Jude the Obscure, Edmund Gosse wondered, "What has Providence done to Mr. [Thomas] Hardy that he should rise up in the arable land of Wessex and shake his fist at his Creator?"  I tend to ask the same about Cormac McCarthy.  Enough is enough.
SIDE NOTE #3:  I don't have to have a happy ending - I still re-read Edith Wharton and "Madame Bovary," and I loved "Mystic River" - but if your characters are universally unpleasant, violent, inarticulate, and hostile, moving across a bleak landscape in which there is no hope and it's all a mug's game, and everyone ends up miserable, raped, tortured, and/or dead...  I may give it a pass.  Forever.

File:James Thurber NYWTS.jpg
The one and only
James Thurber
(2) What are the novels you read and re-read?  The ones where the spine's broken, and the pages are falling out, and you finally have to buy a new copy because you've read them to death?  My bet is a lot of them are funny.  A lot of them are fun.  A lot of them make you feel good.
SIDE NOTE:  Please feel free to provide your own definition of fun and what makes you feel good:  for some it's Stephen King (personally I read too much Poe and Lovecraft as a child, and I don't like being scared that much anymore).  Other's it's P. G. Wodehouse.  I go all over the place, myself, from the complete works of Patrick O'Brian (who has a wicked sense of humor) to James Thurber to Gunter Grass (everyone talks about "The Tin Drum", and all I can say is, read "The Flounder") to Angela Thirkell.

(3) There are not enough humorous works in the world.  Seriously.  We need more laughter, folks.  We need more jocularity, as Father Mulcahy would say.  And those who write funny, humorous, amusing, entertaining, witty, acerbic, knee-slapping, whimsical, ribald, facetious, farcical, waggish, playful, droll, campy, merry, and/or playful stories, sketches, plays, novels, essays, poems, etc. should never, ever, ever be ashamed of it, or put themselves down for it, or say, "Well, it's not the Great American Novel..."  I repeat, THERE ARE NOT ENOUGH HUMOROUS BOOKS OUT THERE.  Write some more.  People will thank you, read you, love you.  Repeatedly.  I know I will.

File:Chaucer ellesmere.jpg(4) People have been giving the lighter stuff a bad rap for millenia.  Petrarch told Boccaccio that his "Decameron Tales" (the world's largest collection of dirty jokes, told against the background of the bubonic plague, and if the world ever needed a laugh, it was then) were unworthy of a humanist and a scholar.  The result:  Boccaccio quit writing.  Religious pressure made Chaucer add a retraction to his "Canterbury Tales", taking it all back.  Samuel Johnson said that "Tristram Shandy will not last."  All I can say is, "Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah."

To these and every writer who has tickled, amused, and made me burst out laughing, thank you!
Keep it up!









04 December 2013

Loose Genes


This is not going to be as cohesive as (I hope) most of my pieces here are, because I have three vaguely related things I want to talk about.  And they have only a slight connection to crime or mystery.  The fact that I'm fighting a cold doesn't help.

So if you prefer to skip this and go check your email you won't hurt my feelings. If you're still with me, here goes.

A relative recently told us she had her genome tested and invited us to do the same.  This feat, which would have been the wildest science fiction a few decades ago, now costs about a hundred bucks and takes a couple of weeks.  You spit in a test tube, and wait to get an email.  Not exactly Doctor Who, is it?

And the results, I have to say, are pretty cool.  My background, as far as I know, is one-half Italian, three-eighth English, and one-eighth Irish.  The computers spotted 10% Italian, 3% British/Irish, 2% French/German, and the rest is mostly vaguely European.  There is a tantalizing 0.2% Sub-Saharan African, which I assume comes from my Italian ancestors.  (To paraphrase Pete Seeger, where do you think those Roman emperors got their curly hair?)  Oh, and I am 2.8% Neanderthal.

But more interesting, the same service tells you if you have inherited health risks that are greater or lower than average.  And that is why the Food and Drug Administration just sent them an order to cease their business.  Because, says the FDA, they were giving out medical advice, which is illegal.  I look forward to seeing how it turns out in court, but I will say this: I have a higher-than-average level of one chemical and my doctor has been trying for years to figure out why.  The computer gurus (knowing nothing about my medical test results) were able to tell me that that higher level runs in my genome.

If you want to know more about the controversy, read this and this.

Now, on to the second topic.  I am reading a fascinating and infuriating non-fiction book by Rebecca Skloot entitled THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS.     Ms.  Lacks suffered from bad luck nine ways from Sunday.  She was an African-American woman born in poverty in the rural south in the early-twentieth century.  (I am not saying it is bad luck to be born African-American.  But there have been better times and places for it.)  She died of cervical cancer in 1951 at age 31.

But before she died scientists took samples of her tumor, possibly with her permission (the phrase "informed consent" hadn't even entered the medical vocabulary by that point).  Scientists had been trying for years to grow cells in test tubes, but the cells always died after a few generations.  Not so the HeLa cells (named for their original source).  They were "immortal," and could be cultured, multiplied, sent through the mail, experimented on, etc.

And so cells that began in this poor, hard-luck woman, were used to develop polio vaccines, were sent into space, and became essential parts of thousands of other studies.  (The name of that genome company I was talking about is 23andme, which refers to the 23 chromosomes in the human genome. Guess whose cells were used in figuring out that number?)  Ms. Lacks' cells were so potent that years later many other colonies of cells that were growing around the world were discovered to be contaminated with HeLa cells - even though none had been used in that laboratory. They could sneak in on a dirty test tube, or a scientist's coat.

The book, which I highly recommend, also discusses the baffled horror of Ms. Lacks' family as they discovered, decades after the fact, what had been done to parts of her body without their knowledge or permission. The conflict between the scientists and the family takes on the inevitability of Greek tragedy: there was simply no common ground for communication.  You find yourself expecting the next unintentional outrage.  When it becomes necessary to explain the concept of "genetic markers" to Ms. Lacks's widower, a man with four years of schooling, of course the scientists had it done over the phone by a researcher with a thick Chinese accent and imperfect English.  How could it have been otherwise?

Reasonable people can disagree about whether persons whose cells are used in research deserve any control or compensation. (There are more than 17,000 patents based on HeLa cells.)  But it boggles the mind that  some scientists in the early fifties thought it acceptable to secretly inject HeLa cells (highly  active cancer cells, remember) into surgery patients just to see what would happen. This went on until some physicians refused to participate, pointing out that eight doctors were hanged at Nuremberg for that sort of research.

And on that cheerful note, let's move on to my third topic.  I just finished reading NECESSARY
LIES, the most recent novel by my sister, Diane Chamberlain.  You can certainly accuse me of nepotism for bringing it up here, but I think you will see the connection.  Diane's excellent book is fiction, of course, but it is firmly rooted in the Eugenics Sterilization Program, under which North Carolina sterilized 7,000 people between 1929 and 1975.  They focused on "mentally defective" epilectics, and people on welfare.  Most states with such programs gave them up after World War II (the shadow of Nuremberg, again), but the Tarheel State actually boosted theirs.

Diane's novel is set in 1960 when a brand-new social worker (after three whole days of training!) is given the job of preparing the sterilization request for a pregnant fifteen-year-old.  The idea is that the girl will wake up after giving birth with an "appendectomy scar" and never be told  she has been sterilized.

The book is not a mystery.  It is not a melodrama either: there are no cackling villains.  Everyone thinks they are doing the right thing (just like the scientists who used the HeLa cells).  And Diane is careful to include one woman who is thrilled to get the operation, since birth control was not easily available.

There are crimes and punishments in the book, but whether the crimes are what gets punished is open to interpretation.

Well, I'm going back to my sickbed.  I hope I gave you a few things to think about, anyway.

03 December 2013

Our On-Line Age


St. Louis Central Public Library
       In a week when a lot of us of a certain age were reflecting back to events of 50 years ago I found myself off on a related tangent, thinking about how different the task of researching is now from what it entailed back when I was an early teenager in 1963. Some of this was sparked by a comment from Fran to my last SleuthSayers post recalling what it was like to visit a library back then. All of this rang true for me. I remember the process of researching term papers back in the 1960s -- taking the long bus ride to the downtown St. Louis Central Library, spending the morning poring over three by five cards in the card catalogs, filling out a request for various reference texts and then waiting while the librarian gathered the materials and wheeled them out of the stacks. The process was tedious, and if those books piled in front of me spawned their own questions, the follow up research meant starting the whole process over again. It was far easier to forego tracking down a question arising from the review of that first pile of books than it was to follow the thought thread through to fruition.

       The way most of us research and write now bears no relation to that process. A laptop and an internet connection is all that is needed to find just about every factoid imagineable. Personally, I am happy with all of this. But whether we are, in the long run, bettered or hindered by our easy electronic access to information today is a subject that is still open to some debate. It is, in any event, easy to come up with examples of how the ways in which we answer our own questions have changed in a computerized wifi world.

       Personal example one: Some years back two older friends of ours from New York City, Jim McPherson and his wife Phyllis King, were visiting us for the weekend. Jim and Phyllis (now deceased and sorely missed), both poets, were two of the most intelligent and well-read folks you would ever want to stumble across. (Jim was named poet laureate of West Virginia, one of only three in the State’s history, in 1942 at the tender age of 20.)  On this particular visit we were sitting in our living room reading when I came across the word “bookkeeper” and stopped cold, looking at it closely, perhaps for the first time. I turned to Jim and said “Can you name a word in the English language that has three consecutive double letters?” Jim thought a minute and said “bookkeeper.” I was floored -- “did you know that already?” I asked him. “No,” he replied. “It’s just the only example I could think of."  That, in a mind, is astonishing. But with the advent of the internet it is no longer a big deal to secure an answer to that question. Pose it on Yahoo and you instantly get “bookkeeper” and (icing on the cake) “sweettooth” for dessert.

The Little Lost Child (1894)
       Personal example two: When I was a child my maternal grandmother, while working around her house, would repeatedly sing two lines of a song from her childhood. She had long-since forgotten the rest of the song, but remembered that it was about a policeman who found a lost child and, through a convoluted series of verses, the child turned out to be his own. She sang those first two lines so much that the song, over the years, became somewhat of a joke in our family.  Eventually my mother and I tried to find the rest of the lyrics, searching out song encyclopedias at the library, all to no avail. Some years back I even tried a computer search using the first two lines, the only ones my grandmother remembered: "Once a police man, found a little child.” All you get from from an internet inquiry using those words are stories about abducted children. But last week, thinking about this column, I decided to try again. I added the word “lyric” at the beginning of the search. That was all that was needed: The song, lost to my family’s collective memory for probably more than a hundred years, is The Little Lost Child. My grandmother’s memory was wrong -- it actually began “A passing policeman . . . .” But once the inquiry is framed as a search for a lyric, even with that erroneous first word, the internet promptly spits back the complete lyrics to the song, a Wikipedia article about it and (this I could hardly believe) a You Tube rendition. And all of this (as you can confirm by listening in) for a song that is truly terrible and (ironically) would probably have been best left forgotten. But that’s not the point -- the point is that you can now almost instantly find almost anything -- even facts that are largely useless.

       When we have this much researching power at our fingertips you can expect some pretty profound changes to occur in the writing process.  Ready access to such a power allows some research to be performed that simply could not have been done in the past, or at least not without more time and effort than the task warranted. Those followup questions that I ignored late in the day in the St. Louis library back in 1963 are no problem now. 

       Some argue, however, that there may be a dark side to this as well. A notable study of teenagers in Korea, an on-line country where reportedly 65% of all teens have grown up using smartphones, has revealed the prevalence of a condition that the study coins "digital dementia," or deterioration of thinking and memory. A UPI news report concerning the study provides the following example:
Psychiatrist Kim Dae-jin at Seoul St. Mary's Hospital recently diagnosed a 15-year-old boy with symptoms of early onset dementia due to intense exposure to digital technology -- television, computer, smartphone and video games -- since age 5. He could not remember the six-digit keypad code to get into his own home and his memory problems were hurting his grades in school. "His brain's ability to transfer information to long-term memory has been impaired because of his heavy exposure to digital gadgets," the psychiatrist [reported].
       But is the negative connotation involved in calling these symptoms a form of “dementia” really correct here? We know, going all the way back to the writings of William James, that thinking involves the interaction of long term and short term memory.   It is theorized that short term memory cannot handle more than roughly 7 chunks of information (otherwise stored in long-term memory) at any one time, and that the process of thinking involves juggling concepts and facts back and forth between the two in those manageable chunks. Psychologists have also long recognized that we already “share” long-term memories with others and depend on others to fill in our own blanks -- I remember how to do some things, my wife remembers how to do others, and if I was trying to think of a word with three consecutive double letters, well, Jim McPherson would have been my go-to guy.  What we are now learning to do instead is to depend on the computer and the internet to perform this function of data retention and sharing that previously we commited to long term memory -- either or own or others'.  Now what becomes important is not the fact, but how to get to the fact on the computer, e.g. adding that word "lyric" when you are looking for a song.

       A Harvard study, as reported in an article in Science Express examining the effects of a world where information is readily available at the tap of a key, seems to confirm all of this:

The advent of the Internet, with sophisticated algorithmic search engines, has made accessing information as easy as lifting a finger. No longer do we have to make costly efforts to find the things we want. We can “Google” the old classmate, find articles online, or look up the actor who was on the tip of our tongue. The results of four studies [conducted by Harvard] suggest that when faced with difficult questions, people are primed to think about computers and that when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it. The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.
       A recent Columbia University study reaches similar conclusions, arguing that we are now using the internet as personal external memory drives. Summarizing that study the Los Angeles Times had this to say:
We’ve come to use our laptops, tablets and smartphones as a 'form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside of ourselves . . . . We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where information can be found.
St. Louis Library -- Atrium where those stacks used to be
       And this, in turn, sounds all in all like a good thing in many respects. Certainly readily accessible information is a boon to those of us who write, and certainly to all of us producing scheduled articles here at SleuthSayers. Reflecting on information and sharing those reflections are far easier tasks without those trips to the library research rooms of our youth. Stated another way, an article such as this one would not have been written if the only sources available were those in the stacks in the St. Louis Central Library back in 1963. Who had the time?

       We are not the only ones changing as the internet renders irrelevant many of the volumes that used to be housed in library stacks.  The St. Louis Central Library that I relied on for research 50 years ago has moved along with the rest of us.  The newly renovated building, scheduled to re-open to the public this month, replaces those stacks where I researched as a teenager with a multi-story sunlit atrium.  There is also a coffee shop where we can wile away some of that time we save.

02 December 2013

What's Lit Got To Do With It?


Did you say,
"WHAT'S LIT GOT TO DO WITH IT?"


                                Not a damn thing!


 My sixth Callie Parrish mystery is out, and it's not the Great American Novel, not anywhere near literary.  It's another cozyesque, which is what I call the Callie books.




Here's a peek at what happens:

                 Callie and Jane love receiving presents, but 
                 the package under their Christmas tree isn't
                 from Santa.  It's the jolly old elf himself
                 though he's not jolly anymore.

                This investigation takes Callie away from her
                mortuary cosmetician duties to unusual places
                like Safe Sister and the first annual St. Mary
               Turkey Trot.  Sheriff Harmon even temporarily
               deputizes her before Santa's killer attacks both
               Callie and Jane.

A Corpse Under the Christmas Tree isn't great literature, but it was a great pleasure to write, and, according to the emails she receives, Callie's fans get lots of fun and mystery from her. (Yes, readers correspond with Callie, including holiday and birthday wishes.)

For a decent definition of the cozy genre, go to Wikipedia. I probably should have done that myself before thinking that's what I was creating.  Writing the first Callie mystery, I believed it was a cozy, but publishers marketed it and the following ones as Mainstream Mystery, and I created my own genre title--the cozyesque.  

Some cozies include recipes, stitchery patterns, and other useful instructions.  Perhaps additions like that would move me more into the cozy genre. I considered adding knitting or crochet patterns. After all, I learned to crochet and knit when I divorced.


I thought I'd need something to keep me busy every other weekend when the boys were at their dad's.  As though two kids, a house, full-time job, and sideline of writing songs and magazine features left a lot of time!

I learned to knit and crochet.  When the afghan for my king size bed was about twelve inches square, I decided I'd rather go dancing.

I'd still rather dance though I don't look quite like this doing it anymore. 

No knitting or crochet patterns for a Callie book.  I did, however, desire more "cozyesqueness" in the new book.

I  added recipes

No, they aren't scattered through the narrative. When other writers do that, it disrupts my reading.  Callie's brother Frankie has added some of Pa's Southern Recipes and Rizzie's Gullah Recipes at the end of the book.

I hope Callie's readers have as much pleasure reading the new Callie as I did writing it.  I  hope they try the recipes, some of which were previously on the website.

To read an article that made me very happy about the new book, go to http://www.free-times.com/pdf/112713/#p=36 .

This is the first novel I've written with an outline.  Next time, I'll share with you why and how.   
        
Until we meet again, take care of … you!



01 December 2013

Professional Tips: Empty Words


by Leigh Lundin

As I grew more proficient at writing and heeded advice not to be overly wordy, especially with modifiers, I began to notice a few words that could be deleted, changing the sentence's meaning little or none at all. Pardon these exaggerated examples:
I certainly somewhat quite like M&Ms, mostly just the red ones.
Translation: I like red M&Ms.
She was very upset that her car somehow couldn't get any traction.
Translation: She was upset her car couldn't get traction.
Somehow they ambled about, very much as if cows, dumb as ever, could ever think.
Translation: The cows ambled dumbly, not as if they could think.
Empty Words

I began to think of these as 'empty words', hollow modifiers with little meaning. Granted, 'very' and 'really' act as intensives, but how useful are they? That question "How useful" is a key that can be applied to any modifier, but for 'empty words', the answer is often: "not at all."

If you say, "He buttered a certain slice of toast," does its particularity matter to the reader? If the answer's no, then the word does nothing but consume space and time– it only slows the story.

As I worked, I compiled a list of empty words and added to it adverbs of marginal utility.

Empty Words

about
any
certain
certainly
ever
just
many
mostly
much
quite
rather
really
so
some
somehow
somewhat
that
very


The word 'that' is a special case. The word can be used as an adverb, a pronoun, a determiner, and a conjunction. We're primarily interested in the conjunction, but the adverb is worth a glance:

Adverb form: Jackson wasn't that drunk.
Conjunction: She said that she was sick.

Inspect the adverbial form of 'that' with an eye toward modifying. Use the conjunction only for clarity to set off confusing clauses, but otherwise avoid it. Deleting 'that' in the second sentence doesn't change the meaning at all.

Fat Words

Not long ago, I came across a list of 'fat words', sort of weasel words used as 'grey noise' in conversations, e.g: "Generally, I don't believe in politics and often I almost nearly always refuse to discuss it."

Many words in these lists can be used legitimately, but they often find themselves employed in writing or dialogue where they add dead weight to stories and drag them to a crawl. I added the word 'hopefully' to the existing list as another common 'filler'.

Be wary of other kinds of padding such as big in size or red in color. Santa is simply big and red.

Fat Words

almost
especially
frequently
generally
mostly
nearly
often
usually
hopefully


It's difficult to write this article without using the words I complain about! What are your most annoying empty words and fat phrases?

The ƒ Word

One obvious word doesn't appear on these lists. More often than not, swear words are part of conversational 'grey noise'. But they're sometimes used as intensives, and the way they're used can reveal character– or lack of character.

I've long wanted to use a conversation from long ago, but I haven't come across the right story for it. I won't confess which line I spoke in the conversation that went like this:

"I ƒ-ing missed you."
"And vice versa!"

30 November 2013

The Chanukah Bush and Other Soothing Lies



by Elizabeth Zelvin

Chanukah, being a holiday based on the Hebrew calendar, which is to some extent based on the lunar cycle, pops up on different dates by American reckoning, sometimes late enough to coincide with Christmas. The 25th of Kislev, 5774, the first day of Chanukah, coincides with Thanksgiving this year--except it doesn't really, because Jewish holidays begin at sundown on the eve of the day that secular calendars usually assign to them. So tonight is the fourth night of Chanukah, which my multicultural family celebrates by lighting four candles in the traditional menorah.

For most people, the winter holidays bring a certain nostalgia—or post-traumatic memories, depending on what kind of childhood you had. I’m lucky to have had wonderful parents, but some of their quirks and crotchets, which appeared perfectly normal to me as a kid, appear in a different light from my adult perspective.

My family was Jewish, so you might imagine we always celebrated Chanukah. Wrong. My mother later denied this, but the way I remember it (the annual event and the later explanation), my parents realized that Christmas was a lot more fun than Chanukah: stockings stuffed with presents, a glittering tree with ornaments, a pile of presents, and, of course, Santa Claus. In fact, I know I was a believer, because one of my earliest memories—at four? five? six?—is not of my father blowing the gaff, but of the moment just afterward: my mother saying, “Oh, Joe, don’t spoil her Santa Claus!” Anyway, we always had a Christmas tree, and I don’t think we started calling it a Chanukah bush until we were old enough to appreciate facetiousness.

In fact, the Chanukah bush was and probably still is a fairly common tradition among secular New York Jews with kids. Our tree was a classic 1950s tabletop aluminum tree, which we decorated with the kind of ornaments you’ll now find in flea markets and yard sales and also making a comeback as modern reproductions. The trees themselves have become collectibles, which you can find on eBay and elsewhere if you google “vintage aluminum trees.”

I believe I was eight or so when my parents decided it was important to pass on their Jewish heritage by having a menorah and lighting the Chanukah candles. The best part for kids, besides the fun of candles themselves, was the fact that it lasted eight nights, on each of which we got a present. Chanukah was a minor holiday in Judaism until the modern American frenzy of Christmas buying and decorated spurred Jewish families to turn it into something that could at least attempt to compete. We had stockings, big woolen ones otherwise used for ice skating, until I went off to college at the age of 16, as well as presents on December 25th in addition to Chanukah.

By the time I married my Irish Catholic husband, my mother was denying that any of this had ever occurred. In her conveniently faulty memory, we had always celebrated Chanukah. My husband’s position was clearly stated from the start: “I don’t care what your mother thinks—we’re having a Christmas tree.” And so we do, along with lighting the candles, eating pot roast and latkes, singing carols (music is another area in which Christmas beats Chanukah hands down), and opening the presents under the tree. And on Christmas Day, we often follow another New York secular Jewish tradition: Chinese food for Christmas.

29 November 2013

Deus Ex Librarica?



On the 16th of November, Elizabeth Zelvin posted an article here, concerning the literary longevity of contemporary writers. Her post inferred the question:

 Will any contemporary authors be remembered one hundred years from now? 

 In the comments section of that post, Eve Fisher mentioned the possibility of a natural or man-made disaster disrupting the national power grid between now and that future time, making the printed word a precious commodity once more.

 Eve’s comment interested me because, as a Special Forces Engineer Sergeant, part of my training included an in-depth examination of Target Analysis.

 Put simply, Target Analysis is the study of national supply networks (electrical distribution systems, transportation systems, fuel distribution systems, etc.) and how to disrupt them at different levels.

 On this post-Thanksgiving day, when we’re all probably still sleepy from the aftermath, I’m not going to explain details about Target Complexes, Target Components, or the decision matrices used to determine which Target Components to destroy in order to disrupt a Target Complex for a desired time period.  (Besides:  It's one thing to post very basic general explosives information, and quite another to explain how and where to plant explosives in order to disrupt national supply networks.)

 Instead, I’d like to present a sort of game, proposing a theoretical scenario and asking you to answer a question.

Reading the post, and the comments by Elizabeth and Eve, I began to consider:  What would happen if I were given the choice of which authors might be read 100 years from now?  Which authors would I choose?  And, if I knew books were about to become a rare commodity, which books would I try to preserve for humanity?

The Scenario: 

 An advanced alien race intercepted one of our Voyager probes and interpreted it in a hostile manner. Now, they are afraid that violent humans might soon begin exploring space.

 After long deliberation, they made a weighty decision. They recently took over all airwaves on our planet, to broadcast a very apologetic message, in which they explained their intentions to bombard Earth with atomic turkey legs, in an attempt to set us back to a time of medieval technological capabilities.

An Atomic Turkey Leg
.005 seconds after explosion
 Immediately following this announcement, the attack began. The atomic turkey leg explosions did great blast damage, leveling all large cities and killing millions, but—due to advanced alien technology—the explosions released virtually no deadly radiation.

 They did, however, wreak havoc through Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) generation, knocking out the world’s electrical systems and turning most contemporary automobiles into little more than oversized paper weights.


Because you are such a kind person, however, you have recently come into custody of a running vehicle.

 You were lucky enough to flee built-up areas of civilization, before the attack commenced, and wound up in a rural zone where you met an old man trying to get to his dying wife’s bedside.

He owned a well-maintained 1974 Ford Pinto hatchback, but couldn’t see well enough to drive. Because you were kind enough to drive him to his wife’s care home, he gave you the car—which is old enough that the EMP didn’t effect it. He also gave you a map and key to a blast/fallout shelter, stocked with years of food and other supplies, which he owns a few miles away.

 While you’re driving to the shelter, an alien ship flies overhead, large loudspeakers blaring: “People of Earth, we remind you that we really feel bad about this. But, we’re doing it because we think you wouldn’t feel bad about doing this to us, so we’re trying to protect ourselves. In the interests of killing as few of you as possible—now that most of you are dead—we’d like to let you know that we will shortly begin Phase II of our plan.

 "In thirty minutes, we will target the remaining centers of knowledge or industry on your planet with laser weapons that will destroy anything within a 100-yard radius. These secondary targets include all still-existing factories, refineries, libraries and research facilities.

 "Please remember: There’s nothing personal in this attack. We just want to bomb you back to a technological base which will keep us safe for a bit longer. Thank you! And have a nice day.”

 As the announcement concludes, you drive over the top of a rise and see that a tiny town on your route has incongruously built a large 4-story library. An alien ship hovers nearby, waiting to destroy the library in thirty minutes.

 The shelter you’re driving toward is about five minutes beyond this town. Brave soul that you are, however, you floor it and drive straight to the library to begin loading books into your car, intent on preserving some of humanity’s hard-won knowledge.

 The Question: 

 You have just under 30 minutes to gather books within a large library, and store them in a ’74 Pinto. The pic on the right should give you some idea how much room you have inside the hatchback.

 Though the power is out, preventing you from using the computer to locate any books, you’re excited to discover that this particular library has maintained their card catalogue for some reason. Thus, there is a way to find the call number of non-fiction books.

 Which books would you take?

 Maybe you’d take particular types of books. Or, perhaps there is a book that you feel has greater importance than any other, so maybe you’d grab that one, then try to find others.

 You’re losing time, if you stand there thinking. You’ve got to act quickly. So, what do you do?

 Maybe, you’d like to list the first five or ten books you’d try to save.

 Perhaps you’ve thought this out before, and would like to share your plan with us.

 Your answer(s) and how you approach your decision is up to you, and you alone. But please let us know, in the comments section, what you would do.

 You’ll find my answer in the comments section, too. 

See you in two weeks,
--Dixon

28 November 2013

Thanks and Gratitude (And How to Tell the Difference...)


by Brian Thornton

It's Thanksgiving Day, and quel suprise, the author tapped to post today is going with that old chestnut: "giving thanks today..."

Well, sort of.

After all, this is me we're talking about, here.

So permit me to go all Andy Rooney on you, for a moment. People talk alot about being "thankful" on Thanksgiving (hence the name). And yet, are they, in fact, giving thanks?

And if so, to whom?

After all, being "thankful" is not the same as being "grateful." Frankly, I think many folks conflate the two words,  and a powerful distinction between them is lost.

That distinction being there need be no object of one's gratitude. Although it's possible to be grateful to someone for something, the object need not be part of the equation. Not so with giving thanks. What are you giving? Thanks. And to whom are you giving it?

Now that is a meaty question. (No pun intended) I suggest we talk turkey about it (okay that time the pun was intended!).

Everyone knows the holiday itself was inaugurated by a sect of religious fundamentalists, so it stands to reason that on this day when they gathered together for a day of "giving thanks," they were directing their "thank yous" to "God." (We can only speculate as to whom the local natives who joined them that first Thanksgiving might have been thanking...)

And yet Thanksgiving these days is about as religious a holiday as New Year's Day. Folks gather together, have a meal, drink toasts and describe what they're thankful for.

For my way of thinking, that formula only gets it half right.

So putting my money where my mouth is (and with the understanding that I will be removing said money very soon to make way for the turkey leg that is currently calling my name!), let me take a moment and thank a few people, in honor of the spirit of this glorious day.

First, to my wife, FOR EVERYTHING!!!

Next, to my son, for the joy he brings me, and the things he's teaching me (daily!).

Next, to my family, for their love, kindness and support.

And to my friends, for liking me and for being such swell people that I like them back.

Second-to-lastly, I thank God for my health, the mistakes he puts in my path and the wisdom that springs from them, and for any small talents he has seen clear to throw my way.

And last, but not least, I thank you for reading.

Now let us all be thankful, or grateful, or both. Whichever suits you best.

Happy Thanksgiving!

27 November 2013

PATRICK LEIGH FERMOR


by David Edgerley Gates
There was a Golden Age of travel writing between the world wars, Robert Byron, Freya Stark, and Peter Fleming, among others. (Fleming wrote three terrific books in the 1930's, BRAZILIAN JOURNEY, ONE'S COMPANY, and NEWS FROM TARTARY.)

Given their daring and dash, maybe it's
PADDY FERMOR 1966
presumptuous to suggest that the guy who should be given top billing is the astonishing Patrick Leigh Fermor. He may be best known for his WWII adventures with the Special Operations Executive, a Brit spook outfit: he worked with the resistance in Crete for two years, during the German occupation.


Late in 1933, when he was eighteen, he set out on a tramp across Europe, on foot, with a backpack, starting in Holland, and ending up in Constantinople, a year or so later. He kept detailed
journals, but he didn't actually write about it, or publish, at least, until he was well into his sixties. The first book---of three---A TIME OF GIFTS, came out in '77, BETWEEN THE WOODS AND THE WATER appeared in '86, and THE BROKEN ROAD wasn't published until just this year (Paddy Fermor died in 2011, at ninety-six).

The really interesting thing is that although the books were written in recollection, there's no hindsight, no foreshadowing, no historical irony. Fascism was on the rise in '33. Hitler had come to power in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, there was the Iron Guard in Romania, and Fermor takes vivid note of all this, but he maintains his relative innocence. The point of view is not the older man looking back, but the younger man seeking
adventure. He doesn't entirely ignore the events of the years between, but the present intrudes very little. We get Hapsburgs, milkmaids, Gypsies, ostlers and monks, stables, cloisters, minarets, black bread and cheese, with straw for a bed, venison and wine and damask sheets. The sense of an old order fading, at times, or the past manifest and alive, an inhabited reality, in stones, in language and landscape, in gesture, or costume, or habit of mind. Fermor is, above everything else, evocative. Smells, shapes, or sounds. He doesn't simply notice, he inhales.


The best of this generation of writers, Paddy Fermor, or Peter Fleming, convey a sense of 
wonder, not weariness. We know the worlds they describe are lost to us, the Balkan monarchies, the salt-harvesters of the Iraqi marshes, the nomadic 
herdsmen of the steppe, as far removed from our own experience as they themselves were from the Crusades. On the other hand, they give us context and continuity. They may be closer to the Crusades than we are to them---an enormous gap opens in history, in the second half of the 20th century, the mechanics of war and tyranny, mass murder, the atom bomb. Reading somebody like Fermor isn't just a bridge to the past, it's a journey of discovery, to a time, we might say, when our hearts were still open and glad.

26 November 2013

My Hit List Strikes Again


Last June I posted My Hit List, a list of thirty of my favorite mystery/crime films, many of them obscure and forgotten.  (Okay, most of them obscure and forgotten.)  Just to show that I can do this all day long, here are another thirty films for which I'm thankful on this Thanksgiving week.  
I'm once again purposely avoiding mystery series, about which I've also posted and may post again when you least expect it.  And again, I've passed over some better known and undeniably great films, like The Big Sleep and Chinatown, because they don't need a plug from me.  Even without the former title, the films of the 1940s are overrepresented here, as they were in my original list.  What can I say?  The forties were to mysteries what the fifties were to westerns and the sixties to Annette Funicello pictures.  A golden age.

I hope you've had a chance to sample a couple of films from the original list and that you'll also try a few of the following guaranteed gems.


1930s

The Phantom of Crestwood (1932)
A real curiosity.  A movie based on a radio serial with an ending voted on by listeners (or so the producers claimed).  The solid cast is headed up by Ricardo Cortez, the movies' first Sam Spade.

Star of Midnight (1935)
William Powell of The Thin Man fame in a Thin Man knockoff, with Ginger Rodgers. 

The Princess Comes Across (1936)
Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray in a comic mystery set aboard an ocean liner.  (What did you think the title meant?)  MacMurray even sings.

Night Must Fall (1937)
Robert Montgomery established his acting chops in this film version of the famous Emlyn Williams play about a brutal killer in rural England.


1940s

The Glass Key (1942)
An underappreciated Dashiell Hammett novel becomes the best of the Alan Ladd/ Veronica Lake teamings.  William Bendix is a truly scary bad guy.

Murder, My Sweet (1944)
Former musical star Dick Powell is a believable Philip Marlowe, at least until he takes off his shirt.  The great Claire Trevor is in support in this adaptation of Raymond Chandler's Farewell My Lovely.

The Blue Dahlia (1946)
Many people would pick this as the best of the Ladd/Lake pictures.  I think it's only a close second, in part because the original script, by Raymond Chandler, was watered down during filming.  Another solid supporting turn by William Bendix.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
What long-ago crime binds Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, and Kirk Douglas?  Noir regular Lizabeth Scott would like to know.
  
Riffraff (1947)
Graying but game Pat O'Brien versus oil field hijackers in Panama with the aid of Anne

Jeffreys.

The Unsuspected (1947)
Actually, you will suspect the solution before it's revealed, but the cast, which includes Claude Rains and three striking blondes (Constance Bennett, Audrey Totter, and Joan Caufield), makes this worthwhile. 

Force of Evil (1948)
Very short, very intense noir film features John Garfield as a glib mob lawyer.  The always good Thomas Gomez is especially so here.

The Big Clock (1948)
Ray Milland is a magazine editor assigned to head up a murder investigation.  Every clue his staff turns up points to. . . Ray Milland.  Charles Laughton plays his oily boss.

Criss Cross (1949)
More noir with Burt Lancaster running afoul of Yvonne De Carlo and Dan Duryea.

 

1950s

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)
Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, and director Otto Preminger, all Laura veterans, reunite for a much tougher and darker film.

Man With a Cloak (1951)
Barbara Stanwyck again and Joseph Cotton, as a mystery man out to save Leslie Caron in 19th Century New York.  This time Stanwyck sings.

Detective Story (1951)
Kirk Douglas as the grandfather of all burned out cops.  The film's stage roots show, but a great cast brings it to life.  William Bendix (who is to this list what Herbert Marshall was to my first one) is again outstanding in a serious supporting role.  (This movie was nominated by Herschel Cozine after my original list was posted.) 

Kansas City Confidential (1952)
John Payne out to clear his name.  A interesting mix of fading stars, like Payne and Preston Foster, and up and comers, like Lee Van Cleef and Jack Elam, a characteristic of most B pictures.



The Narrow Margin (1952)
Low-budget cult film of cop Charles McGraw trying to keep star witness Marie Windsor alive during a train trip from Chicago to LA.  McGraw is tougher than Intermediate German.
 
The Blue Gardenia (1953)
Why should dahlias have all the fun?  When Anne Baxter is accused of murdering Raymond Burr, columnist Richard Conte comes to her aid.



The Big Heat (1953)
Glenn Ford as a cop who loses everything in his pursuit of a crime ring.  Lee Marvin is a particularly slimy mobster. 


1960s

A Shot in the Dark (1964)
Comic whodunit was the second Inspector Clouseau film and the only one without any Pink Panther business.  For that reason, and the participation of Elke Sommer, it's also the best.

Mirage (1965)
A Hitchcock thriller made without Hitchcock.  Gregory Peck has lost his memory (as he did in Hitchcock's Spellbound) and he's on the run (and he was in Hitchcock's Spellbound).  P.I. Walter Matthau tries to help.

Point Blank (1967)
A film that's more iconic than obscure.  Lee Marvin wants the mob to pay him his money and shoots his way through the organizational chart to get it.  Why don't they just pay the guy?  Angie Dickinson heads up the supporting cast.

 Cogan's Bluff (1968)
How obscure can it be with Clint Eastwood as its star?  Contemporary Arizona lawman comes to New York to butt heads with Lee J. Cobb and meet Susan Clark.  Betty Fields, a bright young face of the 1940s, makes her sad last film appearance here. 

P.J. (1968)
A 1960s take on film noir, starring George Peppard as a P.I. hired to bodyguard Gale Hunnicut by her millionaire husband Raymond Burr, a veteran of forties noir.



1970s

They Only Kill Their Masters (1972)
James Garner is a small-town policeman trying to solve a complex murder.  Katharine Ross is the romantic interest, but the supporting cast is largely made up of names from the forties brought on to give this a forties feel.  They include June Allyson, Peter Lawford, Edmond O'Brien, and Anne Rutherford.  

Charley Varrick (1973)
Thriller detailing the plight of Walter Matthau, a small-time bank robber who accidently knocks over a mob bank.  Joe Don Baker almost steals the film as the hit man sent after him.

Night Moves (1975)
California P.I. Gene Hackman is in over his head in the Florida Keys.  Directed by Arthur Penn. 

The Late Show (1977)
Aging P.I. Art Carney sets out to solve the murder of his old partner Howard Duff. (Duff was old-time radio's Sam Spade, making this an evocative bit of casting).  Lily Tomlin in support.

Murder by Degree (1979)
Peter Finch as Sherlock Holmes and James Mason as Dr. Watson face off against Jack the Ripper, one of whose victims is Susan Clark.  John Gielgud, who once played Holmes on the radio, does a cameo.  


Once again, I didn't make it to the eighties, but last time I didn't get past 1974, so I did break new old ground.  Maybe next time, when My Hit List Strikes Back, I can "finish off" the century.


25 November 2013

A is Forever


A is Forever

by Jan Grape



When first began writing your first novel did you plan on a series or a stand alone?  I absolutely hoped I could do a series with my Private Investigators, Jenny Gordon and C. J. Gunn. This was in 1980 and Marcia Muller and Sue Grafton had both published female private eye books and I wanted to be part of that cadre. I totally hoped for a 3 book contract. I completed my first in the series in 1981. It was titled April Anger. If Grafton could do the alphabet, and John D. MacDonald the colors then perhaps I could do the months.

And in keeping with the genre, Robert Parker had a white PI and tough black friend who always helped with the case. I definitely wanted to explore the relationship between the white woman, Jenny Gordon and the black woman, C.J. Gunn, my wonderful black girlfriend, the late Choicie Greene named the character in the book, C.J. Gunn. The initials stood for Cinnamon Jemima Gunn. I wanted to show this relationship could be as close as sisters which Choicie and I were.

I completed the novel, sent out query letters to editors I had met at mystery conferences. I got some good feed-back and then an editor wanted to publish it. The editor was ready to present to the editorial board and then the editor left that house and went to another house, taking my property along to the new house. But that house wasn't interested.

The next editor was very interested but just as they were presenting found out that another editor had just purchased a female private eye book and they couldn't purchase a second one. Of course, other houses purchased and published more than one MALE PI novel I thought, but sent the mss out once again.

The final time, once again an editor wanted to publish then the company went out of business. In the meantime, I had started the second in the series, May Madness and I began writing short stories that featured these two female private eye characters.

It was a couple years later that an editor wanted to see the first novel as she really liked the characters in the short stories. But once again it was rejected, The editor said she really liked the characters. However, she thought they had grown-up and past the mss in the short stories and didn't think this mss worked anymore. So I put that mss away in the closet.

I don't think many authors think of doing a series book, they just like the first really well and if it gets published they hope the editor wants a second or a third.

After Austin City Blue, came out the publisher did want the second.  Dark Blue Death came out.  In the meantime, I wrote, What Doesn't Kill You a non-series stand alone. I still have not finished the third in the Zoe Barrow series. There were personal upheavals and publishing upheavals and one thing led to another.

I still think I should do the third and I've had ideas a couple of stand-alones. But have only done short stories and co-edited anthologies.

I would like to hear from my fellow writers about series or no series.

24 November 2013

Entering the Mainstream


In the many years I’ve been collecting them, I’ve come across only three anthologies of crime short stories by black writers. The first two are Spooks, Spies, and Private Eyes: Black Mystery, Crime, and Suspense Fiction of the 20th Century edited by Paula L. Woods in 1995, and Shades of Black: Crime and Mystery Stories by African-American Writers edited by Eleanor Taylor Bland 2004. 




Black Noir: Mystery, Crime, and Suspense Fiction by African American Writers, edited by renowned editor Otto Penzler in 2009, is the third and probably the most important because Mr. Penzler’s recognition brings African American writers of crime fiction solidly into the mainstream. 

In the introduction Mr. Penzler observes that as society changed in the 20th century “modest numbers of blacks entered such mainstream elements of the culture as academia, law, medicine, science, and the arts.” However, “very few…detective novels” were written by African American writers, and it was not until “the past twenty years or so that there has been a regular flow of detective stories by black writers.” He concludes that their “stories... transcend race and genre to fulfill their primary purpose—to inform and entertain” (emphasis added). 

One author in the late 1800s and one in the early 1990s used the crime genre to tell stories about the relationship between white fathers and their mulatto children. 

The subject of Charles W. Chesnutt’s “The Sheriff’s Children,” published in 1889 in the New York Independent, is the relationship between white masters and their black female slaves and the harmful psychological effects on the children of such relationships. After the Civil War in the village of Troy, NC a mulatto stranger is arrest and accused of murdering Old Captain Walker. To protect his prisoner from a mob, Sheriff Campbell unlocks the cell door so he can escape if the mob breaks in. When Campbell turns from the window after encouraging the mob to disperse, the mulatto is pointing a pistol at him. He says he didn’t kill Walker and that he came to town to kill the Sheriff. He is Tom, the son whom the Sheriff sold before the war along with his mother, Cicely, to pay his debts. Sorry for the spoiler.  

Published in 1900 in the Colored American Magazine, Pauline E. Hopkins’s “Talma Gordon,” a locked room mystery, is “one of the first ’impossible crime stories’...by an American and the very first…by an African American.” Talma and her sister Jeannette are the daughters of Jonathan Gordon by his first wife. After Jonathan, his second wife, and their son are pulled from the fire that burned down their house, and it’s discovered that their throats were cut, Talma is accused of murdering them because her father was going to leave everything to his son while leaving her and Jeanette only $600.00 each because they are half Negro. The ending is disappointing because it smacks too much of a deus ex machina.

In the years before 1980, black writers, if they used the crime fiction genre, did so to deal with the problem of racial prejudice. The change in social conditions due to laws passed in 1950s and 1960s caused the flowering of crime stories by black writers in the 1980s. To enter the mainstream, the writers had to create characters of different ethnic groups, and the stories did not and do not always deal with the “problem.”

However, before the 1980s, Chester Himes and Hugh Allison each wrote a story featuring black and white characters that were published in two mainstream magazines, indicating some editors recognized their talent and took a chance that their readers would also.

In February 1942, Esquire published Himes’s “Strictly Business,” about a hitman nicknamed “Sure” who works on salary for a mobster. Aside from Himes’s storytelling talent, what is interesting about the story is the main character is white. I wonder if Esquire would have published the story if he had been black?

In July 1948, after Hugh Allison challenged the claim of EQMM’S editor that no subject matter was taboo, the magazine published his story “Corollary” in which black detective Joe Hill, while questioning a black chauffeur about his part in a series of robberies and the murder of five people by his white partners, realizes something the chauffeur says might help solve an unrelated kidnapping case that began with a finger a small black girl delivered to Joe. EQMM to me was more courageous than Esquire, taking a chance on readers accepting a black main character. (no photo available)

The two stories above show gradual acceptance before 1980s of black writers by mainstream magazines. As white readers began to read them in the 1980s, boatloads of novels and short stories by black writers of crime and mystery fiction flooded into the mainstream.