20 January 2014

Looking Around

and I saved the best for last.  Please scroll down.

This was too good to resist after reading John's column on rejection a few weeks ago and Dixon's last week.    

Until we meet again, take care of … you!

19 January 2014

Fertility Fraud

by Leigh Lundin

The Switch, Part I

Bill Manser and Elizabeth Sehr © MGM

Today’s article was suggested by a friend and neighbor. (Thanks, B!) The story involves Florida (where else!), DNA, and a man who spent half a decade in prison. And it’s about hubris.

In 1995, DNA lab worker Elizabeth Sehr submitted evidence for a paternity test involving William Manser. According to The Libertarian Republic and The Orlando Sentinel, Manser missed a court date and, when he failed to pay court-ordered child support for young Dylan Sehr, was sentenced to prison and served five years.

Bill Manser did not recall taking a DNA test and he expressed doubt the child was his. After prison, he built a relationship with Dylan and had at least one son with someone else. Then, two decades after Dylan’s birth, along comes a television program that combines those two favorites of daytime television, courtroom drama and paternity testing. (And people wonder why I don’t own a television.)

The program is called Paternity Court. It’s presided over by entertainer, lawyer, and dazzling drama queen Lauren Lake. I’ll be the first to admit it feels tawdry, even unseemly, but the show solved a riddle no one else seemed interested in resolving.
  • The result was that Bill Manser was sent to prison on a lie. He was not the father.
  • The broader implication is that lab technician Elizabeth Sehr either substituted the real father’s DNA or faked the test paperwork.
Less than a minute after the revelation, Lake asked Elizabeth if she knew who the real father was and Sehr readily admitted she remains in touch with him– then twenty seconds later complained Manser had called her a liar. In the build-up, the viewer experienced a sound dose of Sehr stridently insisting Manser’s the liar, that he’s a father avoiding responsibility. And we can’t forget she complained he wasn’t there for her son in his young years… completely overlooking she’d sent him to prison.

The mother blames LabCorp for ‘a mix-up’ and her son has said LabCorp should be held responsible. You don’t need a background in science to see what’s wrong with this rationale. If a lab failed to match, that might (or not) be considered a mix-up. But since the lab was able to identify the father’s DNA (if not his actual name), we know the real father’s DNA was in that lab, and there’s only one way it could have been placed there. Either that, or she faked the entire test.

What a plot for a murder mystery. But in case you think DNA might hold no more surprise, read on.

The Switch, Part II

Tom Lippert
Tom Lippert © KUTV 2014

Following a DNA test, the Branum family was surprised to learn Mr. Branum was not the father of daughter Annie. Before jumping to conclusions about Mrs. Branum, know that Annie was conceived in a fertility clinic. She was an in vitro test tube baby where a clinic affiliated with the University of Utah collected spermatozoa and eggs from Mr. and Mrs. Branum.

So the mother, Pam Branum, started detective work with the help of genetic genealogist, CeCe Moore, who tells the tale in her blog (with altered names). The story centers around Tom Lippert, a brilliant but troubled student who decades earlier had kidnapped and electroshocked a girl in the hope she might fall in love with him. After a term in prison, he returned to school and worked for nine years at the lab associated with the University of Utah.
  • UU has proved less than cooperative, but it appears Lippert substituted his semen sample for that belonging to Mr. John Branum. 
  • It’s suspected Lippert may have supplanted dozens or even hundreds of semen collections over the years at the university clinic.
Lippert is long dead, but his legacy lives on.

DNA can resolve many mysteries, but it’s also possible for DNA tests to uncover entirely new puzzles.

18 January 2014

Getting into Big Trouble

Some of the columns I enjoy reading the most at SleuthSayers are those that tell me about past novels and stories and movies that I somehow overlooked or never heard about at all. I still remember how pleased I was to find out from Rob Lopresti about the quirky film In Bruges; as soon as I sought it out and watched it, it became one of my favorite crime movies.

A couple of weeks ago I discovered one of these long-lost little gems on my own, in the book-sale section of our local library. It was a novel published fifteen years ago by Miami journalist and humor columnist Dave Barry, called Big Trouble. In fact I believe it was his first attempt at fiction--and it was one of those books that I knew I would like as soon as I picked it up and flipped through it. (It also cost me only fifty cents, but still …)

In hindsight, I think I recall at least noticing it when it appeared in bookstores and hearing about the movie that was later made from the novel, but I just never paid much attention to either one. Turns out that was a mistake.

Funny business

A quick note. Big Trouble is not profound, meaningful, life-changing literature, and doesn't pretend to be. It's just a joy to read. On the book jacket, Elmore Leonard blurbed that it was the funniest book he'd read in fifty years, and Stephen King said it's the funniest thing he'd read in almost forty years. I'm not sure I'd go that farsome of the early Stephanie Plum novels made me laugh like a loon on just about every page– but I do agree that Big Trouble is hilarious, and delightful from start to finish.

Two more things, as I wrote this piece, reminded me of recent SleuthSayers columns. One is that we've spent quite a bit of time at this blog lately talking about humorous mysteries--presumably because so many of us enjoy them. And believe me, this book ranks right up there with the work of Carl Hiaasen, Janet Evanovich, Tim Dorsey, etc. My hat's off to all of them. It can be difficult to make crime funny, and we writers know that humor of any kind is hard to do well and easy to do badly.

The other thing I kept thinking of was Leigh Lundin's frequent columns about the weirdness of some of the residents of Florida. At times it does appear that many of the loose nuts in the continental U.S. have indeed rolled down and lodged in the Sunshine State, and most of those seem to have kept trickling down to the Miami area. Big Trouble is set entirely in South Florida, and sometimes the only reason given by some of the characters to explain the behavior of the other characters is that they simply happen to be residents of Miami. Goofy things happen there.


I'm not overly fond of book reviews that go into great detail about the plot, so with that in mind (plus the fact that I'm basically lazy), here's my snapshot of Big Trouble: Two hitmen from New Jersey head down to Coconut Grove to "take care of" an embezzler named Arthur Herk, and in the process they encounter a tree-dwelling vagrant, a python named Daphne, two Russian arms dealers, a truckload of goats, a giant toad, a down-on-his-luck ad man, a dog named Roger, three teenagers obsessed with a squirt-gun game called Killer, a nuclear bomb, and an assortment of crooks, illegal aliens, airport security personnel, FBI agents, and charter pilots. And wind up, of course, in big trouble.

If you're so inclined, and if you like to belly-laugh, give this novel a try. I found that I really didn't want it to end, and when it did I was pleased to discover, via Google, that Mr. Barry has since written two other funny mysteries--Tricky Business and Insane City.

I'll be looking for them on the library book-sale shelves.

17 January 2014

Potential New Market

Writers always like to hear about potential new markets and therefore I may have one for you. It's a new start-up with big plans for the future. In fact, it's so new they are still working on the web site and when you look at the list of books, you will only find three currently available. But, when you look at the list of authors scheduled to contribute works, there are several and you will probably recognize some of the names. (They've added at least two more names since I originally wrote this piece.) So, here's the information as I received it from the Stark Raving Group CEO, Jeffrey Weber.

Jeff is looking for quick read novellas, or short novels, in the mystery, crime fiction, action-adventure and thriller genres. 25,000 to 35,000 words; about 75 to 100 pages, which will retail for $2.99 as an e-book. The author gets $1.00 per book sale, no advance, and is paid by check. His group wants "pulp renaissance, pulp 2.0 if you will, in taut, terse, plot-driven, witty, sensuous, action-packed adventure fiction of the '60s and '70s." You can write a book a year as either a stand-alone or as a setup for a series.

Background: He has "spent over three decades in the music industry as a producer and label owner (180+ CD's produced, multiple Grammys, multiple Grammy nominations)." It is his plan to utilize these same music industry strategies "to market, promote and sell our books." One new technology, not yet applied to book publishing, is geofencing. "It places a virtual "fence" around a location and when you cross the invisible barrier, a message/promotional offer pops up on your smartphone or eReader. We're making plans to use the technology for airports, bus stations, train stations and so on."

"Through our distribution agreement with Consortium (Perseus Books), our e-books will be available just about everywhere, including Apple, Amazon, Barnes & Noble (Nook), Google Books, Ingram Digital, Kobo, Sony, etc." (It's a long list, so I condensed it and mentioned only some of the big names we all know.) Books will also be able to be purchased "through social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, etc." The group has also created their own sales and distribution platform called Bookxy:  www.bookxy.com

For the future, they will be creating multi-cast audio books. And, here's an interesting thought, they will also make their books available by subscription. They expect to have 100,000 subscribers within the next three to five years.

How did I hear about Jeff? A guy, Rob Robinson, who I went to high school with and got reacquainted with a few years ago at a school reunion, happened to mention his friend Jeff''s new venture in one of the e-mails we exchanged. Shortly afterwards, Jeff Weber and I swapped e-mails.

Well, now it's up to you. If you are interested in trying out something new, take a look into the Bookxy web site and go from there. No doubt, some of us have questions on procedural aspects, etc., I just haven't yet asked and received answers to those particular questions yet. Feel free to inquire on your own and then share any further info with the group.

16 January 2014

Peace, the Elusive

by Eve Fisher

I swear to God, I wrote most of this before I heard the story of the Florida theater shooter who is claiming that he had a right to stand his ground and shoot to death a man who threatened him by...  throwing popcorn at him.  So...

As you regular readers know, I do Alternatives to Violence Project workshops that at the state penitentiary.  Most people think I do them in order to help the prisoners - which I do - but what most people can't grasp is that I've learned an awful lot about violence and non-violence from these workshops:  violence and non-violence in my world, my state, my town, my self.  And as I say to the guys, each and every workshop, I need all the help I can get.

There's a lot of talk about peace - in the Middle East, in Africa, on our streets, and during the recent holidays the whole "peace on earth, good will to men" thing was, as usual, trotted out regularly and OH, how I wish there was more hope of its coming.  Every time I hear about another shooting, massacre, war, double-homicide, mass shooting, etc., all I can say is "How long, O Lord?  How long?"  To which the Lord might very well reply, "How long, O people?  How long will you keep beating your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears?"  Because we could stop.  We could try to stop.

Why don't we?

That's why I do AVP.  Because I'm wrestling with why we do not stop.  Why I don't stop.  Don't get me wrong.  I don't own any guns, and it's been years since I punched anyone.  But I can rage, inwardly, with the best of them, with the worst of them, and that troubles me deeply.  Why can't I stop?

Now back when I was a child, in the late 50's, early 60's, there were significant differences in how boys and girls were raised, especially about emotions, especially about anger.  We little girls were rigidly trained to NOT express anger.  We didn't have the right to yell and scream, throw temper tantrums or hit people - it wasn't nice, or feminine, or ladylike, and if we did, we'd get punished for it, usually by being yelled and screamed at and being hit.  Whereas the guys - well, they were brought up to "prove they were a man", by standing up for themselves, which often meant everything from verbal sparring to fighting to assault to killing.

Now you get a bunch of guys sitting in prison, they usually know they messed up somewhere, because they're there.  If nothing else, they got caught.  But if their crime was violence - say, beating someone to death or shooting someone who pissed them off - it takes a very long time for a lot of them to realize that killing that person was actually wrong.  That they didn't have the right to do that.  After all, they were just expressing their anger and/or standing up for themselves and/or defending themselves and/or their loved ones and/or the guy had it coming.  It takes a long, long, long time for some of them to grasp the concept that just because you are experiencing anger does not mean you have the right to take it out - verbally or physically - on someone else.  And your anger definitely does NOT mean you have the right to, say, kill the person who pisses you off.  (Yes, that includes people who text inappropriately and/or throw popcorn at you.)

That's why I enjoy doing AVP workshops:  because at least we discuss these issues and other issues of fear, jealousy, violence, pride, manhood, control, and what to do about it.  And I mean a real discussion.  Political and religious platitudes, slogans, etc., break down very quickly.  Instead we walk the guys through it:
For example.  I am angry.  At that person over there.  I have the RIGHT to make him/her aware of my anger, and change what they're doing to piss me off.  What do you mean, I don't?  What do you mean, I don't have the right to tell them to obey me, and if not to yell at them, cuss them out, hit them or kill them?  Why not?  What are the options?  What can I do?  I can't just sit here, feeling all this anger and fear and crap, I've got to DO something about it, right?  I'm a man, a man's supposed to DO something.  What do you mean, walk away?  Suck it up?  Think about it?  Work through what I can actually change and what I can't?  I'm a man.  Men don't do that.  Yeah, I'm sick of getting jumped, shoved, pushed, decked, punched...  I'm even scared of it.  But what the hell else am I supposed to DO?

Walk away.  Turn away.  Move on.  Suck it up.  Do something different.  Lead with your mind, instead of your emotions, at least until you have more emotions on tap than fear and anger.

The very idea that there is such a thing as a non-violent alternative is alien to almost everyone in the pen (unless they've been to our workshops), and it is, apparently, alien to a whole lot of people who have not yet reached incarceration.  We revere Gandhi and Mandela and King - but you know, our society reveres them the way you would admire saints in a niche.  Nobody studies them.  Nobody takes a look and analyzes how they managed to choose an alternative to violence.  We don't teach our children how to practice non-violence.  We don't teach our children self-control, or meditation, or how to recognize the emotions and thoughts that are running through their minds and how to deal with them.  

AVP has lots of exercises, from role-playing to community building to meditation.  In one exercise, we're divided up into pairs, A and B, and for two whole minutes, A tells B the things they like about themselves.  B has to listen, no comments.  Then they switch and repeat the exercise, with A listening to B.  99.9% of the time, what they say they like about themselves is what they do.  "I like to hunt, to fish, to play sports, to draw, to play music, to read, to watch TV, to hang out with friends, to work on cars, to..."  It's all about doing.  Almost never do you hear anyone say, "I like that I'm a loyal person, that I'm brave, loving, kind, hopeful, a dreamer, a hard worker..."  And never yet have I heard something like, "I like that I am a human being.  A child of God.  A man.  A woman.  Alive."

I think this holds true for all of us, not just people in prison.  We do not believe in being, we believe in doing. And yet, that's the most important part, isn't it?  Why is it so hard to talk about who we are?  And how can we change ourselves if we don't know who we are?  If we are running away from the reality of ourselves all the time?  How can we have peace if we do not understand the roots and ribbons and cables of violence that run through not just the world but ourselves?  Our own minds and hearts?

I do AVP workshops because I am working on all of this, and it suits my personality better than meditation or Freudian therapy.  Sometimes I see amazing breakthroughs.  (I'm still waiting for one of those for myself...)  Sometimes I don't.  But at least there the conversation is real.  

15 January 2014

Crossing Over

I am reading Moon Shot, a pretty good collection of science fiction mystery stories and it got me thinking about crossing genres.  It's one of those things that sounds like a good idea - commercially.  "Hey, if we write a story with elves and cowboys we'll get both the western fans and the fantasy fans!"
For those of you who remember Venn diagrams... you start with this:

 And you hope that your audience will look like this:

But most of the time the audience that shows up looks more like this:

Which is a small group.  The common wisdom is that mystery fans are reluctant to read science fiction -- more so than vice versa.  Like most common wisdom, that may be true, or false, or maybe it used to be true.

I do know that some authors manage to cross borders successfully.  Like mysteries about sports.

Or mystery-westerns.

                                                          Or mysteries set in a fantasy world.

Or yes, mystery-science fiction.

How about you?  How do you feel about reading books that skip across the genre lines?

14 January 2014

What are the Odds?

by Terence Faherty

In The Dark Knight Rises, the third film in the latest Batman cycle, Commissioner Gordon, played by Gary Ohlman, tells a young policeman played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, "You're a detective now, son.  You're not allowed to believe in coincidence."

The same admonition might be made to every writer who undertakes a mystery story or book.  In fact, I've heard it paraphrased on Boucheron panels (the highest possible authority) and read it in how-to books.  Eliminate coincidence. 

The goal is understandable.  It's unsatisfying for the reader to plow through a mystery novel in the wake of the fearless detective only to have that detective solve the mystery because he happens to see a billboard that makes him think of something or bumps into a character who holds the vital clue.  A related and equally irritating device was a favorite of B-movie writers in old Hollywood and still pops up in the B movies direct descendant, television.  When all seems foggiest, the hero's sidekick will make an extraneous remark that gives the hero a much needed kick in the old mental pants.  You know this has happened when the hero says, "Say that again!"  The sidekick will then repeat the wrong part of what he or she just said to further prolong the "suspense."

But while the goal of eliminating coincidence is understandable, overemphasizing that goal  weakens the mystery's chances of being mistaken for serious literature.  Coincidences occur in real life, so eliminating them makes a mystery story less like real life and more like a puzzle. 

I collect real-life coincidences, which I find fascinating.  One of my favorites was passed on to me a few years ago by my wife, Jan.  She was attending a football game at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, with old friends from her sorority pledge class none of whom had seen the others in twenty years.  During the first half, the woman on Jan's left (I'll call her
Purdue's Ross-Ade Stadium
Lois) remarked that she was hoping to visit someone while she was in town, the pharmacist who had given her a part-time job when she was an undergraduate.  Later, the woman on Jan's right (I'll call her Mary) said that her son, a Purdue student, was attending the game and would stop by at halftime to be introduced.  Sure enough, at halftime Mary's son showed up.  He mentioned in passing that he had scored a great seat for the game, right next to an interesting old guy who had run a pharmacy in West Lafayette years before.  Right.   He was none other than Lois's old employer.  In a stadium that holds well over 60,000 souls, Mary's son just happened to be seated next to him.

History is, of course, full of coincidences.  Just last week, I ran into a beauty.  Or rather, a whole string of beauties.  The U.S.S. Ward, a destroyer, is generally credited with being the
The U.S.S. Ward
first American ship to engage the enemy in World War II.  Under the command of Lieutenant Commander William Outerbridge, the Ward attacked and sank a Japanese submarine attempting to enter Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941, shortly before the Japanese carrier planes arrived.  Destroyers are named after naval heroes.  So who was the original Ward?  He was James Warren Ward, the first naval officer killed in the Civil War.  That's right.  The first ship to engage the enemy in one long, bloody war was named after the first naval officer to die in another long, bloody war.  Not coincidental enough?  How's this? After serving under different commanders in different Pacific actions, the Ward met her fate off the Philippines when she was struck by a Japanese kamikaze.  That occurred on December 7, 1944, three years to the day after the Ward fired the starting gun for the whole Pacific campaign.  But wait, as the hucksters say
The last fight of the Ward
on television, there's more.  The kamikaze started uncontrollable fires on the ship, and the crew abandoned her.  Another destroyer, the U.S.S. O'Brien was called up to finish off the wreck.  The O'Brien was named for Jeremiah O'Brien, an American commander at the Battle of Machias, the first naval action of the American Revolution.  So the first ship to fire on the enemy in World War II, which was named for the first officer to die in the Civil War, was sunk by a ship named for the man who won the first naval battle of the Revolutionary War.  Holy synchronicity, Batman!  (The fact that I just paraphrased Burt Ward in a paragraph about the U.S.S. Ward is purely coincidental.)  Can I top that?  As a matter of fact, I can.  On December 7, 1944, the O'Brien was commanded by William Outerbridge, the same man who had commanded the Ward at Pearl Harbor three years earlier.  What are the odds?

Let's get back to mystery writing.  If coincidences are a part of life and eliminating them slavishly makes a book less real to life but using them to resolve a mystery plot is unsatisfying, what's the answer?  It is to use coincidence, if you've a mind to, at the beginning of the story, as the thing that sets the plot in motion.  It could be a chance remark that answers a long-unanswered question and so leads to murder.  Agatha Christie used that one.  It could be a scrap of old, foreign newspaper that happens to contain a story of vital interest to the person who happens to find it.  Dorothy Sayers used that one.  It could be the accidental coming together of old friends or enemies or comrades in arms in an unlikely place.  Los Angeles, say.  Raymond Chandler used that one.  All three of those writers had long and happy careers.  Not coincidentally.  

13 January 2014

Who is a Character?

Jan Grape Characters are the people who populate your book. From the protagonist to the horrible bad guy to the cute little girl next door who listens to the neighbors and learns exactly who is sleeping with whom. I've known many writers who say that all of their characters are actually them. And that likely is true to a great extent. However, I have never killed anyone in reality. Only in fiction. I try very hard to make that character unlikable enough that someone wants to kill him or her. You don't have to write much about the dead character if you'd rather not. But you might want to let the reader see who that person is through the eyes of the other people in your book. Especially the characters who might have the best reason to kill that person. And you hope there is one person who has the best reason. And the means and opportunity.

Your good guy or protagonist should be someone you like and you like to spend time with because you might even write more than one story or book with that character. Most of us think the main character is based on our self in some way. But as Sue Grafton says about Kinsey, she's smarter, younger, prettier, slimmer that I am. I'd want my main female character to be that and more fascinating, funnier, and taller than I am. I'd want my main male character to be witty, sexy, good-looking, stronger, smarter and have a better body than my significant other.

If at all possible, you will people your story with other or even minor characters that at least make their presence known to you and to the reader. Somehow it helps if you can get help from your secondary characters to guide your protagonist. Certainly applies to a sidekick character. That person needs listen when necessary, argue with the protagonist if needed or cheer when something makes sense to both of you.

How do you come up with such characters? Beats me. I think everyone does it differently. The main thing with me as far as a protagonist is character that talks to me. The conversation usually involves another character. A sidekick or friend but sometimes even the bad guy. These conversations usually lead to a story or a novel. The characters reveal themselves as I write and listen to the conversations.

Many writers list their character and write extensive biographies for them. Early on I cut out magazine pictures of people that looked somewhat like my characters. I tried to list likes and dislikes. Everyone has a special way to create people for their stories and books. Whatever works best for you is the best way for you.

I love what I do and I love that I can admit to listening to the voices in my head and not feel that the little men in white coats will come after me and take me screaming off to the funny farm. Like Larry Block said and titled one of his books, Telling Lies for and Profit. That's my favorite line.

12 January 2014

Florida News– Officialdum

Florida postcard
Not Just California

Last month, I wrote about a California kid who, after killing four people in a drunk driving accident, was deemed too rich for prison. A reader brought to my attention that something very similar happened not so long ago here in Florida.

Jewelry scion Ryan LeVin killed two British visitors with his Porsche 911, then fled the scene and later attempted to blame a friend for the deaths. Apparently, LeVin paid off the widows and, instead of a thirty-year term, a judge sentenced him to two years home confinement in his parents’ ocean-side homes. (That’s homes, plural.) As The Pulp reported at the time, "He got grounded."

Get-Out-of-Jail Card

You may have read about convicted murderers Charles Walker and Joseph Jenkins who used law library-forged release papers to walk out of prison. To further the deception, they actually registered as ex-felons at the Orange County Jail.

This was not the first time it's happened in Florida. In fact, the mastermind behind the escape, Nydeed Nashaddai, engineered his own short-lived escape five years earlier.

Icy Day in Hell / Hellish Day in ICE

With multiple airports and seaports, federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) expend a lot of resources in Florida. Unfortunately, some agents are open for business.


I nearly missed a re-election footnote and plan to write more about this later. One out of every 14,600 citizens of Duval County is on death row, the highest of any county in America. Like other counties around the nation with staggering death penalty prosecutions, this court district also has high incidence of prosecutorial misconduct.

You may not have heard that Florida elects public defenders, yet Matt Shirk ran for (and won) re-election with three planks in his platforms: (a) pledging not to take a confrontational stance with law enforcement, (b) cutting public funding for the defender’s office in a district in a state with one of the highest number of capital cases, and (c) billing defendants who are acquitted for legal services. In other words, the state prosecutes an innocent person and then sends that person a bill if they’re not guilty. And if a defense attorney isn’t supposed to challenge authorities, who is?

But Matthew Shirk did one thing more. One of his first acts in office was to fire attorneys who’d exposed public corruption. I might express dismay, but it’s a bit overshadowed by our dear governor.

From the Governor’s Office

It’s ironic the man who committed the largest Medicare/Medicaid fraud in history worries about welfare fraud. No one wants to give hand-outs to drug addicts, but the Florida governor and legislature decided it would be a fine idea to skip probable cause and make pay-in-advance drug-testing mandatory for welfare recipients. Politicians intimated they would weed out at least 20% and possibly more than 50% of recipients. If you’re indigent, you might not have a spare $25-45 to pay for the test, even though the governor promised to reimburse those found drug free, which turned out to be a much greater amount than insinuated.

When opponents weren’t able to defeat the bill, they moved to make drug-testing of candidates for state office mandatory. Politicians and drugs? Oddly enough, lawmakers and the governor decided testing politicians was not a fine idea. One legislator said requiring him to pee in a cup like everyone else would violate his constitutional rights.

The much ballyhooed double digits figure of drug-infested welfare queens turned out to be less than 2%, far below the average population (8.9%) and 18-to-25-year-olds (21.5%).. A U.S. District Court has now ruled the law unconstitutional. Naturally, the governor will waste more money in appeals.

11 January 2014

Bingeing on TV Series

by Elizabeth Zelvin

Thanks to the October-November 2013 issue of the AARP magazine, I've learned that there's a name for something I've been doing for the past year or so, since I got an iPad and a flat-screen computer and joined Netflix and Hulu Plus: binge watching. According to AARP, it's even age-appropriate. I'm taking advantage of my access to old as well as current TV series to watch consecutive episodes of series that I loved and some that I missed, not to mention catching up with series that are still running that I've heard about but haven't had a chance to try.

The author of the AARP article cites a media psychology expert, saying "she sees binge watching as empowering: It allows viewers to watch TV the way they might read a book." As it happens, I am an expert on addictions and compulsive behavioral disorders myself, and I try not to cross the line with any pleasurable activity. Not being perfect, I occasionally risk a headache to watch one more episode instead of quitting while I'm ahead--the equivalent to staying up till 3 AM to finish a suspenseful novel. But by and large, it is like reading a book: once I'm drawn into the story, I want to keep going, and I stop noticing how much time is passing.

As with books, my tastes are idiosyncratic. A certain percentage of my favorite shows are British crime series, some based on novels that I read and loved, some not. Some are American--fewer crime series, as I don't like the graphic gore in many shows, but there are some wonderful legal and political dramas. I like well-acted, well-written period pieces. And I'm always curious about shows that speak to my other particular interests, such as recovery and country music. I'm less likely to watch a show whose protagonist is an active alcoholic or drug addict with no recovery in sight (bor-ing!). I prefer the commercial-free Netflix streaming or DVDs, or those on HBO and PBS (both have free apps), to Hulu, which has commercials, but I'll put up with them for the sake of a series (or past seasons) I can't get otherwise. I do draw the line at laugh tracks, which bump me right out of the story.

Here are some of the crime shows that I've watched so far:

Inspector Morse: Oxford beautifully photographed, murders intelligently solved. Morse is my exception to the rule about active alcoholics. The byplay between Morse and Sergeant Lewis is delicious.
Inspector Lewis: Even better! For a while, I alternated episodes of Morse and Lewis for the fun of seeing Kevin Whately age and become young again every evening.
Prime Suspect: Nice to see Helen Mirren at the beginning of her ongoing prime, and I'd never seen the later episodes.

Midsomer Murders: Based on Caroline Graham's Inspector Barnaby books. The twenty-two seasons featuring John Nettles as Barnaby ring endlessly inventive changes on the British village mystery: Drop-dead charming villages, stately homes, gorgeous gardens, and a seething mass of malice and all the deadly sins beneath the surface.
I recently learned there's a new DVD of Season 23, when Barnaby's retired and his cousin John takes over. I'm hoping it will soon appear on Netflix.

Dalziel & Pascoe: Based on the late Reginald Hill's brilliant books. After the first few seasons, the show went off in its own direction, divorcing Pascoe's feminist wife Ellie and making up its own mysteries instead of using the exceedingly brainy later books or delving more deeply into Sergeant Wield's love life. Netflix has it on DVD only, and Seasons 7 and 8 are not yet available.

Monk: Tony Shalhoub is brilliant as the obsessive compulsive detective, and San Francisco has never looked better. I had seen the first few seasons with Sharona but not the later ones with Natalie as Monk's assistant. I spot a lot of the clues much too early, but that's happening to me with novels too--the down side of being a mystery writer myself.

Sherlock: The present-day version with Benedict Cumberbatch as a Holmes who manages to be appealing in spite of having a lot more brain than heart and Martin Freeman, looking just a little like a hobbit, as a blogging Watson who has recently returned from, yep, Afghanistan. The first two seasons had only three episodes each, but they were doozies. Season 3 starts this month, and I can hardly wait.

To be continued in a future post.