16 February 2014

Heart to Heart

Victorian Valentine
by Leigh Lundin

Valentine’s Day just passed, but let’s face it: Whether fact or fiction, crime writers seldom write about people at their best. Of all the SS colleagues, I tend to write about the dark side more than most, studying true crime to bolster my understanding of fictional deeds.

But this season is about love. People don’t complain Valentine’s Day has become too secular, indeed, we freely spread the love. Other cultures embrace the custom, which can do nothing but promote human relations.

In personal relationships, some say the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference. That need for love and the anger when it’s thwarted can cause people to react in pain, even violence.

What if they gave a war and nobody came?

Lorena
Love is also our most potent positive emotion. According to a recent NPR report, American Civil War generals so feared the power of love, they banned the popular song Lorena, afraid soldiers might abandon the war to return to loved ones they longed for. Indeed, Wikipedia makes an uncited claim that at least one Confederate officer blamed the song for the South's defeat due to low morale and homesickness.

When it comes to the broader fields of race, religion, and politics, love and hate are polar opposites. However one might criticize young generations, they are relegating racism to the trash heap of history.

David Duke and Julius Malema are two brilliant, charismatic politicians. They have the intelligence and leadership skills to effect positive change to their parts of the world, but each has chosen the darkness of hatred.

A month ago, I came upon “14 Unexpected Responses To Hatred” and I knew I wanted to write about love and hate for my post-Valentine’s article. That article and others feature a number of heroes, men and women and children who've taken a stand for goodness and light. It leads with the story of German and English World War I soldiers who laid down their arms and celebrated the Christmas of 1914 together. Naturally, generals on both sides called up replacements, but who can argue the ordinary soldiers in the trenches weren’t greater than their politicians?

Once a Teenage Heroine

I particularly draw your attention to my favorite heroine, an 18-year-old girl. The incident took place a long time ago, but if you can read about her without tearing up, you’re a better man (or certainly a better woman) than I.

Meet Keshia Thomas. At a Klan rally, she put herself at risk to save the life of a presumed Klansman or neo-Nazi.
Valentine's heart

The Ku Klux Klan is experiencing a resurgence here in Florida and likely other places as well. The new Klan takes credit for saving America from carpetbaggers, Catholics, and commies. More than ever, we need people like Keshia, like Pardeep Kaleka and his friend, former white supremacist Arno Michaelis.

Today’s article is less about crime and more about love, but failing to recognize the inverse relationship between the two would be a crime.

15 February 2014

Liars' Club



by John M. Floyd


The gap between fiction and nonfiction has always been interesting to me. I know some folks who strongly prefer one of the two, and others who enjoy reading both. I'm one of those who happily suffer from fiction addiction--I read a lot more short stories and novels than nonfiction books and articles. Probably because of that, I also think it's more fun to write fiction than non.

A few months ago a guy asked me at a booksigning whether my books were nonfiction. When I said no, he immediately informed me that that was too bad, because he never, ever, reads fiction. "Why," he asked me, looking as if his underwear might suddenly be too tight, "should I waste my time reading a bunch of lies?" Rather than answer that for him--believe me, I could have, and I could've even pointed out that many nonfiction books contain lies as well--I remembered that my mother taught me to be polite and made some "to each his own" comment and wished him a nice day. But I couldn't help feeling that he and others like him might be missing out on much of the joy of reading.

The fun department

Don't get me wrong. I absolutely loved Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit, Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm, Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki, Karl Marlantes's Matterhorn, Stephen King's On Writing, Doug Preston's The Monster of Florence, Stephen Harrington's The Gates of the Alamo, Steve Martin's Born Standing Up, Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams, just about everything by John McPhee and Stephen Ambrose, and many other works of nonfiction. God help me, I still have most of the Watergate confession books by Ehrlichman, Haldeman, Dean, etc., and at the time I even liked those. But for every article or book of nonfiction I read these days, I probably read fifty or more short stories and novels. Are they made up of lies, as my potential customer with the pained expression said? Sure they are. But I like the tension and thrill and surprise and anticipation that these novels and stories offer. I not only don't know the ending, I don't even know what's going to happen next. I guess--although I feel a little guilty when I say it--what it boils down to is this: I read nonfiction when I want to learn something and I read fiction when I want to be entertained. And I really, really like to be entertained.

Not that fiction can't be informative and entertaining at the same time. It can. Just read a little James Michener or Michael Crichton or Colleen McCullough or Edward Rutherfurd sometime. And I think one of the best things ever is the concept of "creative nonfiction"--it's sort of like giving The History Channel a good slap and injecting it with a dose of adrenaline. But if the choice is strictly nonfiction vs. strictly fiction, and if it's a choice between getting educated and having fun, I know which I'll pick, every time. As Gus said to Call in Lonesome Dove, "You never had no fun in your life. That's my department."

An old friend and non(?)author

I recently received an interesting take on fiction vs. nonfiction, when I located (via Facebook) one of my old Air Force buddies, now living in Texas. He was as surprised to find out that I write short mystery stories as I was to find that he writes technical reference books about routers, servers, etc. (He was probably more surprised than I was, actually, because we both entered the military with electrical engineering degrees and actually did that kind of thing for four years.) But we were of course pleased to discover that we were both authors now, and I offered him my sincere congratulations for his literary success.

"It's nothing," he replied. "The thing is, I'm not really an author." I asked what he meant; I had already, by that time, found a lot of his books on Amazon, and I would later also see them on the shelves in the computer section at our local Barnes & Noble. "Well, I've never written any fiction," he answered, "and you're not a real author, you know, until you publish some fiction." I'd never heard that before--I certainly don't believe it's correct--and it was intriguing to hear him say such a thing. He added that nonfiction gets no respect--he said its name doesn't even tell you what it is. Instead it tells you what it's not: it's NONfiction.

Just the facts, ma'am

Again, those were his views, not mine. I have a healthy respect for the writers of good nonfiction, in the long or short form. One of my reasons for respecting them is that what they create has to follow rules and restrictions that my writing does not. The very fact that it must be true and real means more effort and more research and more legal risks. Having produced a little nonfiction myself now and then, I know how tough it can be. But I must say again, while I respect and admire those writers and their products, I find fiction far more fun and relaxing to write--and to read. To me, nonfiction wears a suit and tie and Sunday shoes while fiction is happy to run around in a sweatshirt and sneakers.

I'll wrap this discussion up with three questions and (just for you, Leigh) a poem. My questions are:

 1. Do you read more fiction or non, and why?
 2. If you're already a writer of fiction, what kinds of nonfiction do you find most interesting?
3. What's some of the best nonfiction you've ever read?

My poem, if you can call it that, is one that I dug out of my files yesterday, titled "A Little of Both":

Is writing work, or is it fun?
Or is, sometimes, neither one?
For answers, look to Shakespeare's days--
His plays were works, his works were plays.

One more thing. I love the title of Lawrence Block's book featuring some of the many columns he wrote for Writer's Digest. It's called Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. Block has certainly done a good job of that, for many years now.

My fiction is written more for fun than for profit, that's for sure--but in the immortal words of Billy Joel, it's still rock and roll to me.




14 February 2014

Dash and Lily

by R.T. Lawton

Valentine's Day is a time for love and lovers. Throughout the centuries, several well-known couples have been written into the pages of history for being famous lovers. As their stories came down to us in books, plays, movies and word of mouth, their romance became the stuff of legends. Who hasn't heard of the love between Anthony and Cleopatra from over two thousand years ago? And, probably only the young among us are the ones not aware of the on-and-off tempestuous entanglements of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. during the mid-1950's and later. (Coincidentally, they played the parts of Anthony and Cleopatra in a movie.) No doubt, you the reader, have several other candidates you could put forth as romantic legends.

But, since this is a crime writing, mystery site, perhaps our candidate should be one of our own, a famous mystery author. Who better than hard-nosed detective writer Samuel Dashiell Hammett with his decades long attachment to Lillian Hellman. Theirs was a romance stimulated by their love of writing, him as a novelist and short story author, and her as a playwright. Of course when one delves deeper, it appears their leftist-leaning activities may have also played a part in their mutual attraction.

Born in 1894, Dashiell left school at the age of thirteen. He held several jobs before going to work for the Pinkerton Detective Agency in 1915 until 1922, taking time off to serve in the Ambulance Corp during the First World War. Spanish Flu and tuberculosis soon laid him up in the hospital. Afterwards, back at the Agency, Dashiell became disillusioned with his role as a Pinkerton operative in strike-breaking activities. He quit and went to writing.

That same year saw him published for the first time. He quickly became known for his authenticity and realism, attributing this to his background as a Pinkerton detective. "All my characters are based on people I've known personally, or known about." From 1928 through 1934, he wrote Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key and The Thin Man.

Lilian Florence Hellman, about eleven years younger than Dashiell, was working as a reader for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer when she met Dashiell in a restaurant in Hollywood. Something sparked between them. A year or so later, she divorced her husband in favor of Dashiell. For the next thirty years, it was an on-and-off love affair until his death.

Being a strong ant-fascist, Dashiell joined the American Communist Party in 1937 and tried to keep America out of the coming war, but when Germany invaded Russia, he changed his political position, enlisting in the U.S. Army shortly after Pearl Harbor. Once again, illness struck him, this time with emphysema. Out of the army, he returned to his leftist political activities, but with less fervor.

Lily, who had once flirted with the Nazi Party in Germany before her religion became an obstacle, traveled to Spain in 1937 to lend her support to the International Brigades on the anti-Franco side of the Spanish Civil War. By 1943, she was considered to be an active communist and her passport application for travel to England was denied. Her past soon followed her back to Hollywood where she refused to sign a loyalty clause on a multi-year contract. The clause would have prohibited her from associating with radicals and subversives, to include Dashiell. Shortly thereafter, she was blacklisted.

Called into federal court about the activities of the Civil Rights Congress, an alleged communist front, Dashiell invoked the Fifth Amendment and served time in a West Virginia federal penitentiary for contempt of court. Both lovers were subsequently called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Dashiell got blacklisted for refusing to cooperate, while Lily would only talk about her own activities, not those of others.

In later life, Dashiell lost his desire to write. His illness took everything from him, except for Lily. She spent his last four years by his side caring for him. During that period, she wrote, "Not all that time was easy, and some of it was very bad. Guessing death was not too far away, I would try for something to have afterwards."

Dashiell Hammett died of lung cancer in a New York City hospital on January 10, 1961. Being a veteran of two World Wars, he was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.

Many great romances end in tragedy, which makes them all the more emotional in the remembering. As people do, Dash and Lily chose their own path in life and paid the price for going there. But, in the end, they stuck it through together until death did them part. What more could one ask of a lover.

13 February 2014

Who Are You?

by Eve Fisher

Who is that out there?  In cyber-space?  In the neighborhood?  Do you know who your neighbors are?
Or do you only think you do?  What kind of identification do you really need to survive these days?  Do you need any at all?

Example:  We have, as I have noted in the past, a number of little businesses here in South Dakota that provide South Dakota citizenship, driver's license, voter registration, mail service, etc., to anyone who's willing to pay what I consider a very modest fee - about $50.00 a month.  Used by people who want to RV around the country, or those who live in states with high state income tax (or any state income tax).  And also used by South Dakota citizens who don't want anyone to know their legal address.  So you meet someone, John Doe, and they give you their address, at 555 Main Street, Bwabwa, South Dakota.  Except that there are about 1500 people, at least, with that address.  You don't know where John Doe actually lives, where he was actually born, where he actually does anything at all...

Example:  Have you gone to a retirement center recently?  They all remind me of Miss Marple's disquisition on Chipping Cleghorn in "A Murder Is Announced":  "People just come - and all you know about them is what they say of themselves...  People who've made a little money and can afford to retire.  But nobody knows any more who anyone is.  You can have Benares brassware in your house and talk about tiffin and chota Hazri - and you can have pictures of Taormina and talk about the English church and the library ....  People take you at your own valuation." Sure, that distinguished looking grey-haired lady SAYS she used to be a judge, and she certainly knows her law.  But there's more than one way to gain an extensive knowledge of the law, and it's very hard to prove someone is or is not who they say they are.

Example:  The internet, awash in usernames that can't be traced - PaulZOmega may say he's a Biblical scholar, and hotchatony she's a retired grandmother in Gran Canaria, but you have no proof, and all the information can be gotten on the internet in about two minutes.  You can set up multiple e-mail identities, multiple Facebook identities, multiple anything identities, and never ever surface in your real persona.  How many of us have filled out every internet questionnaire accurately?  No fibbing?  No blanks?  (On Facebook, for example, I put down January 1, 1905 as my birthday.)  And while I know that hackers can find out who you are, who anyone is, and track them through all their more or less interesting internet life - I'm no hacker and I personally don't know any hackers.  I'm stuck - we're almost all stuck - dealing with avatars.

Now granted, someone is keeping track of our hits, our purchases, our likes, dislikes, political viewpoints, advertising preferences, television and movie rentals.  And billions of people are providing a constant stream of photos of themselves and their children in various stages of disarray, sickness, partying, playing, working, fooling around, and general silliness.  Not to mention tweets of their opinions, acid reflux, and shopping.  And yes, the government (every government, by the way, do not be fooled into thinking ours is the only one that does such things) is keeping tabs on the people (and always has been).

And yet, we are very much alone and anonymous.  We are an incredibly mobile people, moving for jobs, love, fear, whim, anger, fun, restlessness, rootlessness, and being fed up with the neighbors.  We live in a world without roots.  To return to Agatha Christie:  "Fifteen years ago one knew who everybody was...  They were people whose fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers, or whose aunts and uncles, had lived there before them.  If somebody new came to live there, they brought letters of introduction, or they'd been in the same regiment...  If anybody new - really new - really a stranger - came, well, they stuck out - everybody wondered about them and didn't rest till they found out....  But it's not like that any more."  No, it isn't.  Not in the 80% of the United States that's urban.  (I live in the 20% rural.)  Nobody stands out because everybody's a stranger:  THAT'S WHY THEY'RE THERE.

So, who are your neighbors?  And who are you?

12 February 2014

Old Yeller Dies

by David Edgerley Gates


I'm prompted to these musings by a post my pal Art Taylor and his wife Tara Laskowski made on FaceBook about their son Dash, and his reading enthusiasms. Dash is a year old, and likes Robert McCloskey's MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS. Art says Dash has already memorized it, when Art reads it aloud to him.

I suggested a couple of other books to add to Dash's reading list, as he gets a little older. I remember a guy named Robert Lawson, who was an author-illustrator, like McCloskey, and told familiar stories from an unfamiliar POV. Ben Franklin's pet mouse, for example, or Paul Revere's horse. No man, it's said, is a hero to his valet.

The grand-daddy, of course, is Kipling, and THE JUST-SO STORIES. It's past time I gave him credit for his abiding influence on my own writing. My dad read those stories aloud to me, when I was sick in bed, at four or five. I still remember the smell of the inhalator, a kind of steam device, with a cup of spice-flavored medication. It was supposed to make your breathing easier. What actually set my mind at rest was the sound of my father's voice. We all have a comfort zone.

At what point do we graduate to more sophisticated stuff? Sake of argument, when we start reading on our own, at six or seven, say. I had an interesting exchange with my pal Johnny D. Boggs a little while back. THE SEARCHERS was being shown at the Lensic theater, on the big screen, and I asked Johnny if he were going to take his son Jack (THE SEARCHERS being one of Johnny's favorite pictures, and mine). Johnny said no. He thought the movie was probably too dark for Jack, who was, I think, eight or nine at the time. Maybe the threshold is our exposure to ambiguity, or a lack of moral certainty, and THE SEARCHERS sure fits.

CHARLOTTE'S WEB. E.B. White was an unsentimental cuss, and he doesn't sugar-coat the story. Charlotte's "web" is of course all the animals
in the barn, not just Wilbur, and death is part of their lives. Wilbur himself barely escapes being turned into bacon. But the book isn't really sad. it's more of an affirmation, that there's rebirth.

On the other hand, OLD YELLER. I think I was ten or eleven when I read it. It was probably on my summer reading list for school. Jeez, what a heartbreaker. The dog, after all, wasn't responsible. The real choice is the one the kid has to make, and in fact there is no choice. He has to do it.

So, what's appropriate, for Dash, as he grows up, or Jack? When do we, as parents, or role models, teachers or even librarians, stop making the decisions for them? I had dinner with some people, a few years ago, and there was a teenager there, with his dad, and the kid was nuts about science fiction. I think we started talking about DUNE, or STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, and his dad interrupted to say it was all crap, and the kid just turtled in on himself, and the conversation dead-ended. I didn't say anything to his father, but it was discouraging. We should all be allowed to read crap, although I don't agree with the guy's description of SF. How many of us have actually ground through MOBY-DICK, or BLEAK HOUSE? I've rediscovered Dickens, in later years, but if he's crammed down your throat in high school, to fatten up your liver, you're like one of those unhappy geese.

Perhaps water finds its own level. Girls of a certain age go from ANNE OF GREEN GABLES to FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC, which is arguably soft-core YA porn. Who's to say? Books lead us on, and one person's despised genre is someone else's delight. I suspect our earliest experiences, or exposure, are a template. I've mentioned Carl Barks, and his duck comics, in the past. I'd add Kipling, and TREASURE ISLAND. The child is father to the man.

One of these days, Johnny will take his son Jack to see THE SEARCHERS. And one of these days, Dash is probably going to read OLD YELLER, and cry at the end, the way I did. Especially when we're young, it seems to me, we inhabit the stories, or they inhabit us, and take on a life of their own, as real as a dime. A spell is cast, and I doubt if we ever break free of it. Innocence is never really lost.