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.

11 February 2014

Minor Movie Series vs. the Thin Man Effect

Some time back I wrote about the big three of the old-time mystery movie series, The Thin Man, Sherlock Holmes, and Charlie Chan series.  In that column, I noted how popular mystery series were with audiences of the thirties and forties, just as popular, in fact, as mystery television series are today. I also mentioned then that I might return to the subject from time to time to consider "minor" series.  Here is just such a return visit, though with a twist, as I'd also like to consider the balance between comedy and detection in the mystery.  A discussion of B-movies series is a great place to discuss this balance, because, in your humble correspondent's humble opinion, more than one series tumbled into obscurity when the balance was lost.  
The Balancing Act

Anyone who decides to use humor in a mystery story, and that's a fair number of writers these days, faces a balancing act:  how much humor to how much mystery element.  The recipe varies from writer to writer, just as a taste for humor in the mystery varies from reader to reader.  The men and women who wrote B-movie mystery series in the thirties tended to err on the side of humor, since these films were light entertainment meant to fill out a film program.  For my money, what gave humor the upper hand was the amazing success of The Thin Man, staring William Powell and Myrna Loy and released in 1934.  Prior to that money making machine, mysteries tended to be a  little more serious, afterward, less so.  Unfortunately, nobody could match Powell and Loy's comic technique (or the crisp direction of W.S. Van Dyke), and few even came close, so what I'll call the "Thin Man Effect" wasn't always a positive thing.  For an example, compare the original Maltese Falcon of 1930, pre-Thin Man, with its first (loose) remake, Satan Met a Lady from 1936, post-Thin Man.  The first is straight and memorable, the second silly and forgettable, despite the presence in the cast of a young Betty Davis.

Here's my personal position, nailed to the cathedral door:  Though I enjoy reading P.G. Wodehouse as much as I do Raymond Chandler, when it comes to a mystery story, I want the mystery elements to hold the upper hand.  (And not just against humor; I want mystery to win out over romantic elements in romantic mysteries, over small-town interactions in cozy mysteries, and against existential angst in noir mysteries.  Even against literary flourishes in literary mysteries.)  The following film series demonstrate the pitfalls of tilting the balance the other way. 

Perry Mason

Warren Willams
No series was more adversely affected by the Thin Man Effect than the Perry Mason films made by Warner Bros.  In the first entry, 1934's The Case of the Howling Dog, Mason (played by Warren Williams) was a serious investigator, not unlike the later television incarnation created by Raymond Burr.  But by the second entry, released on the heels of The Thin Man, Mason, still played by Williams, was transformed into a hard-drinking gourmet who can barely be bothered with the crime.  By the time Williams left the series two films later, Mason was almost a lush, a la early Nick Charles.  There were two more films post Williams, and they came somewhat back to earth, but the damage had been done.  It would be years before an authentic Mason returned to the (small) screen.

Ellery Queen

Ralph Bellamy
For this mystery fan, one of the great lost opportunities of the 1940s was the Ellery Queen series made by Columbia, starting in 1940.  Ellery Queen was at or near the height of his considerable popularity back then, thanks to a string of successful books, none of which portrayed him as a bumbling idiot.  But that was exactly the way he was played first by Ralph Belamy (four films) and then by William Gargan (three films).  Neither actor was young enough or cerebral enough to play Ellery, who comes across in these programmers as too dumb to read books, never mind write them.  It was an inexplicable decision, all the more so because a successful radio show, The Adventures of Ellery Queen had debuted in 1939.  Its Ellery, played by Hugh Marlowe, was much more faithful to the books.  Why ignore that successful model?  I blame the Thin Man Effect.         

Boston Blackie

Chester Morris
Hollywood never met a gentleman jewel thief it didn't love, from the venerable Raffles to Michael Lanyard (the Lone Wolf) to John Robie (the Cat).  Boston Blackie's literary roots went back as far as those of Raffles, and there were even Blackie films in the silent era.  But he didn't get a series until Chester Morris took on the part in 1940.  Morris was a square-jawed actor who would have made a great Dick Tracy, if he could have kept himself from smiling.  As Blackie, he didn't have to try, as the films made by Columbia between 1940 and 1948 were lighter than air.  The plots were very similar.  Blackie, a reformed thief, would be in the wrong place at the wrong time, often because he was trying to help some poor soul, often a beautiful Columbia starlet.  He would then spend the rest of the movie's very brief running time clearing his name.

I don't mean to suggest that this series was a failure.  Far from it.  They were popular enough to run to fourteen installments, two more than Universal's Sherlock Holmes series.  But Blackie was a much tougher character in print and might have been on the big screen, even with the debonair Morris in the part.  That he wasn't is another example of the Thin Man Effect.  

Nick Carter

Walter Pidgeon
MGM, the same studio that had struck gold with Nick Charles, tried again in 1939 with a Nick who had appeared in print before Sherlock Holmes:  Nick Carter.  The brief movie series had little in common with the Nick Carter dime-novels that began appearing in 1886, except for the hero's name and some "outlandish" plotting, to quote film critic Leonard Maltin.  The three-picture run starred Walter Pidgeon, before that actor hitched his wagon to Greer Garson's star.  It aimed for a light and breezy tone, but was often only silly.  This silliness was embodied by Carter's self-appointed sidekick, the Bee-Man.  Played by Donald Meek, the Bee-Man kept live bees in his pocket for timely use against bad guys.  (I am not making this up.)  It gave a whole new meaning to B-movie.

In my next installment, if I have one, I'll look at series featuring female sleuths.       

10 February 2014

Time Flies When You're Having Fun

Jan Grape
The twenty-eighth of this month, February, I'll have a major birthday. I'll be celebrating my diamond jubilee as the royals say. Three-quarters of a century someone told me. I didn't need to hear that. Made me feel even older. I prefer to say I'm 60-fifteen. Where did time go? Seems like only a short time ago that I was a young mother and now I'm the mother of some fifty-years old adults. I just want to tell time to slow down, I have many more stories and books to write. Okay, I've just got to suck it up and get busy.
In regard to my title, time flies when you're having fun (and I must add) and even when you're not. I mean when you're writing something that you really enjoy and it's going well, then wham. You suddenly realize a scene isn't working and some weird character is trying to take over. Guess what? You stop, but time doesn't stop. Your deadline is still rushing ahead and you have no idea where to go or what to do. So dang it all, this is not fun, but time hasn't stopped flying by. What do you do?

Everyone who writes has their own method to get through those times. Take a walk, do some mundane chore, like laundry or mopping the kitchen floor, take a nap, meditate. I have no definite answer. I've done all those things and then some. Once in a while, print up what you've written and read and edit that. Actually, that usually works best for me. I'm old school and always can see things better if I have a hard copy in front of me.

If I'm not working on a deadline, then I usually close the computer for the day and start fresh the next day. If I'm on deadline then it depends on what time of day it is. I don't usually work until afternoon because I'm not a morning person. If it's late in the day, I still may close up for the day, but often can and will work at night. I'll admit that sometimes sleep helps by letting your sub-conscious work out your problem.

One thing I've noticed through the years is I really enjoy writing.  I love it when a scene works out or a chapter finishes up with a nice cliff-hanger or at least a great place to end. I can get a high that nothing else matches. Well, that I know. I've never tried drugs but when you're talking about good things happening to you, writing can be fantastic. But what is the weird thing about sitting down to write? I have put off writing for absolutely no reason. It's like I hate to start. I can find many, many reasons to not sit down and start writing.  All perfectly good reasons but none of them worth a darn.

The best writers I know all say about the same thing. Read what you wrote the day before or wherever you stopped and make some edits if necessary. Somehow that gets your muse to wake up  and you're ready to start your writing day. If you're on a deadline, it's easier. Because time does manage to fly when you're having fun and even when you're not.

 A good friend several years ago used to tell people she was eighty-four. At the time she was barely forty. She said her reasoning was that people would think she looked fantastic for eighty-four and when she got to that age, people wouldn't believe her and think she looked awesome.

Do all you can to keep those birthdays coming because the alternative is pushing up daises. And never worry about time getting away from you, because you can't stop it. You might as well keep writing and having fun. That's my goal even at my age.

09 February 2014

Bieber Shot

Music is almost as important to SleuthSayers as mystery. I like classical, blues, dark, smokey songs, and so-called progressive rock before alt and acid became respectable. And I listen to other rock, even pop, like Coldplay’s dysphoric Viva La Vida and Imagine Dragons’ foreboding Demons. Meanwhile my cockatoo, Valentine, likes to dance to Lorde’s Royals.

It should come as no surprise I know next to nothing about Justin Bieber. Justin Beiber? Wait, don't leave. There's a flash fiction payoff at the end.

Sure, I’m aware he’s a teenager, at least for the next three weeks. It’s difficult not to have heard his name, thanks to true Beliebers. I well remember adults despised our rock ‘n’ roll, so I'm not too judgmental and he's probably harmless.

I’m not familiar with his songs and couldn’t identify his voice if I heard it, but he’s played at the Apollo and appeared on CSI where he was, er, gunned down. Of course there were those disappointed that happened in fiction.


My impression is fame and fortune outstripped his ability to handle celebrity, but that’s happened to many supposedly far more mature. But he has a positive side.

In my blog records, I noted a tear-jerking article about ‘Mrs. Bieber’, a six-year-old with a fascination for the boy. She ‘married’ him in a ceremony shortly before her death from a fast-growing cancer. Even if his publicist made the arrangements, Justin gets high marks for classiness and sensitivity.

Like a lot of teens but on a worldwide scale, Bieber’s been getting in trouble recently with graffiti, vandalism, reckless driving, assault, and… $21,000 egg-throwing hijinks. Although Bieber wasn’t present, police in Sweden and the US found marijuana and apparently other drugs in his home and tour buses. On a flight from Canada to the US, Daddy Bieber, Justin, and their entourage of ten smoked so much dope on board and refused to stop despite repeated requests, the crew wore oxygen masks so they wouldn't test positive for THC. Whew! Talk about getting a mile high!

This tarnish on his image has prompted jokes:
“Police found drugs but less than an ounce of talent.”

Mother hears “Baby, baby, baby, oooooo…” from her daughter’s bedroom. “What are you doing?” “Having sex.” “Oh, thank goodness. I thought you were listening to Justin Bieber.”

Conan O’Brien said, “The police report described [Bieber] as 5’9 and 140 pounds – or as his cellmate put it, just right.” Which brings us to today’s flash story, inspired by a quip from a friend who went on to add, “The teacher in me finds this wickedly funny.”

Justin Goes to Jail
by Leigh Lundin

Police arrest Justin Bieber and send him to lockup. Dismayed but not disheartened, Bieber writes “Free JB!” on the walls in protest.

That’s when he learns his cellmate is dyslexic.

08 February 2014

TV: Binge Watching, Part 2

by Elizabeth Zelvin

Watching whole TV series on Netflix or Hulu Plus and mini-series on PBS or HBO continues to be a pleasure that feels a lot like reading an absorbing novel--or series of novels, one of the greatest joys for mystery lovers. There are a few shows that I'd heard about and was able to catch up on, so that I'm now reduced to watching the current episode like everybody else. It feels like having to read a novel one chapter at a time, being constantly interrupted.

In fact, I don't really watch the current episode "live," ie on first airing. When I try to watch TV on my iPad through my cable provider's app, there's always an annoying roar of static in the background. My theory, based on no technical knowledge whatsoever, is that the iPad signal and the TV show signal are both bouncing off the same satellite and jostling each other somehow. So I wait till the next day and catch the new episode on Hulu.

Why not watch on an actual TV? Well, we just got our first flat screen TV, and first it was football season, now it's the Olympics... Anyhow, I'm perfectly happy with the brilliant display on the iPad. Why Hulu for current episodes? Netflix goes in more for whole seasons. It's anybody's guess which of the two will go all the way back to Season 1 on a show I'm interested in seeing. If you don't use these services yet and are wondering, they don't offer everything, all the way back, all the time. On the other hand, you'll never run out of something to watch.

Last time I talked about some of my favorite crime shows. Here are some of my favorite non-detective series.

The West Wing: My all-time favorite, brilliantly conceived and written by Aaron Sorkin. I saw it on TV when it first appeared. At that time, a President with intelligence and integrity (and views resembling mine) in the White House was pure fiction, a pipe dream in which we got to indulge for an hour a week. Then we got one, and his administration turned out pretty much like West Wing's President Bartlet's: he couldn't do most of what he wanted to because an opposition Congress thwarted him at every turn. I had already watched the first 22 episodes again on VHS a couple of times when I got Netflix, but it was a joy to "read" the whole story again all the way through Bartlet's two terms and the following election. The show had brilliant ensemble playing by Martin Sheen, Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford, Richard Schiff, the late John Spencer, Rob Lowe, and Dulé Hill, most of whom got Emmys for their performances. A character-driven series with plenty of plot! The issues of national and global importance in 1999-2006 were strikingly in tune with those we face today.

The Good Wife: A legal and political drama with Julianna Margulies as a Chicago attorney whose husband starts the series going to prison not for the scandal of consorting with a high priced call girl but because he's falsely accused of paying her with public funds; in the current Season 5, he's Governor Elect of Illinois. As they keep saying, it's Chicago--four of the last eight governors were indicted. The ensemble acting, again, is excellent, and the weekly legal problem combined with the ongoing drama of the main characters' relationships is right up my alley.

Scandal: This one combines the national politics of The West Wing with the legal (and extra-legal) drama of The Good Wife, with Kerry Washington as the head of a Washington DC crisis management firm who's having an affair--more than an affair: she's the love of his life, though of course he's married--with the President. Scandal's White House is far less detailed than West Wing's, but there's lots more skulduggery to make up for it. I was so riveted that I completely forgot the three other shows I was working my way through at the time. I got to binge on Seasons 1 and 2, and now I'm waiting impatiently week by week for the new episodes as they come out.

Nashville: I adore this show, which is available for binge watching, although so far I've managed to keep up, and I'll certainly watch all the episodes again. It doesn't have mystery or thriller elements, but it offers everything else I'm interested in: character and relationships, country music and the music business, and alcoholism and recovery. Many of the scenes take place at the Bluebird Café, a legendary venue for up-and-coming artists, where I spent a stellar evening at the end of the Killer Nashville mystery con a couple of years ago. One of the things Nashville gets right is the complexities of songwriting, and the songs themselves (three albums so far) are marvelous.

Downton Abbey: The absorbing upstairs/downstairs drama that starts with news of the sinking of the Titanic reaching an English stately home whose way of life World War I is about to change forever. I had to scroll with my eyes closed past long sections of spoilers on the DorothyL e-list to maintain the surprise in each fresh episode as I got to it. I caught up on Seasons 1 and 2 in binge mode and watched Season 3 as it came. Season 4 is in progress now.

07 February 2014

Regrets in Wonderland?

by Dixon Hill 

     An article to be published in the quarterly lifestyle magazine Wonderland, today, generated so much buzz beforehand, that I was struck by a question that hadn’t occurred to me before: At what point should an author “just let go” of a long-published work?

     This question was prompted when I heard of recent remarks attributed to J.K. Rowling, concerning her Harry Potter series.

     For those who have somehow managed to avoid reading the books or seeing the movie, I should explain that Harry Potter, the main character in the series, has two best friends at school: Ron Weasley, and Hermione (“Her-my-oh-nee”) Granger. I doubt I’m giving anything away by telling you that, at series end, it is perfectly clear Harry has married Ron’s sister, Ginny, while Ron has married Hermione.

     Supposedly, however, J.K. Rowling feels she made a mistake by pairing her characters off like that. UK-based The Sunday Times quotes Rowling as telling Wonderland magazine:

“I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really. For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron.

“I know, I’m sorry. I can hear the rage and fury it might cause some fans, but if I’m absolutely honest, distance has given me perspective on that. It was a choice I made for very personal reasons, not for reasons of credibility. Am I breaking people’s hearts by saying this? I hope not.

"I think there are fans out there who know that too, and who wonder whether Ron would have really been able to make her happy.”*

     Rowling would not be alone in feeling a desire to alter previously published work, of course. I’m sure we’ve all suffered from that sudden late-night realization that we missed a great opportunity to do a better job on a story that’s been out for some time. Sometimes—and it just rots my socks when this happens!—inspiration seems to strike only after the iron has grown stone-cold. 

     Pointing this out does not denigrate the work of J.K. Rowling. Many great authors have revised their works between publications. Certain Russian writers were rather infamous for continually “correcting” their works. A version of Stephen King’s The Stand was released with a load of stuff that had been cut from the original. (I thoroughly enjoyed both versions!) And, Dean Koontz has conducted major rewrites of books released under his own name, which had originally been published under pseudonyms.

     But, the interconnecting action, here—it seems to me—is that these writers edited the work so it could be published in a newer version. And, I get the idea this isn’t Rowling’s aim (though, I’d remind the reader, I’m hardly infallible in the “famous-authors-I’ve-never-met interpretation department”).

     One possibility is that Rowling and the Harry Potter franchise were hoping to remind people that the books are out there, as well as drumming up extra notoriety for a new project. Rowling is currently penning the screenplays for a new film series set in the witch and wizard world of New York, 70 years prior to Harry Potter’s fictional birth.

     As for the book series: It’s been long enough, since their initial release, that there are probably quite a few kids who haven’t yet read them. My youngest son, until recently, being one of those kids.

     I began reading the Harry Potter series to my first two children after hearing about it on National Public Radio. By that time, the first two or three books were out. After we finished those, we had to wait about a year for the next one. And thus began our annual Harry Potter count down. We never stood in line for a midnight release, but I don’t think we ever waited longer than a week afterward to obtain the newest book either.

     Those two kids are now young adults of 18 and 24. But, until a few months ago, my eleven-year-old son had only seen the movies. At his insistence, however, we’ve been buying a new set of the books one-at-a-time, just for him, and I’ve been reading them to him. Why am I reading aloud to an eleven-year-old?

     Well, for one thing, I enjoy it. And, also … because he’d heard the stories, all his life, about the way I read the books to his older siblings. They liked the way I did the characters’ voices, and told him about it. My 24-year-old son still holds a grudge against the movies, because he claims I did a much better job of portraying Mad-eye Moody’s character than the actor in the film. (I interpreted Moody as a cross between a drill sergeant and a crazy major I once knew. The major was crazy in a good way—militarily speaking, at least.)

     So, it’s possible Rowling’s remarks were a sort of publicity stunt intended to bolster book sales or interest in upcoming films. But, I think it might have had a kinder aim.

     I suspect Rowling was trying to give a nice hand-up to Emma Watson, who played Hermione Granger in the movies. Rowling has indicated, in the past, that she identifies with the character of Hermione, as she wrote her. And, there can be no doubt Miss Watson has done a lot for the franchise.

     Thus, when Rowling learned that Watson was guest-editing this edition of Wonderland, I think it only seems natural that the famous author might provide a good, provocative sound-bite quote, which could be expected to boost magazine sales for that issue.

     Revisiting the question I used to kick-off this post: “At what point should an author “just let go” of a long-published work?” I find it easier to answer the reverse question, “When does it make sense for an author to discuss the shortcomings of a previously published work?”

     After examining potential reasons why J.K. Rowling seems to have chosen to do this, I think we’re left with two primary times when it makes sense:

  1. It makes sense if an author wants to boost interest in previous work, or a new project that’s linked to that work. Then s/he can raise a contentious question concerning a certain plot element, hoping his/her remarks will find their way to multiple media outlets. 
  2. It makes sense if an author wants to help out a friend in the media. By providing a quote that becomes “the talk of the town” s/he might help temporarily increase interest in his/her friend’s work. 

     The kicker here, of course, is that the author has to be famous enough that millions of people will be interested in s/he says about the work. Otherwise, national media probably won’t carry the story.

     What does all this mean to me and my own cold-iron inspirations? Not a lot I suppose. I may still start awake, some night, realizing how the addition of a few sentences here and a paragraph there might have added a world of depth to a piece—a depth I almost struck, but missed. But, as things stand, I suppose I might as well just roll over and get back to sleep … after sneaking into my office and jotting the notes into my computer.

     After all, who knows what the future may hold in store?

     See you in two weeks,

* The majority of my sources attributed this last quote to J.K. Rowling, though a few others attributed it to Actress Emma Watson. The Wonderland article containing these quotes had not hit the newsstands prior to my writing this blog, so I had no way of being certain. Thus, I attributed the quote to J.K Rowling while adding this note for clarification.

06 February 2014

Spinning Gold From Straw

by James R. Winter

Today's post is a pinch-hit offering by long-time pal and ace mystery writer Jim Winter, answering an age-old question posed to writers from Homer onward. Thanks Jim!



“Where do you get your ideas?”

A lot of writers hate that question. Some are a bit absurd in their hostility about it. The question, though, is not one that’s easily answered. One author – I’m quoting Stephen King, but King was relating someone else’s response when he said it – got so tired of answering that question that he sarcastically said something along the lines of “I get them from a service in New Jersey.”

It’s a fair enough question, though. People who do not write can’t imagine how we come up with our stories. A coworker saw me reading Stephen King decided to lecture me one time on how King had to be a very sick individual to come up with what he wrote. I calmly said, no, he was probably saner than most people; he just has a vivid imagination. Another coworker (different company) insisted that all the characters in Northcoast Shakedown were based on real people, and she knew which of our fellow employees I’d used as models. I said, no, I have an imagination. I’m perfectly capable of making things up. That’s why it’s called fiction.

The reason writers don’t like that question, though, is because there is no single source of ideas. Storytellers have an innate talent to synthesize anything and everything around them into fiction. Not every story comes from the same source, even for the same writer.

There are certain constants. Genre fiction generally dictates what sort of setting and situations are available to a given writer. They already have an interest in those settings and situations, so they gravitate toward certain types of stories. But beyond that…?

Personal experience – Most writers pull from their own experience, even if they are just observers to events that spark stories. David Simon created Homicide and The Wire after years as a Baltimore Sun reporter working the police beat. Many times, though, the experience colors interactions between characters: How do they relate to parents, children, lovers, bosses, that person on the street every morning?

Ripped from the headlines – This one gets derided a lot as being a cheap, easy way to capture attention. Then again, it’s often relevant to the time a story is written. Bullying, terrorism, and the need to be “Facebook famous” are all subjects that would have been looked at as absurd over a decade ago. Likewise, everyday, some new piece of technology sends yet another science fiction writer into fits of giddiness as he or she tries to work it into a story.

What if? – This is the safest bet for any writer trying to generate ideas. Take a situation, have it turn out differently, and ask what would happen. What if I didn’t take that job? What if Romney had won the last election? What if the Golden Gate Bridge was a ferry instead of a bridge? This goes even further. Stand in line at Starbucks and study the person in front of you. Who is she? Is she married? Happily? Kids? Healthy? Rich? Poor? What does she do for a living? Why does she get a soy mocha, but insist on whipped cream with it? I find myself doing this all the time. It’s great for character building.

Roman a clef – Changing the names to protect the innocent, or hide from the guilty. Most writers have done this at one point or another. I recommend against it, though. A writer can end up tying a story into knots trying to make it conform to reality. Plus it can often be a form of revenge fic that can backfire on the writer. Speaking of which…

Revenge fic- Oh, revenge fic can be fun. You have to be careful because you might not even be mad at the person you wrote about. Sometimes, you want to get even. But getting even often involves a felony. You don’t want to really go out and smash your brother-in-law’s windshield for treating your sister like dirt. But on paper…? Don’t be too obvious about it. And remember, you’re trying to write a story, no matter how angry you are about what prompted it.

A lot of times, however, ideas just coalesce around different thoughts that have nothing to do with each other. A character may present itself with no place to go. A what-if scenario might tug at someone’s brain, but have no real substance. Something real, like a person walking down the street, might appear that triggers all sorts of speculation. If all that comes together, a writer might be hard pressed to remember exactly where the idea came from. After all, it’s like pinning down exactly where rain comes from. We know it comes from the clouds, but there is no exact point where water becomes a drop.


Born near Cleveland in 1966, Jim Winter had a vivid imagination – maybe too vivid for his own good – that he spun into a career as a writer. He is the author of Northcoast Shakedown, a tale of sex, lies, and insurance fraud – and Road Rules, an absurd heist story involving a stolen holy relic. Jim now lives in Cincinnati with his wife Nita and stepson AJ. To keep the lights on, he is a web developer and network administrator by day. Visit him at http://www.jamesrwinter.net , like Jim Winter Fiction on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter @authorjimwinter.

05 February 2014

Call of the Wicked

by Robert Lopresti

I have a friend who has a mother, a wonderful lady we will call Kate.  She is a smart woman who, at a time when many people were retired,  was still doing biomedical research.  That  kind of smart.

But time has passed and she is retired now, and living in a senoir home, what is known as an independent living center.  And one day not too long ago she got a phone call from someone who said he was calling from Windows.  He explained that they had found that her computer was about to crash but he could fix it if she gave him control.

Well, you know what happened next.  She had to call someone from the office to yank the plug out of the wall to turn the computer off, and then she had to buy a new computer.  (According to the guy who looked at her machine, if you suffer this type of hack, the trick is to get someone to fix it before you log on again.  After that, its too late.)

I won't go through the misery that followed: closing bank accounts, changing passwords, destroying credit cards.  Because that is all minor inconvenience, as tedious and infuriating as it is.

The real damage was done inside Kate's head.  Falling for that trick damaged her self-confidence and self-image, because she knew she would not have done so a few years before.  And that is the true, soul-destroying evil accomplished by these morally-bankrupt thugs who deliberately aim their scams at seniors.

For some reason, this makes me think of Dick Francis.  One of the things I like best about his work is that his characters never lost their shock over bad guys doing bad things.  While the heroes of Chandler get cynical and  see the glass as not only mostly empty but slightly moldy, Francis's men stay outraged and furious.  That doesn't belong to you.  Put it back!

From time to time scholars have pondered why so many people are fascinated by crime fiction.  Part of the answer, I think, is that we all deal with villains and the mysteries give us a pain-free way to reflect on them.  And, in fiction, at least, we can sometimes defeat them.

Until next time, watch out for the bad guys.

04 February 2014

Ellery Queen and the Mystery of the Hidden Name

by Dale C. Andrews (and Kurt Sercu)

       As I guess is evident, for most of my life I have been an Ellery Queen fan. I read Queen as a kid, and I trace my published mystery writing back to the Ellery Queen Centennial Symposium that EQMM hosted back in 2005. I attended that symposium in New York City, along with Kurt Sercu, the proprietor of the preeminent Ellery Queen website – Ellery Queen: A Website on Deduction, and we both left the symposium with the inspiration that eventually led to our Ellery Queen pastiche The Book Case (EQMM, May 2007). While that weekend was the first time Kurt and I had met in person, we had already known each other for years on-line.

       It was sometime around 2000 that I first stumbled onto Kurt’s internet homage to Queen, and while I became a regular visitor there our email friendship did not really blossom until two years later when, in a thread on the Ellery Queen sub-forum of the Golden Age Detectives website discussing Queen’s And on the Eighth Day, I posted a pastiche epilogue to the book, offering a “further explanation” to Ellery’s solution that attempted to tie up some of the novel’s loose ends. Those loose ends had always troubled me -- there are a lot of hidden clues in And on the Eighth Day that are never explicitly addressed in the pages of the book. After reading my conjectured epilogue, Kurt, who oversees the Queen sub forum, responded with some thoughts and we were off and running. 

       And a strange email exchange it has, at times, been over the years. Early on Kurt asked me if I knew the name that arguably tied together a large number of the Ellery Queen mysteries. I replied that I did not and Kurt responded with the following. “The name is ‘Andrews’.” 

       Well, as you can imagine, that sort of floored me for very personal reasons. I had read Queen for years, but this was before I had begun to look behind the stories into the strange and largely inexplicable patterns and clues that Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee wove into the fabric of the Queen library. But even so , , , my own name? In any event, Kurt proceeded to reveal a list of references to names closely associated with the name “Andrews” that appear in Queen, and the list stunned me -- I hadn't even noticed the multitude of characters who bore the name “Andrews,” or who answered to a closely related name. The list included: 

     Rima Anderson                       Double, Double 
     Ann Drew                               The Player on the Other Side 
     Van Andrew                           The Egyptian Cross Mystery 
     Andrea Borden                       Halfway House 
     Andrew Gardiner                    The Finishing Stroke 
     Andrew Hamilton                    The Glass House 
     Judge Andrew Webster          The Glass House 
     Old Soak Anderson                 Calamity Town and The Murderer is a Fox (Rima’s father) 
     Doctor MacAnderson              The Fourth Side of the Triangle 
     Mrs.Anderson                        The House of Brass 

       Hidden patterns in Ellery Queen mysteries, I now know, are rampant. One of the best examples of this is the recurrence of references to Easter, a topic discussed at some length in a previous post. Other examples involve the use of dates that are either of personal importance to Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, who were Queen, or that are of historical interest. Those, too, have been explored in a previous article. Were these multiple references to the name “Andrews,” some of which, after all, are only associated with minor characters, enough to be classified as similar intentional patterns? As Kurt pointed out to me in our correspondence, French Queen scholar Remi Schulz certainly thinks so.

       Remi Schulz has devoted years, and much effort, to the study of the Queen mysteries, plumbing analytical depths that most of us would never even suspect existed. One underlying thesis set forth in Remi’s website is that the Ellery Queen novels are replete with hidden patterns that are premised on recurring dichotomies. Thus, Remi argues, a series of later Queen novels involve murderers with the recurring initials M and W, that switch back and forth chronologically novel to novel. M and W, Remi points out, are a short-hand for one of life’s great dichotomies: men and women. Similarly, there are references to 1 and 2, and to “A” and “B” that recur in Queen mysteries. As an example, Remi focuses on the 1936 Queen mystery Halfway House, and points out that it involves two families, Angell and Borden, and secret relationships between Andrea Borden and Bill Angell (AB and BA). These are but examples -- Remi points out many other hidden dichotomies in the mysteries Ellery solves.

     So what do these “either or” patterns have to do with the also recurring references to the name “Andrews?” Well, first of all, Remi’s view is that you can’t view the references to that name standing alone -- you have to look at all of this in the context of those other clues and patterns. Remi argues that the term most commonly used for the recurring literary dichotomy device that he identifies as prevalent in Queen mysteries (A’s and B’s, 1’s and 2’s) is a chiasm, a word that derives from the Greek letter 'Chi', or 'X.' An X, he points out, is also the basic design of the Saint Andrew cross -- a cross, in effect, laid on its side. Thus, it is argued that frequent use of number and letter pairs, and frequent use of the name “Andrews,” are employed to show that chiasms -- and underlying dichotomies -- are a hidden theme in the Ellery Queen mysteries. 

       And what, in turn, could this pattern of dichotomies be intended to convey to the reader? Well, the most obvious chiasm “secret” behind the works of Ellery Queen is, of course, the fact that there are two aspects to Ellery as author -- Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee. Up to here I find Remi’s theories a bit far fetched, although still plausible. But from this juncture on Remi and I tend to part ways, forming, perhaps, our own chiasm. 

       Remi’s overarching thesis is that Dannay was the mastermind behind Queen, and that various hidden clues in Ellery Queen mysteries are meant to convey this, as well as the “fact” that Manfred Lee had (in Remi’s view) little or no role in the writing process. I’m not going to delve too deeply into Remi’s theory since it really cannot be articulated without revealing spoilers for many of the Queen mysteries. However, those interested in the theory can pursue Remi’s thesis at his website. (A warning -- Most of Remi's website is written is in his native French. However the Google translate function works fairly well on the site. Some of his theories concerning Ellery Queen mysteries are explained in a shorter English version of his website here.  Remi’s theories are also summarized on Kurt’s website here and here.) 

       My own view as to what this all might mean, while also a bit complicated, is a simpler one. (Warning -- even mine involves one “spoiler.”)

       I share Remi’s view that a plausible explanation of the recurring use of chiasms, as well as the references to “Andrews” as a clue to point the reader to the Cross of St. Andrews, is that all of this evidences (in a manner subliminal to the actual clues needed to solve each individual mystery story) the fact that two authors, Dannay and Lee, were Ellery Queen. The duality of Queen, as author, is also evidenced by the fact that both Dannay and Lee followed the consistent practice of using a “Q” with two, rather than one, line through it whenever autographing a book as Ellery Queen. 

       But it seems to me that it is ultimately self-defeating to argue that these hidden references were somehow meant to demean Lee’s role. After all, but for the few later Queen mysteries written by ghostwriters when Manfred Lee battled writer’s block, it was Lee who penned the actual drafts of the Ellery Queen mysteries from Dannay’s outlines. And even in the ghostwritten works it is acknowledged that Lee edited the final drafts. Can we really expect that Lee would be a party to a scheme intended to demean his own role? 

       In fact, there is at least some evidence that Lee could be a bit of a prankster himself, and was not above sneaking references into the Queen mysteries behind Dannay’s back. The best example of this is one particular late Queen novel (that’s all I’m going to say!) in which the name of the murderer appears only twice -- on the opening and closing pages. When asked about this literary device in a televised interview Dannay reportedly was taken aback, rather obviously surprised by the literary trick. So if that response by Dannay was honest, then the trick was by Lee. A trick that involved a secret cleverness -- a cleverness involving a name. 

Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee
       The issue of employing “cleverness” with chosen names also brings us back to both Lee and Dannay -- each of whom chose their own names. Frederic Dannay was born Daniel Nathan, and Manfred Bennington Lee was born Manford Lepofsky. Lee, like his cousin Dannay, was of Russian-Jewish ancestry, but (unlike Dannay) eventually converted to Episcopalian. As Dannay’s notes in The Tragedy of Errors indicate, the cousins referred to each other throughout their lives as “Man” and “Dan,” evocative of both their given names and their chosen names. 

       And what do we know of the name “Andrews?” Well, in the Bible Andrew was the brother of Peter, and was himself a disciple. Legend has it that Andrew preached in Russia, in the Black Sea area of the Ukraine, and that his remains were eventually carried to Scotland, where he became the patron saint of the country and inspired that cross of St. Andrew, which graces the Scottish flag. Lee and Andrew, therefore, had a shared background, in a sense:  roots that involved Jewish Russia, and relocation to an English speaking locale. Each was born Jewish; each died Christian. So there is a credible basis to hypothesize that Lee could have personally identified with Andrew. Could the recurring usage of Andrews, and names closely related to Andrews, constituted Lee’s “signature” to the Queen mysteries? Are any of the foregoing similarities enough to deduce anything? The question still remains: What does Manfred Lee, as a name, have to do with Andrews? 

       Well, perhaps this: The name “Andrew,” “Andrea” in Greek, is translated as “manly.” Or, phonetically, “Man Lee.” In other words, the joke here, once again, may have been on Dan!

03 February 2014

How Many Hats?

Imagine receiving this note from your friends:
                    You have one year off from your job
                    to write whatever you please. Merry

Most of us have not been so fortunate.  We've struggled through our day jobs, writing at nights or on weekends.  The blessed among us have had spouses who encouraged our writings.  Some have lived with significant others who were as jealous of our computers as some musicians' partners have been green-eyed about their guitars.

Let's take a look at the hats some well known writers have worn prior to their successes.

Zane Grey was a dentist, and he hated it.  After nine years, he married Dolly, who had a substantial inheritance.  He lived off her money from then until he began earning his own in writing.

J. D. Salinger was the entertainment director on a cruise ship.

Robert Frost was a newspaper boy, his mother's teaching assistant, and a light-bulb-filament replacer in a factory.

James Joyce sang and played piano.  Dubliners was rejected twenty-two times, and that was before electronic submissions, so he sang a lot.

Nabokov was an entomologist who was not very noted in the field. In 2011, his theory of butterfly evolution was proved to be correct by DNA analysis.

Ken Kasey volunteered for CIA psych tests.  These mainly involved being unknowingly dosed with LSD.  Dr. Broom was the one element in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest who was based on hallucinations in the lab.

John Grisham worked watering bushes for a dollar an hour at a nursery until he was promoted to a fence crew with a fifty cent raise.  After that, he worked for a plumbing contractor.

George Orwell served as an officer of the Indian Imperial Police in Burma before he changed his name from Eric Arthur Blair and wrote 1984.

Kurt Vonnegut managed one of the first Saab dealerships in the United States as well as working in public relations for General Electric and serving as a volunteer fireman.

Jack London was part of the Klondike Gold Rush and worked at a cannery, but most interesting is that he also spent time as an oyster pirate and named his sloop the Razzle-Dazzle. 

R. T. Lawton
Liz Zelvin

Now let's take a look at the various hats some of the SleuthSayer writers have worn:

Rob Lopresti

Leigh Lundin
 Sorry these photos move when I go to preview.  Also, I apologize if your photo isn't posted. These are the only pictures I had of SSers wearing hats.  If those of you who aren't shown will send me a picture of yourself wearing some kind of hat, I'll be glad to put you on exhibit.

Meanwhile, what hats have you worn in "real life" when you weren't busy writing?  I retired from teaching in the public schools, but summer jobs included legal secretary, used car salesperson, caterer, and managing bands--bluegrass and rock 'n roll.  Writing employments included promos for entertainers and editing magazines.

Now, it's your turn. What about you?  What hats have you worn?

Until we meet again, take care of...you!   

Postscript:  That lucky recipient of the Christmas note at the beginning was Harper Lee, and she did pen To Kill a Mockingbird during that year of freedom from her day job. 

02 February 2014

Two Anniversaries

by Leigh Lundin

Fact: Less that 0.002% of American males will be reading this article instead of watching the Superbowl. Nevertheless, we press ever forward with our own take on entertainment including a part of Superbowl history.

In the past few days, a couple of entertainment anniversaries came to my attention, one a film and the other an advertisement.

An ad?

Yes, an advert that appeared only once, but oh, what a work of art by none other than that master filmmaker known for Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, and Hannibal: Ridley Scott. It was an ad run just one time thirty years ago during the Superbowl.

By now, you know I’m referring to Apple’s 1984 introduction of the Macintosh. Go on, watch it again; you know you want to.

I surmise the author of the article that reminded me of the Mac’s anniversary is quite young, not realizing the cycles of history. Without irony, she writes “The ad follows a popular theme of that era; that ‘Big Brother’ is watching you.”

Julia, Big Brother IS watching us like never before. Here in the US, we’re debating the rôle of the NSA and exactly how many of our civil liberties we’re willing to forego in the pursuit of, er, liberty.

The UK has grown more heavy handed. After misusing an anti-terrorism law to jail at least one reporter, David Cameron’s government ordered its spooks over to The Guardian to oversee the destruction of hard drives and computers (including *gasp* a beautiful MacBook Air!) containing Snowden files. So much for freedom of the press.

Visiting this theme of governments and misleading their citizens brings us to another landmark film by another superb filmmaker, a man who brought us such classics as 2001, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, Barry Lyndon, and Eyes Wide Shut: Stanley Kubrick.

Of course, I’m talking about Dr. Strangelove, which came to the screen fifty years ago. You’ve noticed I possess a dark sense of humor and awareness, but for personal reasons, that’s a film I can’t watch.

Baby Boomer

Events that happen in early childhood can effect a person forever after. When I was quite little, my parents attended a talk about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I’ve never witnessed anything as frightening as that presentation with its graphic slides and descriptions of atomized citizens flashed into the sides of buildings. That was the first time I learned that people not only killed other people, they could do it on a mass scale.

After the talk, audience could meet the speaker and look at his exhibits. One was shiny metallic pellets from a Japanese bomb site in, of all things, a baby food jar. When I looked closer, the presenter joked, “Don’t drop it or it’ll explode!”

Thereafter when I was supposed to be sleeping and heard a large aeroplane overhead, I worried it might drop bombs. I’m convinced Strangelove is a great film, but for me, it was the wrong movie at the wrong time, the reason I’ve not been able to bring myself to view Dr. Strangelove.— yet.

Now, fifty years later, we learn that Dr. Strangelove portrayed the truth much more accurately than our government, which pooh-poohed the notion of an out-of-control military officer starting a war on his own but secretly knew it was all too true. The actual situation was far more volatile and dangerous than anyone imagined, not just on our side, but also the Soviets.

Do I hear Clydesdales?

Back to Superbowl Sunday. I’ve read that modern sports are bloodless (usually) reenactments of war. That might make non-sports fans look more kindly on football.

Now about those cheerleaders…

01 February 2014

Weird Tales

How many times have you heard someone say, "That was a really quirky book"? Or "What a quirky movie"? The first thing that comes to mind when I hear that is of course "offbeat," or "strange." The second thing that comes to mind is that I would probably enjoy it. Especially if it's in the mystery/suspense genre.

Crime stories have a hard time being humorous. Sometimes they are, and sometimes that works; a few of my alltime favorite films--Raising ArizonaThe Big LebowskiA Fish Called Wanda, etc.--are sort of based on criminal activity but are primarily comedies, not mysteries. Now and then, though, you come across a real crime story, one that's more concerned with suspense than laughs but that delivers the humor anyhow, the kind of humor that lurks just below the surface. Those movies and novels (1) never seem to take themselves too seriously, and (2) are often overly violent. (Who knows, maybe the folks who make them can get by with the ultra-violence because they don't take it all too seriously, and they know the viewer won't either.)

Weird details

For those who might enjoy this kind of story, here are ten mystery/crime/suspense movies that I've recently either discovered or re-watched that I think fall solidly into the category of quirky. It should surprise no one that four of these are Coen Brothers films and that another four came from the delightfully scary mind of Quentin Tarantino--and it should also be no surprise that I liked them a lot. Anyhow, here's my list, with the best ones first:

1. Pulp Fiction. By now an oldie, but still a goodie. Sam Jackson's scripture-quoting scene will always be fun to watch. Especially interesting to me was the fact that the story wasn't told in sequence--it kept jumping back and forth.

2. Fargo. Another Oscar-quality quirkfest. How could a movie not be good with characters like these, one of whom ends up in a woodchipper? Yah, you betcha, I know whatcha mean there, Lou . . .

3. Blood Simple. A movie not many folks seem to have heard about, but if you've seen it you'll never
ever forget the scene with the window and the knife, near the end. Trust me.

4. In Bruges. Another film that never generated much buzz. It features the wackiest group of killers since Get Shorty.

5. Reservoir Dogs. From Mr. Blue to Mr. Orange, this is an edge-of-your-seat, can't-believe-what-just-happened story. I've seen it maybe half a dozen times, to make sure I did believe it.

6. Kill Bill. I'm cheating a bit here, because it took two movies to actually kill Bill: KB and KB2. Both were over the top, featuring everything from swordfights to snakes to live burials to Ennio Morricone themes.

7. True Romance. This really is a romance, sort of, but not exactly The Bachelorette. Tarantino's script includes another of those absolutely unforgettable scenes, this one between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken.

8. Miller's Crossing. An unsung triumph: great characters, good plot, and as crazy as . . . well, as crazy as Joel and Ethan Coen.

9. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. From the old saying "May you be in heaven half an hour before, etc." Yet another movie that few folks have seen or heard about.

10. Burn After Reading. Zany performances and surprises at every turn. George Clooney hasn't made many bad movies, and this one was great fun to watch.

Possible runners-up: Seven Psychopaths, The Mexican, Bottle Rocket, The Pawnshop Chronicles, Grindhouse, and Django Unchained. And yes, I realize Django-U was more western than crime/suspense, but if we're talking quirky, it's right up there with the rest.

Weird males?

My wife, I might mention here, has not seen any of these (except Fargo), and is not likely to. In fact I think she's convinced that my IQ, which probably isn't high to begin with, drops a few points with every viewing of this kind of film. Maybe it does--but what can I say? I love this stuff. Maybe it's a guy thing.

Can you think of other goofy or otherwise outrageous suspense movies? Suggestions are welcome--there's plenty of room for more guilty pleasures in my Netflix queue.

Weird sales

In the BREAKING NEWS category: I'm pleased to report that over the past two days I've received acceptances for new short stories at The Strand MagazineWoman's World, and The Saturday Evening Post. And yes, all three tales are quirky …