14 March 2014

Crime Cruise-Aruba

Last week, we returned from an eleven-day pleasure cruise in the Caribbean. All of the port stops along our route can be considered as warm places to get out of snow country during the winter months. We went for the fun, relaxation and pampering you get on a cruise ship, plus the chance to visit places we hadn't seen before. But, being a writer of crime and criminals, I naturally sought out some of the darker side at each port of call.

Our departure was from a large pier in Ft. Lauderdale at an entrance to the Inter Coastal Waterway. But since Leigh does such a good job at exposing the seamy underbelly of Florida, I will leave reporting on this area to him.

First stop Aruba

The Tour

Haystack Hill, tallest point on island
Aruba is a flat, sandy island about six miles wide by twenty miles long, located approximately seventeen miles north of Venezuela. Due to its arid climate, the island has to produce its own water via a desalination plant, thus water is very expensive, as is electricity generated by the same plant. According to our tour guide, only the rich Americans and the thieves can afford swimming pools. Thieves being defined as politicians in the Aruban government. None of the local's houses had green lawns for a yard, only sand and cactus. Yes, the one golf course was green, but this was a result of recycled waste water from the resorts and if you were in the know, you waited for the course to dry before moving around on it.

The resort area, the white sand beaches and the clear waters of the ocean were beautiful, therefore it was interesting to talk to those fellow passengers who had only seen that small part of the island. They were the ones who wanted to return to Aruba for an extended vacation. Those of us who had seen the full island weren't so sure. Tourism is Aruba's main source of legitimate income, but once you've seen a large rock hill (remember this is a flat island), a naturally formed stone bridge (there were two, but the other one collapsed nine years ago) and the California Lighthouse (named after a ship that ran into the island), what's left is the resort area and the beaches.

Baby Bridge, only one still standing
To mingle with some of the locals after the tour concluded, four of us went to Iguana Joe's for beer and nachos. It was much like any warm climate bar with open air seating, plus it was located on the second floor where patrons could watch people and traffic moving on the streets below. Found out too late that the local Starbuck's had free wi-fi for those who made a purchase.

The Crime

The first settlers of this island were the Caiquetios, a branch of the Arawak Indians, who sailed over from Venezuela about two thousand years ago. They were followed by the first tourists in 1499 when Spanish explorer Alonso de Ojeda laid claim to the island for Queen Isabella. Guess you could say he was the first thief on the island. He named the land Oro Hubo, which meant there was supposed to be gold on it. The Spanish soon left and the island changed hands several times before the Dutch ended up with it.

Tourist Beach
During the time period when the Spanish conquistadors were looting Mexico and South America and sending all that gold on ships back to Spain, pirates and privateers decided that Aruba made a good base to hide out between raids. You could say they were the second set of thieves.

In more modern days, the island has continued as a smuggler's paradise, dating this occupation back to colonial times when it was used to avoid taxes from the Spanish monopoly. For instance, Aruba was the most important exporter of coffee, however there are no coffee plantations on the island. Cigarettes and whiskey were other major exports. Appliances, perfumes and other items were smuggled to Venezuela and Colombia. Once, when a large refrigerator was being swung over from the dock to be loaded on a ship headed for Colombia, the refrigerator suddenly opened and a cache of guns fell out on the wharf. They were immediately picked up and no official mention was made of the incident.

Downtown, Haystack Hill on distant right
One Aruban politician signed a residence card for a Colombian cartel member so he could live on the island. Money was invested. A scandal ensued, but that politician later became Prime Minister for Aruba. Go figure. The cartel member later visited the island anyway without problems after the residence card was subsequently rescinded. No wonder our tour guide referred to the Aruban government as Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

Still, we had a good time on Aruba and do not regret having made this port of call.

See you in Cartagena in two weeks.

13 March 2014

Robert Benchley, Please Come Home

(We've been out of town, and so, here's a reprint of one of the classic works on how to write, by the master, Robert Benchley.)

Robert Benchley, “How to Get Things Done”
from Chips off the Old Benchley ©1949

A great many people have come up to me and asked me how I manage to get so much work done and still keep looking so dissipated. My answer is "Don't you wish you knew?" and a pretty good answer it is, too, when you consider that nine times out of ten I didn't hear the original question.
But the fact remains that hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country are wondering how I have time to do all my painting, engineering, writing and philanthropic work when, according to the rotogravure sections and society notes, I spend all my time riding to hounds, going to fancy-dress balls disguised as Louis XIV or spelling out GREETINGS TO CALIFORNIA in formation with three thousand Los Angeles school children. "All work and all play," they say.
The secret of my incredible energy and efficiency in getting work done is a simple one. I have based it very deliberately on a well-known psychological principle and have refined it so that it is now almost too refined. I shall have to begin coarsening it up again pretty soon.
The psychological principle in this: anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn't the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.
Let us see how this works out in practice. Let us say that I have five things which have to be done before the end of the week: (1) a basketful of letters to be answered, some of them dating from October, 1928 (2) some bookshelves to be put up and arranged with books (3) a hair-cut to get (4) a pile of scientific magazines to go through and clip (I am collecting all references to tropical fish that I can find, with the idea of some day buying myself one) and (5) an article to write for this paper.
Now. With these five tasks staring me in the face on Monday morning, it is little wonder that I go right back to bed as soon as I have had breakfast, in order to store up health and strength for the almost superhuman expenditure of energy that is to come. Mens sana in corpore sano is my motto, and, not even to be funny, am I going to make believe that I don't know what the Latin means. I feel that the least that I can do is to treat my body right when it has to supply fuel for an insatiable mind like mine.
As I lie in bed on Monday morning storing up strength, I make out a schedule. "What do I have to do first?" I ask myself. Well, those letters really should be answered and the pile of scientific magazines should be clipped. And here is where my secret process comes in. Instead of putting them first on the list of things which have to be done, I put them last. I practice a little deception on myself and say: "First you must write that article for the newspaper." I even say this out loud (being careful that nobody hears me, otherwise they would[Pg 253] keep me in bed) and try to fool myself into really believing that I must do the article that day and that the other things can wait. I sometimes go so far in this self-deception as to make out a list in pencil, with "No. 1. Newspaper article" underlined in red. (The underlining in red is rather difficult, as there is never a red pencil on the table beside the bed, unless I have taken one to bed with me on Sunday night.)
Then, when everything is lined up, I bound out of bed and have lunch. I find that a good, heavy lunch, with some sort of glutinous dessert, is good preparation for the day's work as it keeps one from getting nervous and excitable. We workers must keep cool and calm, otherwise we would just throw away our time in jumping about and fidgeting.
I then seat myself at my desk with my typewriter before me and sharpen five pencils. (The sharp pencils are for poking holes in the desk-blotter, and a pencil has to be pretty sharp to do that. I find that I can't get more than six holes out of one pencil.) Following this I say to myself (again out loud, if it is practical) "Now, old man! Get at this article!"
Gradually the scheme begins to work. My eye catches the pile of magazines, which I have artfully placed on a near-by table beforehand. I write my name and address at the top of the sheet of paper in the typewriter and then sink back. The magazines being within reach (also part of the plot) I look to see if anyone is watching me and get one off the top of the pile. Hello, what's this! In the very first one is an article by Dr. William Beebe, illustrated by horrifying photographs! Pushing my chair away from my desk, I am soon hard at work clipping.
One of the interesting things about the Argyopelius, or[Pg 254] "Silver Hatchet" fish, I find, is that it has eyes in its wrists. I would have been sufficiently surprised just to find out that a fish had wrists, but to learn that it has eyes in them is a discovery so astounding that I am hardly able to cut out the picture. What a lot one learns simply by thumbing through the illustrated weeklies! It is hard work, though, and many a weaker spirit would give it up half-done, but when there is something else of "more importance" to be finished (you see, I still keep up the deception, letting myself go on thinking that the newspaper article is of more importance) no work is too hard or too onerous to keep one busy.
Thus, before the afternoon is half over, I have gone through the scientific magazines and have a neat pile of clippings (including one of a Viper Fish which I wish you could see. You would die laughing). Then it is back to the grind of the newspaper article.
This time I get as far as the title, which I write down with considerable satisfaction until I find that I have misspelled one word terribly, so that the whole sheet of paper has to come out and a fresh one be inserted. As I am doing this, my eye catches the basket of letters.
Now, if there is one thing that I hate to do (and there is, you may be sure) it is to write letters. But somehow, with the magazine article before me waiting to be done, I am seized with an epistolary fervor which amounts to a craving, and I slyly sneak the first of the unanswered letters out of the basket. I figure out in my mind that I will get more into the swing of writing the article if I practice a little on a few letters. This first one, anyway, I really must answer. True, it is from a friend in Antwerp asking me to look him up when I[Pg 255] am in Europe in the summer of 1929, so he can't actually be watching the incoming boats for an answer, but I owe something to politeness after all. So instead of putting a fresh sheet of copy-paper into the typewriter, I slip in one of my handsome bits of personal stationary and dash off a note to my friend in Antwerp. Then, being well in the letter-writing mood, I clean up the entire batch. I feel a little guilty about the article, but the pile of freshly stamped envelopes and the neat bundle of clippings on tropical fish do much to salve my conscience. Tomorrow I will do the article, and no fooling this time either.
When tomorrow comes I am up with one of the older and more sluggish larks. A fresh sheet of copy-paper in the machine, and my name and address neatly printed at the top, and all before eleven A. M.! "A human dynamo" is the name I think up for myself. I have decided to write something about snake-charming and am already more than satisfied with the title "These Snake-Charming People." But, in order to write about snake-charming, one has to know a little about its history, and where should one go to find history but to a book? Maybe in that pile of books in the corner is one on snake-charming! Nobody could point the finger of scorn at me if I went over to those books for the avowed purpose of research work for the matter at hand. No writer could be supposed to carry all that information in his head.
So, with a perfectly clear conscience, I leave my desk for a few minutes and begin glancing over the titles of the books. Of course, it is difficult to find any book, much less one on snake-charming, in a pile which has been standing in the corner for weeks. What really is needed is for them to be on a[Pg 257] shelf where their titles will be visible at a glance. And there is the shelf, standing beside the pile of books! It seems almost like a divine command written in the sky: "If you want to finish that article, first put up the shelf and arrange the books on it!" Nothing could be clearer or more logical.
In order to put up the shelf, the laws of physics have decreed that there must be nails, a hammer and some sort of brackets to hold it up on the wall. You can't just wet a shelf with your tongue and stick it up. And, as there are no nails or brackets in the house (or, if there are, they are probably hidden somewhere) the next thing to do is to put on my hat and go out to buy them. Much as it disturbs me to put off the actual start of the article, I feel that I am doing only what is in the line of duty to put on my hat and go out to buy nails and brackets. And, as I put on my hat, I realize to my chagrin that I need a hair-cut badly. I can kill two birds with one stone, or at least with two, and stop in at the barber's on the way back. I will feel all the more like writing after a turn in the fresh air. Any doctor would tell me that.
So in a few hours I return, spick and span and smelling of lilac, bearing nails, brackets, the evening papers and some crackers and peanut butter. Then it's ho! for a quick snack and a glance through the evening papers (there might be something in them which would alter what I was going to write about snake-charming) and in no time at all the shelf is up, slightly crooked but up, and the books are arranged in a neat row in alphabetical order and all ready for almost instantaneous reference. There does not happen to be one on snake-charming among them, but there is a very interesting one containing some Hogarth prints and one which will bear even[Pg 258] closer inspection dealing with the growth of the Motion Picture, illustrated with "stills" from famous productions. A really remarkable industry, the motion-pictures. I might want to write an article on it sometime. Not today, probably, for it is six o'clock and there is still the one on snake-charming to finish up first. Tomorrow morning sharp! Yes, sir!
And so, you see, in two days I have done four of the things I had to do, simply by making believe that it was the fifth that I must do. And the next day, I fix up something else, like taking down the bookshelf and putting it somewhere else, that I have to do, and then I get the fifth one done.
The only trouble is that, at this rate, I will soon run out of things to do, and will be forced to get at that newspaper article the first thing Monday morning.


12 March 2014


Brando's ONE-EYED JACKS showed at the Lensic theater here in Santa Fe this past week. It's something of a curiosity, the only picture Brando ever directed, but more to the purpose, it was last major release shot in VistaVision, a widescreen process that lasted about seven years.

First of all, let's explain "aspect ratio." This refers to the shape of a movie's screened image, and for many years, the standard aspect ratio was 1.33 to 1, horizontal to vertical, so the image is a little wider than it is tall. (More or less the size of a television screen, back in the day.) This was the negative size of a 35MM film frame. Widescreen had been used, for example, THE BIG TRAIL, released in 1930, which was shot in 70MM, with an aspect ratio of 2.10:1, and a projection process called Grandeur, but most theaters didn't have the equipment to show it, and there was an alternative 35MM version.

Widescreen didn't really catch on until CinemaScope, and THE ROBE, which came out in 1953. The aspect ratio was 2.20:1.  Again, not to try your patience, another technical explantion. Scope is an "anamorphic" process, meaning that the lenses do the work. The image is compressed, when the picture is shot, to squeeze it onto a 35MM frame, and then opened up again when it's projected. Scope lasted well into the 1960's, when it was overtaken by Panavision 70. Now, this too has fallen out of favor, with the introduction of digital, which is a story in itself, but technology eats its own young, and that's where I'm headed.

VistaVision was different because it wasn't
anamorphic. Instead of compressing the image, it opened it up, to fill two frames of film. The nuts-and-bolts, oversimplified, are that the film traveled horizontally through the camera, and exposed twice the image area. The result is a print with finer-grained detail. You increase the depth of field and get far more color saturation.

Directors loved it. Ford used it for THE SEARCHERS. John Sturges, in a couple of pictures. Anthony Mann, always contrary, shot with it in black-and-white, the blacks coming out deep and crisp. Hitchcock used it five times, most strikingly in VERTIGO, where the color becomes part of the story.


But the format was doomed. Even as careful and canny a director as Ford or Hitchcock, who shot only and exactly as much as they needed, still had to shoot twice the footage, because of the double-frame. By the time Brando came along, and famously went through a couple of hundred miles of film, it was the kiss of death, and Paramount pulled the plug. The studio never used VistaVision again.

The process had a half-life, though, for another fifty years, primarily for effects work and process shots, and then CGI took over. It's interesting that even on DVD, with a good digital transfer, you can still see why so many directors and cinematographers liked working with it. You got a lot of bang for the buck, particularly when you wanted to make it appear

you were shooting in low light. The seduction scene between Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in
TO CATCH A THIEF is a good example, or the chase across the rooftops at the end of the picture.

The technology is never static, and we keep pushing the envelope. There was a time when VistaVision was state of the art, and this post isn't intended to be elegiac, but you get the sense that something is lost. There's a plasticity, a word I've used before, to film, as opposed to digital. Not to be a Luddite. I don't want to go back to using a manual typewriter. We shed our old skins, we reinvent ourselves. Still, among the discards and the hand-me-downs, there might be a few things you decide not to put out at the next yard sale, some talisman or another, a vintage bottled in the past.

11 March 2014

Women Sleuths of the Silver Screen

In a recent post, I considered some minor mystery movie series, closing with the promise that I'd follow up someday regarding movie series featuring female detectives.  A more recent column by Leigh Lundin reminded me that March is "Women's History Month" and, more specifically, "Women in Mystery Month." So why not "Women in Mystery Movie Series Month" as well? It seems like a good fit.
I know of three such series from the 1930s, and each is worth a look.  (Each shows up on TCM from time to time.) All three series had literary antecedents, two now obscure and one still famous.  The three protagonists are surprisingly diverse, given that they were battling crime at more or less the same moment in time. 

Hildegarde Withers

A Boston school teacher turned amateur sleuth, Hildegarde Withers was the creation of Stuart Palmer, novelist, short story writer (including two Sherlock Holmes pastiches), screenwriter, and president of the Mystery Writers of America.  Withers debuted in The Penquin Pool Murder in 1931.  Withers reappeared regularly through the early fifties and even had two titles released in the sixties, with Palmer sharing credit with writing partners, including Craig Rice (Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig).  Withers, a comic take on Miss Marple,  is a busybody crime solver.  Much of the humor derives from her clashes with a tough New York police inspector, Oscar Piper.

With RKO producing, Withers made it to the big screen only a year after her literary debut, in a film version of that debut, The Penquin Pool Murder.  She was played by the great Edna May Oliver, an actress with a long face and a great way with an acerbic line.  A native of Massachusetts who specialized in independent and cranky characters, Oliver was born to play Withers.  She followed up Penquin Pool with two more, Murder on the Blackboard (1934) and Murder on a Honeymoon (1935).  All three benefit from James Gleason's performance as Piper.  After Honeymoon, Oliver left RKO for MGM, where she graced big-budget costume pictures like Romeo and Juliet and Pride and Prejudice until her untimely death in 1942, age 59.  Following Oliver's departure, RKO tried three more Withers films, staring first Helen Broderick (not good) and then Zazu Pitts (worse).  Later, there were two television Withers, Agnes Morehead in a failed 1950s pilot and  Eve Arden in a 1972 television film, A Very Missing Person.

Hildegarde Withers (Edna May Oliver) and Oscar Piper (James Gleason)

Any of the Oliver films is worth catching.  My favorite is Murder on a Honeymoon, which features location footage shot on Catalina Island, an uncommon thing in a film of that period.

Torchy Blane

One of old Hollywood's favorite stock characters was the plucky female reporter.  She could pop up in A pictures like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) in the person of a genuine star like Jean Arthur or in B pictures like Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) in the person of a contract player like Glenda Farrell.  Farrrell was a member of the Warner Bros. stock company, and as such was as likely to play a gold digger in a Busby Berkeley musical as a gun moll in a gangster picture.  The Warners films of the early thirties were known for their rapid pacing and general brassiness.  Farrell, a brassy blonde who was to wisecracking what Edna May Oliver was to superciliousness, fit right in.  Warners eventually gave Farrell her own series, in which she played a crime-solving newswoman, Torchy Blane.

The series was inspired by a story Warners had purchased from Fredrick Nebel, a pulp writer who published in Black Mask alongside Hammett and Chandler.  Nebel's original story featured a hard drinking male reporter who competed against and knocked heads with a cop named McBride.  Warners switched the reporter's gender, renamed him (or rather, her) Torchy Blane, and started cranking them out.  McBride was played by Barton MacLaine, and he became Blane's love interest as well as her professional rival.  Blane would stop at nothing to solve the crime and get the story, including exploiting her relationship with McBride. The films were light and, at around an hour each, lightning paced.  Of the nine films released between 1936 and 1939, seven starred Farrell, with Lola Lane and future Oscar winner Jane Wyman each stepping in for one.

Torchy Blane (Glenda Farrell) and Steve McBride (Barton MacLaine)

Farrell's take on the wisecracking blonde went out of style when the thirties went west, but she kept acting, sometimes in smaller movie roles, sometimes on the stage or on television.  She died in harness in 1972, age 66, and was buried at West Point beside her second husband, an army doctor who had served on Eisenhower's staff.

Leonard Maltin calls Smart Blonde (1936) the best of the Torchy Blane films, and I'll bow to his expertize.

Nancy Drew

Carson Drew's only child debuted in book form in 1930 and has been solving crimes (and lying about her age) ever since.  The brainchild of the genius book packager Edward Stratemeyer, the books, written under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene (originally by Mildred Wirt Benson) were an immediate success.

In 1938, Nancy Drew made it to the big screen courtesy of Torchy Blane's studio, Warner Bros. She was played by a young actress with a name that always sounded to me like it should have belonged to an old actress:  Bonita Granville.  Granville was a movie veteran in 1938, having made her debut in 1933 at age nine. (Her most famous child role was an Oscar-nominated turn in These Three, the original film version of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour.)  Granville first played the girl sleuth in Nancy Drew, Detective, based on The Password to Larkspur Lane.  Three more films followed in 1939, the last being Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase.  Carson Drew was played by Warners regular John Litel, and Frankie Thomas played Nancy's boyfriend (with his book name, Ned Nickerson, changed to Ted Nickerson for reasons best known to Warners).

The films were short, fast-paced, and Nancy was both the brains and heart of the outfit (though some critics found Granville insufficiently intrepid).  I'd recommend the last one, Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase.  (And not just because it has a title I remember fondly.)

Ted Nickerson (Frankie Thomas) and Nancy Drew (Bonita Granville)

Though she remains a publishing franchise and has spun off into new areas like video games, Nancy Drew's screen afterlife hasn't been much more impressive than Hildegarde Withers'.  There would be only one more big screen attempt, Nancy Drew, a 2007 film released by her old studio, Warner Bros., starring Emma Roberts.  There also was a television show, which premiered in 1977, with Pamela Sue Martin in the role.  (Drew was eventually squeezed out of that by her co-detectives, the Hardy Boys.)  A 2002 made-for-television movie, also simply called Nancy Drew, starred Maggie Lawson of Psych fame.      

Granville would remain with Warner Bros. long enough to appear in support of Betty Davis in Now Voyager.  When her acting career wound down, Granville became a television producer. She died (just when she was getting old enough for her name) in 1988, age 65, of lung cancer, like fellow Warners alumnus Glenda Farrell.    

10 March 2014

It's Me Again, Margaret

Three events yesterday inspired this post.  

First, I learned that my Monday SleuthSayer co-conspirator, Jan Grape, is sick, and I volunteered to fill in for her today. 

Second, while I considered what to write about, David Edgerley Gates commented on FaceBook that an editor has accepted another of his stories and has no problem with the opening scene being a lap dance but doesn't like the title "Heavy Breathing."
Sorry, David, I could be censored for using the other lap dance illustrations I found.

My mind sometimes bounces around like a ping pong ball, and the thought of heavy breathing immediately brought Ray Stevens's song "It's Me Again, Margaret" to mind.  In it, a young lady receives repeated phone calls--heavy breathing which always begin with a low, "It's Me Again, Margaret."  At the conclusion, the caller is arrested and allowed one phone call from the police station.  You guessed it! He dials the telephone (it's an old song) and whispers, "It's Me Again, Margaret." This led me to YouTube where I revisited that old song.  You can, too.

Warning:  This video will make you laugh if you have a slightly bawdy sense of humor and will appreciate the mention of chickens and Kool Whip and handcuffs.

So, though I occupied this spot just last Monday and your name isn't Margaret, it's me again. I'm back in less than the usual two weeks' time.

Third Event

A Broad Abroad sent me an email with a link:  Grammar to hammer: Horror writers use every trick from aliens to zombies. Lynne Truss chose a talking cat. 

Problem Solved
Lynne Truss
Contrary to what you dear readers may be thinking, my topic today is not lap dances or obscene calls, but our best-selling Eats, Shoots and Leaves author Lynne Truss.

Cat Out of Hell, her first comic-gothic novella, was released February 27, 2014. A Google review describes it as "the mesmerising tale of a cat with nine lives, [sic] and a relationship as ancient as time itself and just as powerful."

I confess I laughed out loud at that comma.  The [sic] is mine. Aren't "a cat with nine lives" and "a relationship" simply compound objects of the preposition "of"? If so, why would there be a comma there?  I personally would be embarrassed and fearful of punctuation errors when speaking of Ms. Truss. If I'm wrong, please correct me.

I warned you that sometimes my mind bounces around, and there it went again. Back to subject:  A Broad Abroad's link is to an interview with Ms. Truss. I won't summarize it in detail, but it's well worth reading.  Of special interest to me is her reference to Steve French's Horror Writing 101: How to Write a Horror Novel.  I wish I'd known about that before I sent my horror effort to my agent. (David Dean, are you familiar with that guide?)

On Ms. Truss's website, she says:

           My big news is that I have written a comic horror
           novella for Random House's Hammer imprint--this
           is my first novel for about fifteen years, and writing
           it did feel like coming home at last.  It's called Cat 
          Out of Hell and published on February 27.  It is also
          a Radio 4 Book at Bedtime for two weeks in March,
          It concerns the mystery of a missing woman, a talking
          cat called Roger, a remote seaside cottage, and a
          nice retired librarian with a dog called Watson.  I
          fell in love with Roger, because he is not only 
          handsome and evil, but terribly, terribly clever.  But,
          of coursed, Watson is the hero because he is a dog."

Jan, I hope you're soon well.  David Edgerley Gates, can't wait to read that story.  A Broad Abroad, thanks for a topic for today. Everyone, I'm ordering Cat Out of Hell and will let you know what I think after reading it.

Until we meet again, take care of… you!

09 March 2014

Book Posters

by Leigh Lundin

Once again, today’s article was suggested by a note from a reader: What if book blurbs read like movie posters?

The idea grew out of a web page which poses such teasers as: “This Guy Didn’t Tell His New Governess About His Secret Wife In The Attic. What Happened Next Really Burned Him Up,” and “A Guy With Two First Names Proves ‘Nymphet’ Is The Grossest Word In English.” (Don't want to guess? Here's the full list.)

Since my colleagues are all Very Serious Writers who’d never stoop to such shenanigans, I began to ponder. Yes, I think I can really help the publishing industry.

Alice would eat and drink anything, especially anything psychedelic. It would become her undoing. Alice
Cinderella She took her secret shoe fetish a step too far.
A boy with a shadowy past, no future, and a mean right Hook, meets Wendy, the girl of his dreams. Peter Pan
Star Wars You’ve devoted your entire life to consolidating your rule over the universe, only to be thwarted by your own son. Kids!
A teenage angst-ridden rebel-with-a-cause finds his dad is a real pain in the a––… Arm? Star Wars
Harry Potter A British Lord one step from conquering the world has to handle one small boy with an unusual birthmark. How hard could it be?
Political advisors both heartless and brainless guide one girl onto a bloody path of destruction. Wizard of Oz
Snow White Seven men couldn’t satisfy one white girl’s unnatural cravings; it would take an eighth.

What would your ads look like?

08 March 2014

Return to Europe

Elizabeth Zelvin

I last visited Europe in 2003, when my husband and I were invited to a first wedding anniversary party in Copenhagen. It turned out to be a divorce party, but we had a wonderful time in Denmark and also in Amsterdam, where we spent a week on the way. A little over ten years later, we're on the brink of returning to Amsterdam, where we’ll celebrate my birthday (a big round one) with Dutch friends and then stay in their apartment while they take over ours in New York City. It’ll be tulip season, something I’ve always longed to see for myself, and the Rijksmuseum, which has been undergoing renovation for more than ten years, has finally reopened. We’ll also spend a week in Toulouse in southwestern France; we are lucky to have friends there too. There’s plenty to see in the area, including some prehistoric cave paintings that I want to see again, but we hope to spend much of our time sitting in sidewalk cafés and strolling to the markets and nearby medieval churches.

I took a lot of pictures with my very first digital camera. This time, I won’t even take a camera: I’ll get much better pictures on my iPad and supplement them with quick shots on my iPhone. I might even find an Internet café and display them on Facebook as I go, so my friends can enjoy the trip along with me. In the meantime, here are some of my best shots from 2003:

Roofs of Copenhagen

City of bicycles

Central Station, Copenhagen

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No more war!

07 March 2014

Seeking Solutions Among Fraudulent Documentation

 By Dixon Hill

 I find it interesting that, according to some reports, 26 fake driver’s licenses were found among the 9/11 hijackers’ possessions. If the reports are true, that certainly indicates these guys felt fake driver’s licenses were useful—even before TSA strip searches became the stuff of dinner table conversation. 

Fake driver’s licenses have probably been around since the first real driver’s license was issued. Many people reading this post probably owned fake driver’s licenses in high school or college, which they used to get into bars or clubs before they were legally old enough to do so. That’s not an uncommon practice.

 What was uncommon, but is becoming less so, is that fake driver’s licenses are now becoming frighteningly good. And, driver’s licenses aren’t just used to prove that a person has a right to drive, these days, or to gain access to alcohol. They are used as official documents when obtaining jobs, boarding commercial aircraft, and for other purposes.

 Over the years, states have added photographs, complicated background designs, holographic images, and even changed to more expensive construction methods to make driver’s licenses harder to duplicate or forge.

 But, technology is a tool that works for those on both sides of the law. A printing company in Guangzhou, China has been creating fake driver’s licenses and selling them as “novelty items” to buyers in the U.S. According to the FBI, these “novelty” licenses are so close to the real thing that the fakes are hard to tell from the real McCoy.

 Here in Arizona, however, we have a different sort of driver’s license problem.

 For some reason, the Arizona Department of Transportation’s Motor Vehicle Division (MVD), which issues driver’s permits, licenses, and official state ID cards (for those who don’t drive), has a bad track record when it comes to hiring employees.

 And I’m not just talking about a tendency to hire rude clerks—though rudeness does sometimes seem a prerequisite for the job. The Arizona MVD has a history of hiring folks who decide to feather their nests with side-money made off the sale of real driver’s licenses with false names. These aren’t, technically, “fake ID’s” because they’re real documents, issued from a MVD office. Because they’re issued under a false name, however, they are termed: “fraudulent documents.”

 In 2000, 12 people were arrested for knowingly selling official MVD documents to people using false names.

 In an unrelated case, that same year, Justin Pearce, the son of State Representative Russell Pearce of Mesa, pleaded guilty to tampering with public records. Justin worked as a clerk at the MVD and made fake ID cards for underage friends, indicating they were 21 years old. He received two years probation.
In October of 2011, the FBI and AZ Department of Public Safety (our State Highway Patrol) executed Operation Double Driver, arresting 34 people for conspiring to issue fraudulent driver’s licenses from ten MVD offices in Tempe, Phoenix and Southern Arizona.

 Twenty-six of those arrested were MVD employees, who each received $600 to $3,500 per card, for issuing driver’s licenses and official state ID cards with aliases. The other 8 people arrested were accused of working as brokers: lining up customers and arranging the sales.

 As part of Operation Double Driver, FBI agents worked a sting operation to gather evidence. It’s disturbing to note that neither the brokers nor the MVD employs were demurred by the fact that every undercover agent who bought a fraudulent ID clearly represented himself as either a drug dealer or narcotics trafficker. Perhaps more disturbing: U.S. Attorney for AZ, Paul Charlton said, “We may never know exactly how many fraudulent documents were issued.”

 In 2013, a MVD employee was arrested for providing fraudulent documents to an Armenian organized crime group in The Valley. The criminals used these ID’s to open accounts and write bad checks, stealing an estimated half-million dollars from local banks and businesses.

 Of course, the problem isn’t really confined to Arizona. It may well be happening in your state, too.

 In 2010, New York DMV employees were arrested, during Operation Two-Face for the same thing. Everything is more expensive in New York, however, so instead of the modest price tag found in Arizona, the fraudulent documents cost $7,000 to $10,000. The fraudulent document ring is estimated to have netted $1 million from some 200 customers before being put out of business. Interestingly, one of the undercover police officers who bought a fraudulent document told his contacts that he needed the fake ID in order to circumvent the No-Fly list posted to TSA representatives.

 The question becomes: How do we fix the problem? How can a DMV or MVD office hire people who won’t sell official identification documents to criminals? 

When we look at a problem in which low-ranking members of an organization can make hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars in a single illegal transaction—particularly if there is relatively low risk of getting caught—it’s tempting to suggest that one solution would be raising these people’s pay. 

Unfortunately, states are strapped for funding at the moment, so a pay increase is doubtful. Further, we’ve seen in recent history, that being wealthy doesn’t necessarily prevent someone from stealing. So, at what point should we believe a DMV worker would feel wealthy enough to turn his/her back on easy money?

 In Arizona, the MVD addressed the problem by adding more oversight. The idea is: having the transaction details pass through a higher-echelon employee will deter clerks from selling official ID cards to people who don’t have birth certificates or other proper documentation required to obtain them. But, this then begs the question: Who’s watching over those overseers?

 Remember MVD clerk Justin Pearce, who was convicted of “tampering with public records” to make fraudulent ID cards for his buddies in 2000? His father, Russell Pearce was a government bigwig who had been head of the Arizona MVD at one time. How do you suppose Justin, Russell’s son, got his MVD clerking job? Do you think it’s assuming too much to believe Justin might have eventually landed one of those higher-paying oversight positions, if he hadn’t been caught giving ID’s to his underage buddies? Do you think he would have done a dependable job of preventing the sale of fraudulent documents, if he had been an overseer?

 It seems to me that, no matter how we address the problem—increased pay, increased oversight, or increased regulations that make for longer lines at the DMV—the problem keeps coming back to a question of honesty.

 The obvious solution, of course, is for the Arizona MVD to hire people who are just too honest to stoop to crime for easy money. The reason no one points this out, is because it’s seemingly impossible to determine whether or not a person is honest, thus separating the wheat from the chaff at hiring time.

 But, perhaps there are ways to gauge a job applicant’s honesty—at least to some degree.

 Many companies use an applicant’s credit rating to determine his/her level of honesty. But, how effective is this practice? Bernard Madoff had a stellar credit rating, I believe. This certainly didn’t reflect his level of honesty. I have a friend who is an artist, and doesn’t even have a credit rating number. He’s as honest as the day is long, but he doesn’t feel it’s a good practice to borrow money. So, he has never taken out a loan or applied for a credit card. His credit rating, or lack thereof, certainly doesn’t reflect his level of honesty. Consequently, I’m led to believe credit rating assessment just won’t answer the question here.

 On the other hand, there are tests that might help. And perhaps our states should start administering these tests in the hiring process.

 The military has long used written tests that help determine if a person has a tendency to lie. I know, because I’ve taken some of them. This “lie test” sits hidden among a long list of questions inside a test that has another name. An example of how it works is: One of the questions asks the test-taker if s/he has any hobbies, giving them several examples they can select from. Later questions are designed to elicit detailed information that only someone who really did practice that hobby would know. So, if somebody thinks, “That’s a hobby that’s sort of related to this job I’m applying for; I should claim I have that hobby,” the test is pretty good at revealing his/her lie. Of course, lying is just one type of dishonesty.

 In another interesting test, a group of people who had volunteered for an undisclosed mission of a classified nature, were taken into a room, and told to use only the black pens being handed out, to fill in certain forms in front of them. (This pen practice is not uncommon in the military, where ink type is sometimes ridiculously important to those who oversee documentation.)

 As the pens were handed out, the person in charge announced that there was a limited supply of available pens, and the office was currently unable to obtain more. Consequently, everyone was required to deposit their pen in the pen box by the exit door upon leaving the room.

 When certain people left the room, they were singled-out and led to another room with a few other people who had been among those who had recently filled out the forms. Once the rest of the initial group was led away down a hall, the person who had been in charge in the first room entered, closed the door behind him and said, “Congratulations. The people in this room are the people who were honest enough to return the pen as instructed.” After this statement, he began briefing the people in the room about a highly-classified operation they would now be permitted to take part in.

 I don’t believe it’s possible to absolutely determine if a person is honest or not, or at what point s/he might feel motivated to overcome that inherent honesty and do something immoral or even criminal. However, I do believe we could reduce government corruption by subjecting potential state and federal employees to more examinations aimed at clarifying their level of honesty.

 Probably wouldn’t hurt to make it a requirement for running for office, either.

 See you in two weeks,