03 April 2014

Another Forgotten Bastard: Pope Stephen VI (Or Was It VII?) and the Cadaver Synod


by Brian Thornton
As I mentioned a few posts back, a couple of years back I wrote two of books about "bastards": (in)famous people with a mean streak- including some that many today continue to consider "heroes," or at least "good people"- admittedly many of these historical figures have overall positive public images, but in order to show that most everyone has a bit of the "bastard" in them, I included discussions of George Washington putting the moves on his best friend's wife, Jefferson siring children with one of his slaves, and so on.
More fun to write were the accounts we have of many historical personages who have all but disappeared from the pages of history, and getting the opportunity to lay out just exactly why these characters ought to still be considered "bastards" even today. This is one of those "neglected" personages. The account below is an expanded version of the one that ended up in The Book of Ancient Bastards, and lends more detail than I was given within the constraints of the book itself. I hope you enjoy it.

**************

Read, — how there was a ghastly Trial once Of a dead man by a live man, and both, Popes

                                                                                    – Robert Burns, The Ring and the Book 


Our latest foray into historical bastardry concerns the Papacy and a pope “convicted” of terrible crimes nearly a year after his death!

The late 9th and early 10th centuries marked a period of widespread political chaos in Italy dubbed the “Iron Age” of the Papacy.  For example, no less than twenty-five men served as pope between the years 872 and 972.  During this time the Papacy came to be viewed as the ultimate “plum job” by Rome’s wealthy families, many of whom vied with each other to see one of their number don the shoes of the fisherman and in turn dispense ridiculous amounts of patronage amongst his kinsmen.

Feuds developed, blood was spilled.  A pope was poisoned, and the reigns of his successors became successively shorter (many of them also meeting violent ends).  In the midst of all of this chaos, where a pope would change canon law by this or that decree, only to have his reforms overturned by an antagonistic successor, one pope took matters even further.

He ordered a predecessor’s corpse dug up and put on trial.

Enter Pope Stephen VI (or VII, depending on who you ask), who reigned as pontiff from May of 896 to August of 897.

These days people (Catholic or not) tend to view the Pope, the head of the Roman Catholic Church as a benevolent, invariably elderly man dressed in clean white robes, apolitical, a living symbol of the Church’s stances on things such as social justice and mercy.

This was not always the case.

The Papacy has been around for millennia; it is one of the oldest institutions in the Christian Church.  It stands to reason that a position like this one, which has been occupied by any number of different men over the course of its existence, has been occupied by the occasional loose screw.  In the case of the Papacy, one could make the case that the law of averages has been stood on its head, and the office has seen enough loose screws, screaming rivets and outright nuts to fill a toolbox.

Funny, he doesn't LOOK crazy....
 One such loose screw was Stephen VII, a churchman so off his rocker that he was given to toasting the health of the Devil and blaspheming against God.  Add in the fact that Stephen was politically beholden to the family that ruled the nearby Duchy of Spoleto, and things start to get interesting.
During the Middle Ages the idea went that if a Pope was Christ’s vicar on Earth, he ought to have actual territory to rule like any secular feudal lord.  This usually included the city of Rome and varying amounts of adjacent territory.

Since the Papacy at the time was scrambling for money and troops of its own, a succession of popes (including Stephen VII and many others) made outside alliances with powerful Italian families bent on adding the prestige of the Papacy to their own names.  The Popes of this period usually accomplished this end by offering to legitimize the rule of the ally in question with a formal papal coronation (literally having the Pope himself place the ruler’s crown on his blessed head) in exchange for military aid and protection.

One pope who had done this was a predecessor of Stephen’s named Formosus, whose reign lasted
Pope Formosus, apparently before his death, exhumation and trial (in that order).
five years (891-896).  During that time Formosus (whose name in Latin means, “good looking”) had crowned the young Duke of Spoleto Holy Roman Emperor, then turned around and offered the same crown to Arnulf, King of Germany.

Arnulf had answered Formosus’ invitation by invading Italy and taking Rome, where Formosus promptly crowned him Holy Roman Emperor as well.  Needless to say, this caused an uproar in Spoleto, especially with Agiltrude (or Ageltrude), Queen of Italy, Duchess of Spoleto, and erstwhile Holy Roman Empress, mother of the underaged Duke of Spoleto (who, lest we forget, had already been crowned Holy Roman Emperor himself).

German king Arnulf, posing for his action figure.
Struck by a sudden mysterious paralysis, Arnulf withdrew from Italy, leaving Formosus to pick up the pieces.  Formosus responded by dying shortly afterward, to be initially succeeded by a couple of popes with ridiculously short reigns (one of them only lasted two weeks as pontiff!), and eventually by Stephen VII, the certifiably crazy political pawn of Spoleto’s ruling family.

About six months into his reign, Stephen had Formosus dug up and propped up in a chair in the Vatican, where he was then placed on trial with Pope Stephen himself sitting as judge.  Formosus (or rather his corpse) was accused of (among other things) being ambitious enough to actually want to be pope (the nerve!).  No one is sure of Stephen’s reasons for putting on this, the ultimate show trial, but historians speculate that he was feeling pressure from Agiltrude and her supporters to delegitimize Formosus’ reign (thereby also wiping out Arnulf’s coronation as Holy Roman Emperor) and suffering from some well-documented psychosis.

The trial lasted for weeks, during which time Stephen would frequently interrupt his own papal prosecutor in order to rant at Formosus’ moldering corpse, calling it all manner of names, accusing it of murder, blasphemy and several other crimes with which it was not actually charged.  How the corpse responded is not recorded.

The trial’s outcome was a foregone conclusion.  The corpse was stripped of its expensive papal vestments, the first three fingers of its right hand (the three with which a pope blesses his subjects) were cut off, and the body was briefly reburied, this time in an unmarked grave in a graveyard reserved for foreigners.  Within a couple of days it had been dug up yet again and tossed in to the Tiber River, only to be pulled out by a monk loyal to the dead pope’s memory.

"Let the record show that the accused did NOT deny the charges against him!"
Called the “Synod Horrenda” in Church Latin, this “Cadaver Synod” resulted in riots throughout Rome which eventually cost Stephen first his papal throne and eventually his life.  He was strangled in prison less than six months after “condemning” the dead Formosus (once again, Formosus’ reaction, if any, to this news is not recorded).

A fitting end for one crazy bastard.

02 April 2014

Time to Accessorize


by Robert Lopresti

I am somewhat stunned to report that my morning granola was interrupted today (April Fool's Day) by the news that my "The Present" had won the Derringer Award for best short story.  Talk about a present!  I can't think of anything to say about the story that I didn't say here.  But thanks to the Derringer judges, the voters, and The Strand for publishing in the first place.  Now, on to more good news...

On the day my last blog entry went up I came home to a pleasant surprise: three copies of the June issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.  I knew they were publishing a story of mine but I had no idea when that happy event would occur.

"The Accessory" is my second appearance in EQMM in 38 years of trying.  Yes, you read that right.  It's a story about --

Well, let's pause for a moment.  This is a golden opportunity to rehash that favorite topic: Where Do You Get Your Ideas?  This time, by category!

1.  Personal experience.  At three in the morning one night a policewoman rang my doorbell to tell me my car had been "prowled."  The first two pages of my story "Shanks on the Prowl" are almost a literal description of that scene.

2.  Someone else's personal experience.  One day I watched an elderly, over-the-hill musician being disrespected by his accompaniest.  "Snake in the Sweetgrass" was conceived while they were still on the stage.

3.  News story. 
Or other piece of nonfiction.  "Crow's Lesson" began with a New York Times article about a school system hiring private eyes to follow students and see if they really lived in the catchment district.

5.  Out of the clear blue sky 
One day I had a vision of a short man attacking a much bigger man on the street for no obvious reason.  "Hammer and Dish" was my attempt to find out why and what happened.

And finally...

4.  Fiction.  To some extent ALL fiction comes from other fiction we have read.  For example, I read "My Life with the Butcher Girl," by Heath Lowrance, a very nice story about a man who becomes romantically obsessed with a woman who killed three men in sexual situations.  That got me thinking about people who correspond with convicted criminals.  The main character of my new story, "The Accessory" is a woman who does just that.  Now the man is out of prison and has apparently killed someone who testified against him.  The cops want to find out what she knows...

I hope you like it. 

01 April 2014

Honey...I'm home!


By David Dean

I know what day this is, but this isn't a joke--I'm back.  None the wiser for the hiatus, mind you, just back...and glad to be here.  I noted in my absence, that Terry raised the bar for Tuesdays so that I am almost guaranteed to disappoint.  Thanks for that, Terry.  Thanks a lot.

If you recall, dear reader, I took the time away from SleuthSayers to pen another of my unsellable novels.  It is with some pride that I report--mission accomplished!  "Starvation Cay" is complete!  My thanks, by the way, to my fellow Tuesday scribbler, Dale Andrews, for overseeing some of the technical aspects of the story.  Besides his literary value, he has a wealth of knowledge regarding all things nautical.  Useful to me, as I set nearly the entire story on board boats.  Thanks again, Dale.  Through no fault of his, I am now in the process of collecting rejection slips and arranging them in order of snarkiness.

On another note entirely, my son and heir, has gotten hitched to a truly lovely young woman.  Robin and I absolutely fell in love with her too, and apparently she was too smitten to heed that time-honored warning--Look to the parents!   

The wedding took place in the Blue Ridge Mountain region of Virginia where they both teach.  My son's side was not only represented by mine and Robin's families (The Georgia-Jersey Axis), but also by a large contingent of his college rugby buddies who double, apparently, as the school's male dance team.  Her side was family from both Jersey and Michigan.  Both sides were duly impressed with the athletic abilities of rugby players and their women, even if the dance floor became a dangerous place for the infirm and elderly.  The bride's family went very quiet during their dance interpretation of John Denver's "Country Roads," which also included a sing-along.  Fortunately, the nuptials had already been performed so there could be no "take-backs." 

As if this wasn't enough good news, our Christmas present from them was a grandparents' album.  Robin got it almost immediately.  I, however, being a former police officer, stared at it for several stupefied moments before understanding dawned.  Robin was crying and hugging the young couple, as I was still turning the album over and over in my hands, murmuring, "They're trying to tell us something...but what?  What could it be?"

Besides working on the novel, I also managed to knock out a few short stories along the way.  I'm happy to report that those did sell, and will be (or have already been) published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

As if all these things weren't enough, I've actually read a few books, as well.  But more on that at another time.

I've missed you guys.  Though I have duly followed SS every morning (it's the first thing I read), it's been a little lonely out here.  Writers are not thick on the ground in South Jersey, and as you all know, it's a solitary profession at the best of times.  So, it's good to be back amongst friends, if only virtually, and even better to have been asked.  Thanks all.   

     

 


 

31 March 2014

Edits and Editing


Jan Grape by Jan Grape

Okay, class. You've all heard this before but it's good to remind ourselves over and over about the joys of editing. I used to hate to edit, because it seemed so tedious but once I realized how much better reading my story or book will be with good editing, I hopped on the band wagon.

I've been reading books for an award to be given later on this year. I'm the chair of the committee and there are two other people on the committee with me. We each will read a book, not the same book at the same time, but we need to winnow the pile down and pick our nominees and our winner. In the back and forth e-mails we are sending each other, one big thing has been discussed back and forth. The need for some good editing. It not too easy to edit your own work, but I've found one thing that helps me is to put that mss in the file cabinet for at least a day or two. A week is even better and three weeks is excellent. Let the story jell. Work on something new, and take your mind totally off your work in progress (WIP).

If possible get someone to give the WPI a read for you and I don't mean your mother or brother or even your critique group. Let someone you trust that has been published read and critique for you. And it's very important if you don't have an editor at your publishing house. If it's a small press and they just don't have enough people to go around, you might consider hiring someone to edit for you. It could be that a friend who has some experience, has been published and especially in your genre will look at your book without charge. If so, that's great. Take them to lunch or at least promise them a copy of the book when it is published.

There are also a number of editing services. But like with anything, some are good and some not so good. Some may be too expensive for you. Check with organizations like Sisters-in-Crime. You don't have to be female to join. We call them Brothers-in-Crime. Check with Mystery Writers of America. Here in Texas we have a large national and international writing organization called Writers League of Texas. All will have listings of editing, critiquing services.

Several years ago before I was published I checked with the major university in my home town with the creative writing department. I found a professor who was willing to read and critique my WIP. He charge a fairly substantial fee. I didn't have much extra money at the time, but I wanted the mss to be in the best possible shape. Unfortunately, he wasn't that familiar with the mystery genre, he leaned way over to literary fiction. He wanted to know the theme of my book. The motivations of each character. He thought the dialogue was too informal. In other words, he was too much of a professor for me. And his help was no help for me.

A short time later, I attended a writing conference in Houston, with editors, agents, and a handful of published writers . All were willing to read and critique, I believe the first fifty pages of your WIP at no charge other than the conference fee. Mine was being read by a New York agent. He was fairly well known in the business. I walked into the room where I was to have a private talk with him. The first thing he said was, "I don't like your characters and I don't like your setting." I was flabbergasted and crushed. I said, "Okay, but how's my writing." "Oh your writing is fine," he said, "but I just don't care for your book." I was supposed to have a fifteen minute meeting with him and this all took about two minutes. I walked out, went straight to my room and cried.

A few minutes later, my roommate walked in and she was crying. Her critique had been by one of the semi-famous authors and what he actually done was a line edit but it was like he wanted her to change so much, she felt like he didn't like her book. He destroyed her. He gave her the full fifteen minutes but they had been quite rough. After she got over her initial shock and we looked at what he had done, we realized his line editing was very good, it's just we were still babies in the writing game and didn't understand what had been done. I, on the other hand, could find no redeeming words for my visit with the agent. I did realize later that opinions were very subjective in this writing game. I received rejections that said, the characters weren't strong enough. The next editor who read the very same mss said my characters were wonderful but the plot sucked.

Several other attendees had similar complaints and we all reported what had happened to the organizers. It was decided from that time forward, we would pay the critiquers a nominal fee. That way they didn't feel like they were working for nothing, the conference had paid their way to Houston, paid their room and meals but they obviously felt put upon. It did seem to make a difference. I think the fee might have been twenty-five dollars for a 15 minute meeting. They could schedule as many as they felt they could handle over the two day conference.

One of the neatest stories I heard during a Southwest Chapter of Mystery Writers of America was from a man who was a best selling author of True Crime and a number of fiction books and stories by the name of Clark Howard. Even some of his stories were made into movies. When he was in college in the mid-west, near Chicago, he took a creative writing class. The students were to write a story, turn it in, the teacher made copies for everyone and passed them around. The whole class was to critique the story in class. When they got to his story, the whole class ripped it to shreds. Whatever one person said, the next person piled it on. About that time the class was over and Clark said, "I didn't have the nerve to tell them I'd just sold that story for five hundred dollars. He left and never went back to that class. (I don't remember if he'd sold it to Ellery Queen or Hitchcock magazine.) I told him I would have walked back into class the next time they met and tell them he'd sold the story and then say "Neener, neener," and then walk out.

I do think it's  important to get your WIP in the best shape possible before you let anyone publish it. Most writers I know, say their first reader is their spouse. And sometimes that works very well. My late husband, Elmer, was my first reader and he caught things like the correct description of a gun. Or the way a building or house looked or was constructed. Or my description of a car or motorcycle. Anything mechanical or along those lines he was an expert. And often if a scene or a plot line made good sense. But he had no idea if the dialogue was stilted or sounded natural. He had no idea if I wrote a run-on sentence or an incomplete sentence. So I always had to have another writer read and let me know about sentence or scene structure or punctuation. I was fortunate in the early years I had a wonderful critique group. There were only four of us. Susan Rogers Cooper, Barbara Burnet Smith and Jeff Abbott. Susan had published three or four novels and I had published two or three short stories and a handful of magazine articles. But Barbara and Jeff were not published  We did help each other and Barb and Jeff were soon published.

Tell yourself the story first. Let the creative side work it's magic, write the whole mss. Of course most of us edit the previous day's work before we continue the new day.  Before long it will be finished. Then set it aside to cool off. Wait as long as you can to take the story up again and let the editor side of your brain read and edit and edit and edit. But don't forget to stop and let it go. You can keep messing around with it and in time you'll think it's got to be perfect. Once you've done some rewriting and let someone edit for you then send that WIP to your agent or editor and keep your finger crossed. Before you know it you'll be holding your book in you hands. You'll open it up and start reading and find 10 mistakes that you or someone should have caught. But that's okay, you'll get better editing on the next book.

All right, class dismissed. Stay warm if you're still in winter. April is here and warm weather is coming. I guarantee you.

30 March 2014

Slow Death by Disuse


by Louis Willis

The main task of the semicolon is to mark a break that is stronger than a comma but not as final as a full stop. It’s used between two main clauses that balance each other and are too closely linked to be made into separate sentences. 
Oxford Dictionaries.

In his article “Has Modern Life Killed the Semicolon?” on the Slate website, Paul Collins relates a brief history of the semicolon:

       The semicolon has a remarkable lineage: Ancient Greeks used it as a question mark; and after classical scholar and master printer Aldus Manutius revived it in a 1494 set, semicolons slowly spread across Europe. Though London first saw semicolons appear in a 1568 chess guide, Shakespeare grew up in an era that still scarcely recognized them; some of his Folio typesetters in 1623, though, were clearly converts.  

Collins notes that the advent of the telegraph in 1850 might have “radically” changed language use because punctuation marks cost the same rate as words ($5.00). As far the semicolon, his perusal of “telegraph manuals reveals that Morse code is to the semicolon what weedkiller is to the dandelion.” He never quite says that in these modern times the Internet is killing the semicolon but strongly implies that it is. He believes, nevertheless, that “semicolons serve a unique function,...” but fails to say what that function is.
Matthew Kassel believes the semicolon isn’t dying but is “the perfect punctuation for the digital age.” In his "The Semicolon Is the Perfect Punctuation for the Digital Age" article on the New York Observer web site, Kassel argues “that the semicolon is...perfectly suitable for text messaging, instant messaging and online correspondence via Facebook and other social networks, where disparate ideas roam free and ‘unexpected juxtapositions’ are the norm.” He felt “compelled” to defend the semicolon because he “often uses semicolons in digital communication and [has] encountered some unexpected pushback.” Further, for him “the semicolon’s breezy informality… captures the unstructured, colloquial nature of digital correspondence more so than any other punctuation mark out there.” I didn’t find a whole lot of semicolons in his articles on the Observer site, and I couldn’t access his Twitter account, which was probably due to my unstructured, colloquial nature. 
The goal of communications on the social networks is to get the message out as quickly as possible and don’t bother about those little pesky things called punctuation marks. Way back in 1999, one writer, Amy Harmon, in an article "Internet Changes Language" published in the New York Times on February 20 noted that “Although judgments vary, what seems clear so far is that the Internet has propelled the traditionally deliberate pace of language evolution to higher speeds.” 
The semicolon doesn’t lend itself to the speed Twitter and Facebook requires because it insists on a brief pause to allow the reader to think. Readers who, like me, sometimes want, not just dip into an article, story, or essay, but to savor it, would, in these times of instant gratification, miss the semicolon. I have faith, though I don’t know if it is “the perfect punctuation for the Digital Age” as Kassel suggests, that its demise is not imminent. 
To you semicolon; may you live forever.

29 March 2014

Pride and Preachiness



by John M. Floyd



Life isn't always fair. You might be paying close attention, listening hard to every word the teacher's saying, but when Doofus Jones in the desk behind yours decides to smack you in the head with a spitball and you turn to him and make a rude and socially improper gesture, that's the one moment the teacher chooses to look in your direction. We all know that. It's the Night Watchman Syndrome: close your eyes for a two-minute nap and your supervisor always shows up to check on you. I think it was Johnny Carson who said that if life were fair, Elvis would be alive and all the impersonators would be dead.

But occasionally all your stars seem to line up, and good things happen.

Ego trip

Last Sunday afternoon I drove into town to a chain bookstore, one that features a vast supply of magazines. As I was standing there at the rack reading a story in an issue of Asimov's, one of the bookstore staff saw me and came over to chat. (Like all writers, I try to meet and get to know the employees in local bookstores. Most of them have the job security of an assistant football coach, but while they're there they can be the best friends a writer can have, both during and between booksignings. They're also a lot of fun. How could you not like someone who chooses to work among all those books every day?)

A quick note: there's something about Blatant Self-Promotion that makes most of us uncomfortable. For an author, some measure of BSP is acceptable and even expected, and I realize that. But it still makes you feel like a combination of telemarketer, TV evangelist, insurance salesman, and Amway representative, so I avoid it whenever I can. Because of that reluctance, it's great to be presented now and then with an opportunity to showcase your writing without bringing it up yourself. It's the feeling a comedian probably gets when he's handed a straight line. The SP without the B.

What happened in my case was that the aforementioned store employee--Andrew--walked up and said to me, "Still writing a lot?"

"Always," I said. "You selling a lot?"

"You write 'em, we'll sell 'em," he said, grinning. He pointed to the magazine in my hand. "Anything of yours in there?"

"Nope. I think you have to be smart to write science fiction."

Another grin. "You've had some stories in Alfred Hitchcock though, right?"

Well, since you asked . . .

"I have one in the current issue," I answered, proudly nodding toward the May 2014 AHMM. "A couple of my writer friends are in there too."

Andrew looked at the cover, saw my name, and his eyes widened. "Awesome," he said. I saw him glance around idly at some of the other mystery magazines.

I kept quiet, hoping he'd notice the one in the next rack.

He didn't, so I helpfully told him that I have a story in the new issue of The Strand Magazine as well. Even more helpfully, I pointed to it.

"Whoa," he said. "You're on the cover there, too."

I smiled (I hope) modestly. What I didn't bother to tell him--just an oversight, of course--was that it was the first time I'd EVER had my name on the covers of two big magazines at the same time. I also didn't tell him that I figured it would never happen again. Some things don't need to be mentioned, right?

"Hey, you're movin' up in the world," he said. He sounded impressed, so I made sure to keep my left side turned away from him; tucked under my left arm were three copies of that February-May 2014 issue of The Strand. Somehow I doubted that a real writer would drive twelve miles to town to buy extra copies of an issue containing his story, to give to his mother and sister.

Andrew and I made smalltalk for a while longer, then said our goodbyes and wished each other well. Afterward, cheapskate that I am, I went back to reading the Asimov's story, which turned out to be excellent. Most of them are.

These sci-fi writers might be smart, I remember thinking, but nobody could feel better than I was feeling at that moment. Everyone likes to be patted on the head, and my confidence had received a pleasant little jump-start. I had managed to brag without preaching, to self-promote without being too selfish, to feel important without acting important. At least I hoped I had.

Excuse me, ma'am--want to buy my book?

A few questions, here. How do you handle the tricky issue of author BSP? Nobody wants the two extremes: one is to sit there like a bullfrog and never contact or say anything to anyone, and the other is to act like the yammering salesman who pesters customers until they want to carve his tongue out with a dull knife. So what do you do? Seek the middle ground? Very few of us are lucky enough to attract fans and potential readers without expending some kind of marketing effort, and even fewer are comfortable crowing about our literary achievements from the rooftops. How little BSP is too little? How much is too much?

Last Sunday, I'm pleased to say, those troublesome questions and doubts didn't come up. In fact I decided to stick around and read another free Asimov's story before paying for my magazines and heading home.

Actually, I was hoping someone else might stop by to say hello . . .


28 March 2014

Crime Cruise-Cartagena


by R.T. Lawton


Harbor with skyline of new Cartagena
Cartagena was the second port of call for our cruise ship. Even though I came as a tourist, I left the badge I usually carry in my billfold at home. Probably wouldn't do to inadvertently become involved in a situation and have that gold shield come to light. Back when the Medellin and Cali cartels were in full swing, some of our guys got kidnapped and shot in Colombia. Plus South America likes tourist money, but they are wary of U.S. citizens in-country who could appear to be there in an unofficial capacity. So why take the risk? I'm on vacation.

The Tour

These days, Cartagena is a large commercial shipping port, a carryover from the early years when it was a Spanish stronghold during their conquest of South America. Founded in 1533 on the site of an Indian village by the name of Calamar, the conquistadors used this port to gather much of their gold looted from the natives and then shipped this treasure to Spain.
Casa de Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Our tour bus met us at the pier and drove through some of the poorer parts of the city en route to our first destination. All of the side-by-side, squeezed together residences and small businesses had metal grill work over their doors and windows. It's not there just for decoration. At one spot, a large open gate provided a quick glimpse of an old man in shorts, no shirt, working on a dilapidated car, but then most commercial port areas are life in reality, not scenic attractions.

At some point, our route also took us past the Casa de Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Marquez is a famous South American author of several novels, some of which are in the mystery genre. Though not a mystery, one of the novels he was famous for in North America was Love in the Time of Cholera.

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
First stop is the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, built from blocks of stone and blocks of faded red coral. This is one impressive fortress constructed on a hill overlooking the harbor and the old city. With its long sloping ramps, drawbridge, high walls, multiple levels, dark and winding interior tunnels dug out of solid rock, multitude of cannons and crisscrossing fields of fire, this fort was a formidable obstacle to any Old World enemy assaulting from land or by sea. And the view from the top is breath taking, even if you aren't already winded by all the stairs or other climbing to get there.

Walls around old city
Next, the bus takes us to the old walled city where we walk on the ancient walls that once guarded this part of the city from pirates. Here, the walls are much lower than the fort, but have lots of cannon ports to repel an enemy. From the walls, we descend a ramp into the old city streets and enter the calle where parts of Romancing the Stone were filmed. Second story balconies, much like the ones in the French Quarter of New Orleans, are covered with bright Bougainvillaea hanging from wooden boxes. The tour guide says these house owners get a break on their property taxes for maintaining the decorative flowers. On the narrow street below the balconies, vendors with limited English abilities besiege us with offers to sell bottled pop, water or beer from tubs of ice. Others hawk t-shirts and trinkets.

Romancing the Stone street as seen from old city walls
Our walking tour leads us through a naval museum with models of the harbor, forts and walled city as they were centuries ago, a beautiful cathedral and the Palacio de la Inquisicion. A gallows and several instuments of torture are displayed in the palace's courtyard. Didn't do to be other than a faithful Catholic in those days.

On the way back to the ship, our bus stops at a small, two-level, open air shopping mall where one can buy emeralds, Colombian coffee or souvenirs. If you take a photo of one of the colorfully dressed, female fruit vendors, be sure to give her a couple of dollars, else she will track you down and make loud demands for money. There are signs on the street requiring those two dollars for any photo taken of her.

Fruit vendor
The Crime

All the gold plunder coming overland from Peru to Cartagena soon came to the attention of Caribbean pirates and privateers. French pirate Robert Baal was the first to attack the city in 1544. In 1559, Martin Cote (French) followed suit. Twenty-four years later, the English buccaneer John Hawkins decided it was his turn, but Cartagena's new cannons drove him off. In 1572, Francis Drake (English) sacked the city and pillaged its treasure, to include the city's bells. Baron de Pontis (French) occupied the city for two months in 1697, and English admiral Edward Vernon tried his luck in 1741, but didn't succeed. Seems pirates were a plague on the population back then.

In more recent years, home grown drug cartels brought money, violence and corruption to the country. Mother ships out of Cartagena sailed north with their holds packed with drugs for the U.S. market, but then everyone is familiar with Pablo Escobar and his kind. Our tour guide spoke of him and the cartels as not being a problem to Cartagena anymore. Maybe so, in which case we can talk of smaller crimes.

Old cathedral with crypt in foreground
Glen David Short, a freelance writer based in Cartagena wrote an article concerning advice for the tourist, 25 things you should be wary of in Cartagena. Here's a few.

1) Never, ever change money on the streets. Unlike other South American countries, there is no black market, and it is not safe or recommended. Getting short-changed or handed fake bills, or having your wallet snatched from your hands in broad daylight are common scams. Cartagena has plenty of banks and casa de cambios. Many large hotels and emerald shops will change dollars, and most businesses accept US dollar bills.

3. Don't walk on the wall at night. Despite the romantic vistas and the fact that scores of locals and lovers do, it is a known haunt of thieves and assaults on women have been reported.

7. It might sound obvious, but don't walk around flashing expensive cameras, jewelry, wads of money, etc. Places like beaches, outside banks and the area around the clock tower are favored pickpocket haunts. Thieves have been known to follow people from banks for up to half a day before they strike. Remember there are tens of thousands of desplazados, or displaced people in Cartagena who have fled the problems in the interior of Colombia. Many of these people work for a salary of $2 a day. Be wary of pushy street vendors who wave t-shirts and other objects in your face: often it is a foil or distraction so an accomplice can relieve you of your handbag or camera. Leave your "fanny pack" or zippered money pouch at home-they are sure to attract a thief.


Fort looking at new Cartagena over harbor
10. Swat up on emeralds before you buy. There are many very good dealers, but caveat emptor. You probably won't get green glass, but you might pay more than you should. When ordering custom pieces, make sure that it is the full price you are handing over, not a deposit. Many shops use the word "bono" instead of the word "deposito" to confuse tourists. When the customer returns to pick up the piece they are then told they have only paid for materials, and the full price including labor is usually double.

11. The same goes for Cuban cigars. The ones sold on the street are of dubious origin and freshness. If in doubt, buy from one of the stores. You'll pay more, but you will be getting the real thing.

Old Clock Tower (left), Cathedral (center) & large plaza (right)
19. Carry a photocopy of your passport on your person, but not your actual passport. It is actually illegal to walk the streets in Colombia without I.D., but a photocopy will suffice in 90% of situations. Don't give your passport to anyone who doesn't produce convincing I.D. themselves.

All in all, we enjoyed Cartagena for its historical value, beautiful cathedrals and panoramic views from the fort. Other than being swamped by vendors, we had no problems. In our minds, this is not a sun and water vacation destination, but we would gladly return in order to tour other places in Cartagena that we didn't have time for on this trip.

See you in two weeks in the Panama Canal. Did you know that big ditch actually runs north and south rather than east and west?

27 March 2014

Look-alikes


by Eve Fisher

File:Number 12.JPG
"Number 12 Looks Just Like You"
One of the things about living in a small rural town is that pretty much everyone looks alike.  When I first moved up here, I wrote to my friends back east and said, "There are two ethnic types in this town, and I'm one of them."  Exaggerated, but close.  In a town of 90% Norwegian/German/Dutch/Swedish/Danish with blond hair and blue eyes, let's just say that I stand out a bit.  But you know, I think I'd rather stand out that look like everyone else.  There was an old Twilight Zone show called "Number 12 Looks Just Like You", where everyone picks one of a handful of faces...  well, I have sat many times in groups where there are three or four people who looked so much alike it was hard to say who was who.  Between large families, intermarriage among cousins, etc., it happens. I don't know what they think about it - but I'm not sure I'd like it.

But perhaps I feel a little uneasy because they're all in the same town.  I've run into look-alikes before: there's a cousin who looks just like Bob Bainborough (Dalton on The Red Green Show).  There's a guy here in town who looks like Kenny Rogers used to before his plastic surgery.  I ran into a guy at the pen recently who looked remarkably like Axl Rose.  Years ago I was working at a 7-11 in Georgia, and a guy who looked like Lee Majors (6 Million Dollar Man) tried to pick me up.

Of course, there's more to it than looks.  Or is there?  If someone looks like someone else, do you expect them to behave like that person?  Sometimes, yes.   And if they act like someone else...  well.  Miss Marple was always watching people, and thinking how so-and-so had a weak chin, or a direct stare, or a nervous twitch, and from there reminisce about someone back in St. Mary Meade who did something bad, or were on the receiving end of the same...  and history would repeat itself.  And I think she was (largely) right.

I do this all the time.  I know a meth twitch when I see one.  (Along with the skin sores and bad teeth.)  And there's also the liar's look:  Agatha Christie nailed it, the person who looks you straight in the eye without wavering. But if you look at their neck/chin/shoulders, they're braced and ready for someone to ask them questions...

We've all heard the person who tells you the story of his/her life at such speed and length that it takes you a while to put together the complexity of it and realize that it never could have happened.  They're lying about at least half of it, if not all of it, which would indicate that they are untrustworthy about other things as well.

There's the guy (sorry to be sexist, but these are mostly young men) who's always bragging about how tough he is, and you know, know, know that down deep he is scared s--tless.  Which also means, he is very dangerous, but mostly because when he is pushed up against a wall, he will either (1) run at the wrong time, leaving whoever's around in danger or (2) react violently, but in such an inexpert way that whoever's around is more apt to be injured than the source of danger.  I get away from these guys as quickly as I can. Thankfully, these days I usually only run into them in controlled environments.


The super-complimentary, women or men, sloshing sugar all over the place, are always, always, always up to something.  If nothing else, they're trying to be your friend without giving anything but compliments.

And, of course, the classic predator:  attentive, adhesive, encircling, gradually eliminating anyone and anything else but themselves, until they and they alone are the only person in their victim's life.

They might not all look alike, but they act alike...  Every time...




26 March 2014

The Man Who Kept The Secrets


by David Edgerley Gates


Richard Helms was the Director of Central Intelligence from 1966 to 1973, which makes him the longest-serving DCI in CIA history. He was also the first DCI to be appointed from the ranks, a career intelligence professional. Previous DCI's had been, in effect, political appointees, recruited from outside the Agency. Helms was DCI for Viet Nam, the Six-Day War, the overthrow of Salvador Allende, and Watergate---which is just the highlight reel. In other words, he knew where the bodies were buried.



He joined OSS during the war, and when CIA was established, in 1947, Helms came on board, one of the generation that included Larry Houston and James Angleton. These three guys, over the next twenty-five years, might be said to be CIA's institutional memory. They certainly shepherded, and shaped, the Agency and its legacy.

Helms is the only one who wrote a memoir, though, published after his death. It's too bad Houston and Angleton chose not to, it would have been interesting to contrast and compare, but keeping confidences was a habit of mind. They were secret men.

Memoirs of the spy community are a peculiar genre, and not always to be trusted. The most famous example is Kim Philby's MY SILENT WAR, written under KGB discipline, if not actually dictated by them. Philby settles a lot of scores, and spreads active disinformation. His book might best be seen as one last deception. Then, for instance, there's former CIA director William Colby's HONORABLE MEN, which is self-serving in the extreme, if not outright fabrication. The thing about the Helms book is that although he leaves much unsaid, what he does say is frank and transparent. (It helps, of course, to know the background, to fill in the blanks.) Helms doesn't give up operational details, or sources and methods, but he gives a solid flavor to the life, and his sense of duty.

One of the more disputed tangles in CIA's archive is the Golitsin-Nosenko controversy, which embroiled James Angleton's shop, the office of
JAMES ANGLETON
Counterintelligence, in the hunt for a double agent---shades of Kim Philby. The best explanation of this very convoluted story is Thomas Powers' excellent book, THE MAN WHO KEPT THE SECRETS. It's also the subject of Edward Jay Epstein's LEGEND, and David Martin's WILDERNESS OF MIRRORS (an expression attributed to Angleton). Helms covers Operation FOXTROT, the codename for Nosenko's defection, in just under seven pages, and doesn't assign it that much importance, his main point being that FOXTROT didn't tear the Agency apart, which is the premise of the Martin book. Helms goes out of his way to rehabilitate Angleton, whose forced resignation by Colby created a few lifetimes of bad blood.



It's a good demonstration of Helms' method. Don't gossip. Don't show off at somebody else's expense. Basically, be a gent. He obviously doesn't respect Colby much, but he stops of actually calling him a liar. The same is true of Nixon, even though Helms acknowledges Nixon's paranoia, and Nixon more or less stabbed Helms in the back, but Helms doesn't grudge Nixon his successes. This is, however, a place in the story where it turns dark. Nixon instructs Helms, in no uncertain terms, to get rid of Allende in Chile, and keep a lid on it. This leads to big trouble for Helms, later on, because his testimony in front of the Senate, touching on Allende and Chile, is clearly shown to be untrue. He was keeping the president's confidence, but under pressure, Helms pled to a misdemeanor charge in federal court, of being careless with the facts.

This speaks to one of the major themes in both the Powers and in Helms' own story, silence and duty, namely that the DCI only has one consumer, the
DICK HELMS 
president, and you only serve one president at a time. Helms isn't circumspect about this at all, and makes no apology for it. He has no reason to. We can argue about the function of the intelligence community, and whether or not the national security apparatus had overreached itself, but Larry Houston once remarked, in private conversation, that he never thought their intentions were dishonest. Helms was a principled guy. He kept faith. It cost him.


25 March 2014

My First Farewell Post


by Terence Faherty

This post ends my year and my career as a regular contributor to the SleuthSayers blog, though I'll be available to pinch-hit whenever one of the group needs a break.  I'd like to thank Leigh Lundin and Robert Lopresti for giving me this opportunity and for their patience while I learned (but never mastered) the software.  I'd also like to thank the other writers on the blog for their encouragement and comments, especially Dale C. Andrews, with whom I've shared Tuesdays (and the daunting job of preparing the retrospective posts for SleuthSayers' second anniversary).  I hope to actually meet Dale someday, maybe at a baseball game. 

In place of blogging, I'm going to be devoting more time to promoting a new book, The Quiet Woman, which will be published by Five Star in June.  It's quite a departure for me, as it's my first stand-alone mystery and my first comic/romantic/supernatural one, at least in book form.  (I now see some of my Alfred Hitchcock stories as baby steps in that direction.) I'll write more about The Quiet Woman closer to its release, if my replacement will relinquish a Tuesday.  That replacement, incidentally, is David Dean, a man who needs no introduction to regular SleuthSayers readers, since he's the writer I replaced one year ago.  He's spent that year working on a new book, about which I hope he'll write in this space.

I'm sorry that so few of my twenty-odd posts had to do with mystery writing and that so many were about old movies and forgotten actors and authors, though many of my favorite posts by other contributors have also wandered far in the subject matter field.  Many of these favorites have been magazine quality, in my opinion, both in terms of writing and word count.  The latter I attribute to good time management, something at which I've never excelled, as the following account of my approach to blog writing, inspired by Eve Fisher's recent Robert Benchley post, will demonstrate.

As near as I can reconstruct, my two-week blog-writing cycle has gone something like this.

Through the miracle of Blogger.com, my column appears on a Tuesday.  All is right with the world.  I can hold my head up in any gathering of productive human beings, though I can't remember the last time I attended such a gathering.  This happy glow stays with me until Thursday, when it's eclipsed by the bright rays of the approaching weekend.

Sometime during that weekend, I panic, until a quick check of my desk calendar confirms that the looming Tuesday belongs to Dale Andrews.  Sure enough, Dale's column appears as if by magic on the appointed day.  It might even give me an idea for a post of my own.  If it doesn't, no problem.  I have a week to work one out.

A week being much more time than I need, I don't actually use the whole thing.  That would be wasteful.  In fact, I spend so much of my week not being wasteful that, before I know it, another weekend arrives.  Sometime late on Sunday, I wonder, idly, what Dale will write about this week.  Maybe he's traveling down south again.  He seems to travel more than John Kerry.  That's the life, escaping the cold snow for the warm sand and trading juncos for sanderlings.  I can almost hear the waves. . .

I awake in a cold sweat with the realization that the approaching Tuesday, whose skirmishers are even now topping the nearest hill, is my Tuesday.  To arms!  To arms! 

Okay, maybe that isn't exactly how my average fortnight has gone, but it's close enough that just recounting it has caused my heart to race.  When it settles down, I'll get to work on a new book, following Mr. Dean's example.  In the meantime, thanks very much for visiting.

24 March 2014

That Bobble-Head


by Fran Rizer


Aeden, now fourteen
Recently Aeden, my fourteen-year-old grandson, discovered Edgar Allan Poe.  When I picked him up from school, he immediately began telling me about this "cool" story he'd read about a man who walled up his nemesis. 

When I asked, "The Cask of Amontillado?" he informed me that I'd pronounced "Amontillado" incorrectly as it was "an Italian word with the the 'l' sound silent." (Leigh, does the fourteen-year-old in your life right now just love to "correct" you?)

I informed him, "Edgar Allan Poe grew up in the South– Richmond, Virginia– and probably pronounced the 'l' just as I did."  Then I recommended that he read "The Tell-Tale Heart," and teased him he could pronounce those "l"s however he liked. Since the story is long out of copyright, it was possible to pull up the entire text on the computer.  We went from there to BaM, where I bought him the almost 2,000-page Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe.  I drew stars by the titles of stories and poems I think best.  An avid reader when he was young (self-taught at age three), Aeden has been into other hobbies for the past couple of years.  I'm pleased to say he's back to reading for pleasure and has asked, "Who else of those old people wrote such good stuff?



Virginia Clemm Poe
Poe's first wife was only 13 and he was
27, but the marriage was happy until her'
death from tuberculosis.
Aeden is not the first young person I've known who became interested in literature because of Edgar Allan Poe. Years ago, I taught a fifth-grader who had no interest in much of anything.  Not yet twelve-years-old, he was with a gang and in school only because Youthful Offenders required him to be there.  One morning he met me with a tattered copy of an old book.  After explaining that he'd found it while helping clean out his recently deceased grandmother's house, he said, "I want you to read this poem."
It was "The Raven."  Then he asked, "Do you have any more poems by this man?"  He later asked me if it were true that Poe married his thirteen-year-old cousin, which he did.

I won't bore you with a long report on Poe, his life, and his works.
If you want to know more than you do, check out the life section of the Poe Museum webpage.  https:www.poemuseum.org/life.php

Remembered for his lyrical poems and short stories, he also wrote numerous critiques and newspaper articles as well as one novel. MWA uses bobble-heads of Poe are most likely because he is credited with inventing the modern detective story, but he also was an innovator of the science fiction tale.  What might he have done if he'd lived past forty?

As some of you know, I love jokes and cartoons.  I can't move forward without sharing these with you:
From what I've read, Poe received his fair share of
rejections except when he edited the publication. 
Sadly, Poe probably felt like this much of the time as
he had financial problems his entire adult llife.


















Poe isn't my real topic for today. I'm sharing my goals in writing.

Recently, I've been running in circles so far as what I want to write. I'm still tweaking my horror novel; I'm half through a thriller; and I'm sixty pages into a new cozy series.  For the first time in about twenty years, I wrote a poem last week.  I've been doing some soul-searching, and I don't know what the heck I want to do.  No, I have no illusions that any of my writings will ever become as well-known or as lasting as Poe's. 

But--I've determined what my writing goal is.  I'd like to write something that would have that kind of impact on a reader.  It doesn't have to sell for a lot of money nor be remembered over a hundred years. I'd just like to have a reader want to read more after reading one of my efforts.

Perhaps I already have that with Callie's repeat readers, but I need to do something new and worthwhile, not necessarily children's literature, but good enough to inspire a young person to read more.

What's your writing goal?

Until we meet again, take care of… you.

23 March 2014

How Writers Write


by Leigh Lundin

More than one author admits to writing in bed, flat on one's back, some in pajamas, others stark naked. While admitting nothing, my thanks goes to a loyal reader who sent me the following by Australian filmmaker and cartoonist, Ethan Waghorn, who uses the internet name 'Atrumentis'.

Time for Bed © Ethan Waghorn
© Ethan Waghorn

Atrumentis' work appears on 9gag.com and his web site, ChewingFat.co. (Images are the property of the artist and are therein internally hotlinked.)