22 August 2014

Bang, You're Busted


by R.T. Lawton

At some time or other, in the back of every criminal's mind lurks those dreaded words, "You're under arrest." He hopes to never hear any form of speech which includes himself and the word arrest in the same sentence, but every time he breaks the law he realizes that the possibility exists. And, he never knows when the phrase may be spoken. These fateful words could sear his ears in the middle of his criminal action or even years later, assuming the statute of limitations has not yet run.

Our criminal might be a mastermind who has carefully plotted out his crime and kept a very low profile in order to reduce his exposure and therefore the risks he runs, but sooner or later, he has to deal with other people. Therein lies one of his greatest dangers. You see, a counterfeiter needs someone to lay off his fake paper. A career thief needs a fence to receive the stolen goods. The fence in turn needs customers to purchase those same stolen goods. An embezzler has to deal with and fool auditors and supervisors. An inside trader has to get his valuable information from someone inside the business. And yes, even a murderer has to deal with someone, if not the person from whom he acquired his contract or murder weapon, then at least the victim of his crime.

In the case of conspiracies and RICO laws, it takes time for investigators and prosecutors to assemble and correlate all the needed witnesses and other evidence before presenting everything to a grand jury for indictment and subsequent arrest warrants. These type of indictments cast broad nets which may be able to roll up entire criminal organizations. Just when the criminal thinks his exposure to a particular crime in the past is safely put to bed and he can forget about it, he finds himself and his buddies swept up by the law. What's a smart guy to do and who can he trust?

The truth is, if you are a criminal, you can't trust anyone. You can't trust a spouse or other relative, your life-long best friend, the members of whatever organization you all swore allegiance to, not even the anonymous but intriguing person you met on the internet, much less the stranger your trusted associate just introduced you to. Naturally, your associate vouches for the guy. None of these people can be trusted, as many a convicted felon has found out to his chagrin. It seems an unhappy, pressured and/or betrayed spouse will give you up in a heartbeat. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. You may have long forgotten a particular incident, but your relatives may still be harboring a long-time grudge for the bad you once did them. As for your life-long best friend, if it comes down to you or him, he may decide it's going to be you. And, let's face it, the mafia has changed. Omerta is out the window. The big bosses didn't want to do big time, so they rolled on everybody. Bike gangs preach brotherhood, but the top dogs only look out for their own welfare. That anonymous guy on the other end of the computer keyboard could be anybody, even a vice cop. And that hard-looking stranger you just asked to kill your spouse, boss or worst enemy, how many videos of those meetings with incriminating statements end up on television news programs for the general viewing public? Don't those criminals ever watch television or somehow keep up with current events in their field of endeavor these days?

Some of the most embarrassed criminals are the ones caught in undercover operations. They have bought so far into the U/C guy's story that when it comes time for their arrest, their disbelief is interesting to watch. Some reactions have ranged from, "Are they arresting you, too?" to "Does this mean we're not going to Mexico" to the outright "I don't believe you." These defendants are the ones who usually plead out rather than have their stupidity revealed in open court.

And yet, the next generation of criminals is coming of age. Even though they have the opportunity to hear about recent and past arrests on television, see similar articles on the internet involving all types of crime, potential defendants don't steer away from making the same mistakes their predecessors did.

That leaves me wondering.

Are these people optimists in their thinking and planning for their crimes?

Are they wading in the shallow end of the gene pool?

Or do we just catch the stupid ones?

21 August 2014

Say It With Me:"Hybrid Author"!


by Brian Thornton

 (Disclaimer: the following is OPINION only, and represents the views of no one or no thing save the author)

Unless you've been hiding under a rock lately,  you've likely heard about the Amazon-Hachette War.

(For two different takes on it, one of them favorable to Hachette, the other, a Washington Post piece favorable to Amazon-unsurprising in light of the fact that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos OWNS the Washington Post!– click these links)

And now you get my take–long on notions and short on data (if you've made it this far, I trust you to be able to use the internet to research your own metrics and draw your own conclusions). So here it is.

It doesn't matter.

Oh, I'm not saying that it won't have an impact, and that millions of dollars aren't at stake. I'm not saying that some people don't have reason for concern.

I'm saying it doesn't matter to me, and likely, it won't matter to you.

The internet (there's that word again) is littered with pieces exhorting you to care one way or the other (and right now the tilt of the spin seems to be headed in Hachette's direction). "Publishers are important," says one, and on the other side of the coin, authors who are against Amazon's practices effectively limiting Hachette's sales “have no interest at all in improving publishing for everyone. Only in preserving it for themselves.”

I agree with science fiction author John Scalzi, who has sums up the sane author positionon the conflict nicely when he says,"Authors: Amazon is not your friend. Neither is any other publisher or retailer. They are all business entities with their own goals, only some of which may benefit you. When any of them starts invoking your own interest, while promoting their own, look to your wallet."

Which brings us back to my conclusion above: it doesn't matter to me one iota who wins this "battle." This squabble between rival business models "neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg" (With apologies to the shade of Thomas Jefferson).

Look, I've had a publisher. All but one of my nine books are still very much in print with that publisher. It is highly unlikely that I shall ever again sign a deal with that publisher.

Why?

Business.

They want me to continue to write nonfiction that suits them. I want to write pretty much exclusively fiction from here on out.

I've got a great agent, who thinks she can sell my current W-I-P, once it's completed (shooting for October 1!). If she can, great. I'm only too happy to take the right "traditional" book deal.

If not, I'll commission a line edit and a smokin' book cover and self-pub it, using whatever combination of Lightning Source/Create Space/Smashwords/Amazon et. al. that works best for me.

And then I'll get to work on the next one.

I am definitely going to self-publish a collection of my short stories (half previously published, the other half new content) at some point in the next year. It makes sense to do that. After all, one of the wonderful side-effects of the current technological age in which we live is that e-publishing has helped revitalize the short story, and brought the novella and novellette formats back from the dead!

What's not to love about that?

Look, I'm not saying this Amazon/Hachette thing isn't a big deal. It is.

It's just not to me.

After all, I'm someone with one foot in the traditional publishing world who also is looking to put his other foot into the self-publication end of the pool, and thus I fall into the category of author many folks call a "hybrid author." (I'm unsure who coined the phrase. The first person I heard use it was wunderkind spec fiction author Chuck Wendig.–And if you don't already read his blog, give it a looksee. The guy is definitely worth a read!).

And the two keys to being a successful hybrid author are adaptability and a willingness to be unsentimental in one's view of the publishing business as just that: A BUSINESS.

Like I said, I've had a publisher. They didn't offer me money for my books, nor pay me upon completion out of some benevolent impulse. They thought they could make a buck.

And once ebooks began to hit, I wrestled my publisher into a higher royalty rate for my ebooks. I know many authors who have tried and failed to do this. Why was I successful?

Because at the time I saw the promise of epublishing more clearly than my publisher did. Were I still writing for them, I doubt I could get the favorable royalty rate I currently enjoy on several of my titles at all, or least not without vastly more of a struggle than was the case last time around.

And Amazon? "Friend of the author?"

Well.

To me they're no different than Microsoft in '90s and WalMart in the '00s. They've got a wildly successful business model that is allowing them to corner a vast chunk of a particular market.

So what?

Like the "permanent Republican majority" of Tom DeLay, these sorts of attempts to make anything about the marketplace "permanent" are invariably doomed to failure.

After all, Microsoft's leveraging of its Windows operating system has not exactly run competition like Apple (and now Google!) out of business. That goes double for WalMart (and newsflash, Target actually gives its workers benefits!).

I'll believe that Amazon is able to "permanently" corner the book distribution business when they've managed to do it for fifty years.

In the end it all comes down to this: it's capitalism 101. Businesses abhor competition. It's consumers that love it, and as long as they continue to look for the best possible deal, there's going to be some start-up out there willing to try to give it to them, all in the quest to be the next Amazon. Or Apple. Or Google. Or WalMart. Or Target. Or...or...or.

A friend who has enjoyed enormous success as a hybrid author said it best to me just the other day: "However this plays out, I am prepared to continue to write and publish in whichever manner it continues to be to my advantage to do so."

And that's what I'm counting on, and why the current snowball fight between two rich, powerful, completely self-interested entities doesn't really matter a hill of beans to me.

Welcome to the Age of the Hybrid Author, my friends!

20 August 2014

In praise of phrase


by Robert Lopresti

Back in July I wrote about some new uses of words.  Since then I've noticed some phrases that I want to talk about, and most of them, oddly enough, were coming out of my own mouth.

For starters, I recently called an HMO office and got a recorded message that started something like this:  "Thank you for calling XXX. Payment for all services is due at the time of the appointment.  We take cash, check, or credit card.  If this is a life-threatening emergency, please hang up and dial 911--"

I thought about the order of those remarks and said: "Well, that's nailing your flag to the mast."

Jack Crawford statue
Jack Crawford monument
photo credit: Craigy144, Wikipedia
Which it is, but where does that phrase come from?  (It is sometimes given as nailing your colors (or colours) to the mast, colors being a nautical word for flag.)

It turns out to be a very specific flag, and a very specific mast. In 1797 the English navy fought the Dutch at the Battle of Camperdown.   The Dutch were the most powerful naval force in Europe at the time and they set out to prove it.  Admiral Adam Duncan was leading the British forces from the ship Venerable.  Its mast was shot down, taking the admiral's flag.  Since lowering your flag is a sign of surrender both sides watched to see what would happen next.

A sailor named Jack Crawford promptly climbed up what was left of the mast and nailed the flag to the top.  With this bit of daring for inspiration the English went on to win.  By the time the ship reached port Crawford was a hero.  (And like far too many war heroes, he drank himself to death.)

The phrase has two meanings: Crawford's, which is refusal to surrender, and mine, which means, showing your true principles.

And speaking of principles, one of mine is that you shouldn't claim someone said something they didn't.  Doesn't sound controversial, but all over the web you will find bogus quotations.  

Not long ago I saw a picture on Facebook that showed an unflattering shot of Oprah Winfrey, with a pretty dumb quote attributed to her.  Next to her is a flattering photo of Dr. Ben Carson with a witty reply to her comment.  It was set up as if this had been a genuine conversation, but was it?

My immediate reaction: "I don't carry any water for Oprah, but that sounds awfully pat."

You can guess where this is going, right?  To carry water for means to perform menial or unpleasant tasks for someone, presumably because you agree with them on some principle or political point.  It seems to date back to the seventies and is assumed to be based on the water boy, one of the lowest ranked of a team's staff.

But what about the word pat?  It has many meanings, of course, but the Oxford English Dictionary says that by the 1580s it already meant fitting, readily, opportunely. 

Which is close to the way I meant it, but not quite.  Merriam-Webster nails it: suspiciously appropriate.
photo credit: Nancy W Beach (own work)
[CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

Now, here is a pop quiz.  Please fill in the missing word of each phrase:

1.  I don't care how the argument is settled.  I don't have a dog in that ________.

2.  He said I was good for my age, which I took as a _______-handed compliment.

If you said you don't have a dog in that race you are in the majority, according to Google.  127,000 uses of that phrase appear in the Great All-knowing Search Engine.  118,000 uses prefer  fight, which is the way I have always heard it.  I can't help thinking that race is a later euphemism.

As for the compliment, if you said back-handed the Googleocracy supports you.  There are 678,000 examples, compared to to 398,000 for left-handed.
Personally  I prefer left-handed and I am nailing my flag to the mast, southpaw style.

19 August 2014

Don Quixote, PI


by Jim Winter

When people talk about the PI, they always trace the character back to three writers: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross MacDonald. Most people think the modern PI is based on Hammett's Continental Op. But you have to go farther back than that. Sherlock Holmes?

Well, yes, Holmes's fingerprints are all over the modern PI. He even has an erudite, if seemingly less intelligent, sidekick, the brainier forerunner of the psycho sidekick popularized in the Spenser and Dennis Lehane novels. But you have to go farther back. And I mean farther back than Poe's August Dupin, considered the first modern detective character.

No, the PI is a knight-errant, righting wrongs, defending the weak, and dispensing justice. The knight-errant was around for centuries, springing from stories of Siegfried the dragon-slayer, of Roland and Charlemagne, of the various knights of Camelot. But the archetype wasn't truly solidified until Miguel de Cervantes's comic novel, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha (which I plan to review this Friday.)

[Cue needle across vinyl.] "Duh... What? Don Quixote was nuts! And his sidekick was equal parts wise and ignorant."

Yes, well...

The comic aspect of that dynamic did not really repeat on a grand scale until the classic 1980's sitcom, Blackadder. In the beginning, Prince Edmund, the Black Adder, is more bungling than mad, and sidekick Baldric is much smarter than he appears, frequently saving the hapless prince from himself. Later, the roles were flipped, and Blackadder became an evil version of Holmes - arrogant, clever, and just as sarcastic - while Baldric became the embarrassingly dimwitted sidekick who always had "a cunning plan" (that always ended in disaster.)

So what's this have to do with the PI?

Think about Holmes, particularly as portrayed at present by Messrs. Downey, Cummerbatch, and Miller. The modern depictions of Holmes have more in common with Blackadder than in prior decades, while Watson is portrayed as long-suffering and sometimes the source of Holmes' brilliance. This was Doyle's original vision of the pair, and you can draw a direct line back to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. But whereas the don was off his rocker and Sancho had a simple view of the world, the impulses were the same: Quixote, like Holmes and like every PI character who followed him, loathes injustice and wants to see things set right. Panza, like Watson and the later stock psycho sidekicks, sees Quixote's (or Holmes's or Spenser's or Patrick and Angie's) mission as noble, though often has to show great patience standing in his brilliant partner's shadow.

The motivations and the levels of intelligence change. Even the personal missions change. Spenser, never mind Holmes, could not have thrived in the time of King Arthur or Charlemagne. And the whole thrust of Don Quixote's story is that the knight-errant was already part of a fictional past.

The PI is not the only evolution of Don Quixote, but it's the most obvious. Fans of Doctor Who can pick up on Quixote's madness in the Doctor, but it's darker and more bizarre. And more intentional.

So Don Quixote is still alive. When the PI is done right, the character taps into that zeitgeist. When it's not, he or she is simply parroting the Op and Marlowe.

18 August 2014

Troubled Minds


Jan Grape by Jan Grape

This has been an awful week for me personally. After hearing about the death of always creative and funny icon Robin Williams and all that sadness entailed, we hear about the death of the beautiful Lauren Bacall. Of course, there was a big difference.  Age for one thing, Betty Bacall was eighty-nine years old and had lived a full and I imagine a reasonably happy life. Her great love was Humphrey Bogart and by all accounts their marriage was happy and fulfilling. Although it was cut short by his early death.

Robin Williams was only sixty-six, and I say only because I have long since past my sixties and that seems reason enough to say "only." But we discover that he was a man who has fought depression for a number of years. But he had given up his addictive drugs and seemed to be on a fairly good path. Problem is, we just never know. Little things can send a troubled mind off into the abyss and into that awful land of suicide. His television show had been cancelled and he recently had been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease according to his wife. Those two things are enough to slam even the hardiest of us right into the gut, but to someone who deals with clinical depression and someone who perhaps is bi-polar it can be devastating. No one except a person who has dealt with such depression can begin to understand.

Jeremiah Healy
Jerry Healy
On Friday, I learned along with many others in the writing game, Jeremiah Francis Healy the lll had also died.  He had completed suicide on Thursday evening. Jerry Healy aka Terry Devane was only sixty-eight years old. This was the hardest blow for me to take as I've known Jerry for years and years and been around him, bar-hopping, playing poker, eating meals, laughing and talking about writing for hour upon hour. There was a time when I went to at least two mystery conferences a year, the main one being Bouchercon. And it was at these fan and writer outings that I spent time with Jerry, along with a cadre of mystery writers. Jerry was a graduate of Rutgers College and Harvard Law School and was a Professor at the New England School of Law for eighteen years. We always teased him about his preppy look. But he could carry it off if anyone could. Probably that big smile of his made us forgive him.

He was a member of Private Eye Writers, a Shamus Award winner and nominee and was the President of PWA. For several years I was the editor of their newsletter, Reflections in a Private Eye and because of that Jerry and I spoke on the phone occasionally but, more often we e-mailed back and forth. Jerry wrote over thirteen novels featuring John Francis Cuddy, Private Eye Series and two short story collections with Cuddy. Fifteen have been either nominated or won the Shamus award given by the Private Eye Writers of America. In 2001, began the legal thrillers featuring Mariead O'Clare, written under the name of Terry Devane. The third, A Stain Upon The Rose was optioned for a feature film. He was also a President of the International Association of Crime Writers and traveled entensively in Europe.

I personally never would have guessed that Jerry suffered chronic depression, however, I do know that it seems to be a regular visitor to creative people. I imagine all the times I was around Jerry, he was in his element, being with fans and writers and discussing writing projects and the writing biz. At those times the depression was at bay.

Since Friday, I have learned one thing that I did already know but learned much more about, was how many upcoming writers that Jerry helped. He shared stories and ideas and encouraged them especially new writers coming up. He helped me quite a lot and blurbed my first book. And I do have a bit of insight into why Jerry was always helping.

One early morning after an all night poker game at Bob Randisi's headquarters (our usual game room) Jerry insisted in walking me back to my hotel room. It was only across the street as I recall but being the gentleman he was, he didn't want me out on the street alone at four in the morning. We were strolling along, in no particular hurry, talking about receiving help from other more advanced writers. I remember saying something like, I can never repay the writers who have helped me along the way. Jerry said, something like, you can't even begin to repay them.  But let me tell you what Mary Higgins Clark told me.

Right after Jerry's first book was published, he attended the Edgars meeting in NYC. Since he lived in Boston, this was not a big deal for him. However, a few people knew he had recently published his first book. Somehow, Ms Clark found him and invited him to a party at her apartment.  Seems everyone who was everyone was going. Jerry went still not knowing how Mary Higgins Clark knew who he was and during the evening he found himself talking to Ms Clark and two or three others and he said to her. I've been lucky in that I've had so many other mystery writers who have helped and encouraged me along the way. I'll never be able to pay them back for all they've done. Without missing a beat, Mary said, "Don't even try it. You'll never be able to make up. But what you can do is pay it forward. You can help others who are coming along and in that way you are giving back to all the ones who helped you."

Jerry took that to heart and I read over and over from a large number of FB people how Jerry had helped and encouraged them in their writing. He also helped when he learned they might be having a personal crises. Jerry would pull them aside and give them encouragement. And each person said what a genuine, warm and kind person he was.

If I thought for a while I could come up with story after story of Jerry and some of the funny things he did. Or the gentlemanly things he did. But thinking too hard about those stories are a bit to difficult to think of right now. My heart is too full of our loss. But two stories did come to mind.

Once a group of us had a joint signing at a mystery bookstore, maybe in Bethesda. After the signing, everyone was trying to get a taxi to go back to the hotel. I got back with a group of writers and I saw three or four older ladies getting out of a taxi with Jerry Healy. The ladies had huge smiles on their faces and I thought to myself, Jerry just made the day for those fans. They will never forget his taking the time to visit with them and what a gentleman he was.

The other story is one that I hope will give you a smile.  A number of private eye writers play poker in Randisi's room. The game is by invitation only and I had the honor of being the first female who was asked to play. For several times, I was on the "B" team, meaning I could only play after one of the "A" gave up or was wiped out for the evening. One Saturday night at Bouchercon, after the banquet a group of us met up in the hotel lobby to head for the poker game. There were four or five of us and we walk in the hotel room to find Jeremiah Healy, all alone in the room, sitting alone at one of the tables reading a book. We were taken aback. What in the world was he reading? How To Win At Poker. Needlessly to say, we all fell out laughing.

Goodbye, my friend, I love you and miss you. Much love to Sandy. the family and all the many, many friends who also loved and will miss Jeremiah Healy III. RIP

At the Healy's cabin in Maine in 2003. I stayed there while attending an author day event at Five Star Publishing. Jerry demonstrating an electric bug zapper which looks like a tennis racket, the stuffed animal is the victim. Note the evil grin on Healy's face.

17 August 2014

In the Heat of the Night


by Leigh Lundin

After the shooting of young Michael Brown in a small Missouri municipality, I thought the 150 or so assembled police looked more like a scene from protests in the Middle East than what we like to think of as America. As I was pondered writing my column, I noticed a flood of other commentators thought much the same thing.

A fifty-year-old article lamented the emerging police use of the word ‘civilians’ instead of ‘citizens’. This phrasing, said the writer, not merely positions the police apart from the public, but it sets them above the people like shepherds and sheep. The article predicted the concept of serving the citizens would become lost in this new order.

Adding to this perception is the long-standing “1033 Program” by the Department of Defense, which offers military gear to police in even the smallest communities for pennies on the dollar. Tiny police departments can purchase military helicopters, armored personnel carriers, combat assault gear, mine-resistant vehicles and even tanks. This program has become a concern of both liberal and conservative thinkers. (As usual, I distinguish between liberal and conservative, and left and right, which are not synonymous.)

Ferguson, Missouri

Much has been made of this small city’s lack of professionalism. Ferguson’s population as of the last census is 21,000 and diminishing. But in its decline, political and police presence has grown. While it's true its very white police department arrests twice as many minorities as it does whites, that’s in line with the town’s racial mix. A community sore spot is that only 5% of the police community is black and none are in positions of any real authority.

And police there have stepped over the line before. After a suspect in a savage take-down some time back turned out to be innocent, police retaliated. They charged the man with destruction of property for splattering blood from his injuries on their uniforms. Officers in Ferguson don’t appear to be the brightest loci on the thin blue line.

Large cities have at least two advantages small towns and cities don’t. For one thing, sizable cities can provide professional training. They may have their own academies and for officers, they may have the option to send candidates to degree-offering police institutes. Secondly, major metropolitan areas try to weed out bad apples, gung-ho head cases unsuitable for a profession that requires not only strength, but restraint. Small towns have less of a labor pool– and gene pool– to work with.

Side of the Angels

Here at SleuthSayers, we like to think cops are on the side of the Truth, Justice, and the American way of life. Of those who aren’t, we aren’t shy about speaking up once we know the facts. The facts in Ferguson aren’t particularly auspicious.

It looks like plenty of blame can be passed around. There’s no excuse for vandalizing and looting one’s neighbors, especially small business owners trying to eke out a living in a crumbling downtown. Even if they manage to afford insurance, it won’t fully cover damage and the months they’ll be out of business, possibly begging to become stockers in Walmart. And for what?

Looters aren’t big on reading Consumer Reports. A month from now they’ll be begging some undercover cop to buy a bagful of pink Chinese-made THC Pomposity IV cell phones that earned a meager 1½ stars in Gizmodo.

But terrible political decisions and poor policing make things worse. Here at SleuthSayers corporate headquarters, we’re begging Chief David Dean and Agent Lawton to come out of retirement and kick butt.

What we think we know

A week ago on the 9th of August, a police officer shoots and kills an unarmed 18-year-old boy with his hands raised. The young man has never been in trouble before and is enrolled in technical school to advance his education. Likewise, the officer has never previously been brought up on disciplinary charges.

After shooting, the officer, according to witnesses, does not take the pulse of the victim nor does he inform his superiors of a fatal shooting. Instead, he removes himself and his car from the scene, potentially breaking the chain of any potential evidence on the officer or the vehicle, which in this case may prove important.

Other officers present do not attend to the boy and, according to witnesses, do not allow medical personnel to offer assistance or approach the body. Instead, officers confiscate camera phones from bystanders. Evidence further deteriorates as crime scene investigators fail to to be called in for four hours.

Commanding officers learn about the shooting not from officers at the scene but, like the public, from television news.

The community initially responds with peaceful protests, but as the police department refuses to answer questions, both sides overreact. Vandals loot and damage property and 150 riot police in military gear shock the nation and the world with a military invasion reminiscent of dictatorial crackdowns.

Within days, Governor Jay Nixon calls a state of emergency, which locals refer to as ‘martial law.’ Adding to the atmosphere of authoritarian abuse in support of Ferguson cops who refuse to wear name tags, Missouri lawmakers rush a bill to the floor of the legislature that would shield the names of officers involved in any shooting from public knowledge. If that passes, a rogue cop could be involved in a dozen shootings and the public would never know.

The Police Department, and particularly its police chief, appear to be utterly tone deaf. When the President offers condolences to the family of the victim, town officials ask where are the condolences for them. Eventually Anonymous gets involved, bless their anarchistic little souls.

After out-of-control cops are caught on camera screaming “Bring it on! Bring it you ƒ-ing animals,” the Chief of Police announces he is not interested in talking with community leaders and praises his men for their “incredible restraint,” prompting a commentator to ask, “What does lack of restraint look like?”

Authorities are not finished. In a local McDonald's, police seize camera equipment, then assault and arrest news reporters. They arrest a local alderman who comes to assess the scene for ‘failure to listen.’ They teargas and beanbag a state senator at a peaceful sit-in rally who dares challenge the police chief..

When is a Cigar not a Cigar?

Up to this point, my attention shifted from the increased militarization of police departments to question how poorly the situation was being managed. Hardline authoritarianism is rarely the best solution.

Missouri Highway Patrol
Governor Jay Nixon finally relieves local police of authority and orders the Missouri State Patrol to take over.

When the state police arrive, the atmosphere immediately changes. The community welcomes them, some even hug the troopers. The mayor of Ferguson reportedly says he feels safer with their presence.

In defiance of Department of Justice requests not to further inflame the community, after relieved of command, this embattled Chief of Police– without informing the state police who've just replaced him– holds a press conference to announce that young Michael Brown has now surfaced as an after-the-fact suspect in a theft of… (I can’t believe I’m writing this) … a package of cigars.

Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson sharply criticizes Ferguson's Police Chief Thomas Jackson's unilateral press conference about the stolen cigars. This breath of fresh air only enhances the community's respect for Captain Johnson's professionalism contrasted with the self-serving broadsides by the local police chief.

The cigar evidence is somewhat tenuous but, whether or not true, the chief's proclamation smacks of a specious and insensitive smears. The police chief himself acknowledges the two incidents are unrelated, that the officer involved in the shooting was unaware of the cigar store theft.

State police vow not to let that accusation cloud the greater issues at hand. These two men epitomize the right and the wrong way to handle community policing. Ferguson’s “civilians” may have found their Virgil Tibbs in the person of Captain Ron Johnson.

16 August 2014

TV Travesty! (Okay, prepare for a silly one…)


by Melodie Campbell

I’m a former comedy writer who has fallen off the standup stage and into the world of writing screwball mob crime comedies.  The Goddaughter’s Revenge is my latest zany book.

People often ask me why I write silly stuff.  I say it’s because I am seriously fed up with reality.  I mean, really - what’s so special about it?  Everybody does it. 

So for those of you who are sick of reality (TV or otherwise,) this is for you.  In the lofty traditions of Dallas, Dynasty and Desperate Housewives, make way for…TRAVESTY!
Note the originality of the plot.  (Hey, it’s rerun season!)

INTERIOR.  A pink frilly bedroom.  Daytime.  An attractive young woman in full makeup and Victoria’s Secret underwear reclines on the bed, moaning fatuously.  An older man kneels by her side, wringing his well-manicured hands.
Lance:  “Tell me April, I gotta know.  Is the baby mine?”
April (in bed):  “Oh Lance!  Oh Lance! <sob!> …what baby?”
Michael enters the room.
Michael:  “April honey, I’ve got something to tell you.”
April:  “No - <sob> - not-“
Michael nods.
April:  “You?  And Lance?”
Lance:  “OH-MY-GOD”
Michael:  “And your mother’s been hit by a beer truck, and the boutique has burnt down.”
April (standing up in bed): “THE BOUTIQUE?”
Michael:  “We saved the clothes, but the jewelry was a meltdown. Sorry.”
April (clutching throat):  “I can’t take it anymore! This is too much for one day.”
Michael:  “And it’s only 8 a.m.”
Lance (clearing throat):  “About your mother…”
April (collapsing on bed):  “OH-MY-GOD, MOTHER!  She hated beer.”
Lance:  “I have something to tell you…”
April (to director):  “Do I faint now?”
Lance:  “…she’s actually not your mother…”
Michael:  “WHAT?”
April:  “You mean-“
Lance:  “Yes.  I am”
<gasps all around>
Michael:  “That trip to Sweden…?”
Lance:  “Yes.”
Michael:  “LANA?”
Lance:  “Yes.”
Michael:  “But didn’t we…?”
Lance:  “Yes.”
Director (to April):  “You can faint now.”
Everyone faints.

Stay tuned next week for more riveting drama, when April asks the question, “How do you tell if blue cheese is bad?”

(I won’t always be this silly.  But I had to get this one in before rerun season was over.)     www.melodiecampbell.com

15 August 2014

Break in Contact


By Dixon Hill


Because of a shift in the blogging schedule, I took a blog vacation for a couple of weeks.  I neither read nor commented, and I hope no one minds.  It was a good time for it, because my son started back into school (a new one) last Wednesday, my mother-in-law came for a visit (I like her quite a lot, so that's not the problem some might think it to be), and my older son's motor scooter broke down at the same time my jeep went on the blink.  Consequently, I've spent quite a bit of time acting the part of family chauffeur, lately, driving my wife, daughter and son back and forth to work at different times of the day (and sometimes pretty late at night).

I don't mind all the driving.  In fact, I've always enjoyed driving.  One of my favorite activities during my army days was driving trucks, sometimes with trailers, under difficult conditions.  I feel (and others have commented) that I handle a "deuce-n-a-half" in the field, the way other people handle a sports car on a slalom. A "deuce" is  a 2.5-ton army truck, for those who don't know, which means it can carry 5 tons of load when driving on standard paved roads, or half that load when driving cross-country.  And, a "deuce" excels at running cross-country.

In fact, you can even plow down small trees with one if you have to.

I know; I have.  When I had to.

No, all that driving hasn't bothered me.  And neither has the extra time spent with individual members of my family.  Driving my wife, or one of the kids to or from work is one of the few times I get the chance to speak with them alone, without others wanting my attention.  And that's nice.  It provides an opportunity to discuss personal things, to engage in conversations that might otherwise be difficult to hold.  And, my son's girlfriend sometimes tags along, and she's an English major studying creative writing at Arizona State, so we have fun conversations about writing.

I like the driving. I like the extra time with family. But I find it difficult to set and maintain any sort of schedule when my own schedule is driven by several other people's schedules. My wife is no problem: she goes in around eight in the morning, and I pick her up at five. My younger son is no problem either: he rides his bike to school in the morning, and I supervise his homework when he gets home in the afternoon. My older kids, however, both work part-time jobs that start and end at odd hours.  And they work rotating shifts, which means their schedules vary greatly from day to day -- sometimes even changing during the day.

All this mish-mash of schedules has me considering a very special problem.  One that's all my own.

The Fragility of Writing

I don't know if you have this problem.  I'm sure that some writers don't suffer from it, while others probably do.  I envy the former, and commiserate with the latter, because I find writing a very fragile thing.

Seems to me, there are different types of fragility, of course, just as there are different ways of interpreting the word 'fragile.'

My father-in-law, for instance, a retired postal worker, has been known to comment: "Ah!  There it is again, that word fruh-gee-lee.  I think that's an Italian word, means: Throw this hard at the wall and see if it sticks!"

I did mention that he's a retired postal worker, right?

While I don't know if it's true, I've heard that diamonds are difficult to scratch, but can shatter quite easily if smashed by a heavy solid object.  Something to do with their structure, evidently.

Other materials, such as steel, may have great tensile strength (essentially meaning they're hard to bend), but relatively poor compression strength (not standing up so well when smooshed).

For me, story writing has a very special sense of fragility.

Whenever I read about a writer who works as a successful  lawyer or doctor, is deeply involved in raising ten kids, plays semi-pro volleyball or something as a hobby--yet, has still managed to publish six thousand books and two gazillion short stories in multiple genres--I figure the following:

(A) This is someone with excellent time-management skills.

(B) This is not someone who finds story writing as fragile as I do.

I believe I've mentioned before, on this blog, that if I had my wish, I'd write behind locked doors with red and green lights above them.
I'd control which light was on with a switch: green if I'm not busy, red if I'm writing and need to be left alone.  Maybe I'd add an amber light for when I'm ruminating, casting around for a good idea or something that catches my fancy, ready to hit the red light when something gelled.  I'd stay locked-up with that red light on for as long as it took to complete a single work -- days, weeks, even months -- ordering out for food, cigars, soda, etc., and only coming up for air when the job was finished.

This isn't because I detest my fellow man, or don't like spending time with my family.  It's because one of the ways I find writing most fragile is through what I call "break in contact."  I might be chugging along, writing great stuff, knowing just where the train is headed--and if I'm left alone, I'll get there--but, if my work is interrupted, that break in contact, a time when I'm not engaged with the story, causes problems.

When I sit down to start back in, I often find I've forgotten key transitions that I'd already worked-out in my mind, as well as phrases that seemed perfect for upcoming spots.  Sometimes simply a key word goes AWOL in my absence, evading all my attempts to recall and employ it after my return, occasionally never resurfacing.  (This is most galling when I only recall the word while reading the final copy of the story, once it's been printed in a magazine, and I find myself lamenting: "Arg!  That other word would have been so much better there!")

I've tried writing notes to myself, or even outlines, so that I'll remember this stuff when I get back to my desk.  But I find this brings me up against another aspect of writing's fragile nature.

I once knew a writer who warned me not to ever "talk out" a story.  She claimed that if I got a story
© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5
out of my head, before I got it down on paper (or into a computer, these days), I'd lose the inner drive, the need, to get it out again.  I think the idea here is roughly akin to letting the steam out of the boiler on a steam engine.  You might get up a good head of steam, but if you let it all escape through a stop-cock, there's nothing left to drive the engines.

I've found that if I outline a story, every important transition or phrase that I jot down opens a little stop-cock, letting off some of the pressure in my head.  It doesn't take many open stop-cocks -- particularly if they're open for awhile -- to make me lose what I need.  It's as if the motive force, driving my writing, just evaporates.

This is one reason why I often write late at night, or in the dark hours of the morning.  No one is around to interrupt me after they've all gone to bed, and -- after sometimes driving my daughter to work at 3:45 a.m. (she has to be there at 4:00), I have a couple hours to write before folks start getting up.

Except for our cats, of course, who -- for some reason -- seem to insist on being fed!  Then they want to come out on the balcony with me, so they can hang out on the window ledges and watch birds flit through the trees.  I try not to let this bother me.

I'm interested in hearing if any of you find your writing work to be somewhat fragile in nature, and what you do to address this problem.

See you in two weeks!
--Dixon

14 August 2014

Bluegrass Mafia


by Eve Fisher

Well, Leigh, you opened up a can of worms last week, and I guess it's Mafia week at SleuthSayers.  I have three stories, two of which are legendary in my family.

My grandparents emigrated from Greece back in at the beginning of the 1900's, and of course they lived in New York, and ended up - double of course - in Astoria. For those of you who don't know, Astoria has long been the Greek neighborhood of NYC.  To this day, when we go visit some (Italian) friends who live there, they send me out to get the breakfast bagels, because I always come back with freebies, beginning with extra bagels.  I guess that the bakery owner assumes that I'm Aunt Eudoxia's niece or something...

File:New York City - Upper West Side Brownstone.jpg
(Disclaimer:  Not my
grandparents'
brownstone)
Anyway, my grandfather had been a teacher back in Athens, or so I'm told, but in New York, he was a truck driver.  By the time I got to know him, it was the 1950's, and my parents and I would go up to visit them in their brownstone.  Yes, you read that right.  A nice big corner brownstone in Astoria, Queens, which they'd bought in the 1930s.  After they died, I found the address (they moved from there in the 1960's, making, I'm sure, a tidy profit) and my husband and I went by and saw it.  Very nice.  An Egyptian family lives there now, I believe.

I asked my father, when I got old enough to understand how expensive a brownstone is, how on earth was my grandfather able to afford to buy one back in the 1930s?  He said, "Well, he did a favor for someone with money.  Got him a nice little truck route, and the brownstone."  Who was the someone with money?  Someone named Gambino.  I asked my father, "What kind of favor did he do?"  "No idea.  We didn't ask questions."

Second story, not mine, which I mentioned in the comments section on Leigh's column:  The Mafia has made some very interesting investments.  Developments in Florida and elsewhere.  Casinos everywhere.  And also utility companies, in parts of the southeast.  There was a man from the Midwest who worked for one of the power companies and went down to the southeast in what he thought would be a career move to manage a local utility company.  He was back in six months, thankful to be out of there... unharmed.

Third story.  There's a town in Kentucky, with a population of not quite 7,000 people, which has one of the best authentic Italian restaurants you can find anywhere.  My husband and I took my father there for dinner one time - we were on a road trip, long story - and the food was excellent.  Or at least my husband's and mine was.  My father occasionally liked to throw his weight around in restaurants and other establishments, and he began to complain, loudly, about his dish.  And asked to see the manager.

File:Lasagne - stonesoup.jpgThe manager came over.  He was obviously Italian; he was obviously not a cook; he was obviously completely indifferent about what customers - or at least us - thought of him.  He listened to my father, looked at his plate, and said, "I don't have time for this shit.  Get out of here."

Tone of voice is everything, because my father got up and went.

Out in the car, my father started fretting and fuming about how he was treated.  "Why didn't we do something?  Why didn't we argue back?"

"Because," I told him, "he was Mafia."
"He was?" my father asked.
I nodded.  "Yes, he was."
And he was quiet the whole rest of the trip. At least about that.

13 August 2014

A Life of Crime


by David Edgerley Gates


A gal I know, here in Santa Fe, put up a post on Facebook about something she witnessed in the check-out line at Whole Foods, a customer humiliating one of the cashiers, and reducing her to tears. You have to wonder about people who are so self-important that their sense of entitlement makes them think they can get away with crap like that, and it prompted the following train of thought.

Anybody who's worked in law enforcement or corrections, a description that covers a few of the contributors to this blogsite, are familiar with what we'll call the criminal mindset - one size doesn't fit all, by any means, but let's use this turn of phrase for convenience.

By way of illustration, a story. Years ago, when I was seventeen going on eighteen, I was hitchhiking in California, headed for San Francisco. This guy picked me up outside of Sacramento. He was in his middle to late twenties, white dude, an Okie. The car was a beater, but it ran okay, and he was going to make the distance, if I'd go in on the gas. He just had to make one stop on the way.

About halfway between Sacramento and San Francisco on I-80, you hit Vacaville. Some of you, who know the territory, physical or otherwise, might have already guessed the punchline. Vacaville is home to a state prison. The guy I caught the ride with was a recent release. He's going into the visitor's pen to see a pal who's still inside. All this he explained to me, no embarrassment. Wait in the car, I'll be out in forty-five minutes. You cool?

I'm not, but let's review the bidding. Hot, empty parking lot. He leaves the windows open, but it's not like he leaves the keys. I can read the situation, dumb as I might be. I think about getting out of the car and crossing the highway and sticking my thumb out again - hello? Who in their right mind is going to pick up a hitchhiker outside a California correctional facility? And truth be told, I don't see the guy meaning me any harm. He's thrown me a curve, sure, and I'm feeling unprotected, tarred with his brush. Is a guard going to come out and ask me what I'm doing there? I wait it out. Guy comes back, gets in the car, we drive off. He ain't making much conversation. I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Hour or so later, we're crossing the Bay Bridge. The car's laboring up the incline, feeling it's age. We're in the slow lane. Big boat blows by us on the left, Caddy or an Olds. My guy starts to vent. "That old fart. He's got that nice ride, and I'm driving this piece of shit?" Well you might ask, and I almost tell him, you know, that old fart probably worked thirty years as a dentist, and the car's his reward for good behavior. He didn't start out sticking up liquor stores. Which is what I'm thinking. I don't say it out loud. I'm also thinking, it's time to get out of his car. He drops me on Powell.

Moral? I don't think the guy was a real hardcase, by any means, but it was the first time I bumped up against that habit of mind. I don't know quite what to call it. Narcissism? The notion that I deserve better. A lack of empathy, I guess. Criminals are sociopathic, almost by definition, in the sense that they don't subscribe to what we define as the social compact. That dentist in the Caddy paid his dues. Which makes him, effect, a sucker. He broke his ass, but I shouldn't have to. Most of us agree to stop at red lights, or not pass a school bus when kids are getting off it. Some of us, on the other hand, don't. We don't think the rules apply to us. We're in a hurry, our time is more valuable than yours and your life, not to put too fine a point on it, has less value than mine.

What does this have to do with the self-important blowhard in the check-out at Whole Foods? Pretty much everything. There isn't much difference between an ex-con who thinks he deserves the dentist's car, and some entitled buttwipe who thinks they can humiliate a cashier with a low-end job, and you've got the power of the purse. I got news for you. You're the one at the low end of the gene pool. You're a moral retard, and a sociopath. There but for the grace of God. You have no honest reason to condescend to me. I have the forlorn hope you'll recognize yourself. Fat chance. Odds are you're a bad tipper, too.

http://www.davidedgerleygates.com/

12 August 2014

Why Won't Anyone Talk To Me?


by David Dean
  • You have the right to remain silent when questioned.
  • Anything you say or do may be used against you in a court of law. 
  • You have the right to consult an attorney before speaking to the police and to have an attorney present during questioning now or in the future.
  • If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you before any questioning, if you wish.
  • If you decide to answer any questions now, without an attorney present, you will still have the right to stop answering at any time until you talk to an attorney.
  • Knowing and understanding your rights as I have explained them to you, are you willing to answer my questions without an attorney present?
Well...are ya, punk?
Not Miranda, but Lorre looking like he needs some "coaxing."

Every writer of crime fiction runs into the Miranda Warning sooner or later.  How many TV episodes have ended with, "You have the right to remain silent..."?  There's just no getting away from those famous words arising from a 1966 Supreme Court decision regarding the Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights of one Mr. Miranda.  It was decided that his admissions during police questioning  leading to his conviction for rape and kidnapping were inadmissible, as he did not fully understand his right against self-incrimination, or the right to have an attorney present during questioning.  Out of that decision arose the warning that all U.S. police must give prior to custodial interrogation of a suspect.

A lot of young officers come out of the academy wringing their hands and mumbling the Miranda Warning over and over in their anxiety.  It's a mantra they don't feel comfortable going a day without saying for fear of running afoul of someone's civil rights.

Citizen: "Officer, can you help me find Fluffy, my cat?  I'm so afraid something's happened to her." 
Police Officer: "Of course, ma'am, I'd be happy to, but did you know that you have the right to remain...."

Not everybody needs to be delivered their Miranda rights.  It's okay for the police to talk with citizens, and even interview them without the Miranda litany occurring on every occasion.  It's a fairly simple formula that results in the mandatory warning: Interrogation + custody=Miranda.  And therein lies that grey area the police find themselves in so often.  What exactly is "interrogation" and "custody"?  Are interviews the same as interrogation?  If a person is in the police building, is he/she in custody?  We damn sure know what the Warning is, but the application can get fuzzy.  Maybe it's best just to sing it out from time to time in case someone's thinking of confessing.

Police interviews can be described (by me, at least) as the questioning of potential witnesses, complainants, victims, and even those temporarily detained at the scene of a crime or accident.  The object of such interviews is to determine exactly what has occurred and who may be involved or have witnessed the incident.  I know what you're thinking--if someone's been detained, don't you have to Mirandize them?  The short answer is no.  Not always and not if the officer is yet to determine that a crime, in fact, has been committed, and that the person he is speaking with is a suspect.  Once a person becomes an active suspect the relationship changes; especially if he has been detained.  The officer would be wise to read him his Miranda Warning at that point, if he's going to continue questioning him.  Now it's now longer an interview, with the overarching goal of determining the circumstances and players, but an effort to determine the amount of involvement by the suspect.  In other words, he has become the object of the questioning, and that's interrogation.

But what if this happy individual is a suspect, and you the police officer are interrogating him, but he's not in custody?  Example: You're sitting across from him in his own living room firing questions, while he answers them with a patient, but weary, air.  Does he get the Miranda or no?  Again, the short answer is no.  Even though he's being interrogated, he's not in custody.  He's in his own home, no cuffs or restraints are involved, and you don't have half a dozen uniformed officers surrounding him (hopefully).  That being said, it would probably be wise to do so, because if he does make any admissions, his attorney is going to do his very best to have them thrown out.  The absence of a Miranda Warning will form the centerpiece of this effort, and he will cite his client's trusting nature and ignorance of his right to have an attorney present as reasons to do so.  Attorneys have argued in the past that the mere presence of a police officer creates a custodial environment.  My own children would have agreed; fortunately the courts haven't yet gone that far, but you can see how skittish these things can make the police.

Even the suspect that voluntarily comes into the police department in order to be questioned is not necessarily considered to be in "custody."  So long as he understands that he is free to  leave the situation doesn't rise to the level of "custodial interrogation."  But the officer has to be very careful here.

Do suspects voluntarily confess?  Yes, yes they do.  And it even happens without the torture techniques for which the police are so well known.  There's several reasons for this in my experience.  One is that they just can't contain their guilt.  I know that seems a very antiquated notion these days, guilt, but there are some poor souls genuinely afflicted with conscience.  Fortunately for defense attorneys their number seems to be decreasing.

Another reason is to cut a deal.  I would say that this is the most common reason--self interest and preservation.  They're the practical ones--they know their butt (or some other appendage) is in a wringer and they want to cut their losses.  These kind of arrangements require the blessings of the prosecutor, as the police are not generally allowed these powers without him/her granting them.  The defendant's attorney is, no doubt, going to be part of these negotiations.

Inadvertent.  This category actually falls more into the "admission" category than the genuine confession.  Suspect is much smarter than the police and enjoys letting them know it.  This usually ends with the suspect stopping in mid-sentence with an expression of growing horror on his face as it dawns on him what he has just let slip.  Sorry, after the Miranda Warning, there's no take-backs.

In closing, it's worth mentioning the Miranda Waiver.  Most states issue the police cards with both the Miranda Warning and a Waiver printed on them.  If the suspect wishes to cooperate, the waiver is signed, along with a block acknowledging that they have been read their rights and understand them.  Here in New Jersey we also have a requirement to videotape interrogations that occur within the police department.  As nearly everyone is convinced that confession=torture/coercion, the reason for this is obvious.

Now, is there anything you want to confess?  I'm all ears.

11 August 2014

G-Mama and the Mafia


by Fran Rizer


My post for today has been ready for weeks, so I felt pretty good when I arose yesterday and, coffee cup in hand, went to the computer to see what Leigh had to say.  I confess I wasn't expecting to read about one of his exes being formerly a mob moll.  This was especially amusing since last week, my grandson told me, "Dad says you used to date someone who was in the Mafia."

Dilemma: Is that a story I really want to share with SSers?
  
Answer:  Yep, I think I will.  Note that my author photo today is from the time in my life that this occurred.  

It happened like this:

My older son was sixteen; the younger, eleven. They'd been taking karate lessons across town, so when a dojo opened near our townhouse, we visited.  The tall, good-looking sensei/proprietor was very convincing, and I moved the boys' lessons to his studio. Unlike Leigh, I'm not using real names, so I'll just call him John.


A few weeks later, John began joining me on the bleachers after my sons' lessons. He spoke glowingly of their progress and we discussed life as single parents. We also talked about how to build his business through a promotional campaign for the karate lessons and the aerobics classes upstairs.  

Next came an invitation to dinner, which I thought was a business meeting to discuss the PR plan. During the evening, I wasn't quite sure what to think. He acted more like we were having a date than a business meeting, but the conversation kept going back to plans for the dojo. At the end of the night, when he went for the inevitable goodnight kiss, I was still confused.

John was handsome. He was charming.  He took up a lot of time with my sons. In June, he confessed to me that he was having a hard time with the dojo rent, but that he would be receiving a substantial financial settlement from an accident in just a few weeks.

Can you believe that I was dumb enough to lend him a thousand dollars? The only reason I had a thousand to spare was that I drew three months' pay as a lump sum at the beginning of the summer.

Weeks rolled by and I saw more and more things about John that I disliked. For one, he had my sixteen-year-old son teaching younger students. It began with his just doing warm-up exercises with them. Soon he was teaching the entire class time. John told the kids' parents that my son was a black belt, which he was not. I've never liked liars.  

Every time I asked about his "settlement," John told me he would be getting it soon. Now, I've never liked liars, but I didn't say I'd never lied. After all, I was essentially in training to become a fiction writer later in life.

On a Monday afternoon in August, I told John that he had to return my money by Friday because I'd borrowed it from someone who was becoming very impatient causing me to be frightened. I never said it, but I implied that I'd gotten the thousand from a loan shark. Tuesday afternoon, John told me that he didn't think he'd be able to pay me anytime soon.  He didn't seem overly concerned. He acted like it was my problem, and I'd have to deal with it.

Wednesday afternoon, the owner of a deli that I did bookkeeping for called John. He was a big Greek man from somewhere up North, had the lowest voice of anyone I ever knew, and said the following, word for word: 

I have a problem, John. I loaned some money to a young woman who can't pay it back  It turns out she got that money for you. I'll be taking care of this matter this weekend unless she puts that money in my hand Friday at lunchtime. You need to understand that I'm not going after her. I'll be settling up with you. I don't like men who take advantage of women.

Those are the exact words that were spoken. I know because my Greek friend read them exactly as I'd written them on an index card for him. John spluttered around trying to negotiate, but the phone line went dead. The big, bad karate master dang near wet his gi.

Rain was pouring mid-morning Friday, but John came running out to my car when I pulled up in front of the dojo. He couldn't put the money in my hand fast enough. I even asked him if he'd like to ride with me, but he was adamant that he had too much to do. I killed a few hours at the library and then stopped at a florist before heading back to the dojo.

My drama skills were in full play when I returned.  I motioned for John to join me in the office.  

Closing the door behind us frantically, John asked, "Is it okay? He's not coming here, is he?"

I handed John a single red rose and said, "He said to give you this, and you'd better be damn glad it's red and not white."

That's the end of the story if I rewrite and try to sell it, but since we're friends, I'll tell you the rest.

My sons returned to lessons at their original karate location. Neither objected. They even said, "We were learning more there."

John called a few times, and I always made some excuse not to see him.  Three months later, his business closed. Six months later, I ran into the former aerobics instructor from John's studio at the mall. She told me that he'd disappeared while owing her husband several thousand dollars including their last loan to him when he swore the Mafia was after him. 

End of story?  Not yet.

A few years later, I'm in the kitchen preparing dinner when my younger son calls, "Hey, Mom, come here. John's on the news."

He'd been arrested for conning several women out of money by setting up a photography studio and advertising for models, who were then giving him their student loan money to advance their careers. I think there was probably more to the story than that, but I changed the channel.

Now, how does this relate to writing fiction? I hadn't thought about that crazy summer for years until my grandson said his dad told him I dated someone in the Mafia.

I questioned my son about it and he said that John had told him, "Your mom has a boyfriend in the Mafia."
My grandson and his dad, my older son


When I told them the entire story, both my son and grandson had a big laugh over G-Mama conning a con man. Leigh's column yesterday inspired me to begin writing this tale as a short story.  Of course, I always "embroider" real events, so the protagonist might become the aerobics teacher (change aerobics to zumba to update it) and the older Greek man could be her grandfather.   

What about you?  Are some of your stories semi-autobiographical?

Until we meet again, take care of … you.

10 August 2014

Disorganized Crime


mafia
History Channel: The Mafia in the US
by Leigh Lundin

RT’s article reminded me of an acquaintance who opened to me the shadowy world of organized crime. She had been ‘Married to the Mob,’ which, she said, was the most accurate movie portraying the mafia. She insisted upon seeing Goodfellas and the Godfather franchise, although she said The Godfather represented the 1%. The reality of the remaining 99% was a banality that only boys who never grew up could buy into.

Carlotta had been intimate with the Youngstown Mafia and knew the players. She was smart, educated, talented, and charming beyond belief. Following her decision to leave Youngstown and its dark side, she went to a great deal of trouble to quietly distance herself from her former life.

When she registered her car in Florida, the sweet lady behind the counter said, “Oh my, Ohio made a mistake recording your VIN on the title, dear. Honey, just fill out this affidavit…” She rolled her eyes at me as if to say, “You can leave that world but it still follows you.” She had bought the car at a deep discount from a connected dealer named Baglier. His body was later found in the trunk of one of his own vehicles towed from a swamp.

She talked about the protocols. No self-respecting 'made guy' would drive a foreign car, only a Caddy, Lincoln, maybe a Buick or a Corvette if he wanted sporty. Mafioso banked at Bank of America, because BoA was the original mafia banker (and still is, according to some). And in a city where citizens simply disappeared from the offices, their cars, and their dinner tables, the mafia first sent their victims a white rose.

Carlotta refused to shop at a couple of major Orlando malls that she contended were mafia laundry machines. I later bumped into a young woman who owned a shop in one of the malls where she often worked late. She mentioned seeing cash register drawers and a safe carted out in the middle of the night. Once as she was leaving her shop, she startled a handful of suited men who directed her away. “Girly, why don’t you go back to your shop for ten minutes.” (You no doubt noticed I’ve not mentioned the developer’s well-known name because to my knowledge he was often accused but never indicted for any crime.)

Carlotta went to school with the mall developer's son and with Mickey Monus, the CFO of Phar-mor, noted for the largest US embezzlement on record. She was acquainted with James Traficant, the flamboyant Ohio congressman and former corrupt sheriff who ran for office from his prison cell. All connected.

mafia
Even Kosovo feels the heat of the Mafia.
Those were the bigger guys.

Carlotta described the mafia as a corporate pyramid. While the so-called ‘foot soldiers’ were low on the totem pole, below them were the teeming worker-bees and wanna-bees, less than pawns in most cases. Picture the hoods in high school who drove around all night talking big, catcalling girls, vandalizing, committing petty larceny and break-ins, initiating a burglary or a spur-of-the-moment home invasion. Now picture those same guys ten, twenty, thirty years later doing the same thing, riding around, talking trash, doing trashy crap. That’s the vast majority of the mafia base: furnishings that fell off a truck, a little grift and graft here, a spot of muscle there, say ten ‘Hail Mary’s and lie to your wife. The boys retell the same stories– the knife fight they almost won a dozen years ago or that time when their dad was being chased by cops and he slipped the smoking gun to their nonna who sat on it, knitting as police conducted a fruitless search.

Night after night, year after year, same-ol’, same-ol’.

Many Italians are offended by the mafia. At New York University, I dated a vivacious student from Brooklyn. Cecilia Mongiardo lived down the street from a mafia headquarters in a warehouse. She said, “Italy is steeped in great history. It’s known for magnificent art, music, and cuisine. We invented modern architecture. We’re noted for design. Yet when people think Italians, they think mafia: Joe Bananas, Masseria and Maranzano, Genovese and Gambino, Gagliano and Lucchese. People think Vegas and Frank Sinatra and the assassination of JFK. It’s embarrassing.”

It’s a shadowy world most of us are unaware of. When writers like R.T. Lawton and David Dean bring us stories of their battles against crime, only then do we get a peek behind that dark curtain.

09 August 2014

Submission Accomplished




by John M. Floyd


As most of you have heard by now, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine recently introduced a new submission process. Authors can now send their short stories in to AHMM the same way they've been doing it at EQMM, via the shared web site themysteryplace.com. Just navigate to the Hitchcock site, click on "Writers' Guidelines," and then choose "online submission system."

This is of course good news for those of us who regularly send stories in to AH for consideration. No more printouts, no more envelopes (self-addressed or otherwise), no more labels, no more stamps, no more trips to the post office. Easier, quicker, less expensive. A byproduct of the new system is an online tracking program that allows the writer to keep up with the current status of his/her manuscript. What's not to like?

Look, Mom--no hands

I was intrigued to see, at a couple of the Internet forums (fora? fori?) that not everyone seems to be pleased by the discontinuation of AHMM's old-school "manual" submission system. Although I don't agree, I think I do understand the reasons that some are less than happy about the move. It's been said that any publication that begins accepting online submissions, whether it's via e-mail or via a website "submission box," also begins receiving far more manuscripts than before. Why? Because it's now easier, quicker, and less expensive. The one thing that seems to make everything simpler can conceivably also make it harder because of increased competition and an increased workload for those who read the submissions.

Simply stated, it might now be so easy to submit that everyone will want to submit everything, maybe even those who shouldn't be writing and submitting anything. One school of thought maintains that if you're willing to take the time and trouble to print your story, print a cover letter, include an SASE, clip it all together, stuff it into an envelope, print and attach address labels, and drive to the P.O. and stand in line and pay the postage to mail it--well, that means you're possibly more serious about your writing. The more labor-intensive the job is, the fewer lazy workers will participate.

What are your views on the subject? Would you now be more likely to send a manuscript to AHMM? Do you think the pluses outweigh the minuses? I find it interesting that of the four mystery markets I submit to the most, two of them (Woman's World and The Strand Magazine) require snailmailed submissions. Maybe WW and The Strand will switch over as well, one day.

Again, I can see both sides of the argument. But I must admit, as someone who has already taken advantage of the new system (I e-sent AH a new story a few days ago), that I like it. A lot. Nothing can reduce the work it takes to produce a quality story, but anything that reduces the work it takes to get it submitted is--in my opinion--a good thing. I'm also wondering if the new process might allow AHMM to respond more quickly than it has in the past. (That might be overly optimistic, since--as I mentioned--there will probably now be even more manuscripts in the chute.)

Preaching to the choir?

Please be aware, I am not one of those writers who have been reluctant to submit stories to AHMM because of its hardcopy-only submission procedures. I've faithfully read AH since I was in college, editor Linda Landrigan has been extremely kind to me, and I would probably continue to submit stories to her magazine even if I had to send them via mule train. I suspect that most of my SleuthSayers colleagues feel the same way. But this should make the process a lot more pleasant.


Speaking of pleasant things, AHMM recently accepted another of my stories--this one submitted months ago, via snailmail--and as always, that feeling made it well worth the wait. I hope more acceptances, from AH and from others, are coming up for all of us.

No matter how we send the stories in.