08 October 2014

Seeds of Destruction


by David Edgerley Gates

One of the first places I went to, after I moved to Santa Fe, was Los Alamos, and as it happens, Fuller Lodge was open to visitors. Fuller Lodge, for those of you who don't know, was essentially the social center for the people working on the Manhattan Project. Some dancing to 78's on an old turntable, quite a few martinis, a lot of cigarettes. An opportunity to let your hair down. Fuller Lodge anchored what was know as Bathtub Row, back in the day - what was left of the original buildings from the boys' boarding school that was the only fixture on the mesa before the Army Corps of Engineers came. The other barracks and housing were prefabs and Quonset huts, knocked together quick and dirty for incoming personnel. 

Going up to the Hilltop, as Los Alamos is known, locally, isn't any different from driving into any other town of about 12,000 people. The national lab is the biggest employer, admittedly, and Los Alamos county has the highest per capita income of any county in New Mexico, but there are supermarkets and coffee shops and laundromats and chain stores, which gives it an air of generic normalcy, like Belmont, Massachusetts, or Ashland, Oregon. The difference being that Los Alamos is a complete invention, sprung full blown from the brow of Zeus, or more accurately, from the imagination of Gen. Leslie Groves, the guy who built the Pentagon. Los Alamos was designed for one purpose only, to beat Hitler to the atom bomb.


I was fascinated by the place. Under that placid surface, its air of normalcy, and hiding in plain sight, there was a huge and dangerous secret. I picked up a book called ATOMIC SPACES, which wasn't so much about the Manhattan Project per se as it was about the day-to-day, the homely and domestic - the wives and kids, the local Hispanics recruited as maids or gardeners, the segregated black units off on the periphery - the detail that falls through the cracks of history. And the first story I wrote, in New Mexico, was about that stuff. It was called "The Navarro Sisters," and it introduced Rio Arriba sheriff Benny Salvador. Groves himself was a character, too - he shows up as a cameo in a later Benny story, "Old Man Gloom" - and the story hinged in part on the gaps in his security.

Groves was obsessed with keeping the whole thing under wraps,
and for good reason. Werner Heisenberg, in Berlin, was researching the same physics, and nobody knew how close he was. (It turned out later that Heisenberg might well have been dragging his feet, but that's a tale for another time.) Groves, in fact, wanted the separate disciplines compartmentalized, so his science guys couldn't compare notes. He even suggested they be commissioned as officers, and subject to military punishment if they broke silence.


Groves had brought Robert Oppenheimer on board to run the program, and Oppenheimer said no. That's not how it works. They need to rub up against each other, they need to set off sparks, like static electricity. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. You could perhaps see this as a larger metaphor. The bomb was greater than the sum of its parts. And what Oppenheimer understood was that success depended on cross-fertilization. The metallurgists and the physicists, the mathematicians and the engineers, they couldn't operate in isolation, or opposition. They weren't competing. It was all about comparing notes.

Like any good partnership, the tensions between Groves and Oppenheimer produced the result, in the end. A fission device. They set up the test shot. Waiting in the bunker, Edward Teller was taking bets they might set the entire atmosphere on fire. They pulled the trigger, and the bomb lit up the pre-dawn horizon over White Sands. The ground beneath it was fused into glass. Oppenheimer was overheard to say, "I am become Death."

He opposed the actual use of the bomb, against Japan. It was too terrible a weapon. Could they demonstrate it, instead? He was shrugged off. Military necessity. An invasion of the Home Islands would cost a million American lives. They had the means to end the war. It was the only possible choice.

Groves and Teller both later turned against Oppenheimer, each for their own reasons. He was stripped of his security clearance by the Red-hunters, and sidelined. It was a shabby business, all around. Oppenheimer wasn't Faust. He didn't trade his soul for knowledge, or offer to burn his books. He never expressed regret for his part in building the bomb. Morally and practically, it was a necessary effort. He may have flirted with Communism, when he was younger. (His wife Kitty did more than flirt - she was an acknowledged member of the Party.) It's too easy to lose sight of the climate of the 1930's, and the war, the coming of the Red Scare afterwards. Desperate times, desperate measures. Oppenheimer was a product of that age, greater than the sum of his parts. He was both the New Adam, and the Old, with a foot in each camp. He became the destroyer of worlds.

http://www.davidedgerleygates.com/ 



07 October 2014

Stealing People


by Stephen Ross

Christopher Isherwood wrote, in his novel Goodbye to Berlin, "I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking." I don't live in the world Isherwood inhabited (I'm not living in 1930s Germany, to start with), but I like the analogy and readily apply it to myself; with a slight modification: I am a vacuum cleaner, on full speed, actively inhaling all that is around me, quietly storing it away for future use... And what I find of most particular value in the dust bag are the people.

A question I get asked from time to time is: Where do you get your ideas? The question no one has yet asked me is: Where do you get your characters? It's a better question. Stories are about people doing things. A plot can't exist without someone in it doing something to someone else. And even if it's a story about a lone man climbing a mountain, it's still about at least one person doing something. A plot without characters is called a landscape painting.

I've written a few plot-driven stories in the past, and not surprisingly, none of them have ever sold.

For me, plot ideas often start out as abstract thoughts or singular slivers -- snippets of information; like this one: A MAN breaks into the company safe to steal the money inside, but instead of cash, he finds a $5 box of chocolates.

A snippet can be quite simple, and often quite plain and ordinary. What can set it on fire is when, as in the above example, the MAN becomes a character; when he moves from being a "placeholder" and comes to life with a back story, motivation, and physical traits. For example, the MAN becomes Jason Andrews: a 44-year old accountant with a drinking problem, grooming issues, and a gambling addiction. He owes $5000 to a loan shark who's promised to put a bullet in his good knee if he doesn't repay the loan by Friday (deadlines always make characters leap to life). Jason is desperate. He already walks with a cane, as his other kneecap was busted from a "prior financial incident".

With the beginnings of a fleshed-out character, the plot snippet has come to life, and the story could go anywhere. BUT (and I can't underline that enough times) wherever the story does go, it's primarily because the character of the character has led it there.

So, where did Jason Andrews come from...?

I made him up. From component parts.

  • An old man used to regularly catch my bus on Thursday evenings. He had a cane and a particular way of walking.
  • A friend in high school accidentally got shot in the leg, and reminded everyone regularly about how much it hurt.
  • A work colleague at my first job was a Colonel Blimp type. He had an exaggerated opinion of himself and talked a lot of self-important rubbish. He was also often on the phone talking to his bookie. Every call ended with him slamming down the phone.   
  • I have known many men with alcohol "problems". 

Jason Andrews came from people I know (or have known, have known in passing, or have maybe just seen once).

Three characters
Many books on writing suggest compiling lists when "building" your characters, e.g. age, height, eye color, occupation, IRS number, DOB, food preferences, favorite TV program, lucky number, and so on. I've never liked this idea; lists are just random surface information. I make up my characters as I go along, fine tuning each to fit the plot, mixing and matching traits and characteristics, part "borrowed" from real people, and part out of pure invention. I'm a bit like Dr. Frankenstein -- a leg here, a motivation there, a brain from over there. In short, I steal people, and everyone I know is a potential surgery candidate for my character laboratory.

People are fascinating. Some have the depth of an ocean, some are no deeper than a puddle. Some are Rubik's Cubes, some are about as complex as a paperclip.

One question I got asked once was: Do you ever put yourself in your stories (à la Mary Sue)? No. I like writing about things that I'm not. In fact, I try not to let my personal opinions, values, or beliefs drive any of my characters. I don't like didactic writing.

The hero of the book I'm working on is a Catholic priest. I'm neither a priest nor a Catholic -- if you ever see me near a church (of any faith), it's probably because I'm admiring the architecture.

By the way, if you ever want to experience Burke's idea of the sublime (intense awe), stand right in front of the Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral), stare upwards, and then remind yourself that construction of this enormous and impossibly tall cathedral was begun about 350 years before Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. In fact, so long ago, the first stone was laid in the same year the Aztecs kick-started their empire.

And also, by the way, thank you David Dean for your excellent recent piece: Adventures in Catholicism. It has been duly cut-and-pasted to my research folder.

So, where do you get your characters...?

Be seeing you.

06 October 2014

What Are You Reading?


Jan Grape
by Jan Grape

I didn't think I had done much reading this summer but looking back, I did.

 First, I was on the Shamus Committee to pick the Best Original Paperback. The Shamus is given by the Private Eye Writers of America. I always enjoy reading for awards because I quickly learn how important a great first line, first paragraph and first page actually are. I think we sometimes forget those important elements as writers. But I think you absolutely have to grab the reader immediately.

As a book seller for nine years, I quite often watched as customers picked up a book. I believe we all know the book cover and title are extremely important. My friend Bill Crider titled one of his early Sheriff Rhodes books, SHOTGUN SATURDAY NIGHT. I can't recall his other titles but I never forgot that one. And I really enjoy Bill's work and that character. Another friend, Susan Rogers Cooper wrote two titles that I remember well, THE MAN IN THE GREEN CHEVY and HOUSTON IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR. All three titles are memorable and intriguing. You better believe I'm going to pick-up a book with a title like that and read the back jacket and maybe the first page. And most likely I'll buy that book. The only other title that really intrigued me was on a non-fiction book, HOW TO SHIT IN THE WOODS. That book was in the visitor's center of the Rio Grande Gorge, near Taos, New Mexico, where I volunteered three summers. I think it still remains their best seller.

After reading a number of the thirty-five or forty book our committee chose our nominees and our winner (you'll have to wait until the PWA banquet at Bouchercon on Nov 14th to find our who won.)
I did purchase a few books that I really wanted to read. One paperback I bought was CITY OF BONES by Michael Connelly. I  always enjoy Michael's books, especially the Harry Bosch novels and I had read it before but the new TV series featuring Harry Bosch and starring Titus Williver as Harry is the main storyline. It had been quite a while since I read it and I wanted to get back in the "Bosch world" and be ready for the upcoming TV shows. The title is another memorable one and the mystery of the bones of a child found, by a dog, located up in the Hollywood Hills presented a page-turner for sure. To add even more suspense the skeleton had been buried around twenty years earlier.

A hardcover that I bought new, which I seldom do anymore since I live on a fixed income, is Alafair Burke's ALL DAY AND A NIGHT.  I'm sorry to confess that I have not read Alafair before...been intending to, but somehow just hadn't. However, I began to be interested in her as a person on FB. She is bright, witty, beautiful and very likable. I wanted to see if I might possibly like her books. I called my favorite mystery bookstore, Murder By The Book in Houston, as Alafair was going to be there and ordered a signed copy. And I must tell you, I enjoyed the heck out of it. Ellie Hatcher is a homicide detective for the NYPD and is a wonderfully strong and strong-willed female character. Exactly the kind of woman I like to read about. She and her police detective partner work with a female lawyer who believes the man in prison is NOT the serial killer. I love the back and forth between the women and between Ellie and her partner. This book kept me on the edge of my seat.

Next is a book by Les Roberts, titled WET WORK. His editor asked me to read and review if I wanted to do so.  I read it and it's very compelling. The main character, first seen in THE STRANGE DEATH OF FATHER CANDY is a anti-hero, Dominick Candiotti in that he's a paid assassin for the Brownstone Agency.  The agencies leader, a man with the code name "Og" is the boss of a shadowy CIA-type black ops group. They hire assassins to kill traitors, dictators, despots of the world, pedophiles, drug kings, the scum of the earth. Turns out that Dominick is one of the best assassins. He learned his trade in Viet Nam. But he grows weary of the killings, the violence.  Og calls again with a new hurry-up assignment and Dominick says, "no, he's quitting." His boss is NOT happy, trying to make Dominick see that you don't quit the agency ever. Suddenly, he's the mark. Brownstone assassins are after him. Dominick has to use all his skill and cunning and brains to stay one step ahead of the people sent after him. The story takes us from one U.S. city after another as Dominick tries to save himself and try to track down his nemesis  Og. This is one thriller you will not want to put down.

The final book on this short list is one whose title I will always remember, TO HELL AND GONE IN TEXAS by Russ Hall. If you like reading about Texas and good guys and bad guys, then this is a book for you. It starts off with two brothers, Al and Maury who've not been speaking for twenty years. Maury seems to think and act as if he's God's gift to women and all women want him. And it does seem that they do. Which is the major cause of the brother's feud. Maury managed to get to Al wife and that cause a riff that so far hasn't healed. But right now, Maury is quite ill and someone is trying to kill him. Al, who is a retired deputy of Travis County has his lovely Hill Country lake home,  where he can fish, feed the deer that come around and ignore the world. All good things must come to an end and the Austin Police Detective, Fergie and the nurse who has been taking care of Maury talk Al into letting Maury stay at Al's house. Maury is in such bad shape he has to be sedated.

In the meantime, someone takes pot shots via drive-by boating, hoping to kill Maury or Al, but not succeeding. Then someone takes a match to the lake house. It's saved and now Al is trying to get Maury to explain what has he been into that someone actually wants him dead. Maury isn't inclined to talk. Al finds out that ICE and a Mexican Mafia are both interested in Maury.  To add a little extra tension, Al discovers than all that time spent alone might have been wasted. He finds himself coming alive with Fergie, they've known each other since high school and who knew things might change. However, unless Al can figure out the source of Maury's problems, things are liable to get tough as Hell.

Hope everyone has had a good reading summer. Now it's time more reading and cooler weather.

05 October 2014

DuMont Episode 1 ~
The Fourth Network


DuMont Television Network
by Leigh Lundin

Following this article, you’ll find one of the earliest Ellery Queen television episodes. A few things make this episode interesting besides its vintage and the fact it’s one of only a handful of programs that survived its era. For one thing, it’s a live broadcast, which I’ll discuss in another article. And I like the chintzy humor in the portrayal of the dancing girl.

But the main point of interest is that it was broadcast on a network you probably won’t recognize, the DuMont Television Network. DuMont was the first commercial network and one of the most innovative. It was also saddled with bad karma and bad luck. Frankly, the story of DuMont is more intriguing than most of its shows that remain.

Birth of a Television Network

DuMont Laboratories started as an electronics and television manufacturer and innovator. They developed the first all-electronic television, making the competing electro-mechanical projector obsolete. But in the 1940s, even when the 15-year-old company could sell a consumer a television, there was damn little on the air to watch. DuMont decided to provide programming to boost television sales.

It began with WADB New York (originally W2XWV) and WTTG (originally W3XWT) in Washington, DC. Dr. Allen DuMont joined the two stations by cable to his laboratories in New Jersey, creating the first television network. On 9 August 1945, DuMont’s stations broadcast the report that the United States had dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. Modern warfare and modern television were born that day. The following year, DuMont Laboratories spun off the Dumont Network.

A Viper in the Bosom

Meanwhile, Paramount Pictures desperately wanted a presence in the television market. They invested in a couple of experimental stations and bought a $400,000 40% interest in DuMont. That investment would ultimately prove to be DuMont’s undoing.

DuMont’s competitors initially treated television as radio with pictures. By 1946, the large radio broadcaster NBC was also operating television stations. In 1948, the other major radio presence, CBS, joined the fray and a five-year-old radio upstart called ABC purchased its first station in New York City.

In 1949, DuMont linked its Pittsburgh station, WDTV (now KDKA), bridging the Midwest to their East Coast stations, allowing them to provide live programming at one location and broadcast elsewhere. This would eventually become the model for all networks. It positioned DuMont to broadcast the McCarthy hearings, allowing the eastern half of America to see and hear the senator live without filtering. Citizens could judge the demagogue for themselves, ultimately leading to the decline of McCarthyism and the senator’s downfall.

The Alphabet Stations

NBC and CBS enjoyed three major advantages over their competitors: decades of radio broadcast experience, a huge catalogue of programs and talent, and cash flow to bankroll television. Between these giants, DuMont stood naked.

In the 1950s, the ‘alphabet soup’ networks sold inflexible advertising. As the radio networks had done, programs were sponsored by one or two corporations. In effect, advertisers bought an entire block of air time or a series of programs. Cigarette companies and auto manufacturers became associated with a particular program and often controlled content within the program itself. The Ford Motor Company sponsored The FBI and virtually every car seen in the series was a Ford. Today’s Hallmark Hall of Fame remains a remnant of this advertising model.

That same practice made it difficult for smaller companies to get their commercials out and loose ads went where the network decided and not necessarily where the advertiser would have chosen. DuMont not only offered piecemeal advertising, but allowed advertisers to request the slots where they played.

DuMont was an innovative scrapper. It forged relationships with Broadway, a model that can be seen today as David Letterman broadcasts from the Ed Sullivan Theater at 1697 Broadway. DuMont obtained space for variety shows at the Adelphi and Ambassador Theatres, Wannamaker’s, and the prestigious Jacob Ruppert Opera House.

Next article, we’ll discuss how the seeds of destruction had already unknowingly been planted.

DuMont Firsts
  • 1st all-electronic television
  • 1st modern television network
  • 1st weekly sitcom (Mary Kay and Johnny)
  • 1st game show (Cash and Carry)
  • 1st soap opera (Faraway Hill)
  • 1st dance program (Arthur Murray Party)
  • 1st courtroom reality show (Trial by Jury)
  • 1st subjective camera PoV (The Plainclothesman)
  • 1st made-for-TV movie (Talk Fast, Mister)
  • 1st show with Asian star (Anna May Wong)
  • 1st show with Black star (Hazel Scott)
  • 1st Jewish sitcom-drama (The Goldbergs)
  • 1st transformative TV show (Ernie Kovacs Show)
  • 1st religious program (Life is Worth Living)
  • 1st network with East Coast - Midwest cable
  • … and …
  • 1st network to fold



Today’s Video

Our friend and colleague Dale Andrews has been out of commission following surgery. Dale and his friend Kurt Sercu are experts vis-à-vis Ellery Queen. Today, I present the first of three episodes of an early Ellery Queen television show from when Dale was a wee pup, an episode broadcast 21 December 1950.

Bear in mind this is a live action presentation, nothing but the title sequences and ads were pre-recorded.


Don't touch that dial! Next: Slow Torture, Slow Death

04 October 2014

Voyage of Strangers


by John M. Floyd

Writing this week's column was a special treat for me--mostly because it required me to first read the new novel by my friend and former Saturday blog-sister Elizabeth Zelvin. I've read many of Liz's short stories--I even included one of them in a mystery anthology for which I served as the editor several years ago--so I already knew her stories were outstanding. Now, I'm greatly pleased to report that this novel is excellent as well.

The following is a review I plan to post at Amazon.com next week, and I hope it adequately conveys the pleasure I got from the novel and provides an incentive for others to enjoy it also. Well done, Liz!

A journey of discovery

In her latest novel, Voyage of Strangers (Lake Union Publishing, 2014), Elizabeth Zelvin has done the seemingly impossible: she's written an educational and often factual fictional account of early searches for gold and trade routes in uncharted lands while providing nonstop suspense and entertainment throughout. It's sort of a pleasant cross between the textbook-like historical knowledge of a James A. Michener novel and the edge-of-your-seat thrills of an Indiana Jones adventure.

At the start of the book, young Diego Mendoza is one of the members of Christopher Columbus's 1492-1493 expedition to discover and explore the lands across the ocean to the west. He is thrilled to have been included but is also a bit terrified by the perils of this unknown world. (Who wouldn't be?) Soon after Columbus's fleet finds the Indies and begins building settlements there, Diego accompanies Columbus back to Spain, where Diego and his twelve-year-old sister Rachel face dangers as grave as those he saw across the sea: they are both Jewish, and this is the time of the Inquisition. As Columbus prepares for a second voyage, Diego realizes that the only way to protect his impulsive and sometimes reckless sister is to watch over her himself, and when the expedition finally sails Rachel comes along, disguised as a cabin boy called Rafael and serving as a scribe to Admiral Columbus. New threats await them, of course, both at sea and in the jungles and newly-established outposts of what Columbus has named Hispaniola.

One of the best things about this book is that it's not the New World discovery story that we learned about in school. This time the noble Columbus shows a dark side, in that his most important goal is to fill the coffers of his king and queen with the treasures he's certain he will find in these unspoiled and primitive lands. As a result he allows the enslaving and brutalization of the native Taino tribe. Since we readers witness all this through the eyes of Diego and Rachel, we see the cruelty of the Christian invaders and the terrible plight of the conquered as well as the stunning beauty of the area now known as the Caribbean.

What makes this book so outstanding, though, is not its setting or its realism or even the lessons it teaches. Its main strength lies in its wonderfully complex characters. Some of them, like King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, are real historical figures, but the most memorable come from Zelvin's imagination: Diego, Rachel, their aunt Marina, the evil Cabrera, the islander Hutia, and many others among the priests, natives, and seamen. These are people you'll remember long after you finish the novel. My favorite by far is Rachel, the delightful, fiery, compassionate young lady who longs to see the world and then realizes that in order to survive she must change and adapt--and grow up quickly.

I have a theory about why the novels and short stories of Elizabeth Zelvin always include such interesting and believable players. It's because she is herself a psychotherapist, and has probably seen every character quirk possible. She doesn't have to imagine some of these things, as most authors do; she's seen them and knows firsthand what makes people act the way they do and say the things they say. The application of this kind of knowledge and experience has never been more evident than in her new novel. Voyage of Strangers is a winner.

About the author:

Elizabeth Zelvin is a New York City psychotherapist and author of the Bruce Kohler mystery series, which started with Death Will Get You Sober and so far includes three novels, a novella, and five short stories. Liz's short stories have been nominated three times for the Agatha Award and for the Derringer Award. They have appeared several times in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (in press), and in a variety of anthologies and e-zines. Voyage of Strangers, her first historical novel, is the sequel to the Agatha-nominated mystery short story "The Green Cross." Liz's only explanation for how she came to write about the aftermath of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and the genocide of the Taino is that her protagonist, the young marrano sailor Diego, woke her up in the middle of the night, beating on the inside of her head and demanding that she tell his story.


As well as fiction, Liz has written two books of poetry, a professional book about gender and addictions along with numerous professional articles, and an album of original songs, Outrageous Older Woman. She works with clients on her online therapy site, LZcybershrink.com. Her author website is elizabethzelvin.com and her music website is lizzelvin.com. She is currently working on the sequel to Voyage of Strangers, which takes Diego to the Ottoman Empire and to Sao Tome, a remote island off the coast of Africa.

Liz, thanks again for a great read. I can't wait for the sequel!

03 October 2014

Hold on a Minute


by R.T. Lawton

They say you always remember the first one. That would be a girl named Rachel. She was followed by Carmen and then a few more after her, but I don't remember all the names now. Wasn't really my fault they kept coming back for more. I tried to stop it all with a simple push of a button, but evidently that part of my phone no longer worked because they just kept right on calling, even when I asked to be taken off their phone lists.

Finally, after the last time Rachel called, I hit the phone button labeled with the number 1 and I immediately got put on HOLD. A pleasant female voice, obviously pre-recorded but not by Rachel, informed me I was Caller #22 and thanked me for holding. There was no background music while I waited, but I wasn't worried because I quickly moved up in priority to Caller #17, got thanked again for holding, then jumped to #12, always very polite, and before I knew it I was in single digits and a real person came on the line. Never did figure out what happened to all the numbers I got to skip over. Maybe this was a big business outfit with lots of operators to handle all these important phone calls. My girl Rachel must really be something special to work at this place.

Just as I was ready to actually connect with Rachel on a personal one-to-one basis, some guy who must've been her boyfriend came on the line. I knew it wasn't her brother because this guy had an accent from India. Oh sure, he was pleasant enough and spoke good English, but still, he had that very distinctive accent. I quickly learned he was from Card Member Services and was offering to help me get a lower rate on my credit card. Hey, who wouldn't appreciate paying less money every month to those greedy credit card companies?

Unfortunately, I probably won't be getting that lower rate he offered. Seems I failed to meet his expectations. Not sure where I went wrong. Had to be something I said since he soon asked to speak to my wife so he could explain everything to her.

I will admit things went downhill after I broke out in a laugh, accused him of being a scam artist and informed him (thank you Rob Lopresti) that as long as he was talking with me, this was time he wasn't able to con someone else. He emphatically denied being such a person and then asked for my mother so he could talk to her. Sadly, I explained that he would have to travel to Texas where she was buried. It must have been a bad day at the office or maybe he was merely feeling frustrated with his job, because he moved on to the more colorful aspects of the English language. By now, my wife who was listening from the other room started laughing herself.

He and I continued, with me laughing and having a great time, while he became more colorful with his adjectives. I wonder if the FCC is aware of this type of conduct on our telephone airways? I fear such rough language could offend the ears of some of our more sensitive citizens. As he started to repeat his apparently limited vocabulary, I asked for a phone number so I could call him back. He promptly found some new words he hadn't yet used in our conversation. As the ten minute mark approached, I changed tack and politely inquired if he could hold on to the line for a few more minutes while I got someone to trace the call. The line went quiet. Then it died. Guess that means I may not hear from Rachel again.

But hey, Carmen called again as I was busy writing this, so those girls are still out there. I was sorry I didn't have time to speak with Carmen right then when she called. Wonder if she too has a boyfriend with one of them foreign accents?

The very next day, to my surprise, I got a call from another gentleman with an accent from India. This time, it was direct, without any pre-recorded voice and without being put on HOLD for a Caller Countdown. I quickly determined this caller was not Rachel's boyfriend from the previous day. Nope, this fellow sounded more like the same guy I always get when I call for support on my hail-damaged computer or wandering software. I will say this gentleman was very polite and had great patience with me, even though we had a bad connection (probably not his fault) and a slight problem understanding each other (this could have been my fault). I chalked the latter up to the fact that I was conversing in American English which I understood perfectly, whereas he was speaking some form of India English, no doubt derived from the King's English some decades after India dropped out of the bottom of the British Empire. In any case, there appeared to be a slight language barrier as he had to constantly repeat his directions. I do commend his patience in this trying endeavor. Of course, there is always the possibility that I could be a slow learner and therefore none of the blame should be laid at his doorstep. He was merely attempting to help me out.

He quickly explained that he was from Windows and that hackers may have gotten into my computer. I thanked him profusely for his awareness. He instructed me to go to my computer (several times) where he would then show me if I had a problem. He then inquired (several times) if I were in front of my computer. Next, (several times) I was instructed to sit at my computer. Then, stupid me, I had trouble understanding if I were supposed to be on the internet during this process, or not. We finally determined it was not. Hey, what did I know? I'd never been through this harrowing process before.

Now, I was supposed to hit the Windows key and the "R" key. In case you don't know, this brings up the RUN screen. Next is to type in "event log" at which time he would ask if I saw any error messages. Naturally, the screen will show some errors because sooner or later every computer gets an error message, but this was supposed to prove that my computer had been hacked and infected with a Trojan virus. At which point, the helpful "guy from Windows" would have me type in a certain website to clean out the virus. He was doing such a good job that I hated to disappoint him, so in the interests of congeniality, I said "good one," laughed to show we'd had a good time together and hung up.

Obviously, these two gentlemen from India have not read Rob Lopresti's 950 word short story, "Shanks Holds the Line." Rob mentioned this story in one of his previous blogs, plus editor Linda Landrigan posted the story on AHMM's blog site a few months back.

For more on this scam subject, feel free to Google "Card Member Services" and/or "Windows key and R."

Oh, and if Rachel calls be sure to say hi for me.

Postscript~ I just got a call from Emma. Evidently she is busier than Rachel because I started out at Caller #33 while on Hold. When a live voice, a nice black girl named Ashley with an American accent, came on I inquired why I never got to talk with Rachel or Carmen. She said, "Who?" I explained they were the names on the pre-recorded tapes that called me. I must have confused her because she went into a long rambling explanation before finally hanging up on me.

Oh Rachel, where art thou?

02 October 2014

Anachronism Revisited


by Brian Thornton

In May of last year I wrote an extensive post on what I deemed "Cosplay in Fiction." In that post I
Not THIS kind of cosplay
promised to elaborate further on what constitutes "cosplay" in historical fiction in my next post.

I didn't.

And I'm still mulling how best to elaborate and wrap up that subject in a blog posting to appear in this space in the not-too-distant future.

In the mean-time I intend to explore a tangential line of thought, centering on examples of what works and what doesn't in the historical mystery author's quest to bring believable, engaging historical fiction to the modern reader. And I'm going to spread it out over a number of my upcoming blog posts.

You see, this year I have the great privilege of moderating an historical mystery fiction panel in November, at Bouchercon.

So as I've been turning over in my mind the questions I plan to put to some of the best historical mystery novelists around, my mind rolled back to the post linked above, and the question of anachronism in historical fiction.

And not surprisingly, I've got a few thoughts.

Not THIS type, either
Not least of which is what works and what doesn't when attempting to evoke a certain time period. This is probably one of the most difficult aspects of the historical mystery juggling act: paint a picture of life in another era, likely with characters who speak a language other than English, and still make them seem natural and unaffected, all without diving so deep into period language that the modern reader does not get either lost or completely put off.

No mean feat.

And THIS? Just flat out disturbing....
I have some examples of what I think works, and what I think doesn't. And as always, I'm prepared to share.

As I said, I've been giving this sort of thing a lot of thought lately. Partly, as I said above, because of Bouchercon and partly because of my own on-going final pass through a long-percolating historical mystery novel of my own.

Let me state at this point that I have nothing but admiration for anyone who attempts this ludicrous balancing act– whether they fail or succeed. I for one have always found it a formidable challenge, and feel I've failed more times than I've succeeded. (Which is a large part of the reason that the final draft of my current book project is my third complete draft!).

And with that said, let's move on to what works, and what doesn't. This week's entry:

Slang!

I was reading a mystery novel a while back and a fairly innocuous turn of phrase knocked me completely out of the story- you know, that experience that is usually the last thing any author wants to foist upon their audience.

The phrase in question was "Don't get your knickers in a twist."

Now, the author of the book in question is British and, although I'm an American, I'm fairly
Not THIS type of anachronism
Anglophilic, and am comfortable with British slang expressions, so ordinarily this wouldn't be a problem for me.

The problem was two-fold: the setting, and the character speaking. It wasn't set in modern England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland. And the speaker wasn't a citizen of any of those countries.

The character in question was a citizen of ancient Rome, speaking to another citizen of that city, in
that city, circa 80 A.D.

Hello, Anachronism!

Now, I get what the writer in question was trying to do. Trying to portray ancient Romans talking casually with each other, in an intimate, familiar manner. No mean feat, seeing as they spoke Latin and not English.

At the very least wouldn't they have said something like, "Don't get your sublegaria* in a twist"?

I mean, the only way this character could have sounded more out of time would be if he had suggested to his comrade that he "slow your roll"!

The problem for me as a reader at this point was that, while I was and am willing to concede that Romans, like every other variety of human being since the dawn of time, had their own pet slang phrases and humorous sayings, I had a hard time believing that they used this particular one.

Further compounding the problem was the fact that the speech in this novel was so anachronistic that it pulled me right out of the story. And this was just the tip of the iceberg. Throughout the story I kept picturing these ancient Roman characters speaking with cockney accents. At any moment I expected them to break in rhyming slang!

This brought to mind an author who actually gets this sort of thing right. I have raved before about the writing of Philip Kerr, a British author of the Bernie Gunther series of novels, set in Nazi and post-war Germany during the 1930s and 1940s.

For my money Kerr gets Gunther just right: in some ways a morally compromised figure (as many
Germans who survived the first world war and the subsequent years-long party which was Weimar Germany of the 1920s were);former homicide detective and sometimes private investigator who has repeated dealings with the Nazis while never becoming one of them or buying in to what they were selling.

Gunther is truly a man of his time, believing, as many in Germany quietly did, that the Nazis were by turns keystone cops and murderous thugs. And even during his dealings with them he manages to chart a course that leaves him (for the most part) morally clean.

What helps Kerr really sell Gunther and the rest of his cast of period characters as believable avatars of the period in question is his ability to take German slang from that time and translate it into English, without it losing its period flavor.

For example, a pistol is a "lighter." A cigarette is a "nail" (for your coffin, obviously).  When asked during a 2009 interview whether these slang words were genuine or of his own invention, Kerr said:

"The slang is not my own invention nor is it anything to do with the police. The words are often more literal translations of real German phrases instead of their English equivalents. It's as simple as that."

With all due respect, the man is being far too modest. It's not as simple as that. While it's true that Nazi Germany is a period of history which has passed down to us a wealth of first person narratives (much of it truly horrifying), the skill herein lies in the choice of these words, knowing which concepts fit into the dialogue without extensive explanation, seamlessly, if you will.

Imagine trying to do that with such freighted concepts as gleichschaltung (the notion of every aspect of a society fitting together and working like cogs in a machine, keeping that society moving and well-run) or the ever-popular schadenfreude (joy experienced as a result of witnessing the suffering of others).

Sometimes it's what you don't try to say that sells your story. The key is in knowing what works, and what doesn't.

Making your Roman citizen sound like a cockney cab driver? Not so much. Having your German detective light up a nail, or take a lighter away from a drunken member of the Hitler Youth? Perfect.

Next time, more of what works, and what doesn't in historical fiction!

01 October 2014

Virgins in the Volcano


by Robert Lopresti

Someone asked us bloggers to include photos with our pieces.  I am happy to oblige, but like many Internet daters I have chosen to use a photo that is slightly out of date.  Trust me, I looked more dapper then.

 

Today I saw A Walk Among The Tombstones, the new movie based on one of Lawrence Block's novels about Matt Scudder.  It was good, and you should go see it if you don't mind some blood and guts.  Block called it "a thriller for grown-ups," and the New York Times called it "intelligent pulp" (I'm working from memory in both cases) which sort of captures it.  It's grim, it has lots of suspense, and it doesn't force you to suspend disbelief to the point where you will strain yourself.  

By that last I mean it doesn't rely on unexplained connections and bizarre coincidences, like so much that passes for TV/movie crime stories.  We get to see Scudder doing the legwork to piece the story together and if the final link is made by someone else, it is at least completely in character. 
 

If I don't seem to be overflowing with enthusiasm, I guess I'm not.  The fact is, I think private eye stories tend to work better on the page than the screen, because of their very investigatory nature.   To make that work on the screen the B-level characters need to be deeply interesting.  (This one picks up considerably when Scudder's young "associate," T.J. shows up).
 

But that's not actually my main point.  It is almost always a depressing thing to see a movie made from one of your favorite books.  Partly because it can't precisely match the film in your head, partly because Hollywood genuinely tends to do horrible things to good books.  For example, A Walk Among The Tombstones is Citizen freaking Kane compared to the earlier movie about Matt Scudder, Eight Million Ways To Die (based on a much better novel, in my opinion).
 

Jim Thomsen recently pointed out an anecdote that is mentioned in the new Library of America collection of some of  Elmore Leonard's novels.  Apparently Leonard got very upset over the  movie version of his novel Stick.  His friend Donald E. Westlake - who had a reason or two of his own to complain about Hollywood - said to him: "Dutch, why do you keep hoping they'll make good movies out of your books? The books are ours; everything else is virgins in the volcano. Be happy if the check cashes." 

Another example of that philosophy: someone supposedly told James M. Cain it was a shame what Hollywood did to his books.  He replied: "They haven't done anything to them.  They're right there on the shelf."


At the other end is former screenwriter Sue Grafton who refuses to sell ther Kinsey Milhone books to the movies.  She claims she is well-respected in Hollywood, because they haven't been able to purchase her.  Once their books have been acquired writers tend to be extremely unloved by the studios.  I recently read an old interview with Harlan Ellison in which the multi-award winning author claimed to have received a phone call from a producer's secretary, apologizing that her notes on his script were late.  That was when he found out that everyone in the producer's office, including the secretary, had been invited to critique his work. 

Here's my favorite example of what goes wrong between a book and a movie: Gregory MacDonald's award-winning Fletch.  The book revolves around two crimes: a businessman who wants to hire someone to kill him, and a drug ring.  These separate events have precisely one point in common: the apparent homeless man who the businessman picks to commit the murder is actually an undercover reporter investigating the drug ring. 


Nice and simple.  A single coincidence that the whole plot hangs on.

In the movie, there is a second  coincidence (spoiler alert) and it's a doozy:  the businessman ALSO happens to be the head of the drug ring!  Because in 1980s Hollywood every businessman had to be a crime boss.  When I saw that happen in the theatre my eyes rolled so hard I'm surprised they didn't tumble down the aisle.  Thank heavens nothing like that happens in A Walk Among The Tombstones.

To end on a more cheerful note, and to give you something to argue with, here is a list of my ten favorite private eye movies.  It is possible that after I think about it for a year or two Tombstones might muscle its way in.

The Big Sleep
Chinatown
The Conversation

Farewell My Lovely
Harper
Klute

The Late Show
The Maltese Falcon
Twilight
Vertigo

Put your own alternatives in the comments.

30 September 2014

Fast Eddie


by Jim Winter

Once upon a time, a man named "Fast Eddie" Watkins could get in and out of banks quickly, relieving them of cash, and usually not harming anyone. He became one of Cleveland's most notorious criminals, and that says a lot in my hometown. Cleveland had the Torso Killer. Its suburbs produced Jeffrey Dahmer while the Tremont neighborhood spawned notorious kidnapper Ariel Castro. A branch of the Genovese crime family ran the underworld for years, and Irish mobster Danny Green met a fiery end when his car exploded leaving a union hall in the late 1970's. So, yeah. The Northcoast has hosted its share of thugs and monsters.

But we always had a soft spot for Fast Eddie. Sure, he robbed banks. But he was a gentleman thief. In and out, and he loved the publicity. The Plain Dealer, The Press (infamous for its shoddy reporting of the Sam Sheppard murder case), and the local TV stations faithfully recounted his exploits. In a city more famous for its burning river and its serial killers, Watkins developed a Robin Hood reputation.

The one time Fast Eddie's robbery didn't go so well, he took 9 hostages. After 21 hours, though, he let everyone go and surrendered. The feds sent him to prison in Atlanta. He escaped, and therein is where Fast Eddie crossed a very young Jim Winter's path.

South of the exurb where I grew up, there is, to this day, a stretch of potato fields called The Muck, a handful of rock quarries, and cornfields all sandwiched between the CSX and Norfolk Southern railroads. We used to ride our bikes out through there, headed for the tiny little freeway burg of Burbank. Only one day, the local police stopped us.

"Why can't we ride out to Burbank?" I asked the Lodi cop at the roadblock.

"We got a bank robber cornered out past the rock quarry."

I went home. At 6:00, WEWS led their news broadcast with the standoff between Fast Eddie Watkins and the Medina County Sheriff. By 7, Fast Eddie was in custody and headed back to prison.

Watkins never hid the fact that he was a bank robber. He said he enjoyed it. "I wanted to be a big shot," he confessed. His illegal withdrawals helped finance his lavish lifestyle. So where did he keep his money?

"I trust banks with my money. They're insured. It's the best place in the world to put your money."

But was it the money? Watkins wife once said no. Mrs. Watkins said that Fast Eddie ogled banks the way most men ogled girls.

But even in prison with his criminal career over, Watkins remained a character. The Cleveland papers occasionally reported that Fast Eddie had taken up painting while behind bars, favoring landscapes.

Fast Eddie died in 2002 at the age of 82 after a long battle with heart and lung disease. Unlike the bank robbers of an earlier era, going out in a blaze of glory wasn't for him.

29 September 2014

Genre-Jump


By Fran Rizer

Back in the '60s (when I was young, dumb, and having fun), youth of America followed Holden Caulfield's early '50s search for life's meaning and found themselves in fields of flowers and hippies. Now that I'm in a different kind of '60s, I seem to be seeking myself in other ways.

Some of you (hopefully most of you) are familiar with my six Callie Parrish cozeysque novels.  Fewer people have read my first two books.  Aeden's Two Homes is a children's picture book, and Familiar Faces & Curious Characters is a collection of dramatic monologues for intermediate-age drama students.  Both are out-of-print, but a new regional publisher has agreed to take a look at them.

What does this have to do with my search for self now that I'm entitled to the senior citizen discount where I shop?   I'm changing genres. (Not genders, genres!) I will now reference a few of the many others who have done this:

Lawrence Block - Crime fiction author, including Matt Scudder novels and the Bernie Rhodenbarr novels.  Quite successful in this genre, but back in the '60s and '70s, he wrote more than a hundred books of soft-core erotica, including seven "sensitive evocations of lesbianism" written as Jill Emerson.

Roald Dahl - Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (aka Willie Wonka), Fantastic Mr. Fox, and The BFG (Stephen Spielberg is filming this favorite of mine for release in 2015.) are examples of his fantastically successful children's books.  "Lamb to the Slaughter" (woman beats her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb, then cooks the murder weapon and serves it to the policemen who investigate the killing) is an example of his classic crime stories.  Macabre stories in Kiss, Kiss and salacious ones in Switch Bitch and the novel My Uncle Oswald (about "the greatest fornicator of all time") illustrate Dahl's versatility and comfort in many genres.

Ian Fleming - Author of both the James Bond spy series and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - nothing else needs to be said.

Stephen King - Best known as a writer of horror and sci fi, King's recognition as MWA's Grandmaster in 2007 was based on his crime fiction, including "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" and The Green Mile.

A. A. Milne - Creator of the Winnie-the-Pooh books, he also wrote The Red House Mystery, proclaimed by critic Alexander Woolcott as "one of the three best mystery stories of all time."  This classic English country house "locked room" tale of murder has been in print continuously since its first publication.

Philip Roth - Portnoy's Complaint and two dozen other literary novels won him numerous awards. In 2004, he took his first stab at the branch of sci fi called "alternate history," about the fictional results of anti-Semitic American hero Charles Lindbergh being elected president.

E.B. White - Successful and memorable for an unusual combination:  Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web, both widely beloved children's books, and the classic reference work on the subject of clear writing - The Elements of Style.  Written by William Strunk, Jr., one of White's college professors, this style guide was edited and revised by White.  His publisher released it as by "Strunk and White."  E.B. White is as well known for this handbook of grammar and style as he is for that spider and pig.

Please note that I listed these gentlemen in alphabetical order. (I promise I'm not compulsive, but I tend to alphabetize all lists except for groceries.  I think it's my way of not showing favoritism as well as a hold-over from my days in the classroom.) I am not comparing myself or my writing to any of those writers, but they do demonstrate that authors aren't limited to one genre, and I am using them as an introduction to my own genre-jump.

Joanne Fluke, author of more than twenty highly successful Hannah Swenson cozy mysteries about a lady baker, has had five suspense novels released by her publisher, which happens to be Kensington. I've long admired Ms. Fluke as having reached my idea of the height of accomplishment. Though I've had the pleasure of book talks, readings, and signings in Borders, BAM, B&N, and Indies as well as libraries and book clubs, Callie never achieved my goal.  Those Hannah Swenson books get displayed right there on the book racks I yearn to occupy:  Publix and BiLo.

When I bought Fluke's The Other Child, I found "A Letter from Joanne Fluke" explaining her venture into this new genre on the very first page. (My apologies for putting that heading in quotes but not printing it exactly as it is in the book:  All caps.)  At the risk of being called a copy cat (I've been called worse), I borrowed that idea, and the very first page of my soon-to-be-released new book appears below:


A Note from Fran Rizer

A very  special thanks to all the readers of my previous books, the Callie Parrish mysteries, which are cozyesque---not quite cozies, but no overt sex, profanity, or described brutality.  For this reason, Callie has had some youthful readers, whom I appreciate.

KUDZU  RIVER is different.

It’s a much grittier book about three women whose lives become entangled as a serial killer leaves a trail of murdered teachers up and down the coast of South Carolina.  At times the writing goes beyond gritty to raw. It is not meant for children.  This is a tale that could not be told in cozy style, but it’s a story that I feel compelled to share.

I cannot think of better words to describe the differences between  Callie’s books and KUDZU RIVER than these:

KUDZU RIVER is to cozies what a great white shark is to a guppy.
                                                         -------Richard D. Laudenslager
                                                                      Author of Wounded


I'll be back in two weeks and tell you more about KUDZU RIVER. Meanwhile, if you have the time and are interested in reading and reviewing this for SSers, email me.

Until we meet again, take care of … you.

28 September 2014

I Learn Something New


by Louis Willis

In these postmodern times of information overload, I find it almost impossible to discover anything new under the sun because everything is moving so fast in cyberspace that I don’t have time to stop and smell the roses, so to speak. One part of my brain urges me to pause and read information on a webpage. Another part whispers, “Click that link and you just might discover exciting new information about a subject that interests you.” That is how I stopped and read about the new way young people are using the slash (/) in conversation and on the Internet.
The use of the slash dates back to ancient Rome. In the Middle Ages in Europe one / represented a comma, two // represented a dash, which evolved into the equals sign and was eventually simplified as a single dash (— ). In English prose, the slash is usually used as a conjunction. Of course, it is used in other ways too, such as in poems to show a line break. It also has many nonlinguistic uses.
As with many other punctuation marks in this cyberage, the slash is now used somewhat differently. I discovered the new use in the article, “The One Word In Everyone’s Texts/Conversations Right Now” by Sara Boboltz on the Huffington Post website. The slash, she says, is being used in texts, instant messages, emails, and face to face conversations. 
Boboltz links to the article “Slash: Not Just a Punctuation Mark Anymore” in The Chronicle of Higher Education of April 24, 2013, by Anne Curzan, professor of English at the University of Michigan. Professor Curzon requires the students in her history of English course to teach her two new slang words before class every day. In one class, a student mentioned “slash.” The slash is used as a conjunction, and slang doesn’t often create a conjunction. Instead of using the symbol /, the students used the word “slash” in their writings on Facebook, blogs, and Tweets as a conjunction. The students also used “slash” to mean “following up” and to indicate an after thought or topic shift.
It seems only the forward slash is currently used. I wonder how in the future the kids will use the backward slash. Maybe they’re already using it, and I just haven’t stumbled across an example. 
I imagine that at this very moment a graduate student is trying to earn his slash her degree studying the use of language on the Internet, and calling the study “netdialectology.” Maybe he slash she will come up with a name for this new way of speaking and writing that is evolving on the web. 
My candidates are netspeak, webspeak, cyberspeak, or nettalk, webtalk, cybertalk.
What are your thoughts on what we should call the language used on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking sites?

27 September 2014

You Know You're a Writer When...


Recently, I read something  that got me thinking.  (Okay, have your little laugh.  I can wait.)
The quote was:

“A writer who isn’t writing is a monster.”

At first, I wasn’t sure if that meant a writer who wasn’t writing right now and every minute was a monster.  Or whether it meant a writer who was prevented from writing was a monster.

For the sake of all concerned (at least in this house,) I’m goin’ for the latter.

Which brings me to this little list.  If you are a writer, tick off the ones that apply to you and leave a comment below with the goods.  Or better still, add your own.  If you are not a writer, stand back.

You know you’re an author when:

1.    You’d rather spend time with your characters than your friends.

2.    You’ve been at the computer all day and Pepperidge Farm Goldfish seem like a major food group.

3.    Your spouse yells “Are you all right in there,” and you’re pretty sure you’ve heard that voice before.  Somewhere.

4.    Your idea of a vacation means hours and hours of time to write.  And nobody bugging you to “do something fun.”

5.    You reach for Glenlivit when the internet goes down.

6.    You could be arrested if the Feds look at your search history.

7.    You actually know the difference between less and fewer.  And consider it a hanging offense when people misuse them.

8.    You have been known to ignore phone calls from your mom, kids, husband, boss, and possibly God.

9.    Your idea of supreme hell is being trapped at a cocktail party for three hours with people who aren’t writers.

10.    You have seriously considered murdering people who say, “I have this great idea for a book, and if you’ll write it, I’ll share the profits with you.”   And the ones who say, “I think I’ll write a book someday when I get more time.”  And the ones who say, “Of course, it’s just a mystery/fantasy/romance genre book you’ve written.  When are you going to write something important?

Excuse me now.  I have a lot of people to murder, and I’m behind.

Melodie Campbell murders people regularly in her zany mob crime series, The Goddaughter.  She lurks at www.melodiecampbell.com

26 September 2014

Some Details: Fast-Rope vs. Rappel


by Dixon Hill

David Dean's excellent blog post, which provided important details for those writing about Catholic characters, put me in mind of some other information you might find useful.  And, naturally, given my background, these details tend to be military in nature.  But, I see a lot of military techniques used in cop shows, and sometimes evidently by real police, these days.  So I thought you might have seen some of these techniques, too, and that this info might interest you -- as mystery writers.

There are many places where a helicopter can't land, but people need to get off the helicopter and onto the ground below.  Thick jungles or forests are such locations, but there are others you might not have considered.  Think of the roofs of high-rise office buildings: they are often festooned with antennae that prevent a helicopter from landing.  Yet, a helicopter -- if properly equipped -- can put people onto that roof, or take them off.

When helicopters can't touch down, but need to offload personnel, two options are fast-roping and rappelling.  Fast-roping is faster than rappelling, but I've seen fictional law enforcement units using both methods on TV and in movies, so I'll cover both here.

FAST  ROPE OPERATION
Note the number of men sliding down each rope
at the same time. UH-60 Helicopter.
HELICOPTER  RAPPEL OPERATION
Note that there is only man per rope
at any given time.  UH-60 Helicopter.
Viewed from a distance, Rappelling and Fast-Roping from helicopters can look very similar.

In both cases, people slide down ropes that hang out of helicopters.

But the person rappelling is usually attached to the rope by a D-ring or snap-link, while a fast-roper is only attached by hands and feet.






A coiled Fast-Rope:  The eye-splice at
photo bottom is used to tie-into the aircraft.  
The ropes used by these two operations are quite different -- because they serve very different needs.

("Fast-Rope" can evidently be spelled with or without a hyphen, and even sometimes as a single word.)  A fast-rope, itself, is a thick hawser-type rope about 1.5 to 2 inches thick.  The ropes are pretty long -- 35 feet and 40 feet, I seem to recall.  With a few that were about 60 or 70 feet.  The number "78 feet" sticks in my mind as the greatest distance one can safely fast-rope -- though I may be wrong.

The rope needs to be thick, because the fast-roper needs something to hang onto.  As I mentioned above, the fast-roper isn't tied or snapped to the rope.  Instead, s/he gets down from the helicopter to the ground by grabbing the rope in gloved hands, and between boots, then sliding down the rope as if it's a firehouse pole.

Fast-roping uses a thick rope that the roper slides down,
similar to sliding down a firehouse pole.


Fast-roping is a quick way to empty a helicopter that can't land, because several people can slide down each rope at the same time.  Hence the name "Fast-Rope": a rope used to empty a chopper fast.










These fast-ropers are much better spaced (closer)
than the folks in the upper left pic.  Going out closer
means you get more folks on the ground faster.
On my old A-Team, we usually rode UH-60 or MH-60 Blackhawks (seen above) when we fast-roped, and would use two ropes to exit the aircraft: one per door.  As we neared the objective, helicopter crewmen would prepare to deploy the fast-ropes, while we gathered in two groups, one around each rope, where it hooked to the chopper.

Everybody would grab the rope, in a specified well-rehearsed order -- the top of each man's hands touching the bottom of the hands of the man holding the rope above him -- ensuring no one's hands overlapped anyone else's.

When we hit the objective, the crewman dropped the rope coil out the door and leaned out to be sure the far end was dragging on the ground as the chopper moved slowly forward.

Simultaneously, our "doorman" would do the same thing with a quick glance (to ensure he didn't slide down the rope, only to plunge off the end.)  Then he would swing out and jump his feet onto the rope, sliding down.

As the doorman went out, the man beside him rotated around and dropped down the rope, followed by the next guy, and the next.  In this manner all twelve of us could descend the two fast-ropes, with our equipment, and be "weapons-up" in a matter of seconds.  Due to the chopper's forward movement, we'd hit the ground about 2 or 3 meters apart.

The ticket with a fast-rope is that the friction generated between your gloved hands, and your boots, on the rope, slows you down enough that you don't get killed or injured by the drop.  And that's A LOT of friction!  I saw a buddy of mine, who tried to fast-rope without gloves one time.  His palms and fingers looked like hamburger: horrifically blistered, torn and bleeding.  He had to wear serious bandages for about two weeks.  (To his credit, he fast-roped, wearing the bandages under his gloves, during those two weeks -- because it was VERY important.  But it hurt him like heck, every time!)

On the web, I've seen photos posted by knuckleheads who prided themselves on letting go of the rope as they descended, only to grab it again later, to slow their descent.  However, I strongly urge you not to let any fictional law enforcement personnel practice this foolish "showboating" in a story.

The fact is: the folks in those online pics are just Good-Time Charlies; they aren't carrying any equipment.  If they had been, and they'd let go of the rope -- even for just a moment -- they'd have been toast.

If you look closely, you'll see that the folks in the pics in this post aren't carrying any equipment either. Clearly, these are training photos, though I never did any fast-rope training in which I didn't wear at least my load-bearing equipment and weapons.

When I did this work, the U.S. Army did not officially permit anyone to fast-rope while carrying more than 35 lbs. of equipment.  However, 35 lbs. was just about the low-end weight of our load-bearing equipment, weapons and basic combat ammo load in SF.  When we added rucks, we could fast-rope with up to 50 or 60 lbs., but that really is about the top-end limit for safety.

I can think of a specific instance when 7th SF Group had us practice fast-roping with heavier loads, such as 75 or 80 lbs., and even more.  They did this for very good reasons, hoping we could find a way to fast-rope with heavier loads, by doing a good PLF (Parachute Landing Fall) when we hit the ground, to minimize the impact.  That much weight, however, resulted in quite a few injuries, which was how we came up with the 50 or 60 lbs. total equipment weight limit.  And, the fast-roper carrying that much, had better do a good PLF on impact with the ground.

The sad fact is:  You can parachute while wearing a 110 lbs. rucksack (I've done it -- A LOT.  It hurts, but it works.  Trust me.), but you can't fast-rope with more than 50 or 60 pounds of gear strapped to your body.  Well . . . you can, if you want . . . but the odds that you'll be in fighting shape after hitting the ground are pitifully low.
Common rappelling ropes.


Which brings us to Rappelling.









This guy has his brake hand on (right hand).
He's waiting for permission to go.
This person is in mid-rappel.
Rappelling is probably more familiar to you than fast-roping.  Even if you haven't practiced it, you've seen it in countless mountain climbing or adventure films, such as The Eiger Sanction.  Both fellows in these two photos are practicing standard repelling: off a wall (left) and out of a helicopter (right).

High-speed "Swiss Seat"
or "Harness"

In both cases, they're wearing very nice high-speed "Swiss seats" or "Harnesses" similar to the one seen to the left.  The "rappeller" hooks a snap-link to the D-ring on his seat, and runs the rope through the snap-link so that it wraps around it but can still slide through.  In some cases, s/he may run the rope through the D-ring, itself, though this isn't necessarily recommended.

Though this type of harness is nice, it's not necessary for rappelling.  Frankly, I always had to use a rope "Swiss seat" similar to the one in the drawing on the right.

To create this Swiss seat, you take a rope about five or six feet long, hold the center at your waistline below your navel and wrap the ends around your back to bring the ropes front again.  Then, you wrap the ends once around the rope, just forward of your thighs, and tuck the ends under the rope, bringing the running ends down between your legs and running them back up across the rump cheeks to come back up between your body and the rope around your back.

Now, squat down while you pull up on the two ends of the rope, tightening everything you just did.  (Men must take particular care at this point, to ensure the ropes do not cross each other, or the crotch area!)  Once your seat is tight, stand, while holding the ropes good and tight, then tie the ends together in a square knot (see pic).  The drawing shows the square knot tied below the navel, however I was taught to tie it off on my "off-hand" side.  (i.e.: Since I'm right handed, and hold my rappel line with my right hand as "brake hand," this brings the rappel line around my right side.  Thus, I "tie-off" my Swiss seat -- with the square knot -- on my left, to keep it out of the way of the rappel line when I'm rappelling.)

It's also possible to do a "Body Rappel" by passing the main rappelling line under one thigh and across the body and back, but I don't want to get into that because:

  • It's too easy to describe it in a way that might put a practitioner in danger.
  • Frankly, I find it quite uncomfortable, and would only employ the body rappel in an emergency.
  • To get a look at roughly how it's done (for story-writing purposes) you're probably better off watching the 1986 horror movie House, in which the main character uses a body rappel method at one point, and you can see how it might work.

Some readers may have seen rappelling, but might not completely understand how it works.  So let's discuss it a moment.

Take a look at that the pic of the guy rappelling off the wall again (right).  His left hand, on the rope in front of his body, is his "guide hand." The guide hand doesn't really grasp the rope; it just lets the rope run through it, in order to guide the manner in which it enters the snap-link or D-ring.  This hand has little to no impact on the speed of descent.

His right hand, which is thrown out away from his body, is his "brake hand."  In this photo, he's in mid-drop: the rope is running freely through both his hands.  He bounded out from the wall when he threw off his brake hand, which is why his feet aren't touching the wall.  He's currently falling down the rope.

In this photo (left) you can see how the rappeller is completely suspended by the rope pulling up on his snap link.  Note the trailing rope that wraps around the right side of his body (left side of photo), and that his right hand is behind his back.

This guy has stopped, or slowed, his descent by moving his brake hand tightly up to the small of his back.  This action causes the friction of the rope around his waist, and the rope trapped against his back by his tightly grasped right hand, to overcome the inertia of his fall, slowing or completely stopping his descent.

When going down a wall, a person can walk, but more commonly they "bound" -- jumping out from the wall as they release their brake hands, zipping down the line, then moving the brake hand to the small of the back and swinging up the feet to meet the wall when they want to stop.

The person in the foreground (pic on right) is the "belay man." His (or her) job is to watch the person rappelling, and stop their fall if that person seems to suddenly lose control.  Belaying is accomplished by grabbing the rope in two gloved hands and running backward to put tension on it.  This tension binds up the rope, where it passes through the snap-link and around the body, and thus breaks the fall.

Rappelling off a wall is just like rappelling out of a helicopter except:
  1. There is no wall to push off of.
  2. Helicopter rotor wash -- the wind of the rotors pushing down -- will push the rappeller more quickly down the rope, making it harder to stop.
In either case, once the person rappelling hits the ground, s/he must run backward until the rope comes completely out of the snap link (or simply open the snap link and pull out the rope!) in order to get off the rope.  

Now, recall that "Belay Man"?  The reason you can't easily send more than one person down a rappelling rope at once, is that the weight of the person rappelling below would act as a belay, stopping or majorly hindering anyone trying to follow.  This is one major reason why fast-roping is faster than rappelling, when it comes to emptying choppers.


There are other types of rappelling.

The person on the left is performing an "Australian Rappel."  In this case, instead of creating a Swiss seat, that five or six foot section of rope is simply wrapped twice about the waist, and the snap link is attached in the center of the small of the back.

This person is using his right hand as brake hand, and he's got it raised as if about to put on the brakes.  You brake, in an "Aussie" by raising your brake hand tightly to your chest.



On the right, is a person practicing the Australian Rappel on the "free side" of the wall, where there is no wall beneath the platform you jump off of.  This is how you practice performing an Aussie from a chopper, when no helicopters are available for training.

As you can see, he's just jumped off the wall, brake hand held out to zip down the line until he decides to brake his plummet.


Note, from the photos above, that the Australian leaves the rappeller with a free hand that's not doing anything.

In this photo on the left, of South Korean police in action, you see that these guys are using the Aussie to bound/run down the wall of this high-rise, while holding weapons at the ready.  The Aussie also permits them to look where they're going, so they can engage any bad guys who poke their heads out, if needed.  The shield held by the man on the right side of the photo tells me this is probably a breaching team.  They plan to breach a window or door below, in order to enter the building from an unexpected direction -- preferably directly into the room occupied by the bad guys.








Rappelling can put good guys where the bad guys don't expect them to show up!I hope you found this useful.

I hope you found this useful.

See you in two weeks!
--Dixon