17 July 2014

The National Pasttime


by Eve Fisher

It's a golden Sunday afternoon in South Dakota as I write this, and my husband and I are headed off to a minor league baseball game later.  There's a whole bunch of reasons I love baseball.  When I was a kid, I lived in southern California, and we watched the Dodgers every chance we could on TV.  I had a major crush on Sandy Koufax.  My second favorite team, of course, was the San Francisco Giants.  And my mother and I hissed the damn Yankees every chance we got.

Now I have a theory that there is something about baseball that makes it fuel for great novels and great movies, in a way that no other sport seems to do. Granted, every sport has at least one fantastic book and/or movie based on it. And before you start screaming about why I didn't include certain movies, I know that every sport has its dying player movie (Brian's Song v. Bang the Drum Slowly, James Caan v. Robert DeNiro, for example, take your pick), and its unusual and/or unlikable and/or unbeatable coach movie (often ad nauseum, make your own list).  And the occasional one with animal players, often monkeys (Every Which Way But Loose leaps to mind).  SO:

SURFING (my second favorite sport to watch - can you tell I'm a California girl?):  Endless Summer, of course, and Riding Giants.  (And, just for a time capsule and a so-bad-its-good movie, Gidget.)

BASKETBALL:  Hoosiers, Hoop Dreams, and He Got Game.

FOOTBALL:  Friday Night Lights, book, movie and show.  But my personal guilty pleasure is, Semi-Tough by Dan Jenkins, sadly made into an incredibly bad movie in the 70's.
(NOTE to Dan Jenkins:  get Kevin Smith to direct a new version of Semi-Tough, PLEASE, because he's the only director I can think of that could do justice to your profanity-laced, sex-sodden, really f---ing hilarious take on football, rivalry, and true love.  You do that, and it might wash the taste of that Michael Ritchie version out of my mind...)

ICE HOCKEY:  Slapshot.

Now these are good, but if you want depth, I think there are only two sports that really bring it out:  baseball and boxing.

TheNaturalFirstEdition.jpgThe Natural by Bernard Malamud.  Forget the movie version, though it's good in its own way.  The novel is raw and angry and sad and an allegory of life from the point of view of all of us who have screwed at least one thing up so badly it will never come right or have had fate step in and snatch everything away just as we had it in our hand:
"Roy, will you be the best there ever was in the game?"  "That's right."  She pulled the trigger...
"We have two lives; the life we learn with and the life we live after that."
Back when I put myself through college teaching ESL, we used The Natural to teach our Puerto Rican baseball scholarship students in order to get them to read - and it worked.  It also broke (some of) their adolescent, ambitious little hearts. Great book.  Good movie.

You Know Me Al by Ring Lardner.  A collection of short stories, all letters from the road, penned by Jack Keefe, the dumbest, greediest, most cluelessly self-absorbed pitcher the Chicago White Sox ever had.  I don't think even Will Farrell could capture Jack Keefe, because he is...  just read it and laugh your head off. (NOTE:  Ring Lardner ranks as one of the greatest short story writers of all time, imho, if nothing else for these and "Haircut" and "The Golden Honeymoon")

Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella.  Read it, please.  And, yes, go get the movie.  I hold my breath through half the movie, and then cry shamelessly (usually after the appearance of Burt Lancaster) every time I see the damn thing.  



Eight Men Out by Eliot Asinof and Stephen Jay Gould.  A meticulous, well-written, time capsule of the time and events of the worst baseball scandal in history.  The movie isn't any slouch, either, directed by John Sayles with a strong, strong cast, especially D. B. Sweeney as Shoeless Joe Jackson and Studs Terkel as sportswriter Hugh Fullerton.

Speaking of baseball movies, here's a few, in no particular order:
Bull Durham
The Pride of the Yankees
Damn Yankees (whatever Lola wants...)
Ken Burns' Baseball
A League of Their Own
The Rookie
The Babe Ruth Story
Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings

Now I said baseball and boxing, and first of all, here are some great boxing movies:

Raging Bull.  Rocky.  Requiem for a HeavyweightWhen We Were Kings.  The Harder They Fall.

And I think I may have found the connection.  We all know both boxing and baseball from the inside out. Most of us have played baseball, from sandlot on up.  Most of us have either gotten into a fight or watched one, with a lot (of pride, if nothing else) riding on the outcome.  Both sports give the illusion that anybody with enough heart can do it, otherwise we wouldn't be so damned bothered by all the allegations of doping in baseball, at least.  After all, we don't mind what are essentially genetic freaks (most people aren't 7 feet tall, folks!) in basketball; and when is someone going to bring up the size of American football players, especially fullbacks?  Surfers are too cool dude; and you can't even see hockey players...

But baseball players and boxers are right out there, for us all to see.  And both boxing and baseball movies and novels tend to focus on individual heroism and/or failure.  Both sports allow an individual to take center stage, to let us get to know them, and then watch them sink or swim.  We can make emotional connections. And they can be made into allegories that almost everyone can relate to.

Or at least that's my theory.  Meanwhile, I've got to get out to the ballpark!



16 July 2014

New choice!


by Robert Lopresti

I am writing this a few days after the Arthur Ellis Awards were announced by the Crime Writers of Canada.  Of course,  I am delighted that our latest blogger, Melodie Campbell,  won the award for best novella for "The Goddaughter's Revenge."  Such is the incredible power of the SleuthSayers brand that she started winning awards even before it was announced that she had signed up!

(By the way the award is named after Arthur Ellis, which was the nom de corde of several of Canada's official hangmen.  Fun fact!)

But  the truth is that today's piece was inspired by another of this year's winners: Twist Phelan's "Footprints in water," the champ in the short story category.  I wrote about it last year and it found a place on my best-of list as well.  It tells the tale of an African-born police detective in New York City who is called to a case involving a Congolese family.  But he is there as a translator, while the detective in charge of the case is newly-promoted, a person he has supervised in the past.

And here is my point: the cliche - and you've read it a dozen times, and probably seen it a hundred because TV loves cliches - would be for the two cops to butt heads, fighting for control of the case.  Instead Phelan turns it around: the new cop wants the senior detective's help and he politely but firmly insists that she run the show instead.  That unexpected source of conflict is one of the things that makes the story work so well and, naturally, it made me think of improv comedy.

Perhaps you don't spot the connection.  Let me explain.

My little city has been a hotbed for improv since the great comic Ryan Stiles moved here in 2004.  To indulge his passion he created the Upfront Theatre where improv is taught and performed.  And one of the games they play there is called "New Choice."  It starts with--  Wait.  Why should I try to explain it when you can see a demonstration by Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochry.  If it isn't working directly below you can find it http://tinyurl.com/oty5qsp


The point is, when I am writing (or more likely, rewriting) and I find myself face-to-screen with a cliche, I yell (internally, usually) "New choice!" and try to find a different way around the plot point.  Often, it is an improvement.

Another favorite example is from the movie Alien Nation, which takes place a few years after a huge saucer full of aliens ("the Newcomers") has landed, and they are trying to find a place in society.  Unfortunately some find their way into a life of crime and as the movie opens some of them kill a cop.

The dead detective's partner naturally wants nothing to do with Newcomers but one of them has just been promoted to detective and the bosses force our hero to work with  -- 

New choice!  The cliche would be our hero being forced to partner with the new guy (and in fact, that is exactly how they did it in the generally-better-than-that TV series), but in the movie our hero  astonishes and infuriates his peers by volunteering to work with the Newcomer.  Why?  Because he figures it improves his chances of catching the killers.  Logical, right?

A related thought:  Have you ever head of the Bechdel Test?   Alison Bechdel is a very talented cartoonist.  One of her characters once explained that she will only watch a movie if 1) there are at least two women it, and 2) there is at least one scene in which they talk together 3) about something other than a  man.

Doesn't sound like a  very high standard, but  there are tons of movies that don't reach it.  There is a website that rates more than 5000 movies as to whether they pass the Test.

And before we get distracted let me say I don't think anyone should be forced to put gratuitous women into a movie, a book, or for that matter, a comic strip. (I don't think Bechdel means that either.)  But the Test does give you a chance to look for stereotypes, which are just another kind of cliche, after all.

When I was editing my new novel I realized it didn't pass the Bechdel Test.  After a little thought I changed the sound technician in one scene from Stu to Serona.  Didn't hurt a bit (well, didn't hurt me.  I don't know how Stu/Serona felt about the operation.) 

And you know what?  It improved the scene.

Which is the point of it, after all.

15 July 2014

Criminal Savants


by Jim Winter

About a decade ago, several businesses on Cincinnati's east side suffered break-ins, almost always on a Sunday night. Police could not get a handle of the suspects. They would break in, lift the safe, and leave absolutely no evidence behind. By the time they had an arrest, they had found several safes in the nearby Little Miami River, and businesses had lost well over $100,000.

Surprisingly, two of the safe crackers worked for cigarettes. So how did the police find out?

Ring leader Jimmy Godfrey liked to walk into an East End bar and brag about his heists to his buddies.

Yes, the man smart enough to hit safes when they would hold the most money and insist on his fellow thieves wearing gloves while not allowing them to spit or use the bathroom was not smart enough to keep his mouth shut. The story of how the police busted this ring is straight out of a Tarantino film.

You would think Godfrey was a criminal mastermind. He forbade his fellow thieves from eating, drinking, smoking, or going to the bathroom to avoid leaving any traces behind for forensic technicians to find. See, Godfrey was a fan of CSI, and he actually learned something from the show. He even avoided wearing the same shoes twice on a job. Why? He didn't want anyone tracing the shoe prints.

Godfrey was also persuasive. He convinced his girlfriend and two relatives to work for cigarettes while Godfrey himself pocketed the cash. The problem was how Godfrey disposed of some of the swag he stole. One neighbor in East End, a rundown neighborhood along the Ohio River known at the time more for its Confederate flags and rusty cars than anything else, took a big-screen TV from a nearby shop and mounted it in his apartment. In 2004, big screens and LCD's were about as common as electric cars are today. Godfrey's girlfriend helped herself to a handful of expensive Christmas tree toppers.

Worse for Godfrey, some of his relatives were more than willing to sell him out to the police for very little. One woman received $35 in exchange for information about Godfrey's nocturnal activities. But they weren't the only ones. Godfrey's own worst enemy was Godfrey himself.

He paid very close attention to detail on his jobs: Taking care to leave no evidence, using rubber gloves, even timing his jobs for maximum take. However, he did two things wrong. His own cohorts sold him out since he would keep all the cash. But that was not his worst mistake. If you wanted to know who robbed Mt. Lookout Television, City Beverage, or the Sky Galley restaurant, just ask anyone living along Eastern Avenue, the main drag through East End. Godfrey would brag about his crimes to anyone who would listen.

To add insult to injury, Godfrey would have been done in by his own brother, who was sloppy by Jimmy Godfrey's standards. The younger Godfrey would frequently leave traces of himself behind, and once banged his head during a job. The injury bled which gave evidence technicians a nice DNA sample to use just in case Jimmy Godfrey clammed up.

14 July 2014

Places I Have Lived


by Fran Rizer

Last Tuesday, Stephen Ross posted "Friends and Influences" which began with a description of a time he spent living with several friends in an interesting farm house.

For some reason, my mind immediately traveled back to the year I was ten when my dad took a six-month leave from his job as an electrical engineer to write a book.  He'd saved for this and was joyfully enthusiastic to put one of his dreams into action.  As part of his plan, he rented out our home and we became tenants in a more rural, less expensive house.

The reason the rent was so cheap is because that house was so old.

It looked okay from the outside– a large building with a porch across the front with a swing. The small yard in front of the porch was fenced, but the driveway on the left was not enclosed. That drive led to the door into the kitchen at the back of the house and to what seemed tremendous to a ten year old, but was probably no more than an acre of land planted with grape arbors and fruit trees--lots of pear trees, apple trees, and peach trees. 


How Daddy probably saw the same house.
Add a fence, trees, and a driveway on
the left and this is similar to how I
remember that house.

Every room had a fire-place, the only form of heat available and of course, there was no air conditioning. We had to go out the back door to a porch to use the bathroom because it had been added and opened to the porch and not to the inside of the house.

My favorite room was the kitchen because that's where Mama usually could be found. There was a round, pot-bellied stove in there, and the room was always warm.It also smelled good. When I awoke in the morning, the scent of bacon and eggs wafted into my room.  When I got off the school bus, I could smell dinner cooking before I even reached the house.

Thinking back, those must have been very hard times on my mother.  She spent those months hauling wood into the house and keeping those fires burning. Daddy had made a budget and it didn't allow for the same kind of groceries we'd been accustomed to. Mama had to learn to cook less expensive foods, which was great with me because what's known as "soul food" evolved from making the best of limited resources in the South, and to this day, I love that kind of food.

The front room was Daddy's work room.  Now, I confess that I was totally spoiled as a child, but the rules were firm:  Don't make loud noises that would disturb him and don't go in that room.  He wrote from 8:00 AM until 6:00 PM and then we had supper.

I have some happy memories from that house and the trees out back.  There was one that was perfect to climb and sit in.  I spent many weekend hours and time between school and supper sitting in my favorite tree and reading.  Perched atop my favorite limb, I met Oliver Twist and became an avid Charles Dickens fan. I'm sure my mother was far less happy than I was because of the extra work and because when the writing didn't go well, my father was capable of extreme irritability.

However, my most vivid memory is fear.  We moved into the house in the fall.  I was terrified of the front yard. The only trees in that small fenced yard were deciduous and all the leaves fell off leaving naked branches.

There were bare trees in the back yard, but they didn't scare me. When I got off the school bus, I ran as fast as I could down the drive to get past the fenced area. I always arrived at the back door breathless and rushed inside to my mother and the warmth and good smells. I don't know what I thought might get me in the front yard, but I don't recall ever going across from the gate to the front door by myself, and I don't remember ever using that swing.  

What does all this have to do with writing?  Stephen Ross's jogging of my memory of living there brought two facts about writing to mind.

FACT 1:  It is most helpful, perhaps even necessary, to have a designated, private place to write. Stephen King recommends this and adds that it should be a space with no distractions. 

FACT 2:  We, both as writers and readers, react to how a place makes us feel from its "aura" more than from the reality of the site. This was vital in my writing of The True Haunting of Julia Bates, my horror novel that is now seeking a publisher. I tried to make the reader feel what I felt as a small child dashing past that scary place that I knew in my heart was fenced to keep the monsters within its borders.



Postscript One: That was my father's first book, and it was published by the University of Texas at Austin.

Postscript Two: I've wanted to try one of those houses where authors live together and write since I first read Frankenstein and the story of its creation.  That's not what Ross wrote about, but his description of that week dampens that idea a little.

Until we meet again, take care of … you!

13 July 2014

Impossible Things Before Breakfast, 2


by Leigh Lundin

Last week, I wrote about a 1997 case of where a victim appeared to have committed a murder after she was killed. Impossible, it seemed, and so it was.

This week, we move to a crime wave that plagued parts of western Europe for a decade and a half. In 2009, authorities offered an reward of €300 000 ($415 000) to bring the perpetrator– a woman– to justice.

German police, and later French and Austrian investigators, captured the DNA of a woman with few clues to her identity other than she came from a Slavic bloodline. Female serial killers are not yet as common as male killers, but this one was criminally prolific, engaging in burglary, robbery, car theft, home invasion, drug dealing, and murder– including the slaying of a police woman, which ramped up the manhunt, or woman-hunt, if you will. European news media began to call her the Heilbronner Phantom– the Woman Without a Face.

Silver Blaze

Profilers from across Europe were asked to imagine the suspect. Heilbronn police estimate 16 000 hours of overtime went into tracking the elusive woman. Concern heightened again when German investigators found the same DNA in a car used to transport three corpses, followed by the execution of a policewoman, Michèle Kiesewetter, and the nearly fatal attack upon her partner.

One clue was like the Sherlock Holmes’ dog in the night-time: Although DNA cropped up in crime scenes surrounding the German state of Bavaria, none was discovered in Bavaria itself, a sign of omission. Whether that raised eyebrows of detectives isn’t known, but two subsequent crimes cast doubt on the Phantom’s identity.

The first flag came from a fire when officers sampled a male corpse… and turned up female DNA, that of their long-running suspect. Eye-witnesses had occasionally reported seeing a man at crime scenes– not a woman– but eye-witnesses are notoriously prone to errors of identification. Investigators resampled the deceased using different cotton swabs and came up with a different result– no female DNA.

The final nail in the theory followed a shootout with a neo-Nazi terror cadre that killed two men. At the death scene, detectives found police handcuffs belonging to Michèle Kiesewetter. The Phantom DNA did not match the only woman in the terrorist cell, Beate Zschäpe, which raised doubts that the attack on police woman and her partner was committed by the Phantom of Heilbronn.

DNA
System Reset

While German tabloids like Bild ridiculed police by asking if their heads were stuffed with cotton wool, investigators quietly reexamined their methodology and the source of their instruments and test materials. They identified the real culprit– the departments’ miserly buyer of cotton swabs.

As Dr Mike Silverman discovered in last week's article, sterile doesn’t mean DNA-free. Sterilization might kill viruses and bacteria, but it doesn’t necessarily eradicate DNA strands. Police departments throughout Germany– except Bavaria– were buying inexpensive cotton buds from an Austrian company, Greiner. The company certified their Bio-One swabs sterile but not suitable for human DNA collection.

The mysterious ‘Phantom’ was none other than one of Greiner's assembly line employees. She'd accidentally contaminated countless cotton buds with her own DNA.

Credit Due

Several readers and SleuthSayers suggested further reading. Thanks to C.J. Dowse, Peter DiChellis, Fran, Eve, and Dixon.

Further reading: