12 October 2014

DuMont Episode 2 ~
Slow Torture, Slow Death

DuMont Television Network
by Leigh Lundin

Continued from last week

Demise of DuMont: the FCC

The Fates conspired to wreak havoc upon DuMont. Bad FCC policy was partly to blame, an agency ill prepared to see the future and beholden to special interests. (Arguably, the FCC  remains much the same today, vis-à-vis Net Neutrality and an open Internet.)

Federal Communications Commission
For four years, the Federal Communications Commission effectively closed its doors to applications for new licenses, which handicapped DuMont from expanding. In the meantime, the FCC decided to restrict the VHF to certain markets, already dominated by NBC and CBS. This forced DuMont into the UHF band at a time when manufacturers had little incentive to add UHF capability to new models. In other words, DuMont was stuck in a realm where manufacturers wouldn’t support UHF because active UHF channels were virtually non-existent and broadcasters avoided UHF because most television sets didn’t support the UHF band. This alone put DuMont in a stranglehold.

AT&T allocations
Another problem was America’s telephone monopoly, the AT&T Corporation. AT&T Long Lines owned and controlled the cables used to send network broadcast signals. Unfortunately, they didn’t have sufficient capacity to serve all four networks, so they divided two hundred hours per month between CBS and NBC, allocated fifty-some hours to ABC, and allowed DuMont, the company who’d started it all, 37 hours. In other words, DuMont was allowed just over an hour a day at a time dictated by AT&T. Adding insult to injury, AT&T also required the networks to lease radio transmission services, which put DuMont at a severe competitive disadvantage, it being the one network without radio facilities.
AT&T LongLines

Also hurting DuMont was an FCC policy of not allowing networks to own more than five stations. The other networks owned the maximum five but DuMont owned only three. However, the FCC prevented DuMont from expanding to five arguing its minority shareholder, Paramount Pictures, owned two channels of its own.

Demise of DuMont: Paramount

Internally, Paramount was hostile toward DuMont, believing the network stymied its own growth but refusing to let go of its grip on DuMont, fearing it could become a run-away competitor. They undercut DuMont in multiple ways, competing with DuMont in some markets and refusing to share promised resources in others. Paramount openly berated DuMont, criticizing its understandably low-budget programming down to the quality of DuMont television sets.

Paramount
Paramount’s dog-in-the-manger refusal to divest itself of either its stations or its DuMont stake, allowed the Paramount mangy tail to wag the DuMont dog. Moreover, a spun-off division of Paramount Pictures, United Paramount Theaters, began a merger with DuMont’s rival, ABC, infusing them with cash and allowing ABC to better compete with CBS and NBC.

About the same time, NBC developed a private and likely illegal scheme to further starve DuMont out of existence. They proposed sharing the syndication of their premium programs with ABC, giving that growing network exclusive access to popular reruns. ABC declined but failed to draw the attention of federal authorities to the machinations of the large networks. If Paramount was aware of the plot, they apparently did not object.

Largely denied access to VHF and relegated to the UHF desert, limited to three stations compared to competitors’ five each, absent supporting radio networks and starved for cash, DuMont understood it was in trouble. They began negotiations with ABC for a merger that would be highly beneficial for both companies. However Paramount, still holding that 40% stake in DuMont, refused to sign off on the deal, killing any hope of DuMont’s survival.

In the autumn of 1955, Paramount seized total control of DuMont Laboratories and its network, driving a stake through the company’s heart.

Stations that hadn’t already been sold became the Metropolitan Broadcasting Company. Paramount itself underwent a buyout by the end of the decade, which became Metromedia. It would be half a century before other network failures, Paramount’s UPN and the juvenile WB, which merged to form the CW Television Network.

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp purchased Metromedia and the two original DuMont stations to form the core of the Fox Broadcasting Company. Fox also obtained and renamed the original Madison Avenue DuMont Tele-Centre.

Next article, those with a grudge against lawyers (Dale Andrews not included) might find some justification.




Today’s Video

This is another for Dale Andrews and his friend Kurt Sercu, experts vis-à-vis all things Ellery Queen. Today, I present the second of three episodes of an early Ellery Queen television show from when our own Dale was a wee laddie, an episode broadcast 10 May 1951.

I'll be the first to admit this is not an exciting example, although a couple of reviewers disagree with me. The episode has no real deduction, nothing to challenge the viewer. But then again, bear in mind this is a live action presentation. At the end, note the line “The Adventures of Ellery Queen are based on stories by Ellery Queen and tales from Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.”


Don't touch that dial! Next: A Fate Worse than Death

11 October 2014

Selling Out to Hollywood! (In which our writer goes temporarily nuts)

By Melodie Campbell

I read one of those self-help books the other day, and I’m beginning to realize why I’m not getting very rich.  (For one thing, I’m not writing self-help books.)  It is patently obvious that nobody is going to get wealthy writing zany crime novellas unless they whack somebody over the head with them during the course of a bank robbery.

So I’ve decided to switch media here and become a screenwriter.  I’m a natural.  I can sit in those funny collapsible canvas chairs just as well as the next guy, and besides, I know hundreds of unbelievable plots; I live in Ford Nation <Toronto>.

So here goes: for my first screamplay <sic> I’m going to do something made for TV; specifically one of those romance-suspense-action-thriller-northern-southern-civil war epic-type things, maybe a miniseries.  It would have everything – sex, violence, sex, betrayal, sex, revenge, sex - and maybe even some dialogue.  It would star a ravishing but thoroughly spoiled female lead, maybe called Sapphire, and her male lead, Rot.  Here’s a preview:

Sapphire flings herself up the sweeping staircase, catching bottom of skirt on knob of banister.

Sapphire (yanking at fabric):  Go away, Rot!  Just go away!

Rot:  I’m going, I’m going.  But one last thing, Sapphire honey, I’ve got to know.  How do you manage to go to the bathroom with that bloody hoola- hoop attached to your skirt?

Sapphire (rolling downstairs on her side):  Don’t go, Rot!  Please don’t go.

Rot (doffing hat):  Frankly Sapphire, I don’t give a hoot.

(From outside, several barn owls hoot.)

I predict a blockbuster.  But just in case, I have a second one planned.  It’s a 1960s historical spy flick, based on the true-to-life adventures of very bad people who might possibly be Russian.

First Spy (possibly named Boris):  Gee comrade, do you theenk perhaps we are raising peeples suspicions speeeking English with Russian accent?

Second Spy (also named Boris):  Especially seence it is very BAD Russian accent, comrade?

Okay, so it needs a bit of work, and maybe some more sex.  I’m thinking of calling it Czech-mate. And if we bring it forward to modern times, the possibilities are endless.  What about a ‘Spy of the Month’ reality series?  Boris could live in an LA frat house with nine other comrades named Boris, and the survivor…

Or I could go back to writing silly novels.

Melodie Campbell continues to write the zany Goddaughter mob caper series for Orca Books.  There appears to be no cure.

10 October 2014

EXFIL

by Dixon Hill

In my last post, I compared rappelling against fast-roping.  Both of these are infiltration (INFIL) operations.

People seemed to like the article so, thinking that some among you might be cooking-up suspenseful cloak and dagger novels in those writerly brains of yours, I thought I might discuss some methods of exfiltration (EXFIL) this week.  True: I used these techniques in the military.  But, intel agents or spies can use them as well (see the CIA link below). There is no law preventing this.  :-)

Helicopters refueled by C-130 in flight.
These days, due to our current ability to refuel certain types of helicopters (particularly SpecOps birds) in the air, helicopter EXFIL is quite commonplace.

Commonly, the chopper just lands and picks the person or people up.  At other times, the helicopter can't land: such as in forested or jungle areas, on steep mountain sides, or from building roofs festooned with tall antennae.  In such a situation, a SPIES rig or some other method may be used.


SPIES RIG
Up, up and away!

Evidently, this can be called a "SPIES rig" (pronounced: speeze rig) or a "SPIE rig", but I learned it as a SPIES rig, and will address it as such.

SPIES supposedly stands for "Special Patrol Insertion Extraction System," but don't quote me on that.

The system is pretty basic: A line is lowered from the hovering helicopter, personnel wearing Swiss seats (or other harness types) hook into the line with a snap-link, and the helicopter takes off, dragging these folks through the air.  Eventually (hopefully!) the pilot spots a place where he can lower them to the ground.  They then clear the helipad, and the pilot lands the helicopter.  After which, the team members who recently acted as "dopes on a rope," now climb into the chopper, which flies away.

In these photos, the operation is presented from slightly different angles.  Arms and legs are not extended just to look stylish.  They're used for stability, in order to help prevent twisting in the wind -- which is very important if you don't want to lose your lunch.


I used to think getting air sick on a SPIES line was the worst fate a person could suffer. Then, however, I learned the truth: The worst fate is to suffer through the guy ABOVE YOU, on the line, getting sick!









The SPIES rig can be as simple as this fast-rope (below) with those white hook-lines woven in.  A rider just snap-links into the hook-line, and enjoys the ride -- which can make a person feel rather like Super Man!











STOL 
I'm hardly an aircraft expert,
but I believe this is the type of STOL
we used in SF when I was in.
When a short -- VERY short! -- relatively flat spot of land is available, but a helicopter is not, Short Take-Off and Landing (STOL) aircraft can be used.  The pilot lands; the team jumps on; the pilot flies off.  These aircraft are quite small and very light.  You can't cram more than five or six guys, plus their gear, onto one aircraft.  Well . . . you can cram more guys in, but I don't think you'd ever get off the ground -- though I have seen these planes  carry a surprisingly heavy load at times.

If you read the CIA paper below, which mentions mail-operations, you may like to know that SF uses that type of mail drop also, and we used these planes to do it.

Rocket-Assist Take-off





Additionally, the MC-130 Special Operations aircraft is capable of great range (which may be further augmented by aerial refueling), landing on a relatively short airfield, and using "Rocket Assist" to make short take-offs, as the MC-130 may be outfitted with rockets on the sides of the fuselage.  I can attest that the near-instant acceleration of a rocket-assisted take-off makes for one heck of a ride.

C-130 aerial refueling,
in case you didn't know how it works.











SKYHOOK

Skyhook, or the Fulton Extraction System, developed in the '50s and '60s, is undoubtedly the most spectacular EXFIL method I've ever seen.

Though aerial refueling of helicopters may seem to have rendered this practice obsolete, the system may still be in operation today, as I found an online pic of an MC-130 with the tell-tale "hooks" on its nose, but was unable to gain permission to post it.  I do know it was still available for use when my A-Team trained with the Special Operations Air Wing in Florida, around 1992.  At that time, however, humans were not permitted to be extracted during training missions.  Hence, we used a dummy instead.

The Fulton Extraction System works like this:

a. A container is parachuted to the team/individual on the ground.
The suit.

b. The team/individual opens the container and removes a rubber-insulated suit with hood, about 500
feet of braided nylon cord attached to a deflated "blimp" about six feet long, a tank of helium, and sometimes two telescoping poles (for use if suitable saplings are not available for easy cutting). [Note: The suit is insulated because the aircraft, when it strikes the cable, may impart a tremendous electrical shock to the system -- reportedly due to the aircraft's creation of static electricity -- which would otherwise give the rider a nasty jolt.]

c. The person being extracted dons the suit, while poles are erected and the nylon cord is run through in a loop, then hooked to the shockline hook on the suit.
Catching the line.
Note "blimp" near photo top.

d. The "blimp" is inflated and permitted to rise in the air, as the suited person sits on the ground, back to the poles.

e. A plane, with the hook (what look like scissors) attached to its nose, flies along and catches the nylon cord (hanging from the blimp, and attached to the suited fellow on the ground).  It catches this line about 450 feet above the ground.
Back on the ramp.





f. The line jerks tight, and the suited person rises rapidly, to fly away, sailing through the sky behind the aircraft.  Meanwhile the aircrew, back by the aircraft rear ramp, are securing the line, as it runs beneath the fuselage, with a long hook.  Once they capture the line, they hook it to a winch and reel-in the fellow on the far end up to the open ramp.

Almost in!



The "victim" tries to keep his/her arms and legs out, and his/her back toward the aircraft, while flying, in (what is sometimes a vain attempt) order to prevent him/herself from spinning or oscillating in the aircraft's wake.  Being reeled-in can take up to ten minutes, and be extremely disorienting.  In fact, it is reported that parachutes were once issued to the person being extracted, but this practice was halted, because the "extractee" feels as if s/he's falling the entire time s/he's being reeled-in.  Once the extractee arrives in the aircraft, aircrew grab the new passenger on both sides, and strap him/her down before releasing the new passenger and confirming that the mission has been successful.  (It's my understanding that some disoriented personnel have accidentally walked off the ramp while the aircraft was flying, when this was not performed correctly, and that this is why humans are not permitted to be used as "training dummies.")

You can see the system used on film, if you watch the movie The Green Berets, or you may read a CIA paper, about Skyhook's use in an intel operation HERE

This is probably enough for now.  If you like learning about this stuff, let me know.  I'd be happy to write about driving a Zodiac rubber assault boat into a sinking CH-47 Chinook helicopter, in the middle of a dark night, next time, if you'd like.

--Dixon

09 October 2014

Anatomy of Revolution, Part 1

by Eve Fisher

As well as a writer and omnivorous reader, I'm an historian by trade, and I love patterns in history. Searching down and matching up cross-cultural, cross-chronological patterns is my specialty.  And there are a lot more patterns than people are aware of, because (1)  we always like to think that we (our generation, country, tribe, religion, etc.) are unique and (2) we often get the pattern wrong.  And we generally get it wrong because we're trying to get the pattern to match a predetermined belief system.

For example:  There's an illusion that revolutions are started by the poor and downtrodden masses, who have finally had enough and Rise Up! against the oppressor, and all hell breaks loose.  Sorry. That's not how it works.   As Leon Trotsky once said, "The mere existence of privations is not enough to cause an insurrection:  if it were, the masses would always be in revolt."

Delacroix - Liberty Leading the People

Nor do revolutions erupt when societies are at their lowest, economically/socially/morally.  Actually, when things are at their worst, no one has time for revolution.  Survival takes up everyone's time and energy. Instead, revolutions occur just as things are, finally, getting better.  And they are launched not by the masses, but by a thin wedge - actually many thin wedges - of which the most common are intellectuals (sometimes, but not always, of the upper classes, socially and/or economically), grumbling property owners, radicals, and extremists who - SPOILER ALERT - would not be satisfied if God came down from heaven and gave them everything they claim to be their heart's desire.

Crane Brinton (1898-1968)
Back in 1938, Crane Brinton, a history professor at Harvard University, wrote a book called "Anatomy of Revolution".  He revised it in 1965, and I only wish he had lived long enough to incorporate the Chinese Cultural Revolution in it as well.  Basically, he compared the English Civil war of 1642-1651, the American Revolution of 1765-1783, the French Revolution of 1789-1799, and the Russian Revolution of 1917-1922, and found significant patterns that ran through all of these.  He compared revolution to a fever, and he wasn't far wrong.  I'm not going to use all of his jargon, and I am going to simplify some things and add others, but here's the general run-down, in case something strikes you as familiar, or potential, or possible.  Personally, I find predicting revolutions far more practical, although much less hilarious, than predicting apocalypses.

The Pre-conditions of Most Major Revolutions:

In every revolution  (Britain, Colonial America, France, Mexico, Russia, and China), the economy was actually improving before the revolution.  BUT as things got better, people felt more discontented than they did when they were starving to death and could only focus on food.  Now they had food, and they started wanting more.  They were hopeful for the future, but they felt they were forced to accept less RIGHT NOW than what they hoped for.  And (sorry if this comes as a shock) they always blamed it on the government in power.

Brinton said that, in each case, the Old Regime was:
  • Economically weak - the government had deficits and/or debts and had to enforce taxes, which everyone hated.  
  • Louis XVI of France
    • NOTE:  In most countries, taxes were paid almost entirely by the poor, even though, throughout pre-revolutionary history the 5% wealthy/middle class owning 95% of the wealth was the norm. One of the purposes, and major achievements, of revolutions was to change those statistics significantly.  For one thing, today we EXPECT there to be a substantial middle class, and are worried when there isn't.  Thank the American and French Revolutions for that one, folks.  
  • Politically weak - the government was ineffective and could not enforce policy.  
    • NOTE:  this was especially true in governments that were based on hereditary royalty, which almost always eventually run out of steam, not to mention genetic material. 
  • Intellectually deserted - the intelligentsia (scholars, thinkers, some artists) gave up on the way their society operated and joined the reformers, speaking out against the government, often (especially in France and Russia) sawing off the branch they were sitting on.  
  • Riddled with class antagonism - there was a growing bitterness between the social/economic classes, with the classes closest to one another being the most hostile to each other.  (Basically, the poor don't have the time to hate the rich, they're just trying to survive; and the rich can easily ignore the poor, because they hardly ever see them.)
The Revolution Begins

Zapata in Cuernevaca
So all this is stewing away, and then a symbolic action rallies the people against the old regime.  The Boston Tea Party; the taking of the Bastille; the Petrograd strikes in February, 1917; Viva Zapata!; the Guangzhou Uprising in China of 1927; the mass rallies of the Cultural Revolution.  These are followed by planned "spontaneous" revolts (usually carefully orchestrated by the intellectual elite), and the government can't repress the rebellion without a level of violence that they fear will lead to total revolution. But total revolution happens anyway.  And the government... succumbs.

Change to Moderates

Charles I on trial for his life in 1649
In France, the Legislative Assembly ruled until 1792; in China, in 1911, the Qing Dynasty fell and Sun-Yat Sen became first President of the Republic; Charles I of England was held prisoner by Parliament, which ruled the country; Francisco Madero, a wealthy reformer, became President of Mexico; in Russia, Alexander Kerensky took over the Provisional Government.  In all of these and more the moderates quickly took over the mechanism of government.  Everyone celebrates!  "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!" (Wordsworth)  Everything is changing!  New constitutions!  New institutions!  Sometimes a new war!

BUT there's always somebody who isn't happy, whether you want to call them radicals or extremists or what ever other name is popular. Two VERY important facts:
  • The moderates fail to - and indeed cannot - satisfy those who insist on further changes because
  • the moderates want to/must maintain government, and the radicals want to destroy it. (Or at least the radicals want to destroy the moderates' government.) 
The honeymoon period is brief, sometimes as brief as a heartbeat.  In Mexico, President Madero was assassinated by his generalissimo successor Huerta, who claimed that the former President had gotten caught in an accidental crossfire; In 1911 China, Sun Yat-Sen was ousted by the old warlord Yuan Shi-kai in a matter of days.  (Sun Yat-Sen, no fool, resigned rather than stick around to be killed.)  In 1917 Russia, Lenin and the Bolsheviks got rid of Kerensky's government within months. In France, Robespierre took over the Committee of Public Safety...

And in all cases, any members of the former royal house still in the country get imprisoned and/or executed.

And now the Extremists, self-righteous, self-assured, irreproachable, illimitable and insatiable, are coming...

More next time.

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.