15 October 2014

Ghost Story Story



by Robert Lopresti

You will no doubt be thrilled to know that the world is now richer by one more book.  I have just released into the wild Shanks on Crime, a self-published collection of thirteen stories about a curmudgeonly mystery writer named Leopold Longshanks.

It is available on Kobo and Kindle. If you consider buying it, bless your heart, I would recommend Kobo, since you can purchase it through your favorite independent bookstore and throw some much-deserved cash their way.  If you want an autographed paper copy, see me.  I can fix you up.

Most of the stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and I have written about each of them here or at Criminal Brief, So I thought I would  tell you about one of the four brand-new tales, and this being the month of Halloween I decided to introduce "Shanks' Ghost Story."

For the origin we have to go to Ramat Rachel, Israel in the summer of 2009, where my wife and I had volunteered for an archaeological dig.  (The photo above shows me finding a cup handle.)  It was great fun, but exhausting, and yet somehow the writer part of my brain found time to think up a story idea.  Being deep in a semi-tropical summer my thoughts turned to –  winter in Pennsylvania.

Hmm. How'd that happen?  Who knows?  The writer's brain is not particularly interested in logical patterns.

But somehow I got to thinking about one of my favorite gimmicks, the story-within-a-story, in which  a bunch of characters gather to hear one of them tell a tale.   I decided to try the English tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas time.  (And let me urge you to read Jerome K. Jerome's Told After Supper, a hilarious Victorian book that pokes fun at half a dozen versions of the traditional ghost story.  Unlike mine, Jerome's is free.)

I decided that Shanks, my hero, would share my attitude toward the supernatural.  (We differ on many other points, by the way, like music and exercise.)  So, as a skeptic, Shanks attitude toward the ghost stories his friends tell would be polite disbelief.

Ah, but he is far too much the storyteller to let his turn pass.  So he decides to tell a story about being a ghost writer.   Early in his career, it seems, he was hired to produce what would supposedly be the last novel by a recently deceased bestselling crime writer.  

So, no ghost.  But hold on a moment.  Is that bestselling author really dead?  Because Shanks begins to get…

Well, that would be telling.   I hope those of you who are suffering from scorch marks on your clothing where currency has burst into flame will consider reducing your fuel load by picking up the book.  For the rest of you, tell your library to buy it for you. They are public servants, after all.  Command them.

14 October 2014

From The Case Files Of Chief David Dean:
The Affair Of The Dissappeared Man


When you police a resort town a lot of things can happen; especially during the summer months.  Mostly these things are what you would expect of the Jersey Shore: bar fights, noise complaints, drunk drivers, block parties, thefts, burglaries, the occasional domestic violence case, boating accidents, and sometimes a drowning.  People who vanish are rare.  Of course, lots of children wander away from the parents, but most are found within minutes by life guards or police.  So when an adult goes for a walk on a crowded, guarded beach, and simply disappears, it's what we  in the police business call unusual.
Shortly after I was promoted to the rank of chief, I arrived at the department one very hot July morning and, as was my habit, spoke to my second-in-command on my way to my office.  Being a good captain, he always arrived before me, scanned the incident reports from the previous evening, and briefed me on anything of note.  This morning seemed a part of that routine until he cleared his throat a little nervously, and said, "An older fellow was reported missing late yesterday afternoon.  Night shift said he still hasn't turned up."

I'm the grey guy with the grey beard in the grey suit
My captain, having known me for many years (hell, we had gone through the academy together), no doubt suspected what my reaction might be.  "Since yesterday?" I repeated, my blood pressure rising perceptibly.  "And nobody thought to call me, cap?"  "No sir.  Um...they didn't call me, either.  I just found out myself when I came in."  Every promotion brings it challenges, this was one it seemed.

The captain hastened to fill in the details: Sometime around four o'clock the previous day an elderly man had taken leave of his family to go for his daily walk on the beach.  They had seen him walking north from the 72nd street entrance.  When he had not returned within an hour they went looking for him.  By six o'clock they were in full panic mode, his wife and adult sons reporting the incident to the police.  This was during shift change, and the night shift (patrol worked 12 hour shifts from six to six) received the report.  The shift sergeant, newly promoted by yours truly, promptly contacted the beach patrol for their help in locating the victim.  All of the guards were polled and not a one remembered the gentleman in question, nor had there been any rescues involving someone matching that description.  Inquiries at the hospital proved similarly fruitless.  His car was still parked in the driveway, the keys hanging in the house.  He had no cell phone (these were still somewhat unusual at the time).  Worse still, the wife reported that her husband of more than half a century was in the beginnings of both Parkinson's disease and dementia. 
Beach Path Through High Dunes

As I mentioned in the beginning, it was a particularly hot July and, unusually for the shore, brutally humid, so dehydration had to be considered a factor here.  In other words, these were a bad set of circumstances.  A single witness had been found who thought, but wasn't certain, that she had witnessed an elderly gentleman who matched the description of the missing man, staring up at the dunes around forty-fourth street.  She thought he appeared confused.  Enlisting the aid of the volunteer fire department, the newly-promoted sergeant began a search of the dunes in the vicinity, but darkness overtook them.  And in spite of a brilliant bank of search lights provided by one of their ladder trucks, the firemen and police officers found the steep, heavily forested, dunes nearly impenetrable; the angled illumination only deepening the inky shadows.  The search had been halted around mid-night without a trace of its object, and I had been left in a similar darkness.

I set about to remedy this situation.  Declaring this an emergency operation, I requested the presence of the fire chief, rescue squad chief, beach patrol captain, the emergency management director, and the director of public works.  I also notified the mayor formally, though he was a member of the fire department so I knew that he would be on hand in any case.  Utilizing a bay of the fire department as a command post, we began to gather our forces as my senior detective, acting as my operations officer, set up tables and maps, and began to orient and coordinate the upcoming effort.  My captain was to function as my administrative officer responsible for the smooth functioning of the police department's routine operations, as well as supplying any additional police personnel I might request.  The sergeant on duty was placed in charge of logistics (vehicles, equipment, communications, etc…).  The rescue chief saw to it an adequate amount of water was distributed throughout the day, while keeping a rig dedicated to treating any searchers who were injured or overcome by the heat.  The borough finance officer was even on hand to approve expenditures for food and drink for the small army that was being assembled.

Within the span of a few hours, searchers provided by the fire department, public works, and beach patrol, as well as many other volunteers, were literally combing the town, block by block, house by house.  Considering the missing man's possible mental status, it was conceivable he could be anywhere, so I instructed the searchers to ignore nothing, including crawl spaces and to look beneath any object that he could fit under, such as a child's overturned wading pool, shrubbery, or in the back seat of an unlocked car.  It had been my experience with such cases that sometime persons being looked for hid in terror of their searchers.

As each block was combed, the various teams called in their lack of success, and the detective drew an X through another grid on the map.  Meanwhile, a state police helicopter performed aerial reconnaissance, K-9 units were sent out, and marine officers quietly patrolled the back bays in search of the worst possible result.

The day dragged on growing ever hotter and more humid.  Volunteers and officers alike were becoming fatigued and dehydrated.  Those in the dunes (which are some of the largest on the Eastern Seaboard) were exhausted from breaking brush in the  relentless heat.  By five o'clock, the mayor was growing worried about the hundreds of volunteers who had been at it all day.  So was I.  Both he and the fire chief suggested we call the search off and consider resuming tomorrow.  I was both reluctant to give up the remaining daylight, and flummoxed as to where this man could be.  By this time, we had covered nearly every possible area he could have reasonably reached.  I was looking at miles of x'd-out grids.  It was as if he had stepped through the looking glass...and this bothered me.  I didn't believe in a looking-glass.  He was still out there somewhere.  But where the hell could he be?  And I was deeply concerned about his physical condition under the circumstances.  Based on what I had knew of his advanced age and shaky health from his wife and family, I wasn't at all sure he could make it through another night.  My mind raced… then screeched to a halt. 

Going over to the map table, I asked the detective sergeant to show me exactly where the search of the previous evening had ended.  He pointed to the spot in the dunes where we had begun the daylight effort.  "They covered everything north of this point," he assured me.  I was looking at a fairly small area of extremely steep and rugged maritime forest; all that the night shift had been able to search before losing the natural light and giving up on the artificial.  Turning to the mayor and fire chief, I said, "We can start bringing the searchers back in, but I want a team to go back to the area of the dunes night shift covered and search them again while we still have the light."  The fire chief reluctantly nodded, then got on the radio to dispatch them. 

As the dozens and dozens of exhausted, dirty, and thirsty men and women began to filter back into the fire dept. bays, their despondency was palpable.  We all hated the thought of leaving another human being, especially one who couldn't fend for himself, to endure another night alone and afraid, possibly injured.  After having spoken with the missing man's wife and children earlier that day, I had gotten a sense of their anguish.  I dreaded having to tell them we had failed again and was considering what I should say, when suddenly my portable crackled into life with an excited voice crying, "We've found him!  I think we've found him!"  Leaping to my feet, I keyed my mike and asked, "Is he alive?"  The answer was immediate, "Yeah, I think he's okay."

The headquarters erupted into cheers, and I knew in that moment that this would always be one of the highlights of my police career– I had had one of those brief, shining moments that don't happen often enough.  In truth, I had only thought of the obvious when I sent the team back to the starting point, but at that moment, I felt like Sherlock Holmes.  As it turned out, he had been hiding under a bayberry shrub very near the start of the original search.  Fearful of the Chinese Communist troops he believed were pursuing him, he had remained hidden for over twenty-four hours.  His rescuer had spotted the toe of one his shoes jutting out from beneath the heavy brush.  They had passed right by him the night before.

Chinese Communist Troop–Korea circa 1950
When I drove to his home to break the good news to his family, the whole neighborhood was out on their decks and lawns waiting for the news. Being in uniform, and unable to keep from smiling, they easily guessed the outcome, and the entire block began to cheer. It was a good day to be chief.

Postscript: The following day I penned a general order that any time an agency outside of the police department was requested to assist in an urgent matter, myself and the captain were to be notified immediately as to the circumstances. No exceptions.

13 October 2014

"Rules" and Comments


by Fran Rizer 

In 2010, a bargain-loving friend of mine found Stephen King's memoir/writing guide On Writing in a clearance bin at a dollar store. She bought every one of them and sent them all to me.  The problem was  that there were over twenty-five copies.  I sent one to almost every writer I knew personally.

Recently I introduced a young sci fi writer to the realm of Stephen King--not the movie or television version, but the world found in his written words.  As my friend read It, I wished I had one more copy of On Writing to share with him what King said about writing and the story about the baby sitter. I bought one for him, but I was also fortunate enough to locate a list of King's "rules" on writing.

I grew up a rebel child who hated "rules," so I'll call these suggestions. You've probably seen most of them before along with those that overlap Elmore Leonard's, but I found these gentle reminders worthwhile. I couldn't resist the color red for my comments though I graded papers in purple when I taught school. (Some of you may recall that I did, however, write "Dear John, go to hell" letters in red.)

Today, I share twenty suggestions from Stephen King.


1. First write for yourself, and then worry about the audience. “When you write a story,you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”  My next two books are a thriller in January and a horror in June, 2015.  I think I'm writing for myself these days and I have no idea what story is going to insist on being told next.

2. Don’t use passive voice. “Timid writers like passive verbs for the same reason that timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.” And for heaven's sake, learn what the passive voice is.  I've dealt with too many young writers who think linking verbs are passive voice.  No comment on the timid lovers.

3. Avoid adverbs. “The adverb is not your friend.” I add "most of the time" to this or maybe "usually" is a better choice.

4. Avoid adverbs, especially after “he said” and “she said.”  See number three.

5. But don’t obsess over perfect grammar. “The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story.” I always told students they needed to learn the rules as well as when to break them.  Sometimes those grammar rules are necessary.



6. The magic is in you. “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.”  Here I differ with Mr. King.  Years ago, when I attended a large writers' group, we encountered several truly horrendous writers who positively knew they were fantastic and tried to justify why they shouldn't follow any suggestions.  It's not surprising that those folks still aren't published.

7. Read, read, read. ”If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” Amen!

8. Don’t worry about making other people happy. “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”  I'm struggling with this right now.

9. Turn off the TV. “TV really is about the last thing an aspiring writer needs.”  Why do we need television when we have shows in our minds?

10. You have three months. “The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season.”  This is no problem for me since the Callie books averaged six weeks for the first drafts, but I don't see how King does it with some books over a thousand pages.  How about you?  How long does it take to get that first draft written or do you have some that "wrote themselves" in a short time and some that take forever?  

11. There are two secrets to success. “I stayed physically healthy, and I stayed married.”  Too late for me to accomplish either of those.

12. Write one word at a time. “Whether it’s a vignette of a single page or an epic trilogy like ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ the work is always accomplished one word at a time.”  I would add that commercial success is accomplished one reader at a time.

13. Eliminate distraction. “There should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with.” There should also be no family members who constantly interrupt writing with insignificant questions and comments having nothing to do with the story (unless they are grandchildren).

14. Stick to your own style. “One cannot imitate a writer’s approach to a particular genre, no matter how simple what that writer is doing may seem.”  "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," but does flattery have any place in creative writing?

15. Dig. “Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.  I like King's reference to the writer's toolbox.  The goal is to fill that toolbox with all possible skills and ideas and then develop the craft of knowing what to use where.

16. Take a break. “You’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience.” And sometimes, going back and reading it after a layoff enables a writer to think, "Dang!  That's pretty good!"  (Okay, I know Elmore said no exclamation marks, but I love them so long as there aren't more than two per page. I began this by mentioning my dislike of rules from a young age.  What really p-o's me is when participants aren't given the rules until they are reprimanded for breaking them.) Back to the subject:  Sometimes after that six-week rest of a manuscript, a writer goes back, reads it, and says, "Oh, s- -t.  I can't believe I wrote that."

17. Leave out the boring parts and kill your darlings. “(kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.)” Writing is also an excellent way to kill some people who are not your darlings.

18. The research shouldn’t overshadow the story.“Remember that word back. That’s where the research belongs: as far in the background and the back story as you can get it.”  I try to avoid this in writing and hate big info dump/back stories when I'm reading.  I don't like to read fiction that is obviously an effort to teach me a skill or history. (Janice Law provides an excellent example of writing historical novels that don't shove lessons down the reader's throat.)

19. You become a writer simply by reading and writing.“You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.”  I once knew a poet who refused to read other poets' works because he didn't want his "talent to be influenced by others."  He gave me a sincerely blank look when I mentioned "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening," and the last time I saw him, he was coming out of a local pawn shop.  

20. Writing is about getting happy. “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends. Writing is magic, as much as the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.”  How about you?  I personally get a lot of happiness and pleasure from "falling into the page," but greater commercial success would take me closer to a happy ending.


See a fuller exposition of King’s writing wisdom at Barnes & Noble’s blog.




Your task for today is to let me know if you have a favorite among these twenty or if you have a suggestion you'd add to the list or if you flat out disagree with one of King's suggestions.

Until we meet again, take care of … you.

12 October 2014

DuMont Episode 2 ~
Slow Torture, Slow Death


DuMont Television Network
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)


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


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


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
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
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


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!