19 January 2015

Creeping Crud From Lower Slobbia

Jan Grape
I've had crud before and dang if I haven't had it again. I know none of you want to hear my litany of complaints so I won't enumerate them. Suffice it to say my crud hasn't been the flu or even rotten enough to carry me off to a doctor, thank goodness. I just wish I owned stock in Aireborne, Zinc, Vitamin C and Slippery Elm tea and Allegra D and whatever brand of sinus medicine I can find that does NOT have Tylenol in it because I take a pain medicine that has Tylenol. I've learned you just don't want to add too much to your system.  I'm finally on the road to recovery and strangely enough everyone I speak with or read about on Facebook or run into at the grocery store or drug store have been fighting some form of the crud. Hope you've all been healthy.
I've managed to get quite a bit of reading done and one of the best new books was A SONG TO DIE FOR by Mike Blakely. You may not have heard of Mike before, but he's a local singer/songwriter/musician who also writes historical westerns. If you haven't read him, look for COMANCHE DAWN as that one blows me away. He's won Spur Awards from Western Writers of America for SUMMER OF PEARLS. He also won a spur for a song, "The Last of The White Buffalo," which was the first Spur ever given for a song.   A few years ago he did a book with Willie Nelson, titled A TALE OUT OF LUCK. Last year he did a book with Kenny Rogers, titled, WHAT ARE THE CHANCES.

A Song To Die For is the closest to a mystery as you can get from a western writer.. It's set in 1975 and features a guitarist/singer Creed Mason who is hoping to ride the wave of new Austin style music. His last hope is to team up with a washed-up legend named Luther Burnett. If you enjoy Music lore and a little romance and mob-killers from Las Vegas, give this one a try.

One thing I read about this week and it's been my stand-by for a few years, when you're asked to do a reading at an author event, please don't just read from your work.  I mean, you can and should read from your work but read a little, then stop. Talk a bit, about where that particular scene came from or the trouble you had with it until you finally realized a solution came from. Then you're ready to read a bit more. You don't want your listeners eyes to glaze over do you?

No matter how interesting your own writing sounds to you and I know you love every word you have written, but to just read can be way too boring. Another thing if you can...use a bit of acting expressions as you read. When you use a male voice (and you're a woman) lower your voice a bit. And if it's a female voice then speak a bit more in a feminine voice. If there's action going on, then make your voice sound excited. If it's a quiet and reflective scene, read it quietly but try your best to not read too many lines of quiet.

I think this is something I learned early on, maybe even before I read any of my own work. But a writer who came to my bookstore, Judy Jance (aka J.A. Jance) brought it home to me and to a couple other writers who attended the book signing. Ms Jance read a bit, then talked a bit, the read a little more. Everyone in the audience seemed to hang on every word. And she made everyone there want to read her book.

Book signing events can be a lot of fun or a real drag if you're at one of those big chain stores. If you've been asked to do a reading, try to make it as interesting as possible. If you're just sitting at the front of one of those big box stores, try to catch people's eye and engage them in conservation. A large number of writers are basically shy and have a hard time speaking in public. Most would rather just stay home and write. But you have to do something to help get your name out to the book buyers. If you are shy, try to imagine that you're an actor who has taken on a role of a writer. That you will act out this book signing event as a role you're playing and once it's over, you'll quietly go back to your office and write. It's not the easiest  thing if you are shy, but you do want to sell your books.

Okay, class, that's all for this time. Hope you're not suffering from the crud and if you are, that you're over it soon.

18 January 2015

A Tangled Webb and Mitchell

Some of you know I detest televisions in waiting rooms. I don’t even own a telly. I do sporadically watch television, but on my computer and many of the programs are British. One I enjoy is QI on the BBC with host Stephen Fry.

QI is a brainy and hilarious quiz show of sorts. The ‘contestants’ represent the brightest lights in comedy, and on rare occasions when participants might not be professional comedians, they hold their own. American Rich Hall is an occasional visitor. Forget the meaningless tally– the answers are everything. You have to watch to see what I mean.

An occasional guest is David Mitchell, master of a slyly warped sense of humor, known for his ‘logic’. You may have heard the news that female prisoners asked for ‘slimming’ stripes on their uniforms. Here’s Mitchell’s take (on stripes, not incarcerated women)…

And that brings us to today’s television special, the Mitchell and Webb Look (also starring Robert Webb) treatment of police shows like Major Crimes.

Next Sunday, we welcome back Dale Andrews and in two weeks, Jim Winter interrupts this broadcast to bring us a special report. See you then!

17 January 2015

They Call Me a Literary Slut

"The Princess Bride with Sex” or Why I Write Wacky Time Travel (in addition to respectable crime)

I am best known as a writer of comic crime capers, and in particular The Goddaughter series (Orca Books).  However, I also have a second life as an author of racy fantasy…the sort of thing that has been called “OUTLANDER meets Sex and the City.”

This has gotten me the rep of being labeled a 'literary slut,' in that I 'write around' in a lot of genres.

Why?  Why would a moderately respectable crime author swap genres and write a wacky time travel series, set in Arizona and Alternate-world Great Britain?

1.  I like Arizona.  Especially in winter.  You can fly nonstop there from Toronto.
(Whoops – delete, delete.  Of course, the real reason for using Arizona is I believe in accuracy of setting and doing research, which I take great pains to do once each year in February.) 

2.  I like Great Britain.  And I like to be accurate.  But you can’t travel to medieval Great Britain right
now, at least not on WestJet. (WHY doesn’t someone invent a cheap time travel airline?)  So I can’t be accurate, which bugs me a lot.  But I can be silly, which is almost as good.  Hence, Alt-world.

3.  My cousin Tony’s family, the Clegg-Hills, used to own a Norman castle in Shropshire.  Unfortunately it burned down in 1556.  Damned careless of them.  I had to make up what it would look like from family stories, which are probably dubious at best, and vaguely criminal, on reflection.  Also, I hate being sued. Hence, Alt-world.

4.  Fessing up, here.  I actually didn’t mean to write funny time travel.  I meant to write a serious whodunit that would get the respect of the Can-Lit crowd, and the more erudite members of Crime Writers of Canada.  This ‘veering from plan’ is becoming a nuisance.  Next book, for sure, will be a serious whodunit.  Okay, maybe a whodunit.  Okay, maybe a book.

5.  Okay, I lied.  The serious whodunit turned into a wacky mob comedy series that has won a Derringer and an Arthur.  Still no respect from the Can-Lit crowd.  So I might as well go back to writing wacky time travel.

Why?  ‘Cause it’s a hell of a lot of fun being a literary slut.

Are you a literary slut?  Confession time!  If you write in more than one genre, let us know in the comments.

Flash Update: The Land's End Trilogy featured in this blog started charting on Amazon this week, and on Thursday made the overall Amazon Top 100 Bestseller list, at no. #47!  Author is faint~ 

Land's End Trilogy ("OUTLANDER meets SEX AND THE CITY" Vine review) is on sale for a ridiculous 99cents this weekend!  If you were ever curious about her 'other life'...'nuf said. 

16 January 2015

Bluto's Bouncing Brain

I don't behave like Bluto Blutarsky,
though some say there is a physical resemblance.
By Dixon Hill

My brain ran away with a book I was using for research, the other day, and I haven't seen it since then.

In a way, I'm glad.  Because I needed this.

REALLY needed it.  The way Bluto Blutarsky needed a good toga party.

My latest novel manuscript had come back from another agent.  I had been stuck in the doldrums for several weeks, not able to turn out very much that pleased me.  And, I had this nagging feeling that there was a problem in that novel manuscript, staring me in the face, which I couldn't fix because I couldn't see it.

As I often do, in such cases, I read a book I'd enjoyed years ago.  And, to my joy, it unlocked an idea in my brain.  Almost at once, I felt I'd identified the problem in my manuscript.  And, within a short time, I was fixing things.  Once I had them straightened out, I sent the thing off to a new agent, but have yet to hear back.

Meanwhile, a book I'd been looking for, to conduct research for another novel idea, arrived in my mail box.  That's the book my brain ran away with.  Because that book -- though others may not find it as wonderful as I do -- just reached inside my chest, scooped up my heart and soul, and took flight with them.

Naturally, my brain followed suit.

So now, my brain is off gallivanting, just where I wanted it to go, flying around the late-1930's Pacific Ocean in what was then nearly a state-of-the-art aircraft.  My fingers, consequently, have been dancing joyfully (but professionally, I assure you) over the keyboard.  And, a work I've long been dying to write has begun to take shape.  To grow and develop a personality all its own -- a key indicator that my ghostly little writing train is roaring down the right track.

Some of you, reading this, know already what I'm talking about.  Because you helped me get my hands on the book in question.  I owe you a large debt of gratitude, and I don't want you to think I'm going to ignore that.  Or you.  But . . . I haven't had time, or the requisite brain (Remember: it's off with the book, in Fiction Land, and it's not answering my calls or letters at the moment.) to properly compile the NON-fiction story of how this came to fruition.  That post will come, but I can't write it now.  I simply don't have the faculties.

Instead, I'm blogging, today, about a conundrum I face whenever I work on a longer manuscript: The Question of Sales.

It's always hard to convince myself that I'm not wasting my time when I work on a novel-length piece, because I know it will be that much harder to sell.  And I don't see myself as being very good at selling longer manuscripts.

I'm not quite sure why.  I mean:

I'm good at selling cigars.
                       So, why can't I seem to sell a novel?

I sell short stories fairly well.
                       So, why can't I sell a novel?

I'm undaunted at having landed a part-time job, in which I'm supposed to sell windshield repairs and windshield wipers.
                       So, why do I feel so "daunted," when it comes to selling a novel?

There are some obvious physical reasons, I suppose.  After all, I don't need an agent to sell cigars, short stories or windshields.  But, an agent certainly seems to help when it comes to novel sales.

Unfortunately, I don't seem to be selling anything to any agents.  At least, not yet . . . though the theory of the sale seems as if it should be similar.  I mean: when I sell cigars, I don't really sell "cigars."  I sell the "love of cigars" to people.  I tell them a story, and let them fall in love with the thing I love: a good cigar.

Selling a short story, I do my best to get my cover letter out of the way fast -- and let my love for the story sell itself to the acquisitions editor, when s/he reads the story.  I always figure the best way to sell a short story is just to let it sell itself.  It doesn't really need me muddying up the waters, if I've raised it right.

And yet . . .

And yet, I haven't landed an agent.  I've begun to think that maybe what's missing is some personal touch.  I don't mean something stupid: like writing letters on purple paper, or sending flowers to an agent.

Instead, I've been sitting in a class for much of the last week, that focused on selling those windshields and wipers.  And that has me realizing just how much my tonal inflections are involved, when I start selling.  I've never been a big believer in writer's conferences, where writers pitch manuscripts at agents or editors.  But, this has me wondering if that might not be such a bad idea.

And, I'd like your advice on this, dear reader.  Because many of you are much-published novelists.  Do you think a pitch conference makes sense?  Or is it really just a big waste of money?

Anybody can give me their take on it, too.  Don't have to have gotten a novel published, to give me your two cents on this thing.  I'm just interested in what folks think.  I'll be tied up for much of the day, but my brain has promised that it will fly in for comments in the Arizona afternoon.

See you in two weeks!

15 January 2015


We moved up to small town South Dakota 25 years ago.  There was one movie theater, that back then showed movies about 6 months to a year late.  (Things have improved.)  Back then you could rent videos - remember those?  and the main rental center was at a local liquor store.  Let's just say that the selection was limited.  We missed a lot.

But now, with Netflix, I can get almost anything I want.  I troll Netflix the way some people troll bars, looking for suitable pick-ups.  About the only thing I won't watch is anything with extreme gore.  (I have a sensitive stomach.)  And if the show is good enough, I'll read the book.

A classic example of this is Cloudstreet, by Tim Winton of Perth, Australia.  It's Australia's favorite novel, and the miniseries was produced by the Australian television station Showcase.  I rented the miniseries - 6 episodes - and we binge-watched it.

Two families, the Pickles and the Lambs spend over 20 years living in the same, large, ramshackle, haunted (more about that later) house.  They split it down the middle, and a good thing, because they are night and day to each other.  Sam Pickles is a gambler, his wife Dolly is the sexiest drunk God ever put on this earth; between the two of them there isn't much on the table or in the future for their kids.  The Lambs are industrious, but with Oriel as the matriarch, they have to be:  she runs a tight ship.  As her husband, Lester says, "People have always been a disappointment to her."  The Lambs find meaning in God's grace, the Pickles, in luck.  The Pickles' God is the "Shifty Shadow" of fate, and Sam is its high priest.  The Lambs' God is a maker of miracles, although they also trust to the spinning knife, because it's "always the miracles you don't need."  Like a talking pig.  Or a son (Fish Lamb, the narrator) who Oriel beats back into breath after drowning, but not much else, or so it seems.

The house at Cloudstreet is a character in itself.

Cloudstreet - the House
It moans, it breathes, it lives - it's "a continent of a house", trembling with life, past and present.  It's haunted by the ghosts of at least three stolen Aboriginal children, who were being "trained" by an eccentric woman to become nice white ladies at tea before their suicide.  Fish Lamb cries to it; Oriel Lamb runs from it, to the point where she sets up a tent in the back yard and sleeps out there for almost 20 years.  Add to all of the above magical realism, two resurrections, a plagiarist, a parrot that craps money, Lester's ice cream, Oriel and Dolly dancing for the dead, Quick Lamb glowing white hot as the sun from the inside, Fish Lamb leaping, a boat that sails on grass, and a bilocating dog... It's a miniseries worth seeing.


In Cloudstreet the novel, one of the darker plot lines is provided by the real life Nedlands Monster, Eric Edgar Cooke, who terrorized through Perth from 1959-1963.  He committed over 250 robberies, during which he killed 8 people, and tried to kill 14 others.  It's true that Cooke was a horribly, notoriously abused child, frequently hospitalized for head injuries.  He was born with a cleft palate and had many surgeries, which weren't entirely effective.  He joined the armed forces, but was discharged once they found out about his record of B&E, vandalism, and arson.  He married in 1953 and he and his wife had seven children.  Some time after 1957, after two years' imprisonment for stealing a car, he went on a killing spree, that was the most entirely random thing you can imagine. He shot people, strangled them, stabbed them with knives and/or scissors, ran them over with cars, and axed them.  Whatever worked.  Some he killed when they woke up while he was robbing their house in the middle of the night.  One he shot dead when they answered his knock at the door.  He was eventually caught, tried, convicted and hanged in 1964.

Sadly, before Cooke was convicted, two false convictions were made:
Beamish, Button, and
crusading journalist Estelle Blackburn
after Beamish's acquittal in 2005

  • Darryl Beamish, a deaf mute, was convicted in December, 1961, of murdering Jillian Macpherson Brewer, a Melbourne heiress.  Despite Cooke's confession in 1963, Beamish served 15 years.  (The Chief Justice of Western Australia refused to believe Cooke's confession because he was a "villainous unscrupulous liar.")  After Button was released, though, in 2005, Beamish was finally acquitted.
  • John Button was convicted of manslaughter in 1963 of the death of his girlfriend, Rosemary Anderson (one of Cooke's first hit and run victims).  Button's bad stutter led the police to believe that he was deliberately concealing his guilt, and they coerced a confession out of him.  Again, despite Cooke's confession later that year, Button's appeal was denied.  In fact, Button's appeals were continually denied until 2002, when the Court of Criminal Appeal finally quashed his conviction. Sadly, Ms. Anderson's family continued to believe that he was guilty, and when they finally accepted that he didn't run her down, they held him responsible for her death because he was her escort the night that it happened, and he should have seen her home safely.  Button is currently the head of the Western Australia Innocence Project.

None of this shows up in the miniseries, but in the book, after Rose Pickles (Sam and Dolly's oldest) marries Quick Lamb (Oriel and Lester's oldest), Quick becomes a police officer, one of many assigned to try to catch the Nedlands Monster.  You can see "the murderer" as a symbol of another way of life, or a way to add to the tension, or as another example of the haunting of the world, the way Cloudstreet is haunted:  take your pick.  But he's all over Part IX:  he even shows up at the Cloudstreet house at one point, (looking for who?) but is chased off by the talking pig while the Aboriginal (sporadic visitor and prophet) watches approvingly.  And his eventual capture is another turning of the "shifty shadow", this time to good luck.

I don't know why they cut Cooke out of the miniseries.  (It's still worth seeing, even without him.) Maybe they thought that no one in Australia wanted to see it.  And I know there's never enough time in a movie or miniseries for everything that's in the book.  But still.  The novel was published in 1991, the miniseries made in 2010, and I would swear that if it had been made in America, they'd have left that serial killer in.  Can you think of any American miniseries where the serial killer got left out?

14 January 2015

Genre & Its Discontents

There was a recent newspaper article on the wire services - courtesy of the Houston CHRONICLE - about video games now being treated seriously as an academic subject. Not simply gaming design, which is a career path, but themes and narrative, studying the art of the medium. The first thing that struck me was there's sure to be pushback, from more conservative circles, a sense that this is frivolous, or another sign of the impending doom of Western Civilization.

What's the world coming to, that we seriously look into the origin story of Batman, for example, and the dark graphics of Bob Kane, or the influence of MAD Magazine on American culture? There was a time, not that long ago, when comics were seen as a malign presence, poisoning youth. (See SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT, published in 1954, which led to mutterings in Congress.) The comic book industry got ahead of the curve with the so-called Comics Code, akin to the Hays Office in the movie biz, which self-censored content. These days, Archie Andrews takes a bullet and dies in a pool of blood. What's next, Nancy Drew comes out to her dad as a lesbian dominatrix, or the Hardy Boys cook meth in their garage? The mind boggles.

This goes back to an older division of the spoils, low-brow vs. high-brow. Or the related question, does commercial success compromise literary integrity? ULYSSES got
tied up in court for a dozen years, remember, over whether it was obscene. Its publication in the U.S. led, for better or worse, not just to LADY CHATTERLY'S LOVER seeing the light, but MY GUN IS QUICK. Spillane's books were wildly successful, and struck a deep chord, but the critics took him over the coals, the brutal sadomasochism, the perceived contempt for women, the casual Red-baiting. Not that Mickey gave a rat's ass. He wrote a book in three months, and spent the other nine months fishing off the beach.
The issue is their staying power. Who would you rather read, Spillane or Melville? No disrespect to MOBY-DICK, but most of us are gonna go with the more lurid and accessible.

G.K. Chesterton once remarked that any informed person knows the difference between literature and printed matter. (Chesterton, of course, wrote the Father Brown mysteries, so you couldn't call him a snob.) Genre writing - gothics, Westerns, thrillers, SF and fantasy - has for a long time been condescended to. So have novels themselves, for that matter. Early on, they were thought of as unserious, books for women, who were frivolous by nature. Maybe it's the comfort zone. There's a shapeliness to fiction, unlike life, say. Fiction of itself is a construct, a pattern, a design. Life is messy, and unresolved. Stories are rounded and complete, and usually have a satisfying punchline, mystery stories in particular. I don't think of this as a weakness. There's something to be said for the familiar. That doesn't mean it's paint-by-numbers, or unoriginal. You don't let it get stale. You write faster and smarter. You don't settle for less, although sometimes less is more. And if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

We'll leave the last word with Spillane. (Spoiler ahead.) I, THE JURY ends with Mike Hammer and the killer alone. They have a sexual history together. She tries working her wiles on him yet again. Hammer isn't having any. He shoots her in the belly. She sinks to her knees. "How could you?" she asks him tearfully, holding in her stomach, blood leaking through her fingers.

Mike looks down at her. "It was easy," he says.


13 January 2015

Story Time

Because I'm bereft of useful ideas about writing, I thought I'd share this little story with you all.  It's written by me and titled "Awake".  Published by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in it's July 2009 issue, it seems a suitable winter's tale.  Read at bed time it should either put you to sleep, or keep you awake (did you catch how I worked that in?).  I hope that you enjoy it while forgiving the uneven formatting. Correcting it appears to be beyond my skill set.

            The old man settled back into the tangled welter of sheets and blankets that comprised his bed and sighed.  From somewhere near his feet, his sigh was answered with a similar exhalation.  In the moonlight that leaked around the edges of the drawn curtains, he could just make out the silhouette of two large, pointed ears beneath which two concerned eyes glistened and watched.  Then, as if in agreement, man and dog grunted in unison and lay their heads down once more.

            For the old dog, sleep returned easily and she was soon snoring, but for her master, a lifetime of loss, regret, and now, loneliness, always awaited his return to consciousness and seized him fast in its talons.  To counter this, he had developed a process by which he could sooth his mind of its anxieties and eventually return to sleep.  This method consisted of a simple inventory of all the familiar and comforting sounds that his home and dog made within the overall silence of the greater night.  It always began with his companion.

            Her deep, steady breathing told him all was well, and this provided the first step towards his greater relaxation.  Keeping his own breathing regular while attempting to slow his heart rate at the same time, he allowed his mind to wander through his home of forty years seeking other familiar sounds that reassured him. 

First and foremost was the furnace.  During the winter months, the reliability of its great warming breath held no equal as his ideal of comfort and safety from the elements, and now he looked forward to that series of sounds that heralded its arousal.  The light, tap-tap-tap of the contracting water pipe he had so recently used warned him of the dropping temperature, even as the winds outside scampered with tiny claws across the wall next to his bed.  Then, as if on cue, he perceived the barely audible click of the thermostat signaling from its perch on the wall that the moment for action had arrived.  With pleasurable anticipation, the old man listened for the sounds that must follow. 

From within the greater darkness of the attached garage came the barely audible hiss of gas followed by, after what seemed a long and dangerous time, the business-like snap of the igniter.  Then, with a satisfying, distant roar, the flames were brought into being to warm his home.  In his mind’s eye he could picture the dancing light playing across the stained concrete floor of the garage.  And then, as the finale, the heater fan located beneath the staircase whirred into life as the warm air coming through the vent reached it to trigger its assistance in pushing the warmth up to the second floor.  The house now hummed contentedly to itself as it dispelled the tendrils of cold that had seeped silently through the walls.  The old man secured the blanket beneath his chin, even as his eyes began to dart and play beneath his eyelids.

As sleep began to reclaim him at last, the voices of his wife, Claire, and their children, called to him from somewhere not far away, though their actual figures were still withheld from him.  In the dusty living room, the French clock he had bought her as a gift in Europe began to chime the hour in light, tinkling notes and, like a hypnotist; he counted each one as they sank him deeper and deeper into the welcoming darkness. 

The old man, now decades younger, watched as his lovely young wife toweled off his children next to the pool beneath a benign sun in a peerless sky, and smiled contently.  The only sound that intruded was the reassuring crackle of expanding wood that signaled the triumph of the furnace over the nascent cold; the walls and door frames returning to their intended shapes and sizes.

Claire noticed him watching and returned his smile.  The kids were fussing about being called out of the water and though he could not hear their words; their body language was unmistakable.  A popping sound from somewhere to his left, startled him, and he found himself vaguely troubled as to its source and meaning, but loath to turn away from his wife and children even for a second.  Even so, Claire’s face wavered in his vision like the surface of a pond disturbed with a pebble. When it settled again into the plump-cheeked, grey-eyed features that he was familiar with, her expression had changed to one of concern, the laughing smile having vanished like the sun he could no longer feel nor see above him.  She approached him still carrying a dripping towel. The kids leapt soundlessly into the pool behind her back.

She spoke to him and he strained to hear her words, “Did you remember to lock the front door?” she whispered, the words seeming to come from a great distance.

He stared back at his wife in bereaved silence.  Was this all she had to say to him…her husband of fifty years; after so long a separation?  The mundanity of her words struck him to the heart and a sob caught in his throat that snatched him back to awareness. 

As he opened his eyes, his young wife’s words blew into tatters like an old cobweb, and he struggled to catch them before they vanished.  But the sound that seemed to have prompted them returned to him with terrifying clarity and he understood in that instant that it had come from one place and that place alone—the seventh step of the stairwell outside his bedroom door.  As the furnace switched off and its efforts faded into a long sigh, the house lapsed into the silence of a held breath. Then the dog began to growl…

12 January 2015

A Curious Incident

Though, in my mind,  publication of nine fiction books gives me a license to lie, I'll be truthful with you. I was not enthusiastic about blogging today.

I've recently been promoting Callie's A Corpse Under the Christmas Tree, trying to decide where to launch KUDZU RIVER, making changes suggested by the editor in The True HAUNTING of JULIE BATES, and expanding "An Odor Yet to Come" from its original short story form to a full-length horror novel. With all of this plus the holidays and three immediate family birthdays (as well as my own) in December, I hadn't given much (correct that to "any") thought to blogging.

In addition to all of the above, I became "a lady who lunches" during December, having had the pleasure of lunching with several long-time friends who were back in SC for the holidays.  One of them is a talented artist who moved to New York when we graduated from USC way back when. (Remember, Dixon, USC is the University of South Carolina as well as Southern Cal.)

"If you haven't read it already, you need to read this," my friend said and handed me a paperback with an orange cover as I joined him in my favorite Italian restaurant.

"Is it a mystery?" I asked.  I read a lot of books that aren't mysteries, but that genre is my "go-to" for relaxation.

"Look at the first line on Chapter 7, page four," he said.

Seven chapters by the fourth page?  But I opened the book to page four.  It read "This is a murder mystery novel."

"Didn't you teach students with Autism?" he asked and then continued without waiting for my reply.

"This book is written from the point of view of a fifteen-year-old boy with Asperger Syndrome."

I dropped the paperback into my purse, and we had a wonderful visit over our lunch of shrimp and lobster risotto with amaretto bread pudding for dessert. (Yes, I realize that's a high-carb lunch, but we were celebrating.)  I didn't think any more about the book until that night.  I planned to read only a few pages, but I didn't put it down until the last line, which happened to be Chapter 233. (More about that later)

The book is the curious incident of the dog in the night-time by Mark Haddon. (Absence of capital letters is Haddon's decision, not mine. As some of you know, I LOVE using caps.)

It's not a new book.  It won the Commonwealth Writers Prize in the Best First Book category in 2003 because it was Haddon's first novel for adults though he'd been previously successful in children's literature.  He also won the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize for the curious incident of the dog in the night-time that same year because though Haddon called this his first book written intentionally for adults, his publisher marketed it to both adult and child audiences.

Christopher, the first-person narrator, shares characteristics with several Autistic individuals I've known, and Haddon doesn't tell them--he shows them.  There are 233 chapters because Christopher has a fondness for prime numbers and uses them instead of cardinal numbers for chapter headings.  He only eats foods that are red or green.  His parents expand the variety by adding red food coloring to less colorful dishes. Christopher is brilliant in math, but he is terrified by new experiences.

Is this a murder mystery as the author proclaims?  Well, there is a murder.  The story opens when Christopher discovers a neighbor's dog stabbed to death with a "garden fork" stuck completely through and anchoring the body to the ground.  A "garden fork" is what we call a pitch-fork here in the South.  He decides to investigate and solve the murder and to write a book about how he does it.

The Boston Globe described the curious incident of the dog in the night-time as "gloriously eccentric and wonderfully intelligent." There are five pages of acclaim for the book at its beginning.

As I usually do when I enjoy a book, I sought more information about the author.  Mark Haddon was born in 1962 in Northampton, England.  He wrote his first book, Gilbert's Gobstopper, in 1987 and followed this with several more children's books, many self-illustrated.

One of the things I found interesting about Haddon is several Internet sites about quotes from him concerning writing. Three of my favorites are:

                                           Reading is a conversation.  All books
                                           talk.  But a good book listens as well.
                                                                             Mark Haddon

                                           Most of my work consisted of crossing
                                           out.  Crossing out is the secret of good
                                                                             Mark Haddon

The second quote is especially true of my own writing because my rough drafts tend to ramble and require a lot of crossing out.  

Reader questions for today:  Was I just out to lunch in 2003 when the curious incident of the dog in the night-time was published?  How many of you had heard of this book before today?

Have you read other books that claim to be mysteries, but turned out to be far more?  If so, what are they?

Do you ever read genres other than mystery just to study some aspect of the writer's style?  If so, I recommend the curious incident of the dog in the night-time as an excellent study in voice. (Besides, if you don't read it, you won't know who killed the dog.)

I've shared before that there are writers with whom I would like to have spent some time. Examples: I would really love to have sipped some (maybe a lot) of bourbon with William Faulkner.  I met Mickey Spillane in his later years, and I'm Christian, but I would like to have known him before he became religious. This list could go on forever, and perhaps, due to John M. Floyd's influence, one day I may use that list as a blog-starter and even add some writers I wouldn't care to visit and why. I'd be willing to pass up my two favorite lunches (prime rib and/or lobster) to have lunch with Mark Haddon to talk about writing even though he's a vegetarian.  

Until we meet again, take care of . . . you.

11 January 2015

A Lot of Damn Gaul

Charlie Hebdo web page
Charlie Hebdo web site today

France is America’s oldest and quintessentially closest friend. France helped us win wars, they helped us become a nation. They gave us the Statue of Liberty. France helped us launch our first World’s Fair Exposition. They wrote our history books. They gave us the underpinnings for our market economy. And, they warned us about 9/11.

Look at a few of the American cities with French names: St. Louis, Louisville, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Des Moines, Des Plaines, Boise, Terre Haute, Charlotte, Versailles, Vincennes… merely a hint of our rich history with the French. What happens in France is important not only to us, but to the rest of the world.

On Wednesday, armed gunmen struck at the heart of liberty: freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. Terrorists virtually decapitated an insolent little magazine called Charlie Hebdo.

What is Charlie Hebdo? ‘Charlie Weekly’ is an in-your-face satirical magazine that lampoons extreme politicians and religionists of any stripe. Charlie often takes on Muslim terrorists who seem to have little knowledge or regard for fellow Muslims or Islam itself.

Why should you care about an irreverent, puerile, often offensive magazine, one that jabs at politicos, fundamentalists, and hypocrites? Even when rude and crude, issues and ideas have to be discussed. After an earlier bombing of Charlie Hebdo offices, editorial chief, Stéphane ‘Charb’ Charbonnier, said he’d rather die standing than live on his knees.

He died doing what he loved. Who can ask for more?

a 3½ minute explanation of Charlie Hebdo

Following is a sampling of the outpouring from illustrators, journalists and cartoonists around the world. Intellectual property rights belong to the individual artists.

© Rob Tornoe

from Canada, © Ygreck, a brilliant cartoonist

a pun, where ‘canard’ means both duck and newspaper:
“Ducks always fly higher than guns.”

from Middle East Monitor

from India © Dhimant Vyas

from al Jazeera

Arabic News: “How we avenge the cartoonist’s deaths.”

from an Alabama teenager “I become what I hope to be.”

from South Africa © Brandan Reynolds

from South Africa © the (in)famous Zapiro

from India © Satish Acharya

“A call to arms, Comrades” © Francisco J. Olea

“I am Charlie” © Jean Jullien

from Yemen © artist unknown

from UK © Dave Brown The Independent via J.K.Rowling

from amazing French/English illustrator © Lucille Clerc
(not Banksy as originally attributed)

“Oh no, not them!”

from Australia © David Pope

from Nederlands “Immortal” © Joep Bertrams

© Fèlix Barrios

A mean and malicious death… “Cabu? For once, you are early.”

© Matt Davies “Where’s the trigger?”

Tignous casket
coffin of Tignous, from our French friend Micheline

Je suis Charlie.
Note: Illustrations © 2015 by their respective copyright holders.

10 January 2015

Observing SIGNS

Two weeks ago I wrote a column here on foreshadowing, and listed some movies, novels, and short stories in which that writing technique played a part. I also mentioned a film--one of my favorites--that used that approach especially well, telegraphing in a subtle way a number of different events that would occur later in the story.

First, a little background. M. Night Shyamalan is an Indian-American writer/director who made several extremely good movies (The Sixth SenseUnbreakableThe Village, etc.) before his career took a necksnapping, hang-onto-your-seat nosedive with several extremely bad movies (The Happening, The Last Airbender, etc.). In the early Aughts, while still going strong, he wrote and directed a film called Signs, starring Mel Gibson--a movie that used a sci-fi plot to tell what I thought was an excellent story about faith and family and courage. I watched it three times in theatres when it was released in 2002, and to this day I consider it to be one of the best examples of effective story construction.


The title of the film has several meanings, the most obvious a reference to the strange "crop circles" often featured in the news some years ago. Most of these were proven to be hoaxes, but others are still considered by some to have been navigational aids (signs) created by visitors (scouts?) from another planet. The movie Signs begins with Gibson's character Graham Hess, an Episcopal priest who's lost his faith, discovering crop designs in the cornfields near his family's house. Other strange things soon happen, the suspense builds, and the story ends with Graham and his brother and two children not only confronting otherworldly forces but learning a life lesson in the process.

As I've said, a lot of seeds are planted throughout Signs that set up, and/or explain, later occurrences. The following are a few examples.

NOTE 1: SPOILER WARNING. If you've not seen this movie, close your eyes now, and then get thee to a Redbox, or to your Netflix queue. If you have seen it, I hope you'll keep reading, and then let me know whether you agree with my admittedly biased thoughts and opinions. (I used to be Night Shyamalan's Number One Fan.)

The foreshadow knows . . .

- Graham Hess's six-year-old daughter Bo doesn't like their drinking water, and is always leaving half-full glasses all over the house. In the movie's final scenes, it's revealed that water is the only thing that will kill the invading aliens--and Bo's leftover tapwater becomes a weapon. 

- Bo's older brother Morgan has asthma. That illness later helps to keep the alien creature's spray of poison gas from entering Morgan's lungs.

- Graham's brother Merrill was a star baseball player, and holds a local record for the longest home run. (He almost made pro, we're told, but didn't because it always felt wrong "not to swing.") At the end, Merrill uses his baseball bat to save the day.

- Early remarks by Bo hint that her mother's not around. We later find out she died six months ago, a fact that forms the basis for the entire plot.

- When Houdini, the family dog, begins acting weird at the beginning of the movie, Graham tells his kids he'll call Dr. Crawford. Looking surprised, Morgan says, "He doesn't treat animals," but Graham replies, "He'll know what to do." Much later, it turns out Graham prefers to contact the MD rather than the nearby veterinarian--Ray Reddy--because Reddy is the man who caused the auto accident that killed Graham's wife. (Even then, we're never told that Reddy is a vet; we only get a quick shot of his mailbox, which has his name and profession written on the side.)

- Shortly after Houdini urinates on the kitchen floor, the sheriff tells Graham that several local dogs have been peeing on themselves--as if they'd smelled a predator.

- In one scene Bo tells her brother Morgan that she doesn't want him to die. At the end of the story, Morgan is the only member of the family who indeed comes very close to dying.

- In Reddy's otherwise empty house, a trapped alien gropes underneath a pantry door and Graham chops off a couple of its fingers with a butcher knife. In the final scenes, when one of the aliens is holding Morgan's limp body, we see that two of the creature's fingers are missing.

- In the first scene, at the farmhouse, an empty spot outlined on the wall indicates that a cross once hung there but is now gone. And early on, the sheriff refers to Graham as "Father"--the first indication that he used to be a priest. He replies, "Don't keep calling me Father."

- Ray Reddy, as he prepares to flee from his home, tells Graham that he has a feeling the creatures "don't like water." Turns out he's right: water burns their skin, like acid.

- In two separate nighttime scenes at the farmhouse, the crickets outside suddenly stop chirping. Nothing happens right away, and only later do we realize it was a sign that something sinister has arrived and is in the area.

- Graham's dying wife is seen in a flashback, instructing him in her last words to tell his brother Merrill to "swing away." That's exactly what happens, at the end.

- While hiding in their basement, Merrill tells Graham he's just heard on the radio that the aliens who have landed in other parts of the world have retreated, but that they did so suddenly and left some of their wounded behind. The creature that Graham wounded earlier (by cutting off its fingers) turns out to be waiting for them upstairs.

- The opening scene of the film (Graham coming out of the bathroom in their house) is repeated in the last scene. The second time, we see through the window that the seasons have changed (time has passed), and he's now wearing a priest's collar.

I realize that listing these examples this way, out of order and out of context, doesn't make the movie sound very interesting--but it is. It's a story that, at least to me, combines fine performances with a great setting and soundtrack, humor, steadily-building tension, and a stunningly emotional ending. I challenge you to watch the final scenes without brushing away a tear (and my movie tears are usually reserved for Dumbo and Old Yeller). Have any of you seen Signs? Any opinions?

Night shift

Note 2: As I've said, I used to be used to be one of Night Shyamalan's biggest fans. Although I have friends who hated SignsThe Village, and another of his movies called Lady in the Water, I loved all three, and even wrote about Shyamalan in a 2008 Criminal Brief column, here, two weeks before The Happening happened. As things turned out, The Happening crashed and burned, and so did 2010's The Last Airbender, which I found myself hoping would be The Last Shyamalan Project. I recently watched his latest film, After Earth, and thought it was so-so.
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But I'm trying to remain loyal. The Nightster obviously has great talent, and maybe his next movies will be as good as his early ones were. If the are, I'll be the first to reboard his bandwagon.

Meanwhile, I'll just watch Signs again. I hope you will too.

09 January 2015

Gone Again

by R.T. Lawton

He was too late for the Wild West and too early to be a Prohibition gangster, but the name of Roy Gardner was once well known to the American public as a celebrated outlaw and the most famous prison escapee. Nicknamed with monikers such as The Smiling Bandit, The Mail Train Bandit, and King of the Escape Artists by national newspapers, Roy was the Most Wanted Gangster of 1921.

Roy Gardner
Born on January 5, 1884 in Trenton, Missouri, Gardner was later raised in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He stood about five foot nine in early adulthood, had curly auburn hair and blue eyes, was considered as attractive and had a charming manner. Drifting to the Southwest, he acquired the trades of farrier and miner. To get out of the mines, plus avoid a life of crime and reform schools, he allegedly joined the U.S. Army, but soon deserted and headed to Mexico.

His first step into professional crime was as a gunrunner during the Mexican Revolution. While smuggling arms to the Carranza army, he got caught by General Huerta's soldiers. The sentence was death by firing squad. Declining to stick around for the sentence to be carried out, Gardner, along with three other American prisoners, attacked the guards at the Mexico City jail and escaped. This marked his first prison break.

Ending up broke in San Francisco, Gardner robbed a jewelry store on Market Street, soon got arrested and was sent off to San Quentin. Here, he made parole after saving the life of a prison guard during a violent riot. Wasn't long out of the pen before he robbed a mail truck, netting about $80,000 in cash and securities. The law caught up with him three days later. For this crime, he was sentenced to 25 years at McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary in Washington state. On June 5, 1920, two Deputy U.S. Marshals accompanied him on the train headed for prison. Employing a simple ruse, Roy looked out the window and shouted, "Look at that deer." When both Marshals looked, he grabbed the gun away from one of them and then disarmed the other at pistol point. Roy handcuffed the two together, stole $200 from them, jumped off the train and headed for Canada.

McNeil Island Penitentiary 1890
The following year found Roy Gardner back in the U.S. robbing banks and mail trains. By now, he had a $5,000 reward posted for his arrest. He was recognized in the Porter House Hotel in Roseville, California and was subsequently arrested while playing cards in a pool hall. Once again, he was sentenced to 25 years at McNeil. As a ploy to reduce his sentence, Roy offered to show the Southern Pacific Railroad detectives where he buried some of his loot. They found nothing, so Roy was once more placed on a train headed for McNeil Island Penitentiary. This time, he was guarded by two different U.S. Marshals. During the trip, Roy went into the train car's bathroom and came out with a pistol which had been concealed there by a friend of his. He robbed the Marshals of their guns and money and left them handcuffed together while he jumped off the train. The biggest manhunt in Pacific Coast history was quickly launched for the boldest and most slippery criminal to ever be arrested.

Trying to conceal his identity by bandaging his face and leaving only one slit for an eye hole, Gardner turned up at the Oxford Hotel in Centralia, Washington. The proprietor became suspicious when he found a gun in Roy's room. Arrested once again, Roy stayed on the train this time and made it all the way to McNeil Island Penitentiary without incident. Third time must've been the charm.

After six weeks of confinement, Roy decided it was time to make a break for freedom. At the Labor Day 1921 prison baseball game when a ball got hit to center field and the tower guards had their attention on the ball, Roy told his two prison buddies that now was the time to go. He cut a hole in a high barb wire fence, then the three crawled through and took off running. Seems Roy had told the other two that he'd bribed the guards to keep looking away, but the three weren't far outside the wire when bullets started flying. Impyn fell mortally wounded, Bogart was badly wounded and Gardner took a bullet in the left  leg. Scrambling into the woods, Gardner hid under a log. Guards searched for Roy, but found no trace. Afterwards, Roy hid in the prison dairy barn, living off cow's milk and grain for several days until he swam to a nearby island and made his escape.

Back to robbing mail trains, Roy got captured by a mail clerk during a robbery a few months after his McNeil Island escape. With a third sentence of 25 years received for this train robbery, Roy got packed off to Leavenworth. In 1925, they transferred him to the Atlanta Federal Prison, the toughest penitentiary of its day. After unsuccessfully trying to tunnel under the wall and cutting through the bars of the shoe shop, he later led a prison break, taking guards as hostages. This last escape attempt earned him twenty months in solitary.

Roy's book
1934 saw Gardner transferred to Alcatraz where he rubbed shoulders with Al Capone. Roy was contemplating another escape when he was granted clemency in 1938. While in Alcatraz, Roy channeled some of his creative talent into writing his autobiography, Alcatraz: My Story. In 1939, his book was made into a movie, I Stole a Million, starring George Raft. The movie had good reviews, but tanked at the box office.

Unable to adjust to a life outside of prison and having no desire to go back behind the walls, Roy Gardner pulled his final escape. On January 19, 1940, he left a note on the outside of his door in a San Francisco hotel, sealed his room, dropped cyanide pills into a bowl of acid and breathed in the fumes. He was gone again and this time they wouldn't get him back.

08 January 2015

With Friends Like You, Who Needs Enemas:
the Murder of Sir Thomas Overbury

Happy New Year!
After having two of my latest posts featured on first Thanksgiving and then on Christmas Day, I don't mind telling you what a relief it is to have my latest turn in the rotation come up on a non-holiday for a change!


Now let's move on to this, our initial helping of historical crime for 2015: a capital crime (murder) committed in a capital city (London) in a royal residence (the Tower of London), specifically in the upper chamber of this, the so-called "Bloody Tower" right on the Tower complex grounds.

The upper chamber of this very building!
Now, before you start jumping up and down and shouting, "We already know all about the murder of
NOT victims of the crime in question
the princes in the Tower!" I gotta stop ya right there. Yes, the two sons of King Edward IV(King Edward V and his younger brother, Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York) were residents of the Tower complex, and yes, they were, in fact, housed in this same building, and on the upper flower as well.

But not so fast! Although these unfortunate boys were without doubt murdered, and with very little doubt done to death by their impressive, scary, ambitious, scoliosis-ridden uncle, Richard of Gloucester, Duke of York (later King Richard III), we aren't sure where they met their end.

And in this case, we're certain that the murder in question took place in this tower, on the upper floor. We're certain of little else about this killing, most especially about how it was accomplished, whether the unfortunate who met his maker in this tower, on this floor, was done in by poison, or "oil of vitriol" (sulfuric acid), or by (get this) an arsenic enema!

NOT the perpetrator of the crime in question
Nope, this murder took place not in 1483, but 130 years later, in 1613, during the reign of King James I of England (James VI of Scotland), involved one of the greatest of the kingdom's noble families, and all the trimmings of a juicy royal scandal: corruption, pandering, sex, bribery, and (obviously) murder!

King James– Nice Hat, eh?
It all started, as so many court scandals do, with sex. Specifically gay sex. Even more specifically, gay royal sex. You see, in addition to being monarch of both Scotland and England, James Stuart was just about the biggest closet case the Renaissance ever produced.

In many ways a hard-headed pragmatist (go figure, he WAS Scottish, after all), James had a gigantic blind spot when it came to tall, handsome, well-dressed, well-spoken young men. Worse, he tended to collect pretty boys like this, lavish them with titles and expensive presents, and then place them in positions of power and authority, expecting them to be, in addition to ridiculously good-looking, intelligent and competent.

A tall order, no question. He was usually disappointed. However, it also frequently took him a while to figure out that he'd misjudged this or that favorite in some way, and allow his ardor to cool.

With James' weakness for handsome boys no secret, it should come as no surprise that entire factions of would-be operators at James' court set to work beating the bushes for attractive young men to place in James' path, in hopes of cashing in once his attention had been caught, using the smitten monarch's libido for their own advancement.

Which leads us to our victim, who was without doubt just such a one of these procurers: a cunning, well-educated, ill-mannered, self-impressed toad by the name of Sir Thomas Overbury.

The Victim: Sir Thomas Overbury

Sir Thomas Overbury–
Renaissance Douchebag
Born in 1581 at a Warwickshire manor with the cool-cool-cool name of Compton Scorpion, Sir Thomas Overbury was a particular example of a very common type to be found all over late Renaissance England. Of good family, but definitely middle class means, Overbury was the in many ways the ultimate social climber.

Shrewd, a superb administrator, and good with money, but not with people, Overbury was also tactless and nakedly self-interested. What's more he definitely lacked the "common touch." For that matter he made nothing but enemies amongst the gentry and nobility as well. As if that wasn't enough, Overbury also possessed the fatal flaw of being, as one contemporary put it: "prone to over-valuing himself and under-valuing others."

For all that, Overbury did actually possess at least one friend (for a while. More on that later) – a pretty Scottish youth of just exactly the type guaranteed to make King James go all weak in the knees: Robert Carr.

The Eye Candy: Robert Carr

When Sir Thomas Overbury first encountered him during a visit to Edinburgh in 1601, Robert Carr was a twenty-three year-old, handsome, ambitious nobody from nowhere; a page in King James' service. He was also dumb as soup and possessed no scruples about using his looks (for starters) to win advancement, qualities which made him all the more attractive to the cunning Overbury. Such a dimwitted pretty boy could be controlled and manipulated for the purposes of a climber such as Overbury, and used to further the causes of his friends (again, like Overbury), if only he could be placed where he could attract the attention of the man-loving king.

Robert Carr – Renaissance Boy Toy
Happily for Overbury, he was well-positioned to do precisely that, as he was in Edinburgh on the Queen's business. He had already made several trips north in order to assist with the pending royal transition between the ailing Elizabeth I and her cousin and hand-picked successor, James Stuart.

He lost little time in arranging for Carr to catch the king's eye: Carr participated in a joust wherein he broke his leg practically in front of the royal loge. James, taken with the young man's beauty, not only quickly made Carr a favorite, but took on the responsibilities of helping nurse the young man back to health, while also teaching him Latin.

The boy toy was on his way. Within a couple of years, James had knighted Carr, created him Viscount Rochester, and made him both a privy councilor and a "gentleman of the bedchamber" (complete with his own key!). And there is plenty of evidence that Carr's duties in that capacity didn't end at just tucking in His Majesty at night. James so enjoyed the youth's nightly presence in his bed that when he didn't visit the royal chamber he was conspicuous by his absence. At one point the king even wrote to Carr, complaining of his "withdrawing yourself from lying in my chamber, notwithstanding my many hundred times earnest soliciting you to the contrary."

Although well-suited to serving the king in this capacity, Carr could hardly have been expected to serve effectively as a "privy councilor" without the help of someone infinitely brighter than he was. This was where his friend and benefactor Thomas Overbury played an effective part.

Overbury fed Carr advice to pass along to the king, advice which served not just the royal interests, but the interests of the supremely self-interested Sir Thomas Overbury, as well. In fact, it was soon whispered throughout court that "whilst Rochester ruled the King, Overbury ruled Rochester."

When James got wind of this (a foregone conclusion), there would be hell to pay – said account to be settled in our next installment, which will include the above-teased raising of the stakes, the introduction of a bonafide femme fatale, vitriol, poison, enemas, emetics, imprisonment, and eventually, MURDER!

Truly an installment not to be missed!

See you in two weeks!