16 February 2015

Me and Elvis Presley


Jan Grape
While searching my brain for something to write about I read a note posted on FB about a couple of comics doing Elvis Impersonations. I watched first Jim Carey, then Andy Kaufman and both were good and funny. Andy's even more so because his normal talking voice was so high-pitched and strange, but when he sang and spoke "Elvis," he somehow got down into that low register that was more along the lines of the voice of Elvis.

That plus an incident which happened a couple weeks back, while listening to live music, someone requested one of the singers to sing an Elvis song. These musicians don't often sing cover songs but if requested and someone can do a version and the tip is reasonable then someone will try. The song was "Blue Suede Shoes." I immediately was reminded of my first and only time I saw Elvis in person.

It was in 1955, in Lubbock Texas and Elvis was traveling with The Louisiana Hayride. I was sixteen years old, a senior in high school and was not especially a big Elvis fan. I had heard of him, everyone in my part of TX had heard of the Rockabilly Kid. You all realize, of course, this was a few months before the "Ed Sullivan Show," and a few months before this young singer from Tupelo, MS and Memphis, TN became 'THE KING."

I don't remember the other girls I went with to Lubbock. Been too many years. I do remember we had seats rather far back in the auditorium. I think the premise back then was first in line got to rush down to the front rows. And if I'm not mistaken the tickets cost something like $2.50 There were other entertainers on the show but we came to see Elvis.

The bad thing for me, I broke my glasses that day. One of the lenses popped out and I only had that one pair of glasses. I remember looking through and being able to see really well with my right eye and everything kinda blurry with my left eye. And part of the time I covered my left eye and just looked with my right eye so I didn't have that blurry spot. I remember being upset over breaking my glasses. Such a bum deal to go to a concert and you can't see very well.

The news had gone around the country that when this Elvis guy sang that girls screamed and some swooned. My mother told me that it was like that when Frank Sinatra first started singing. Girls screamed to the top of their lungs, "Ohhhh Frankie," and some girls fainted. I thought the whole idea was one of the silliest things I'd ever heard. Screaming over some guy up on stage singing a song and I swore that I was not going to scream. And I didn't.

You believe that don't you? Honestly, I didn't scream at first, but after a little while, I discovered myself screaming, too. A whole coliseum full of mostly young teenage girls yelling and screaming is contagious. At first, I thought I was crazy, but then I realized it was mob hysteria. You know when the crowd outside the jail want the sheriff to send the prisoner out so the crowd can string him up. The whole town is yelling and shouting and carrying on and getting bolder and louder. Then when the good guy sheriff stands up to the crowd and fires his gun in the air that shuts up the menfolk and he tells them to get on back home. The crown quietens down, looks at each other sheepishly and leaves. That's mob hysteria. But we didn't look at each other sheepishly, we just looked at each other and screamed some more.

When Elvis came out on stage and the initial screaming quieted down to a dull roar, he said, something along these lines, "I'm going to sing a song written by a really good friend of mine. A good friend for many years." Then he turned to his lead guitar player and asked "What was that fellow's name?" "Carl Perkins," said the guitar man. "Oh yeah, Carl Perkins," said Elvis and he started singing "Blue Suede Shoes."

I'm not totally sure what else he sang, seems like he said That's All Right, Mama and Jailhouse Rock but I wouldn't swear to it. It was fun and I had a good time but I never became a huge, big Elvis fan. Not exactly sure why. I liked most of his songs, but I liked Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty and Hank Williams Sr better. Maybe because they seemed real to me and Elvis didn't.

Years later, we moved to Memphis, TN. It was 1972 and Elvis was living in Memphis at Graceland. My late husband, Elmer built Germantown Mall while we lived there. One of the stores in the mall was a wonderful jewelry store, owned by two brothers. One brother, Lowell, ran a store in downtown Memphis and the other brother, Les, ran the store in the mall. Elvis was friendly with Lowell but Les was the artist jeweler.

taking care of business

tender loving care
So Elvis came out to the Germantown store, after the mall was closed, fairly often to buy jewelry for his playmate of the month. However, Les could never tell anyone when he was going to come out because if he told and fans came out, the store would lose his business. Les couldn't even tell his wife. By then I would have enjoyed meeting Elvis because he was a big star and I just thought it would be cool to meet him and shake his hand and tell him I had seen him back in Lubbock all those years ago. But it never happened. Never got to meet him.

Les did tell us that he could always tell how serious he was about a woman by the jewelry he bought. The $10,000 to $30,000 was just an okay lady and the $40,000 and up range was a special woman. Les designed the TCB pins that Elvis gave to his band and male pals meaning ‘Taking Care of Business’ and the TLC pins given to female pals that meant ‘Tender Loving Care’. Les designed most of the jewelry Elvis wore.

One of those rumors that went around our high school was that Elvis had played at a dance hall in Lubbock called the Cotton Club. And the story went that a young lady with cantaloupe sized bazooms came up next to the stage, wearing her little tank top and asked Elvis to autograph her body. Supposedly he wrote Elvis on the right one and Presley on the left one, but I wouldn't ask Polifacts to check it because that most likely was one of those urban legends.

Even though we lived in Memphis when Elvis died and for a few years afterwards, I never visited Graceland. However, our Grape Family Reunion will be in Memphis this summer and I've joined in the family group to visit the home of the King. May he RIP.

15 February 2015

100 in the Dark


Lawrenceville Stories
For your enjoyment, here are links to the full versions of 100 in the Dark’ (radio broadcast) and 100 in the Dark’(short story). Notice how the author enhances characterization through sly observation and dialogue.
Also try the audio versions of 'Murder through the Looking Glass' and 'The Cave of Ali Baba'.
Murder in any Degree
A Mystery Story and Lesson in One

I enjoy articles that give good value and today SleuthSayers offers you not merely one, but three short stories for your enjoyment, capped with a tiny bit of the philosophy and psychology in the art of the mystery.

Whether reading or writing, my strange brain takes peripatetic perambulations (a polite way of saying it wanders). Today’s article started as a side comment by Steve Steinbock who drew my attention to a 1943 classic short story, 'Murder Through The Looking Glass'. He went on to mention it had been part of that wonderful, long-lived radio series, Suspense.

The program enjoyed an amazingly long run. Many of the early stories were written by the famed mystery writer John Dickson Carr who appears to have been part of the broadcast team.

I found the story, listened to it, and followed that with other Suspense tales. One turned out to be a chilling Lord Peter Wimsey adventure I don’t recall previously encountering, ‘The Cave of Ali Baba.’ The drama brought to mind scenes in Eyes Wide Shut. (See side bar.)

Listening in the Dark

I moved on to 30 September 1942, a story with an intriguing title ‘100 in the Dark’. The author was Owen Johnson, apparently a playwright. As might be expected, "Owen Johnson" is one of those glaring holes in Wikipedia where anything older than its editors’ limited realm of knowledge fades from flimsy prior to 1990 to almost entirely forgotten antiquity by 1950, where history becomes suspect or even disdained. So I dug further and identified Johnson as Owen McMahon Johnson, author of the once popular Lawrenceville Dink Stover prep school hijinks series.

Owen wrote plays and short stories, and ‘100 in the Dark’ occurs as both with minor differences between the two. This parable appears in the book Murder in Any Degree. ‘Murder’ in this case is allegorical, not the usual interest of mystery readers. The book is a collection of literary stories mostly set in a Manhattan club around the turn of the previous century. By Jove, the members speak like acquaintances of Lord Peter Wimsey, old Top. It’s a window into 1900s New York – New England society such as Edith Wharton might have written about. Like Wharton’s agonizing 1905 novel The House of Mirth, Johnson’s stories present an insightful peek both into the human psyche and a forgotten window of that time and era, but if you’re looking for the crime genre, only ‘100 in the Dark’ fills the bill.

I enjoy stories-within-a-story and included a small one about a little thief in my own '8 Across' in Alfred Hitchcock. Today, I’ll give you not only a small dissertation about detective fiction, I present Dark’s embedded mystery, which is curious in its own way: The riddle isn’t so much who stole the coin, but why did the stranger refuse to empty his pockets?

Ladies and gentlemen, I offer you …
The Vanishing Coin

“There are only half a dozen stories in the world. Like everything that’s true, it isn’t true.” He waved his long, gouty fingers in the direction of Steingall, who, having been silenced, was regarding him with a look of sleepy indifference. “What is more to the point, is the small number of human relations that are so simple and yet so fundamental that they can be eternally played upon, redressed, and reinterpreted in every language, in every age, and yet remain inexhaustible in the possibility of variations.”

“By George, that is so,” said Steingall, waking up. “Every art does go back to three or four notes. In composition it is the same thing. Nothing new, nothing new since a thousand years. We invent nothing, nothing!”

“I’ll cite an ordinary one that happens to come to my mind,” said Rankin. “In a group of seven or eight, such as we are here, a theft takes place; one man is the thief– which one? It certainly is an original theme, at the bottom of a whole literature.”

“Detective stories, bah!”

“Oh, I say, Rankin, that’s literary melodrama.”

“I shall take up your contention,” said Quinny without pause for breath. “Admit at once that the whole art of a detective story consists in the statement of the problem. It appeals to our curiosity, yes, but deeper to a sort of intellectual vanity. Here are six matches, arrange them to make four squares; five men present, a theft takes place: who’s the thief? Who will guess it first? Whose brain will show its superior cleverness, see? That’s all; that’s all there is to it.”

“Out of all of which,” said De Gollyer, “the interesting thing is that Rankin has supplied the reason why the supply of detective fiction is inexhaustible. It all comes down to the simplest terms. Seven possibilities, one answer. It is a formula, ludicrously simple, mechanical, and yet we will always pursue it to the end. The marvel is that writers should seek for any other formula when here is one so safe that can never fail. By George, I could start up a factory on it.”

“Of course, of course, my dear gentlemen,” said Quinny impatiently, for he had been silent too long. “Now quite the most remarkable turn of the complexities that can be developed is, of course, the well-known instance of the visitor at a club and the rare coin. Of course every one knows that? What?”

Rankin smiled in a bored, superior way, but the others protested their ignorance.

“A distinguished visitor is brought into a club where a dozen men sit down to dinner at a long table. Conversation finally veers around to curiosities and relics. One of the members present takes from his pocket what he announces as one of the rarest coins in existence. He passes it around the table. Coin travels back and forth, every one examining it as the conversation goes to another topic, say the influence of the automobile on domestic infelicity, or some other such asininely intellectual club topic you know? All at once the owner calls for his coin.

“The coin is nowhere to be found. Every one looks at every one else. First they suspect a joke. Then it becomes serious: the coin, immensely valuable, is missing. Who has taken it?

“The owner is a gentleman, does the gentlemanly idiotic thing, of course, laughs, says he knows some one is playing a practical joke on him and that the coin will be returned to-morrow. The others refuse to leave the situation so. One man proposes that they all submit to a search. Every one gives his assent until it comes to the stranger. He refuses, curtly, roughly, without giving any reason. Uncomfortable silence… the man is a guest. No one knows him particularly well but still he is a guest. One member tries to make him understand that no offense is offered, that the suggestion was simply to clear the atmosphere and all that sort of ballyrot, you know.

“‘I refuse to allow my person to be searched,’ says the stranger, very firm, very proud, very English, you know, ‘and I refuse to give my reason for my action.’

“Another silence. The men eye him and then glance at one another. What’s to be done? Nothing. There is etiquette, that magnificent inflated balloon. The visitor evidently has the coin but he is their guest and etiquette protects him. Nice situation, eh?

“The table is cleared. A waiter removes a dish of fruit and there, under the ledge of the plate where it had been inadvertently pushed, is the coin. Banal explanation, eh? Of course. Solutions always should be. At once everyone’s in profuse apologies! Whereupon the visitor rises and says:

“‘Now I can give you the reason for my refusal to be searched. There are only two known specimens of the coin in existence, and the second happens to be here in my waistcoat pocket.’”

14 February 2015

The Charmed Life of a Book Reviewer


by Steve Steinbock

When Melodie Campbell asked me to fill in , I was delighted. Earlier in the week I settled on the idea of writing a column to three men, all whom I met at my first Bouchercon in 1994, all who were greats in the Mystery world, and all who died before their time.

The article was long, serious, and three-quarters written. I still hope to use, maybe in a future visit to Sleuthsayers. But it was too somber for a fill-in for Melodie. I know can't be as funny as Melodie Campbell, but I don't want to write something that will make people (me especially) cry.

This is my son threatening me with a shovel if I don't
put away my phone. And yes, my house really is pink. 
This is my last winter in Maine. This summer I will migrate West returning to my roots. I'll miss Maine, but I won't miss it's winters. The last two have been brutal. I've only made a dent in cleaning away the snow from last storm, and another one is threatening to drop 18 to 24 more inches this weekend. I'm listening now to the plop-plop of water dripping into a bucket in my hallway from a hole in the roof. On Wednesday my son and I got up on the roof with shovels, a hatchet, and a blow-torch to try to remove enough ice to allow for the melted snow to flow down the shingles rather than be trapped beneath them. We obviously didn't do enough.

This analogy might be a stretch, but snow is a bit like books. It's lovely when it arrives. But when it piles up so high you can't see past it, it's easy to get buried under it. I do love books. Don't get me wrong. But like ice cream, more than a gallon in one sitting will give you a belly ache.

I receive about thirty books a week. That's ten dozen each month. I have a process for dealing with them, and sometimes it works. The packages arrive at my doorstep, dropped off by an annoyed postman. I bring them in and set them on the kitchen counter. I let them thaw there for a few hours before opening.

Opening packages of books can be risky. The other day my son offered to help. He picked up a padded envelope and started to open it. "Careful," I said. "That one is filled with dryer lint." He sneered at me like I was making a dumb joke. "No, really," I said. He opening it anyway, and was surprised to learn how environmentally safe packaging can be harmful to the environment. You know the kind of package I'm talking about. There's a layer of soft paper material, really the consistency of dryer lint but a lot dustier. The envelopes have a pull tab on the side, but they never work, and there is virtually no way of opening the thing without getting clumps of thick, gray dust all over your clothes, your floor, and the book itself. (I often have to take the book outside and spray the pages with canned air to get the stuff off. Environmentally friendly?)

Yesterday another of those envelopes arrived. This time, the assistant in the publisher's publicity department was thoughtful enough to cover the envelope with packaging tape, covering everything including the red pull-tab. Now it was impossible to get the damn thing open without using a hatchet and blow torch, and then a shovel to deal with all the dryer lint that eventually came out. On top of that, I got two serious paper cuts getting it open, and am now typing with two bandaged fingers.

Once the books are out of the package, I carry them to my office where, in a perfect world, I would put them on a bookcase devoted to review books. At the moment, that bookcase is full, and three teetering towers of books are lined up beside it. Before it reaches this point, I'm supposed to go through the shelves and wean out the books that I'm never likely to get to, including the dozen or so that I really wanted to read but are now over a year old. Those books go in a box that eventually I will take to a hospital or library, or hand out as party favors. I have three full boxes of these right now, which is pretty good.

When I pick the books to review, they go on a separate shelf beside my desk. I cover twelve books in my Jury Box column for each issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

There are a variety of reasons why I select the books I do. When a new title by Christopher Fowler or Alan Bradley arrives, it goes instantly on that shelf. I might choose a book because something about the title or the cover grabs my attention. Sometimes when I look at all the review books on my bookcase, a cluster of titles with a certain theme will jump out - historical mysteries, international mysteries, paranormal mysteries, etc. - and this will be the basis of a monthly column. I recently did one on mysteries featuring magicians, and each year for our February "Sherlock Holmes" issue, I collect all the titles with Sherlockian themes. Sometimes a book will come to my attention because of a note from a publicist or the author, or because I just met the author at a conference. Often, the books just jump off the shelf on their own accord and demand to be read.

I love what I do, despite the pileups, paper-cuts, and dryer lint. Without sounding too kitschy, it is a charmed life. I've been lucky every step of my career as a reviewer. The opportunities have always presented themselves at just the right moment. Maybe in some future visit to SleuthSayers, I'll tell my story of how I got into reviewing and eventually found myself as the book critic for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

But for now, I have more snow to shovel.

13 February 2015

Cheap Christmas Leather Luxury


by Dixon Hill

Note:  I wrote this a few weeks ago, but then saw that Melodie had already loaded a much better (and far funnier) writerly chair story into our blog list.  At that time, I shelved this one.  Recently, however, I decided it never hurts to let folks know about the physical items directly supporting a writer's endeavors.  After all, someone may be interested.  So, here below is the article about my own chair.

My wife bought me a chair for Christmas.

I found out about it two days before Christmas, and three days AFTER she told me that she and I weren't getting each other presents this year.

She said the same thing last year, too -- which wound up with me out scouring a local 24-hour Walgreen's at around 10 am Christmas day.  So, I'd already gotten her a present for this Christmas, completely ignoring what she'd said.

Consequently, learning about the chair didn't phase me.

Dragging it from the store, bungee-cording it to the roof of our car and carrying it up the stairs, however, did.

Thank God for the assistance of our oldest son, Joe.  Without his help, I'd still be plodding up those steps.  Because that chair is heavy.  I mean, seriously: it probably weighs in with around the same mass as a nice leather-bound set of Hugh Hefner's Complete and Unabridged List of Personal Happy Memories . . . er, uh, I mean . . . his Personal Sins.

Anyway . . .  My wife got me the chair, as she explained, because I needed a better chair for writing.

I certainly wasn't gonna argue about that.  I write (as many of you know) out on our apartment balcony.  I've got a little rolling desk out there, comprising a short but hefty wooden cabinet that our son, Joe, built in shop class, which sits atop a 2x4 & caster device designed to move heavy furniture.

The way Joe built the cabinet, I've got a strong wide shelf about ten inches below the nice, flat top -- upon which perches my laptop when I'm working.  I keep cigars, tobacco, pipes, pipe cleaners, lighters, pens and other odds and ends down on that shelf.  The mouse sits on the arm of my chair, and the keyboard sits on my lap.  The caster wheels let me roll the "desk" up close when writing, and push it back when I stand up.

Until my wife bought me that chair for Christmas, though, I was sitting in a green, plastic, Adirondack-style lawn chair that didn't give me a lot of lumbar support.  Okay: It hardly actually gave me ANY support, being plastic and quite flexible.  Additionally, it was pretty low-slung, so I actually sat a bit too low to see my laptop screen very well.

Perhaps, therefor, you can understand why I wanted something a bit more comfortable.

Problem was: it also needed to be cheap and not too nice, because it would be sitting outside. Winters here in the Valley, might not be too rough on outdoor furniture, but summers are BRUTAL to them.

Madeleine's solution was brilliant.  She found a nice big red fake-leather cushy armchair at Goodwill. The chair was in great condition and had been priced at $25.00, but she got it on sale for 50% off.

So, I now sit in a $12.50 armchair to do my writing.

In fact, I'm sitting in it now. It's 11:11 pm (an auspicious hour, surely! LOL), and chilly enough that I've got a blanket over the chair to protect my backside (I'm wearing shorts) from the cool fake leather.  I'm wearing one zippered jacket in the normal manner, with a second open and spread over my legs.  And I'm quite comfortable.

As to my feet:  They're nice and warm too.  In a pair of house shoes my son, Quentin, gave me for Christmas.

See you in two weeks,
—Dixon

12 February 2015

Write What You Know


"Write what you know!"  That old cliche gets trotted out regularly.  Now usually it's meant as an encouragement, but it's also used to set up (and even justify) limitations. I've had people seriously ask how I could teach World History without having visited every country in the world.  I've talked to writers who seriously said that they couldn't write about a ski bum or a serial killer or a heartbroken mother of a dying child because they'd never experienced that.

My response to the first is, "Does a medieval historian have to go to the Middle Ages?"  [Perennial note to self:  get a Tardis.  NOW.]

And my response to the second is, Emily Bronte, Emily Dickinson, and Flannery O'Connor.

Or Terence:

"I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me."
                        --Terence, The Self-Tormenter (163 BCE)

Or Walt Whitman:

"I am large; I contain multitudes."
                       --Walt Whitman, Song of Myself (1892 CE)

We are (almost) all born with the same emotional equipment.  Love, jealousy, envy, happiness, sadness, depression, joy, verve, hatred, need, greed, etc.  You want to know how someone else feels?  Pay attention.  To them and yourself.  Look inside and amplify (or de-amplify) as necessary. Everything that happens starts inside the human heart and mind.  If we're lucky, not all of it gets out, except in fiction.
NOTE:  "Just because it leaps into your head doesn't mean you have to DO it," is an observation I keep trying to share with my friends at the pen.  One of the main differences between (most) writers and (most) criminals is that writers have the ability to delay gratification.  (Per word, per piece, perhaps....) 
But seriously, think about writers:  Besides absolute loners like the Brontes and Emily Dickinson, there are many others who wrote amazingly atypical stuff.  In real life, Conan Doyle had far more in common with Dr. Watson than Mr. Holmes.  By all accounts Margaret Mitchell was neither a bitch nor lived during the Civil War.  Elizabeth George is neither a viscount nor a working class frump, and she's never lived in England.  Patricia Highsmith never actually killed anybody, although I understand that some people wanted to kill her.  Ray Bradbury never drove a car.  Rex Stout was happily married (at least the 2nd time), and fairly thin.  Our own Janice Law has never been a male gay artist of extremely unconventional genius with a liking for rough trade.  (That or she has the most fantastic disguise in history.)  It's called imagination.  And observation.  And mulling things over.  And wondering...  That's why we write.

Look, there's nothing new under the sun.  Humans are humans (including Neanderthals).  Everyone on Jerry Springer could be any of us, given the wrong circumstances and a complete lack of self-control in public.  There are really no new plots, which is a godsend to those of us who scramble to figure out not whodunnit but how the heck they did it.  My story "Sophistication" used a 4,000 year old plot device and I'm damned proud of it.  And if the news is quiet, and you just can't think of a reason why someone would commit a violent act, consider Steven Pinker's breakdown of the Five Inner Demons from his book, "The Better Angels of Our Nature":
  • Practical violence (means to an end)
  • Dominance violence (the quest for authority, prestige, power, glory, etc.)
  • Revenge 
  • Sadism 
  • Ideology 
There's a list to haunt your dreams.

James Joyce,
painted by Patrick Tuohy
in Paris, 1924
So we have all the emotions, we can crib the plots, what do we really need?  Education.  Facts.  And here's where we are the luckiest generation in history.  You can research almost ANYTHING on the internet.  I don't have to be James Joyce, sitting in Paris, writing frantic letters back home to Dublin, trying to nail down details of Dublin, June 16, 1904.  (Although there's worse things to be, that's for sure.  I wouldn't want his failing eyesight, but otherwise...)  I can find out almost anything I want to know about guns, poisons, crime, statistics, spyware, malware, anything-ware online.  I can read old diaries, old letters, old cuneiform, and go to an infinity of historical websites dedicated to Life In ___ (fill in the blank).  It's out there. And I have done it:  I am proud to say that my most recent sale to AHMM (thank you, Linda Landrigan!) is "Miss West's First Case", set in a tuberculosis sanatorium in post-WW2 Vienna, and I did ALL the research either on-line or amongst my books.  

Write what you know?  Honey, we can know anything we want.  We just have to put it together. Excuse me, I have to get writing!


11 February 2015

The Lovejoy Mysteries


Some time back in the late 1980's, when the A&E network was getting off the ground, they recycled a lot of Brit TV, and one of their shows was LOVEJOY. I watched it faithfully. It had a cool hook, in that the guy was an antiques dealer, and sometimes on the shady side of things. He wasn't averse to the occasional con.

LOVEJOY had a funny broadcast history in that its first season on the BBC pulled in viewers, but then there was a four-year hiatus before they brought it back for another five seasons, and then it picked up legs both in the UK original and in US syndication.

If you're unfamiliar with the show, the concept is that Lovejoy worked estate sales and auctions – and was often asked to give an opinion of value or to broker a deal – with an eye to the main chance, of course, but his saving grace is his fierce passion for the real thing. The mysteries often turned on questions of provenance and authenticity. Is such-and-such the genuine article or a forgery? A pair of eighteenth-century dueling pistols, a watercolor attributed to Constable, a manuscript copy of the Magna Carta that's fallen out of a library book, and each episode involved a learning curve. One's reminded of THE BRASHER DOUBLOON, say, or the story where one collector buys the last but one rare
stamp from another collector and then burns it, so he now owns the only one left in the world. (Can somebody help me here? I don't remember who wrote that story.) There's something obsessive about this hermetic crowd, too, the idea that you'd be willing to kill for a Queen Anne chamberpot or a Hogarth etching. 


I've been binge-watching the show recently, on DVD, and the first thing you notice is how well it stands up. The production values are high, for one, nice location shoots, stately homes and so forth, but the level of the scripts is consistently strong. If you look back on
some of your old faves, you can be disappointed. HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL is still terrific, but WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE is cheesy, Steve McQueen notwithstanding. Jack Lord's HAWAII FIVE-O is truly dreadful (with the exception of Khigh Dhiegh as Wo Fat), while MAGNUM, P.I. works well, in spite of its being something of a period artifact. LOVEJOY the series was put together by Ian La Frenais, and based on the Jonathan Gash books. La Frenais worked with a stable of writers that kept a very sharp tone, both mischievous and sinister. The stakes were often high. Antiques ain't small beer.

The trick's in the casting. Lovejoy himself is played by Ian McShane, a guy I've been queer for ever since the Richard Burton gangster picture VILLAIN, not to mention SEXY BEAST and DEADWOOD, and McShane gives the character enormous charm. It helps that Lovejoy is also a little slippery.

He's not always a reliable narrator - Lovejoy often addresses the viewer directly, turning toward the camera - and you're never entirely sure whether he's only in it for himself, or answers to some higher persuasion. If not a bounder, certainly a rogue.

The appeal of a series character has a lot to do with how the audience relates to them, and where your sympathies lie. James Garner as Rockford, Tom Selleck as Magnum, or Bob Urich as Spenser. It's about your comfort zone, in large degree. How far can they push the envelope? You can't break faith. Network standards and practices aside, Jim Rockford isn't going to betray your trust in him, shoot an unarmed guy in the back, for instance, or leave a stray dog behind for predators. Lovejoy's cut from the same cloth. Maybe he's not the most upright, and he even spends too much time on the horizontal, but he plays fair, even if 'fair' is in the eye of the beholder. When he pulls off some complicated skin game, and takes a bigger fish to the cleaners, you get a lot of satisfaction out of it - payback.

One last note. I wasn't all that hip to the milieu, when I first watched LOVEJOY, but having spent the last fifteen years in Santa Fe, and somewhat on the fringes of the art world (a friend of mine owns a frame shop here), I find the details ring all too true, the narcissism, the competing egos, the schadenfreude. It's hard to exaggerate, or lampoon. You think LOVEJOY goes over the top? Believe me, you can't make this stuff up.

www.davidedgerleygates.com

10 February 2015

Everything That Rises


Flannery O'Connor once wrote a story titled, "Everything That Rises Must Converge".  Like most of her work it's brilliant.  The title alone I found remarkable and has always stuck in my mind.  There was something about those words.  The truth be told, even after reading the story, I still didn't understand the phrase; the choice of the title.  Generally happy in my ignorance, I was content to coast along for many, many years with only the occasional thought about it.  But still it bothered me--those words kept returning.
Georgia has been fortunate to have produced a number of notable writers, many of whom, most I would say, having been female.  First there's Margaret Mitchell of course, there's no getting around her.  You are not allowed to graduate high school in Georgia without at least knowing who wrote "Gone With The Wind".  That question is also included in college entry exams as per state law.  Carson McCullers, the most notable writer my hometown ever produced wrote "The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter", "Ballad Of The Sad CafĂ©", "Member Of The Wedding", and a number of other great novels.  Of the male persuasion there is Erskine Caldwell, who penned "Tobacco Road" and "God's Little Acre" amongst others.  And of more recent note, James Dickey, of "Deliverance" fame.  All of them formidable talents. 

Then there's Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964).


Flannery made her reputation during the 1950's and 60's predominantly with short stories.  She is one of the reasons that I learned to love them.  Afflicted by lupus, she lived a brief life, succumbing to the disease at 39 and after spending many of those years on a small farm near Milledgeville--notable for being the home of the state's largest psychiatric institution.  She never married, and beyond the occasional lecture at a nearby women's college, lived quietly and obscurely.  Though she certainly achieved a great deal of critical recognition during her lifetime, neither of her two novels became best-sellers.  I like to think she wouldn't have cared.

Like Margaret Mitchell's fictional heroine, Scarlett O'Hara, Ms. O'Connor was a Catholic and of Irish descent.  The more astute of you may have intuited this last from her name.  Also like Scarlett, she was born in the beautiful city of Savannah.  I have stood outside her family's townhouse, but was unable to go inside as it was not open to the public.  Which was a shame.  Beyond these things, Scarlett and Flannery could hardly have been more different.  I doubt Flannery would ever have said, "Fiddle-de-dee!"  I could be wrong.

If you've never read Ms. O'Connor's works, you may be in for a surprise.  This quiet, unpretentious, and devout woman will shock you with the violence, both interiorly, and often, exteriorly, of her characters.  Her stories are often driven by grotesque people, and seemingly depraved behavior.  No one is immune from the mortal upheaval of life, no matter their station, their opinion of themselves, their personal ambitions; their gifts, or their handicaps.  In "Revelation" a woman is devastated by a vision that reveals she may have to share paradise with those she considers undeserving.  A grandmother learns she is willing to trade the lives of her family in order to continue living in "A Good Man Is Hard To Find".  Then there's "Everything That Rises Must Converge", the tale of a mother/son bus ride to the YMCA that ends badly, but may result in wisdom, however unwelcome.  If a single theme could be said to run throughout her writings, it is that all are eligible for redemption: black and white, male and female, saint and criminal, and that everyone, however imperfectly, and sometimes violently, is searching desperately for it. 

Which brings me back to the beginning--what about that title?  Well, when you consider the body of O'Connor's work as the sum total of who she was, the answer may not be so surprising.  It refers to a work by the French priest, philosopher, and scientist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin titled "Omega Point".  Here is the pertinent quote: "Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love!  At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent.  For everything that rises must converge."  Remarkable words from a remarkable (and controversial) man, and embodied in a truly gifted writer. 

Father de Chardin (1881-1955) probably did not know that his theological and philosophical works were influencing a writer in rural Georgia.  On the other hand, most people at that time could not have told you who Fr. de Chardin was (As a side note: Fr. de Chardin was the model for Wm. Peter Blatty's Fr. Merrin in "The Exorcist").   Yet, he was one of those rare and luminous souls whose insight and brilliance have influenced millions of people, while the man himself has largely been forgotten.  Though a priest, he was also a scientist, and participated in the discovery and study of Peking Man.  And it was through his study of science, that he offered an alternative theory to the biblical origins of man--a theory that was controversial at the time and remains so.  *He posited that the  theory of evolution was entirely compatible with the Church's long-held belief that God created man; that, in fact, there was no conflict when one considered that God provided the essential spark to creation itself.  The actual mechanics leading to man's advent should not trouble us, as they were guided by our Creator.  Though many of Fr. de Chardin's teachings do remain unendorsed by the Church, and are suspect in many ways, it is worth noting that Pope Pius XII agreed that the theory of evolution was not incompatible with the Church's teachings, so long as it encompassed man as possessing a soul granted by God Himself, a view  repeated recently by Pope Francis.   

Less known, perhaps, was Fr. de Chardin's more subtle contribution in his capacity as theologian.  **Taking on a long-held belief that only the work of the religious (read priest, nuns, monks, etc...) contributed to the glorification of God, he held that all peoples, in their everyday endeavors, had it within their power to contribute to the sanctification of the world (Opus Dei--the boogeyman of "The Da Vinci Code" holds to this belief, as well--after all, Jesus was a carpenter).  In other words, he contended that by offering up their labors to God, anyone could serve in His glorification. In essence, that we should all be striving to move up, to rise up together..."For everything that rises must converge." 

It seems that Flannery O'Connor and Fr. de Chardin, each in their own way, did exactly that.

*Please note that this interpretation of Fr. de Chardin's theory is my own, and probably poorly represents his intentions.

**Again, I take full responsibility for whatever damage I do here. 

          









             
     


09 February 2015

Harper Lee and Me


Okay, the picture on the left is not current.  It's my very first author photo used by Berkley Prime Crime in 2007.  It's even my natural hair color which is rare because I began experimenting with solutions to get away from being red-haired when I took the city bus downtown and bought my first package of hair dye from Silver's Dime Store at age ten.

Between then and my current "platinum blonde," a product of age and getting tired of touch-ups every few weeks, I've had brunette, auburn,
strawberry blonde, honey blonde, platinum blonde and even a pinkish mauve.  No, I wasn't ahead of the times.  That pink was a big mistake--the result of attempting an at-home color job.

What's the point of telling you all this?  Or to be blunt about it, what the heck does anyone care how many countless times I've changed my hair color?  I'm trying to show you that I've always embraced change.  That is until I signed the contract to release Kudzu River.

My readers were accustomed to the cozyesque Callie Parrish mysteries, and I feared I would offend some of them with Kudzu River, but it was a story I'd felt compelled to tell for years.  It was also a story that Bella Rosa Books, my most recent publisher, would not print because they only publish "family-friendly" writing.  When Odyssey South Publishing, a new southern company, accepted it, I grabbed the chance regardless of the reactions I might receive, but I feared those reactions..



The above quote from Harper Lee sums up what I felt I'd need when Kudzu River was released. I was positive that my usual readers would not like its grittiness and those who liked Kudzu would all be a different population from Callie's fans.  

Speaking of Harper Lee (and who isn't this week?) it ticks me off that this woman, who wrote a classic of our times and has had her one and only book required reading for students for years, has taken more than her share of flak through those years.  Regularly, some critic claimed that Lee's friend Truman Capote must have written To Kill a Mockingbird because anyone who writes that well would have written another one.  Now, "another one" is being released in July.  Reports are that though this book takes place from Scout's pov twenty years later than Mockingbird, it was written first.  The commentator stated that readers will probably be disappointed because Lee had not yet developed her skills when this was written.  I wanted to reach into NPR through my car radio and snatch that man right into the seat beside me so I could demand to know if he's read the coming release.  I'm sure this book will be a smashing success financially, but I don't know how Lee could need the money with the royalties she must receive every year from all those students having to buy Mockingbird. However,  if the coming book is "bad," why, at age eighty-eight, would she want it published? 

This is purely speculation, but perhaps Harper Lee is like so many of us writers less successful than she.  Maybe she just wants to see her first born in print.  Or, thinking like the mystery writer I am at heart, could it be that the manuscript has not been lost all these years as news reports claim?  Did Harper Lee not want this published but was manipulated into it at her advanced age?  I'm hoping to see an interview with her.  If any of you have seen a recent interview with Ms. Lee, please send me a link.

Back to my first born, Kudzu River was begun before the first Callie Parrish mystery, and it has gone through three name changes.  Teacher, Teacher became Red Flag which is now Kudzu River. An established writer who has been on the N Y Times Best Seller list told me years ago (when Teacher Teacher received its first rejection) that nobody's first book sells.  Just count it as "practice."  Instead of shoving it into a drawer and forgetting about it, I've spent years "practicing" on this book.

So far, Kudzu River has four reviews on Amazon, and I love and appreciate every one of them, but here are two from FaceBook that were posted with their full names.  I repeat these because they are from regular Callie readers:

From  Brenda:  Fran Rizer . . . My book review of Kudzu River . . . loved it.  It was my kind of book.  Mystery, murder, and love all entwined together.  I couldn't put it down.  You need to write a Book II.

From Watson:  Just finished reading Fran Rizer's Kudzu River  Can books keep you on the edge of your seat?  This one did==all the way through.  I've read a lot of books--probably thousands.  This is one of the best.

The reviews on Amazon are longer.  I invite you to check them out at Fran Rizer, Kudzu River, Amazon.com.  Also, if you're not familiar with kudzu, check out Youtube, Phil Ruff, "Kudzu video."  He tells all about kudzu in a song that he has authorized us to use in the trailer for Kudzu River.

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

Continuing to embrace change, my next book is horror, and I'm currently writing a children's book.




  





08 February 2015

A Death a Day


Imagine a prison system in which a person a day diesone man every day of the year. This unsurprisingly takes place in a land with the highest incarceration rate in the world.
This isn’t North Korea or Iran.

Florida DoC
Hearses waiting at Florida DoC © WFSU
We’re talking Florida, a state that incarcerates 75% more per capita than the next highest competitor… Cuba.

We’re talking Florida’s lucrative privatized prison system in a land that competes in executions with Texas and a couple of other states, but this isn’t about capital punishment…

We’re talking about ordinary prisoners who hoped one day to get out but died at the hands of other prisoners or … commonly… prison guards. Indeed, a Santa Rosa Correctional Institute inmate complained in letters to his family and in legal filings he’d been sexually assaulted by guards and his life had been threatened if he talked. He talked. He died. And so have others.

FDLE Gerald Bailey
Gerald Bailey © Bill Cotterell
State Archives of Florida
Inmates have written their families that if they’re found dead, it wouldn’t be by suicide but homicide by guards, guards who obscure their name tags to evade identification, who inmates could only identify as, for example, Sgt. Q. Many prisoners have complained about being sexually assaulted and ‘gassed’ into compliance with a noxious chemical agent. State inspectors have investigated and found for the prisoners. Florida's death statistics are so far off that the US Department of Justice is now investigating.

In September, more than thirty guards were fired for sexual assault, physical abuse, starving, poisoning, gassing, or beating inmates to death and in one case, killing a prisoner who'd soiled himself by steaming him alive. The Governor’s office and the Attorney General dismissed the allegations. Not one guard has been arrested or indicted.

Maybe you’re one of those people who thinks prisoners deserve all they get. They deserve rancid, moldy, vermin-infested food. They deserve rape. They deserve beatings. And damn it, if they get killed in prison, they deserve that too. Or perhaps you simply believe in the right of a company to protect the bottom line and not the general population.

Because Florida

I staunchly support free enterprise, but there’s a problem here. Traditional prisons were subject to oversight by its citizens. Not now. A corporation owes responsibility only to its stock holders… and perhaps the political cronies who landed them the contract.

Beatings, rapes, and killings are taking place in your name and mine. Not everyone approves. Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey thought that was a problem.

Florida Governor Rick Scott
Fl. Gov. Rick Scott © Miami New Times
Governor Rick Scott disagreed. Because Florida, because America. Because of a governor who committed the largest Medicare/Medicaid fraud in the country, who’s never seen the inside of a prison although he deserved to.

Remember that name, Commissioner Gerald Bailey, the head of Florida’s law enforcement. Because Rick Scott brought the private sector corruption he was infamous for into the public realm.

Good Cop, Bad SOP

Under Bailey, the FDLE was investigating those suspicious prison inmate deaths, assisted the search for juvenile remains at the former Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, and was looking into the destruction of emails following Scott’s transition into office in 2010. The Governor was not pleased.

“The most shocking thing was being ordered to target another individual without any justification. I don't know why this woman was in the cross hairs.”
FDLE's Gerald Bailey
The governor’s office, in an attempt to deflect criticism of the prison system under the governor’s control, instructed Bailey to frame an Orange County Clerk of Court, stating she was the target of criminal investigation who allowed inmates to use forged papers from her office. Bailey refused, saying she wasn’t a suspect at all: the forged papers came out of the prison complex. A governor’s press aide asked Bailey if he was refusing a direct order, to which Bailey replied in the affirmative. The Governor was not pleased.

The Governor’s office expressed concerns that State Representative Alan Williams of Tallahassee was fomenting student sit-ins at the state capitol and asked Bailey’s office to keep them posted about Williams’ activities in incidents reports. Williams complained he was politically targeted and singled out by name, and that the governor’s office was trying to shape the protests as being organized not by students but by his political opposition.

After the FDLE discovered a Los Angeles criminal investigation of a Scott campaign donor and Miami businessman suspected of money laundering, a man the governor wanted to groom for a political appointment, Rick Scott personally asked Bailey to help bring the investigation to a close. Bailey refused to get involved. The Governor was not pleased.

Bailey received solicitations to contribute to the governor’s campaign through the state’s email system. Bailey informed the governor’s legal counsel this was inappropriate, in fact, illegal. The governor’s office said “Then ignore it. Delete it.” Bailey pointed out to the governor’s lawyer that’s illegal too: You can’t lawfully delete official communications from state computers. The Governor was not pleased.

Florida Governor Rick Scott
Florida Gov. Scott © ABC News
In his first weeks in office, Governor Scott worked with the new legislature to pass a bill legalizing illegal campaign donations. At the time called a “Whore of Babylon” by a St. Petersburg Times reporter, they okayed payoffs, directing them into a political slush fund, a corrupt practice that had been banned two decades earlier.

The governor ordered Bailey to a summer conference for Scott’s election campaign. Bailey refused, saying it was inappropriate for a law officer to engage in partisan politics. The Governor was not pleased.

The governor continued to treat the FDLE as his own private security force. His campaign instructed the Department of Law Enforcement to provide transportation for campaign workers. Bailey’s office refused, saying their sole responsibility was the safety of the governor and first lady, not campaign staffers. Bailey also refused a $90 000 check from Scott’s campaign, saying it wasn’t appropriate for law enforcement to accept funds from a political party. The Governor was not pleased.

Governor Fires Chief Cop For Not Breaking The Law

Florida Governor Rick Scott
Florida Gov. Rick Scott © Politico
Scott calls the above incidents ‘petty’. So petty he fired the FDLE head, Gerald Bailey.

What hasn’t been mentioned here is that the FDLE reports not only to the governor, but also three cabinet members. Governor Jeb Bush and the three cabinet members unanimously voted Gerald Bailey into the post nineteen years ago and presumably only the cabinet can fire him. None of the cabinet apparently took part in Bailey’s termination as required by Florida law. Rick Scott merely says they didn’t object.

I’ll give the last word to former FDLE commissioner Jim York. He said the firing could create a lasting perception that politics has compromised the independence of the agency amid investigations of corruption.
“If it’s perceived that the agency is under the thumb of any politician, particularly this governor, it’s going to be devastating to the morale of the agents. They wouldn’t be interested in doing investigations where they felt that the governor was looking over their shoulder, looking out for his donor friends.”
Thus we have further corruption in the Governor’s office and prisoners dying at the rate of one a day.

What is your take?

07 February 2015

Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen . . .






by John M. Floyd



Pet peeve: a minor annoyance that an individual identifies as particularly annoying to himself, to a greater degree than others may find it. (Wikipedia)

All editors, publishers, and agents have pet peeves. When we're lucky, we as writers find out about these things somewhere along the way, and try to avoid using or causing them. When we're unlucky, we don't find out, and in that case they almost certainly contribute to the some of the rejections we receive when we submit manuscripts to these mysteriously aggravated editors/publishers/agents.

When I began writing today's column, I intended to stick to those things that annoy these editorial decision-makers--this is, after all, a blog about writing--but the more I thought about it I decided I wanted to talk about more than just that. Although I am indeed a writer, my own pet peeves extend to other areas of my life as well: things that I read, see, and hear, every day of the world.

Here are a few that make me grind my teeth: 

The spoken word

People who constantly say "You know what I'm saying." You know what I'm saying?

People who talk during a movie. I can't think of a better use for stun guns.

The overuse of "awesome." The Grand Canyon is awesome. The Twilight series isn't.

The overuse of "amazing." Be honest. Unless you're Lois Lane, your boyfriend is NOT amazing.

The overuse of "all about." I heard a politician on TV the other night say he was all about the economy. Arrrgh.

The misuse of "like." She was like, "Seriously?" And I was like, "Totally."

Air quotes. Okay, bub, put those fingers away unless you intend to use them.

Using certain nouns as verbs (let's meet and fellowship, I'll gift my wife with flowers, we should dialogue about that). Don't do this.

Our players always deliver 110%. Gosh--I wasn't even aware that one could deliver more than 100%.

The mispronunciation of "short-lived." The "lived" should have a long i, as in "arrive"--not a short i, as in "give." The storm was short-lived because it had a short life, not a short lif.

People who talk on cell phones in waiting rooms, restaurants, checkout lines, etc. Enough said.

- The incorrect use of "I" instead of "me." This really bugs my editor and I.

Everyday life

Drug ads on TV that list a hundred terrifying side effects. After listening, why would anyone take these medications? For that matter, if your doctor is competent, why should you have to tell him what he should prescribe to treat your condition?

- "Teasers" during otherwise professional news broadcasts. Coming up after the break, on Nightly News: You won't believe what Miley does in this next video . . .

People who are rude to waitresses. Guess what you're getting on your salad today, sir.

Telemarketers. If I ever meet them in person, Heaven help Rachel at Cardmember Services and William at Great Vacations.

Tennis players who grunt every time they hit the ball. I once heard this from the other room and thought Planet of the Apes was on. The MUTE button helps, but still.

People who park their cars across two spaces. I've heard the cure is to park two cars alongside the space-hog, leaving him about an inch of clearance on both sides.

People who bend their arms high and pump them furiously back and forth when they walk. This might be good exercise, but one should try to maintain at least some measure of dignity in life.

Too much perfume. Get back, get back--give him some air!

People who can't stop checking/playing with their cell phones. Hey, remember me? I'm sitting right here. (I heard last night on NPR that this is called "phunning"--shunning others with your phone.)

Movie sequels. Let's face it: Terminator 2Star Trek II, AliensThe Dark KnightThe Road Warrior, and The Godfather: Part II were the only ones that were better than their predecessors.

Black shoelaces on black sneakers. They're hard to see when you try to tie your shoes.

Not enough legroom in cars, theatres, airplanes, etc. Not everyone is average height.

Cashiers who give you your change with the coins on top of the bills. How many times have you spilled everything while trying to put it into your purse or wallet?

The writing life

Its vs. it's. This one just isn't that hard--and editors expect you to know the difference.

Possessive vs. plural. If your characters are Mr. and Mrs. Baker, the name on their mailbox should say THE BAKERS, not THE BAKER'S. Even though the mailbox belongs to a Baker.

People who turn down the corner of a page as a bookmark. Don't make me come over there and throw you out of the library . . .

- The overuse of exclamation points!

- Misplaced modifiers. We make combs for people with unbreakable teeth.

Your vs. you're. Good grief.

The incorrect punctuation of "y'all." We who live in the south see this a lot.

Readers who sneak a look at the ending of a story or book. Yes, I'm told these people do exist.

Dumb-looking photos/illustrations of hunky guys on the covers of romance novels. See above: Even we authors should strive for some level of dignity.

People who say, "You know, I'd write a book, if only I had the time." Right.

The misuse of "ironically" and "literally." It's not ironic that your character was late for a meeting because she ran into a pothole, unless the meeting was about highway improvements. And the mishap did not--unless the pavement caved in on top of her--literally put her between a rock and a hard place.

- The overuse of adjectives. He drove his old blue rusted-out pickup truck down the hot, dry, rough, dusty road.

- The overuse of adverbs. He stomped heavily on the brake, slowly cranked the window down, stared blearily at the patrolman, and finally said, "I'm disgustingly drunk."

Too-long bios. Authors who put the longest bios on their book jackets (and in their query/cover letters) always seem to be the ones who have accomplished the least.

The overuse of substitutes for "said." "Why?" he queried. "Why not?" she retorted. "Because," he declared. "Okay," she agreed.

Blog columns that talk about pet peeves. I mean, really, who cares?

Nonexistent aggravations

Oddly enough, some of the things that seem to run other people crazy don't bother me:

Babies who cry in public places. No worries. It's one of those things I can just tune out.

Shortened words: tote, limo, tux, fax, mayo, etc. Why not?

Squeaky, unoiled chains on a porch swing. I think the sound is kind of rhythmic and soothing.

Allowing food on one side of your plate to get mixed up with food on the other side. So what? It's all going to get mixed up soon anyhow.

People who go around whistling or singing all the time. I believe we could use more of that kind of thing.

Watching a ballgame on TV without sound. Who needs an announcer to tell you what just happened on the field?

Combined but unhyphenated words: handpicked, superheated, cardplayer, smartphone, doublewide, etc. Again, why not?

- Comma splices, split infinitives, sentence fragments, etc. To use these is to boldly go where my English prof wouldn't--but in fiction, I love 'em.

Overuse of movie quotes. To me, it's hard to overuse anything involving movies.




Okay, that's it. Literally. Ya'll know what I'm saying?

Its ironic, but now I'm like, "What are YOU'RE pet peeves?"