20 February 2015

He done her wrong


Well, Valentine's Day has come and gone. I hope you remembered your significant other with at least a card on this special day which is designated for love and lovers. This particular day was also my… uh, let me do some quick math here… oh yeah, my 34th wedding anniversary. I was smart enough to deliberately pick Valentine's Day, a nationally advertised event to assist me in not forgetting when I had to come up with something for my wife in order to show that yes, I did recognize a very important date in our ongoing union.

Relationships between two people are important. And while it is difficult enough to maintain a loving and stable relationship between two people, once you add in a third or a suspected third person, the situation is apt to become deadly serious. No, don't look at me, I'm referring to that old-time, St. Louis couple, Frankie and Johnny. You've all heard the song.

     Frankie and Johnny were sweethearts
     They had a quarrel one day
     Johnny he vowed that he would leave her
     Said he was going away
     He's never coming home,
     etc.

Okay, that's probably not the version you heard; there're several versions out there. Which leads us to the point that the only things to be agreed on by historians is that a man died and he was killed by his significant other. I reiterate my statement about remembering your significant other.

Anyway, if you believe the St. Louis Ledger, Frankie was Frankie Baker, a 22 year-old single female, and Johnny was actually Albert Britt, a 17 year-old youth who sometimes resided with Frankie in her second floor apartment in a boarding house. Well, I could see right off the bat that something was wrong with the situation if Albert was using an alias. I don't know if Albert felt the need to carry a second name because of his secret life on the side, or if it was a ruse to mislead Frankie's landlord that she was keeping house with a juvenile. Love will get you into situations.

The song goes on to say that Johnny was going to leave Frankie after an argument, or that Frankie went out for a beer and caught him with another woman, or that she looked over a transom and saw him loving up the other woman. Pick your version. Other accounts say young Albert was returning from a "cakewalk" where he and a young lady had just won a slow-dancing contest. The other woman in all these scenarios could have been Alice Pryor, or she could have been Nellie Bly. So much for the reliability of witnesses in these matters. However, I do remember the excitement of slow-dancing in my hey-day and I'm sure this would have upset Frankie. Not my slow-dancing, you understand, but rather that done by her man Johnny, or Albert, or whatever his name was, when he was doing it with that other woman whoever she was.

Moving on, the song says Frankie pulled her .44 and shot him five times...or it could have been three times. One sometimes get confused with all the noise and adrenalin. Which brings us back to them reliable witnesses. In the newspaper article, Frankie goes on record as a case of domestic violence, saying that Johnny cut her with his folding knife during their little dust up, so she slid her hand under her pillow, drew out her gun and shot him ONCE with her shiny, silver-plated .32. Okay, while I was admittedly not at the scene on October 15, 1899 at 3:30 AM, I'm gonna jump in here anyway. I've seen a photo of Frankie and she is not a muscle-bound female, so if she's pulling the trigger on a .44 revolver, then the recoil is going to knock her hand back and up after every shot, requiring a certain amount of time to reacquire the target before her next shot. There would not be any of that alleged "root-e-toot-toot" shooting going on. Not three times, and surely not five times. Besides, there was an alleged eye-witness, Pansy Marvin, who claimed to have seen the whole thing, thus backing up Frankie's version of the situation.

Johnny said to roll him over, and then died on the spot, whereas Albert took one round to the abdomen, said, "You have me," whatever the hell that meant, went to the hospital and expired four days later. Frankie beat the rap at trial, spent the rest of her life being pointed out in public as "that woman," even though she changed cities several times. She filed a defamation suit against Republic Pictures for their 1938 movie Frankie and Johnny, was unsuccessful in the lawsuit, and later died in a state hospital for the insane on January 19, 1950, in Pendleton, Oregon.

So what did we learn from all this?

First, don't be caught out with any hot young thing going by the name of Alice Pryor or Nellie Bly. Second, you may have a sweet tooth for cake, but slow-dancing with another woman at a cakewalk could be hazardous to your health. But mainly, I would say that you should be sure to remember your significant other at all times. Especially if that significant other keeps a shiny pistol under her pillow.

I remembered. How about you?

19 February 2015

The Murder of Sir Thomas Overbury
Part III: the Killing


by Brian Thornton

(This is the final installment of a three-part series on a notorious murder during the reign of King James I of England [James VI of Scotland]. For the first part of this post, with general historical background as well as a fair bit about the victim, click here. For the second part, which deals mostly with the conspirators, click here.)

When is an "honor" not really an honor?

Everyone knows that sometimes an "honor" is precisely that. A great occasion for the honoree, and the sort of thing to be welcomed–if not outright eagerly anticipated– when it comes your way. Oscar nominations. Getting named to the board of a prosperous Fortune 500 company. Making the New York Times Bestseller list (I should live so long!).

Not always easy to quantify, but like the late, great Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart once said of pornography, "I know it when I see it." The same is also true of the kind of thing frequently called an "honor" when it really isn't.

Here's one example


And even worse than this type of infamous "non-honor honor" is the sort of honor that could be
Colonel Robert Gould Shaw:
Dead Honoree
hazardous to your health. In an example from American history, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, first black regiment in the United States Army, received the "honor" of leading the charge during an attack on rebel fortifications at Fort Wagner, South Carolina.

Led by their heroic commander, one Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the 54th did itself proud, spearheading the Union charge into the teeth of murderous cannon fire, in an attempt to take the strategically important fort situated on an island in Charleston Harbor.

But the net result? The 54th Massachusetts Infantry numbered six hundred men at the time of the charge. The regiment suffered nearly a fifty percent casualty rate in this single action alone (two hundred seventy-two killed, wounded or missing)! Among the dead was Shaw, the colonel who led the way.


When it's an offer to serve as ambassador to Russia!

While not necessarily a death sentence, a 17th century example of an "honor" along these lines was
This guy. Nice boots, huh?
serving as an ambassador to Russia. Especially during the early part of the century, when Russia was pretty much the "Wild West" (without the "West" part) of Europe. Anarchy. Lawlessness. A devastating famine that began in 1601 and lasted for years afterward. Invasion and extended occupation by Polish armies, culminating in a teen-aged Polish-Swedish nobleman briefly taking the throne in 1610!

By February of 1613, things had gotten a little better, with the Russians kicking the Poles out and electing a new (Russian-born) tsar, Mikhail, who established the Romanov dynasty. Barely twenty, Mikhail faced a long, grinding battle getting Russia's nobility to mind their manners and unite behind him in anything other than name. So even though there was a new sheriff in the Kremlin (and if his coronation portrait is any indicator, one with superb taste in spiffy red boots!), there was still plenty of lawlessness, crime, war, famine and pestilence to go around.

Even with the Poles gone, Russia was an impoverished, backward country on the periphery of what most Europeans considered civilization. For government functionaries such as Overbury, it was the type of diplomatic posting where careers went to die.

So how did he come to be the recipient of such a signal "honor"?

What's left of Red Square and Kremlin when the Poles turned Moscow back to the Russians,
August 1612
What happens when you piss off a rival and that rival has the queen's ear.

As mentioned previously, Overbury seems to have consistently overestimated his own cleverness, and systematically underestimated that of nearly everyone around him. He had expended a great deal of time and effort steering his pretty boy puppet Robert Carr into King James' orbit so as to profit by a successful pulling of Carr's strings. When the king began to entrust Carr with a number of duties involving fat salaries attached to a slew of confusing paperwork (Carr was pretty but not too bright), of course Carr relied heavily on his friend and mentor Overbury to help out with the details. Overbury in turn took his own considerable cut. Pretty standard stuff, where court preferment was concerned.

James I
All that changed when the king's favorite minister Robert Cecil, earl of Salisbury died, and a power vacuum opened close to the throne. Salisbury oversaw James' foreign policy, and with his death the king saw an opportunity to begin to set that policy himself, as long as he had someone along for the ride who could handle the intricacies of diplomatic language (and paperwork). He decided that his favorite Robert Carr was perfect for the gig.

Of course Carr was not remotely suited for such work. But his mentor Overbury was.

The bed-hopper
With Carr's elevation to his new role there were people lining up to try to win influence with him, and through him, with the king. This included members of the already powerful and well-connected Howard family. Namely Henry Howard, earl of Northampton and his niece, Lady Frances Howard, already married in a teen-aged and allegedly never-consummated hate-match with the young earl of Essex.

As Overbury had done with Carr, placing him in King James' path, now Northampton did to Carr, placing his still-married and barely into her teens niece in Carr's. Her tender years notwithstanding, Lady Frances had already acquired a reputation for bed-hopping, and while Carr seemed capable of wrapping a king around his little finger, he seems to have been no match for Frances' feminine wiles.

The two were soon openly consorting, and there was talk of marriage after first seeking an annulment of Frances' marriage to Essex, on the grounds of non consummation. (The earl detested his new bride nearly from the moment he met her and fled on a tour of the continent rather than sleep with her. And he stayed away for a good long while afterward!).

Overbury was furious at being frozen out of the lucrative gig of pulling Carr's strings, and published a  widely-read poem pretty effectively slandering Lady Frances. He had made a powerful enemy.

Lady Frances' catspaw: Queen Anne
What's more, this enemy was a favorite of the queen. She managed to prevail on Queen Anne to convince her husband the king to offer Overbury the "honor" of serving as His Majesty's man in Moscow.

Now Overbury found himself outfoxed. If he accepted the posting, he'd be away from court, with no influence and no money. To the people of Jacobean England, Russia was only slightly closer to home than the New World, which was to say one step closer than the moon!

However, to refuse such an offer of appointment was flat-out dangerous. Such refusal could be taken as an insult, and history is replete with examples of how well royals tend to take insults from those ostensibly in their service. (Newsflash: it ain't lying down!)

Overbury's thoughts along these lines are not recorded. And there's no way of knowing whether he seriously considered the possibility that the choice before him could possibly wind up being between a trip to Russia or a trip to the Bloody Tower. Regardless, he chose to refuse the "honor" of serving as English ambassador to Russia, and apparently managed to come off as so high-handed that in April 1613 an infuriated King James had him tossed into the Tower for his trouble.

Yep, same tower was the one where Richard III killed his princely nephews. Same room, too, apparently.
By September, Overbury was dead.

Ten days later Lady Essex received her wished-for annulment, over Essex's protestations that he was
Robert Carr
later in life and no longer pretty.
not, in fact, impotent, as the papers requesting the annulment claimed. Within a couple of months, Lady Frances and Robert Carr, now no longer earl of Rochester, but "promoted" to an even more plumb title with vastly more substantial holdings as earl of Somerset, were married.

That might well have been the end of the story. But Robert Carr was an idiot, and it quickly became clear that he was now as much the Howards' puppet as he had earlier been Overbury's. Plus, the king was fickle in his affections where his favorites were concerned, and apparently within a year or so, Carr began to lose his hair and his looks. James soon tired of his pet earl, and let it be known to certain influential members of his inner circle that he would welcome an excuse to be shut of him, so he could focus his attentions elsewhere (namely George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham).

And that was when rumors began to surface about Carr's frequent visits to the Tower to see his erstwhile friend and mentor Overbury in the months preceding his death. And of Carr's possible connection with the gifts of possibly tainted food and drink a certain jailer pressed upon the unfortunate man.

The Investigation

Whispers of "poison" were nothing new during the reign of James I. Invariably when anyone of any importance died quickly and without violence, some gossip, somewhere began to murmur in the ears of friends that the circumstances certainly seemed suspicious. And as much as James wanted to be rid of Carr, the last thing he wanted was a scandal. So he set his two brightest advisors to work on the investigation, ensuring it was handled right from the start.

These two were none other than the greatest legal minds of the age. Two great names that survive even today: Sir Francis Bacon and Sir Edward Coke.

The first thing they did was have Overbury's corpse exhumed and subjected to an autopsy. He was indeed found to have been poisoned. Not by food, or drink, it turns out, but by a combination of emetics and enemas.

Overbury's jailer and the lord lieutenant of the Tower were immediately confined and questioned. It all came out in their confessions and the confessions of those they named as co-conspirators.

Apparently Lady Frances and her uncle the earl of Northampton dreamed up the scheme to have Overbury dispatched in a manner which might not look suspicious, and pressed her dupe of a husband into service, getting him to visit his "friend" Overbury regularly, and impress upon him the only way out of the Tower was through touching the heart of the king and moving him to pity at Overbury's lowly state.

Ann Turner: Poisoner by enema
Confinement did not agree with Overbury, and he was already ill. But a combination of emetics and enemas would help make him seem even more piteous and enfeebled, certain to prod James into an act of clemency, Carr argued. Overbury, desperate to escape the Tower, agreed to this course of action.

In furtherance of the Howards' plan, the Tower's lord lieutenant (the government official overseeing the operation of the Tower) was removed in favor of a notably corrupt one named Helwys (recommended by none other than the earl of Northampton, to whom he paid a customarily hefty finder's fee), who in turn assured that a jailer named Weston agreeable to Lady Frances' plan was placed in position to oversee Overbury's "treatments."

Lady Frances' connection to the plot was laid bare by the confession eventually wrung from her "companion," a seemingly respectable physician's widow named Anne Turner. In reality Turner was anything but.

While her husband was still alive Anne Turner carried on a prolonged affair with a wealthy gentleman, and bore him a child out of wedlock. After her husband's demise she "made ends meet" in part by running a secret red light establishment where couples not married to each other could go to have sex. She had also served as her deceased husband's assistant on many occasions and possessed some skill with chemicals–especially poisons. She quickly developed a black market business selling them to many of the "wrong people."

So when her employer Lady Frances came to her seeking help, Anne Turner was more than willing to assist. Together with an apothecary she knew and worked with, Turner came up with several doses of emetics and enemas laced with sulfuric acid. Weston in turn administered these to an unsuspecting Overbury, who soon died.

The Outcome

Possessing not much in the way of either money or influence, the quartet of Turner, Weston, Helwys and the apothecary (whose name was Franklin) were quickly tried, convicted, condemned and hanged.
Henry Howard, the well-timed earl of Northampton

The earl and countess of Somerset, who did possess both money and influence, were immediately arrested and thrown into the Tower. The earl of Northampton only escaped a similar fate by having had the good timing to die the previous year.

The resulting scandal, far from merely ridding the king of a tiresome former favorite, caused James no end of embarrassment. He repeatedly offered to pardon Carr in exchange for a confession to the charge of murder.

For her part, Lady Frances quickly admitted her part in Overbury's murder. Carr, however, insisted ever afterward that he knew nothing of the plot (given his demonstrated lack of smarts, hardly difficult to believe that he was little more than the dupe of his extremely cunning wife). The earl and his wife were tried and eventually convicted on charges of murder and treason. Obviously concerned that Carr might implicate him in the murder and no doubt also nervous about what Carr might say about the nature of their personal relationship, James let them languish in prison for seven years, eventually quietly pardoning both the earl and the countess, and equally quietly banishing them from court.

Apparently the bloom came off the rose for this star-crossed couple during their long confinement, and their burning passion cooled into a dull hatred. If Carr's protestations of innocence are true, it stands to reason that the revelation of the part she played in killing his friend and mentor Overbury may have had something to do with his seeing her in a different light.

The next ten years after they were pardoned in 1622 were spent quietly loathing each other on Carr's estate in Dorset, far from the pomp of James' court in London. Lady Frances died aged 42 of cancer in 1632. Carr followed her to the grave in 1645.

18 February 2015

Our dirty little but highly efficient secret



(Bcon photo by Diane Vallere, by permission.  Craig Faustus Buck, Travis Richardson, Barb Goffman, Robert Lopresti, Paul D. Marks, and Art Taylor discuss short stories with ruthless efficiency.)
 
One of the highlights of the recent Bouchercon, as fas I am concerned, was getting to meet Thomas Perry  Actually meet is probably too strong a word,.  In reality I shook his hand while gushing a lot of very sincere compliments.  He's probably my favorite living mystery writer with whom I had never before had personal contact.

And if you look at the compilation I did here of wisdom from the conference you will see that I
quoted him frequently.  But there was one lovely line which I set aside in my notebook in order to give it its own consideration.  And that time has come.

On one panel Perry reported that a reviewer had described his novel The Butcher Boy as "competence porn."
  That struck me as perfect.  The Butcher's Boy is the first of three novels about a hitman known only by that nickname. And BB, if I may be overly familiar, is staggeringly competent at his job, the kind of guy who can kill a motel full of mob leaders one by one without being noticed.

It struck me that there is a lot of competence porn out there, so there must be a market for it.  Another example is Perry's books about Jane Whitefield, who is a sort of anti-detective.  (Instead of finding criminals, she helps them disappear… but only if their crime is small compared to the danger they face.) And while Jane does make mistakes (my favorite book in the series begins with her falling into a trap that gets two colleagues killed) the major fascination in the books is her training her "runners" in the minutiae they need to keep in mind to avoid the bad guys who want them dead.


I am halfway through the latest Whitefield book, A String of Beads, in which she tells a  construction worker, wanted for a murder he didn't commit, to dress and think like a businessman, and to go back to college, because no one would look for a runaway there.  Those are just a couple of details out of a thousand.

Another example of competence porn: the Parker novels by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake).  Parker the thief is always the best crook in the string, and better at what he does than the cops are at theirs.  The reason he gets in trouble (so that the books don't end around chapter 4) is that he has to work with people who are not as competent nor as ethical (in terms of treating their partners) as he is.  I tried to think of mistakes he made and came up with two; in both cases the goof was not killing someone.  Welcome to Parker's world.


I suspect that a lot of the books called techno-thrillers are competence porn, but I don't read them, so I wouldn't know.  Your thoughts on all this are most welcome.

And that brings me to another related subject.  A few weeks ago someone on FaceBook was complaining about the use of "porn" to describe something, well, attractive but bad for you.  Like competence porn, for example, or as they describe musical instrument catalogs in my crowd, guitar porn.  The complainer was tired of the phrase and I think didn't appreciate associating pornography with these other interests.


And that reminds me of the recent pieces by Melodie and Fran in which they each used the term "literary sluts" to describe themselves, because they write in several fields.  One of the commentators, Anonymous, said:  

This really shows me how different writing is as a profession from the sciences. (Not that you asked.) I am a woman scientist and we are constantly fighting NOT to be thought of as sluts of any kind, especially not in a supposedly joking manner (which is what our male colleagues say, is that they are just joking around). If you read the way Watson and Crick talk about Rosalind Franklin in "The Double Helix" you will see what I mean -- and things have NOT changed since then. Some of our younger woman scientists have tried to adopt this playful language, which embeds a sort of alternative approach to being a woman in science the way that they do it, and it's destroyed their careers. So the idea that women are so well-established in the writing profession that you all can afford to use this kind of language is just mind-blowing to me.

 Of course, mystery writing has had issues with sexual discrimination (look up the origin of Sisters in Crime), but is Everything Just Fine now?  I'm not the person to judge.

So, how do you feel about the term "slut" in this case?  Is it "taking back the word" as some marginalized groups have said about their use of epithets? Or a harmful dead end?  

While you debate this I am going to go finish reading A String of Beads.

17 February 2015

Who Are These People In Our Heads?


When Northcoast Shakedown originally came out, I got accused by a coworker of basing most of my characters on people in the company where we worked. We worked at an insurance company. Nick Kepler scored free office space from an insurance company, and both were big property/casualty companies. However, I would be a little disturbed if the executives at TTG Insurance bore any resemblance to the ones at the company I discreetly refer to as BigHugeCo. The truth is the two executives who make Nick's life difficult in that story started out as stock bad bosses. That's how they got into trouble. Elaine, the secretary? She started out as someone for Nick to vent to while having a beer next door to TTG's offices.
The trouble with basing a character on an actual person too closely is that the writer then starts trying to bend a character to the real person, which makes for stilted, dull writing and poor dialog. A person may inspire a character, but if a writer is skilled or, at least, has good instincts, the character will take on a life of its own.

Sometimes, a central character is the author himself or herself. Sue Grafton has admitted as much about Kinsey Milhonne. She has stated that Kinsey is her if her life had taken another turn. Ditto for Spenser and Robert B. Parker. The darker tone of the earlier novels reflect a lot of the personal struggles Parker himself spoke of in that period of his life while later, when he was in a better place, the novels took on a lighter, clearly amused tone.

(Incidentally, I am not Nick Kepler. He's not as technically savvy, and I never had as many girlfriends as Nick. Though I think I had better luck with them.)

A clichéd piece of advice I used to get when I first started was to base a character on an actor. (Early on, I envisioned John Cusack as Kepler, though that faded away after a couple of stories.) Sometimes, that works as long as it's not someone over the top like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Vin Diesel. The trick here is to use the actor's persona as a jumping off point. Let's say you love Kaley Cuoco Sweeting from Big Bang Theory and want to drop her into your novel. Well, I'm sure Kaley will be flattered, but most likely, you really like how she plays Penny on the show. But if that combination of appearance and personality works for you in a tough-as-nail lady sheriff in rural Wisconsin, knock yourself out. Just know that a woman who has managed to get elected or appointed sheriff of a Midwestern county is going to already have a different background from an aspiring actress and waitress at a California Cheesecake Factory, particularly if there are no nerdy scientists around to color her life. (You might get away with a Sheldonesque coroner, but that's pushing it.)

Often, for me, characters just arise. They are functions of the story. Take a guy, put him in a situation, and ask yourself who he is and why he's there. More often than not, that's the first scene of a story as well as the birth of a story. It's not creating a role and then building a story around him. It's all about finding this imaginary person and creating a story to find out who he is. Nick Kepler is a function of a rainy night and having walked down at least two or three semi-rural highways in my time.

Sometimes, it really is a real person who inspires a character. Sherlock Holmes, probably the ultimate crime fiction protagonist in the English language, came from a rather quirky and highly intelligent doctor Sir Arthur Conan Doyle knew or knew about. A more extreme example comes from the 1990's. Mike Judge, the mind behind Office Space and King of the Hill, actually based the dimwitted, gravel-voiced Beavis on a guy he used to know (though I'm assuming the real Beavis was nowhere near as... um... intellectually challenged.  Heh-heh. Heh hmm heh. Fire!)

And sometimes, a character just demands to be written. You get a character like Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones whose personality is so clear that one has to write a story or three about him.

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 Café", "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.