20 March 2015

St. Thomas

by R.T. Lawton


Overlooking the harbor at St. Thomas
With February comes icy winds and blowing snow to the mountain ranges in the state where we live. This becomes a time for us to seek bright sun, warm sand and salt water breezes. Often, that means somewhere off the continent where internet access is limited, non-existent or highly expensive. In any case, I still wouldn't blog from those places about those places because such activity also advertises to potential burglars that I would not be at home, 9mm in hand to greet unwanted intruders (this does not apply to you guys). Thus, any photos and travelogue you get here are a few weeks behind actuality.

               *                 *                  *                

Columbus sighted the island of St. Thomas in 1493 during his second voyage to the New World, but he kept on going. The Dutch West India Company subsequently established a post in 1657. A few years later, the Dutch conquered the original inhabitants, the Arawaks, and turned the land into sugar cane plantations. Along came the U.S. in 1917 and bought the island for $25 million as part of their defensive strategy to control the Caribbean and the Panama Canal during World War I. Ten years later, U.S. citizenship was granted to the island's residents and they were given home rule in 1970.

I quickly found out that the U.S. Virgin Islands are the only place in the U.S. where vehicles drive on the left side of the road. This practice was inherited from the Dutch, however most vehicles on the island are of American make, thus the driver sits on the left side. It was explained to me by a local that this way the driver could better see how close his wheels were to falling off the edge of their steep and twisty mountain roads. Since I was seated behind our driver on the left side of the vehicle, I could see his concern. There were no safety rails on the road and it was a long ways down. We'll skip over the hazards of oncoming traffic at hairpin turns.

Blackbeard's Castle, his statue is behind the camera.
Further inland, there's an old stone tower built high up on a mountain ridge, It overlooks the harbor which serves the city of Charlotte Amalie. Locals refer to the tower as Blackbeard's Castle and there is a larger than life statue of Edward Teach on a plaza in front of the tower. On the statue, you can see the ten firearms (eight flintlock pistols and two blunderbusses) he carried strapped to his body for battle, a cutlass in one hand and a hatchet in the other, plus you can picture the burning cannon fuses he wove into his hair and beard to make him look like the devil himself. In truth, the Danes built the four-story structure they called Skytsborg Tower in 1679 as a watchtower over approaches to the harbor. And, while Blackbeard did sail the Caribbean, there is no historical proof that he ever set foot in said tower.

Coming down from the tower is a foot route known as 99 Steps, which leads through several old buildings more or less maintained as museums of the old days, complete with period furniture and other items of the past. Once you descend to the city streets, you are free to shop as a tourist. Since the harbor in St. Thomas, known for being a deep water harbor, is referred to as Taphus, which roughly translates to rum house or tap house, we skipped the Rolex and high end jewelry shops and instead went in search of libation to quench our thirst on this warm tropical day. In one of the many alleys, we found a small place called Greengo's Cantina. Here we indulged in a couple rounds of beers and an excellent platter of nachos to be shared by the four of us sailing companions. If you ever find yourself in St. Thomas, USVI, I definitely recommend Greengo's Cantina and their nachos.

Next, we're off to Dominica and a story about 1970's mercenaries. That's two weeks for you, but a one-day cruise for us. See ya.

19 March 2015

Beginnings

By Brian Thornton

"Mighty oaks from little acorns grow." 

                                                            - Fourteenth century English proverb










 "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."                                                                     

                                                                                       - Laozi, Tao Te Ching











"'The cat sat on the mat' is not the beginning of a story, but 'the cat sat on the dog’s mat' is."
                                                                                              - John LeCarre









Last week I had both the honor and the pleasure of attending Left Coast Crime just down I-5 in Portland, Oregon ("Crimelandia"). While I was there I crossed paths with many old friends, and made some new ones. Attended some panels. Moderated one on novellas.

Learned a lot.

Had some fun.

Experienced one of the luckiest days of my life (behind, of course, the day that my wife agreed to marry me and the one when my son was born). Cleaned up at poker (got cleaned OUT the next night) and won a signed, inscribed copy of Steven Saylor's latest book!

You know, like you do.

One guy I ran into at this year's LCC Vancouver native Sam Wiebe. We originally met at last year's Bouchercon, and I liked him, so I picked up a copy of his novel Last of the Independents.With this, his debut novel Sam has penned one of the truly unforgettable opening paragraphs in modern crime fiction. It is by turns profane (and potentially offensive) and uproariously funny, which in turn also renders it completely subversive.


If you're interested in reading it, take a look at the sample offered here. And then do yourself a favor and BUY HIS BOOK!


Talking with Sam and a host of other friends/authors in (would you believe it?) the event bar about favorite books and the ones that pack an opening gate wallop like Last of the Independents does got me to thinking about beginnings. Specifically, about openings, and about how a story opens.

With all of the current emphasis on pacing, plot, character and a whizz-bang ending, the need for a solid opening scene for today's attention-challenged literary audience sometimes gets short shrift. And while I can recall terrific ending lines from some of my favorite novels, ("And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." comes to mind.), I can recall a lot more great openers.

(Note that distinguished between "opener" and "opening line" here. More on that in a bit.)

Take this one, for example:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard
wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

Most people who read and write crime fiction recognize that opener right away. It is, of course, from The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler's first novel, which introduces his famous private detective, Phillip Marlowe.

Chandler had a way with openers. Take this other one from his short story "Red Wind":

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

Now that is what I call a "table-setter"!

Your opening paragraphs are your first, best and really, only chance to set the scene, establish character/tone/setting, and do it all quick, before your reader loses interest. Looking at The Big Sleep again, it's readily apparent that Chandler does all of this with two short paragraphs. The first one quoted above, in which he memorably establishes his protagonist's personality and voice, and in the next one, where he sets the scene:

The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn't have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn't seem to be really trying.

And just like that your scene is set, complete with a stained-glass window that serves as a ready-made metaphor for the book's action that is obvious, without hitting you over the head.

So good it's been imitated a million times since, up to and past the point of parody.

How about you? Feel free to scroll down to the comments section and use it weigh in with your favorite opening lines/paragraphs/scenes, and what makes the special for you!

18 March 2015

Quotelandia

by Robert Lopresti

Panel on short stories at Left Coast Crime: Travis Richardson, Bharti Kirchner, Deborah J. Ledford, Brian Thornton, What's-his-name.  Photo by Teresa Wong, used by permission.
 
I spent the weekend in Portland, Oregon, at Crimelandia, the 25th Left Coast Crime. A good time was had by all, or at least by me. And just as I did at Bouchercon in November, I took notes on some of the words of wisdom that the panelists distributed, as well as some of the nonsense.  You get to decide which is which.  Apologies for any misquotes or misattributions.


"Watching cartoons is really good for writing sex scenes."  - Linda Joffe Hull


"We are living in the golden age of nonfiction."  -Brian Thornton
 

"What really hurt is that this reader trusted Wikipedia more than me."  - Steven Saylor
 

"(My character) believes that what separates us from the rest of the animals is our ability to accessorize." - Heather Haven

"She was built like sadness." - Johnny Shaw


"You can't just have your character say the kidney was kidney-shaped.'-Terry Odell
 

"As we used to say in the navy, maintain rigid flexibility."  - Janet Dawson 

"When I read violence and it doesn't hurt that makes me angry.  Because that's the only violence that's dangerous."  -Josh Stallings.

"We're all twelve year old boys at heart." - Holly West


"No one in Britain has enough money to put twenty writers in a room long enough to write Seinfeld." - Catriona McPherson



"My true stories are more like independent films."  -Johnny Shaw
 

"I went on the FBI tour today and found out I'm on the watch list." - Linda Joffe Hall
 

"I grew up in the seventies and my parents were so high that they couldn't start a commune.  So they just invited people over."  - Jess Lourey
 

"When you're doing research, never skip the footnotes."  -Jeri Westerson 

 "You can stand on any street corner in Bangkok and have five novels in ten minutes."  - Tim Hallinan


"I call the info-dump 'As you know, Bob.' For example,  'As you know, Bob, as forensic psychologists, we can...'" -Andrew E. Kaufman

"I live in Colorado and I'm probably one of four people who doesn't have a concealed weapon permit."  - Terry Odell


"Helen's work is critically acclaimed, best-selling, and award-winning, which is just greedy." -  Catriona McPherson


"When I started writing I used alcohol.  It diminished my anxiety completely.  It diminished other things too."  - Tim Hallinan

"I don't put years in my books because things change."  - Andrew E. Kaufman

"You're always on the psychoanalysis couch when you're writing these books."  - Steven Saylor
 

"Research is like fishing.  You never know what you're going to catch."  -V.M. Giambanco
 

"Adverbs are the date that wouldn't leave."  -Brian Thornton
 

"I'm supposed to repeat all questions, so: Parnell Hall's room number is 618."  -Jess Lourey
 

"Don't touch a menopausal woman and don't give her a gun." -Terry Odell
 

"They're not very interesting people before the murder."  - Frederick Ramsay
 

"If you can't laugh at your life, it's going to be a long life."  - Heather Haven.

"Adolescence is essentially a country-western song."  -Tim Hallinan

"Fun fact: Chris is wearing a training bra, but not in the traditional manner." - Simon Wood

"Good writing is good writing." - Josh Stallings

17 March 2015

The St. Patrick’s Day Crime Blotter, and a Whole Lot of Blarney***


by Paul D. Marks


Crime Blotter d1

Valentine_Day_massacre
In honor of my post falling on St. Patrick’s Day and in keeping with the crime nature of this blog, I thought I should pay homage to the day with the St. Patrick’s Day Crime Blotter.

Everybody knows the famousinfamousSt. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929. So one might think St. Patrick got short shrift. I mean in a world where “my massacre is bigger than your massacre” is important stuff, one might think St. Paddy and St. Val would come to blows over who has the better holiday and, of course, who has a more impressive spot on the crime blotter.

After all, See’s Candy makes marshmallow-shaped hearts for Valentine’s Day, but what do they do for St. Patrick’s Day? A handful of chocolates in green boxes and green tinfoil and chocolate “potatoes”. Major slight. Which reminds me of the line from the Ernst Lubitsch classic To Be or Not to Be, where Colonel Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman) says, “They named a brandy after Napoleon, they made a herring out of Bismarck, and the Fuhrer is going to end up as a piece of cheese!”

Well, the chocolate potato is like the cheese, especially compared to marshmallow hearts. Where the herring fits in I’m not quite sure.

So, let’s take a little quiz:

Alex, I’ll take St. Paddy’s Day deaths for $100, please.

Who was the first St. Patrick’s Day death?

Uh, that’s a tough one, let me think. St. Patrick.

Right you are. That’s why the holiday is observed on the date of his death, March 17th.

*     *    *

Now, let’s see. It seems St. Val’s Day is in the lead what with the Massacre named after him, and seven murders from shotgun, pistol and Tommy gun blasts, the latter most likely emerging from Stradivarius violin cases.

So, it looks like St. Val is ahead in the Crime Blotter Race. But the fact is that St. Pat’s day can compete with St. Valentine’s Day. First, a couple minor examples:

On March 17, 1921, mafia hood Albert Anastasia was convicted of murdering GeorgePaul_Muni-scarface_1932 d1 Turino, a longshoreman. They’d quarreled. And I guess you don’t quarrel with one of the founding members of Murder, Inc. Due to a legal technicality, Anastasia was given a retrial in 1922, and because four of the original prosecution witnesses had somehow magically disappeared, Anastasia’s sentence was overturned.  The question is, were they given anesthesia by Anastasia before their disappearing acts? Like I said, I guess it doesn’t pay to quarrel with one of the founders of Murder, Inc.

March 17, 1996, the play Getting Away with Murder, by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth opened. March 31, 1996: the Broadway production of the play closes after seventeen performances one day for each day of March leading up to St. Pat’s day. Maybe not a record, but not bad. Even Sondheim couldn’t get away with this one.

And there’s a couple more pretty gruesome events that occurred on March 17th in history that my wife asked me to excise in the name of good taste, but if you look up Richard Ramirez, a.k.a. The Night Stalker, Rachel Manger Hudson and Uganda on this date you’ll get an idea.

*     *     *

The St. Patrick’s Day Massacre


Now here’s the KickerSt. Pat does have a massacre named in his honor. Bet you didn’t know that, did’ja?

St. Patrick: “I’ll see your St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and raise you one St. Pat’s Day Massacre.”

St. Valentine: “Ha.”

But let’s see.

March 16, 1926: Chicago gangster Jean Arnaud is having a St. Patrick’s Day party at his sister-in-law’s apartment. (Even though it’s the day before, it counts for St. Pat’s Day since it is in honor of that holiday and is, indeed, known as the St. Patrick’s Day Massacre.) Rival hood Alphonse “Scarface” Lambert wants to off Arnaud and his peeps. The party starts around 4:30pm and Scarface has several teams of gunmen hit the party by 5pm. Besides the in-house teams, sniper teams are on the buildings across the street. Scarface really wants this dude dead and gone. The whole attack takes less than ten minutes. There are no survivors, and the death count is never officially known, as some of the people who attended the party are never found.

A cop on the scene describes it as a "human slaughterhouse." And you thought your last party bombed.

All of the shooters, Scarface, and everyone involved in the crime escaped. No prosecutions follow.
And even with all that blood and gore, Scarface didn’t get what he wanted as one of Arnaud’s lieutenant’s took up the reigns of Arnaud’s crime family and then finked Scarface out to the cops. Equilibrium was restored and all was right with the world of crime again.

But for some reason St. Patrick’s Day gets the short shrift on this Massacre, which occurred before the more famous St. Val’s. So you see, it’s sort of like Betamax vs. VHS, and maybe the “best” massacre is forgotten. But, as we now know, St. Val ain’t got nothin’ on St. Pat in the Crime Blotter Department.

***Disclaimer: No already-dead people were hurt in the making of this article. Nor is itsAlice's Restaurant intention to cast aspersions on them or make light of their fate, or on the fate of the guilty, or innocent. Nor to cast aspersions on Thompson submachine guns, Betamax players, St. Patrick or his day, St. Val or his day, Irish people, Irish men, Irish women, Irish girls, Irish boys, Ireland, Jill Ireland, Kathy Ireland, John Ireland, Irish holidays, James Joyce, Ulysses, William Butler Yeats, J.M. Synge, Bono, Enya, Celtic Women (in general and the singing group), Danny Boy, my friend Denise, leprechauns, the blarney stone, blarney, the color green in all its variations, the Emerald Isle, Alphonse “Scarface” Lambert, Jean Arnaud, Stephen Sondheim, George Furth, Murder, Inc., the years 1921, 1926, 1929, 1996 (or any other years), chocolate potatoes, Alex Trebek, Jeopardy, Double Jeopardy, the Daily Double, Ernst Lubitsch, Sig Ruman, Col. Ehrhardt, Bismark, Napoleon, herrings, cheese, the massacree at Alice’s Restaurant, massacres in specific and massacres in general, and the specific massacres mentioned in this piece, but not limited only to those mentioned by name, Jack Webb or R.A. Cinader. No names have been changed to protect the guilty or innocent. Jack Webb had nothing to do with the writing of this article.

And yes, murder is bad, I get that. This article is satireGallows Humoras such it closes Saturday night.  But, we also know, Saturday’s alright for fighting.

Just one more thing, is it too late to buy stock in Murder, Inc.?

Oh, and Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone. Please pass the green beer.


St_Patrick's_Day

*     *     *

And from the Department of BSP: I’m happy and honored to announce that my story, “Howling at the Moon,” came in at #7 in the Ellery Queen Readers Award Poll. And that fellow Sleuthsayer David Dean has threeThree!stories in the top ten. Way to go, David.

Ellery Queen 2014 Readers Award Poll -- 3-13-15 -- D1

16 March 2015

Organize and Join

Jan Grape
by Jan Grape

There are many mystery writer organizations around.

Here’re a few to keep in mind.


Mystery Writers of America aka MWA

MWA's logoThe oldest American organization formed in 1945 is  most the well-known and in many eyes the most prestigious. Membership is open to published authors in the mystery field, including fiction, and fact books and stories, magazines and motion pictures. An associate membership, includes editors, agents, directors, booksellers and fans, all known as friends of mystery. Later the memberships were reclassified as “Active” for published writers. “Associate” for non-writers in the mystery field for editors, agents, booksellers, etc. and “Afilliate” for fans and unpublished writers.  MWA gives the Edgar Award each year and the nominees and recipients are chosen by a committee of peers and given at the annual Awards Banquet in New York each spring, usually in April. MWA has chapters all around the country. More information and how to join may be found at www.mysterywriters.org
PWA LogoPrivate Eye Writers of America aka PWA

Began by Private Eye author and Executive Director: Robert J. Randisi in 1982. Their purpose was defined to identify, promote, recognize and honor the writers who write books and stories featuring a private eye as the main character. PWA gives an award known as the Shamus and is given out each year at the PWA banquet during the Bouchercon event in the fall. The nominees and winners are chosen by a committee of peers. There are no chapters located around the country, all members belong to the National organization as either “Active” or “Associate” members. More information and how to join may be found at www.privateeyewriters.com

Sisters-In-Crime aka S-in-C

In 1986-87 this organization was discussed and organized by several women who had discovered women mystery writers were not reviewed as often or as well as their male counterpoints. Sara Paretsky was the major driving force, aided by Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Charlotte MacLeod, Nancy Pickard, and Susan Dunlap. The main goal of Sisters was to combat discrimination against women in the field of mystery, educate publishers and the public at large about the inequalities in the treatment of female authors. Along with that goal was to raise the awareness of the role of women writers and their contribution to the whole mystery genre. Many have asked why just for women? Actually, S-in-C has many talented men who are also members. In many ways the whole genre needed to be recognized as serious writing. People still today when they hear or know a woman is a mystery writer are asked “When are you going to write a “REAL book?”

One major project for S-in-C has been to contact newspapers and magazines and ask them to publish more reviews of women authors. Progress has been made, but it’s still a man’s world. Sisters has also worked to assure that women authors are judged for mystery awards the same as men are. Sisters strive to be more educational that anything political. There are chapters all around the country and even international chapters. The national organization has published book guides to selling, to promotions and specifically for author signings. Sisters national organization generally meets at Malice Domestic in May and at Bouchercon in the fall.

More information and how to join may be found at www.sistersincrime.org

Other Organizations include: Thriller Writers of America and American Crime Writers League.

15 March 2015

Professional Tips– Homophones (mostly)

by Leigh Lundin

In editing for others, I occasionally come across words that slip in when no one’s looking. Some of these are accidental– gremlins are bound to lurk in any author’s sizeable draft. These particular persons know eyes have sight, not site, but in the frenzied throes of creation, the fingers do the talking.

One of these writers mentioned she struggles with ‘which’. I misinterpreted it to mean the which/that conundrum I battle with, whereas she struggles with which/whom (which hadn’t occurred to me).

We’ve talked about word usage before, but I began to wonder if new writers might find a recap useful. Following are a few homophones (mostly) I’ve encountered while editing.

adapt/adopt


They adopted a new code of conduct adapted from the Boy Scout Law.
‘Adapt’ means to make an object suitable by adjusting or modifying. ‘Adopt’ means to assume, take up, take on, or make use of. In parts of the English-speaking world, the two are nearly homophones.

farther/further

The further you advance your training, the farther you’ll travel. Even the dictionary hedges, but consider yourself on solid ground if you use ‘farther’ for physical distances and ‘further’ otherwise. “You won’t go far” couldn’t be further from the truth.

fewer/less

Fewer people means less tax. Although Wikipedia and Wiktionary sneer at the distinction, if you switch the two determiners in the previous sentence, you may hear the difference. I user ‘fewer’ with items I can count, but recently I came across the rule that ‘fewer’ should be used with plural nouns and ‘less’ with singular nouns.

flaunt/flout

He flaunted his arrogance when he flouted the law. Flaunt means to show off or wantonly display. Flout means to openly defy rules or convention.

A flounder is an odd fish. When young, it swims upright, but as it matures, it lies flat in offshore shallows, often perfectly mimicking the ocean bed. The most curious aspect is that in adulthood, a flounder’s eyes migrate atop its new topside and in some members, its mouth shifts to the opposite side, which has led to some wits calling it the ‘Picasso fish’.
founder/flounder

As the ship foundered in the shallows, the sailor floundered helplessly. Similarly: The company foundered as its executives floundered. Here again, the dictionary appears to have adapted to misuse and conflated the words. The OED suggests “perhaps a blend of founder and blunder, or perhaps symbolic, fl- frequently beginning words connected with swift or sudden movement.” This makes it difficult to establish a firm rule, but consider it safe to use ‘founder’ for anything sinking, whether a ship, company, or institutional policy.

lay/lie

Lay down your book, lie back, and say “Now I lay me down to sleep…” This is a pair I know how to use but find difficult to explain. Many find they’re confused because not only is ‘lay’ a present tense, transitive verb meaning to set or place something, but it’s also the past tense of the intransitive verb ‘lie’ meaning to recline or assume a prone or supine posture on a surface. With all the emphasis about positioning, it becomes doubly confusing when talking about the lie of the land or that Orlando lies north of Miami. Never mind, substitute sensible words like sit and set. No, wait…

nauseous/nauseated

Her nauseous manner nauseated me ad nauseam. Yep, the word ‘nauseous’ means sickening, so be careful when you say you’re nauseous. You probably mean you’re sickened or nauseated.

site/sight

The surveyor sighted the transit along the construction site. ‘Site’, either web or physical, refers to places, whereas ‘sight’ refers to vision… but you know that.

Further Reading

Some time back, ABA had sent an email of forty often misused combinations that traces back to an article by business writer Jeff Haden. Likely you use most if not all correctly, but sometimes it’s helpful to have refreshers.

See you next week!

14 March 2015

A Note of Their Own

by Melodie Campbell

A serious post from me (don’t everyone faint….)

Sometimes a simple sentence can make you gulp back tears and realize how lucky you've been.

I received the following note from the Hamilton Literacy Council re the donation of sales revenue from the launch of The Artful Goddaughter mob caper:

"As I write this note to thank you...I am reminded of the dream of some of our clients that they will one day be able to write a note of their own."

The Hamilton Literacy Council is my charity of choice.  I first came across them when I worked in health care at an urban hospital.  We had an Out of the Cold program that treated homeless people with health problems, and provided people with blankets and extra clothing to keep them warm on the streets.

Warm on the streets…I should mention here that I live south of Toronto in Canada, where we have winter for four months of the year.  Real winter.  This year we have had 38 days in a row below freezing.

I won’t describe the health problems suffered by people who live day and night on the streets, under bridges, and in bus shelters.  That is a topic for an even more serious post.

The person I am thinking of now is a woman I met during that time.  She was middle-aged, which at the time I thought was forty-five.  (My guideline has changed since then.)  We gave her care, for which she was grateful.  And for that care, we required her signature on a piece of paper, in order to please our sponsors.

She stalled.  We pressed again, in plainer English, in case it was her second language.  It wasn’t.

We were baffled. She looked away and then she told us.  She couldn’t write her name.

It’s an odd thing.  When I think of someone being illiterate, I think of them not being able to read books and newspapers.  It wasn’t until this moment that it dawned on me that being illiterate also meant not being able to write.

At SleuthSayers, many of us make at least part of our income from writing fiction tales.  We produce reams of manuscript pages, year after year.  We may labour over the perfect sentence.  We grumble when editors try to change our words.  We joke (at least I do) about putting a mob hit on said editors, or at the very least, killing them off in our next book.

Writing is my therapy.  Reading is my escape from the real world.  I can’t imagine enduring the calamities of life without that escape.  And I don’t live under bridges or in bus shelters.

Next year, I will have a book launch again, and I will donate the sales from that launch to the literacy council.  It’s so little to do, when compared to those who actually volunteer as tutors.  I will continue to write books that are easy to read, and hopefully, entertaining for those who are acquiring the skill of reading.

Learning to read as an adult takes concentration, determination, and immense courage.  I think, perhaps, that no one understands the value of the written word more than those who have struggled to master it.

This is my salute to the men and women who dream of writing a note of their own.

Melodie Campbell occasionally writes serious stuff, but her books are mainly comedies. This is probably a good thing.

The Artful Goddaughter on Amazon
www.melodiecampbell.com

13 March 2015

Afghan Police Women

By Dixon Hill


A recent article in the New York Times, about problems faced by Afghan police women, has me considering some problems I ran into when I worked in the army.

Since the problems mentioned in the news story are faced by women police officers, I felt the story fit into our framework here on SleuthSayers.

And, since I've dealt a bit with somewhat similar cross-cultural training problems -- trying to change the way that certain foreign troops viewed women -- I feel a deep sympathy with the women in the NY Times story, and for those striving valiantly to change cultural norms that can be quite harmful to women or even to men or children.  And I feel great concern about the difficulties encountered by the women in question.
Spec-4 Collar Rank Insignia

101st Shoulder Patch
The "Screaming Eagle"
The first time I ran into the dilemma of attempting to aid foreign males to change their views of females, I was a Spec-4 (Short for Specialist 4th Grade: the pay-grade equivalent of a corporal, but without any real leadership authority -- sort of a de facto Private 1st Class-'Plus') working for the 311th Military Intelligence Battalion, subordinate to the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).

Two Middle-Eastern officers came out to our field site, one day, to see how we conducted collection and analysis under field conditions.  Our Company Executive Officer (XO), a First Lieutenant, led them to the tent where the analysis element was working.  The XO had the female analyst come out and explain the procedure to the visiting officers.

Crest of the 311th MI BN
I was along on this exercise, not really as an analyst, but rather as a truck driver and 'chogi boy'. However, because I was an Arabic Linguist, and had studied Arabic culture to an extent -- also learning much first-hand from listening to what my native-Arabic instructors said and by watching how they behaved -- I was not surprised when a quick look of frustrated anger flashed across both men's faces. Nor was I shocked, when their eyes almost immediately glazed over and they clearly quit paying attention to the female Spec-4 who was briefing them.

After the two foreign officers departed, our furious XO returned and fumed aloud about the rude behavior of the two foreign officers.

Finally, the Sergeant First Class who ran the "beans and bullets" of the unit on this exercise (and was also an Arabic linguist) blurted: "Sir, with all due respect: What did you expect?  You insulted them!  In their minds, your actions made it very clear that they were so unimportant, and such an unwelcome interruption, that you chose a 'non-person'  tell them what they wanted to know."  (Please note that such outbursts don't happen in most military units, but I've noticed that they are strangely common, and relatively well-tolerated, in some military intelligence units.)

Now please don't misunderstand why I chose to post this particular story.

I'm not saying that what happened between that Spec-4 and those two officers was right.  And, frankly, I wasn't happy about it either.  On the other hand, I think the XO (who was actually quite intelligent, and a good officer -- not a comment I've ever made lightly!) probably did get caught-out by a mistake in cross-cultural communications.

I say probably, because it depends on the objective he had in mind.  As I said: he was pretty bright.  So he might have done it on purpose.

Certainly, if his goal was to help those two officers get a good look at the technical aspects of how we did our work, then yes the XO made a mistake.  Because they didn't pay attention to the female specialist, so they didn't gain that knowledge.

But, if you think about it: probably one of the most important things those two foreign officers could learn about U.S. Army operations -- which their army could benefit from -- would be the manner in which we incorporate females into our operations.

What happened that day probably didn't change their minds about the role of females in society, but I think you'll agree that they did get a pretty big shock when that lieutenant brought out that female Spec-4 to brief them.

And they had a US Army captain tagging along with them, looking after them.  My hope is that they complained to him about what happened, and that he explained the way our army looked at females and their capabilities.  The way I figure it, if stuff like that kept happening to these two officers -- and the captain kept explaining -- they might have begun to get the message.  They might not have welcomed that message.  And it still might not have made much difference in their personal lives, because their outlook was undoubtedly deeply held and part of the culture they grew up in.  But at least it would be a start.  Maybe those guys got the shock of their lives, that day.  But, maybe it was the first step on their mental trip to learning a new way of thinking.

Working to change cultural norms is like that, in my opinion.  It's not something that can be accomplished overnight.  Sometimes not within a decade or more.  (Look at the changes in societal norms that our own nation has undergone since the 1960's, and compare this to the work that still needs to be done before certain members of our society will rest secure in unquestioned complete equality, for example.)  And, sometimes folks require a little "shock" to help them wake up and smell the coffee.

I used such a shock technique several years later, after I'd gotten into Special Forces.  That, however, is a story for another time, or this post will wind up so long that I'll have to get an agent in order to post it.

Suffice it to say, I have good idea of the frustrations those working to promote the concept and implementation of women police officers working standard shifts in Afghanistan are dealing with.  And, I worry that programs such as these can fall through the cracks, and are thus sometimes not at the forefront of peoples' minds when considering the pros and cons of US troop deployment and redeployment.  The New York Times is covering the story quite well, and you can see the first article about the situation if you CLICK HERE

See you in two weeks!
--Dixon



















12 March 2015

Riders of the Purple Wage

by Eve Fisher
Lately, a number of very famous people have been getting their knickers in a twist over Artificial Intelligence, or AI:
black and white photo of Hawking in a chair, in an office."The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race."  Stephen Hawking
“With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like – yeah, he’s sure he can control the demon. Doesn’t work out."  Elon Musk
Now I can sort of understand why.  The general premise for decades has been that some day the computers/robots will take over, and run us, with only two possible scenarios:
  • Great - Robots and computers will do everything for us, and we will live a life of luxury (according to the late great Frederick Pohl, too much so), comfort and security thanks to Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics that protect mankind from the revolt of the machines.  
  • Bad - Everything by Philip K. Dick, and, of course, "The Matrix".  
Which it will be depends upon the mood of the times.  Currently, we're not a particularly optimistic species, so the common response is, "We're doomed! We're doomed!"  (Unless you're Sheldon Cooper, and then it cannot happen soon enough.)
Maybe.  Maybe not.  But what concerns me about the takeover of the machines isn't that they use my stasis body as a heat source while providing my mind innumerable alternative reality jaunts to keep me a content and unquestioning host organism.  Or even AIs killing us all (for one thing, logically, they'd do it quickly - only humans are sadists.  And cats.).  What concerns me is the simple matter of a paycheck.  Eating.  Rent.  Utilities.

Look, the main reason we have computers and robots is to do our work for us.  Anything boring, repetitive, heavy, dangerous, etc. - eventually, we'll make a machine to do it.  Calculators mean I don't have to add up the columns of figures for which they used to hire Nicholas Nickleby.  Payloaders mean we don't need an army of physical laborers hoisting earth. Tractors, etc., mean that today's Pa Ingalls doesn't need to muscle his way through the sod with horse and plow.  Computers mean I don't have to write everything out long-hand, or type it over and over again until it's perfect.  It's great.

hamburger robotOn the other hand, modern technology has eliminated and is eliminating a whole ton of jobs. Typesetters; typists; clerks; gas station attendants; innumerable factory workers; graphic designers; paralegals; low-level tax preparers; most farm hands; most farmers; bank tellers; airline check-in agents; retail clerks; accountants; actuaries; travel agents; most reporters, etc.  Soon there will be far fewer surgeons, teachers, and other high-level jobs as robots take over.  And in the fast food industry, the robots are coming to flip those burgers and make those fries.

The point is that, as we use technology to do 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90% of the work, we will also unemploy a significant number of people.  There will still be jobs, at all levels - just infinitely less of them.  Perhaps only a handful, here and there.  Which leaves the elephant in the room:  what do you do about the people?

Yes, everyone talks about retraining.  See a typical chirpy article on "The Future of Work" .  BUT, I've always had two basic questions:

(1) There is a significant number of people who can't be retrained.  Some will be too old, some will be too set, and some - frankly - whose mental ability to learn complex problem-solving skills is extremely limited.  I run into some of them at the pen.  (In case you don't know it, prisons are the modern housing facility for many of the mentally disabled, as well as the mentally ill.)  These are the people who are never considered in future planning talks, the ones that are ignored by all economists and pundits, but shouldn't be.  As I once said about a former student who was caught stealing, "Well, how else is he going to make a living?"

(2) If you have 250 people in a town, and there are only 100 actual jobs, it doesn't matter how much retraining you do.  There are still 150 people without work because there are no jobs.  Urbanize that.  Nationalize that.  Globalize that.

In Philip Jose Farmer's "Riders of the Purple Wage", he posited a society in which they coped with the problem of almost complete unemployment by giving everyone a salary just for being born.  It's enough to keep them housed and fed and hooked up to the Fido, a combination cable TV/videophone, along with a little wet-ware called a fornixator (you translate it).  To get anything else, you have to prove your exceptionality, but most people are happily occupied without it.  For those who aren't, well, there are wildlife reserves where they can go off and be weird - but they have to give up the purple wage.

Soylent green.jpgIt's a successful society, in its own way - and perhaps the only logical one. Because the truth is, sooner or later, in a society where technology is doing 90% of the work, there will have to be a "purple wage".
That, or
(1) society comes up with innumerable "make work" jobs, like picking oakum in the workhouse.  (Personally, I foresee a lot of crime.)
      That, or
(2) the unemployed masses (a la "Soylent Green" or "Zardoz", etc.) will be pounding at the armored enclaves of the fabulously wealthy.  (As I said, I foresee a lot of crime.)
      That, or
(3) a whole lot of people are going to have to die, leaving just enough to run the machines, and do the few jobs that still cannot be done by machines, and the fabulously wealthy (there is always a group of fabulously wealthy) to enjoy unending leisure.  Wall-E, call home!
      That, or
(4) The Matrix.

Anyway, here's the question:  As we pursue technological advancements, can we let go of the Protestant Work Ethic?  Let go of the idea that we are what we do?  Must people work or starve, even if there's plenty of everything except jobs?  Can we tolerate, support, even design a society where the norm for everyone (instead of just the wealthy) is "the leisured class"?

Now, you may think the last question is nonsense.  For one thing, we've been promised endless leisure for a century now, and most people are still working their butts off.  On the other hand, we do have more leisure than almost any other society in history.  This began with the industrial revolution, and one of the most interesting things about reading "Consuming Passions" by Judith Flanders is watching the development of ways for the working classes to spend their new-found leisure.  (Hey - they had all of Saturday afternoon and Sundays off!)  Thanks to advertising, sports, vacations, theater, and literature were turned into major industries.  (Drinking had always been a favorite activity.)  And, instantly, the pundits, poets, philosophers, and religious thinkers started decrying the horrible waste of human time and energy on trivia.  And talking about the nobility of hard work, piety, thrift, self-denial and sobriety:  for the lower classes only, of course.

File:Victorian cricket team 1859.jpg
Victorian cricket team

We have pretty much the same discussion going on today:  in certain circles, if you don't have a paying job, you're worthless.  (Unless you're wealthy enough not to.)  And the idea that someone who's unemployed has a television, a cell phone, and computer games for the kids - well, they're obviously spending too much money on all the wrong stuff.  Not to mention, if they have such things, they can't be "really" poor.

NOTE 1:  In Florida they give cell phones to the homeless, for a variety of reasons.  (Contact from parole officers, call-backs on jobs, etc.)
NOTE 2:  I'm always amazed at the people who check out other people's grocery carts and then post, outraged, if someone who's on food stamps buys candy or other luxury items.  (See this article for the alternative view:  People on Food Stamps Make Better Grocery Choices.)  God forbid the poor eat something other than gruel...

Basically, I'm leisured, you're lazy, and they're useless.

Anyway, today we've got smart phones, social media, computer games, Netflix, and innumerable other ways to waste what time we have (on the job or off) in the modern equivalent of Fidos and fornixators.  And it seems like the list is going to expand at algorithmic rate. Meanwhile, the list of available jobs is decreasing, at least geometrically, every time we turn around.  IF we get to where technology performs most of the work, and IF we get to where we have a regular unemployment of 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 percent, can we change our thinking from "unemployed" to "leisured"?  Can we develop a new idea of what people "should" do?  Of what people are "supposed" to do?

Without work, what are people for?
"Tompkins Square Park Central Knoll" by David Shankbone -
David Shankbone, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

11 March 2015

Foyle's War

David Edgerley Gates


I've been on a Brit bender, lately. Here's another one.
FOYLE'S WAR started running in 2002, and it's still on. Like a lot of British television, they only make three or four episodes a season - but each episode has an hour and a half runtime, and has a five-week shooting schedule. For another thing, it's shot on Super 16MM, not high-def video, which is more expensive, but gives the show the feel of a feature picture, depth of field and a nice saturated color. They put the money up on-screen where you can see it.

The gimmick of the show - you want to call it that - is that it's wartime Britain, 1939-45, and superintendent Foyle (who'd rather be actively serving) is assigned to criminal cases, on the homefront. These, given the genre, are murder mysteries, but the war is always present, in the foreground or just over the horizon.

The canvas is quite broad, although the stories generally resolve themselves in the homely and familiar, the domestic disturbances of daily life. The constants, an illicit affair or an unwanted pregnancy, envy, greed, wrath, and pride, are the usual suspects, but they often involve wider anxieties: the German bombing raids, fears of an impending invasion, rationing and the black market, war profiteers, isolationists and Nazi sympathizers, spy-hunters from Special Branch, the code-breaking at Bletchley, the rescue from Dunkirk, these have all figured in the plotlines. Nor is it window-dressing. The war becomes a character.

Foyle is played by Michael Kitchen, one of those actors you sort of remember, but can't quite place the name. I first noticed him in TO PLAY THE KING, the sequel to HOUSE OF CARDS - the original, with Ian Richardson. Kitchen has a lived-in face. He makes Foyle seem approachable, but there's a weariness, something held in reserve, an inner, or even inward, person. Once in a while, the well-mannered mask slips, and the steel shows through.

An interesting director's device I noticed. They use a lot of close-ups, which is common in television, but in this case, there are often long, very tight shots of Foyle, where you see only a slight facial movement, a tug of his mouth, or his eyes downcast, and then an up-from-under glance. The visual equivalent of Columbo's near-exit line, "Oh, just one more thing - "

When you do period drama, it's more than the vintage cars, or everybody wearing hats. It's about the psychological environment, the circumstance, the way people think. I know this myself, from writing the Mickey Counihan stories, which take place in late 1940's postwar New York, and Janice Law, to take a not-so-random example, is careful in her Francis Bacon novels not to fall into anachronism, meaning her world (and Bacon's) is
pushing up against the Modern, but it hasn't quite arrived, yet. It's just around the corner. This is the background music of FOYLE'S WAR. Nobody knows for sure that Hitler's going to be beaten, or whether England will survive. They go about their business with possible calamity waiting in the wings, but they keep their wits, and their common decency. Foyle is heroic, not because he has extraordinary powers, or sees behind the curtain, but simply because he does his job, in a trying time. He rises to the occasion. This is the persistence of the everyday. Life, in its messy particulars, stumbles ahead. The war effort is one thing, just keeping your head above water is another.

http://www.davidedgerleygates.com/


10 March 2015

Double Identity

by Jim Winter

It's a brave new world, publishing is. Self-publishing doesn't quite have the stench it once had. If a writer does not go traditional, he or she can write anything they want. But the gatekeepers aren't gone. If anything, there are more of them. They're called readers, and they still have rules no matter what the JA Konraths and John Lockes of the world try to tell you.

Most of the rules are common sense. Write a good story. (I like to think I do.) Don't look like an amateur. (Probably need to work harder on this one.) Stick with your genre. On that one, readers are far less forgiving than Barnes & Noble, indie bookstores, and even the Big Five publishers. So what to do?

What any writer would do, traditional or independent. Write under two names. I started doing this in the last couple of years. While I was in a groove with an ambitious police novel I describe as "The Wire meets 87th Precinct," I felt that this thing had time to fail. It might not find an agent. It might not get a deal even if it did. I'm talking with an agent now, but it still has time to fail. I had to start looking beyond.

So I started a science fiction novel under a different name. I referred to this name as "Dick Bachman," though that's not what I really use. It is, of course, a Stephen King reference to the novel The Dark Half, wherein an author's pen name comes to life to stalk him for doing away with him. Early on, I made the decision not to make any public connection between the two names. Why?

In 2005, Northcoast Shakedown sold reasonably well for a release by an unknown from a micropress that had trouble paying its Lightning Source bill. Had I made some different decisions, I'd have probably wrapped up the Kepler series a few years ago and moved onto thrillers or even finished the police novel sooner. So it could be done. I wanted to see if I could do it again.

A handful of people know the details. A couple think it's silly to keep the identities separate. One suggested I just stop being Jim, use the new name, and find another name for the science fiction. But I've already gone pretty far down the rabbit hole not to see this through. The new name has a lot invested in branding as science fiction, and I don't want to lose the ability to resell and repackage Nick Kepler.

And besides, it's fun. I'm not doing stupid things like having Twitter wars with myself (though I often joke about that). Sooner or later, the charade is going to collapse in on itself. I'd rather that be part of a game I and the readers can play. It's a lot of work to have two independent identities as a writer, but it lets me experiment a little with each.

Who knows? Evan Hunter and Ed McBain collaborated on a book once. Why can't "Dick" and I do that at some point?

09 March 2015

Me and the Derringers. (Maybe.)


by Melissa Yi.

At the end of my emergency room shift, I got a Twitter message that looked like this:

Quoi? Dr_sassy and the Derringers? That's never happened before. Sounds like a good band title, though.

My first thought was, Did someone tag me by accident? As in, they want me to know about the Derringer Award, which honours the best short mystery fiction published in the English language?

But another tag-ee, Britni Patterson, was already celebrating, so my heart kicked into high gear, just wondering if I was a chosen one.

And if so, which story was it? I had two eligible tales. “Because,” a biting tale of 490 words published in Fiction River: Crime, and “Gone Fishing,” a 12,000-word serialized Hope Sze novella commissioned by Kobo and kindly mentioned by Sleuthsayers last year.

I clicked on the link and found this Derringer short list:

For Best Flash (Up to 1,000 words)
  • Joseph D’Agnese, “How Lil Jimmy Beat the Big C” (Shotgun Honey, May 12, 2014)
  • Rob Hart, “Foodies” (Shotgun Honey, May 2, 2014)
  • Jed Power, “Sweet Smells” (Shotgun Honey, July 28, 2014)
  • Eryk Pruitt, “Knockout” (Out of the Gutter Online, August 31, 2014)
  • Travis Richardson, “Because” (Out of the Gutter Online, May 15, 2014)*
  • Melissa Yuan-Innes, “Because” (Fiction River: Crime, March 2014)*
Ah. Because.

I do love that story.

Warning: it’s extremely noir. I don’t find it scary, but then I face blood, guts, vomit and potentially Ebola every day in the emergency room. I’ve already alerted the SleuthSayers powers that be that I’m not especially cozy. I’ve written what I consider cozies, and I love Precious Ramotswe and Agatha Raisin, but I also regularly stare into the darkness and take notes. When I attended the Writers of the Future winners’ workshop in 2000 and turned in a pitiless story about werewolves, the Grand Prize winner, Gary Murphy, stared at me and said, “I can’t believe that such a sweet-looking woman wrote this!"

I laughed. I adore werewolves. And good stories of any stripe.

But Cozy Monday may need a new name. Any suggestions? Cozy or Not; Cozy and Noir; Alternatively Cozy Mondays (because I’ll bet Jan Grape can stick to one genre better than literary sluts like Fran Rizer and Melodie Campbell and me); Cozy and Crazy…hmm.

Back to the Derringer. Until now, I never really understood why awards have a short list. Well, I understood whittling down the list so that celebrity judges don’t need to plow through a mountain of stories.

But now I get the glory of the finalist. I’ve won other prizes in a binary announcement. Either I win the award or I don’t. But right now, the uncertainty makes it all the more treacherous and exciting!

If you're curious, I’ve published “Because” for free on my website for the next week only. You can download it to your friendly neighbourhood KindleKoboiBooks deviceSmashwordsor any format for a whopping 99 cents. That price will triple in a week. Please admire the cover photo by 28-year-old French photographer Olivier Potet. The non-cropped version is even better.

If Because tickled your fancy, you can also download Code Blues, the first Hope Sze novel, for free, as part of a bundle on Vuze, until March 16th.

And please tune in on March 23rd, when I plan to write about how medicine trains your mind for detective work. Watson, anyone?

08 March 2015

The Kaspersky Code

by Leigh Lundin

Three weeks ago, Kaspersky Lab, the Russian security software maker exposed a cyber-espionage operation that many believe originated within the NSA. The devilishly clever bit of code hides in the firmware of disc drives and has the ability to continuously infect a machine. If you use a Windows computer, there’s a good chance it’s not only infected but was built that way likely without the manufacturers' knowledge.

Kaspersky researcher Costin Raiu says the NSA couldn’t have done it without the source code.

What?!!

The contention that the NSA definitely had access to the source code is not only patent nonsense, it ignores that fact that Kaspersky themselves supposedly didn’t have the code. Having the source code is the easy way, perhaps the preferred way, but it’s hardly the only way.

A Reuters article speculates how the NSA might have obtained the source code and indeed, one of those is a likely scenario. But it’s also feasible to do the job without the source and I’ll show you what I mean, a technique I used to unravel computer fraud programs. Fasten your seat belt because this is going to get technical.

World’s Greatest Puzzle

Those around in my Criminal Brief days know that I love puzzles. For me, the ultimate puzzle has been systems software programming, making the machine do what I want. But sometimes I’ve come up against puzzles, some benign, some not, where I didn’t have the source code.

Let’s try an example. What if we found mysterious code in our computer that looked something like this:

confused pseudo code snippet
Mysterious Snippet of Computer Code

If you can’t make sense out of this, you’re not alone. 98% of computer programmers wouldn’t know what to make of it either. But if you look closely, the data populating the upper block looks different from that in the lower block. This is a clue.

Unlike commercial and scientific programs, systems software deals with the operation of the computer itself– utilities, communications, and especially the operating system. The realm of a computer’s internals are abstract, far more so than the Tron movies. Key aspects seldom relate to real-world equivalents. Sure, we say that RAM is a little like notes spread out on your work table and that disc storage is kinda sorta like a file cabinet… but not really. Even the term RAM– random access memory– is misleading; there’s nothing random about it.

Back in the real world, let’s say you want to write a simple program that adds the number of apples and oranges. In most programming languages, this code would look like this:
total = apples + oranges
Internally, a program loads apples and oranges into registers (kind of like keying them into a calculator), adds them, and stores them in a variable called total. If we were to write this in the argot of the computer, we’d use assembly language mnemonics, an abstraction of the computer’s machine language. Deep, deep down in a program, we’d see nothing but numbers where we count…
0, 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, A, B, C, D, E, F
Yes, A-F are digits in this context. Within the computer, our little program above might resemble…

simple pseudo-code program: total=apples+oranges
total = apples + oranges

What isn’t obvious to many programmers is that computer instructions are data. Indeed, some black-hat crackers (the bad guys) have used this property to sneak malware onto unsuspecting computers.

If you look again at the original sneak peek of data, you’ll start to see patterns and may even pick out the machine instructions from our code example above.

clarified pseudo code snippet
Less Mysterious Code Snippet

This puzzle solving is called reverse engineering. It’s possible to write a program called a disassembler (I have) or a de-compiler (I haven’t) to decode the machine language into something more intelligible. The program has to be smart enough to not only separate actual data from instructions, but distinguish the type of data.

As you see, compiling source into binary executable code isn’t a one-way street. With dedication and know-how, reversing the process is well within reach.

How safe do you feel now?