22 March 2015

Keeping It Real

Shimmer by David Morrell
SleuthSayers has entertained open-ended discussions by readers and writers about when (and whether) to use actual place names. This decision ultimately comes down to the rôle location plays in a story and the inclinations of the author. Recently, I came across an example where I wondered why a popular author chose not only to fabricate (or ‘re-imagine’) a real place, but real people.

A friend gave me a tattered copied of Shimmer by thriller author David Morrell, a writer admired by our own David Edgerley Gates. Suffused with a Dean Koontz-like inexplicable supernatural presence, its genre is difficult to classify– not exactly science fiction, not paranormal, not quite a crime novel.

The premise draws a reader in: without explanation, wife leaves cop husband, stops en route to her mother to visit a ‘lights in the sky’ phenomena, and subsequently all hell breaks loose. Although this mysterious phenomenon exerts an amorally moral force over people and events, it remains unexplained, which happens to work in this case.

Morrell would probably agree Shimmer isn’t his best novel, but it’s worthwhile. Initially the novel’s speech tags disconcerted me. Although I’m not overly religious about them, I’m with the group that tries to avoid speech ‘assists’. For the first few chapters, my eye stopped every time I encountered one until the plot eventually captured my attention and moved on. And that’s the hallmark: capturing a reader’s attention.

People, Places, and Things

The West Texas town of Rostov had a genuine feeling that made it seem it was based upon a real community. At times authors base locales on real settings but, because of minor liberties with details, change the names. Rostov felt like that.

The story referred to a movie ‘Birthright’, filmed in that area. By the second mention of its actor James Deacon, I began to wonder if the author was making an oblique reference to James Dean, if Birthright was actually the 1956 film Giant, and if ‘Rostov’ was Marfa, Texas. Each subsequent revelation convinced me ‘Deacon’ was a stand-in for Dean, finally confirmed in the afterword. Indeed, most of the details (except the age of Rock Hudson) appeared to be accurate.

Bear in mind these were passing mentions, not actual characters. So why invent James ‘Deacon’ when we could have learned details about James Dean himself? Why indeed?

Compare and Contrast

Guns of Navarone by Alistair MacLean
When I was a kid, I read Alistair MacLean’s novel, The Guns of Navarone, inspired by the actual Battle of Leros following the fall of Rhodes in the Dodecanese Campaign. One of the central characters was a New Zealand adventurer in his early 20s, a WW-II soldier and world-class mountaineer, chosen to scale the impassible south cliff and sabotage an impregnable Nazi fortress.

Not long after, I read about the conquering of Everest by Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary, a New Zealand adventurer in his early 20s, a WW-II veteran and world-class mountaineer… Wait, Navarone… Was that character’s name the same?

I went back to The Guns of Navarone and realized MacLean had named his hero Mallory, not Hillary, but it became clear Mallory was patterned upon the gentleman from New Zealand.

Interesting, especially since I thought this ‘semi-verisimilitude’ worked better in The Guns of Navarone than it did it did in Shimmer. Why?

Unfair Comparison

At the time of MacLean's writing, Sir Edmund Hillary was still alive. While one can legitimately refer to a living public person, casting them as a full-fledged character would be a highly dubious undertaking. Alistair MacLean simply used Hillary as a prototype.

In Shimmer, David Morrell mostly alluded to Deacon in bits of semi-historical trivia. Since references to the real James Dean would have served equally well– no, better since the audience might have learned something– why didn’t the author simply name the actual person?

Writers Bloc

I can’t answer for the author, but beginning writers might find the choice confusing. A Facebook self-publishing group is convinced HUGE LEGAL BARRIERS don’t allow mention of any real person at all, not Albert Einstein nor Martin Luther King or a not-so-real Ronald McDonald, without invoking lawsuits and huge fees, and God help them if they whisper the name Elvis™ or Marilyn™, intellectual properties owned by The National Enquirer. They know this because a cousin of an aunt whose friend worked in a cocktail lounge and wrote about JFK suffered CIA reprisals and, ratted out by ‘traditional publishers’, had to pull her book off Amazon. Okay, I exaggerate… slightly.

Writers are pretty safe referring to public figures as long as they stop short of outright libel. But I also suggest keeping one’s biases in check. I recall a novel that depicted Jimmy Carter improbably abusing White House servants, a political prejudice where an author’s distaste became authorial bad taste.

So what’s your take? If an author wants to refer to historical events and persons, should they fabricate pseudonyms for real people? And if so, why?

21 March 2015

East Texas Tales

NOTE: Many thanks to Leigh Lundin for pinch-hitting for me two weeks ago, and posting one of my Criminal Brief columns in this space. My computer had put all four feet in the air, and I'm afraid my iPad and iPhone weren't up to the task of creating a new SleuthSayers column. I'm now back in the saddle, so to speak, with a repaired iMac and poorer by several hundred bucks, and I do appreciate the help, Leigh. (As promised, the answers to the fifty movie quotes that appeared in my post two weeks ago are included at the end of today's column.) — JF

Years ago, not long after I had begun this whole writing-and-submitting-stories thing, I joined a mystery readers' group in nearby Jackson, Mississippi. During my second or third meeting I sat beside a local news reporter named Bill Minor, an avid reader and author who even in his retirement from journalism still writes an occasional column for the state newspaper. Bill always gave me good writing advice, and on that particular day in 2001 he gave me a book and told me to take it home. "Don't just read it, study it," he said to me. "It's one of the best mysteries I ever read, by one of the best writers around." The novel was Joe R. Lansdale's The Bottoms, which won the Edgar Award for Best Novel and a slew of other awards as well. Bill was right, by the way, about how good it is. To this day it remains one of my favorite books.

And Lansdale, although not exactly a household word, is no one-hit wonder. He was writing and publishing stories and novels long before The Bottoms, and is still turning out great fiction in several different genres--mainly mystery, horror, and fantasy. I like his work for the same reason I like Stephen King's: his writing is always, above all else, entertaining. Sometimes it's profound and meaningful and even beautiful, none of which is a bad thing. But it's always entertaining.

Odd can be good

Lansdale is probably best known for--what's the word?--quirky fiction. His plots are complex, twisty, and violent; his characters are unique and at times outrageous (the legendary and terrifying Goat Man in The Bottoms, a gunslinging midget in The Thicket, a backwoods killer-for-hire named Skunk in Edge of Dark Water); and his settings are usually east Texas, which in landscape and attitudes is more like the Deep South than Texas. And much of his fiction seems to involve dysfunctional families, racial tension, coming-of-age plots, and a Great-Depression-era timeframe. (Another similarity to King is that Lansdale often uses children as his protagonists.)

I haven't read all of his many novels and story collections, but I've read most of them, and even though it's hard to pick favorites when you can think of a lot of things you like about each one, these are the six novels I've enjoyed the most:

The Thicket (2013)
Edge of Dark Water (2012)
The Bottoms (2000)
A Fine Dark Line (2002)
Sunset and Sawdust (2004)
Freezer Burn (1999)

Hap, Leonard, and friends

The books I've mentioned are standalone tales, but Lansdale has also written a number of series novels featuring Hap Collins and Leonard Pine, one of the most delightful partnerships in fiction. Their adventures include Savage Season, Mucho Mojo, Captains Outrageous, Bad Chili, Devil Red, and Dead Aim. And thankfully, we'll soon be seeing them as well as reading about them: I'm told a TV series is under development for the Sundance Channel, which will feature Michael Kenneth Williams (from The Wire and Boardwalk Empire) as Leonard. Hap is yet to be cast.

A movie version of The Bottoms is also in the works, to be directed by actor Bill Paxton, and other film adaptations include Cold in July and Jonah Hex.

Whether you see his characters onscreen or on the page, I hope you'll give Joe Lansdale's work a try.

You'll like it.


Answers to my March 7 "movie quotes" quiz:

1. I love the smell of napalm in the morning.
Apocalypse Now (Robert Duvall to troops after an attack)

2. Where's that Joe Buck?
Midnight Cowboy (restaurant owner to his staff, concerning employee Jon Voight)

3. Be careful, out there among them English.
Witness (old Amish farmer to Harrison Ford, as Ford leaves for the city)

4. In the end you wind up dying all alone on some dusty street. And for what? A tin star?
High Noon (Lon Chaney, offering advice to Gary Cooper)

5. Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passing.
To Kill a Mockingbird (old man to Scout--Mary Badham--after the trial)

6. You design TOY airplanes?
The Flight of the Phoenix (Jimmy Stewart to engineer Hardy Kruger)

7. Fat man, you shoot a great game of pool.
The Hustler (Paul Newman to Jackie Gleason)

8. I'm George, George McFly. I am your density. I mean . . . your destiny.
Back to the Future (Crispin Glover to Lea Thompson, in the diner)

9. He did it! He missed the barn!
Cat Ballou (Michael Callan, when a drunk Lee Marvin tries to prove his marksmanship)

10. Remember me? I came in here yesterday and you wouldn't wait on me. Big mistake.
Pretty Woman (the new and improved Julia Roberts, to salesclerk)

11. We in the FBI don't have a sense of humor that I'm aware of.
Men in Black (Tommy Lee Jones to housewife, when she asks if he's making fun of her)

12. I saw it. It was a run-by fruiting.
Mrs. Doubtfire (Robin Williams to Pierce Brosnan)

13. Any man don't wanna get killed, better clear on out the back.
Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood to the group in the saloon)

14. Throw me the idol, I throw you the whip.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (Alfred Molina to a desperate Harrison Ford)

15. That's a negative, Ghostrider, the pattern is full.
Top Gun (control tower to Tom Cruise, when he requests a flyby)

16. You can't fight in here--this is the War Room.
Dr. Strangelove (President Peter Sellers, during the crisis)

17. I've got the motive, which is money, and the body, which is dead.
In the Heat of the Night (Rod Steiger to Sidney Poitier)

18. They say they're going to repeal Prohibition. What will you do then? / I think I'll have another drink.
The Untouchables (reporter to Kevin Costner and Costner's reply, at the end)

19. All these things I can do, all these powers . . . and I couldn't even save him.
Superman (Christopher Reeve to his mother, referring to his late father)

20. The next time I see Blue Duck, I'll kill him for you.
Lonesome Dove (Robert Duvall to Chris Cooper)

21. He can't go down with three barrels on him. Not with three, he can't.
Jaws (Robert Shaw to Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss, on the ill-fated boat)

22. A wed wose. How womantic.
Blazing Saddles (Madeline Kahn to Cleavon Little)

23. How will you die, Joan Wilder? Slow like a snail? Or fast, like a shooting star?
Romancing the Stone (soldier to Kathleen Turner, before their fight)

24. Oh, my. I hope that wasn't a hostage.
Die Hard (cop Paul Gleason to himself as he watches a body fall from the skyscraper)

25. I'll take these Huggies and whatever you got in the register.
Raising Arizona (Nicholas Cage to convenience store clerk)

26. He saved my life, and yours, and Arliss's. You can't just kill him, like he was nothin'!
Old Yeller (Tommy Kirk to his mother Dorothy Maguire)

27. Stay on or get off? STAY ON OR GET OFF?
Speed (Sandra Bullock to Keanu Reeves, as they approach freeway exit ramp)

28. Snake Plissken? I heard you were dead.
Escape From New York (cab driver Ernest Borgnine to Kurt Russell)

29. And for a brief moment, Gordo Cooper became the greatest pilot anyone had ever seen.
The Right Stuff (narrator, at the end)

30. He kissed you? What happened next? / Then he had to go invade Libya.
The American President (Annette Bening's sister to Bening, and reply)

31. Nobody ever won a war by dying for his country. You win a war by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.
Patton (George C. Scott, during the opening speech)

32. I wish they wouldn't land those things here while we're playing golf.
M*A*S*H (Elliott Gould to Donald Sutherland, referring to incoming chopper)

33. Oh Captain, my Captain.
Dead Poets Society (Ethan Hawke and other students, to fired teacher Robin Williams)

34. I don't reckon I got no reason to kill nobody.
Sling Blade (Billy Bob Thornton, in answer to reporter's question)

35. Goodnight, you princes of Maine, you knights of New England.
Cider House Rules (Michael Caine, and later Tobey Maguire, to the orphans)

36. Sometimes nothin' can be a mighty cool hand.
Cool Hand Luke (Paul Newman to the other poker players, after bluffing)

37. Today I saw a slave become more powerful than the Emperor of Rome
Gladiator (Connie Nielsen, referring to Russell Crowe)

38. Talk to her, Dad. She's a doctor. / Of what? Her first name could be Doctor.
Sleepless in Seattle (Tom Hanks' son, and Hanks' reply, while they're on hold)

39. Come on, Hobbs, knock the cover off the ball.
The Natural (Coach Wilford Brimley to Robert Redford)

40. Way to go, Paula! Way to go.
An Officer and a Gentleman (Lisa Blount to Debra Winger, at the end)

41. I see you've been missing a lot of work. / Well, I wouldn't say I've been missing it.
Office Space (downsizing team to employee Ron Livingston, and reply)

42. I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man.
True Grit (Robert Duvall to John Wayne, before the shootout)

43. Docta Jones, Docta Jones! No more parachutes!
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Jonathan Ke Quan to Harrison Ford, in their pilotless plane)

44. Now you run on home to your mother, and tell her everything's all right. And there aren't any more guns in the valley.
Shane (Alan Ladd to Brandon de Wilde, after the shootout)

45. I'm thinking your head would make a real good toilet brush.
Heaven's Prisoners (Alec Baldwin to thug, in a New Orleans dive)

46. Left early. Please come with the money . . . or you keep the car. Love, Tommy.
The Thomas Crown Affair (Steve McQueen's note to Faye Dunaway, at the end)

47. Active is pinging back something really big.
The Abyss (sonar operator Chris Elliott, to commander)

48. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers.
Pulp Fiction (Samuel L. Jackson to a doomed Frank Whaley)

49. I need a ride in your el trucko to the next towno.
The Mexican (Brad Pitt, thumbing a ride from the locals)

50. This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off.
Alien (Sigourney Weaver, after a really hard day)

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


"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 LeCarré

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


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***

Crime Blotter d1

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.


*     *     *

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
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.


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.


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 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.


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’.

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 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…


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.


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

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

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!

12 March 2015

Riders of the Purple Wage

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

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.