20 July 2015

A Bunch of Grapes

Mystery Author Jan GrapeOkay, so there's no mystery here unless you are mildly curious about a bunch of grapes. It's also not about wine making or the wrath of the grapes or even the hilarious Lucy episode of stomping grapes.

This is about the every three years gathering of folks who were born and named Grape or married to or adopted by someone named Grape. And there is really no writing classroom work this week either.

Grape family
The Grapes

In 1975, my late husband, Elmer Grape, attended the funeral of his mother Leah Gertrude Love Grape, out in CA. All of his brothers and sisters attended except for his sister Ina who was in the hospital. With the siblings all together it was decided that it seemed like a dumb idea on only get together for funerals. Each sibling lived on the East coast or the West coast except for Elmer and I. We at that time, lived in Memphis, TN. Elmer, who never had trouble making serious decisions said, "let's have a family reunion, next year, at my house in Memphis." This was without any consultation with me, but he knew I would have no objections. So our first reunion was planned, for the first two weeks in August, 1976. That time frame was chosen because one brother worked where the company closed down and everyone employed there had to take their vacation the first two weeks of August, no exceptions.

The Grapes of our side originated in Sweden although the first Grape in Sweden was Arendt Reinhold Grape who came from northern Germany where the name in German means "Iron Pot." He had an iron ore smeltering business and settled in northern Sweden, moving to Stockholm later and becoming a Burghermeister (Mayor) of that city. We have met several of our cousins when visiting Sweden and some have attended the reunions. But that first year in 1976 in Memphis, John Stebbins  from CA attended. Uncle John was 94 and he was related to the mother of  the family Leah Love Grape. We were excited to have him attend and he had a wonderful time.

We didn't have a large house, 11,500 sq feet but we had a huge back yard. And we also had a school bus which Elmer had converted onto a camping RV. And we had some nice next-door neighbor who were going to be moving and their house would be vacant. They offered two bathrooms and empty floor space. We rented some army cots and made arrangements to have some type of sleeping space for everyone who would come. Some folks from PA and VA came in their own camping trailers. One brother, the oldest sibling, Harry flew in from Seattle WA bringing his sleeping bag, and he slept on the floor in the den. We had wall to wall cots in the living room after moving all the furniture against the wall.

Without getting too sugary about it, this was the first time some family members had been together in years and really talked to each other and many fences were mended. Four girls and three boys who grew up during the depression, sometimes having little or nothing to eat but defying all odds had survived and had good jobs and families. Two sisters lived in CA, one in VA one sister in NJ. There were nieces and nephews from NY, MD, PA, VA, and NJ. Elmer built a picnic table for the back yard and put it up against the kitchen window so food and drink could be passed through easily.

Sisters took turns cooking evening meals and one nephew cooked an Italian specialty one night. One sister was an expert at packing a fridge and we took turns cleaning up dishes. We all went down to the Mississippi River and took a trip on the Memphis Queen paddle boat and the Captain announced there were 52 members of the Grape Family on board. The cousins all had a night out going to a club and dancing the night away. Some of the family could only stay a week but the best thing of all was that there were no arguments or disagreements.

This family reunion is still going on, we meet every three years, meeting over the fourth of July for several years now and different family members host the event. Elmer and I hosted three more times: In 1979-Fairfax, Virginia, 1982-Corry, Pa, 1985-Houston TX, our house again and this time we had a wedding. Adopted sister Jeannie planned it all from CA and it was beautiful. In 1988-Austin, TX we hosted again and niece Dona who lived in the house behind me helped. We had a Swedish cousin come from Sweden, Reinhold Grape that year. 1991-Hyde Park, NY, 1994-Council Bluffs, IA, 1997-Bergen, NY, 2000-Nashville, TN, hosted by my daughter Karla, 2003-Inks Lake, TX niece Dona hosted. 2006-near Disney World, FL, is the only year I didn't go. 2009-Sacramento, CA, 2012-Little Falls, NJ

This year once again in TN just outside of Memphis, hosted by nephew David and his wife, Karen O. Grape. Each year there are sightseeing jaunts, going especially to parts of the USA where we've never been before and fun things for young and old. One sister, Esther, who is the only surviving sister at age 92, used to make t-shirts for everyone. She's in CA and didn't get to attend this year but we're a bit high tech and skyped with her. Esther drew a bunch of grapes and put the current year on one grape each time. We finally got smart, began having the shirts made letting each host design their own. The one surviving brother is Roger, age 85 and still lives in Corry, PA and he attended this year. David is his son. Upcoming in 2018 we will once again be in Austin with my son Roger and his husband hosting.

We have lost family but we also have gained through marriage and children born and it's exciting and gratifying to meet and talk to everyone. There is lots of great food and drinks both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, and cakes and pies and cookies. We only stay a week now and most stay in nearby hotels because the host family can generally reserve a block of rooms at a reasonable price. We only had thirty-two attending as the California branches didn't make it. Sometimes there are new jobs or immediate family crises or even weddings that crop up and mess up reunion plans.

The major thing for me is we can all be together for a week without a disagreement although some conversations can get a bit heated. We somehow manage to have a week feeling love and a connection that we'd never have otherwise. A week with a bunch of Grapes just works for me.

Next Time: writing, mystery, intrigue, I promise.

19 July 2015

The Spy Who Bagged Me

by Leigh Lundin

Zoya Voskresenskaya
Anna Chapman
Anyone who’s watched a James Bond or a tacky Derek Flint film knows the Russians have licentious taste in spies… well, perhaps not Rosa Klebb, more like famed Zoya Voskresenskaya (Zoya Rybkina, Зоя Рыбкина, née Воскресенская). Deported Anna Chapman wasn’t a very good spy, but her incompetence and stunning looks inspired the New York Post to ask “But can we keep her?”

Such a wistful propensity may have prompted other New York-based spies to opt for Hooters as a clandestine meeting spot. Hooters?

Code name Green Kryptonite

Meet Naveed Jamali. His parents owned a specialty store, Books & Research, in Dobbs Ferry, Westchester, New York. In the latter 1980s, a known Russian agent strolled into the bookshop and asked for arcane but legally obtainable reports available from a proprietary government database run by the Defense Technical Information Center. The FBI asked the family to fulfill those requests and notify the FBI as to Russian interests.

This continued for twenty years until young Naveed took over the store. Motivated by a desire to join Naval Intelligence, he leveraged his relationship with the FBI into becoming an amateur– but authentic– spy, complete with an audio recording watch Q himself might have designed.


The FBI targeted the latest of a series of Russian agents, a trade mission attaché and seasoned operative, Oleg Kulikov. Diplomatic immunity meant the FBI couldn’t arrest Kulikov, but they could bring his career to a close. Considering occasional spy swaps, it was a smart move by the Feds.

The plan called for Jamali’s arrest at Pizzeria Uno in the presence of Kulikov, but at the last moment, the Russian opted to return to Hooters, putting the operation at risk. Nonetheless, federal agents swooped in and handcuffed Jamali in a fake apprehension, thus ending Kulikov’s espionage and usefulness as a clandestine operative.

Look for Naveed Jamali's book about his experience, How to Catch a Russian Spy. Fox Entertainment has negotiated film rights for the story.

Spies Through the Pages

Last year saw the release of a wonderful film about Alan Turing, The Imitation Game. For another great read and a chance to meet Turing’s competition in wartime British Intelligence, read Leo Marks’ autobiographical Between Silk and Cyanide.

18 July 2015

The Park Is Open

As you probably know, this is a mystery blog. I know that too--after all, I work here. But today I'd like to veer off the mystery/crime/suspense path and down into the cross-genre weeds, and focus on suspense fiction only. (One out of three ain't bad, right?) I promise I'll get back on track next time.

Return with me to '93

A few weeks ago one of our sons and I went to see Jurassic World. Not on the day of its release; this was a week or so after its debut. I'm timing-challenged, but I do know better than to go see any movie rated less than R on its opening day. I like kids, but I also like to be able to hear the movie.

This film reminded me of my recent SleuthSayers column on movie taglines. The tagline for Jurassic World, according to its trailer on YouTube, is The park is open. I like that. It brought back, as it should have, memories of the excellent film Spielberg directed in 1993, the one that was "65 million years in the making." And although the word "sequel" is used a little loosely these days, this was most definitely a followup to the first movie. It pretty much ignores the second and third installments, but the original theme park is mentioned throughout this film, and is even seen via Jurassic Park logos on T-shirts and Jeep doors, and long-ago characters like founder John Hammond are mentioned as well. The old visitor's center, now abandoned and crumbling, even makes an appearance. As expected, the new tourist trap--an unfortunately accurate term, considering what happens--is bigger and better, as are the dinosaurs inside its walls. But they are just as deadly and unpredictable as before.

All creatures Crichton small

I truly enjoyed this movie. It had its faults, that's for sure, but it also had everything it takes to capture and hold my interest: a good premise, engaging characters, a lot of action, (fairly) sharp dialogue, humor even in tense situations (there are many of those), and a satisfying ending.

Other things to like:

- A score by Lost composer Michael Giacchino, and the occasional use of John Williams's original music. Some might say this is too much of a reminder, but in this case it works, since almost everyone has either seen Jurassic Park or has heard that theme, or both. It's comfortably familiar.

- Two new dinosaurs (the super-intelligent, super-evil Indominus Rex--one reviewer labeled it a Holyshitasaurus--and a shark-gobbling leviathan called a Mosasaurus) that make the T-Rex look like a teddy bear.

- A bad-boy, rough-around-the-edges raptorwhisperer hero who is shown to be both brave and compassionate, in an early scene where he rescues a colleague.

- A villain who sincerely thinks he's in the right even if he's not--they're always the best kind--and who gets what's coming to him, even if it is a predictable end. There's also an unpleasant-at-first character who later turns from the dark side and is not only won over by the hero, she becomes the heroine--how's that for a character arc?

- Nonstop action. This is one of those films where wetting your pants almost seems a better choice than taking a restroom break and missing something.

- Two lead characters (Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard) who are among the most appealing actors in Hollywood right now. It's been rumored that Pratt will play Indiana Jones in the next installment of that series, and Howard is Opie's daughter, so how could she not be likable?

- [Possible spoiler:] An ending in which the real villain (the genetically-designed behemoth that goes on a rampage) is finally dispatched by a combination of (1) a clever last-minute brainstorm and (2) the only thing on the island more fearsome than it is. You'll see what I mean.

The only downsides were maybe too many subplots, some cartoonish characters, and a silly scene where the hero takes a motorcycle ride alongside the normally deadly velociraptors . . . but I can live with that.

NOTE 1: As in the first movie, two of the visitors to the park are kids who are related to the Big Boss (Richard Attenborough in the original, Bryce Howard in this one, both of whom for some reason dress only in white). Here, in a great example of showing-vs.-telling, viewers find out how much danger the kids are really in when their assigned "guardian-for-the-day" gets eaten in spectacular fashion: she is snatched off the ground by flying pterodactyls, gets passed from one to another in mid-air, then is dropped into a water tank and devoured by a creature as big as a passenger train. Who would've thought babysitters deserve hazardous duty pay?

NOTE 2: The lady who plays Bryce Dallas Howard's sister, Judy Greer, also played her sister in the M. Night Shyamalan movie The Village. Too much information, right? Sorry--I can't help myself.

It's a monster mash

So that's my report. In my opinion, Jurassic World was not as good as Jurassic Park but it was better than Jurassic Park III, and it was about equal to Jurassic Park II (The Lost World). Have any of you seen the new one? Did anybody like it as much as I did? If you're looking for a summer blockbuster that's great fun, gets the juices flowing, and doesn't overburden your brain cells, I think you might. Apparently a lot of paying customers have, so far.

Dino DNA Q&A: Can a successful movie return in the form of a successful sequel, 22 years later?

You bet jurassican.

17 July 2015

The Warped Relativity of Reading and Writing

By Dixon Hill

I'm always amazed by how long it takes me to write something, even if I know where it's going.
Something that only takes thirty minutes to read might take me a day or more to write.  And, that's just the first draft; I'm not including all the revisions here.

I don't know how many writers our there have this same problem.  Maybe most of you do.  On the other hand, some of you, reading this, might be asking, "What's this idiot talking about?  It only takes twenty minutes to write thirty minutes worth of material!"

As for myself, I can't help recalling something said by an English teacher during my Freshman year in high school.  We were reading Romeo and Juliet -- which I recall primarily because the entire Freshman class got to walk over to a nearby theater and watch a film version that we excitedly learned contained "a brief nude scene."  (This actually meant the film contained a split-second glimpse of "Romeo's" rear end, which greatly disappointed teen-aged me, as I had been salivating for a good long look at Juliet.)

What my teacher said, as she handed out the books, was: "Read this tonight, and we'll begin discussing it tomorrow.  Most productions of this play last less than two hours, and that's with an intermission added in.  So, you should be able to read this in two hours with no problem."

Right.  An English class of thirty run-of-the-mill chowderheaded teens.  And we're supposed to read Shakespeare's version of English, written in Iambic Pentameter no less -- and understand it! -- all within two hours.  Not like I had to worry about Algebra or Biology homework that night, either, eh?

Still . . . what she said, got under my skin.

I wasn't able to read the entire play that night.  I don't know how long it took me, but it took me more than just one night.  And that bothered me.  A LOT!  Because, I also knew she was right: most versions of the play probably didn't run even two hours.  So, why did it take me so long to read it? I'm no Einstein, but could a teen-aged Einstein have read it inside of two hours?  I began to wonder.

And, speaking of Einstein: That brings up another problem with time, the one we call "relativity," in which we start speaking of time relative to other things, such as space, location, velocity -- or in this case: writing vs. reading.

According to the theory of relativity, I don't believe we're able to move faster than the speed of light. This concept always rankles me, as I keep asking, "Really?  Like there's some cosmic speed limit out there imposed by physics?  What happens if we speed, do we get locked into another dimension?"

This provides great fodder for Science Fiction, of course, in which super-light travel is possible in another dimension, or can be equated by folding or (as they say in Star Trek) "warping" space-time" so that a ship can penetrate one layer of the fold and emerge on the other side without traveling over the entire length of the fold.

The pic on the left was created by Brandon Keys and posted on the IndegoSociety.org forum.  I thought that it, along with the pic below (from Wikipedia) showing a "worm-hole," did a good job of illustrating the concept.

While we're on the subject of warping space-time, let's also look at what happens when a reader gets immersed in a fascinating book, only to discover that the ten minutes s/he thought s/he'd been reading, has telescoped into several hours.  How did that happen?  Did the book warp space/time? Or, did the reading take "relatively" longer outside the world of the book, than it seemed to take while the reader was immersed within the book's world?

I have no idea.  Did Einstein know?  Does Stephen Hawking know now?

I've never met either one of them, and thus have no idea.

Nor do I know why it takes me so long to write something it takes so little time to read.  It doesn't usually FEEL like it's taking so long to write such a passage.  In that essence, perhaps writing -- like reading -- can warp space/time, or cause some sort of "relativity occurrence" to take place.  Maybe, for instance, time in the world I visit while writing passes differently than time in "normal space."

The only thing I can figure is that it might have something to do with the speed my fingers move over the keyboard, relative to the speed at which the computer can print on the screen.  I have noticed, in the past, that my fingers can sometimes strike the keys -- when I'm "in the groove" and my writing is coming hot and heavy -- faster than my computer seems to be able to print.  Occasionally I even have to stop and let the computer catch up to me.

The speed at which things take place inside a computer -- an electronic item -- surely must be close to the speed of light, since that's the speed at which electrons are supposed to move.  Thus, if my fingers are moving faster than my computer can work, my
fleshy digits must be moving at super-light speed.

NO WONDER what I write seems to take less time to read than to create!

The solution -- obviously! -- is that people (or at least their fingertips) can move faster than the speed of light, but the punishment is not imprisonment in another dimension.  It's the hell of working for two days, then learning it takes only thirty minutes to read what it took all that time to write!

Theory of Relativity Solved!

See you in two weeks.

16 July 2015

The Strange Case of Connelly v. Connelly

by Eve Fisher
  • Connelly v. Connelly - a minor divorce case.
  • Connelly v. Connelly - a divorce case in 1849-57 Victorian England.
  • Connelly v. Connelly - the most scandalous case you never heard of.
  • Connelly v. Connelly - in which a Roman Catholic Priest sued a Roman Catholic nun for restitution of conjugal rights in London.  (Both of them were American.)
Look, I love weird cases and wild stories, and this combines the best (or worst) of both worlds.  Meet Pierce (1804-1883) and Cornelia Connelly (1809-1879) of Pennsylvania.  They met and married in 1831, and Pierce, who had converted from Presbyterian to Anglican, got an American Episcopal Parish in Natchez, Mississippi.  They moved there and were happy for a few years.  They had a son, Mercer, and a daughter, Adeline.  Cornelia was beautiful and witty; he was charming and erudite. And then, in 1835, Pierce decided that he was called to convert to Roman Catholicism.  So of course he had to quit his parish and his ministry, sell his house, and move to Rome.


Off they went.  Pierce - who had a taste for the flamboyant - waited, and was received into the Roman Catholic Church on Palm Sunday, 1836, in Rome, at a very fashionable church.  (Cornelia had been received before they left, in a small private ceremony in Natchez.)  The couple quickly became hugely popular in Rome. Pierce got an audience with Pope Gregory VI, supposedly moving the pope to tears with his fervent religious passion.  Pierce also became friends with the ancient, influential, and wealthy Borghese family.  And he moved his whole family into a palazzo owned by the Earl of Shrewsbury, who became his patron.

All was well, except that Rome was almost 100% Catholic, and probably 90% clerical, and all the power lay in the hierarchy of the church.  Pierce - who had a wee bit of ambition - is mulling over becoming a Roman Catholic priest.  There was a problem:  He was married, and his wife was pregnant.  There followed a hiatus in which Cornelia gave birth to their 3rd son (John Henry) in Vienna, they move back to Natchez thanks to a bank crisis (they're not modern phenomenon, folks - Pierce's family got wiped out in the crash), and Pierce became a teacher.

Tragedy struck:  they lost a newborn daughter, and then 2 year old John Henry died after falling into a vat of boiling sugar.  Eight months later, Pierce announced he was definitely called to be a Roman Catholic priest.  Cornelia urged him to think it over (she was pregnant again, so she might have had some doubts about his being called to celibacy), but he was adamant.  So, after their fifth child, Francis, was born, Pierce sold the house, and moved to England with Mercer, leaving Cornelia, Adeline, and Francis in a convent at Grand Coteau.

Palazzo Borghese, Roma
Pierce apparently thought that he'd show up in England, go to Rome, be ordained, and easy-peasy, all would be done.  Instead, Pope Gregory told him to get Cornelia there so they could discuss things with her:  after all, it was her life, too.  Pierce brought her, and they all settled into a large apartment near the Palazzo Borghese.  Cornelia consented, the Pope consented, Cornelia moved into a convent at the top of the Spanish Steps, and Pierce began his theological studies.  She had one final talk (I'd have had more than a talk, I think) with Pierce, begging him to reconsider what he was doing and take care of his family - but he insisted on taking Holy Orders, which meant Cornelia had to - and did - pronounce a vow of perpetual chastity.  In June of 1845, Pierce said his first Mass, giving his daughter and his wife holy communion.

But what next?  Well, Pierce became chaplain for Lord Shrewsbury in England and took Mercer with him.  As for Frank, well, Pierce wrote a letter in which he said, "You know the Prince Borghese has taken charge of Frank's education, and he will be put either here in the College of Nobles in Rome, or with Merty at Stonyhurst in England...  So far, you see, things have been ordered very wonderfully."

Meanwhile, the English Bishop Nicholas Wiseman called Cornelia to come to England to educate Catholic girls and the poor, forming the Society of the Holy Child Jesus.  (This religious foundation still exists and operates, teaching children.)  So off to England she went.  Soon she was settled in, teaching 200 children, and doing pretty well.

Cornelia Connelly, about the
time of the lawsuit
And then Pierce showed up.  Unannounced.  Cornelia would not see him, and sent him a letter asking him not to repeat his visit.  He wrote back, and they exchanged a series of fairly bitter letters.  Pierce was apparently jealous of Dr. Wiseman - Pierce was used to having total control of his wife, and didn't like it that now she was obeying another man's orders.  Even if it was Bishop to nun.  In December of 1847, she took her perpetual vows as a nun and was formally installed as Superior General of the Society she had formed.  A month later, in January of 1848, Pierce removed the children from their respective schools without asking permission or informing anyone.  To be fair, according to Victorian English law, children were the property of their father...  He put 6-year-old Frank in a secret home, and took Mercer and Adeline with him to the Continent, ordering Cornelia to follow.  Instead, she stayed put.  Pierce went to Rome, where he said that he was the real founder of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, and attempting to take over as their Superior.  No one bought it.  He came back to England, and demanded to see Cornelia, to become the Society's priest for Cornelia to leave the Society and come with him.  NOW.  She didn't.

So he filed the lawsuit "Connelly v. Connelly", asking a Protestant court "that Cornelia be compelled by law to return and render him conjugal rights."  (He omitted mentioning to the court that he was a Roman Catholic priest.  That came up later.)  The scandal was huge.  Anti-Catholic sentiment was rife Victorian England.  The general opinion was that here was a man robbed of his wife by the Papists, who'd shut her up in a convent and wouldn't let him even see her!  And the only reason they (the Papists) hadn't taken the children was because Pierce was smart enough to take them away himself.  Cornelia and Bishop Wiseman were denounced from Protestant pulpits, burned in effigies on Guy Fawkes Day, newspapers were full of the usual tabloid trash.  After a year, the judge ruled that her Roman law wasn't binding in England, and gave Cornelia the option of forcible return to Pierce as his wife, or prison.  An appeal was launched to the Privy Council.  Now, as we have seen, Pierce had already won the in the court of public opinion, and the Privy Council was just as Protestant as the regular court - But in the end, Cornelia won.

At least, she won her liberty - she could never win her children back (again, they were legally considered Pierce's property).  In fact, she lost two of them forever.  Pierce sent Mercer back to Natchez, where he died at 20 in 1853 of yellow fever.  Pierce took Adeline and Frank abroad, where he renounced Catholicism and earned a living from writing venomously anti-Catholic tracts.  Years later, Adeline was spotted taking care of an aging Episcopal priest at the American Parish of St James Church in Florence, Italy.  That was Pierce, had who re-embraced the Episcopal church and served there, unknown and unimportant, from about 1870 until his death in 1883. He is buried in Cimitero Evangelico degli Allori.  Francis settled in Rome, where he became a painter.  He loved his mother, but hated the Roman Catholic Church for destroying his family.  He never married, but had a daughter, Marina, who ended up marrying into the Borghese family (Pierce would have been so proud).
Pierce Connelly in old age


Cornelia Connelly remained for the rest of her life in England, expanding her foundation, and dying in 1879 at the convent she founded in St. Leonards-On-The-Sea, Sussex.

But the memory of Connelly v. Connelly lingers as one of the strangest lawsuits ever to come up in British history.

15 July 2015

How Green Was My Homicide

by Robert Lopresti

Two weeks ago in this space I explained how a silly radio quiz show inspired me to write a fairly serious short  story.  Today we're going the other direction: how a serious problem led me to write what I hope is a funny book.

As I have mentioned before, I m  a librarian at a university.  The students with whom I have the privilege of working the most major in environmental science and environmental studies.  It is inspiring to see these young students dedicating their careers to finding ways to improve our habitat, and it makes me wish I could do more to help the cause than just steer them to useful  data sources.  Alas,  I don't have the skills to study paleoclimatology or coral reefs.

But, it occurred to me, one thing I know a little about is writing crime fiction.  Could I do anything useful there?

The story idea I discussed two weeks ago came down like a bolt of lightning.  This one took longer to develop. It started with a character: Imagine a mobster, a wiseguy very happy with his place in the criminal world. Now imagine that on the very day he becomes a grandfather he hears a news report claiming that by the time his sweet little granddaughter is ready for college, climate change will have made the world a disaster area.  For my mobster that is unacceptable, so he decides it is up to him to save the environment.  Hey, how hard can it be?

My hero - well, protagonist -- turned out to be Sal Caetano, the  consigilere in a New Jersey Mafia family.  While Sal is officially just the number three man in the borgata he is known as the brains of the bunch and his opinion is respected.  But when he goes on his eco-kick he becomes a danger to everyone who has a stake in the status quo.  That turns out to include not only his partners and rival gangs, but also dirty politicians, th FBI, and even ecoterrorists.  So Sal is in for some dangerous adventures.

These arrived Tuesday afternoon.
A story like this had to be told funny, which is fine with me.  I have been known to do funny.

But the environmental issues were serious and I needed help with that stuff.  In the book Sal contacts an ecology professor named Wally and asks for a rundown on the biggest issues facing the environment.  To make that work  I contacted three professors at my university and explained the premise. Pretend you're Wally, I told them.  You have a smart, highly-motivated listener with no background in the field.  What would you tell him?  Based on their combined answers, and adding in my own off-the-wall opinions, I found the words to put in my ecologists' mouth.

Greenfellas was a lot of fun to write (and I have written about the process of doing so.  For example  here and here).  The book hits the stands this Friday and someone else will have to tell me if it is fun to read.

14 July 2015

Farewell My Lovelies

For those of you who have been with SleuthSayers for a while you've seen this before: I tender my resignation, it's accepted rather too quickly, everybody has a round of high-fives.  Then, before you've had time to clear away the empties and dump the ash trays, I'm back; cardboard suitcase in hand. Well, not this time--this time it's farewell, my lovelies. 
Sometimes you just know when it's time for a graceful exit, and this is that time for me.  My years with SleuthSayers have been a great learning experience and I've enjoyed every minute of them.  The staff at HQ, Leigh, Velma, and Rob have been terrific and whenever I needed technical assistance it was forthcoming without additional charge.  In fact, during my time amongst the cast and crew of SleuthSayers I've come to consider them (you all) as friends.  Virtual friends in most cases, though it has been my pleasure to meet a number of our contributors in the flesh, but still friends, or at least fellow travelers.  After all, some of history's great relationships have been those of pen pals, and so it feels to me here.

When I look back over my contributions I find they fall into but a few categories--a reflection of my limitations, I'm afraid: Police procedure, New Jersey, Native American history, Catholicism, a smattering of historical murder investigations, and a bit now and then on writing.  In any event, you've had the benefit of my wit and wisdom on these subjects and I pray that no one was irreparably harmed by the exposure.  If you feel you may have been, Velma entertains all such complaints and will be happy to hear yours.  I understand that she takes such calls strictly between the hours of 11:39 and 11:41 AM on alternate Tuesdays of 31 day months.

For my part, I will be spending all this new free time waiting outside my local watering hole.  There's a sign in the window that reads, "Free Whiskey Tomorrow!"  Everyday I return, but the barkeep just points at the sign and shakes his head.  You can see why I have to prioritize--sooner, or later, tomorrow will come!  And I intend to be there with an empty wallet and a full glass.



13 July 2015

Father Brown

by Janice Law

I realized lately that I am ready for a new man – at least in the realm of mystery fiction. Oh, there’s lots of good ones around, although I’ve never really forgiven Henning Mankel for saddling poor Kurt Wallander with Alzheimer’s. Some other good detectives have unfortunate habits, especially with regard to wives and girl friends. Aside from James Bond, it used to be safe for a woman to date a sleuth. No more; death or divorce are surely in her future.

 Consider the poor spouses of Inspector Lynley and George Gently, bumped off by villains. Shetland’s Jimmy Perez lost his wife to illness, Jackson Brody of Case Histories lost his to divorce, as did Wallander, while other significant others have faced assault, kidnapping, and worse. As for handsome Sidney Chambers of Grantchester, who carries a torch for his former girlfriend, he doesn’t recognize a promising woman when he finally meets one.

But there is a bright spot for me and, although my Calvinist ancestors will be stirring in their chilly Scots graves, it is Father Brown. Created before WWI by G.K. Chesterton, the pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in the Cotswolds, started out as a hyper-observant, hyper-logical sleuth in the Sherlock Holmes mold – if one can imagine the aloof and acerbic Holmes as a small, innocuous looking Catholic priest.

The stories are short, puzzle pieces, very clever  but longer on ingenuity than on characterization or psychology. The good Father is basically an observer with not a lot of personality, odd, given that he was apparently based on a real priest, indeed, the one who converted Chesterton. The stories are old fashioned with a fair number based on interest in, and fears of, ideas and people from the rest of the Empire – shades of Wilkie Collins’ great The Moonstone. Published from before the war up through the 1920’s they are very much period pieces, mostly in a good way.

Television, which so often spoils good stories, has in this case made something quite attractive. Cognizant of our bloodthirsty tastes, Father Brown now investigates mostly murders in contrast to the robberies that seem to have been a staple of the originals. The series has been moved into the post WW2 era, provided Father Brown with a supporting cast, and, thanks to Mark Williams, made him a dynamic and sympathetic character.

There’s more than a touch of Friar Tuck in this iteration of the sleuthing cleric. Rotund but energetic, Williams’ Father Brown likes to eat and drink, despite the efforts of his parish secretary, Mrs. McCarthy, to watch his waistline. He likes any kind of merriment, he is an indefatigable cyclist, and he has friendships with a wide range of characters, respectable and not. Is he full of angst and doubt? No way. Is he tormented by what one must say is a rather too enthusiastic pursuit of crime? Not at all. Confident that he serves a higher power, Father Brown is free to indulge his curiosity and to enlist the rest of his little circle in the pursuit of justice.

They are an odd bunch. Mrs. McCarthy is a self-important, narrow minded woman with a heart of gold, especially when pointed in the right direction by Father Brown. Lady Felicia, glamorous and intrepid with a wandering eye, manages to stay just on the right side of respectability. Sid, her chauffeur and a man who can turn his hand to everything from righting a motor to impersonating a seminarian, is an invaluable, if not always honest, assistant for Father Brown.
Add the usual bumbling officers – the ones in this series are addicted to the quick solution, a habit that opens the door wide for Father Brown’s interference – and you have a nice grade of cozy mystery.

What takes the best of the episodes out of the cute range, though, is something else, Father Brown’s optimism about people and about the ever present possibility for repentance and salvation. Not particularly orthodox and certainly not at all cowed by his ecclesiastical superiors, he nonetheless suggests that a deep and genuine faith is behind his joy in living and his patience with and pleasure in his neighbors. As such, the good father is a nice corrective to the doubt and depression that have become almost de rigueur for popular detectives.

12 July 2015


Mr Robot
Edgy. It’s what a new USA Network television, Mr Robot, is trying for, so edgy that producers are getting ulcers trying to make it happen. And cyberpunk. It’s oh, so cyberpunk, rebel without a clause, pass the opiates please. It’s new, it’s now, it’s different, and it's supposed to be ultra-tech-savvy. It has exciting technology working for it… or does it?
One of Dorothy Sayers' novels, The Nine Tailors, is noted for its portrayal of campanology– professional bell-ringing. Sayers was largely complimented for her accuracy of detail. In a small way, she created kind of a techno-novel. Since then, many authors have created stories detailing technology of one kind or another– military, espionage, aerospace, medical, or computing.

Bluffing computer experts is tricky, especially the ‘leet’, the priesthood as it were, the 1% of 1%, the dei ex machina, code-slingers, bit busters, programmers of the programs that run programs. Rendering a story about computers takes more than networking verbiage and Unix gibberish. Bear with me as I wade into technical detail.

Going Viral

John Brunner’s Shockwave Rider introduced the concept of viruses, but most novels and virtually all movies get the technology wrong. That doesn’t mean a reader can’t enjoy some stories. Thomas Joseph Ryan’s The Adolescence of P-1 was a good read. 2001 A Space Odyssey was smart, the letters HAL being one displaced from IBM. And for hopeless romantics, Electric Dreams gave movie-goers a Cyrano de Bergerac love triangle featuring a computer named Edgar.

But a story shouldn’t pretend to be something it isn’t. An Amazon review about a computer novel by a top-rated mystery writer said the commenter got laughs reading aloud excerpts to employees in the company lunchroom. That’s not the kind of critique anyone wants.

Dennis Nedry
Dennis Nedry from Jurassic Park
Casting Stones

Casting is another problem with computer shows. Techno-geeks’ IQs typically run high, but that’s seldom how computer experts appear on the screen. One example of awful rôle selection occurred in Jurassic Park, that of an unlikely computer sysadmin, the oafish and creepy Dennis Nedry. We’re going to talk about lack of subtlety: Nedry / nerdy, get it?.

If Hollywood doesn’t stereotype a sallow, shallow wimp with taped glasses, they opt for the opposite, a busty beauty in a skin-tight action figure costume. Movie makers think an eye on the décolletage prevents audiences noticing thin characterization.

When I think of actual top geeks (someone without my movie star looks– stop laughing), I think of colleagues like my friend Thrush, programmer Bill Gorham, software architect Steve O’Donnell, or a handful of others. These ordinary guys possess the extraordinary ability to make machines dance to their own tune.

Robin Hoodie

The show’s idea of characterization appears twofold. First, dress the part: Make the protagonist, Elliot Alderson, sullen, slurring, antisocial, slouch through life in his hoodie. Have ruthless, junior exec Tyrell Wellick wear designer ties and suits. Decorate drug dealers with lots of tats. Mission accomplished.

The other part of the simplistic characterization is the creation of a polarized ‘them versus us’ atmosphere: hoodies v suits, punks v preppies, young v old, crackers v hackers, morphine users v tweakers v coke-heads, Anonymous v the establishment, bad guys v the other bad guys, capitalists v socialists v nihilists v anarchists… which might be interesting if someone had bothered to delineate a bit.

Elliot, the main character, is a morphine-addicted presumed programmer– he once mentions source code. The guy is a pathological liar who lies even to himself, then follows up by telling people in slurred speech, “I’m just being honest.” He drinks ‘appletinis’ and tells his shrink he’s not a junkie, even as he snorts his drug of choice. Supposedly this doesn’t impair his ability to dig into the bowels of computer networks.

A major problem here is that mainly druggies find drug users entertaining. One shouldn’t have to be stoned to appreciate a television show, but drug use and overuse underlies a major theme of Mr Robot. Elliot’s Asperger’s syndrome one can deal with, but his continuous mumbling is hard to stomach.

Of all the cast, only the female characters appear likable and worthwhile, Elliot’s shrink, Gloria, and his childhood friend and co-worker, Angela. Elliot and Angela telegraph to the audience their unrealized attraction as in a third-rate romance novel.

Tyrell Wellick represents the only alpha male in that universe, a ruthless junior exec but one who keeps his eye on the prize. As the best drawn character, he’s a sadomasochistic and exploitative bisexual who goes all out for what he wants. The actor speaks fluent Swedish but god-awful French, more than once butchering the word ‘bonjour’. Wellick does win on other points: When his pregnant wife asks for a bondage session, he’s reluctant to proceed, trying to be gentle.


A major factor– or malefactor– in the series is Mr Robot, a sociopathic anarchist played by Christian Slater looking exceedingly bored throughout. ‘Mr Robot’ is the name of a tech support company, passed on to Slater.

He’s formed ‘fsociety’, a squad of hackers patterned after the group Anonymous. Instead of Guy Fawkes masks, fsociety uses the likeness of that Parker Brothers’ mustached tycoon, Rich Uncle Pennybags aka Mr Monopoly.

Uncle Pennybags © Parker Bros.
In reality, fsociety is disappointingly unlike Anonymous. The latter is focused on justice and exposing inequity and corruption, not anarchy for its own sake. Anonymous gives an impression it values human life, unlike the show's producers who suck hours out of your life never to be returned.


Those of us in the US tend to confuse and conflate capitalism with a free market economy; Mr Robot drops any distinction at all. Fsociety is dedicated to gutting Evil Corp (which deserves it) within a larger goal of bringing down the economy.
  • E: Evil Corp– that’s its unimaginative nickname– is the company that Elliot, Angela, and Tyrell work for. Obviously, subtlety isn’t held in high regard among the writers. The company’s E logo simultaneously hints at an actual secretive government provider and evokes ‘E for everyone’ entertainment ratings.

  • F: Two guesses what the F in fsociety stands for, subtle like a sledgehammer.

I tried to imagine the original cocaine-fueled pitch for the series. I think it went something like this:
“Like okay, man… (sniffff) There’s this guy, hacker dude, we’ll dress him in a hoodie so everyone thinks Robin Hood, see. (sniffff) And there’s this evil corp, we’ll call it Evil Corp so the audience can’t miss it. (sniffff) Listen, I confuse free markets and capitalism, but let’s say we burn down the economy… What do you mean, how would I cash my paycheck? What does that have to do with anything? Oh, irony, I get it. That’s good, that’s good. We’ll include irony.”


The series makes a stab at hi-tech realism, not particularly savvy, better than some shows, not as good as others. Writers drop a few Unix buzzwords (Gnome, KDE, TOR) and gloss over how their network was penetrated.

Elliot identifies a supposedly infected file that fsociety wants him not to open: fsociety00.dat. Amusingly, the IP address associated with the bogus file is, an impossible address like movies using 555-1234 as a phone number. (Geekology trivia: An IP address resolves to four bytes in binary, so each number of the group must be less than 256.) Mr Robot offers no specifics how Elliot tracked down the file in error, but the date and a bogus IP address should have clued in even a noob, never mind our ersatz hero.

Elliot passes the file on to a colleague, saying he’s done the hard work and ‘all’ that’s left is the encryption, as if that’s nothing. *bzzz* Wrong answer.

The program promulgates the notion that if someone has a root kit or hacker tools, they’re somehow an ultra-savvy user instead of being like any other mechanic with the right toolbox. The real guys with the smarts are the black hats who write the hacker tools and the white hats who find ways to combat them.

The show also advances the prejudice that ‘old people’ (presumably over 25) can’t deal with technology. A little reflection would have shown that the very systems Elliot and his hacker friends are using were designed by the old guys who themselves built on the shoulders of greater giants. (Articles on Anonymous have shown that the inner core of the organization isn’t strictly young guys as popularly imagined, but largely socially conscious programmers from the late 1960s and early 1970s who range upwards in age into their 50s and 60s.)

Elliot sneers at the CEO of E-Corp for carrying a Blackberry, ignoring the fact that an executive can run a company or tinker with technology, but probably not both, not at the same time. The US State Department deliberately uses Blackberries because they’re less susceptible to hacking… but that sort of realism would cut the series short.

Later, Elliot denigrates a hospital IT manager, William Highsmith, but even as he’s disparaging the IT guy, Elliot uses his supposed superior hacking skills to type the word NEGATIVE into his drug screen. Nothing screams phony like spelling out a presumed binary value instead of clicking the bit setting like true experts and their grandmothers would have done.

In the third episode, Elliot gives a stoned soliloquy on debugging. He’s correct in that finding a bug is usually the hardest part of the problem, but then he awkwardly extends an analogy of bugs into the real world of people and society.

Commodore 64
Halt and Catch Fire

Based on a single episode, a competing series Halt and Catch Fire has a much better and more realistic grip on technology and story-telling. Their team planned how to fake an AT&T computer by kludging together parts from a Commodore 64. Unlike the vague buzzword-dropping, watch-the-other-hand unexplained ‘magic’ in Mr Robot, the HCF scheme could actually work.

From both a writing standpoint and a hi-tech background, Mr Robot disappoints. I expect more… more characterization, more plot, more realistic tech. And less morphine, please, much less. I’m a minority, but my tech-savvy friend and colleague Thrush, who still keeps his hand in the land of Unix, also expressed dismay, finding the show dark and dismal with a poor handle on technology.

Mr Robot is like a 1960’s drug culture anti-establishment film, entirely unentertaining. But that’s my take. What is yours?

11 July 2015

Odor of Red Herrings

by B.K. Stevens

I will unfortunately be out of town when this posts, but I'd like to ask you to join me in welcoming my friend and mystery writer B.K. Stevens to our SleuthSayers group. She has signed on to be a part of our Saturday team, and we feel truly honored to have her on board. She is the author of two mystery novels--Interpretation of Murder (recently released by Black Opal Books) and Fighting Chance (coming in October from The Poisoned Pencil /Poisoned Pen Press)--and many short stories, most of which have appeared in the pages of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Welcome, Bonnie! It's great to have you here.--John Floyd

In my former life as an English professor, when I introduced composition students to basic principles of logic, I often told a charming little story about the origin of the term "red herring." English hunters, I said, used red herrings to train hounds to stick to business while tracking down a fox. The hunters would drag smoked or cured herrings, which apparently have a reddish color, across the fox's path. If hounds got thrown off scent by the pungent smell of the herrings, they weren't ready for the hunt.

File:Red herring.jpg
misocrazy from New York, NY -
 Cropped from Kipper
It's a well-known story--you may have heard it before. Students enjoyed it, and it gave them a vivid image to associate with the logical fallacy of using an irrelevant argument to distract readers or listeners from the real issue being debated. In all, the story made a fine teaching tool.

Imagine my disappointment when I learned it isn't true. An English pamphleteer introduced the term "red herrings" in 1807, claiming he used them to train hunting dogs. But there's no evidence indicating he, or anyone else, ever actually did. A variation on the story, which claims fugitives used red herrings to confuse the bloodhounds pursuing them, also seems to have no basis in fact.

In my new life as a full-time mystery writer, I still contend with red herrings, but red herrings of a different sort. Not everyone in the mystery world agrees about how to define red herrings, or about how they should be used. I once worked with an editor who defined a red herring as a suspect who "in fact has nothing, zero, nada to do with the crime." (That's an exact quotation--I have the e-mail in front of me. And I pray the editor never reads this column.) A mystery can't be realistic unless it includes such red herrings, she argued. After all, in real life, detectives waste plenty of time chasing down leads that lead nowhere, that prove completely irrelevant to the crime.

I'm sure that's true. I suspect it's one reason police reports seldom make bestseller lists.

To me, a red herring is anything--a person, a clue, a theory--that temporarily throws the detective off scent, or at least seems to. It doesn't have to be completely unrelated to the crime. In my opinion, it shouldn't be. As a mystery reader, I get frustrated with red herrings that contribute nothing to the solution of the crime. I feel as if the author's padding the plot and wasting my time.
Let's say the detective spends the first fifty pages of a novel tracking down someone seen near the victim's house on the night of the murder. If it turns out that this person went to the house only because he'd misread the address on a birthday party invitation, that he didn't even know the victim, chances are I won't read page fifty-one.

On the other hand, let's say this suspect went to the victim's house because she was his stockbroker, and he'd realized she'd intentionally pushed him to invest in ways that would benefit her but bankrupt him. He didn't kill her, but his confession helps the detective figure out the motive of the actual murderer, another disgruntled client. That's a red herring that doesn't stink. Not every clue should lead directly to the murderer, but every clue should lead somewhere.

As a reader, I also resent it when the only truly relevant clue turns out to be one detail hidden in the middle of a paragraph on page 117. If I miss that detail, I'm out of luck. I have no chance of figuring out the solution to the mystery, because everything else in the novel is misdirection and fluff.

It's far more satisfying, I think, when every element of a mystery plot turns out to be relevant in some way, factually or thematically. The central challenge, for both the detective and the reader, is to figure out how clues are relevant, to put everything in context and realize how evidence should be interpreted.
A prime example of such a mystery is the first one I read as an adult, the one that set me on the path of eventually writing mysteries of my own. It remains my ideal of what a mystery should be. Gaudy Night is one of Dorothy L. Sayers' longest Lord Peter Wimsey novels (perhaps the very longest?) and contains many clues. (I'm tempted to say "hundreds of clues," but I'm not willing to count, so I'd better just say "many.")

In my opinion, not one of these clues is a mere red herring. Not one "in fact has nothing, zero, nada to do with the crime." Every clue points to the culprit, either directly or indirectly--every detail about every prank, every word in every poisoned pen message, every bit of information about which people the culprit targets and which people he or she doesn't target, even every amusing but seemingly irrelevant encounter Harriet Vane has with characters such as Reggie Pomfret and Viscount Saint-George.

Harriet keeps careful track of the clues, even putting together a sort of scrapbook, but her conscientious efforts don't lead her to the solution. The problem is that she's looking at the evidence from the wrong point of view. She's wrong about the nature of the fury driving the culprit, and therefore she's wrong about everything else. When Lord Peter examines the case from the right point of view, all the scraps of evidence snap into place, all pointing to one inevitable conclusion.

It's been decades, but I still remember how I felt when I first read Lord Peter's speech to the Senior Common Room. I literally smacked myself on the forehead. "Of course!" I thought. "That has to be it--it's the only way everything makes sense. Why didn't I see it until now? What an idiot I've been!"

Really good mysteries always make me feel like an idiot.

In any excellent literary work--mystery or otherwise--everything comes together. In D.H. Lawrence's "Odor of Chrysanthemums," all the references to chrysanthemums--the ones at Elizabeth Bates' wedding, the ones in the room when her daughter is born, the ones in her husband's button-hole the first time he's brought home drunk, the ones her son shreds in the yard, the ones she tucks into her apron band--come together when she lays out her husband's body in the parlor, and someone knocks over a vase of chrysanthemums. In a truly excellent mystery, all the red herrings come together at the end, and we realize they aren't mere red herrings after all.

So the story about hunters using red herrings to train their dogs is apparently only a myth. That's not so surprising. When you think about it, the story doesn't make much sense. Would an intelligent hunting dog be likely to show much interest in something that obviously smells fishy? Would an intelligent reader be likely to stay interested in a mystery filled with clues obviously designed only to deceive? To hold our interest and our respect, mysteries must present us with a rich array of clues. Some may seem merely distracting at first, but when we interpret them correctly and figure out how to fit them into the overall context, they all point us, ultimately, in the right direction.

Chrysanthemum sp.jpg

10 July 2015

A Matter of Turf

Patch worn on front of jacket
gang colors go on back
A couple of months ago in Waco, Texas, there was a shootout during a gathering of bikers at a well-known barbeque restaurant. Nine bikers dead, several wounded, over a hundred arrested. Some press reports said the gathering was to talk about newly proposed laws for motorcycle riders. Other reports said the meeting was to work out differences among various motorcycle gangs concerning territory and recruiting. In truth, it could have been for both reasons, depending upon those attending. The spark setting off the melee was claimed by some to be an argument over a parking space, by others, a biker's foot being run over by another motorcyclist. We were never told whose foot it was or whose parking space was in dispute, but if a one-percent patch holder was involved, it's reasonable to assume that either incident made for an excuse to go to battle right then and there. It made no difference whether the perceived slight was truly an accident....or a premeditated push.

There's a long history of violence among motorcycle gangs. Some of it I've seen in the press, some I learned from various gang members and associates, some I heard from other law enforcement agencies and some I've witnessed in person.

One-percent gangs are very territorial. At the annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis during the mid-1970's and up to 1980, you could find several different club colors in attendance. Some colors represented criminal motorcycle gangs, some stood for organized clubs and some were merely made up by a bunch of friends just out to have fun. But by 1980, the word had been put out by various one-percent gangs that if their bottom rocker displayed the name of a certain state, then no other club had better wear colors with a bottom rocker showing that same state. The Deadmen MC learned the hard way that South Dakota was part of the Bandido Nation. When the corpse of one member of the Deadmen was dug up from his shallow grave on the side of a river bank, it was said that he was shot so many times that the lead slugs just fell out of his body. In 1980 at the Sturgis Rally, a member of the gang I had infiltrated was thrown to the ground by the Bandidos and the club patch on his jacket was cut off while he was still wearing the jacket. Me, I missed the Rally that year, got drafted to Miami on a special to chase smugglers in go-fast boats. Just as well. When a club receives an insult like the two mentioned above, the offended club has two choices, bend the knee or go to war. Seized colors are frequently hung up in gang clubhouses as war trophies.

Even though South Dakota was considered as part of the Bandido Nation, the Sturgis Rally was supposed to be neutral ground. The problem was keeping it that way. To show supremacy on their own turf, the Bandidos made an annual mandatory run in a pack, two by two with road guards out to stop other traffic on any road intersections or interstate entrance ramps, from their Rapid City clubhouse, up I-90 and into Sturgis, where they paraded up and back the four blocks of Main Street which were restricted to motorcycles only during that week.

Didn't take long for the Hell's Angels MC to start pushing. One of their members bought the Bent Horseshoe Ranch just north and east of town and set it up as a Hell's Angels campground. They even held rock concerts there during the Rally. One attendee was U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell who has publicly stated that the Angels are just a misunderstood group. So now, the red and whites, as the H.A.'s are sometimes called, have a firm establishment in the Bandidos backyard.

During one Rally in the early 1990's, I was working with a U.S. Customs agent that week. At one point, we found ourselves standing at the side entrance of a vendor's tent just off Main Street. A crowd was gathering around a small cleared area on the sidewalk and out into the street. Seems that two old, bearded Bandidos wearing Washington state bottom rockers had walked into a bad situation. One Bandido was in the middle of the cleared area where a young H.A. from South Carolina kept shoving and trying to taunt him into a fight. The Bandido took the shoving without a word. No doubt, he could see about 8 or 9 other H.A.'s standing in the perimeter of the crowd, to include one very large guy nicknamed Tank, from Minnesota. Getting into a fight here where biker rules dictated that every club member was required to join into any altercation meant receiving a severe beating or worse, thus he opted to take the abuse. The second Bandido stood quietly on the sidewalk right in front of the agent and I. To his right stood another H.A. with his left arm squeezed around the Bandido's neck. This H.A. had his right hand wrapped around the handle of a large Crescent wrench resting in the back pocket of his jeans. Obviously, it was there to work on his Harley, should it have a mechanical problem. The extent of their conversation was, "We aren't going to do anything, are we?" The Bandido merely nodded. Neither one looked behind them.

Eventually, the South Carolina H.A. quit pushing the old Bandido around, forcibly took his hand and shook it, and said he was just funning him. Everyone went their separate ways and the crowd dispersed. Personally, I think one of the H.A.'s was smart enough to realize there were undercover cops in the area when he heard the vendor approach the Customs agent and me and tell us we probably shouldn't be there with this going on, and my reply that yeah, we should be there at this time. That's when I think a warning went out to the other H.A.'s about the presence of unwanted witnesses. In any case, the two sides separated. That's when the two Bandidos made the mistake of making their exit down a nearby dark alley. Partway down, they got waylaid and knifed. Both survived to tell the tale, but there's a lot more stories like these out there.

So folks, the next time you see a parade of one-percent patch holders making a toy run for charity or a blood run for a hospital, just remember, it's not really safe to play with wild animals. And of course there was the Rally year that the one-percent clubs told their members to clean up their appearance from the old dirty biker image. There I was on Main Street in Sturgis, standing behind and off to one side of an old Hell's Angel who was wearing new white tennis shoes, clean blue jeans, a clean jacket with colors and sporting a nice barbered cut to his short grey hair. He was loudly addressing a passing member of some Christian group that rode motorcycles, and he was telling the guy that he had better get rid of the Christian patch on the back of his jacket. I could tell by the twitch in the old H.A.'s right eye while he was talking that even cleaned up, it was the same old mentality of turf and status.

Ride easy, until we meet again.

09 July 2015

The Challenges of Writing Historicals, Partie le Deuxième

by Brian Thornton

"Anachronism," according to Webster's:
:  an error in chronology; especially :  a chronological misplacing of persons, events, objects, or customs in regard to each other
:  a person or a thing that is chronologically out of place; especially :  one from a former age that is incongruous in the present
:  the state or condition of being chronologically out of place 

As I mentioned at the close of my last blog entry, one of the thorniest issues facing those who enjoy historicals today is the notion of the so-called "anachronistic character." While there are other challenges (a few of which I mentioned in my last post), this one might be the most difficult for historical authors to navigate, and for a whole host of reasons. Here are a few.

Author Bias

This one's a killer, in part because it can be a completely unconscious thing. You'll see it every now
Every writer of fiction ought to watch this one at least once!
and again in mainstream fiction, with the so-called "wish fulfillment" protagonist. 

Now, before I delve any further into this subject, let me state up front that I have no intention of giving specific examples from amongst the ranks of writers of historical fiction (so for many of you hoping I'll dish the dirt and name names, that's your cue to stop reading now).

However, screenwriters are fair game. So let me pick up a few examples from Hollywood that ought to cause your eyes to roll and roll and roll.

A few years back the author who writes a wish-fulfillment version of themselves as their protagonist (and they are out there, and I am not naming names!) was heavily satirized in Her Alibi, a comedy starring Tom Selleck and Paulina Porizkova. The film itself is charming if uneven, and without doubt the funniest parts come with Selleck reading (in voiceover) passages from the novels his character writes, featuring a chiseled, perfect avatar of himself called "Swift."

But this is intentional, played for laughs.

Let's move on to something not intended to be funny.

Let's move on to Mel Gibson, the anachronistic.

Take his movie Braveheart (PLEASE!).

In this movie Gibson plays legendary Scottish hero William Wallace, famous for leading Scottish resistance to the predatory aims of King Edward I (called by turns, "Longshanks" because of his great height, and the "Hammer of the Scots," because, you know, conquest.).

The real William Wallace was minor aristocracy. The one Gibson portrays in this movie was practically a democrat. And his understanding of the fetish word "FREEDOM" would do a modern tea partier proud.

He's pals with people from all walks of life, dresses like a peasant, and not at all touchy about his social standing. How much he resembled the real life Wallace we have no way of knowing, but he sounds nothing like your typical class-conscious medieval aristocrat to me. 

This is without doubt intentional. After all, the audience is more likely to identify with a protagonist who resembles them in their attitudes and prejudices. Leave it for the fictional English villains (BOO! HISSSSSSSS!) to be uppity and touchy about their ranks and privileges.

Nevermind that this sort of attitude tended to be a common trait among aristocrats at the time,
regardless of country of origin. Democrats and Republicans they were not. As a rule members of the upper classes during this period tended to think a lot about God, quite a bit about their immediate feudal lord (to whom they owed direct allegiance) and very little about their king.

There was no such thing as a "nation-state," at this time, and only the vaguest of notions as to the difrerence between one's county (or, if you prefer, "shire") and one's country.

And while it was true that the Scots eventually coalesced into a rough alliance against the English invaders, culminating in winning back Scottish independence at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314 (long after Wallace's execution in 1305), they were just as likely to ally against each other, highlander versus lowlander, during this period.

I see this sort of thing all the time in historical mysteries: protagonists who are far too modern in their attitudes and sensibilities to be believable as denizens of the time periods in which their authors place them. 

And this is a shame, because so many wonderful historical authors get these sorts of things right! Here I am happy to name names. Medievalists such as Jeri Westerson, Michael Jecks, and Candance Robb, writers who focus on the ancient world such as Steven Saylor and Ruth Downie, Victorians and Edwardians like Tasha Alexander and Kenneth Cameron, committed generalists such as the great Edward Marston, and those who focus on the early 20th century, such as Charles Todd and Rennie Airth.

If you're gonna read historicals (and you SHOULD), why not read authors such as these who accomplish that most difficult of the historical author's labors: causing the reader to feel sympathy toward someone from a different time, who thinks differently, acts differently and likely sees the world VERY differently from we modern readers. 

No mean feat, that!

Feel free to weigh in using our comments section and add the names of those historical fiction authors you think of as "getting their history right"!

And don't even get me started on what's wrong with THIS one....

08 July 2015

Scattered Castles

There's been a lot of smoke and mirrors lately about the Chinese hacking into computer networks all over the place, and of course it isn't just the Chinese. Cyberattacks have become a lot more common. Anybody remember STUXNET, the virus that targeted the Iranian nuke R&D? Nobody's copped to it, but we can imagine it was probably a joint effort by the U.S. and the Israelis.
My own website was hacked by some Russian trolls. I don't know what the object was. Bank fraud, or Meet Hot Slavs?  It wouldn't be to use any of the actual information from my site, but to compromise the server pathways. FatCow, the server, hosts a buttload of websites, and once in the back door, you could cherry-pick all the caramels, and leave the liquid centers behind.

The point of the Chinese hacks is that they're not amateur or random, by and large, but directed by the Ministry of Defense, against specific hard targets. The big one, most recently (or at least most recently discovered), is the security breach of the Office of Personnel Management. I know this doesn't sound all that glamorous or hot-ticket - OPM is basically the U.S. government's Human Resources department, the central clearinghouse - but in fact it's a big deal. Best guess to date is that 18 million files have been penetrated, and that's a lowball figure. 

Here's what makes it important. OPM is responsible for security clearances, access to classified material. Back in the day, this was the FBI's job, but it's presently estimated that 5 million people, including both government employees and contractors, hold clearances, and the FBI's current staffing is 35,000. You do the math. The numbers are overwhelming. OPM, in turn, farms this out to FIS, the Federal Investigative Services, and the private sector.

But wait, there's more. The intelligence agencies, CIA, NSA, the National Reconnaissance Office (the spy satellite guys), have their own firewalled system, know as Scattered Castles. For whatever reason, budgetary constraints, too much backlog, or pressure from the Director of National Intelligence, the spook shops were instructed to merge their data with OPM's. So was the Defense Department. A certain amount of foot-dragging ensued, not just territory, either, but concerns about OPM's safeguards. In the end, they caved. Not to oversimplify, because the databases are in theory separate, but it created an information chain.

Suppose, and it's a big suppose, that Scattered Castles is accessible through the OPM gatekeeper. Nobody in the intelligence community, or OPM, or the FBI (which is the lead investigator of the OPM break), will go on the record one way or the other. Understandably, because they'd be giving whoever hacked OPM a further opportunity to exploit, if they haven't already. This is a case of locking the barn door after the horse is gone. The worst-case scenario is that active-duty covert agents could be exposed. And bear in mind, that when you're investigated for a security clearance, you give up a lot of sensitive personal data - divorce, bankruptcy, past drug use, your sexual preference - the list goes on. Which opens you up to blackmail, or pressure on your family. This is an enormous can of worms, the consequences yet to be addressed.

OPM uses a Web-based platform called eQip to submit background information. You might in all seriousness ask whether it's any more secure than Facebook. The issue here, long-run, isn't simply the hack, but the collective reactive posture. These guys are playing defense, not offense. The way to address this is to uncover your weaknesses before the other guy does, and identify the threat, not wait for it to happen. Take the fight to them. Otherwise we're sitting ducks.  

It's amazing to me that these people left us open to this, quite honestly. They don't go to the movies, their kids don't play video games, they're totally out to lunch? It ain't science fiction. It's the real world. Cyber warfare is in the here and now.

Heads are gonna roll, no question. OPM's director is for the high jump, and her senior management is probably going to walk the plank, too. This doesn't fix it. What needs fixing is the mindset. We're looking at inertia, plain and simple, a body at rest. We need to own some momentum.