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. 


07 July 2015

Suspense the Hard Way: Writing Suspense Stories When You Already Know the Outcome

In early June, I attended the California Crime Writers Conference in Culver City in the LA area. I was on a panel called Thrills and Chills. The panel’s topic was suspense, how to create it, sustain it, etc. Many good points were made by my fellow panelists, D.P. Lyle, Craig Faustus Buck, Laurie Stevens, Diana Gould, moderator, and I hope by me too. Being on that panel got me thinking about what defines suspense? Is it a cliffhanger? A surprise ending? A reversal? A twist? All of which is part of it. Or is there something else? But I’ll leave the micro mechanics of suspense writing for another time. What I want to talk about here is a certain type of suspense/thriller that’s based on real events and/or people.
Thrills and Chills Panel CCWC  -- 6-2015 -- d3

When one’s writing a fictional story with fictional characters it’s one thing. It’s another thing completely when you’re writing a story based on a real character or characters and situations, because, if the reader is halfway literate (which is getting more and more iffy all the time), they will know the outcome of the story before they read the first word.

Some cases in point:

jackal 1aMy favorite example of this is The Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsyth. The book came out in 1971, about a year after Charles de Gaulle died. It’s a suspense-thriller about an attempt to assassinate de Gaulle in the early 1960s. I remember reading the book when it came out, turning page after page. Sneaking a read here and there because it kept me so engrossed. And I knew how it would end. At least I knew de Gaulle would not be assassinated, because I knew that in real life he wasn’t murdered. So the incredible thing about that book for me is how the author kept me, and others, interested when we knew the outcome. An amazing feat. And how he had us rooting for the Jackal to succeed, even though we knew he wouldn’t, and even if in real life we wouldn’t have wanted that.

In The Eagle Has Landed, Jack Higgins’ thriller, Nazi commandos allied with Irish revolutionaries attempt to kidnap British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during World War II. Complications ensue. But once again, we know the outcome in real life: Churchill was never kidnapped. Still, Higgins manages to keep our attention and keep us guessing—will they succeed? Or is this an alternate history with a totally different outcome from what really happened?

And my wife and I just recently watched Bugsy again, the Warren Beatty movie about the notorious gangster Bugsy Siegel. Again we knew the ending. We knew he got murdered, we knew pretty much the how and why, at least according to the movie. Yet still we were glued to the screen. (And as a side note, I grew up across the street from Bugsy’s brother, a doctor—and his family—who Bugsy put through medical school.)

A couple other movies that come to mind are an oldie but goodie, Manhunt, with Walter Pigeon, and Valkyrie-2008-BluRay-postera newer flick, Valkyrie, with Tom Cruise. Both are about plots to assassinate Hitler, and if anyone deserved it, well..., but I digress. Manhunt is a fictional story, to my knowledge, and, as it was made in 1941, World War II was still going strong. So who knew at that time, maybe a plot to kill Hitler was going to happen? But the fact is the story is fiction, and Hitler was still alive and kickin’ when the movie came out. So people watching it then knew the ending wasn’t going to work out, at least not when the movie was released. But somehow the suspense worked and you are sucked into believing it. Valkyrie, based on a true story, came out in 2008, so everybody knew, well almost everybody, well maybe nearly almost everybody, well maybe a handful of people knew, that Hitler hadn’t actually been assassinated. But again the story was like a roller coaster ride at Magic Mountain. You were still rooting for the conspirators to kill Hitler and to get away with their lives even when you knew they wouldn’t. There’s also Argo, with Ben Affleck, and we knew the outcome there too, but were still on the edge of our seats, waiting to see if that group of people would get out of Iran alive.

So how do these authors and filmmakers keep us interested and involved when we already know the outcome?
“There is a distinct difference between ‘suspense’ and ‘surprise,’ and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I'll explain what I mean.
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, "Boom!" There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’
In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”
From: Hitchcock
By Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock

The suspense comes from empathizing with the characters, wanting them to get away or even succeed, even if you know they can’t/won’t and even if they’re anti-heroes or badguys. You want them to come out of it alive. Since you know from the get-go that the mission fails, you have a sense of suspense in hoping the character won’t be injured and will get away in the end. We’re also interested in the how of it—the how-dun-it? How do they plan to achieve their aim of killing de Gaulle or Hitler or kidnapping Churchill?
Also, like the ticking bomb in Hitchcock’s example of suspense (see sidebar), the reader knows they’re going to fail so you’re watching them run towards the “ticking timebomb,” hoping they’ll escape before it’s too late. But with Day of the Jackal, also what makes the reader want the killer to succeed? Isn’t he a “bad guy”. Why don’t you want the other characters to succeed in catching him?

So how does a writer achieve this? A full answer would probably take a book, but briefly: Initially you might not be rooting for the anti-hero. But as the author introduces you to the character and his/her goal you might start identifying with them and their mission. And even though you know their mission is a bad one, like kidnapping Churchill that might have changed the outcome of the war, you still feel a sense of suspense in wanting them to either get caught or succeed. It’s not because you identify with the Nazis per se, but you identify with these individuals and their efforts to achieve their goal or you’re hoping like hell that they won’t. And just like with any other character, the author puts them in jeopardy and puts obstacles in their way so the reader wonders whether or not they’ll get out of it. Also, sometimes villains can be charming or tough or cool. We admire their skill and caginess and we want to live vicariously through them and their adventures.

Sometimes the outcome isn’t the most important part of a story. It’s the ride getting there. So, while a spectacular ending may be good in some books, for some it is more important to build great characters and suspense and not rely on a surprise ending to leave the reader with a good feeling. In a way you have to work harder on the meat of the story when readers already know the outcome, but it is one way you can really distinguish a writer who is a master of suspense—when they can still build suspense with a known outcome.

So sometimes suspense isn’t just about the surprise ending or the unexpected, sometimes it’s about knowing what’s going to happen but wanting something different to happen and how that in itself can create tension, suspense and a great ride along the way.


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06 July 2015

Why Don't You Write Like A Girl?

Mystery Author Jan Grape Gayle Lynds has done it to me again. Her new thriller, The Assassins, a July release from St. Martin's Press, opened, grabbed me by the throat and kept me up late two nights in a row. As much as I love sleep, this is a superb read and one missing a few hours of sleep over.

The story opens in 2003 with the assassins, who each had done jobs for Saddam Hussein and none had received their final payment before Saddam was ousted. That's just not the way to do business with these guys.The usual operating procedure for an assassins contract is to be given half of the agreed monies with acceptance of the contract and the remainder when the job is finished. Seems Hussein liked to stiff on a contract or he had too many problems to take care of business.  Eventually, they are contacted by one of their number who has located a General, who had been in the Special Republican Guard under Saddam. The General says he can get them into the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, before the Americans arrive and where they can steal a priceless antiquity which then may be sold for billions of dollars.They can divide the money and go happily on their way.

The assassins don't know each other personally, but they are acquainted with each other's work. None would trust the others with the theft so the plan dictated all would be in on the heist. Every thing was working fine until...okay, I won't spoil here.

Next, enter CI agent, Judd Ryder, last seen in The Book of Spies.  And Eva Blake, who was a book curator in Book of Spies who is now training to be a CIA operative. Together with Judd's old boss and mentor Tucker Andersen and various CIA pals there is a concerted effort to discover what the assassins have been up to all these years later. Judd and Eva had dealt with one assassin The Carnivore once before and nothing was exactly fun and games. But they are soon drawn into the fray even without trying.

From Washington, DC to Paris, to Baghdad to Marrakesh the assassins are pitted against each other because everyone wants a piece of the missing billion dollar fortune. With Eva and Judd trying to unravel the plots and counter-plots while caught in the crossfire of men who think nothing of killing for money, you are swept along and reading pages as quickly as you can.

Gayle Lynds is one female thriller writer who had the background and knowledge to write a spy thriller as good as anyone. Don't ever tell me women can't write thrillers. I would love to write one myself, but I honestly have no education, training or knowledge for espionage.

Gayle Lynds worked for a think tank in Washington and is a member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers. She was married to the late Dennis Lynds who wrote wonderful spy and mystery stories and books. She worked with Robert Ludlum. Gail and David Morrell co-founded International Thriller Writers. So it's no wonder she doesn't write LIKE a girl. Which is a dumb way to speak of any writer, I've read many thriller books by women.  Look it up if you don't believe me.

Two years ago, Gayle met and married John Shelton and moved from CA to Maine. John is a former prosecutor, defense attorney and judge, and writes articles for Law Journals. She says John is her first reader and helps with certain legal fact and brain storming.. Oh yeah, she and John have collaborated on three short stories. She has traveled overseas to research the great locations in her books. I learned much about cities and countries I've never been able to see. She captures all the sights, sounds and feelings of those cities.

If you've never read Gayle Lynds before, try The Assassins, The Book of Spies, The Last Spymaster, The Coil, Mesmerized, Mosaic, or Masquerade.  With Robert Ludlum: The Hades Factor, The Paris Option, The Altman Code.  If you like spy thrillers like I do, you'll definitely enjoy everything by this talented writer.

A little personal note: Tomorrow returning from a Grape Family Reunion. Yes, I know, a bunch of Grapes, descended on Memphis, TN I'll have to tell you about it next time and maybe I'll have pictures, too.

05 July 2015

The Caliphettes

What were they thinking?

We ask this question of criminals, dumb and otherwise. Eve raised this query just days ago when she delved into guards who have sex with prisoners. She was ahead of the curve: a day later, ABC News featured their own article on the subject.


Richard Ramirez
Richard Ramirez
It’s too simplistic to lump all prison workers who fall for inmates into a single category, but one type is so common, the condition has its own name, hybristophilia, popularly called Bonnie and Clyde syndrome. Think of it as women who love the most extreme bad boys. If you believe it's strictly the inmates seeking sex, then reconsider.

Hybristophilia is defined as “a paraphilia of the predatory type in which sexual arousal, facilitation, and attainment of orgasm are responsive to and contingent upon being with a partner known to have committed an outrage, cheating, lying, known infidelities or crime, such as rape, murder, or armed robbery.” The lexical roots of hybristophilia are the Greek words ὕβρις or ‘hubris’ and φιλία or philo, meaning ‘love of’.

Take No Prisoners

I once knew a prison sociologist, psychologist and teacher, an alumna of my university. ‘Dawn’ (not her real name) observed that some women are drawn to prisons as hunting grounds for a fantasy husband or at least a relationship. On the surface, these warders or support personnel tell themselves that such companionship is safe and confined if sometimes chaste, like a tiger on a leash only they can tame. Unsurprisingly, their real motives run much deeper and darker.

Jeffrey Dahmer
Jeffrey Dahmer
I’d like to trust my acquaintance never engaged in unlawful sex behind bars, but Dawn twice married prisoners, one on death row. In one marriage, she was allowed conjugal visits; in the other, she wasn’t.

This woman– bright, attractive, vibrant– earned her doctorate and a couple of masters degrees that assisted her career but not her personal life. She came to realize she wanted a normal relationship with a normal man– one not behind bars. But this lady’s view of herself was anything but the norm. Dawn felt her purpose was to be used– her word, not mine. Her need went beyond serving, beyond servile, beyond slavish; she felt she had no worth unless she was being deployed and destroyed like an object, an artifact of someone else’s existence.

Yet she was well-regarded in the prison system, her secret well hidden.

In describing her, I fear tainting the image of other women, of other prison professionals who toil in an unending, thankless, Sisyphean job. I fear giving the impression of an overly educated dilettante who became a victim of over-thinking or over-feeling. It’s difficult to gauge how much the job affected her. At core, Dawn was simply human, possibly someone who’d lost her way. Although the less educated appear to be more vulnerable, ultimately intelligence is no sure defense. To my knowledge and to her credit, prisoners were never at risk, only she. In trying to save and serve others, she sacrificed herself until little was left but an empty husk.

The Caliphettes

In regard to jihadi brides, psychologist Phyllis Chesler calls this ‘unfreedom’, the choosing of bondage over a surfeit of freedoms and decisions in their home countries. In other words, once a girl makes that final choice, she need make no more– all further decisions are made for her. Some see that as a sort of freedom in itself.

At present, the baddest of the bad are truly evil– the Caliphate of Daish or ISIS, combatants capable of any atrocity, terrorists who know no bounds. These men exert an attraction for vulnerable girls that goes beyond mere hybristophilia. Yet at root is the same empty vessel, the vulnerable unfilled desire into which a dangerous, dastardly man can pour sweet words and powerful images, making his target feel special, that she’s found happiness in a man the rest of the world misunderstands.

Jihadi Runaway Brides
Sometimes called ‘caliphettes’, these young women typically range from early teens into their twenties. If they’re already Muslim, they’re told family and friends aren’t truly Islamic. If not Muslim, they’re urged to convert, which can take surprisingly little persuasion.

Their on-line ‘lovers’ become their handlers who direct them to not stand out. They’re instructed to appear normal in every way until they’re ready to run, often to an innocent European destination, then a way station like Turkey, a jumping-off point for Syria and more treacherous places in the Middle East. Jihadis who successfully seduce girls to make the journey receive admiration from their peers.

One of the most shocking cases involves somewhat older women, three sisters in their thirties. They deceived and abandoned their husbands and parents in the UK, took their young children (nine in total), and slipped into Syria to join ISIS.

The Reality

The family that slays together…
We might imagine how these hijrah work out– naïve girls emigrating to a sharia country, in this case the newly risen Daish caliphate. You might remember a young Australian boy holding up the severed head of a slaughtered ‘enemy of ISIS’. With the male parent presumed dead, the child’s mother is now begging a cautious Australia to let her and the children return. While girls who make the journey are probably allotted to a jihadist husband as one of his wives, that's not guaranteed. Indeed, some believe girls may be shunted into rôles as battlefield sex slaves, assigned to service dozens of militants.

A valiant French journalist ‘Anna Erelle’ (again, not her real name) had been studying why European teenagers were attracted to Islamic extremism. She’d created an on-line, 19-year-old persona dubbed ‘Mélodie’ and investigated jihadist web sites. In her explorations, she attracted the attention of an ISIS fighter who said he’d take care of her. He quickly invited her to Syria to become one of his wives, or as he put it, ‘a queen’ (among four, of course). Following Erelle’s exposé, she now lives with police protection, a lonely existence since her presence might endanger family and friends. She’s a brave woman; read her story.

All is not lost. Britain is successfully practicing the Aarhus model of de-radicalization, a Danish program of salvaging young male recruits before they make that fateful journey. With luck, they might be able to extend a similar program to jihadi brides as well. In the meantime, ISIS poses a formidable lure that we might underestimate at our peril.

04 July 2015

Epics of Miniature Proportions

Like many of you, I've done different kinds of writing: fiction and nonfiction and subsets of each. A few years ago I even wrote several screenplays, one of which resulted in a movie that came very close to--within two weeks of--being filmed before suffering a sudden and painful death. I've not ventured into the writing side of the cinematic world since then, but that one experience (which was a lot of fun before it fizzled) taught me quite a bit about previously unfamiliar terms like pitches, treatments, scripts, loglines, and taglines.

To me, the most intriguing of these was taglines. Movie taglines are short phrases designed to sum up the premise or "mood" of the film and, very simply, to make you want to see it. It's advertising, like a blurb on a book cover, except that taglines are usually placed on the movie's poster or DVD box. Most are dramatic ("They call me Mister Tibbs"), some are appropriate ("A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away), some are mysterious ("An offer you can't refuse"), some are witty ("When he pours, he reigns," from Cocktail), and a few are downright funny ("Escape or die frying," from Chicken Run).

What impresses me most about taglines is that they're a great example to those of us who try to "write tight." Space is at a premium here, maybe more than in any other kind of writing. There can be no rambling, no wasted words. Unlike the writing in this paragraph.

Okay. Puzzle time. I've loosely categorized the following 100 taglines into mystery/crime, adventure (including Westerns), comedy (including kids' movies), drama (including romances), and sci-fi/fantasy/horror--and I've listed 20 in each category, followed by their movies. Your mission, Mr. Phelps, should you choose to accept it, is to guess the name of the film after reading its tagline. I hope this setup strikes a compromise between mildly interesting and head-buttingly frustrating: the answers aren't sitting right there beside the clues, but you also won't have to wait until my next column to find them. And, as in every quiz like this one, some are easy and some aren't.

Here's the list. Go ahead . . . make my day.


1. They're young, they're in love . . . and they kill people.
2. The mob is tough, but it's nothing like show business.
3. You don't assign him to murder cases. You just turn him loose.
4. Check in. Relax. Take a shower.
5. On every street in every city, there's a nobody who dreams of being a somebody.
6. The true story of a real fake.
7. Handcuffed to the girl who double-crossed him.
8. A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere.
9. Never let her out of your sight. Never let your guard down. Never fall in love.
10. What we've got here is failure to communicate.
11. It's 4 a.m.--do you know where your car is?
12. If these two can learn to stand each other . . . the bad guys don't stand a chance.
13. A blind woman plays a deadly game of survival.
14. Shoot first. Sightsee later.
15. When he said I do, he never said what he did.
16. All it takes is a little confidence.
17. Miracles do happen.
18. Meet the only guy to change his identity more often than he changes his underwear.
19. Three decades of life in the mafia.
20. To enter the mind of a killer, she must challenge the mind of a madman.

1. Bonnie and Clyde
2. Get Shorty
3. Dirty Harry
4. Psycho
5. Taxi Driver
6. Catch Me If You Can
7. The 39 Steps
8. Fargo
9. The Bodyguard
10. Cool Hand Luke
11. Repo Man
12. Lethal Weapon
13. Wait Until Dark
14. In Bruges
15. True Lies
16. The Sting
17. The Green Mile
18. Fletch
19. Goodfellas
20. The Silence of the Lambs


1. An epic of miniature proportions.
2. For Harry and Lloyd, every day is a no-brainer.
3. Never give a saga an even break.
4. The longer you wait, the harder it gets.
5. Her life was in their hands. Now her toe is in the mail.
6. Relive the best seven years of your college education.
7. He's having the worst day of his life. Over and over.
8. Movie? What movie?
9. They'll never get caught. They're on a mission from God.
10. The snobs against the slobs.
11. For anyone who has ever wished upon a star.
12. There are 3.7 trillion fish in the ocean. They're looking for one.
13. Nice planet. We'll take it!
14. A tale of murder, lust, greed, revenge, and seafood.
15. Work sucks.
16. It's scrumdiddlyumptious.
17. One man's struggle to take it easy.
18. Nice guys finish last. Meet the winners.
19. Trust me.
20. Love is in the hair.

1. A Bug's Life
2. Dumb and Dumber
3. Blazing Saddles
4. The 40-Year-Old Virgin
5. The Big Lebowski
6. Animal House
7. Groundhog Day
8. Top Secret!
9. The Blues Brothers
10. Caddyshack
11. Pinocchio
12. Finding Nemo
13. Mars Attacks!
14. A Fish Called Wanda
15. Office Space
16. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
17. Ferris Bueller's Day Off
18. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
19. Liar, Liar
20. There's Something About Mary


1. This is the weekend they didn't play golf.
2. Collide with destiny.
3. Houston, we have a problem.
4. Welcome to Japan, Mr. Bond.
5. The coast is toast.
6. Get ready for rush hour.
7. You'll believe a man can fly.
8. Hell, upside down.
9. Earth--it was fun while it lasted.
10. She gets kidnapped. He gets killed. But it all ends up okay.
11. Invisible. Silent. Stolen.
12. The first casualty of war is innocence.
13. An adventure 65 million years in the making.
14. He rules the roads.
15. The world will be watching.
16. The story of a man who was too proud to run.
17. For three men, the Civil War wasn't hell. It was practice.
18. Eight legs, two fangs, and at attitude.
19. The man with the hat is back. And this time he's bringing his dad.
20. Don't let go.

1. Deliverance
2. Titanic
3. Apollo 13
4. You Only Live Twice
5. Volcano
6. Speed
7. Superman
8. The Poseidon Adventure
9. Armageddon
10. The Princess Bride
11. The Hunt for Red October
12. Platoon
13. Jurassic Park
14. Mad Max
15. The Hunger Games
16. High Noon
17. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
18. Arachnophobia
19. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
20. Gravity


1. This is Benjamin. He's a little worried about his future.
2. She brought a small town to its feet and a huge corporation to its knees.
3. A man went looking for America, and couldn't find it anywhere.
4. You don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.
5. A love caught in the fire of revolution.
6. The happiest sound in all the world.
7. A story about love at second sight.
8. You had me at hello.
9. Stop dreaming. Start living.
10. A major league love story in a minor league town.
11. The story of two people who got married, met, and then fell in love.
12. It will lift you up where you belong.
13. Catch it.
14. Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.
15. Five reasons to stay single.
16. What a glorious feeling.
17. Can two friends sleep together and still love each other in the morning?
18. Where were you in '62?
19. If he's crazy, what does that make you?
20. His whole life was a million-to-one shot.

1. The Graduate
2. Erin Brokovich
3. Easy Rider
4. The Social Network
5. Doctor Zhivago
6. The Sound of Music
7. While You Were Sleeping
8. Jerry Maguire
9. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
10. Bull Durham
11. Green Card
12. An Officer and a Gentleman
13. Saturday Night Fever
14. Forrest Gump
15. Four Weddings and a Funeral
16. Singin' in the Rain
17. When Harry Met Sally
18. American Graffiti
19. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
20. Rocky


1. Terror has no shape
2. He is afraid. He is alone. He is three million light-years from home.
3. Vampires. No interviews.
4. Whoever wins, we lose.
5. I see dead people.
6. Trapped in time. Surrounded by evil. Low on gas.
7. Pay to get in, pray to get out.
8. Today the pond. Tomorrow the world.
9. Man has met his match. Now it's his problem.
10. Before Sam was murdered, he told Molly he'd love and protect her forever.
11. He's the only kid ever to get in trouble before he was born.
12. They're here.
13. Same make. Same model. New mission.
14. The last man on Earth is not alone.
15. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
16. Man is the warmest place to hide.
17. Size does matter.
18. Don't get him wet, keep him out of bright light, and never feed him after midnight.
19. The night HE came home.
20. Who ya gonna call?

1. The Blob
2. E.T.--The Extraterrestrial
3. From Dusk Till Dawn
4. Alien vs. Predator
5. The Sixth Sense
6. Army of Darkness
7. The Funhouse
8. Frogs
9. Blade Runner
10. Ghost
11. Back to the Future
12. Poltergeist
13. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
14. I Am Legend
15. The Shining
16. The Thing
17. Godzilla
18. Gremlins
19. Halloween
20. Ghostbusters

You might've noticed that I didn't list many movies more than fifty years old or so. There's a reason for that. Unfortunately, most taglines for older films either didn't seem to tell you much, or were just plain silly.
- The greatest screen entertainment of all time. -- Gone With the Wind
- A mighty motion picture of action and adventure. -- Lawrence of Arabia
- Everybody's talking about it! It's terrific! -- Citizen Kane
- The greatest adventure a man ever lived . . . with a woman. -- The African Queen
- Teenage terror torn from today's headlines. -- Rebel Without a Cause
- Brawling their way to greatness on the screen. -- From Here to Eternity
- A story as EXPLOSIVE as his BLAZING automatic! -- The Maltese Falcon

Fortunately, that kind of nonsense improved a little, around the mid-sixties. My all-time favorite taglines are:
- Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free. -- The Shawshank Redemption
- Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water . . . -- Jaws 2
- In space, no one can hear you scream. -- Alien
That's good writing, even it it is in miniature.

For those of you who share my cinemania, I hope all this brought back some fond memories. If it didn't, though, I won't apologize.

A love of movies means never having to say you're sorry…

03 July 2015

Not Reading Can Be A Pain

By Dixon Hill

Toward the end of May, I seem to recall receiving a letter with the return address of the National Safety Council on it, complete with the circular seal you see here.

As I recall things: I thought it was another one of those "Watch your kids around water!" notices that get sent out, like confetti at a ticker-tape parade, around Phoenix during the summer.

I seem to further recall tearing the envelope in two, unopened, and tossing it in the garbage can. After all, I taught all three of my kids not only how to swim, but also "safe swim defense" techniques.  And, I figure I did a good job, having earned Swimming and Life Saving Merit Badges back in my youth, along with the BSA Mile Swim Award, and having served as a scout-swimmer in Special Forces during my army days.  I was also a Swimming Merit Badge councilor for the Boy Scouts for several years after I left the army.

So, hey, who needs to read a silly letter from the National Safety Council?  Right?

About two weeks ago, however, I got a tremendous surprise while driving to work.

A police car was pacing me in the left lane, its hood just a little ahead of mine.  (This isn't what surprise me; I've driven alongside police cars before.)  And, when the left lane gave out, I slowed so he could pull into the right lane ahead of me.  He slowed further, so I did too -- just before thinking about what my friend on the Scottsdale PD had told me about not waving to police officers, or acting too friendly, because this is the sort of behavior bad guys think will put cops off their scent.  Hence, in an officer's view, my behavior might be considered suspicious.

Consequently, when the squad car went through the next intersection on a yellow light, but I stopped (I was behind him by that time), I wasn't surprised to watch it turn into a parking lot up ahead, then nose back out toward the street as if waiting for me.  Sure enough, when I passed, he pulled out and followed me.

No problem.  I'm one of the good guys.  Nothing to worry about; I wasn't even speeding.

At the next light he hit his overhead lights and pulled me over.  I was a little surprised, but not terribly so: I know there are enough traffic regulations on the books that an officer can pull over just about anyone, at anytime, and with perfectly legitimate legal cause -- This is actually a useful law enforcement tool, and I don't resent it in the least.  I pulled over, turned down the radio, got my license, registration and proof of insurance out, and waited for him to walk up to my window.

After examining my documentation, the officer asked, "Mr. Hill, do you know why I pulled you over?"

I shook my head.  "No.  Actually I don't.  I don't think I was speeding.  Do I have a taillight out, or something?"

"Actually, sir, I pulled you over because, when I ran your plates, it came back that you have a suspended license."

I was shocked!  ME?  A suspended license?

"Really?  Why is my license suspended?  Are you sure you got the right guy?" I asked.  I didn't have to ask if he was kidding; his demeanor made it clear that he wasn't.

He nodded.  "Wait here, please."  He walked back to his car with my papers.

I sat there, puzzled, until he came back and asked me to step out of the car.  Why does he want me out of the car? I wondered.  Is he going to arrest me for some reason?  This was really getting bizarre.

Once on the sidewalk with the officer, I saw him clip my license to the front of his shirt.  I knew then, I was in trouble.  For the first time, I began to suspect this wasn't just a case of someone having made a mistake that we could iron out in the next ten or twenty minutes.  I asked, "Can you tell me why my license is suspended?  I mean, I had no idea."

He shook his head, and now it was his turn to look a bit surprised.  "No.  I can't.  It just says your license is suspended.  For some reason, it doesn't say why."

I surmised that he was talking about his on-board computer.  I realized he wasn't sure why it didn't tell him the reason for my license suspension, and that this bothered him.  I also began to notice how young he was, and that he didn't have any stripes on his uniform.

"Do you have any idea?" he asked.  "Did you get any traffic tickets lately?"

"No."  I shook my head.  "I got a ticket about six months ago.  First one in about ten years."  I laughed.  "I paid the fine and all, so I don't see how that could be the problem."

He looked troubled.  "Well, if you have anything in the car that you need, please get it out.  We're going to have to do an inventory, and I don't want have to go through all your things.  It might embarrass you.  You seem like a nice guy."

"You're going to inventory my car?"

He nodded, looking a bit sheepish.  "I'm afraid we have to.  I have to impound your vehicle for thirty days, because you're driving on a suspended license.  You seem like a nice guy, and you're really being good about this, but I don't have a choice."

My eyebrows rose through my hairline.  "You're impounding my car?  For thirty days?  Really?"

I couldn't help laughing.  I'd once been on an A-team in the field, when we got into a tight position, and then two of the guys started punching each other out due to frayed nerves.  I started laughing then, too -- so hard that the warring parties quit fighting and came over to demand what I was laughing at.  But, our captain, the Team Leader, beat them to the punch, asking what was so funny.  I told him, "Nothing's funny, Skipper.  It'll take miracle to get us out of this thing, and you either have to laugh about it, or you gotta cry.  And I sure as hell ain't gonna cry about it!"

I was laughing for the same reason this time, too.

"I'm really sorry to do this to you," the young officer reiterated.  "You seem like a really nice guy."

"It's okay, officer.  I've got a friend on the Scottsdale PD, and another who used to be on the Phoenix department.  I know you're just doing your job.  No hard feelings, believe me.  I'm just embarrassed, that's all."

He was kind enough to get a trash bag from his car, so I could put all the items from my car into it.  I appreciated this, as I had recently-cleaned work shirts lying on the back seat at the time.

The young officer suggested I go to the Department of Motor Vehicles to find out why my license had been suspended.  When my son dropped me off there, I found out that I had to take a Defensive Driving class because of  my earlier ticket.  "But, I paid the fine," I said.  "I thought I had to either pay the fine, or take the class."

The woman behind the counter said, "New program.  Now ya' gotta do both."


"Yep.  We mailed you a letter at the end of May.  It told you that you had to take the class, or we'd suspend your license."

"I never got any letter."

"Still gotta take the class, if you want your license reinstated."

"Okay."  So, I paid three bucks for her to print out the letter they'd sent me in May.

When I went to the Defensive Driving course three days later, I learned that there really is a new program in Arizona, requiring almost anyone who gets a ticket to go to a defensive driving class -- even if they pay the fine.  This program is still pretty new; it was evidently enacted after I got my ticket, but I somehow fall into the category of person who has to take such a class.

And, there is a bit of reasoning behind the program.  Seems that, of the five most dangerous cities for driving (i.e. greatest number of traffic fatalities per annum) in the United States, Phoenix ranks No. 1, Mesa ranks No. 3, and Tucson ranks No. 5.  This program was enacted to help stem the tide of death on city streets in Arizona.  Now, the state alerts the MVD about offenders who pay the fine, but don't take a course.  The MVD then sends out a letter, saying that the offender must take a course as well, or risk suspension of his/her license.

And the kicker is:  The DMV sends these letters out, not in envelopes with official seals from the state, but (You guessed it!) in envelopes with the return address and circled green cross of the National Safety Council, because this is considered a safety measure.

Reporting from the rather humorous front lines of the legal system: this is Dixon Hill.

See you in two weeks!