12 May 2015

Mariel– The Story, Part II


by David Dean

As promised in my last piece, here's the conclusion of "Mariel" (Originally published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine's December 2012 issue):

Mariel


That night, as Mariel lay awake in her bed, she contemplated her efforts to date at exposing Ripper’s murderer and was bitterly disappointed with the results. Though occasionally blessed with flashes of innovative vigor, her intellectual resources had been sorely taxed by the whole affair. She stared blankly out of her curtain-less window and thought of almost nothing.

The backyard was bathed in the cold illumination of a full moon that created black and white etchings of once-familiar objects. Ripper’s empty chain-link pen was captured near-center frame of her nocturnal reverie, its gate standing forlornly open, forever awaiting his impossible return. A spill of shadow ran like blood from the dog house and onto the brilliant concrete pad it rested upon.

Mariel felt her eye lids grow heavy, while above her the ponderous footsteps of her mother measured the distance from her bathroom to her bed. This was followed by a groaning of bedsprings and a loud yawn; then silence descended over the household. Outside, something glided soundlessly from out of a tree, only to vanish within the greater shadows of the forest. Mariel’s eyes began to close.

As she was drifting off, she saw something moving stealthily along the darkened tree line that formed the natural boundary of her yard. As she was often a nocturnal traveler herself, this did not, at first, alarm her. Mariel had spent many a night prowling Crumpler Lane and its environs, and had on more than one occasion allowed herself into the homes of their neighbors using emergency keys that they had thought were cleverly hidden within flower pots and beneath paving stones. In fact, her midnight forays and cool boldness had become something of a neighborhood legend.

This had been several years before however, shortly after the loud divorce of her parents and the twaining of her family into a Mother-Daughter/Father-Sons arrangement. Mariel had hoped that she would discover that her brothers were simply sleeping over at some neighbors’ house but never seemed able to catch them at it. When the state’s child services were brought in, her mother took drastic action and placed a latch on Mariel’s bedroom door.

She watched dreamily as the figure detached itself from the shadows and emerged, glowing, into the moonlight. The man looked familiar, but the bright, ghostly light only served to erase his features. He glided across the littered lawn of her back yard in a direct line with her bedroom window and a small, shrill alarm began to sound in Mariel’s head. She struggled to come fully awake and sit up.

The man disappeared from view as he reached the wall of her house and for the first time sound entered into the hushed scene. Mariel heard the scrape of something metal and remembered the rusty ladder that lay beneath her window. She had not needed that ladder since her mother ceased locking her in at night and it had lain, discarded and forgotten, until now, in the rank grasses of her backyard. It was this sound that set her in motion.

Sitting up, fully awake now, she slid noiselessly from her bed and began stuffing her pillows beneath her blankets. Once done, she dropped to her hands and knees and began to crawl to the closed bedroom door. It had been some time since her mom had locked her in and she hoped that she had not done so this night.

Behind her a head rose cautiously within the frame of the window. Mariel froze as soon as she saw its elongated shadow begin to crawl up the opposite wall, then, ever so slowly, lowered herself into the welter of dirty clothes and discarded dolls and toys that formed the tangled landscape of her room. She sank from sight within the camouflage of her own environment.

Peering out from beneath a damp towel that she draped over her head, Mariel saw the silhouette swivel slightly; then focus on the lumpy bed revealed in the moonlight. For several moments the scene remained frozen in this attitude. Then the window began to squeak like the tiniest of mice.

Mariel knew that she could call out to her mother and perhaps, if she had not had too much to drink, awaken her to the peril she faced. But this was not part of Mariel’s rapidly forming plan.

Instead, she snaked an arm upwards for the doorknob. With any luck she could ease herself out into the hallway as the intruder made his way into her room, then…use the latch that she, herself, had been confined with so many times before. As for the window, she had simply to race around to the back of the house, tip the ladder over and he was caught like a rat! Then, and only then, she would yell bloody murder! Wouldn’t everyone be surprised at what she had accomplished? Mariel began to grin beneath her covering.

She found the doorknob and began to turn it. From behind her came the hiss of clothing sliding over the window sill followed by a soft thump. Things were happening a little faster than she had planned and so she tried to hurry a bit more. She could hear her own breathing as she slithered into the opening she was making.

Then Sailor began to hiss and yowl, only just now deciding that this stranger in his room was not welcomed. Mariel looked back over her shoulder, she had completely forgotten Sailor.

The cat had been a gift to her mother from a former boyfriend who had worked on a clamming boat, hence the name, ‘Sailor’. Naturally, he took up with the one member of the household that cared nothing for him—however, Mariel was not above putting him to good use.

Without a word, she sprang to her feet and snatched the fat, orange cat from the nest he had created within her bed coverings. With a screech of protest he was suddenly airborne in the direction of Mariel’s would-be assailant, his claws fully extended in a futile attempt at air-braking.

When the two met, it was the nocturnal visitor’s turn to vocalize, as he screamed like a woman in labor, whether from pain or terror, Mariel could not know. From above there was a great concussion as her mother’s considerable bulk was set suddenly in motion.

Mariel, consigning Sailor to whatever fate awaited him, flew for the door once more, slamming it behind her and latching it all in one movement. A tight smile appeared on her chubby face as she raced for the back door, even as her name was loudly heralded with her mother’s rumbling approach.

Tripping over the uneven doorsill, she spilled clumsily into the silvered yard just in time to see the intruder fling himself from the ladder and begin his headlong flight. She had not been fast enough! Her disappointment rose like bile in her mouth. But even as her mother blocked the moon from view and began to scrabble at Mariel with sweaty, fleshy hands, she noted with some vindication that her enemy had fled in the direction of the cul-de-sac.



The Sheriff’s K-9 unit tracked the burglar unerringly from Mariel’s window to Mister Salter’s back yard, the scent leading them directly into Bruiser’s territory. There, the sleepy, overfed dog, alarmed by the night’s doings, and mysteriously free of confinement, managed to engage the interlopers in a snarling, slobbering, snapping exchange of canine unpleasantness. In the end, he was re-incarcerated, but not before thoroughly spoiling the search. Mariel knew all of this from eavesdropping as the officers briefed her mother in the living room.

When the policemen asked Mariel if she had gotten a good look at the man that had made his way into her room, she studied the dirty knees of her pajamas for several moments as if thinking very carefully, then mumbled, “I think it was Mister Salter.” Though she had never really gotten a good look at her assailant, Salter appealed to both her logic and sense of justice based on both the dogs’ tracking and the fact that she liked him the least of anyone in the neighborhood. The officers glanced meaningfully at one another after her pronouncement, then departed to invite Mariel’s neighbor to accompany them to the station for further questioning.

After they had left, Mariel had a very difficult time falling to sleep—it had been a very exciting evening. When, at last, she did drift off, it was with the pleasant sense of a job-well-done, mission accomplished.



As the following day was Sunday and Mariel’s night had been a long one, her mother allowed her to sleep in well past noon. When she did awake it was with a ravenous appetite and an equally fierce curiosity about the results of her efforts on the neighborhood-at-large. It seemed to her that an act of such magnitude would result in seismic changes on Crumpler Lane. So after two heaping bowls of frosted cereal and a glass of chocolate milk, she mounted up and set off to reconnoiter her domain.

The day was bright and fine, but as it was mid-autumn, the sun remained low in the sky and a distinct chill could be felt through her inadequate windbreaker. Racing down the lane, she swerved to drive through all leaf piles that awaited pick-up, scattering the labor of her adult neighbors with her willful passage. When she arrived at the Salter household she did it twice, and then rolled to a halt one house away to watch for any outrage.

None was forthcoming. The house remained closed and silent. There were no cars in the driveway either, and Mariel imagined Mister Salter’s wife and teenage daughters down at the police station weeping and pleading for his freedom. She felt confident that the cops would pay them no heed and might even arrest them as well because they were related to him. She smiled at this thought, though she had hoped to be the unmoving object of their pleas herself.

Mariel heard a stealthy footfall behind her and, without sparing a look, began to pedal quickly away.

“Mariel,” A voice called to her softly…urgently.

After placing a safe distance betwixt herself and the voice, she spun around to see who had called out to her. It was Mister Forster.

He stood uncertainly by his mailbox, which was entwined in ivy. He smiled weakly at her and said, “I was trying not to startle you…sorry.”

Through the near-skeletal trees behind him the cold disk of the sun peeked through. Mariel waited.

He nodded his neat head at the Salter home. “What a ruckus last night, huh…police and everything…goodness, I didn’t know what was going on around here.”

Forster stopped awkwardly. Mariel watched his face and noticed that he had whiskers today.

“Scared the hens nearly to death, I can tell you that! They don’t like a lot of commotion. Of course, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.” He glanced slyly at the Salter residence, then asked, “What did happen last night? I figured if anyone knows what went on it would be you. You’re our neighborhood policeman…er, woman, that is.”

Mariel felt her chest expand with pride. “Come on,” he waved her forward, “we can feed the hens while you tell me all about it.”

Forster turned and began to walk back up his drive without a backward glance and Mariel followed. When they reached the back yard he took up a pan of feed and handed it to her and she began to scatter it for the hens. Within moments they were busily scratching away at the soil around her feet.

“So what did happen, Mariel?” Forster asked after a period of contented quiet.

Mariel felt herself beginning to smile and tried to suppress it. “Mister Salter came in my room,” she managed by way of explanation, while gauging her chances of seizing one of the glossy black hens.

“He did?” Forster gasped. “Why on earth would he do that?”

Mariel’s small lips twisted uncomfortably. “Don’t know,” she said at last.

“Hmmm,” Forster hummed, then added, “Maybe he was trying to steal something…what do you think?”

Mariel shrugged and said nothing. The pale sun, sinking ever lower, cast lengthening shadows across the wooded back yard.

Forster leaned toward Mariel and asked in a confidential tone, “You haven’t told anybody about that necklace, have you?”

Mariel’s small, pale eyes flashed up and back down again, then she shook her head causing her curls to bounce in agreement.

“Good,” Forster assured her. “That’s very good…not even your mom, though?”

Again she shook her head.

“How about some hot cocoa, what do you say? It’s getting chilly out here and the hens will be alright for a while.” Again he turned and walked away from Mariel without looking back. At the top of the steps he held the door open for her and patted her on the shoulder reassuringly as she passed within. Mariel felt his fingers run over the necklace beneath her pullover as the slightest pressure—a fly walking across her neck.

He crossed to the stove where a kettle was already pumping steam into the fussy, over-heated room. “Lot’s of sugar?” he inquired brightly.

Mariel nodded enthusiastically even as small beads of sweat formed along her hairline—the heat was a palpable force. There was also a peculiar, not altogether pleasant, smell in the house.

“Sit…sit,” he waved at the round table that was placed within the arch of the bow window. Between the gingham curtains Mariel could see the back yard with its chicken coop and the darkening woods beyond. Ripper flashed through her memory and then was gone.

“It’s for the birds,” Forster called to her as he spooned cocoa mix into a mug and poured the hot water. “They can’t take the cold, you know…the songbirds. Most of them are from South America.” He swept an arm toward the ceiling of the room and Mariel saw them for the first time: dozens of cages mounted at various levels within the kitchen and continuing on into the rest of the house. Forster whipped off the parka he had been wearing and slung it onto a nearby chair. He wore a tee-shirt beneath as mute testament to the hot-house atmosphere of his home.

“They’re always quiet when a stranger comes in…but they come around when they get used to you.”

As if on cue, first one, then another, began to sing and the house soon filled with their tropical chorus. Mariel thought she had never heard anything so beautiful and rose as if on strings. She gripped the cage nearest her and peered in at the tiny, vibrant creature. The colors of its plumage, brilliant blues and reds, shimmered with the rise and fall of its delicate breast. Forster was still busy making the hot chocolate, taking far more time at it than her mother ever had, and Mariel lifted the little latch to its cage to reach in and…

“Don’t!” Forster screamed, spilling some of the cocoa from the mug he had in his hand. “Don’t touch them, Mariel!” The birds, all of them, went instantly silent.

Mariel started and drew her hand back but not out. It was not her nature to surrender the initiative without good cause. The tiny bird regarded her sticky, chubby fingers without alarm.

“They’re very delicate,” he added, while looking for an uncluttered surface to set the mug down on, then added under his breath, “Not that you would know anything about that, you little Neanderthal.”

Mariel didn’t know anything about that, nor did she know the meaning of the strange word he had used, but she did know when she was disapproved of, this was something of which she was keenly aware. But of far more importance, she recognized Sailor’s handiwork from the night before.

Forster caught her gaze and looked down at the long, festering scratches that ran down his arms, then back up at Mariel. “I despise cats,” he hissed very much like one. His pupils shrank to tiny dots as his neck tendons distended. “I just wanted the necklace, Mariel…that’s all. I have my reasons, as I’m sure you know.”

Mariel said nothing and the room filled with a thick, clotting silence.

Forster nodded, as his face rearranged itself into something less savage. “If you give it to me now, we can still be friends,” he promised quietly, “you can still have your cocoa. It’s just that the necklace is important, it might be recognized if you wear it around. It’s not really worth anything otherwise…it’s cheap, paste jewelry…something a whore would wear—something a whore did wear.” He set the mug carefully down and took a sudden step across the slight distance that separated man and child.

“You killed Ripper,” Mariel pronounced clearly, seizing the songbird with surprising rapidity.

Forster froze in mid-step. “Don’t,” he gasped, even as he watched the bird’s tiny, futile struggles within Mariel’s pudgy grip. “Please…don’t.”

Mariel withdrew her fist with the bird firmly in her control. Backing up to the door, her sweaty free hand groped for the handle while Forster watched her every movement, his eyes sliding back and forth as the heat-swollen door resisted her efforts.

As she turned slightly to gain more leverage, he eased a step closer, taking advantage of Mariel’s distraction, his long fingers reaching out for her nest of curls.

Mariel’s fist shot up, the tiny head of her captive swiveling this and way and that in its panic, it’s black, shiny eyes blinking and blinking.

“Okay,” Forster halted once more, his hands coming up palms outward, “okay, please…please, don’t hurt him, Mariel…please.”

At last, she succeeded in throwing open the door to the outside world letting a cold wind rush through the stifling kitchen.

“Maybe,” she answered enigmatically backing out onto the porch, her eyes never leaving his as she pulled the door slowly closed behind her. The latch snapped into place like a hammer blow in the now-silent room. From the porch Forster heard a muffled giggle and the sound of clumsy footsteps.

He took a long step, then had to grasp the edge of the table to keep from falling, his legs grown too weak to support him. He slumped down onto the nearest chair. After several moments there came the ratcheting of a bike bell. “Oh God,” he moaned into his hands, “Oh God, what am I going to do?”

Finally, as his breathing quieted, he looked up and around him as if just awakening. Lifting the mug he had prepared for Mariel, he drank its contents down in one scalding gulp, then walked from room to room turning on every light. All around him the air began to fill with the song of a new and sudden day.

Returning to the kitchen he resumed his seat at the cluttered table, and after a while, sagged tiredly forward, laying his head to rest on the place mat. As his eyelids began to flutter his breathing grew very rapid and he began to pant like a dog, perhaps like Mariel’s dog, he thought. Then, suddenly, it slowed once more to become reedy and shallow. Trying to lift a hand to reach out for the empty bird cage, he smiled and muttered, “The speech of angels…the language of God.”
From other rooms his choir sang on.



Though Mariel had been successful in keeping the necklace a secret, the song bird proved another matter altogether. Between its near continuous song celebrating the unfettered freedom of Mariel’s bedroom, and Sailor’s constant yowling and scratching at her closed door, the secret was soon out. The following morning Mariel’s mother discovered the colorful little creature flitting happily about Mariel’s room, leaving its droppings wherever they happened to land. Neither she nor Sailor was amused.

Remaining mute in the face of interrogation as she always did served no purpose in the end, for her mother had heard from other mothers on the street about Mr. Forster’s fussy relationship with birds. An unsettling suspicion began to dawn on her.

Snagging the contested bird within the worn fish net from an old forgotten aquarium, she confined it within a perforated bait can left behind by her ex and set off down the street. Mariel followed on her purple bike at a distance, silent, resentful, and slightly fearful, but curious for all that.

When Forster failed to answer her repeated knocks, Mariel’s mom marched her formidable bulk to the rear of the house where she found his hens scattered about the yard and far into the woods. Upon seeing her they stormed forth with hungry shrieks. Ignoring them she mounted the rear steps, grunting with each, to peer in through the glass of the back door. Forster sat slumped at his table and would not respond to her repeated poundings. An empty mug with a teddy bear painted on it rested next to an outstretched hand. As keen as her daughter, the long scratches that festooned his bare arms did not go unnoticed.

Turning with a gasp, she swept back down the steps, through the now-fleeing hens, and back up the street to her home, carrying Mariel in her wake by force of will and dire threats. The police responded within minutes of her call.



Mister Salter was released from custody with a muted apology from the police, even as Forster was bundled away for autopsy. It appeared Mariel had misidentified her assailant in the darkness, a common enough mistake even for an adult. For his part, Salter threatened lawsuits all round.

As to Forster’s motive for breaking into Mariel’s bedroom, the general consensus was the obvious one. But as he was dead, the matter was laid to rest with his body.

Mariel, as a reward for her brave defense of herself, was allowed to keep the bird, and though it was not a dog, she was very satisfied with the exchange. As for the necklace, she continued to keep it a secret from her mother and wore it only when out of the house. Ripper, forgotten in all the excitement, remained in his shared and secret grave, an arrangement that also suited Mariel, as she had no wish for her possession of the necklace to be challenged in any way.

The End

11 May 2015

Shameless Self Promotion


Just a quick note on this Mother's Day to clue everyone in on what a fantastic and versatile group of writers who keep this site going each day. I knew there are award nominees and winners here and I thought it might be high time we tooted our own horns. So in no particular order, check out these your daily SleuthSayers.

Eve Fisher:
Her short story, "A Time to Mourn" was shortlisted for Otto Penzler's 2011 Best American Short Stories.

John Floyd:
Won a 2007 Derringer Award for short Story"Four for Dinner."
Nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize "Creativity" 1999 for Short Story
"The Messenger 2001 for Short Story and for a poem "Literary vs Genre" 2005
Shortlisted three times for Otto Penzler's Best American Mystery Stories, "The Proposal," (2000), "The Powder Room," (2010), "Turnabout" (2012), and "Molly's Plan" was published in 2015 Best American Short Stories.
Nominated for an EDGAR AWARD for the short story "200 Feet" 2015.

Janice Trecker:
Nominated for an EDGAR AWARD for Best First Novel years ago, a Lambda award for Best Gay Mystery Novel for one of the Bacon Books a year ago and a nomination for Best Local Mystery book on the History of Hampton, CT, now her home town.

Dale Andrews:
His first Ellery Queen Pastiche, "The Book Case," won second place in the EQMM 2007 Reader's Choice and was also nominated for the Barry Award for Best Short Story that year.

Leigh Lundin:
Won the Ellery Queen 2007 Reader's Choice award for his story “Swamped”.

Rob Lopresti:
Fnalist for the Derringer three times, winning twice. Won the Black Orchid Novella Award. I was nominated for the Anthony Award.

Paul D. Marks:
Won the SHAMUS AWARD for White Heat. Nominated this year for an ANTHONY AWARD for Best Short Story for "Howling at the Moon."

David Dean:
His short stories have appeared regularly in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, as well as a number of Anthologies since 1990. His stories have been nominated for SHAMUS, Barry, and Derringer Awards and "Ibraham's Eyes" was the Reader's Choice Award for 2007. His story "Tomorrow's Dead" was a finalist for the EDGAR AWARD for Best Short Story of 2011.

David Edgerley Gates:
Nominated for the SHAMUS, the EDGAR (twice) and the International Thriller Writers Award.

Melissa Yuan-Innes:
Derringer Award Finalist 2015 for "Because" Best Mystery Short Fiction in the English Language, Roswell Award for Short Fiction Finalist 2015 for "Cardiopulmonary Arrest."
Won the Aurora Award 2011 Best English related Work and her story " Dancers With Red Shoes" is featured in Dragons and Stars edited by Derwin Mak and Edwin Choi. Her story "Indian Time was named one of the best short mysteries of 2010 by criminalbrief.com
Year's Best Science Fiction, Honorable Mentions for "Iron Mask," "Growing up Sam," and "Waiting for Jenny Rex."
CBS Radio Noon Romance Writing Contest- Runner-up. Melissa has also won Creative Writing contests and Best First Chapter of a Novel in 2008 and second place for Writers of the Future and won McMaster University "Unearthly Love Affair" writing contest.

Melodie Campbell:
Winner of nine awards: 2014 ARTHUR ELLIS award for (novella) The Goddaughter's Revenge. which also won the 2014 Derringer.
Finalist for 2014 ARTHUR ELLIS award for "Hook, Line and Sinker" and this story also won the Northwest Journal short story.
Finalist for 2013 ARTHUR ELLIS award for "Life Without George." which took second prize in Arts Hamilton national short fiction.
Finalist 2012 ARTHUR ELLIS award for "The Perfect Mark" which also won the Derringer award.
Winner 2011 Holiday Short Story Contest for "Blue Satin and Love."
Finalist for 2008 Arts Hamilton award for national short fiction for "Santa Baby."
Third Prize 2006 Bony Pete Short Story contest "School for Burgulars"
Winner 1991 Murder and Mayhem and the Macabre, "City of Mississauga, 2 categories
Third Prize 1989 Canadian Living Magazine, Romance Story "Jive Talk."
Finalist for the Arthur Ellis Award for best short story for 2015 which will be announced on May 28th.

Robert 'RT' Lawton:
Nominated for the Derringer Award for "The Right Track" in 2010.
Nominated for the Derringer Award for "The Little Nogai Boy" in 2011.

Jan Grape:
Nominated along with co-editor, Dr. Dean James, for an Edgar and an Agatha Award for Deadly Women for Best Biographical/Critical Non-Fiction. 1998.
Won McCavity award along with co-editor Dr. Dean James for Deadly Women for Best Non-fiction.
Won Anthony Award for Best Short Story, 1998 for "A Front-Row Seat" in Vengeance is Hers anthology.
Nominated for Anthony for Best First Novel, 2001 for Austin City Blue.
Jan will receive the Sage Award from the Barbara Burnet Smith Aspiring Writers Foundation on May 17. This award is for mentoring aspiring writers.
We all have to admit, our SleuthSayers authors are a multi-talented group.

On this Mother's Day, one little personal note, my mother, PeeWee Pierce and my bonus mom, Ann T. Barrow, both taught me to be a strong, independent, caring woman and I was blessed to have them in my life and I still miss them. Both were able to read some of my published work and I'm glad they were.

Happy Mother's Day, everyone.

10 May 2015

Aged P


When our friend, Stephen Jarvis, and I were talking Dickens, I mentioned I called my mother “Aged P.”
Mom and I used to debate unresolvable silly subjects such as how to sort laundry and the taste of that god-awful ‘dessert topping’ called Cool Whip that made me question whether my mother had stock in the company. Another topic was the term ‘senior citizen’, which I dislike with a passion.

In exasperation, she once asked if I preferred ‘silver fox’. Since she sometimes called herself ‘your decrepit mother’, it wasn’t much of a choice, although Most Venerable One sounded fine to me. I fell back on Great Expectations where John Wemmick calls his father ‘Aged P,’ short for ‘Aged Parent’. That tickled her, either that or she was chortling about my terrible imitation Wemmick accent. It was fun and I have fond memories of those debates.

She enjoyed that cognomen. It sounds odd to most, but I’m convinced my mother always wanted to be old. She was one of the last generations that revered and venerated the old, the aged, the elderly. She long looked forward to becoming the family matriarch with a gaggle of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, which unfortunately never came to pass. But Aged P suited her quite well.

I’m not the only one who likes Dickens’ Aged P. So does Martin Chilton, Culture Editor of The London Telegraph, writing about his favourite Dickens character. You'll enjoy his take.

One last point: I haven’t mentioned how much I miss my Aged P. I'm afraid I do.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Aged P
Aged P 1861 by John McLenan
courtesy Dr Philip V Allingham
The Victorian Web

09 May 2015

How to Write Mob Comedies in your own Home Town, and not get Taken Out by the Family


Land of Ice and Snow, Smoggy Steeltown, and the Italian Mob
Or…
How to Write Mob Comedies in your own Home Town, and not get Taken Out by the Family

It all closed in on me at the launch of THE GODDAUGHTER mob caper in Hamilton. Eighty-five people stood waiting.

The local television station had cameras in my face.  So far, it had been an easy interview focused on my awards and comedy career. The fellow was charming.  I liked him a lot.  Then he dropped the bomb.

“So…have you ever met a member of the mob?”

I didn’t like him so much anymore.

Yikes!  Hesitation.   A lot of feet shuffling.

“Yes.” I said, very precisely. So precisely, that everyone in the room laughed nervously. “In fact, I had to wait until certain members of my family died before getting this book published. ‘Nuf said.”

The ‘nuf said’ was the closure.  He got it.  Being a smart lad, he even let it drop.

Because frankly, I was speaking the truth.  I did wait until certain people died.  Some of them were in Sicily, but more were in Canada.  Some even died from natural causes.  (“He died cleaning his rifle” was an unfortunate family expression, meaning something entirely different, if you get my drift.)

This made me think about how close you want to get in a book to real life.

As writers, we research a hell of a lot.  Of course, I did research for The Goddaughter series.  Some of the study was pretty close to home, as I riffed on memories from my childhood.

My first memory is of a family reunion at a remote farmhouse in Southern Ontario. I was not quite three, and tears were streaming down my face.  Big scary uncles picked me up. They tried to console me by speaking softly. But I couldn’t understand them because they were speaking in Italian, or more specifically, Sicilian.

Those were the days of Brio and cannoli after mass on Sunday mornings.   And gossip about other relatives, one of whom was a famous boxer.  My aunt’s friend, the singer (one of a trio of sisters) who could not escape the clutches of a mob underboss in the States; he wouldn’t let her go.  I remember the aunts clamming up about this, when I ventured into the room looking for Mom. 

I was a darling of the family, with dark curly hair and big evergreen eyes. Later, when I grew up curvy and was tall enough to model, they doted on me. So my memories of growing up in such a family are decidedly warped.

They were warm and loving.  Very witty.  Loads of fun.  And massively protective.

In the screwball comedy THE GODDAUGHTER REVENGE, you will find a mob family that is funny and rather delightful.  Gina loves them, but hates the business.  She is always trying to put it behind her, and somehow gets sucked back in to bail them out.  I wanted to show that ambivalence.  You are supposed to love your family and support them.  But what if your family is this one?

How close is too close to home? I do cut pretty close in describing Hamilton.  The streets are real. The names of the neighbourhoods are real. I even describe the location of the restaurant where the mob (in my books) hangs out. I changed the name, of course, because the last thing I want is readers thinking this hot resto is really a mob hangout.  And besides, it’s fun when fans email me to say, “When they all meet at La Paloma, did you really mean XXX?” Readers feel they’ve been part of an in-joke.

THE GODDAUGHTER series is meant to be laugh-out-loud funny.  But there is an adage that states: Comedy is tragedy barely averted.

No kidding.  I’ve been writing comedy all my adult life.




The Toronto Sun called her Canada's "Queen of Comedy."  Library Journal compared her to Janet Evanovich.  Melodie Campbell got her start writing standup. www.melodiecampbell.com
 

08 May 2015

Where Will I Be, and Why?


By Dixon Hill



There is a surprising connection between what I've been looking at online, today, where I'm going this afternoon and next Wednesday, and the general topic genre of SleuthSayers.


Instead of telling you all about it, right off the bat, however, I'm going to give you a few pictographic clues, and let you sleuth your way to an answer.  (Bear the time of year in mind, along with the fact that I have 3 kids: 26,19 and 12, and you'll finish a step ahead.)

I'll let you know if you're right, at the bottom!

Photo 1



Ready for the clues?




You've already been seeing them.

(Or are some red herrings???)

Photo 2

Photo 3

Photo 4


Photo 5

















































Clues to the Photos:

 Photo 1:  Trainees running at the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office Training Center.

 Photo 2:  Outside of the MCSOTC

 Photo 3:  Arizona State University (main campus) viewed from above south-western edge. 

Photo 4:  This badge is the sort that my daughter's boyfriend will recieve this afternoon, when he       graduates from the MCSOTC course for prison guards.

Photo 5:  The new building for Journalism at ASU, where the Walter Cronkite School is now housed, along with state of the art television studios used by KAET TV and the Cronkite students.  (Maybe this is a bit of a red herring, but I like the building.)

My daughter's boyfriend is setting out on a career as a prison guard -- which seemed apropos to our blog genre, given that this his where most culprits hopefully end up.  I don't know how long his career will last, but his brother is among many graduates who successfully used this training as a step toward becoming the police officer he now is.  So, who knows what the future holds in store for this young man.  My wife, kids and I are going to his graduation in just a few hours.

 Meanwhile, on Wednesday, my son's girlfriend will graduate from the Creative Writing program at ASU, and begin her foray into the print media world.  She hopes to eventually become an editor.  Again, something I thought suited our interests here quite well.

 Hope you enjoyed the game!  And, I'll see you in two weeks.
 --Dixon

07 May 2015

Pagliacci, or, Killing Your Lover is as Old as the Hills


I went to the opera last weekend - The Met Live in HD at the Sioux Falls Century 14, big screen, great sound, and subtitles, what more could you ask for?  They were showing Pagliacci.  Now I'd heard about that opera all my life - everything from people on the old Ed Sullivan show singing their guts out to an Elmer Fudd parody.  But I'd never seen it, so off I went, and enjoyed it a lot.  Good old drama:   jealousy, threats, attempted rape, betrayal, adultery and murder.  What's not to like? Plus a play-within-a-play (which I am always a sucker for).

The plot is simple:  Act One:  Traveling players, commedia dell'arte, arrive in a small Sicilian town, and set up shop.  Canio (who plays the clown Pagliacci) is married to the beautiful Nedda (who plays the romantic heroine Columbine).  The foreshadowing was the joshing about how (on stage) Columbine cuckolds Pagliacci every night with Arlecchino (Harlequin), and Canio said, hey what's on stage is fine, but in real life, I'd kill her.  Cue the dramatic music, and they did.  On comes the big thug Tonio (who plays Taddeo, a servant in the play-within-a-play), who wants Nedda and tries to rape her.  She drives him off with a whip and he vows revenge.  So he overhears and then oversees Nedda meeting up with her real lover, Silvio.  He goes off, tells Canio, who gets drunk and weeps his aria, "I Pagliacci" while he puts on his white clown make-up.

Act Two:  The Harlequinade, as Columbine gets ready for her tryst with Arlecchino. Taddeo wants her, she drives him off.  Pagliacci arrives - but Canio/Pagliacci is murderously drunk and playing for real. (The audience, bloodthirsty as they come, is enthralled by his realism.)  He chases her around the stage, they fight, and he stabs her to death.  With her dying breath she calls "Silvio!" and, as Silvio fights his way up onto the stage, Canio/Pagliacci grabs him and stabs him to death, too.  And then turns to the audience and cries, "La commedia รจ finita!" – "The comedy is finished!"  Short, sweet, violent.

Pagiliacci, Cavallere Rusticana, and other operas were all part of the versimo movement of the late 1800's.  Naturalism!  Realism!  Lots of violence!  Lots of sex!  Bodies piled up on the stage!  (like that hadn't been done before - hadn't they ever noticed the Shakespearean body count?)  And, of course, everyone is no good.  Very much like film noir.  The literature of the day was the same:  whenever you want a good, depressing time among adulterers, thieves, murderers, whores and corrupt politicians, try Emile Zola's brilliant, harrowing, brutal Therese Raquin, Nana, and La Cousine Bette.

But if that wasn't enough excitement for you - not enough sex, not enough violence, not enough B&D, S&M - you went to the Grand Guignol, where the old tradition of violence on stage was revived.  Blood Feast, eat your heart out.  Even Titus Andronicus didn't quite reach the levels of violence porn that the Grand Guignol did in its theater on the Rue Pigalle.  From 1897 to 1962, they presented such upscale entertainment as Andre de Lorde's:
Grand Guignol, 1932
  • Le Laboratoire des Hallucinations: When a doctor finds his wife's lover in his operating room, he performs a graphic brain surgery rendering the adulterer a hallucinating semi-zombie. Now insane, the lover/patient hammers a chisel into the doctor's brain.
  • Un Crime dans une Maison de Fous: Two hags in an insane asylum use scissors to blind a young, pretty fellow inmate out of jealousy.
  • L'Horrible Passion: A nanny strangles the children in her care.  (Synopses thanks to Wikipedia.)
(On the other hand, even the Grand Guignol didn't reach the heights of ancient Rome, where wealthy diners could and were treated to the entertainment of live gladiator contests, and theatergoers would be treated, in "The Death of Hercules", to an ending that included condemned criminal being burned to death in front of them.  Humans do love violence porn...)


The Mysterious Mr Quin First Edition Cover 1930.jpgAnd they also love magic, dance, and romance.  Which is also at the heart of Pagliacci.  The Harlequinade that Canio and Nedda perform in Act 2 is straight from the commedia dell'arte, a staple and source of European entertainment for centuries, which always involved romance and sometimes murder. Characters from the commedia show up in Mozart operas, Shakespearean plays, and innumerable other operas and ballets.  And mysteries:  Sir Peter Wimsey dressed as Harlequin for half the plot of Murder Must Advertise, and Agatha Christie used the commedia over and over again as a trope or theme or a plot point, and at one point even a character - Harley Quin, who appeared in at least a dozen short stories.

The original commedia dell'arte was all about lovers (innamorate) who wanted to marry, but were hindered by elders (vecchio) and helped by servants (zanni).  In the old companies (old being 1500-1700s) there would be 10 characters:  two vecchi (old men), four innamorati (two male/female couples, one noble or at least middle class, the other lower class or downright clowns), two zanni, a Captain and a servetta (serving maid).  That gave plenty of characters to interfere with the two classes of lovers.  
Papageno and Papagena
BTW, this structure of thwarted/thwarting/attempting to thwart lovers, operating on two levels, is an old plot device.  In "As You Like It", Rosalind and Orlando, the noble lovers, are balanced off by Touchstone and Audrey, the comic relief.  In "The Magic Flute", the noble lovers Tamino and Pamina are balanced by Papageno and Papagena.  In Anthony Trollope's "Can You Forgive Her?" there's a series of triangles:  in the noble group, Plantagenet Palliser and Burgo Fitzgerald vie for Lady Glencora (PP's wife), in the middle-class group, George Vavasor and John Gray vie for Alice Vavasor, and in the lower-class group, Captain Bellfield and Squire Cheesacre vie for the Widow Greenow, and the latter three (the most hilarious) are straight out of the classic comic commedia dell'arte:  smart woman, miser, and the captain.  
Anyway, the characters and plot lines went all the way back to ancient Greek and Roman plays, and were continually updated and remade.  The major characters were:

Harlequin (a/k/a Arlecchino) - in love with and the beloved of Columbine. Originally, Harlequin - and this is what makes him very interesting - was an emissary of the Devil, and was played with a red and black mask and the motley costume that the demon(s) used to wear in the old Medieval Mystery Plays.  An athletic, acrobatic trickster, he was transformed over time into a more romantic figure.  But he remained a magician, and he could either be hilariously clever or diabolically deadly...  Even to Columbine...

Columbine - beautiful, witty, often the wife of Pierrot (Pagliacci), but always in love with Harlequin, and always the smartest person in the room.  She was usually the only person seen on stage without a mask or clown make-up.

Pierrot (a/k/a Pagliacci) - a clown who somehow got Columbine to marry him. In the 18th century, he (almost) gave up Columbine, because he had his own Pierrette. But Pierrette often died young, leaving Pierrot always, always grieving - the sad clown.

Scaramouche - a clown, but "sly, adroit, and conceited".  Later he became swashbuckling, mainly because of the Rafael Sabantini novel in which a swashbuckling nobleman's bastard hides out (in a plot twist) in a commedia troupe.  BTW, the novel "Scaramouche" opens with the great line:  "He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad."

Pulcinella a/k/a Punchinella a/k/a Punch (as in Punch and Judy) - a mean, crafty, hunchbacked clown who pretends to be stupider than he really is.  He is also incredibly violent:  with his "slapstick" (a stick as long as himself), he beats the living crap out of everyone, especially Judy.

As it says in the novel Mrs. Miniver:  "[Punch's] baby yelled and was flung out of the window; Judy scolded and was bludgeoned to death; the beadle, the doctor, and the hangman tried in turn to perform their professional duties and were outrageously thwarted; Punch, cunning, violent and unscrupulous, with no virtues whatever except humour and vitality, came out triumphant in the end. And all the children, their faces upturned in the sun like a bed of pink daisies, laughed and clapped and shouted with delight."  Perfect childhood fun.

"The Last of the Summer Wine" -
Foggy's in back
Pantalone - An old, ruthless miser who is trying to control everyone and everything.  Probably based on Plautus' "Aulularia" and both are the probable sources of both Ben Jonson's "Volpone", and Moliere's "The Miser."  And let's not forget that almost every bad guy in Dickens is an elderly, solitary miser who tries to control everyone and everything...

Il Capitano - The soldier, who boasts constantly (while being an arrant coward), knows everything, and is always getting into fights he has no real intention of fighting.  Il Capitano is still a major stock character in everything from Dickens (Nathaniel Winkle in the Pickwick Papers), Agatha Christie (think of  Major Palgrave in "A Caribbean Mystery"), E. F. Benson's Major Benjy, Flashman, and Foggy in the long-running comedy, "Last of the Summer Wine".

Actually, as I think about it, these are all stock characters, still used all the time.  You could say that Harlequin today is someone like Jack Reacher, Patrick Jane, Spenser, etc., and Columbine is Emma Peel, Elizabeth Swann, perhaps even Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Make your own list.  But keep your eyes open:  the cast of the commedia dell'arte shows up in all sorts of times and places.  And where they come...  death often follows.





06 May 2015

There's only one rule


At Left Coast Crime in Portland back in February I scooped a bunch of interesting books off the swap table.  The first three, after a few paragraphs or a few chapters, wound up on the swap shelf at the library where I work.  But number four was definitely worth a read.

My first surprise was that How A Gunman Says Goodbye by Malcolm Mackay is actually the second book in his Glasgow Trilogy.  I figured I would give it a try without worrying about the first book, and that worked out fine.

But the second surprise came halfway through the book when I happened to glance back at this blog I wrote about Long Beach Bouchercon last year and discovered that one of the freebies I scooped up  there was the first book in Mackay's trilogy.  Maybe at this year's Bouchercon I'll get volume three.

At the center of the trilogy (said the man who has only read the second book) is Peter Jamieson, who runs a criminal organization in Glasgow, Scotland (mostly drugs).   He wants to take on one of his larger rivals but first he has to flatten Shug Francis, a pretender to his throne.  (Little fleas have lesser fleas to bite 'em...)

And that requires the help of Frank MacLeod, who may be as close as Jamieson has to a friend.  In Britain where guns are not as prevalent as here, criminal outfits may only have one or two hit men, and Frank is one of longstanding.

But longstanding is exactly the problem.  He's getting old and just had a hip replaced.  Can he still do the job?

Without giving away too much of the plot, it becomes clear he can't, and for the rest of the book everyone has to debate the question: how can a gunman be allowed to retire?  This is a guy who literally knows where all the bodies are buried. 

That's enough about the plot.  What I want to talk about is something quite different.

First of all, the book is in present tense.  Generally I don't like present tense fiction at all.  It gets annoying pretty quickly.

Second, the book is multiple point of view, and entirely POV.  I don't think there is so much as a "It was raining" that doesn't come strictly from inside the skull of one of the characters.  That's not itself a bad thing, but-- Well...

My new book, out this summer, is multiple point of view.  Originally I planned to write a lot of short chapters, alternating between viewpoints, but I realized some of the chapters might be only a few paragraphs long.  So I opted for longish chapters, with different viewpoints carefully separated by spaces.

Mackay scorns such things.  When the action gets going he is happy to follow a paragraph from A's point of view with one from B's POV, and then back again.  It can be confusing.  There were a few points where I couldn't tell who's eyes I was looking through.

Here, for instance, is a meeting between a cop and a killer:

Fisher's gesturing for Frank to take a seat at the table.  To his relief, Frank does.  If this was a fix and he was going to kill him, it would have happened by now.

'Can I get you a cup of tea, Frank?" he's asking.  Being friendly with this old murdering bastard. 

"No thanks."

He can see that Fisher's making an effort.  He can see the strain that it's putting on the cop, too...

Highly unusual way of writing.  But - and here's my whole point - it all works.  Those other three books that I dumped on the swap table were much more traditional narratives, easier to follow, but they didn't keep me glued to the page.  Mackay did.

It turns out that all those writers who helpfully provided us with Ten Rules For Writing Great Fiction were lying.  The fact is there's only one rule: Keep the reader turning pages.  Mackay does.


 One more thing.  Last year I wrote about one way to deal with cliches in your writing.  Essentially, when you spot one you back up and choose a different direction.  It feels like Mackay does that.

You see, there are two hitmen in the book.  Calum is younger, an up-and-comer.  Naturally he is jealous of the more senior Frank and looking for ways to undermine and replace him--

New choice!

That's the cliche and Mackay dodges it.  His Calum is a free-lancer being reluctantly dragged into Jamieson's orgaization, who would much prefer for Frank to stay on as gunman-in-chief.  So his problem is: does he lie to protect the other man?

I recommend the Glasgow Trilogy, but you might want to start with the first book.  But that's not a rule.  There's only one rule.

05 May 2015

All right, Mr. Demille, I'm ready for my close-up


Los_Angeles_City_Hall_2013
Los Angeles City Hall - 2013, Photo by Michael J Fromholtz
Or at least Los Angeles’ art deco city hall is ready for its close-up.

In its heyday, MGM’s slogan was more stars than there are in heaven. Well, there’s one movie location that’s starred in just about as many movies or TV shows as there are stars in heaven, Los Angeles’ City Hall.

From the time it was built in 1928 until today it can be seen in dozens, maybe hundreds, of movies and TV shows, including many crime films. One of my favorites is as the Daily Planet building in the 1950s TV series The Adventures of Superman with George Reeves.
Besides the exterior, the interior rotunda, as well as hallways, offices and the council chambers, have all been used in many movies/TV shows as well.

George E. Cryer, LA’s 43rd mayor, urged the residents of the city to build "a monument to the enterprise and progressiveness of the people of Los Angeles. Let us build a City Hall that will be a credit to the metropolis of the great West.”

LA’s new city hall was completed in 1928, with dedication on April 26th of that year. It has 32 floors and is 454 feet tall. The concrete used is made of sand that comes from each of California’s fifty eight counties and the water to mix it from each of the twenty-one Spanish missions in the state. Until 1964, it was the tallest building in LA, via the city charter.

Supposedly it made its film debut shortly after it was completed in Lon Chaney’s While the City Sleeps. And it’s been a star ever since.

Not only has it played itself in movies, but it’s doubled for the Vatican and New York City, and for a municipal building in San Francisco. In Flags of Our Fathers, director Clint Eastwood doubled up, using one side of City Hall for a building in Baltimore. He used a different side of the building for a scene of a rally in a different part of the country.

It even makes an appearance in the video games, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Grand Theft Auto V and LA Noire, and others.

Since 1940 it has appeared on the LAPD’s badges. There’s even a scene in the 1960s version of Dragnet where a police officer from another state admires Joe Friday’s LAPD badge.
In 2006, there were about 50 shoots at LA’s city hall. Everything from movies to commercials to TV shows, causing workers to dodge the lights, cameras and action.

Here are some shots from various movies and TV shows “starring” Los Angeles City Hall.

War of the Worlds (1953) – in this one city hall was blown to smithereens by invading Martians – well, okay, they blew up a miniature of it:
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The Black Dahlia
clip_image004

Gangster Squad
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LA’s City Hall – interiors and/or exteriors – has also appeared in:
  • Adam 12
  • Alias
  • Another 48 Hours (1982)
  • Atlas Shrugged, Part I
  • Barton Fink
  • Beverly Hills Cop
  • Black Dahlia, the (2006)
  • Bodyguard, The (1992)
  • Cagney and Lacy and Kojak had it filling in for New York City
  • Changeling (2008)
  • Chinatown had a scene with Jack Nicholson in the council chamber.
  • Crash (2005)
  • D.O.A. (1950 – the good version of this story) – one of my favorite noir films and imho the ultimate in “high concept”
  • Die Hard 2 (1988)
  • Dragnet – where it played police headquarters
  • Eraser (1996)
  • Escape from LA
  • Evan Almighty
  • Eye for an Eye (1996)
  • Get Outta Town (1959)
  • Internal Affairs (1990)
  • Jimmy Hoffa Story, The – where it played the US capitol
  • LA Confidential
  • LA Law
  • Liar Liar (1997)
  • Matlock
  • Mildred Pierce – the 1945 Michael Curtiz/Joan Crawford version
  • Mission Impossible (TV show) (1972)
  • Mission Impossible III
  • Mobsters
  • Naked Gun, The
  • Nancy Drew
  • National Treasure: Book of Secrets
  • Perry Mason
  • Ricochet (1991)
  • Rockford Files, The
  • Speed
  • Straight from the Shoulder (1936)
  • Thorn Birds, The – doubling for the Vatican
  • Usual Suspects, The – substituting for a NY police station
  • V
  • West Wing, The
  • XXX: State of the Union
And this is only a tiny sampling of the movies and TV shows that have been shot at LA’s city hall, Los Angeles’ real movie star.

***

clip_image008
Hope to you see at the California Crime Writers Conference
(http://ccwconference.org ). June 6th and 7th.
I’ll be on the Thrills and Chills (Crafting the Thriller and Suspense Novel) panel, Saturday at 10:30am, along with Laurie Stevens (M), Doug Lyle, Diana Gould and Craig Buck.

And please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my soon-to-be-updated website PaulDMarks.com
Subscribe to my Newsletter: http://www.pauldmarks.com/subscribe.htm

04 May 2015

Noir at the Bar. Or, Why I Sometimes Dwell in the Heart of Darkness.


by Melissa Yi

Once, I made a new friend who asked me what was going on, and I said, “Oh, I don’t like to talk about problems with someone I just met.”

“I do,” she said. “I like problems. That’s where you find the truth.”

I immediately felt more comfortable with her. I still didn’t burden her too much, but I opened up more than I do with another friend who always says that everything is fine, great, jolly good. Pema Chodron has observed some religious members who are just “Barbie Dolling” around with the world’s biggest smiles, but you can feel the anger writhing underneath.

Cross. Photo courtesy of Morguefile.
So I feel quite at home joining Noir@Bar this Wednesday night. I’d rather stare at darkness head-on than claim, like a third friend, “I’m not angry. Oh, no. I’m just…annoyed.”

Really? I can hear your teeth grinding from across the room.

Maybe that’s why I like mysteries too. Is someone “annoying” you? Just kill the mofo already and let justice be served.

Admittedly, I can’t handle too much noir at once. I used to borrow Ian Rankin novels from the library. The books literally reeked of cigarette smoke. That, plus Inspector Rebus wading hip-deep into the seamy underside of Edinburgh, drinking, tossing relationships out the window and trashing his career even as he solves crimes, is sometimes too hard to handle on top of my day/night job as an emergency doctor.

When I was at the nadir of my life thus far, I read The Dark Side of the Light Chasers (thumbs down on the title, thumbs up for the content), which was my introduction to Jungian philosophy. Like Buddhism, the idea is that you should acknowledge and explore your shadow side instead of letting it fester and multiply. Carl Jung wrote, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”

So once in a while, I’m like, I can’t pretend life is all cotton candy. Bring on the truth.

And if you want to join me in the shadows, I’ll be at Noir at the Bar in Toronto on May 6th at 7 p.m. Along with such luminaries as Andrew Pyper, Clifford Jackman, MH Callway, John Kenny, Bianca Marais, Jeff Markowitz, Tanis Mallow, and Rob Brunet.


"Pay attention to your shadow. If you keep distancing yourself, saying
"Heavens, it's not my fault!"– then heaven help you. Hell won't." —Katya Walter

03 May 2015

Gone Girl


by Leigh Lundin

Gone Girl
Many months after the film's release, my library finally came through with a copy of Gone Girl three years after the book came out. Now this isn’t a review, this isn’t an erudite analysis, but it’s a commentary and defense of sorts of Gillian Flynn's tour de force, one of the smartest of crime novels, touched upon by Dale Andrews when the tale hit the bestseller list. It’s also one of the most meticulously plotted stories I’ve encountered.

Warning: May contain spoilers.

Melodie Campbell mentioned to me some reviewers were warning readers off the book, saying it had no sympathetic characters. After our conversation, I looked up reviews and many readers complained they hated the characters. Like reviewer Sheila DeChantal, some more subtly said their positions softened toward Nick. They became more forgiving when it became clear his wife was incapable of love and Nick became susceptible to a warm outreach and a soft place to fall, not that it justified tumbling into an affair however unsolicited. That affair ruined Nick in the eyes of many and spoiled the reading experience, no matter how essential it was to the plot.

I know what they’re saying– I want characters I can empathize with. I’ve been listening to old-time radio broadcasts from the 1940s-1950s of a popular program called Suspense. Often the narrator is a bad guy, conniving, weak, or doomed in some way, and after daily listening over many weeks, I found a diet of that viewpoint disheartening and depressing.

But I disagree with the negative assessments of Gone Girl for a number of reasons, not least that the author cleverly manipulates our feelings. Although Margo, Nick’s loyal sister is admirable in her own way, I most liked Detective Rhonda Boney. The detective is not only open to an alternate hypothesis regarding Nick, she’s the one person not fooled by Amy’s machinations. (To be fair, one reviewer complained sidekick Gilpin's sole purpose was to make Boney look good.)

I think of Amy as a Hannibal Lector of the mind, a psychological cannibal who preys on the trust of others. The book makes that even clearer than the movie– Amy will go to any length to punish those who offend her in the least way, to teach them ‘lessons’. To bring home the point, the novel includes an unfilmed scene where Amy throws herself down a stairway to implicate a girl who displeased her. Amy is a pure sociopath; others exist only to fulfill her wants.

Do you know as a reader, you can purchase not just books, but third party book reviews for a mere $7-10?


Readers shouldn’t miss the irony of Amy’s parents using make-believe packaging of their precious daughter in their children’s books, Amy is neither their fictional character nor who they think she is. Amy is adept at molding her personality to exploit others. While pretending to embrace the little compromises that make up all relationships, we learn that Amy disdains and despises petty accommodation.

PoV Male

Another feat of the author is how well she wrote from a male point of view. I found only one quibble where my suspension of disbelief wobbled– I didn’t know what a Tretorn was and question how many men would know. But as I said, that’s a mere quibble in a virtually perfect characterization where a masculine viewpoint has to be spot-on. The author gives credit for the male PoV to her husband and others, but ultimately she was the one who assimilated it and made it work.

PoV Ghouls

Another aspect Author Flynn pegged perfectly was the warning Detective Boney gave Nick that some predatory women would come out of the woodwork to ‘console’ him. The writer perfectly understood the type of ghoul, the kind who read the obituaries looking for that next relationship.

PoV Film

The film tracks amazingly close to the book’s story line, although the novel’s ending is subtly different and I, for one, retained the impression that Nick might well be a match for Amy in multiple senses. He’s the one person who truly understands his wife.

The novel contains only one scene I couldn’t recall in the movie, but in one place, the film outdoes the book, where Flynn pulled her punches but the director didn’t. I’m not one who cares for gore, yet Desi Collings’ final scene, glossed over in the novel, will shock movie goers in a way the printed page does not.

It’s worth noting in the novel, the lovelorn Gatsby-like character of Collings is more emphasized and we don’t feel quite so sad for him as we might in the film. Collings’ mother… I can’t quite decide if I vaguely like her or am frightened by her. Again, she’s a well-drawn character.

PoV Writers

Without the least bit of author intrusion, it’s obvious Gillian Flynn is well-read and well-educated. She mentions a number of literary works: Twain, Bradbury, O. Henry, O’Neill, Sarte, Lincoln. In the guise of Nick’s character, she also presents several movie and pop culture references, plus she educates the reader about Punch and Judy.

(I attended a wedding in France where the families set up entertainment for children in a barn, which included a Punch and Judy show. I thought that charming!)

PoV Readers

Beyond the readers who dissed the movie for lack of a likable personality, some sought to understand the various characters. One or two suggested that forgiveness is at the core of a loving relationship, the one thing Amy was incapable of, despite her professing to forgive Nick.

One reader suggested the sequel should be titled Run, Nick, Run.

Presumed Innocent

I highly regard Gone Girl for the brilliant way the author laid down clues. It favorably compares with Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, one of the best modern mysteries.

It occurs to me they have a lot in common, though Presumed Innocent is a clever fair-play mystery and Gone Girl is different, more a howdunit than a whodunit. Both feature wives who set out to punish husbands who strayed. Not just any wives, but brilliant, unscrupulous perpetrators willing to go to great lengths to prove their point. These are not women squeamish about biological byproducts nor the taboo of killing. The word ‘scheming’ seems a loaded word in this context, but my emphasis is on the painstaking planning in these crimes, where no step can be considered too small or too large.

Final Analysis

My description of a Hannibal Lector devourer of thoughts and emotions may not change the mind of anyone dead set against reading the novel, but Gone Girl exemplifies outstandingly detailed plotting. I highly recommend it to other mystery writers and readers as well.



Ruth Rendell
Ruth Rendell
Ruth Rendell

Ruth Rendell, one of my favorite authors of mystery classics, died yesterday.

I’ve enjoyed her books but I'll never forget one story about the lady. In her early career, she worked as a reporter for a county newspaper in southeastern England writing up less than scintillating topics. She managed to get herself fired by failing to do two critical things: (1) failing to attend a club dinner she was reporting on and (2) failing to mention the dinner speaker died during his speech.

Blessed be Ruth Rendell.

02 May 2015

Pace Yourself


In his book Story, screenwriting teacher Robert McKee says:

"Because a story is a metaphor for life, we expect it to feel like life, to have the rhythm of life. This rhythm beats between two contradictory desires: On one hand, we desire serenity, harmony, peace, and relaxation, but too much of this day after day and we become bored to the point of ennui, and need therapy. As a result, we also desire challenges, tension, danger, even fear. But too much of this day after day and again we end up in the rubber room. So the rhythm of life swings between these poles."

We all know that in a short story or a novel, the proper pacing is vital to its success. And in the case of mystery/crime fiction, the pace has to be fast. Nobody likes being bored, and nothing is so boring to a reader as a story that drags along and doesn't do something.

Ideally, this building of suspense has to happen throughout the narrative. A good, exciting opening is always important, but the challenge is then to keep up that pace afterward as well. Personally, I'd almost rather read a story or novel that starts slowly than one that starts strong and then bogs down in the middle; if it has a poor beginning I can at least stop reading sooner. As I've said before, there are too many good books and stories and movies out there for me to waste my time reading one or watching one that doesn't hold my interest.

So yes, good pacing is essential. But--as the little boy said to the magician--how do you do it?

At the risk of oversimplifying, here are three ways that we writers can control the pacing of our fiction.

1. Style

- Dialogue speeds things up; description slows them down

- Short, simple sentences speed things up; long, complex sentences slow them down (think Hemingway vs. Faulkner)

- Action verbs speed things up (sprinting vs. running, slamming vs. closing, gulping vs. eating, stomping vs. walking)

- The overuse of certain kinds of punctuation (commas, ellipses, parentheses, etc.) slows things down

- Active voice speeds things up; passive voice slows them down

- Short scenes/chapters speed things up; long scenes/chapters slow them down (think Patterson vs. Michener)

2. Action

As mentioned earlier, the best way to keep the reader interested is to make things happen--preferably exciting things and preferably often. There should be plenty of confrontations, obstacles, and setbacks. Internal struggles of course create tension, but in genre fiction the conflicts should be external as well. According to Jessica Page Morrell in her book Thanks, but This Isn't for Us: "If too many scenes in your story feature a character alone, the story won't work. Especially if in most of the scenes the character is thinking, musing, recalling the past, or sighing. Especially sighing."

3. Reversals

I'm a big fan of plot twists--and by that I don't just mean O. Henry-type surprise endings. I love it when the story takes a sharp and unexpected turn at any point, even near the beginning. It keeps me guessing and therefore keeps me reading. (Or watching. Reference the shower scene in Psycho.) I can't remember who said it, and I'm paraphrasing here, but if you're the writer and you think things might be moving too slowly, that's a good time to have someone burst through the door holding a gun.

Those are just a few thoughts--please feel free to contradict them or to add to the list.

Finally, no discussion of pacing would be complete without at least mentioning the concept of "scene and sequel." Scenes are units of story action, and sequels (in terms of writing) are breaks in the action--rest periods when the hero/heroine takes a timeout to think about what just happened and to consider what might happen next. Properly alternating scenes and sequels is a pacing mechanism, to allow the reader to--along with the protagonist--catch his breath and calm down a bit before facing the next challenge.

If you want to read some really fast-paced mystery fiction, I suggest stories and novels by the following authors: Lee Child, Harlan Coben, Robert B. Parker, Janet Evanovich, James Patterson, Jack Ritchie, Joe R. Lansdale, and Elmore Leonard.

It won't take you long.

01 May 2015

Grenada


Positioned northeast of Venezuela and southwest of St. Vincent lies the island of Grenada, also known as the Island of Spice. They have nutmeg, mace (made from the outside of the nutmeg seed), cinnamon, clove, ginger and cocoa. Nutmeg was introduced to the island in 1843 when a merchant ship bound for England from the West Indies left some nutmeg trees behind to start production in competition with the Dutch who controlled the world market for mace and nutmeg at that time. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the island changed hands several times between the French and British before the British got ownership in the Treaty of Versailles.
Clint saves the day
In 1974, Grenada was granted independence from the Crown with Eric Gairy as Prime Minister, but opposition to his rule soon broke out in the form of the New Jewel Movement, a leftist-leaning organization which favored Marx and Lenin. Five years after the island's independence, the NJM's leader, Maurice Bishop, launched a paramilitary attack on the government. Bishop then installed himself as Prime Minister, suspended the constitution and established relations with Cuba, the USSR and other communist countries. Over the next few years, other high ranking members of the New Jewel Movement, to include Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard, a hardline communist, did not think Bishop was moving the island fast enough into a communist type of government, so they led their own revolution backed by the Grenadian Army. Bishop was put under house arrest, but soon escaped. When he tried to regain power, Coard's regime put Bishop and seven other Bishop officials, to include the pregnant Minister of Education, against the wall in Ft. Rupert and shot them. Not really a strong selling point for American tourism at the time.

U.S. Marine helicopter near abandoned Soviet
anti-aircraft weapon during the invasion
A military government was formed and the army declared a four-day curfew. Anyone violating the curfew by leaving their house would be shot. This government lasted six days. Seems that this particular way-to-the-left government caused President Ronald Reagan to have some grave concerns. The fact that the newly-built, extra-long runway the Cuban engineers had just constructed could be feasible for communist military activities inside the U.S. hemisphere didn't help the situation. Operation Urgent Fury went into action and as we all know from the movie Heartbreak Ridge, Clint Eastwood as Gunny Highway, won the war and rescued the medical students. The United Nations General Assembly was not impressed, calling the action a violation of international law. In the end, the Grenada constitution was restored, 17 members of the New Jewel Movement were incarcerated in Richmond Hill Prison and the ugly Americans went home, now returning on cruise ships to boost the island's economy.

Interesting Grenada Facts

Don't confuse the pronunciation of Grenada with Grenada. While the spelling is the same, the island country is pronounced Grenade-ah, while the city in Spain is pronounced Gra-nah-dah.

And, there's a couple of local slang terms you might enjoy knowing. One is "going up to the mahoganies" and the other is "liming."

In earlier years, mahogany trees were planted on both sides of the road leading up to Richmond Hill prison on the top of a ridge overlooking the harbor town of St. George. Thus when someone was being sent to prison, it was said that he was going up to the mahoganies. Those trees are all gone now, but the prison buildings still remain.

As we drove inland through mountain communities, we would often see from one to five men lounging against a building. This activity on Grenada is called "liming" and since the unemployment rate runs about 30%, we saw several instances of liming, usually around a rum house where moonshine was made. The official definition is any leisure activity entailing the sharing of food and drink and the telling of tall stories, jokes and gossip, providing the activity has no explicit purpose other than itself. Some say the term came from the old days when British sailors, known as limeys, stood around outside of rum shops while on shore leave.

French capture Grenada from the land side
Lastly, Grenada has a backwards facing fort. Seems that in one of the early battles for possession of the island, French forces came into St. George from the land side, over the mountains rather than sailing into the harbor. Since the British were expecting a naval attack, their cannons were facing the wrong way. Learning from their easy victory, the French then built Fort Frederick up on the mountain ridge as a backwards facing fort where their cannons were aimed inland while a different fort down slope covered the harbor.