09 September 2015

Why We Fight, Pt. II

David Edgerley Gates


Last month, two U.S. Army officers, Capt. Kristen Griest and 1st Lt. Shaye Haver, were the first two women candidates to graduate Ranger school. This is an event to take pride in. Out of a field of four hundred, 25% made it. The others were washed out or set back, which gives you some idea how tough the course is. Not to diminish the effort they all made, but to suggest it's a steep gradient. A lot of us wouldn't qualify.

When the news broke, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee felt compelled to remark that the U.S. military isn't a social laboratory - they're meant to kill people and break things, is what he said. I take his point, but I think he's got it backwards. (He's also obviously taking a swipe at the retention of openly gay soldiers.)

In spite of being a deeply conservative, even intransigent, institution, the U.S. military has always been a social laboratory. The most intense combats we've fought are the Civil War and WWII, both of which brought enormous change. Viet Nam is of course a living memory to most of the people in my generation, but no matter how important it is, to us personally, and how divisive it was, to the country as a whole, I'm not sure it has as much historical significance as the other two. I could be proved
wrong. Viet Nam colors the thinking - strategic and political - of all our current senior commanders, and it's a perceived failure they don't want to see repeated. This leads to a kind of self-referential loop, or a fractured lens. It's a commonplace to say we're always fighting the last battle.

The point about the American Civil War, and the Second World War, is that they commanded near-total mobilization of men and resources. This is what sets them apart, in our experience. The machinery of the war effort was an engine that powered the new century. Few were left untouched by it. And then, afterwards, something similar happened both times. The peacetime Army drew down. It was more severe after the Civil War. 2 million men served under arms in the Union Army, and a million and a half fought for the Confederacy, but during the Indian Wars in the 1870's, the active-duty Army numbered no more than 30,000. WWII saw twelve million Americans serve. After demobilization, that figure dropped to a million-five.

The dislocations of war reflect broader social tensions and dislocations. To take one example, the Irish made up 10% of the Union Army - the Irish were also at the forefront of the New York draft riots, but they're a complicated clan - and a high proportion elected to stay in the military after the war ended. This at a time when professional soldiers were something of a despised class, and the Irish had a bad reputation to overcome, as well. It turned out to be a good career choice, in the main. More recently, although black GI's have served in every American war, there were few of them in combat during WWII, and that in segregated units, with white officers, but Truman fully integrated the services in 1948.

Women have played a supporting role - nurses and typists, although there were women pilots in WWII, not in combat, but ferrying resupply and aircraft into combat zones. The received wisdom being the usual boilerplate about upper body strength or lack of the warrior gene and all the rest, which still hasn't disappeared. Homosexuals have served with distinction, in spite of a prevailing locker room mentality. For that matter, so have Communist sympathizers and conscientious objectors.

In the end, it boils down to duty, not your politics, or your skin, or whether you sit down to pee. Lt. Haver and Capt. Griest have demonstrated that. They're the first but they won't be the last.

[This is a snapshot of my pal Michael Parnell, tired but happy, the day he himself completed Ranger training. I don't mean to make him self-conscious. He has every reason to be proud.]




http://www.davidedgerleygates.com/

08 September 2015

Noir and the Returning War Vet Sub-Genre

by Paul D. Marks

My name is Paul and I’m a film noir addict.

If I don’t get my fix of noir “I feel all dead inside. I'm backed up in a dark corner, and I don't know who's hitting me.”*

Fodder for another piece is why I’m so addicted to noir. For this piece I want to talk about a specific sub-genre of noir, the returning veteran. My latest book, Vortex (released 9/1), comes under this category.

The story originally went to a different publisher, a publisher of mystery-thriller novellas. somewhere_in_the_night_xlgUnfortunately they went belly up. But in talking with that first publisher, my pitch was to do a story—homage might be too strong a word, but yeah, let’s call it an homage—about a vet returning from the war in Afghanistan a la some of the classic film noir movies like Somewhere in the Night, The Blue Dahlia (written by Raymond Chandler), Ride the Pink Horse, and Act of Violence, etc., and books like David Goodis’ Down There, whose main character had been one of Merrill’s Marauders, or from later, Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone and James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss, both inspired by the Viet Nam War.

Hey, even Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins is a returning World War II vet, who helped liberate the concentration camps.

47694-devil-in-a-blue-dress-0-150-0-225-cropMy favorite short story of any genre is Hemingway’s Soldier’s Home, about a disaffected WWI vet returning home and how he can no longer relate to anyone or anything. Close to that is Mayday by Fitzgerald. Both were written in the aftermath of World War I. Neither could be classified as noir, but they have a sort of hopeless noir sensibility.

When the vets in all of these stories come home it’s usually not all mom and apple pie.

There are arguments in some circles as to whether film noir is a post war movement or whether it was a result of (mostly) homefront conditions during the war. I think both sides are right, but ultimately I don’t think it matters. For me, the quintessential film noir is Double Indemnity, which came out on September 6, 1944, almost exactly 71 years ago from today. As the war still had a good year and half to go, this would preclude it from being a post-war movie.
But, of course, the Neff charac20_robert_stone_dog_soldierster (Huff in the book) is not a returning vet. Still, this film is (for me) the pinnacle of all noir movies and the jumping off point for the true noir cycle. Then, with the war ending, came a string of movies about returning vets, including those mentioned above. But not all were noir. The Best Years of Our Lives, Till the End of Time and others dealt with the difficult adjustments many vets faced on returning home in a non-noir way.

The war changed American society in a variety of ways. We lost our innocence as a country. Soldiers had seen things no one should have to see. Many came back cynical. Black soldiers came back wanting full rights for the country they had fought for. Women, Rosie the Riveters, weren’t so sure they wanted to be only housewives anymore.

And the Hells Angels motorcycle club (gang) was formed in Fontana, California (not far from LA, the noir capital of the world), in 1948 (just three years after the war) by disaffected World War II vets.

Many soldiers came back from the war who, if not physically wounded, were psychically wounded. Shell shock, combat fatigue, PTSD, “invisible” diseases but diseases that, nonetheless, tear at a man’s soul. Soldiers coming back from Korea were “forgotten,” those returning home from Viet Nam were often called “baby killers”. Those coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan are often depressed and alienated. One recent study says that roughly 22 veterans commit suicide every day, more than any previous generation of war vets.

It’s from there that the creative process began and I started to create characters and situations in Vortex. Call it an updating of the returning war vet noir genre.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000037_00019]Vortex is the story of Zach Tanner, a recently returned Afghan war vet, who finds more trouble here than there. In his words, he went to “hell and back and back to hell again,” upon returning home. But that latest hell is one of his own making. A quagmire of quicksand that he’s sinking deeply into and struggling hard to get out of. And that predicament is fueled by his own greed. He’s also bringing his girlfriend, Jess, down into the mire with him. They’re on the run, careening down Sunset Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway, being chased by a flashy red Camaro, when Jess says to him:

“What’re you doing?” Jessie said, clutching the handhold.
“We have to get out of here.”
“Talk to them, Zach.”
“We can’t go back, Jess. Don’t you understand, they’ll kill us.”
“They’re your friends.”
“Yeah.” The first rule of war is know your enemy. And I knew mine, too well—or maybe not well enough.

They’re on the run—from Zach’s best friends, or should I say former best friends. And now it’s up to Zach to get himself and Jess out of trouble, while at the same time trying to make sense of a world that has changed radically for him. A world that he now perceives differently because of what he saw and did in the war.

Zach and Jess are part of a generation that’s grown up on unreal reality shows that give them a false expectation of what success is and how to achieve it. A generation that watched the Bling Ring climb to fame and success by breaking into celebrities’ homes and stealing from them. And though some got minor  punishments they also got movies made about them and a couple starred in their own “reality” shows. That’s the quick and easy way to the top of the American Dream that many of Zach’s friends feel entitled to. They fall out when Zach realizes that getting something for nothing isn’t meaningful and when he wants more meaning and purpose in his life now.

Unfortunately, that’s what Zach’s friends still want when he returns home, that quick ride to the top at any cost. But after recuperating for some time in a hospital with plenty of time to think it’s no longer what he wants. Still, he’s part of their plan and even though he wants out, like quicksand they pull him in and under and won’t let him escape.

But what is escape? Zach and Jess hide out down at the Salton Sea, in the desert near Palm Springs. A once promising resort community that’s now dilapidated and going to hell, the underbelly of the American Dream. Built to be a waterfront paradise, it’s now a wasteland of dead fish and dead end streets.

As Zach, the narrator says, “The American Dream crashed and burned right here at the Salton Sea.”
And that’s where Zach finds himself. Now he must extricate himself from a mess largely of his own making and find some kind of equilibrium in a changed world. Will he?

I hope Vortex does a decent job of carrying on the returning war vet sub-genre.  I think these two quotes from Robert Stone and Ernest Hemingway epitomize that genre, even if they’re not noir per se.

“At first Krebs...did not want to talk about the war at all.  Later he felt the need to talk but no one wanted to hear about it.” ―Ernest Hemingway, Soldier’s Home

“If you haven't fought for your life for something you want, you don't know what's life all about.” ―Robert Stone, Dog Soldiers

*Quoted from “The Dark Corner,” written by Jay Dratler, Bernard C. Schoenfeld, Leo Rosten, directed by Henry Hathaway


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07 September 2015

What Makes A Mystery?

by Susan Rogers Cooper

What makes a mystery? The three main characters help: The victim, the protagonist, and the villain.

The victim can be a nice person who didn’t deserve to get murdered, or a vicious schemer that had folks lining up to get a crack at him. What’s important from a plot standpoint is that the victim has lived their life so that they die NOW, at this particular place and time, and while in contact with a particular group of people.

The protagonist, or detective – be they a cop, private investigator, or amateur –
must have a strong interest in solving this crime. A police officer would have a strong professional interest. A PI would have both a personal and a professional interest in solving the crime – the professional because they’ve been hired; and personal because – as the story progresses – they begin to care about avenging the victim or feel a strong personal responsibility to the client. An amateur would probably always be personal – to avenge someone they cared for, or to clear their own name or the name of a loved one. If the protagonist is given a strong motivation to solve the case, this helps move the plot forward because it keeps the protagonist moving forward.

And the whole reason for the story: the murderer. There are all sorts of killers, but in fiction we writers like to stick with the tried and true: a serial killer, a murder for gain (money or love), or someone who thinks they have no other choice. This is my personal favorite and I find it most interesting. The person who commits the crime has been driven to this point by circumstances so horrendous that they thought murder was the only solution to their problem.

What would motivate a person to be murdered? Or to murder? What are the forces that drive a person? Is it money, love, security, or, most likely, a combination of them all? How would this person react if they were involved in a mystery? Would they be an active participant, in either detection or deceit, or would they attempt to extricate themselves from the situation? Is this a violet person or a passive person? What are this person’s interests and what do they tell us about the character? What is their physical appearance and what does that tell us about the character?

Agatha Christie may have thought of the peculiarities of a twisty plot, but to make it work she had to people it w/ characters that could live in that plot. Example: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. I’ve no doubt she thought of the clever twist as to who committed the murder before she thought of the characters on that train, but once she decided on that plot, she had to fill the Orient Express with characters who were capable of living out that plot and making it as believable as possible. Dame Agatha was a brilliant plotter, but she concentrated more on twists designed to shock a reader than she did on twists that emerged from the interactions of characters. Today’s plots are centered more on the interactions of characters rather than dependent on a cleaver means of killing a victim.

In my own books, character has a lot to do w/ the plot. Milt Kovak is a small town sheriff in Oklahoma, in a town he’s lived in all his life. He knows just about everybody in town. In most cases he knows the victim, and eventually, the murderer. The plot usually centers on the murder itself – as in a police procedural – but with lots of detours involving Milt’s many side characters – his staff at the sheriff’s department, his wife and son, his sister, and whatever else seems to be happening in Prophesy County, Oklahoma.

My E.J. Pugh series is more traditional, or cozy if you will. E.J. is an amateur sleuth whose first experience (ONE, TWO, WHAT DID DADDY DO?) is gruesomely personal. Actually, all the books have a personal interest for E.J., and many of them stem from something in my own family's life – not that we've experienced any murders, but, hey, what if?

In a traditional mystery there is usually a strong link in life between the killer and the victim. This immediately advances some of the plot: What were the circumstances that led to the killer’s decision to take a life? Was it an easy decision, a spur of the moment decision, or an idea that went terribly wrong?

In a mystery, the plot is the story. But it must ring true. Sometimes it's hard for an amateur sleuth to continually stumble over dead bodies and make that ring true, but there are other things in that story that should – the amateur's reasons for investigating, their knowledge of the victim, and their feelings about it. The truth is what matters in any story, and there should always be a nugget that our readers can take away.



06 September 2015

Atticus?

by Dale C. Andrews
 "But that's another story." 
                       Rudyard Kipling 
                       Soldiers Three, The Story of the Gadsbys, 
                             In Black and White (1888)
"[T]his very minute, a political philosophy foreign to it is being pressed on the South, and the South's not ready for it . . . ."
                        Harper Lee
                        Go Set a Watchman (2015)
"No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed."
                        Opinion of the Court in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015)
                        per Justice Kennedy

       Last January as I drove south to Gulf Shores, Alabama, intent on leap-frogging February in Washington, D.C., I passed within scant miles of Monroeville, Alabama. And as I did so my mind wandered to Harper Lee, living there still in the town that was the model for Maycomb, Alabama, the setting in which her classic To Kill a Mockingbird is framed. And as we always do at that point in our drive, my wife and I reflected (as have many others) on the fact that for more than fifty years this Pulitzer Prize winning classic stood as the sole literary contribution of Harper Lee.

     How strange it was, then, several days later, to hear that there would be another; that a second volume, Go Set a Watchman, existed and would be published in July.
   
       News of Harper Lee’s second book set off a firestorm that would have been hard for anyone to ignore. Article after article questioned whether Lee, 88 years old, suffering the after effects of a stroke and confined to an assisted living facility, could have credibly made the decision to publish Go Set a Watchman after steadfastly asserting for over 50 years that there would never be another book. Predictably, since publication this summer, Go Set a Watchman has held the pole position on all of the bestseller lists. But, if anything, the debate surrounding the book has only increased. 

       Amidst all of this controversy it is interesting, however, to take a step back; to set aside the speculations concerning the book’s origin, Harper Lee’s present circumstances, and her earlier views as to whether it should be published, and instead examine the book itself and its place as a companion piece to To Kill a Mockingbird

       Many of those who dismiss Go Set a Watchman argue that the book is nothing more than a first and very rough draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.  I suspect that at least some of those critics have not in fact read Watchman. Whatever its other shortcomings may be, it is hardly a rough draft.  The book revolves around the characters we know from Mockingbird -- met, again, 20 years later -- but is a completely different story. In fact, one of the strangest aspects of Watchman is that it is not a first draft of Mockingbird -- the book presents as a sequel although it was in fact written before To Kill a Mockingbird. The characters in each either appear or are referenced in the other, and with one exception that I could find, the events in each book are entirely consistent with the events in the other. (I will leave it to readers to find that sole inconsistency, which could have been remedied by editing one paragraph in Watchman. A separate mystery is why that edit was not made.) 

The Monroeville, Alabama court house
       Stand back, then, and think how unlikely this is. From all reports Watchman was a rejected manuscript. Lee was, in effect, told that parts of the book were good, that the setting had promise, but that she needed to go back to the drawing board. All writers -- certainly all of us here at SleuthSayers, I suspect -- have received such advice. A “netherland” sort of letter, half way between acceptance and rejection. Invariably what the writer does in response to such a letter is to rip apart the story or novel, re-think the premise, keep what is usable and substitute new approaches for what is not. And equally invariably the final story or novel, if and when ultimately published, bears a resemblance to the first work that is no more, nor less, than that between a true first and second draft of the same story. 

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch
       But that is not what Harper Lee did with Go Set a Watchman. Instead she set the first book aside, in its entirety, and fashioned a new narrative focusing on the same characters twenty years earlier. So positioned, Watchman becomes not the introduction of Scout and Atticus, but rather a reunion; a look at what happened to each.  And this fact forms the backbone for much of the published criticism of Go Set a Watchman: in the view of some the paragon that was Atticus Finch in Mockingbird is irreconcilable with the Atticus of Watchman, who in some respects displays feet of clay. 

       So: is this a legitimate complaint? Is the character of Atticus in Mockingbird so different from his portrayal in Watchman as to be unrecognizable as well as disappointing? I don't believe that this question can be answered solely by comparing the texts of each volume. Rather, it requires a recognition of the historical context of 1936 Alabama, where Mockingbird is set, and the Alabama of 1956, where we find 72 year old Atticus struggling with the then-recent decision of the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education, which once and for all overturned the previous standard of “separate but equal” in favor of constitutionally mandated desegregation. 

       One of the easiest ways to gauge a fictional character’s believability is to ask ourselves, as readers, whether we know someone who, in like circumstances, would behave the same way. And specifically (in the context of Atticus) is the 1936 paragon of racial sensitivity portrayed in To Kill a Mockingbird a believable early version of the 1956 Atticus, who displays some trepidations concerning the effects of the then accelerating march of desegregation brought on by the Supreme Court’s decision? My answer to this is a somewhat sad “yes.” 

       Most of the time social change and awakening moves at glacial speed, requiring slowly evolving adjustments in standards. Other times, for whatever reason, the speed of change can accelerate like a bonfire, however, plowing through existing societal mores and leaving new ones in the furrows. And at times the catalyst for such accelerating change can be a Supreme Court decision, such as Brown v. Board of Education, that overnight alters the rules for all.  For some, including Atticus, those times may present their own difficulties.

       The challenge that faced Atticus is one that history often serves up.  The most recent example of such an accelerating societal change is the wave of growing public acceptance for gay marriage in our country. According to the Gallup organization, in 1996 27 percent believed there should be a constitutional recognition of the rights of gay couples to marry.  By last spring the number favoring such unions was 60 percent -- an astoundingly fast social turnabout. And, like the cry for civil rights reform in the 1950s, this issue gained a catalyst this summer when the Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges found a constitutional right for all to marry.

       To many (and count me in) the Supreme Court’s decision recognizing a constitutional foundation for the right of gays to marry was overdue and welcome. And, like its decision fifty years earlier in Brown v. Board of Education, the Court's gay rights decision required immediate changes in a context where matters were previously evolving at a more languid pace.  Most of us rode that accelerating wave of social change with pleasure. Certainly I did -- I’ll be helping to officiate at my son Colin’s wedding to his fiance Kyle next week. But for others the rapid evolution in public opinion, and the catalyst of the Supreme Court's recognition of a constitutional right, proved to be a challenge.

     Other historical examples of the reticence of some to accept social change abound. And, for me (as was also the case for Scout), some of these examples hit pretty close to home.  My maternal grandmother, a gentle and intelligent woman, in the 1950s would not eat in a restaurant if food had been prepared by a black person. My mother -- a liberal bordering on socialist -- by contrast would have none of this, and her social views (just like those of Scout) evolved rapidly as she distanced herself from the views of her mother.  But not so her younger sister, my aunt, who for the rest of her life embraced the bigoted views of her mother when it came to restaurants. 


        The fact that some come up short when confronted with social evolution is not limited to racial matters and the civil rights movement.  It is (sadly) true as a general matter that other forms of bigotry can be equally difficult for some to shed, particularly in a hurry.  History is replete with examples of religious intolerance, and again, these examples were not unfamiliar in my own family. My maternal grandfather, my mother’s father, spent much of 1960 asserting to anyone who would listen that if John F. Kennedy won the presidency the Pope would become the true president of the United States. I remember these harangues, and can attest that he did not mean this figuratively. He meant it literally. He viewed the entire campaign by John F. Kennedy as an orchestrated conspiracy by the Catholic church. 

       These folks, my grandparents, who otherwise displayed admirable traits, were caught with their own feet of clay when the world around them started to move at a speed to which they could no longer readily adjust. They had never contemplated that they would have to face a changed world. Not unlike the virtuous Atticus of 1936 -- the Atticus we know and love from Mockingbird -- who found himself hard pressed to adjust to the changes facing the south in 1956 after the Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education decreed that separate really was not equal.   Even the Atticus who captivated us with his 1936 defense of a black man unjustly accused in Mockingbird could not bring himself in 1956 to support voting rights and open schools in Watchman.  

       So before dismissing as inconsistent these disappointing aspects of the Atticus in Watchman, readers should perhaps be guided by the admonition of British novelist L. P. Hartley: "the past is a foreign country." It is difficult to imagine or remember 1956 from the vantage point of 2015. Things move at a different pace in different times.   Is the 1956 Atticus disappointing?  Clearly, yes.  But is he inconsistent with the Atticus of Mockingbird?  A harder question.

       Sociologists Emile Durkheim and Robert K. Merton each analyzed the effect of rapid social change -- situations where cultural goals become out of sync with social structure.  Those circumstances, they concluded, can result in a condition they labeled “anomie,” a state of normlessness. The term encompasses social instability that results when the established order of things begins to topple.   Anomie is, almost certainly, a good description of what my grandfather experienced when confronted with the reality of a Catholic president.  It is also what a shrinking minority experience when confronting the Supreme Court's recent gay rights decision.  That must have been how it felt to some in Monroeville, Alabama in 1956, views carried forward in Harper Lee’s depiction of Maycomb.  And this is certainly consistent with the reactions of some in Alabama to the gay rights decision.

       The Washington Post reported the following in "The Fix" on September 3 concerning how far Alabama may go to side-step the Court's decision:
Right now, Alabama is busy charting new territory in the effort to resist legal same-sex marriage. This month, a state legislative committee voted for a measure that, should it reach and pass the full state Senate, could eliminate [all] state-issued marriage licenses.
George Wallace blocking the door at the
University of Alabama (AP Photo)
       Alabama's reactions to the civil rights movement, and now the gay rights decision, is also consistent with Merton's refinement to anomie, specifically, his notion of “strain theory” -- for purposes relevant here, the observable phenomenon that there are times when the requirements of society -- particularly new and unfamiliar requirements -- cannot easily be reconciled with existing social structure.

       More specifically, the issue facing Atticus was what to do with a Supreme Court decision overturning what had been an established "separate but equal" guidepost embedded in the social structure of his south.   Atticus's resistance to change in these circumstances, his choice of comfortable and long-standing local social structure over newly-imposed national cultural norms, is disappointing, but it is consistent with the reactions of others in like circumstances. As noted in Perspective on Deviance and Social Control, with “[t]he country . . . undergoing enormous changes as the civil rights movement took hold” the societal effect was predictable. “With norms and expectations unclear for a large segment of society, anomie theory leads us to expect high rates of deviance.”  And that is what our old friend Atticus did.  Unable to reconcile an end to "separate but equal" with the structural requirements of his community he deviated -- he chose the latter.  He rejected the change that society had to undergo, the enlightened path we all needed to follow, and instead chose resistance.

       All of this, then, is is far from saying that Atticus's response, as depicted by Harper Lee, was correct or even admirable.  In fact, his reaction to the Supreme Court's decision, as a moral as well as a legal matter, is deplorable.  So, too, the reaction of that Kentucky clerk -- who this week argued that her religious beliefs insulated her from issuing marriage licenses to gay couples notwithstanding the Supreme Court's prior decision that there is a constitutional right for all to marry. Her response, the response of those legislators in Alabama who cry not me; not in my community, and the response of Atticus, are all infuriating and wrong.  That is the point that Scout makes when she confronts her father in Watchman.  And that is the point that Harper Lee makes as she tells her story.

       Viewing all of this from today’s vantage point, where the justice and inevitability of the Supreme Court's decision overruling "separate but equal" is apparent, we can be taken aback by Atticus’s reticence to ride the wave, to embrace the immediate need for change.  I am still taken aback by my grandmother's inability to shed her racial intolerance, and by my grandfather's inability to overcome his religious intolerance of Catholics.  And as I approach my younger son Colin’s impending wedding to Kyle, his soul mate of the last five years, I am similarly taken aback by those, such as the legislators in Alabama and that Kentucky clerk, who attempt to repudiate the Supreme Court's decision finding a constitutional right of all to marry.  

       A lot of this is about family.  And that is what To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman are also about.  Atticus was drawn from Harper Lee's own father, and doubtless she made the character real by importing the good as well as the flawed.  At the simplest level Mockingbird focuses on the good, and Messenger tries to comprehend the flawed.  I hope, and I would bet, that Harper Lee believes that the good in Atticus, evident in both books, is likely more than sufficient to ensure that (unlike my mother's sister and that Kentucky clerk) eventually he would have found himself standing with the rest of us.  That is actually a fairly low bar to clear -- recall that before his death even George Wallace eventually decried his earlier impassioned support for segregation.

       So, is the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman a believable fictional character? Does his conflict with his daughter concerning the changes wrought in the 1950s ring true? And is his portrayal in the context of 1956 Alabama understandable and consistent with the 1938 Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird? It seems to me the answer to each of those questions is “yes.”

       A disappointed “yes,” but still a “yes.”

05 September 2015

Fresh Starts

by Art Taylor

As many of you know, Art Taylor is a busy and talented guy. He has won two Agatha Awards, a Macavity, and three consecutive Derringers, and has twice been a finalist for an Anthony. His work has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Washington Post, Mystery Scene, and many other publications, and one of his short stories (along with stories by our own Rob Lopresti and David Edgerley Gates) was named in the “Other Distinguished Mystery Stories” list in the upcoming Best American Mystery Stories 2015. His novel On the Road With Del & Louise will be released in September. This guest post is his first column for SleuthSayers, and he’ll come on board permanently next month. Please join me in welcoming him! —John Floyd
 

First of all, thanks to John for the introduction here and the invitation to join SleuthSayers—and to everyone here for the warm welcome!

The title above—"Fresh Starts"—gives a nod toward this post being a debut and not simply a guest outing, though there's more to it than that, drawing on thoughts sparked both by where I'm at right now (more on that in a minute) and by my forthcoming book On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, which was the occasion of being invited for a guest post here in the first place. In the process, maybe there are some useful reflections ahead on the novel in stories as a form or on craft generally.

As I'm drafting this post (always draft, always revise), it's the first week of the semester at George Mason University where I teach—and these first weeks of school have always held a magical sense of new beginnings, not just as a professor now but hearkening back to my own earliest school days, new classes, new teachers, new subjects—usually new clothes too, trading out well-worn shorts for a couple of pairs of stiff Levi's. January 1 may be the time for resolutions, but to me, late August and early September have always felt like the true start of a new year. And though the soon-to-be-falling leaves might suggest for some a turn toward dying and death, autumn itself always fills me with a sense of possibility and of anticipation.

As a writer, I tend to think generally in terms of narrative, I guess—possibilities, plot points, the arc of a storyline—even as I reflect on my own life. So memories for me are grounded not necessarily by calendar year or birthdays ("I was eight when....") but by school year: This happened in kindergarten, this in fifth grade, this my junior year of high school, this my freshman year of college.

Maybe other folks are somehow dominated by seasons too with their stories, whether autumn or others: holiday tales and traditions; sordid spring break or spring fling stories; or those summer romances that generally fade with the return to school. How many freshmen college students have just recently had tough talks with their high school sweethearts? And if they haven't already, many of them surely will soon. More adventures to be had ahead, more thrills, more heartbreak, more everything.

I've been thinking of "fresh starts" too with my book coming out in a little less than two weeks—and not just because it's my debut (of sorts; I've been writing a long, long time, after all) or because the title characters, small time crooks trying to go straight, talk time and again (and again) about the need to make a fresh start themselves. More to the point, it's because the novel is structured as six short stories, each with its own beginning, middle, and end—a concept that's already caused some trouble. Isn't it a collection then? because a novel is....

Short response to question/confusion: Each short story does offers its own fresh start, sometimes timed with the fresh starts that the characters are trying to make, and its own independent resolution, but together the six stories tell an overarching, evolving story of this couple's search for stability and for each other and for a sense of family and a place to call home—longer, stretchier narrative threads.

But even with that short response, I recognize that there are more possibilities for readers to stumble (one early Goodreads review complained about my "chapters" being so long) and there are aspects of such a structure that all us writers should consider as well with such a project: pacing, of course; the overlap between an individual story's narrative arc and the large story's broader arc; and—to keep circling back—the trouble of the "fresh start" for each component story.

Years ago, a friend of mine sent a manuscript for me to review—a terrific story overall, characters in crises both internal and externals, plenty of conflict, no lack of drama, but I was concerned about how the chapters always ended on a note of resolution, relief, calm. Some writers try too hard to close each chapter on a cliffhanger (need to get the readers to turn the page!), but this was the extreme opposite, and I suggested very simply that she just break up the chapters differently, slide those chapter breaks back a little on the interweaving narrative arcs of plots and subplots—makes those breaks somewhere in the rising action rather than always after the falling action.

Stole this from the internet; my own arcs would be more like a mountain range.


Del and Louise get in plenty of trouble—both with one another and with others: a series of house break-ins against a recession-addled real-estate market; plans for a wine heist; a hold-up in a Las Vegas wedding chapel, etc., along with their continuing struggles to connect, stay connected. But with each story, I was trying to draw some resolution to the tale at hand (real estate robberies, wine heist, etc.) before making those fresh starts in new directions, even as longer, larger conflicts persist.

I hope that I paced it out OK. I can't help but wonder about the potential side effects of the breaks that result by these being stories. They could look like chapters, couldn't they? And how would that work?

I can't help but think of real life, of course, as I'm maneuvering through the fictional troubles of my characters. A friend of mine told me not long ago that he needed a break from everything: job troubles, relationship troubles, other troubles—and that was the word he kept coming back to: "break." So I asked him whether he meant "break" in terms of a "taking a break" (a vacation, for example) or in terms of "making a break"? ...meaning making a break with some bad choices, bad plans, bad circumstances. There was, I pointed out, a difference.

A renewed you and a new you are two different things as well. As Louise in my book says about another character, "He couldn’t get away from who he was, I thought—then realized maybe none of us could."

New Year's resolutions, the optimism and anticipation of a fall semester's first week, the opening paragraphs of the next in a set of linked stories—even that friend's sense that catching his breath might help recharge him to deal with lingering troubles.... I keep wondering if "fresh starts" are generally illusory, arbitrary—just a matter of shifting that "section break" to a different place in the ongoing narrative.

In real life, we hope not, of course! Unlike Louise's doubts, I remain optimistic about the possibilities for change: those resolutions, that renewal...even redemption. And I hope all that for my friend, always.

But in fiction, of course, it's the conflicts we crave—continual almost, a heap of grief. For Del and Louise, each new opening fortunately leads to the next round of conflicts—life as an escalating set of troubles.

Circling back, circling back again...and having said all that, I've got high hopes for my own new beginnings here at SleuthSayers, of course! May all my essays and reflections here go smoothly—saving any challenges and conflicts for my fictional creations, out there on other pages.

Looking forward to chatting and interacting with my fellow blog mates and our readers on future posts!



04 September 2015

Creativity: The Dark Side

by R.T. Lawton

Webster's Universal Encyclopedic Dictionary (2002)
     creativity: the ability to create
     creative: 1~ marked by the power or ability to create
     create:  4~ to produce through imaginative skill

For a writer, creativity is a good trait to have. It helps him write a short story, a novel, a poem. With imagination and the ability to create, almost any author has the potential to become published. Blessed with enough creativity, a writer can distinguish himself from the pack and climb to the top of the pyramid. He or she can become a best-selling author.

But with criminals, there is an additional definition from that same dictionary which they find useful for their purposes.
     creative: 3~ managed so as to get around legal or conventional limits

For some criminals, it is this third definition that makes them into successful law breakers, while others get so caught up in their supposed genius ideas that they fail to realize some of the flaws in their thinking and thus end up spending time in a grey-bar hotel. A poster boy for this latter group is the person mentioned by Eve Fisher a couple of months back in her blog about prison conditions. Eve referred to a prisoner who stated that whenever he walked into a room, he knew he was the smartest guy in the room. Eve's comment in reply was that the bar wasn't set very high.

Based on the above two paragraphs, it appears that the good trait of creativity also has a dark side. To look into this situation, various researchers set up studies to evaluate the subject of creativity. While examining the relationship between creativity and personality, researchers Silvia, Haufman, Palmon and Wiggert found that those with lower levels of honesty and humility reported more creative accomplishments and also reported engaging in more creative activities. Who knew? At this point, more research was called for.

one sample of Visual Perception Task
Researchers Gino and Ariely then tested to see if creativity increases dishonesty. Turns out it did. They constructed and ran five different tests. Using a visual perception task, the study participants were asked to count the dots contained on both sides of a line which divided a square into two equal triangles. The number of dots could vary in different samples.

Participants were told they would earn a certain amount of money for choosing the left side triangle as having the most dots, but would earn ten times the amount for choosing the right side triangle as having the most dots. Clearly, the left side triangle had the most dots in fifty of the one hundred samples. In the other fifty samples, some of the dots were clustered closer to the line in order to make the count more ambiguous as to which side contained the most dots. In the ambiguous samples, the participants could more easily "misconceive" the number of dots contained in the right side triangle and thus earn more money. And, those participants who had been tested earlier and found to have more creativity were also found to have a higher level of "misconceiving" the number of dots on the right side.

The result of Gino and Ariely's second study showed that creativity is a better predictor of dishonesty than was intelligence. Thus, I guess, just because you're smart doesn't mean you are also creative, and conversely just because you're lower on the IQ scale doesn't mean you don't have a creative ability.

Their third study showed that people who enter a creative mindset were motivated to think outside the box and this is what led to increased levels of dishonesty. Their fourth study went a step further and showed that the creative mindset led to a justification for their cheating which led to their increased levels of dishonesty. Their fifth study went out into the real world with surveys to employees across seventeen departments. In those departments requiring more creativity in their jobs, the participants disclosed they were more apt to respond to proposed scenarios in an unethical way in order to benefit themselves.

Bottom line: It looks like creativity tends to help people work out original ideas to get around rules by letting them interpret information in a way to benefit themselves while rationalizing their actions. Sounds like most of the characters in my stories, not to mention the criminals I met while working the streets.

Anyway, getting back to authors, I'm going to assume all you writers out there are those creative people on the honest side. As for myself, well, several years ago Rob Lopresti did me a computer software favor and I promised to buy him a beer. Now, here we are three Bouchercons down the road and I still haven't bought him that beer. I could justify my lack of action by saying that I heard Rob doesn't drink, and somewhere in the back of my mind I do think I heard him say something to that effect, but then maybe I'm merely being creatively dishonest. Therefore, to slip into a more creatively CYA mindset, I will now go on record as offering to buy Rob the beverage of his choice at the Raleigh Bouchercon. This offer does not include Dom Perignon. I can't really slide that one past my tax accountant, seeing as how he seems to get a little funny at tax time when he looks at my expense receipts.

So remember my motto: Given enough time, I can explain anything. They just need to give me enough time.

03 September 2015

Serial Offenders

by Janice Law

Like most mystery fans, I have my favorites, characters I willingly read about time and again. Indeed, what lover of the genre wouldn’t like just one more Sherlock Holmes story or another vintage appearance from Lord Peter Whimsy or Adam Dalgliesh? Familiarity breeds contentment for the reader. The writer is another breed of cat.


Writers enjoy variety, new challenges, new plots, new directions, and perhaps for that reason even wildly successful mystery writers have sometimes had complicated feelings about their heroes and heroines. Demands for another helping of the same can arouse a homicidal streak – of the literary sort. Thus Conan Doyle sent Holmes over the Reichenback Falls and Henning Mankell gave Wallander not one, but two deadly illnesses. Agatha Christie wrote – then stored– Curtain, Poirot’s exit, at the height of her powers, while Dorothy Sayers, faced with either killing off or marrying off Lord Peter, mercifully opted for the latter. He was never the same in any case.


first POD for Anna. My design
During my career, now longer than I like to mention, I’ve twice created serial characters, each begun as a one off. Anna Peters was never projected to live beyond The Big Payoff and my second novel used other characters entirely. Alas, Houghton Mifflin, my publisher at the time, was not enthralled, and the new novel was destined to be unlucky. Bought by Macmillan – or so I thought – the deal fell through when the entire mystery division was folded.

Back to Miss Peters, as she was then. Nine more books followed. They got good reviews and foreign translations and sold modestly well, although not ultimately well enough for the modern publishing conglomerate. I did learn one thing I’ll pass on to those contemplating a mystery series: don’t age your character.

Sure, aging a character keeps the writer from getting bored, but in five years, not to mention ten or twenty years down the road, you’re getting long in the tooth and so is your detective. Poor Anna got back trouble and was getting too old for derring do. I was faced with killing her, retiring her, or turning her into Miss Marple.

I chose to have her sell Executive Security, Inc. and retire ( some of her adventures are still available from Wildside Press). I imagined her sitting in on interesting college courses and wondered about a campus mystery. But I was teaching college courses myself at the time, and a campus setting sounded too much like my day job.

Wildside edition,
last Anna Peters
For at least a decade (actually, I suspect two) I stayed away from series characters. I published some contemporary novels with strong mystery elements and lots of short stories. I liked those because I didn’t need to love the assorted obsessives and malcontents that populated them. I just needed to like them enough for 10-14 pages worth.

Then came Madame Selina, a nineteenth century New York City medium, whose adventures were narrated by her assistant, a boy straight out of the Orphan Home named Nip Tompkins. Once again, I figured a one off, but a suggestion from fellow Sleuthsayer Rob Lopresti that she’d make a good series character led me write one more – pretty much just to see if he was wrong.

That proved lucky, as she has inspired in nine or ten stories, all of which have appeared or will appear in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Thank you, Rob. However, there is a season for all things, and having explored many of the key issues of the nineteenth century with Madame Selina and Nip, I am beginning to tire of mysteries that can be wrapped up with a seance. That, by the way, gets harder each time out.

What to do? I’m not so ruthless as to kill off a woman who’s worked hard for me. But as she’s observed herself, times are changing and the Civil War, so horrible but so conducive to her profession, is now a decade past. As you see, I learned nothing from my experience with Anna Peters, as both Madame and Nip have continued to age.

I don’t think I’ll marry her off, either, although she knows a rich financier who might fill the bill. Instead, I think I’ll let her sell her townhouse and retire, perhaps to one of the resorts she favors, Saratoga or, better because I know the area, Newport, where she will take up gardening and grow prize roses or dahlias.

As for Nip, I’ve already picked his profession. Snooping for Madame Selina has given him every skill he needs to be a newspaperman in the great age of Yellow Journalism. Will the now teenaged Nip show up in print again?

We’ll see.

02 September 2015

Alien Fires

by Robert Lopresti

Two weeks ago my family cruised across Washington state to Spokane to attend Sasquan, the 73rd World Science Fiction Convention.  It was quite an experience, not least because it was the first such con to be held in the middle of a federal declared natural disaster.  On the way out through what has never been more accurately described as the Dryside of the Evergreen State we were listening to NPR.  The announcer came on and, quite out of the usual calm public radio persona, announced "The towns of Winthrop and Twisp are being evacuated.  If you are in Winthrop or Twisp head south immediately." We were already one hundred miles south.  That was the day three brave firefighters died.

The night before this I realized that I was coming down with a cold so, hoping to spare my car-mates my germs, I picked up a box of paper masks like the one above.  Little did I know that I had scored the most popular fashion accessory in Spokane that weekend. All the members of my group were wearing them and people were asking where they been acquired because the city was sold out.

This is what the view from the Conference Center is supposed to look like:

And here is how it looked on Thursday afternoon just after I left a panel on climate change:

My first thought was, jeez, the panel was convincing enough without the visual aid.

But this is supposed to be a blog about crime fiction, so I want to concentrate on the difference between the mystery fan world and the science fiction fandom, which is larger and has been around longer.  You will notice that some of these differences relate to each other (especially to the first)..

* The median age at a Worldcon is much younger than at Bouchercon.
*  There is much less emphasis on books.  I would estimate that at last year's B-con seventy percent of the energy (panels, special events, etc.) went into fiction with ten percent going to true crime including forensics), the same amount to media (film and TV), and ten percent to other.  At Worldcon I would estimate forty percent was about fiction.  The rest was scattered among real science, media, gaming, art, costuming, etc.
* Speaking of costuming… At B-con you will see a few trenchcoats and fedoras, some deerstalker hats, and occasionally a woman dressed for tea in St. Mary Mead.  But at any given moment at Worldcon at least twenty percent of the crowd was in costumes ranging from full Boba Fett armor to fairy princess complete with wings to a simple set of wolf ears poking out of one's hair.
* Free food is much more plentiful at Worldcon.  In orbit around the main hospitality suite were rooms for gluten-free/vegan, nutfree, kosher, and simply overflow (That's where the hot dogs were turning on rollers.)
* They have tech problems just like us!  I walked out on one panel because there were no microphones and I couldn't hear a thing.
* The swag bags are much better at B-con.  There you expect to find free magazines and half a dozen books you can swap at the multiplying freebies tables.  Nothing like that at Worldcon.
* A few times a year (like B-con and Edgars Week) the mystery writers and readers turn into a community.  But science fiction fandom is a culture, all year round.  There were actually workshops on the history of fandom, to help newbies get on board, and separate discussions of what should be collected now so that fen (SF people like their deliberate alien-y misspellings) in the future will have a record of fandom in the dim distant past of 2015.

And speaking of culture, every family has its feuds and this year a big one broke out.  Next time I will talk about that, and some of the panels as well.

01 September 2015

Introducing Sleuth Magazine

by Melissa Yi



There’s a new mystery magazine in town. Comes from that country with just two seasons, winter and mosquitoes.  Got some scorching hot writers who already won some awards, like them Derringers, Arthur Ellis Awards, Hugos and Nebulas. Thought I’d go check it out.

First I caught the editor. 

What made you decide to start Sleuth Magazine?

Editor Constantine Kaoukakis: I am a mystery fan, and I realized there isn't a mystery magazine published in Canada.

Publisher Diane Walton (President of the Copper Pig Writer's Society): Canada needed a magazine that could showcase home-grown writing talent.

Constantine:  However, our magazine accepts and publishes stories from any country as long as it is in English.


What kind of stories are you looking for? How did you choose the authors and stories for the first issue?
Constantine: I am looking for interesting stories that are original yet have some sort of mystery element.

Diane:  For the first issue, we invited authors that we knew could deliver a good story, but if and when we open to new submissions, it will be to anyone who wants to send us something.
Basic need is for a compelling tale of mystery or suspense, with engaging characters.

Do you have any funny/challenging stories about putting together the first issue?

Constantine: It was more work than I imagined, but I love it. I am proud of the first issue. I would like to thank our sister magazine On Spec for help.

Diane: We were fortunate to have a great designer to put the final product together in time for our launch.

Subeditor Barb Galler-Smith: I was very impressed with the two stories I helped to edit. Made me think I should try reading and writing some mysteries, which I haven't read since I was a callow youngster! It was a joy!

How will future issues be different?

Constantine: We could be including artwork. Hopefully, we will have a print version of the magazine depending on sales. At this point, I am hoping that there will be future issues. 

Diane: We want Sleuth to be self-supporting--without depending on grant funding. So we'll need revenues from subscribers, advertisers, and generous benefactors to make this happen.

How can we help Sleuth Magazine and other mystery markets thrive?

Constantine: We need to get the word out. We need more exposure. The more people buy and read our magazine, the better chance we have to continue publishing.

Diane: Word of mouth is our best friend, so when you read something you like, simply tell all the like-minded people in your network.

Constantine: Our first issue is in digital form, only $2.99 and filled with mystery short fiction by mystery writers. Please go to sleuthmagazine.ca to buy a copy of the magazine in pdf, mobi or ePub.


I hunted down a few of them writers. Not too hard. They like to talk.

Give me a few words about your story.
Melodie Campbell: I decided this was the perfect opportunity to introduce a concept for a humorous new series. To quote Del, the protagonist: "You've heard of The A Team? Vietnam vets turned vigilantes? They had a television show a while back. We're not them. We're The B Team. Maybe not your first choice, but dammit, we could be your best choice. We're women with a mission. We deal in justice, not the law. Sometimes the law lets you down. We try to rectify that."

Melissa Yi: Whenever I write a mystery, I’m always asking the question, Could I commit murder? And if so, why?
Edgar-nominated author Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith asked me to write a story about janitors as a class assignment. They were trying to shake me up because superficially, maintenance doesn’t have much in common with my day job of emergency medicine. But we’re alike under the skin. The title THE WAR OF THE JANITORS sprang to mind, and I immediately fleshed out a story about janitors trying to sabotage each other in a school seething with jealousy.

SG Wong: My short stories are all set in fictional Crescent City, and they always centre on a character other than Lola Starke (the protagonist of my novel series set in the same world). THE FIX takes place years before the action in DIE ON YOUR FEET (Lola’s debut) and revolves around her father, Butch Starke, and his beginning as a studio fixer.

Axel Howerton: It just so happened that I was looking for an excuse to try something with a new character, mixing true crime and hardboiled/noir elements in a short story set in early 50's L.A.—so I gave it my damnedest and GOODNIGHT IRENE is the result. I wanted to do something dark and nasty, in the noir mold. It's kind of an homage to James Ellroy.
My story’s main character, Moe Rossi, is the oft-mentioned grandfather in my book, HOT SINATRA. Moe is already dead by the events of the book. I really wanted to do something with him to flesh out his legend.

Tony Stark: In my tale, Watson must find his son's Afghani mother when the boy shows up on the doorstep of 221B Baker St. In the course of the story, Watson reveals in more detail the circumstances of his military service in Afghanistan. He and Holmes also crack a ring of antiquities smugglers and human traffickers to boot.

Would you recommend working with Sleuth Magazine?
Melodie: A new, paying market for mystery fiction? And it's Canadian? What's not to like? (grin) I'm delighted and honoured to be in the first issue.

SG: Full disclosure: I’m friends with many of the editors who work on Sleuth, as well as the publisher. Even so, I absolutely recommend working with Sleuth. They are intelligent, seasoned editors who have a real passion for mystery/crime writing, and work respectfully on accepted submissions. Also, they pay decent rates for stories and are unstinting cheerleaders for their authors. What’s not to love?

Melissa: I had a terrific experience with Sleuth Magazine. They paid promptly and worked hard to edit the story. I’m excited to join the inaugural issue with my fellow interviewees, as well as Mike Resnick, EC Bell, and Tyner Gillies. The cover is bang on its genre. I even like the POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS kind of font for the title and the page footers. I only wish I could’ve joined the launch in Calgary!

Tony: Yes, I would thoroughly recommend Sleuth magazine. The editors are first rate and everyone at the publication is dedicated to the art of mystery writing.

Axel: I loved the experience in working with Sleuth, especially with my amazing editor Barb Galler-Smith. In fact, I'm hoping to be able to help out a little more behind-the-scenes to help keep Sleuth alive and kicking. There are precious few venues left for Canadian crime fiction, or crime fiction in general, so something new like Sleuth needs to be protected and given space to grow and mature into its potential—and with people like Melissa Yi, Melodie Campbell, S.G. Wong, and Mike Resnick gracing the pages, it has tremendous potential indeed!


Huh. I get it.
Dark and nasty women.
Ghosts.
Holmes.
Grandpa.
Killer janitors.
But mostly dark and nasty women.
For just $2.99.
I better go track it down.