21 September 2015

The Little Murders

by Susan Rogers Cooper

We who write and read at SleuthSayers share a common bond: We love a good mystery. There are a lot of reasons people come to mystery: escape from their own lives; the purity of the store – good vs. evil; or simply because of the entertainment value.

There are those of us who only like cozies, and those of us who prefer our mysteries hard-boiled. And those who'll read anything they can get their hands on – that's the category I put myself in.

I admire people like John D. MacDonald and John Grisham who deal with the big murders – the corporate crime and national intrigue that leads to someone's untimely death. But those are not my stories. My stories are about the little murders, what we do to each other, to those we love and those we fear, for very personal reasons.

For years I was a trainer for new volunteers at Crisis Hotline in Houston. One of the exercises I taught the new trainees was a way to empathize with suicide calls. I told them: Start taking things away from yourself – your home, your family, your job, your friends, your health – until, in your imagination, you can feel that point where you might consider suicide.

That's the way I deal with the little murders. What would it take for you to commit murder? Not self-defense or defense of a loved one, or even a stranger – that's not murder. But under what circumstances could you see yourself calculating to take a human life? Planning it? Putting that plan into action?

A lot depends on the kind of person you are – or the kind of character I'm dealing with. What could seem a very legitimate reason to take a life to one person, to another is total insanity.
As writers we want to be clear as to motive – whether someone slept with someone else's spouse, or the dog down the street told them to do it. As readers, we need to feel satisfied as to the whys and wherefores. We want answers.

20 September 2015

Frightful Fun– a Short History of Halloween

by Leigh Lundin

Halloween has long been a festival of the dying year or, as the Celts (Irish, not Boston) viewed it, a conjunction of seasons where death met the birth of the then new year, the 1st of November. The Church frowned upon things not churchly, but the leadership was socially astute. While officially opposing syncretization, the Church often absorbed popular pagan festivals into Christian celebrations, such as turning the Roman Saturnalia into Christmas and fertility festivals into Easter. Thus the ancient Irish observation of their new year became the Christian All Saints Day.

Roman Holiday

The present date of Hallowmas and its vigil Hallowe'en was likely determined by Pope Gregory III (731-741), then extended throughout the Frankish Empire in 835 by King Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne. In the 11th century, Abbot Odilo of Cluny established the November date of All Souls Day to pray for the dead. Allhallowtide bridged the three holidays as observed by adherents around the world. The night before All Saints Day, the 1st of November, became a commemoration of all people hallowed– Hallowed Evening or Hallowe’en. The calendar appears as
31 Oct
All Hallows Eve
01 Nov
All Saints Day
02 Nov
All Souls Day

Some religionists don’t observe Halloween because it is Christian and others because it’s not Christian enough. Whatever its past, the holiday is based upon a complex and diverse history. The hallowtide holidays have become an exercise of imagination, a chance to reveal and grapple with our inner fear of things that go bump in the night.

The Celtic Connection

According to the History Channel, many practices have lent their observations to our modern holiday, souling and guising.
Much of our tradition came from Irish immigrants and grew out of Samhain (Gaelic pronunciation rhymes with how-when), a pagan fest where people disguised themselves to fool the ghosts and burnt bonfires to keep away the spirits. When the Church instituted All Saints Day, the ancient Celts saw little reason to give up the joy of their autumn celebration.

In medieval England and as far south as Italy, a ritualized form of door-to-door begging was called souling. In return for food and treats, they would offer to sing and pray for the dead. Often a traditional ‘soul cake’ was offered, typically filled with raisins or currants, apples or plums, and flavored with allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, or other sweet spices. They were marked with a ‘cross’ (hot-crossed buns) and often served with a tipple of wine.

Modern trick-or-treat carries an implied threat, a hint of blackmail that pranksters might T.P. your house or leave a salamander in your mailbox if you don’t pay off with a candy bar. In the Scottish custom of guising, children dressed in a mask and costume ‘in disguise’ would go house to house and offer a trick or treat– a magic trick, a song, a dance, or a riddle– and the lord of the manor would reward them with fruit, coins, a sweetmeat or cake.

Guy Fawkes
The British tradition of wearing masks while begging for coins on Guy Fawkes Night (also known as Bonfire Night commemorating the foiling of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot) may have influenced latter day Halloween celebrations. By the early 19th century, children roamed the streets on the evening of 5 November begging for “a penny for the Guy.”

Robert Browning
Much of our tradition of Halloweening goes back to a famous poem of Robert Browning, Halloween. Read the annotated version.

Jack O’ Lanterns
Bonfires and fire-lit lanterns have long had a Halloween history. Setting fire to ghosts and ghouls dates back centuries in ‘bone fires’, which became known as bonfires. Those may have evolved into setting masks on fire in ‘neep’ or turnip lanterns, where turnips where hollowed out and a lit candle placed inside. Pumpkins in the New World turned out to be much more convenient for hollowing and pumpkin lanterns have made their way back to Scotland, Ireland, and northern Britain. Some people used potato lanterns in much the same way called ‘tattie bogles’.

The Mexican Connection

Norte Américanos may be unaware of the Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival of our neighbor to the south. This Mexican form of Halloween is also celebrated on 31 October and their larger All Saints and All Souls festival as part of Hallowmas or Allhallowtide.

The 1st of November celebrates the loss of little children, Día de los Inocentes ("Day of the Innocents") but also as Día de los Angelitos, Day of Little Angels. The 2nd of November is the actual Day of the Dead.

The Mexican tradition mirrors our own in many ways with ghouls, ghosts, and skeletons. Like our Celtic ancestors, they light bonfires, which we continue at homecomings and on a small scale with jack-o’-lanterns. The Mexican season is even more strongly associated with the color orange. In the US and lower Canada, the leaves turn and we celebrate with pumpkins and squash. Mexico celebrates with red-orange cempasúchitls– marigolds of the Aztecs.

Our North American holidays grew out of auld world traditions, but American and Mexican enhancements have influenced the rest of the globe, linking prayer for the dead, mitigating fright with fun.

19 September 2015

Mystery Missteps

by John M. Floyd

Over the past few weeks, I've finished three mystery-writing projects: a 7500-word short story, a 110-page screenplay, and a 90,000-word collection of thirty of my stories. The short story will be submitted soon to one of the mystery magazines, the collection is scheduled to be released by my publisher next year, and the screenplay will probably be used to prop up a table leg--but all three were great fun to put together. What wasn't fun was proofreading my late-to-final drafts. I tend to make silly mistakes when I write, and the sheer volume of those mistakes gave me the idea for this column, which will probably contain even more mistakes. Believe me, I try to find and correct these before they go out into the world, but still . . .

Thorns in my side
Here are some writing errors (some minor, some not-so) that show up a lot in my fiction manuscripts:

Pet phrases. For some reason I apparently enjoy writing things like "she narrowed her eyes," "he scratched his chin," "she plopped into a chair," "his face darkened," etc.--there are a couple dozen of these--and I find myself using them over and over. Why? Who knows. My characters also seem to like sighing, staring, shrugging, and turning. Especially turning. They turn and leave, turn to reply, turn and look out the window, turn to answer the phone, and so on. It's the kind of repetition that annoys me when I discover it in my drafts, and if I left it in it would certainly annoy editors and readers. (Actually, if it bothers the editors it'll never get a chance to bother the readers.)

Overuse of dashes. I love dashes. Maybe because it's hard to use one improperly: under the right conditions they can be substituted for semicolons, colons, parentheses, and almost anything else. I use them often for asides--like this--and I also like the notion of "interrupted speech" (because real people interrupt each other all the time when they talk), and dashes are an effective sentence-ending way to indicate that. Even so, too much of anything is not a good thing.

Cliches. Boy do I like cliches. My excuse, I think, is that I use so many in real life it's only natural to want to put them into my writing as well. But if it's not in dialogue, a cliche probably doesn't belong in the story. When/if I come to my senses, I try to locate them and weed them out.

Backward apostrophes. This error occurs only when using certain fonts, but in Times New Roman, an apostrophe before something like em (Round 'em up and cuff 'em) winds up turned in the wrong direction--which looks ridiculous. To correct it, I type a letter immediately before it, then put in the apostrophe, then delete the preceding letter. A good way to remember it: type th'em and then delete the "th."

Too many combined words. This is something else I love, probably because it speeds up the pace. Examples: doublecheck, halfwit, ballplayer, dumptruck, kindhearted, mothership, workboots, overanalyze, mumbojumbo, coattails, thunderclap--and especially when they're used as adjectives, like smalltown politics or livingroom furniture or quartermile run. But I have to be careful not to do it when it really shouldn't be done (bluejeans, divingboard, machinegunfire, etc.). Being innovative goes only so far.

Extra spaces between words. This is pure carelessness. They're hard to catch, and they're distracting if you don't. If, for instance, you prefer to put only one space after a period, you should be consistent and do it every time.

Repetition. Especially in early drafts, I repeat so many things it's hard to believe: ideas, words, phrases (see "pet phrases," above), even locations and character names. In my defense, I think some of this comes from trying to make things extremely clear to the reader--but the truth is, today's readers are smart enough not to require everything spelled out for them in detail, or--to use another cliche--to have writers beat them over the head with something in order for them to understand it. Cutting out repetition is a large part of my self-editing process. It becomes even more important when putting previously published stores together in a collection, because those stories, when first written, weren't expected to ever be read back-to-back with other stories.

Omitted quotation marks (usually close quotes). More carelessness.

Using a for an, and vice versa. Why do I encounter this so often in late drafts, since I truly do know when to use one and when to use the other? Probably because I've gone back and changed things in the manuscript, and when I happen to change a noun that doesn't begin with a vowel sound to one that does, etc., I might've unintentionally created an "a vs. an" error.

Thorn removals
Some of the missteps I seem to have gotten better at avoiding, over the years:

Overuse of semicolons. I think semicolons are a great way to divide two complete sentences that are too closely related to be separated by the finality of a period. But semicolons do look a bit formal in genre fiction (certainly in dialogue), and too many of them can be distracting. These days, I go through my manuscripts-in-progress and try to turn most of my semicoloned sentences into two separate sentences, or add a "comma followed by an and," or substitute one of those overused dashes. But--just shoot me--I still like semicolons.

Too many "ly" adverbs. There's always been a difference of opinion as to whether this is even a problem, but most writers agree that it's better to use stronger verbs than to have to prop them up with modifiers.

Too many back-and-forth lines of dialogue without identifying the speaker. The reason I don't commit this error as often as I used to, I think, is that it irritates me so to find it in stories/books that I read. Nothing is more maddening to a reader than having to count lines backward to find out who's saying what.

Too many italics. Thank God I'm finally beginning to bring this weakness under control. You don't always need to put emphasis on a word, or italicize an unspoken thought; sometimes it's obvious from the way the sentence or paragraph is written. (Oh no, she thought, flattening her back against the wall. Did anyone see me?)

Overuse of ellipses. Unless you're hesitating . . . and even if you are . . . too many of these can become bothersome.

Unnecessary exclamation points. I almost never use an exclamation point anymore. When I do, it's in dialogue, and it has to be something like Your socks are on fire! or Look out, it's a werewolf!

Overuse of dialect. There's a fine line here. Some writers feel that any use of dialect is overuse. I maintain that using too many misspelled words to convey dialect can be a mistake. Sho nuff.

POV switches. These still sneak through at times, especially in stories with third-person-limited viewpoint. (Example: Judy looked at him, and her face turned red. If we're in Judy's POV, she can't see her own face turn red, even though she might "feel her face grow warm.") Other switches might include, in a third-person-multiple story, two characters having a conversation and jumping from one's POV to the other's too abruptly, without something like a scene break in between.


Not that it matters, but here are some things I find fairly easy to write, probably because I like them so much: dialogue, humor, plot twists, weird characters, action scenes, and surprise endings.

Things I find hard to write, probably because I don't like them much: descriptions of people and places, backstory, exposition, unspoken thoughts, flashbacks, and symbolism. I realize how necessary these can be, and I hope I'm getting better at them, but for me they require a lot of effort.

What are your strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes? What are some writing errors that constantly seem to find their way into your stories and novels even though you know better? Which ones bother you the most when you encounter them in the writing of others?

Whatever they are, here's to better mysteries and fewer (mys?)steps. For all of us.

18 September 2015

Last Call

It's getting late.
While there are all types of published writers out there, some literary, some commercial, some humorous, some serious, I have always considered myself to be like the guy relating stories to friends in a bar. We all relax, have a few drinks, and tales get told around the table. Not much literary about it, just common everyday folk getting together for a good time. Some tales are funny, some are sad, most are stories of people, life and just plain living, but in the end they seem to be entertaining to the listeners. Maybe even to folks we don't know who are sitting at nearby tables and listening in to what we say. Anyway, that's how I've tried to approach my story writing and my blogs.

My characters have mostly been drawn from people I've worked on or somehow met on the streets. A few are good guys, but most had at least one foot standing in the criminal element while they rationalized their actions. Don't know if they did the rationalizing in an attempt to convince others they were in the right to do what they did, or to convince themselves they had justification, or both. Personally, my vote would fall on the both category. And then, I also had relatives, friends and neighbors who unknowingly contributed phrases or gestures which helped tag a story character. Some of the latter group would not recognize themselves on the printed page even if the phrase or gesture was pointed out to them in the story.

Because of dealing with street thugs, con men, gangsters, dopers, crooked cops, outrageous lawyers, politics and the flashy adrenaline fueled side of life, most of my stories dealt with criminals as the protagonist. And while my main character may have been a bad guy, he was more likable than the antagonist and generally had some redeeming values. You could say it was our bad guy preying on worse bad guys who deserved what they got. Naturally, all of them could rationalize their actions.

My blogs have covered a wide range of storytelling in this SleuthSayers bar of ours. Past articles have covered stories from the street; topics on writing, getting published and writers conferences; backgrounds on various criminals; and trade craft on surveillance, undercover, raids, firearms and working informants. A couple of times I even ventured into the criminal backgrounds of popular songs from the past.

It's been a good run, but now it's last call and time for me to leave the bar.

I have truly enjoyed your company, everyone of you, whether you came on four years ago when our bar first opened or entered later on and took a seat at the table. This has been a fun, friendly get-together.

Take care and be safe.

17 September 2015

Secondary Characters, Primary Purpose

by Brian Thornton

Excerpt from the script for Wayne's World 2 (1993):

Wayne: Excuse me, what are you guys doing here in the middle of the street? 
Chicken-man: Well, I'm putting these chickens in crates, and stacking them right here. Jim's job is to make sure we always have plenty of watermelons. 
Wayne: Oh, so you're selling watermelons. 
Jim: No, no sir. We just have to make sure we have plenty of them stacked at all times, just like with these here chickens. 
Garth: What do these guys do? 
Chicken-man: Well, their job is to walk back and forth with this big plate-glass window every couple of minutes. 
Garth: Weird. 
Wayne: Yeah, you've got to wonder if this is gonna pay off later on. 

As a long-time fan of Mike Meyers' work, I have to say that the excerpt quoted above is, for me, the funniest thing he's ever done.  And it's not because of the dialogue, or the way that Meyers gives his trademark smirk at the end of the exchange in order to make sure that the audience is in on the joke.

It's because of how utterly, nakedly subversive the whole set-up is.

Meyers is able to get laughs here out of parodying the sheer laziness of Hollywood film-making with regard to the introduction of, and subsequent uses for secondary characters.

I mean, come on, how often in a thriller have we spent the first act trying to figure out which of the hero's buddies is going to be the "plucky comic relief," and which one is going to be cannon fodder in the writer's attempts to "raise the stakes"?
The brilliant Sam Rockwell as "Guy Fleegman," being reassured by the equally brilliant Tony Shalhoub, in "Galaxy Quest"


Because that's the pattern. You see it in every action movie ever made.

Now, don't get me wrong, every character introduced into any work of fiction must serve a purpose, or they must be cut. No exceptions.

And getting back to Meyers' bit about the secondary characters whose jobs are a naked set-up for a mayhem-filled prat fall to come in the film's final act, that's what makes it so funny, for me. Meyers doesn't even attempt to pretend to clothe these characters in legitimacy. They're simply set pieces for the bigger joke down the line.

(It's even funnier than the fact that Meyers breaks the fourth wall, a la Woody Allen, to speak directly to the audience)

And in so doing he pokes merciless fun at those who half-ass their background work, populating their fiction hurly-burly with flat, stock secondary characters who serve one naked purpose, moving through their portion of the story back and forth like a duck in a shooting gallery (or, if you prefer, like the two guys in Wayne's World 2 who move that piece of plate glass back and forth across the street) just waiting to fulfill that that singular purpose, and then be dropped.

I have been thinking of this sort of thing quite a bit lately, as I toil on my current Work-In-Progress. How do I make my secondary characters more organic? More believable? Less stock? How do I ensure that everyone who appears in my work serves a vital purpose, and isn't just some guy putting watermelons in a crate, or one of a couple of guys carrying a plate glass window back and forth across a street?

I have some answers, and I'll share them next week. If you've got ideas, drop them in the comment section, and I'll share them with the rest of the class in my next blog post in two short weeks.

Until then....

16 September 2015

Alien Fires 2

Continuing my report on Sasquan, the World Science Fiction Convention, held in Spokane in the middle of a wildfire disaster last month.

To the best of my knowledge the biggest squabble that ever occurred in the mystery world happened in the 1980s when some people complained that women were underrepresented in reviews, sales, and awards.  This was one fact that led to the creation of Sister in Crime, and caused MWA to change the way they formed award committees.

Well, trust me, that struggle was a pebble compared to the Mount Rushmore that hit Worldcon this year.

If you want details search the internet for "Sad Puppies."  As I understand it, one group of SF readers/writers was unhappy about what they saw as the field becoming more political and favoring certain stories and authors.  Frankly, to my ignorant outsider eyes it looked like they were complaining that an insufficient number of straight white men were being nominated.  But what do I know about science fiction?

In any case, they created a slate of candidates for the Hugo nominations and, in a quite legal way, gamed the election. The Hugo Award nominees and winners are chosen by people who register for the con (like our Anthony Awards), but for $40 you can buy a supporting membership.  That doesn't entitle you to attend, but it does let you vote.  I am told that approximately 400 people bought memberships so they could support the Sad Puppy slate.

One hundred and sixty grand can build an awfully high spite fence.

In some categories all the chosen nominees were part of the Sad Puppies slate.  (And some of these writers chose to remove their names from the ballot, rather than be associated with the Puppies.  Imagine waiting for years for a nomination and then feeling you have to turn it down!)

It got even weirder.  One writer on the Sad Puppy slate wrote to the Spokane Police Department, warning them that one of the guests of honor was "insane" and might incite violence.  (This wasn't a secret, by the way: he announced on a podcast that he did this.)  He later apologized.

The actual  Hugo Awards voting is complicated and allows for No Award (i.e. none of the above).  In five categories the voters rejected all the candidates, and in no cases did anyone supported by the Sad Puppies win.   Now the fans have to figure out a way to clean up the mess and I hope that none of this will repeat net year.

Oh!  Remember the con?  Panels and stuff like that?  Let's talk about that, shall we?  I will stick to stuff that can reasonably be tied to mystery fiction.

I had the chance to hear Connie Willis, one of my favorite SF writers,  read from her next book, Crosstalk.  It is a romantic comedy about telepathy.  (Think about that one for a moment.  The essence of romantic comedy is misunderstanding between sweethearts.  If they can read each other's minds... She set her self a challenge didn't she?)  But Willis also announced that for a future project she is rereading all of Agatha Christie.  She is convinced that Dame Agatha left clues behind concerning her famous disappearance in 1926.  I look forward to Willis's future reports.

There was a panel on fantasy and horror noir which I enjoyed a lot although there was the usual confusion between hardboiled and noir. Panelist John Pitts made the proper distinction, although he later blotted his copybook by calling Han Solo an anti-hero.  A rogue is not an anti-hero.

I attended a memorial for Stu Shiffman, a friend of mine who died last fall.  He was a wonderful graphic artist who worked in both the mystery and science fiction fields.  Attached is one of the many covers he did for Margo Power's late lamented magazine.

I attended three panels on short stories.  It was at one of those that I picked up the best piece of writing advice I heard that weekend, from Daryl Gregory: "Stop just short of the ending.  If you act like Tom Sawyer and let your readers do the rest of the work, they'll be more connected to the story, and thank you for it."

And speaking of quotations, here are a few gems I picked up.  As usual, if you want context, you're on your own.

"Style is what the writer does.  Genre is what the marketing department does."  - Richard Vadry

"Why is some short fiction better than novels?  Because it's riskier."  -Stefan Rudnick

"Other people have 'Do Not Resuscitate' orders.  I have 'No One Edits My Manuscript.'" - -Connie Willis.

"There's no platonic ideal of story."  -C.C. Finlay

"Every other writer's process is sort of vaguely scary and appalling." - Daryl Gregory.

"I can't say hello in less than five thousand words." -Mark J. Ferrari

"What relationships need is less communication, not more." -Connie Willis.

"I vote for more pretty boys reading the weather." -Janet Freeman-Daily

"'Theme' is what the critics use to describe what you did." - Eileen Gunn

"Writing a short story is a tightrope walk.  The craft is getting from one end to the other.  The art is doing a backflip in the middle."  - C.C. Finlay

"We need eco-zombies." - Gregg Castro

"The literary market does not believe in money.  At least, not for you." - Mir Plemmons.

"The happy ending is sadly underrated.  But it has to be earned." -Connie Willis.

15 September 2015

Nothing Like Holidays to Prompt Joy ... and Murder

Today is the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.  (Happy new year to my Jewish readers!) So it seems a perfect day to consider how often crime stories are set during holidays.
82 days until Hanukkah begins!
Crime on holidays? Particularly religious holidays? How blasphemous, some of you may be thinking. But the rest of you, admit it, you're thinking that holidays involve family, and family members not only know each other's buttons, but they love to push them. Of course there's crime during the holidays.

But how much crime? If you follow Janet Rudolph's Mystery Fanfare blog, www.mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com, you'll have an inkling. Janet loves holidays, and on every one, she posts a list of mystery books/stories she knows about that are set on that day. But reading these  lists piecemeal won't give you the full picture. That's why I've reviewed all her lists from the past year (you're welcome!) and learned that the most dangerous holiday is ...

Drum roll ...
Christmas! Yes, the culmination of the season of joy is the most crime-ridden day of the year, at least according to mystery-fiction writers. Last year Janet listed nearly 600 novels with Christmas crime. That's enough to make Santa go on strike.

What was the next most-dangerous holiday? Take a guess. It's kind of tricky. Ha! It's ... Halloween. The holiday of ghosts and goblins and children begging for candy is perfect for moody, scary stories. Janet's list last year had nearly 200 Halloween mysteries.
Far fewer mysteries have been set on today's holiday, Rosh Hashanah, but there are some. My Macavity Award-winning story "The Lord is my Shamus" references both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement), thought it's not set on either of these holidays. Last year Janet's blog listed eight novels and two short-story anthologies set during Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the days in between (the Days of Awe). I'll be heading over to her blog today to see if she's added any new books or stories to the list this year.

I've always been a fan of holidays myself. It's fun to dress up in costumes or to torture my dogs by dressing them up. (Check out the photos on the side.) I've written a number of short stories set during holidays, too, with Thanksgiving and Christmas being used most often (four stories each). (My website, www.barbgoffman.com, has a complete list of my published stories.) It's really a no-brainer: family in close quarters with lots of food and drink? Call the cops, baby, 'cause you know what's coming.

Indeed, knowing how ripe holidays can be for inducing murderous thoughts, a few years ago, authors Donna Andrews, Marcia Talley, and I decided that it would be fun to make holidays the theme for the seventh volume of the Chesapeake Crimes series (which we edit). We envisioned an anthology with short stories set on the standard big holidays, but we also hoped for stories set ones used less often in crime fiction. Our authors came through. The resulting book, Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Holidays, has stories set on Groundhog Day (my story), Valentine's Day, Presidents' Day, St. Patrick's Day, Halloween, Christmas, and (out of chronological order), Talk Like a Pirate Day. Arrr. Author Cathy Wiley gets mad props for coming up with a story set on this fabulous holiday, which occurs annually on September 19th. That's this Saturday, folks.

And in honor of this holiday, on this Saturday afternoon, five authors with stories in Homicidal Holidays--Donna Andrews, Clyde Linsley, Shari Randall, Cathy Wiley, and I--are scheduled to appear on a panel at Kingstowne Library in Alexandria, Virginia, to talk about using holidays in crime stories. The free event is open to the public. If you're in the Washington, DC, area, we hope you'll attend. You can get more details and register here: http://tinyurl.com/oh2h2kv. (The link will take you to the Fairfax County library website. The link was super long, so I shortened it.)

Cathy Wiley at our launch party.
We've had good luck with this book. My Groundhog Day story, "The Shadow Knows," is a finalist for the Anthony and Macavity awards, and it was a finalist for the Agatha Award in the spring. (You can read it here: www.barbgoffman.com/The_Shadow_Knows.html). Our own Art Taylor also has an Agatha Award-nominated story in the book ("Premonition," a Halloween story), and Cathy Wiley's pirate story ("Dead Men Tell No Tales") was up for a Derringer Award last spring.

So if you like holidays--and who doesn't?--I hope you'll attend this Saturday's panel to learn about using holidays in mysteries. It will be fun for readers and writers. And word has it that Cathy Wiley will be dressed as a pirate. Shiver me timbers, you can't get more fun than that.

Do you like reading mysteries set on holidays? If so, which is your favorite and why?

14 September 2015

Put The Words In The Right Order

Jan Grape    He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck. His arms hung loose at his sides and a forgotten cigar smoked between his enormous fingers. He was worth looking at. He wore a shaggy borsalino hat, a rough gray sports coat with white golf balls on it for buttons, a brown shirt, a yellow tie, pleated gray flannel slacks and alligator shoes with white explosions on the toes. From his outer breast pocket cascaded a show handkerchief of the same brilliant yellow as his tie. There were a couple of colored feathers tucked into the band of his hat, but he didn't really need them. Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.

    His skin was pale and he needed a shave. He would always need a shave. He had curly black hair and heavy eyebrows that almost met over his thick nose. His ears were small and neat for a man of that size and his eyes had a shine close to tears that gray eyes often seem to have. He stood like a statue, and after a long time he smiled.
— excerpt from Raymond Chandler's second novel, Farewell My Lovely

Chandler - Farewell My Lovely
As I read this I couldn't help wondering, did Chandler actually see a huge man dressed this way? Or was it entirely from his imagination? Or a combination of real life and imagination? I always thought it a combination… surely he didn't see a real person, as huge as Moose Malloy dressed in this way, but after yesterday when I saw how a man was dressed exactly as he wanted to be. He obviously dresses like this routinely, as he seemed comfortable.

The man I saw was not big, standing probably five feet and eight inches, and from the rear looked somewhat slender until he turned around and I saw his beer belly. He was wearing a navy tank top tucked into a pair of overwashed faded blue denim farmer's overalls. The front part of the overalls had pockets for pen/pencils and I'm the sure what else the man deemed important might be stuffed inside. The overalls were rolled up to his calves, like he'd been river wading and on his feet were a pair of bright pink rubber flip'-flops. He had a silver toe ring on the second toe of his left foot and on the left ankle was a bright orange woven ankle bracelet and a wooden bead ankle bracelet. On his right ankle was another bracelet of woven material. On both wrists were bracelets, two on each side of beads and woven material.

On his head way grungy muddy-brown-rolled brim straw hat with a dark hat band. A couple of long feathers were stuck in back of the band which were knotted and had one green dice attached. Around his neck was an assortment of chains of silver or gold or woven material. He had a pair of sunglasses which he'd pushed down in order to look over them.

There's almost no way Chandler could imagine the way Moose Malloy looked or was dressed, however if you had perhaps seen some real person dressed or built this way, you could make up the rest. There's almost no way I could imagine the way the man I saw was dressed. You'd expect an editor to write you back saying this character is totally unbelievable. As I stood looking at him, I wanted to take his picture but dared not make someone angry. Yet I kept wondering, did he honestly think he looked good or okay? Maybe he was working on his Halloween costume? Had he been playing dress-up with some pre-school grandchildren and decided to make a quick trip to the store to buy something electronic for his mother? (NO, it wasn't Walmart although a picture of him would surely be voted into the Walmart you've got to be kidding, hallmark hall of fame.)

I'll admit that I love to people watch. It's great fum to sit someplace and see people and imagine them as characters in your next story or book. I've seen oddities many times. I've used a gesture I've seen someone make or the way they look. It does give you a chance to draw from those characteristics to make my characters look and act more realistic. I'm probably going to have a character looking like the man I saw eventually and I've decided he'll be an eccentric billionaire. But no one will suspect he's rich until he's dead.

Sometimes a story just writes itself, you just have to put the words in the right order.

13 September 2015

The Law is an Ass

Florida postcard
“The law is a ass” runs the famous quotation by the beadle Bumble (I’ll probably never get another opportunity to write that phrase) in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, chapter 51 (or this squib in context). The sentiment is about the only agreement we find in the comeuppance of the unpleasant Mr. Bumble. Time has repeatedly proven the maxim.

Last year, we mentioned Florida’s Attorney General Pam Bondi attempted to stop a lesbian couple’s divorce. Not good for family values, see. Barbie Doll Bondi is the same AG who schedules her executions around cocktails.

Asinine is from the Latin for 'ass' and to be sure, Florida is loaded with asinine laws. You may remember we re-elected as governor the perpetrator of the largest Medicare/Medicaid fraud in history. It’s sadly ironic in so many ways that this governor has been a most ardent opponent of the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion, turning down billions in federal aid to 800,000 of the state’s needy. But you don’t have to oppose ObamaCare to appreciate the irony that Gov. Rick Scott and his cabinet (including Pam Bondi) pay only $8.34 a month for individual heath coverage. Our multi-millionaire governor shells out only $30 a month to cover his family of five. The poor need not apply.

As you already know, Florida originated the asinine Shoot First / Stand Your Ground law which supplanted the far more sensible Castle Defense. Now we have a ‘Gun Gag’ law, also called Docs versus Glocks, which forbids physicians from enquiring about guns in the home, even if, say a child, is obviously wounded by a gunshot.

It’s like the story about a poacher who sought medical treatment after a hunting accident. The man said, “Doc, I got run through by a tree branch.” The doctor looked closely at the wound and said, “Really? What calibre?”

In 2001, the governor and legislature proudly enacted the Scarlet Letter law (Florida Statute §63.088, voted for and passed by two present presidential candidates). Intentionally intended to humiliate, the statute required single women who wanted to put a child up for adoption to publish their sexual histories in a newspaper, not just once, but weekly for a month, paid for by the women themselves. The law compelled them to provide details about their sexual encounters including names of sex partners, physical descriptions (height, weight, hair and eye color), dates and locations. The law provided no exceptions for minors or victims of rape. Sensible liberals and conservatives came together to oppose the law and in 2003, the act was declared unconstitutional and repealed.

The Florida legislature decided it would be a genius idea to label sexual offenders as such on their driver's license so that they couldn't, say, visit Walt Disney World. Except the slot allocated on the Florida drivers licenses shares the same field as organ donor and glasses requirements. What could go wrong?

Florida was hardly done meddling in sex. This year we outdid ourselves with an act barring transsexuals from using public restrooms if their birth gender doesn’t match the picture on the door. Violation of this law, even in emergencies, can result in a year of incarceration although, in a twist of irony, the law doesn’t seem to specify men’s or women’s prison.

But wait, there’s more! Any non-transsexual who somehow discovers the chromosomes of the person in the stall next to them aren’t the same as their own may sue that person for emotional damages and attorneys fees. But stop! Florida law isn’t done. Said non-trans person may also sue the proprietor as well for damages and attorneys fees.

North Carolina postcard
But we’re not finished as we turn our attention to North Carolina.

An arrest in the Tar Heel State prompted today’s article. A minor charged as an adult is facing up to ten years in prison and registration as a sexual predator for having nude pictures of a minor on his cell phone.

Pictures of… himself.

Wait. Try to grasp that. Police are charging a boy as an adult for having naked photos of himself… because he’s a minor.

It’s like corrupting the morals… of himself. (His girlfriend was fined $200 for the same thing and does not have to register as an offender.)

Even though authorities have made his name and face public, the premise of this article is the law is an ass and it’s not up to me to disseminate his personal information. But even beadle Bumble could not have imagined such a plight.

12 September 2015

To Verb or Not to Verb?

"I can't access the fingerprint files," Phil said.
Sally fisted her hair. "Oh, no! That could negatively impact our investigation!"
Should I contact the lieutenant?" Fred asked.
"I'm efforting that right now," Phil assured him.
In this brief but thrilling bit of dialogue, I have verbed five nouns. That is, I have taken five words once firmly ensconced in the language as nouns, and I have used them as verbs. This sort of verbing seems to be going on a lot these days. We read newspaper articles about the benefactor who gifted the museum with a valuable painting, about the county office transitioning to a new computer system. And of course almost all of us speak of texting people and friending people. Some of us say we Facebook.

Should we accept the verbing trend as inevitable, perhaps desirable? Should we resist it? Does resistance make sense in some cases but not in others? Writers, including mystery writers, probably have some influence on the ways in which language changes, perhaps more influence than we realize. So maybe, before we let ourselves slip into following a linguistic trend, we're obliged to examine it carefully, to think about whether it's a change for the better.

Obviously, there's nothing unusual or improper about a word functioning as more than one part of speech. "He decided to turn off the ceiling light and light the candles, while his wife, wearing a light blue dress, fixed a light supper." Here, in one sentence, "light" serves as noun, verb, adverb, and adjective--repetitive, but not ungrammatical or unclear. And I think we'd all agree language is a living thing that needs to change to meet new needs. Many would argue (and I'd agree) that the English language, especially, is vital and expressive precisely because it's always been so flexible and open, so ready to absorb useful words from other languages and to adjust to changing conditions. Sometimes, change means inventing new words to describe new things--telephone, astronaut, Google. Sometimes, it means using existing words in new ways--text, tablet, tweet. These sorts of changes in the language reflect changes in reality. Some of them may enrich the language; some may make it sillier or less euphonious. Either way, trying to resist them is probably pointless.
I'm not so sure about "fist." I've been seeing it used as a verb more and more lately, especially in erotic scenes. Usually, it's a man who does the fisting, and it's a woman's hair that gets fisted--"Lance pressed his body against Desiree's and fisted her hair, declaring he could not bear to leave her that night." Well, gosh. First of all, I have trouble picturing exactly what Lance is doing to Desiree's hair. He's grabbing hunks of it, I guess, and forming his hands into fists around the hunks. If that's what he's doing, couldn't we just say "clutched"? I have a feeling some writers choose "fist" because they think it sounds sexier and more forceful, because it hints at a trace of coercion, a smidgen of violence. If that's the appeal of "fist," maybe it's a verb we can do without. Let's have Lance stroke Desiree's hair while keeping a respectful distance from her and suggesting they discuss their plans for the evening. If we want to get sexier, he can always finger a tendril.

Is verbing such a change? In some cases, I think, it probably is. Consider the first sentence in the opening dialogue. "Access" used to be a noun and nothing but a noun. Fowler's Modern English Usage (I've got the second edition, published in 1965, inherited from my English professor father) draws careful distinctions between access and accession, showing scorn for those who "carelessly or ignorantly" confuse the two. Fowler doesn't even consider the possibility that anyone might use "access" as a verb. One might need a key to gain access to the faculty washroom, but the idea that anyone might access the washroom--no. Today, though, when almost all of us use computers and often have trouble getting at what we want, using "access" as a verb seems natural. Yes, Phil could say he can't gain access to the fingerprint files, but the extra words feel cumbersome here, an inappropriate burden on a process that should take seconds. Old fashioned as I am, I think using "access" as a verb might be a sensible, useful adjustment to change.

Back to the opening dialogue: Sally fears not being able to access the fingerprint files "could negatively impact our investigation." I think some writers use "impact" as a verb because, like "fist," it sounds sexy and forceful, sexier and more forceful than "affect" or "influence." But does it convey any meaning those words don't? If not, I'm not sure there's an adequate reason for creating a new verb. And if we have to modify "impact" with an adverb such as "negatively" to make its meaning clear, wouldn't it be more concise to choose a specific one-word verb such as "hurt" or "stall"--or "end," if the negative impact will in fact be that bad? Again, I'd say "impact" is a verb we can do without. It answers no need our existing verbs fail to meet. It adds nothing to the language.

What about "contact"? In the opening dialogue, Fred asks if he should "contact" the lieutenant. Like "access," "contact" was once a noun and nothing else. Is there a problem with using it as a verb as well? Strunk and White think so. In the third edition of Elements of Style (a relic from my own days as an English professor), they (or maybe just White) declare, "As a transitive verb, [`contact'] is vague and self-important. Do not contact anybody; get in touch with him, or look him up, or phone him, or find him, or meet him." Or, in this situation, Fred might ask if he should inform the lieutenant, or warn her, or ask her for advice. "Contact" is pretty well established as a verb by now, but I think the argument that it's "vague and self-important" still holds. "Contact" is a lazy verb. It doesn't meet a new need--it just spares us the trouble of saying precisely what we mean. Even if few readers would object to using "contact" as a verb these days, writers who want to be clear should still search for a more specific choice.

Common Errors in English Usage: Third Edition
Then there's "effort." What possible excuse can there be for transforming this useful noun into a pretentious verb? In the second edition of Common Errors in English Usage (a wonderful resource), Paul Brians declares such a transformation "bizarre and unnecessary": "You are not `efforting' to get your report in on time; you are trying to do so. Instead of saying `we are efforting a new vendor,' say `we are trying to find a new vendor.'" Maybe some people think "efforting" will make it sound as if they're working harder. If so, they can always say they're "striving" or "struggling"--but those words will be obviously inappropriate if not much work is actually involved, if they're just making a phone call. Is "efforting" appealing because it lets us get away with making simple tasks seem more arduous than they really are? If so, we should definitely resist the temptation to inflate the importance of what we're doing by using a fancy new verb.

A photo showing the head and shoulders of a middle-aged man with black hair and a slim moustache.
By now, some may be wondering if any of this matters. If we want to dress up our sentences by turning some nouns into impressive-sounding new verbs, so what? Where's the harm in that? George Orwell provides an answer in his classic "Politics and the English Language." I can't summarize his subtle, complex argument here; I can only offer a quotation or two and urge anyone who hasn't already read the essay to do so. Just as ideas can influence language, Orwell argues, language can influence ideas. The English language "becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." Nor should we surrender to damaging trends in language because we assume resistance is futile. "Modern English, especially written English," Orwell says, "is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble." As writers, perhaps we have a special responsibility to protect the language by setting a good example. At least we can effort it.

Oops. Sorry. At least we can try.

11 September 2015

The Haunted Castle

Two weeks ago, I provided a short introduction to the Tovrea Castle, here on SleuthSayers, and I
promised to let you know why this home, built to rather resemble a wedding cake, is connected to intrigue in the mind of Phoenicians.

This week I present the first installment.

As you may recall from my last post (and I'm not planning to test anyone, so don't let your shorts get all bunched up) the house was originally built by Allesio Carraro for use as a hotel.  The local cattle king, E.A. Tovrea, later purchased the place, located almost literally right on top of his stockyards, so that his wife and he could move in and use it as their home.

In fact, there was a large stretch of land that Carraro had been hoping to buy off another fellow, in order to build a housing tract associated with his hotel.  He also thought this land might help provide a buffer between his hotel and the stockyards.  Though both Carraro and Tovrea supposedly offered the owner of that land a similar amount of money, the land went to Tovrea.  Carraro's complaints that "the fix was in" didn't prevent old E.A. from promptly building a huge sheep pen on that land, further inundating Carraro in the smell of livestock on his front door, thus pressuring the man to finally sell out.

Della Tovrea
As luck would have it, E.A. died about nine months after the move from their previous home at 48th street and Van Buren was completed.  His wife, Della, however, continued to live in the house until "her death" as the story goes.

And, the "story" goes further ... at least that part of it whispered from the lips of Phoenicians here in the Great Salt River Valley.  To hear folks talk, Della died in that house.  Murdered in cold blood.  In the dark of night.  Trying to defend her home from two intruders.  And her ghost now haunts the place, wreaking poltergeist havoc among any small bands of explorers curious to see inside the old house.  At midnight on the anniversary of her death, a woman in white is said to be seen waving in distress -- sometimes even wailing weakly for help -- from the roof walk outside the upper room, just below the cupola.  Woe unto the man who tries to render her aid, however: as soon as he sets foot inside the house, she flies into a rage, screaming, "INTRUDER!  THIEF!" and kills him.

These are the gentle stories I heard about the place as a child, while growing up here in The Valley of the Sun.

For those of you unacquainted with our sweet little valley, let me tell you the following, in order to give you some idea of what it's like here: The Valley of the Sun (which the Navajo rightly call "Hoozdo" meaning "The place is hot." -- that's the truth incidentally; not a joke) is really a huge basin area occupying hundreds of square miles, surrounded by low mountain ranges.  This basin was once dominated by the Salt River (and, in a way, it still is). This river, called "Onk Akimel" or "Salty River" by the Akimel (Pima) Tribe, drops 10,000 vertical feet from its origins in the White Mountains (These mountains are the sacred "Dzil Ligai" of the White River Apache Tribe.) to enter the Great Salt River Valley from the east and run across its width, pouring away to the west.
Roosevelt Dam, completed in 1911,
with Theodore Roosevelt Lake behind it.

The Salt River was dammed up back in the early 20th Century, creating a series of lakes that act as reservoirs, and dams that provide electricity.  This was done as part of the National Reclamation Act, and was known as the Salt River Project -- an undertaking roughly akin to the Tennessee Valley Authority.

After all the damming, the part of the Salt River that ran through The Valley was completely dry, except when it rained hard enough (or if snow melt up north raised lake levels far enough) to force employees of Salt River Project (known locally as "SRP") to open the flood gates.  At those times, the old Onk Akimel roared deep and muddy.

Tempe Town Lake
Today, much of this section of the riverbed is still dry.  However, the city of Tempe has built a "lake" in part of the riverbed, by establishing inflatable dams across it that can be deflated and lowered during flood periods when the river needs to run.

When the river isn't running, the city raises the dams and pumps water into the "lake," filling it.  They even have some odd plan, which I don't understand, that entails letting water seep out of the east end of the lake, to reestablish a marsh area that once existed here.

But, what, you may ask, does all this have to do with those stories of Della Tovrea's murder and her ghost?

Well, in my opinion, it has almost EVERYTHING to do with BOTH of these things.

You see: They're both bunk!  Della Tovrea's death did have violent overtones, but she wasn't murdered.  She didn't even die in the house.  And her ghost has -- so far as I have been able to ascertain -- never been reportedly seen at the house.

The city now owns the property and runs tours through the place, and certainly no one has ever reported any poltergeist events from this "intrusion."  And, I can't find a single source who actually claims to have personally seen old Della's ghost up on the rooftop. Those old-timers who told me these stories have died off, you see.

So, where did these stories come from?

Well, here we come to why I told you about The Great Salt River Valley, and the river from which she draws her name.  Both the river and the valley, the physical geography of this desert basin, provide the answer in my opinion.  How?

You recall that I told you all those Native American names for the Salt River and the valley it runs through?  I did that, because it's natural to do so.  You see, Native American culture runs as a sort of life's blood through the entire valley.  This Valley of the Sun (Hoozdo in Navajo) is not only hot, it's also a place of ancient human civilization.

And that's no accident.

In the final years of that time period we denote by the initials B.C., the Hohokam -- a prehistoric Native American tribe -- established the first known civilization here.  It seems they were lured from within the desert by the Onk Akimel (Salty River). They established large communities in the valley, and over a thousand miles of canals that moved water from the Salt River to their farm fields.  The latest remains of the Hohokam indicate that their civilization died out, or significantly changed, around A.D. 1450.

Today, two tribes in the area claim the Hohokam as their ancestors: the Tohono O'odham (meaning Desert People) and the Akimel (meaning River).  The Tohono O'odham are often called the Maricopas, while the Akimel are colloquially referred to as the Pimas.  These two tribes now share the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community which is very nearly surrounded by the valley cities of Scottsdale, Mesa, Chandler and Fountain Hills.

While only two tribes claim the Hohokam as their ancestors, however, the survival of every living soul in The Valley depends upon this ancient civilization.  That's because, in 1867, after rounding up enough backers to make it possible, Jack Swilling (known today as "the founding father of Phoenix") revived several of those ancient Hohokam canals and began selling irrigation water by the board-foot.  Over time, he excavated more ancient canals, even building a few new ones, to spread his irrigation business to farms across the valley.

Today, SRP uses those same canals (plus some newer, larger ones) to deliver water to the Phoenix Metro area.  Without those canals running along at our feet, all us Valley Dwellers would die of thirst within days.  So, while only two tribes claim descent from the Hohokam, all of us here in The Valley of the Sun virtually "swim" (and at times literally swim!) in water provided by the work they did here.

Consequently, Native American culture runs deep and wide across the Great Salt River Basin.  It always has, since the day Jack Swilling started promoting their canals as the key to prosperity here.  In fact, when I was a kid, I knew a LOT of folks who couldn't really tell me what street they'd been born on.  Instead, they told me the "laterals" that intersected nearest to where their family lived at the time. These "laterals" were the canals, and they were numbered.  I can't tell you how often I heard old timers wax nostalgically about places such as "Ah, the old intersection of 34 and 55, what a place!  What a time!"  For them the canals were not only viaducts providing water, but also navigational touchstones they lived their very lives by!  They basically lapped up Native American culture every time they took a drink, and they followed it to find their way to school or work, and back home again that night.

Superstition Mountains
Add to this, the fact that several tribes live in the area, and their members interact with city folks on a daily basis, and you can quickly understand how large a stamp Native American culture has made upon Valley dwellers.  At the east end of the valley, for instance, stand a set of imposing mountains known as the Superstitions.  Aptly named: this is where the Apaches had a legendary secret mine from which they dug all their gold; a mine protected by the spirits of dead ancestors.  It's also the range in which a certain fellow of supposed Dutch descent wound up disappearing, after he came into town with a lot of very pure gold that he claimed to have dug out of that mine!

The Cactus Garden

In fact, the very Saguaros in the Cactus Garden surrounding Tovrea Castle is tied to Native American lore.

Supposedly, saguaro cactus grow where an "Indian Brave" died, and the number of arms on the cactus are commensurate with the number "Bravery Feathers" that brave earned during his lifetime. This is pretty obviously a "White Man's" "Indian Legend" I'd say, in that it makes little sense but it's a nice story, fun to repeat around the campfire, or when taking out-of-towners on a desert tour.

Which is exactly how I think those stories of Della's murder and subsequent hauntings came about.  Folks around here are prone to hear "White Man" interpretations of Native American myth, as well as complete fabrications about them.  The folks who hear these tales know they probably aren't true, but they make nice stories to share and spread.  At the same time, there is a sort of magic here, the magic of water spread evenly across an arid land, turning it lush and green -- a magic rooted in the practices and cultures of ancient Native Americans.  A magic so strong, that folks used to locate their very bodies by the canals that magic carved into the earth at their feet.

That's strong stuff, this magic.  It's based on ancient myth, ancient truths, modern facts and actions, and it became deeply altered as it all passed from one culture to another -- which didn't dilute that magical feeling one bit.  It heightened it instead, made Valley Dwellers ready to see magic in any and everything.  And if that little magical story didn't make sense, but sounded good and might be fun to pass along, and maybe even believe in a little bit ... well that was alright too.

But, The facts are these: In late 1968, thieves broke into the house.  Della, who was sleeping on a cot in the kitchen at the time, heard them upstairs, and began firing her pistol through the kitchen ceiling, hoping the rounds would come up through the floor on the next level and peg the intruders.  Her plan failed, and the thieves tied her up before making off with $50,000 in furs and jewelry.  For many years, it was said that the thieves beat and tortured her, trying to get her to reveal details about hidden loot, however a docent working at the castle said that they only tied her up and did not harm her.  She died a few months later, at the age of 81, on January 17th, 1969, while in a nursing home.  She died from pneumonia, not a beating.

Obviously, there was a crime here.  In fact the criminals were later caught and prosecuted; some of the stolen goods were even recovered.  But, they didn't murder Della, or even beat her.

I had often heard that the reason the thieves were trying to torture her, was to force Della into revealing the manner in which this artwork on left could be manipulated, in order to open it and reveal a hidden wall safe behind it.  Said safe supposedly stuffed with treasure.  I don't think that's a likely story either.

So why all the stories?  This is the West, with a capital W.  Tovrea Castle sits only a short distance from Pueblo Grande, a village built and lived in by ancient Hohokam.  The house has an odd look to it, folks were not permitted to visit very often (Della supposedly had that pistol handy because she used it to scare the curious off the property.), and this is a valley steeped in legend.  Sometimes those legends have some basis in reality, but others are pure invention, and it can be very hard to tell which is which at times.

And, thus, the truth of a break-in, in which the homeowner is tied up and later dies through non-
associated circumstances, becomes romanticized by members of the public.  Tongues wag.  And a ghost is born.

I promised not only theft, last week, associated with a Tovrea wife, but also murder.  And, there is a murder, it's just not THIS Mrs. Tovrea.  I'll tell you all about that one next time!

See you in two weeks!

10 September 2015

Presumed Guilty

A while back at the pen we did an exercise which started off with the question, "Have you ever been falsely accused?"  We only had one guy who went off about the reason for his current incarceration, but by the time they get to an Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshop, the inmates are generally up front about what they did, and sometimes even why.  But everyone could think of a time or two when they had been falsely accused - and presumed guilty - including me.

When I was a child, my mother operated under the assumption that I was getting into trouble, and she just hadn't caught me yet.  She would search my bedroom while I was at junior high.  She would never let me close the door.  And other things.  I lived on a very tight leash.  Thirty years later, she told me that she'd known that I'd been having sex with someone (before I was 14).  I told her the truth:  she was dead wrong.  (I don't think she believed me, even then.)  The truth was, I was a nearly straight-A student (except for gym class, where I always got "D"s), obedient out of fear, and an extremely quiet bookworm.  Over time, I did drink some - there was booze all over the place and (what the hell) nobody kept track of the levels.  I also did do some drugs - there were bottles of Darvon all over the place, and nobody kept track of those, either.  But both of those were survival tactics.  Sometimes you have to numb the pain.  And I left home as soon as I was old enough to survive on my own.

The thing is, I could never convince my mother that I wasn't doing what she thought I was doing.  I was presumed guilty - and that happens a lot, to a lot of people.  In my case, I was presumed guilty for two main reasons:
(1) She as an alcoholic, and alcoholics/addicts believe what they want.  Anything for another reason/excuse to have a drink.
(2) She had done what she suspected me of doing.  I didn't find that out until much later, until after she was dead, and her only brother filled me in on the secret parts of her life and their family life (alcoholism ran in the family for generations) that she had kept hidden for so long.

There's a lot of that around.  Presumed guilty.  Shifting guilt.  Projection.  Think of all the politicians and preachers who have been rabidly anti-homosexual or screaming about family values and then been caught with their pants down in a men's bathroom, sexting their interns, screwing hookers, or more recently, being outed in the Ashley Madison hack.  It's classic psychology:  people with guilty consciences accuse everyone around them of doing what they have done or long to do.  Especially if they're alcoholics/addicts (and you can get addicted to fame - look at the Donald).  Addiction makes the addict accuse everyone around them because it's an excellent way to deflect attention away from their own behavior.  Go on the offensive:  attack, so that the people around them end up defending themselves, apologizing, perhaps even profusely apologizing, begging, pleading, etc., while they go get another drink/hit/high.  And guilt can work exactly the same way.

We talk a lot about presumption of innocence - and thank God for that concept - but presumption of guilt is pretty high, from the personal to the international level.  The assumption that the kid from the wrong side of the tracks is going to be trouble.  That family is always bad news.  That THEY (neighbors/cousins/in-laws, etc.) will never change.

Internationally, that guy with the turban is dangerous.  THAT country is always going to be trouble. Everyone wants what we have, and will do anything to get it.  Thus, with the whole Iran thing: Iran must want nuclear weapons, be working towards nuclear weapons, be stopped from getting nuclear weapons, despite their endless denials of wanting nuclear weapons and despite the fact that they've never gotten them, even though they have the oil, the money, and the willing suppliers, and more of all three - for decades - than Pakistan or North Korea, who did get them.  But Iran is presumed guilty. Always.  Why?  Well,

Destruction of the Shia tomb of Husayn
at Karbala, Iraq, at the hands of
the Mughal (Sunni) Empire
(1) Perhaps because we have an old grudge against them, because of the 1970s hostage crisis.  (Of course, they've got one against us for when the British MI6 and the United States CIA toppled their democratically elected Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953 and put in General Zahedi, who was a nasty piece of work.)

(2) Perhaps because we chose the other side in the current religious civil war.  In the Middle East, Iran and southern Iraq are Shia, and almost all the rest - Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Oil states in general, etc. - is Sunni, and nobody is giving up any time soon. BTW, ISIS is Sunni, too, so those who conflate Iran and ISIS are just plain ignorant.  (For a better understanding of what's going on in the Middle East, I recommend a study of the European Wars of Religion, 1524-1648, which were nasty, bloody, often more political than religious, and one big brutal mess.)
NOTE:  Yes, I know that Iran supports Hezbollah and other anti-Israeli terrorists (not that they're the only Arab country that sponsors anti-Israeli terrorists, including some of our allies, cough, cough, hint, hint).  It's still not nuclear weapons.   
(3) And perhaps it's because we, the United States of America, have the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons in the world, and are the only country who has ever used nuclear weapons, and so we expect everyone to do as we did.  If they get the chance.  We did it, so everyone else must want to, too. We're constantly arming ourselves, so everyone else must want to, too.  Presumed guilty.

But back to the daily round, the common task.  Look around your neighborhood.  Or, if you've moved and don't know your neighbors, think back to your childhood.  Who was the kid who was blamed for everything, sometimes justly, and sometimes as a very handy scapegoat for whatever happened? Who was the family that everyone looked upon with disdain?  Who has been falsely accused of something they didn't do, and can never prove that they didn't?  Who has accused someone else?

I used this concept of presumption of guilt in "Public Immunity". In that story, everyone in Laskin comes to believe that Grant Tripp, the police officer who often narrates my stories, is guilty of killing Neil Inveig.  And they're going to give him a pass on it, because Inveig deserved it, and God knows Grant had good reasons.  And there is nothing Grant can do about it.  Because of people's determined beliefs about what happened one night, he can't explain/persuade/prove his innocence.  He is presumed guilty for the rest of his days...  It's a recurring (though not always obvious) theme with Grant, that he's stuck with a reputation as a killer that he will never be able to shake, because no one will ever talk about.  At least, not in front of him...

Presumed guilty.  God help Grant, and all like him.