06 August 2015

History: a Study in Coincidences


by Brian Thornton

"We are continually shaped by the forces of coincidence."

                                                                                                   – Paul Auster

Have you ever heard the one about how two men, born one year and and a hundred miles apart, went in different directions while still children, and grew up to be antagonists in this country's greatest internal struggle, the American Civil War?

Yes, that's right, Jefferson Davis, born in 1808, just outside what is now Fairview, Kentucky, spent his earliest days just about a hundred miles due west of Hodgenville, Kentucky, the closest metropolitan center to the hardscrabble farm that became the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln in 1809.


Davis' family moved south into the newly-settled lands along the lower Mississippi, where his father quickly established a successful plantation. Lincoln's father–an illiterate carpenter who resented both the slaves his elder brother had inherited along with the family farm upon their father's death and how slave labor undercut the fees free tradesmen could charge–uprooted his family and moved north, across the Ohio River into Indiana, and eventually into southern Illinois.

Davis' Birthplace in Kentucky – There is no accurate depiction of Lincoln's birthplace

This is just one example of the coincidences which pop up in history from time to time. I mean, think about it: through a coincidence of birth, the first openly abolitionist president and one of the antebellum South's wealthiest slave-owning politicians were born within a year of each other, in the same state, nearly next-door to each other, and yet look how differently they turned out!

Here's one you may not have heard about though.

 Two men, born on adjacent Caribbean islands, within five miles of each other, their birth places separated only by a shallow, two mile-wide stretch of ocean known as "The Narrows." Both of these men were born out of wedlock to members of their respective island's planter class. Both of their fathers were British-born and raised, coming out to the "Sugar Islands" seeking their fortunes.

The view from one of the Caribbean Islands mentioned above to the other Caribbean island mentioned above
Both of these men early demonstrated so much native intelligence that they were sent abroad (One to England, the other to New York City) to receive an education superior to the one they could have received at home.

Both of these men became very successful in both business and politics. They were both products of slave-holding societies during the 18th century, and it was on the subject of slavery that these two men could not have been further apart. One of them, impressed by the writings of Enlightenment philosophers on the subject, became a confirmed abolitionist at a time when it was rare for a gentleman, even those who found slavery distasteful, to express an interest in completely destroying the practice.

The other inherited his father's sugar plantation back home, and owned slaves until the very day the practice was abolished.

Oh, and there was one other area in which the two men vastly differed. Ethnically. One was Scottish and English, and the other was the half-Welsh son of a plantation owner and one of his black slaves, and thus born into slavery himself.

Care to guess which one was the abolitionist, and which one was the slave-owner?

Tune in right here in two weeks to find out.

Feel free to express an opinion or hazard a guess in the comments section.

See you in two weeks!


05 August 2015

As long as a piece of string


by Robert Lopresti

If you catch me talking to myself, don't worry.  No more than you usually worry about me, anyway.  I am practicing - rehearsing, I suppose.  In a few weeks I will be doing a signing at my local bookstore, and I will be reading from my new novel.

Which brings up an old question: how long should one of those events be?  My feeling is this:
* Five minutes of introductory prattle
* 20-30 minutes of reading
* Half an hour of Q&A.
* Two hours of frenzied crowds standing in line for autographed copies.

Okay, the last bullet is sheer fantasy, but do the rest of them sound right to you?

When my book of short stories came out last year I picked out a few fragments that added up to twenty minutes and thought I had nailed it.  But a friend of mine said that he thought it had been too short.

Trust me when I say I am not used to people telling me I don't talk enough.  That is not the standard complaint.

There is another complication in this case.  My current book, being about the Mafia, features a good deal of violence, sex, and profanity.  And I ain't reading those scenes out loud.

I deliberately created a few key scenes at the beginning that are free of those three special treats, figuring that those are the ones I would read.  Turns out they aren't long enough, so I expect I will bowdlerize a few naughty words, warning the audience in advance that they are being subject to censorship.  Any thoughts on that are welcome.

Hey, maybe nobody will show up and I won't have to worry about it.  But, regrettably my friends are extremely loyal and I can count on them.  Terrible the way I suffer.

So, writers: how do you organize a reading?  And readers: what do you hope for at one?


04 August 2015

The Importance of Mentors


Photo by Robin Templeton
by Barb Goffman

I'm so pleased to be joining the SleuthSayers blog. As I contemplated what to write in my first post here, I remembered another time when I was the new kid. It was the summer of 1993, and I was interning as a reporter at Newsday on Long Island. Newsday is a big newspaper now, but back then it was even bigger--its circulation placed it in the top ten of US daily newspapers. Getting that summer job was a huge deal, and I arrived on my first day excited and eager and more than a little nervous. And then I met my editor for the summer, Dennis Bell.

Dennis Bell
I've had my share of good and bad bosses over the years. Dennis was one of the best. He had a smile that even now, twenty plus years later, makes me break out into a smile of my own. Dennis believed in his reporters. He backed them up. He helped them improve. He came to a barbecue I threw and hung out with everyone, just one of the gang, kind and cool, a great mentor.

But Dennis was more than that. He was a guy who started out at Newsday as a janitor, and he worked his way up and became a reporter. He went on to win a Pulitzer Prize as part of a reporting team sent to cover famine in Ethiopia. And then he became an editor and tried to help young people succeed, just as he had. Dennis was a role model, someone I hoped to emulate in my career, and someone I hoped to keep in touch with forever.

Forever came to a screeching halt two years later when Dennis died. To this day, I'm still a bit heartbroken.

Yet Dennis lives on, not only in my memory, but surely in the memories of all the reporters who worked for him on the Suffolk County desk, as well as his family and friends. He lives on as reminder to work your hardest--you never know how far you can go--but to also have a little fun along the way. I hope to do that here at SleuthSayers: a good job talking about writing, and having a little fun while I'm at it.

My dog, Jingle. More on him later.
Which reminds me, I've told you about Dennis, but not much about me. After working as a reporter for a few years, I went to law school. And after working as an attorney for nearly a dozen years, I became a freelance fiction editor. In my spare time, I'm a voracious reader, and I've been writing crime short stories for more than a decade.

I've had the good fortune to win the Macavity and Silver Falchion awards for my short stories, and I've been named a finalist for other awards (eight times for the Agatha, and three times each for the Macavity and Anthony awards). Two years ago, Wildside Press published my first collection of short stories, Don't Get Mad, Get Even, which won the Silver Falchion for best collection of 2013. Being a short-story writer has been a ton of fun, and with hard work, tenacity, and a bit of luck, I've succeeded far beyond what I'd imagined the first day I put fingers to keyboard. I'd like to think that somewhere, Dennis Bell is grinning at me.

He may also be thinking of the advice he gave me before I left his employ: don't sweat the first six months of any job as a reporter. That's the time to get your feet wet and to get to know your beat. But after the end of your second six months, if you haven't gotten someone arrested, you're not doing your job right. So let's consider this my settling-in period here at SleuthSayers. I hope it turns out all right. Will anyone be arrested by this time next summer? Well, maybe in my short stories. Keep a look out for a character named Dennis. If you see him, you'll know he's one of the good guys.

Do you have a mentor who's made a big difference in your life? I'd love to hear about him or her.

03 August 2015

With a Little Help From My Friends


Mystery Author Jan Grape

When I'm writing fiction, I don't outline because I'm a seat-of-the-pants style writer. I also hate writing synopses. Recently, I had to write a synopsis for a Short Story. Now I'm having trouble writing the story. Any of y'all have a suggestion on how to unblock my muse?

I posted this statement yesterday on my author page and on my home page, tagging several published writers that I thought might have some idea for me. The responses were fantastic and I thought it would be a good idea to share.

Jan Burke: Next time use the old Nora Roberts trick--write the story, then the synopsis. (She did this book after book to make her editor happy. When the editor realized what was going on, she told Nora to stop bothering with the synopses.) For this one, tell yourself the truth--you don't have to follow the synopsis at all. It has nothing to do with you anymore. I promise you, if the story is good, no editor worth his or her salt will turn it down.

Nancy Pickard: Amen. Why did you "have" to write the synopsis, Jan? You don't have to say, I'm just nosy.

Alafair Burke: ^^^^Jan Burke is smart.

Billie Sue Mosiman: Jan Burke has the best advice possible.

Will Thornton: Always do it your way, Jan Grape. We don't do this for our sole income and living. It's therapy and very personal.

Ron Tatar: Sometimes I just let it sit, and when I come back to it I see things I missed. Once I looked at a scene I had written on a script, and realized that in ONE line of dialogue I had three key characters that hadn't been key before. Two got into the main character's goal and the other one the reason he was doing what he was doing. I was thrilled that what I missed was already there and I just had to find it.

Paul D. Marks: I agree with Jan (Burke), write the story first. I hate doing synopses or treatments. I have a lot of little tricks I do, take drives, listen to music, walk. Once when I was having trouble with something, I went down to Palm Desert and hung by the pool all day, wrote all night. But the real key for me anyway, is to just sit at the keyboard and write. Just let your characters talk and walk and it doesn't matter if you end up using any or all or none of it. You're getting to know them and see them in action. Eventually you'll break through--(I just happened to do a blog post for the Criminal Minds a few weeks ago if you want to check it out.)

Brendan DuBois: It seems like the act of writing the synopsis tossed you off--so I'd put the synopsis in the shredder, start fresh and just do it.

Robert Lopresti: I was going to say what Brendan said, but I also point out the piece Brendan wrote in the latest issue of The Third Degree, if you receive that. Some helpful hints there.

Les Roberts: Jan Grape and Jan Burke - as you both know, I've been good friends with Robert Crais for twenty-five years. One night, back in the day, we were talking over drinks and he said he always writes at least a sixty-page outline before he begins writing his book. I told him my "outline" is approximately two paragraphs about the plot, which I then put into a drawer and never read again. I told him while he was writing his sixty-page outline and or synopsis I was busy writing the first sixty pages of my book. I dunno - he's a GREAT writer and I really respect what he does - but for me, outlining just doesn't work.

Kathy Waller: Trying to outline makes me nervous. Tony Hillerman didn't outline. Said he couldn't. Good enough for me.

Jill D'Aubery: The one and only time I ever attempted to outline or synopsis a story and then write the thing I got as far as five pages into the actual writing when the characters took over and what was  going to be a humorous spy story with a ghost spy from the 19th century helping a modern day spy became a full-on unamusing, rather violent thriller with no ghosts at all. No suggestions. Just get the synopsis out of your head and ask the characters what's going on with the story. Then do what you always do - by the seat of your pants.

Louise Stone: Relax in a comfortable room, with a tape recorder, close your eyes; take deep breaths to fully relax, and let your mind wander on the subject of the story. Something will come.

Jan Grape: All these suggestions/ideas were excellent. And I did actually get to the bottom of y problem, thanks to something Nancy said, "Why did you HAVE to write the synopsis?"
As I thought about that I discovered what I think had happened. This was a new editor and I suppose the editor thought I needed to show that I was capable of writing a decent short story since I'd never done a story for this editor before. I think that by thinking the editor might not think I was capable somehow got stuck in my subconscious. My inner self was doubtful that I was capable. Silly me, I know. I know I'm capable. I won an Anthony Award for Best Short Story for goodness sake. Other stories I've written have been chosen for more than one anthology. I've been nominated and won other awards. I know I can do it. Thanks, Nancy, for asking that question and thanks, Jan and Brendan for reminding me I don't have to follow that synopsis. And thanks to Everyone for great ideas and suggestions. And for my friends, Amber, who said on my author page that I could smoke pot or have a glass of wine to help. To Jeff Baker, who wished he could do a "half-asshat synopsis. And to my sister, Sharla, who reminded me that somehow to just go back to my story idea before I was rudely interrupted by writing the synopsis and go for it.
And to my friend Les Roberts, who reminded me of his four word advice to aspiring writers: Shut Up and Write. Good advice for all of us. Now back to my story which is moving along nicely.

02 August 2015

Rocky King: Murder Scores a Knockout


Rocky King, Inside Detective, did not take himself too seriously. He was, after all, working for the DuMont Television Network, which was constantly starved for cash. Unlike flashier big-screen dicks, the down-to-earth detective proved popular with audiences. Played by Roscoe Karns, he enjoyed the domestic life, scraped by financially, and took his lunch to work.

Rocky’s wife Mabel never appeared on screen originally due to cost-savings measures so she could appear in other rôles without changing costumes. The audience loved that little twist and actress Grace Carney developed her own fan following. At the end of each program, actor Karns would ad-lib a conversation with his wife usually over the phone, ending with a signature sound bite, “Great gal, that Mabel.”

Roscoe Karns’ real-life wife Mary appeared at least once in the show. Their real-life son, Todd Karns, would eventually take over the rôle of Sergeant Lane, presently played by Earl Hammond in the episode presented below.

In the next few weeks, I’ll share more about Rocky King, but take note these broadcasts were performed live, mostly in the DuMont Tele-Center, often using the offices as impromptu sets. While live television suffered from miscues and occasional dropped lines, it’s fascinating to imagine the planning and logistics involved in telecasting a drama like this. Note this as we watch …

Murder Scores a Knockout
broadcast: 1952-Jul-13

In which a magician takes one drink too many…

01 August 2015

Now, That's a Different Story


As some of you know, I write mostly short fiction. I've done SF, fantasy, romance, Westerns, horror, and all kinds of combinations, but most of my stories are mysteries, and for good reason: that's what I prefer to read. My favorite books, stories, and authors have always been in the mystery/crime/suspense genre.

I have also come to realize that a mystery story can sometimes fit into a non-mystery market. It probably won't surprise you that most of my mystery/crime stories are submitted first to either (1) themed anthologies or (2) magazines like AHMMEQMM, and The Strand. If you're a writer of that kind of fiction, I suspect that you do the same. But occasionally it makes sense to also send mystery stories to other kinds of magazines and anthos.

Post-production notes

A few months ago, I wrote a story called "Saving Grace," that was sort of a sentimental paranormal mystery. In fact I wrote it with the mystery mags firmly in mind, and planned from the start to submit it first to Hitchcock because they sometimes seem a bit more receptive than the others to stories with otherworldly plots. When I finished it, though, it had a "literary" feel to it as well--it dealt heavily with family relationships and the main character changes his outlook on life in the course of the story, etc.--so I decided to send it first to The Saturday Evening Post, which has been kind to me lately anyway. I was pleased to find that they liked it, and it wound up being published in their current print issue (July/August 2015). It will also be released online on August 7 at their web site--I'll try to remember to post a link to it in my next SleuthSayers column.

The idea for that story came to me years ago, from a Sidney Sheldon novel--I can't remember its name--that included what I considered a clever way to emotionally "connect" the reader to a protagonist. In that book, as I recall, an always-reliable female prison inmate had been asked by the warden to watch over his small child each day, out in the off-limits area near the prison gates. As any fan of crime fiction knows, routines can be risky, and sure enough, the inmate winds up planning an escape via the laundry truck that departs through that area every morning. But on that particular day, as she prepares to jump into the truck and hide on its way out of the prison grounds, the child she's babysitting slips and falls into a water tank and is about to drown. The inmate abandons her escape attempt, dives into the tank instead of into the truck, and saves the child. This happens early on and is not really that big a plot point in the novel, but it's one that stuck in my memory. After all, few things are more endearing to readers than the sacrifice of personal gain--the prisoner's freedom, in this case--in order to perform a noble and selfless act.

With that idea in the back of my mind, I built a story that begins with a situation happening in the present, goes back twenty-five years to tell a different story with a different plot, and then flashes forward again to the present for the conclusion. I sort of like that kind of "framed" story-within-a-story construction anyway, where the events of the past connect directly and unexpectedly to the protagonist's current dilemma. That of course doesn't work for every story, but for some it does--and when it does, it creates a "circular" ending that seems to appeal to readers.

The long and short of it

Consider this. My "Saving Grace" story is multi-genre, about 5000 words in length, uses two different storylines, teaches the protagonist a "life lesson," and features sixteen different characters and several different settings. I sold another story last week, called "A Friend in Need," that's a straight mystery, less than 700 words long, teaches no lessons at all (but is, hopefully, entertaining), and uses only one setting and a total of three characters, one of whom is only a voice on the telephone. That second story, not that it matters to this discussion, marked my 70th sale to Woman's World magazine. (If someone had told me, years ago, that I would write 70 stories for a women's magazine, I would probably have asked him to give me some of what he was smoking.) The really strange thing is, both those mysteries--different is so many ways--were equally enjoyable to write. And as it turns out, I was paid almost the same for both of them.

My point is, I think there will always be places to sell mystery/crime stories, short or long, lighthearted or profound, straight or diluted--and not just to the mystery pubs. All good stories need conflict, and I believe one of the two advantages of crime stories is that a degree of conflict is always there, already built in. (The other advantage is that in crime stories justice usually prevails, and readers are attracted to that.) If you don't like that kind of story, if you prefer reading/writing only "literary" fiction, so be it--or, as Arthur Fonzarelli might've said, Go sit on a watchman. Seriously, as for myself, having now read both of Harper Lee's novels, I've decided that one of the many reasons I prefer Mockingbird to its sequel (prequel?) is that TKaM was, at its core, a mystery story. It was of course many other kinds of fiction as well--Southern, coming-of-age, historical, courtroom drama, literary, etc.--but I think the mystery/suspense element involving Boo Radley was what made it special, and enduring.

Let's hear it for crossing genres



All of you are readers, and many of you are writers. To those of you who (exclusively or occasionally) write short mysteries: Do you always have certain markets in mind when you craft your stories? Do you write them and only then think of where they might be sent? Have you tried submitting any of your mystery/crime stories to a non-mystery publication? I'm a firm believer that some mystery stories and novels can be just as "literary" as the Zhivagos and the Cuckoo's Nests and the Grapes of Wraths of this world; in fact I would put crime/adventure novels like Mystic River and Deliverance and The Silence of the Lambs up against any of them, literaturewise. Pet peeve alert: Why should the fact that a crime is central to the plot (the widely accepted definition of mystery fiction) make it any less literary? Over the years, my mystery stories have sneaked in under the wire at Pleiades, Thema, The Atlantean Press Review, and several other so-called litmags.

You might even consider trying your mystery/suspense stories at other genre publications. I've not published any mysteries in places like Asimov's or Analog, but I see no reason you couldn't. Again, the presence of a crime doesn't exclude the elements of another genre as well. Look at the stories that spawned Blade Runner, or Minority Report, or even 3:10 to Yuma. I've sold plenty of crime stories to Western magazines.

The only advice I would presume to give, about all this, is (1) write the story or novel you want to write, without worrying much about the category; (2) submit it to an editor or publisher who'll make you proud if it's accepted; and then (3) forget it and write something else. I've been doing that for twenty-one years now.

God help me, I love it.

31 July 2015

Calling the Shots


By Dixon Hill

I had planned to write a blog post about a Phoenix crime locale, today.  Something, however, intervened.

On this past Wednesday morning, alerted that one of her tenants had not been spotted outside in several days, and that morning newspapers were beginning to pile up in front of his door, the manager of a Tucson, Arizona apartment complex used her key to access that tenant's apartment.

She found the elderly man lying on the floor near his bed.  When she tried to communicate with the man, she found him unresponsive.  Moving quickly, she called 911.  Emergency medical personnel arrived, and transported their patient to a hospital only a few miles away.

As soon as the ambulance left, the manager called the tenant's daughter, informing her of what had happened.  The daughter and her immediate family lived roughly two hours away in another town, but the manager had worked with her before concerning the tenant.

When the daughter got the phone call, during her Wednesday morning work, she immediately contacted the hospital and, after talking her way past three members of the administrative staff, finally managed to reach the doctor taking care of her elderly father.

The daughter had asked the admin workers if her father was still alive.  They did not know.

She hoped the doctor would tell her, as she held her father's medical power of attorney.

This daughter, however, was NOT quietly praying that her father's life might be saved.

Instead, knowing that her father had signed a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order more than ten years before, she was actually calling to ensure the hospital kept her father's wishes at the forefront of any medical decision-making. Her father had made it clear that he was tired of the constant pain he suffered from lung, heart and cancer problems.  As he put it to his family members: "I've made peace with my Maker, and peace with my fellow man.  I'm just waiting for the good Lord to call me home so I don't have to suffer anymore.  Whenever he calls, I'll go."

Her father had discussed this with his doctor, who expressed his understanding, if not his approval, but this same doctor also acknowledged that his patient was not simply suffering from some form of depression; The man had grown tired of a life of debility and pain.

Now, this man's daughter was keenly worried that the hospital staff might -- as their nature tends to lead -- pull out all the stops to keep her father alive, unaware that, in his opinion, they would instead be preventing him from passing away in a peaceful manner.

After a few moments on the phone, the doctor inquired, "Are you the medical power of attorney?"

"I am."

"And you say he has a DNR order?"

She swallowed back a tear, cleared her throat and stated: "That's correct.  He has a DNR, and his doctor is aware of it.  My father doesn't want you to use any special life-saving measures.  I want you to act according to his wishes."

"Then," came the reply, "we will not use any special life-saving measures.  Rest assured: we will keep him as comfortable as we can, and interfere as little as is legally permissible.  Please get here as soon as possible, so we may confer with you in person."

"Thank you," she breathed.

As soon as she hung up with the doctor, the daughter called her husband.

And, in an instant, my plans for the day changed drastically.  That call came from my wife, explaining that she was on her way home and we needed to get to that Tucson hospital as fast as possible.

My youngest son, and daughter were able to join us.  So we all jumped in our car and I drove hell-for-leather to give us a chance to be by the dying man's side.

We made it with time to spare.  Enough time for my wife to confirm, in person, that she was "The medical power of attorney."   (They never asked me if I HAD his power of attorney," she told me later.  "Everybody who asked, asked 'ARE YOU the medical power of attorney?' as if I was some Super Hero called The Medical Power of Attorney.  It was surreal.")

It was also enough time to call my father-in-law's extended family, alerting them to his condition, so his sons could make flight arrangements from points east.   a

And, thankfully, time to get him admitted and transported to an in-patient Hospice care facility, where his wishes could be more closely adhered to.

The last time I saw my wife, last night, it was just after 7:00 pm and she was preparing to ride beside her father in the back of the vehicle that would take them to the Hospice location.  I then drove my kids the hour or two back home, and set my alarm for 5:00 am in order to wake for work, planning to head back to Tucson when I got off at 11:30 am.

At 4:00 am, it seemed that my phone alarm went off.  And, I was surprised to discover that my phone alarm was evidently causing my cell phone to display my wife's picture for some reason.  Finally, my sleep-addled brain cleared enough for me to swipe the TALK button and hear my wife say, "Dad's gone.  He went just a few minutes ago."

I took a shower to wake up, then called-off work and drove down to join my wife.

My father-in-law had previously decided to donate his body to science, specifically: The Willed Body Program at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine.  The college has to act fast, after the death of a donor, to ensure the body is gathered while still in proper condition for the program, so the body of James Click, my wife's dad, had been removed long before I managed to reach her.  The college had permitted Hospice to wash and dress the body before they arrived.

Unfortunately, this means that three of my wife's brothers arrived to see their father too late.  Two flew into Phoenix at 9:30 in the morning, while the third will arrive tomorrow.  We drove home to greet the two arriving that morning, letting them know the steps we'd need to take if they wanted to view the body.

My wife is now home and resting.  She slept fewer than three hours last night, and ate next to nothing all that day.  Her brothers have gone down to begin assessing and clearing out my father-in-law's apartment, and we'll join them tomorrow.

For now, however, my wife rests.  Like me, she is tired and sad, but happy.

Our happiness stems from this:

Her father -- through his early, constant and crystal clear instructions, leading all of the family to realize his wishes, as well as his written instructions and legal preparations -- made it possible for my wife to act as his physical representative "as" The Medical Power of Attorney and ensure that, at a time when he could communicate only in single syllables, hand signs and grunts, he still got to call all the shots concerning how he went "into that good night."

See you in two weeks,
--Dixon

30 July 2015

Of Mice and Men, Again


A few weeks ago I did another weekend-long Alternatives to Violence (AVP) workshop at the pen.  As always, I came back dragging.  Three days is a long time, and it's a hard time, but then again, I wouldn't miss it for the world.  There are infinitely worse ways of spending my time.  (I know; I've done it.)

The workshop was crowded:  21 of us jammed into a 10 x 12 room.  All ages, races, religions, crimes.  Quite a mix.  There are always those who drive you crazy, those who give you hope, those who you want to never see again, and those who break your heart.  I'll never forget the very young man who said that maybe meth wasn't all bad:  at least when he did meth with his dad, his dad talked to him...

This time the heartbreaker was a mentally handicapped young man, whom I will call Lennie.  He had a great time at the workshop.  As I said later on, "AVP is one of the few places where adults will play nicely with him."  And where he won't get made fun of, or insulted, or shoved around, or robbed, or beaten up, or raped, or killed.  We generally have a Lennie in every workshop:  They might not understand AVP, but they know it's safe.  And there aren't that many safe places in prison for the weak, the elderly, the physically or mentally ill, the physically or mentally handicapped.

First, some statistics:  according to Kaiser Health News, 73% of women and 55% of men in state prisons have at least one mental health problem; it's 61% of women and 44% of men in federal prisons; and 75% of women and 63% of men in local jails.
http://kaiserhealthnews.org/news/by-the-numbers-mental-illness-jail/

Those are pretty horrendous statistics. And when we come to addiction:  well, 65% of all inmates meet the criteria for addiction, and alcohol and other drugs are "significant factors in all crimes, including 78 percent of violent crimes, 83 percent of property crimes and 77 percent of public order, immigration or weapons offenses as well as probation and parole violations." http://thenationshealth.aphapublications.org/content/40/3/E11.full

As Alex Briscoe, the health director for Alameda County in northern California, said “We’ve, frankly, criminalized the mentally ill, and used local jails as de facto mental health institutions."

"Prison crowded" by California Department of Corrections - http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/News/background_info.html. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Prison_crowded.jpg#/media/File:Prison_crowded.jpg
Briscoe's right.  We've criminalized the mentally ill.  Even worse, we've criminalized the mentally handicapped, lumping them in with the mentally ill, which they're not.  For one thing, there is no pill or therapy that will ever "cure" or "treat" the mentally handicapped or make them "normal".  Look at Lennie.  About 10 years old, mentally.  Laughing his head off at every joke that he could understand, and most that he couldn't.  Having the time of his life whenever we did a Light & Lively exercise (silly games, but one of the ways we loosen people up and get the blood flowing; plus - hint! - laughing people learn more than bored people).  Lennie was constantly trying to be helpful, from handing out pencils, to reminding me to turn on the coffeepot, to picking up the trash, and so happy when you thanked him.

Yes, Lennie's been convicted of a crime, but he swore he didn't do it.  He might be right.  He might have made an easy scapegoat for someone else.  (It's been known to happen.)  He also might not have understood what he did, or what he was actually convicted of.  I've run into that before, too.  I've also met Lennies who had no idea at all why they were there - just that something bad had happened, and they were locked up.

I don't know which of these is worse.  What I do know is that putting a Lennie in prison doesn't do any kind of good, unless the idea really is for them to be repeatedly assaulted, robbed, humiliated, raped, and/or killed.  Again, there are no medications that will make Lennie more than 10 years old. He will never get "better".  He will never "learn his lesson," "pay his debt to society" or "grow up" because he can't, and there isn't a damn thing that can ever be done to make that happen.

OfMiceAndMen.jpgSo what do you do with Lennie?  In my perfect world, Lennie would be in a group home, where he can be given care in a safe, structured, respectful environment where adults will let him play games.  But putting Lennie in prison is as cruel as taking your 10 year old child, or grandchild - no matter what they did - and putting that child in prison and saying, "Well, that's the way the justice system works".  Or, "Yes, a group home would be better, but we just don't have the resources for it."  If that's our justice system, it sucks so much swamp water, we've got alligators. And if we don't have the resources - i.e., money - for such things, again I ask, what is money for?

To be honest, if this is the best we can do, and if there isn't going to be any change...   What is right?  What is just?  What is cruel and unusual?  What do you do when the situation is hopeless?

All I can think of is the ending in Of Mice and Men:
The crash of the shot rolled up the hills and rolled down again...  Slim came directly to George and sat down beside him, sat very close to him.  "Never you mind," said Slim. "A guy got to sometimes."   - John Steinbeck, "Of Mice and Men."



29 July 2015

Be Yourself, Or Someone Just Like You





First, about that title.  Stephen Stimson lives in Bellingham, as do I.  (In fact, he coined our unofficial municipal slogan: the City of Subdued Excitement.)  Mr Stimson used to run a store called Lone Wolf Antiques, and one day I strolled by and saw the entire front window of the shop covered by a piece of brown paper bearing the remarkable words of today's title.  And that's all the explanation you are going to get from me.
Now for the main topic. Lawrence Block was recently interviewed by Tripwire Magazine and I recommend you go to his site and read the whole thing.     It's all great, but there was one piece that caught my attention in particular.

The interviewers brought up the Leo Haig novels, Block's pastiche of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe books.  Then they asked if he had read Robert Goldsborough's novels, authorized continuations of the Nero Wolfe series.  Here is his reply:

I read two early on and didn’t care for them. I gather he’s improved some, and makes a good job of writing like Stout. But, you see, there’s the thing in a nutshell; Stout didn’t try to write like Stout.

As I recall I stomped my feet and shouted: "Exactly!"

I'm not here to pick on Mr. Goldsborough, or Ace Atkins,  Ann Hillerman,  Felix Francis, or anyone else who has inherited a franchise. What I am reaching for is this: I get uncomfortable when a young writer is advised to try copying someone else's style.  I can understand doing it as an exercise, or for a pastiche, but keep it up too long and it can only stunt your growth.  Rex Stout was trying to find his own voice, not copy someone else's.

I recently read a book by Elmore Leonard called Charlie Martz and Other Stories.  They are previously unpublished, and you can understand why Leonard chose to keep them that way.  Most of them are interesting primarily as a peek into the laboratory, a chance to watch Leonard looking for his voice.  (Compare them to the tales in When The Women Came Out To Dance, stories he wrote when he was at the top of his form.)  You can see a glimpse here and a touch there of Leonard, but he wasn't quite there yet.

I would be happy to hear what you have to say about this subject but before we get to the comments, there is one more detail.  When I told my wife about Block's remarks she smiled and said "Zusya."

Zusya was a Hasidic rabbi in the nineteenth century.  He was apparently a "wise fool," like Nasrudin, Diogenes, or Saint Francis, a spiritual leader or philosopher who (deliberately?) behaved eccentrically in order to get his lessons across.  What follows is the most famous story about him. There are many versions, but this is the one I heard first.

One day Zusya's followers came into his study and found him hiding under the desk, weeping and shaking with fear.  "I have just learned the question I will be asked by the angel of death when I die.  And I am terribly frightened because I cannot answer it!"

"Rabbi," said the followers, "you are good man, and a wise man.  What could death ask you that is so terrifying?"

"I thought he might ask: 'Zusya, why were you not Moses, to lead your people to the promised land?' I could have answered that!  Or he could ask 'Zusya, why were you not David, to fight your people?'  I could answer that.  But, no!  What he is will ask is: 'Zusya,  why were you not Zusya?'"
    

28 July 2015

The Book Report: Tapping the Source and The Last Good Kiss


Today I want to talk about a couple of books that you may or may not know. A lot of people do seem to know them. On the other hand, they’re still obscure to many.

Nunn-Crumley Collage D1The books are “Tapping the Source” by Kem Nunn and “The Last Good Kiss” by James Crumley. Several decades ago a friend of mine in the WGAw turned me onto these books, telling me how terrific they were. Thank you, Elliot.

He told me about both at the same time. Both sounded good, so I rushed out to get them (this was in the olden days when you had to actually go somewhere to buy a book). And I read them right away.
I was blown away by “Tapping the Source”. And I liked “The Last Good Kiss,” a lot, but maybe because I so fell in love with Tapping, Kiss paled by comparison. I know this is sacrilege to some. But hey, that’s what makes horse races.

“Tapping the Source” is Nunn’s first novel and with it he pretty much invented his own genre: surf noir. I guess I’m not the only one who likes it since it was a finalist for the National Book Award.

nunnIt’s the story of a pretty naïve and innocent kid from Bakersfield, California—Buck Owens country—who travels to Huntington Beach, CA, the surf capital of the world, in search of his sister. There, he gets involved with a bunch of mysterious and maybe evil bikers and sees the dark side of “surf city”. This definitely ain’t the Beach Boys world of surf, sun and California Girls.

I liked this book so much that I wanted to option the film rights for it. I had them checked out, but they had already been optioned/bought. That had to be at least 25 years ago, probably more, a lot more. But to this day there is still no movie version of this story. It is, however, said that “Point Break,” with Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves was, uh, inspired by “Tapping the Source”. The story is different and imho not nearly as good.

Nunn went on to write several other books, including a couple that fall into the surf noir category. He also did the Hollywood thing, writing/producing for “Deadwood” and “Sons of Anarchy,” and creating the series “John from Cincinnati,” set in Imperial Beach down near the Mexican border.

***

Crumley’s hardboiled “The Last Good Kiss” starts out heading in one direction and quickly makes a U-turn, slamming around a dark, noir corner. PI C.W. Sughrue is hired to find Abraham Trahearne before he drinks himself to death.

And he finds him, on the first page of the book:

“When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”
―James Crumley, “The Last Good Kiss”

So there wouldn’t be much of a story if there weren’t complications, would there? So: Trahearne gets shot in the ass in the bar. And while waiting for him to recuperate, Sughrue is hired to look into the ten year old disappearance of the bar owner’s daughter.

6a00d8341d1add53ef010534c5f1a1970b-800wi
The novel weaves through the darkest corners of some of the darkest streets in America. A hard drinking, tough Viet Nam vet, a man with a moral code, Sughrue is a PI for the 1970s. And maybe, just maybe for the 21st century as well.

“Stories are like snapshots, pictures snatched out of time, with clean hard edges. But this was life, and life always begins and ends in a bloody muddle, womb to tomb, just one big mess, a can of worms left to rot in the sun.”
―James Crumley, “The Last Good Kiss”

Men’s Journal named “The Last Good Kiss” #12 on its list of Top 15 Thrillers of All Time and George Pelacanos put it at #3 on his list of Five Most Important Crime novels.

***

If Nunn is known for surf noir, Crumley is the granddaddy of post Viet-Nam hardboiled PI’s. He influenced many current writers, but, like Nunn, never had the big breakthrough that brought him a wide mainstream audience. They’re both like that little band that you love, but only you and a small cult of other loyal followers or groupies love or know about. And in some ways if that band or those authors, in this case Nunn and Crumley, were to get discovered by the masses you would feel a loss. Crumley died in 2008, but he’s left behind an impressive collection of novels and short stories worth checking out.

So, if you haven’t read these books or aren’t familiar with these authors maybe you’d want to check them out. If you are familiar with them, maybe it’s time to revisit them. I’d love to hear your opinions.

***

A couple items of BSP:

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000037_00019]Vortex: My new Mystery-Thriller coming September 1st.
...a nonstop staccato action noir... Vortex lives up to its name, quickly creating a maelstrom of action and purpose to draw readers into a whirlpool of intrigue and mystery... but be forewarned: once picked up, it's nearly impossible to put down before the end. 
      —D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review
Akashic Fade Out Annoucement D1a-ab -- w full date


Fade Out: flash fiction story coming on Akashic’s Mondays Are Murder, Monday (big surprise, huh?), August 17th. Here’s the link, but my story won’t be live till 8/17:  http://www.akashicbooks.com/tag/mondays-are-murder/

***

Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks  and  Twitter: @PaulDMarks
And check out my updated website www.PaulDMarks.com  
Click here to subscribe to my Newsletter: Subscribe to my Newsletter

*Crumley B/W photo is free to share and use per Bing.com useage rights.
###

27 July 2015

The Last Camel Collapsed at Noon


Several years ago I was invited to give a lecture at a Rice University summer workshop for writers. I was given the assignment of discussing hooks or opening lines – which led to one of the more enjoyable research studies I've ever done. My research consisted almost primarily of pulling out every mystery on my bookshelves (and believe me there were a lot then and even more now) and reading the opening line or paragraph. Then trying to figure out why it worked. If it did. Sometimes it didn't. Hook me, that is. And that was the entire reason for my lecture. How do you hook a reader, how do you keep them reading your book beyond that first line, paragraph, page or chapter? There's got to be a hook.

I entitled this essay “The Last Camel Collapsed at Noon” because, to me at least, Ken Follett's opening line in THE KEY TO REBECCA is one of the greatest. Why? Because you learn so much from those six simple words: You get a vague place – not a lot of camels on the streets of Manhattan – one is to assume this is a desert area, and one can also only assume that these people are in very deep doo-doo. 
 
But I found so many more wonderful opening lines, and all of them so different that it led me to do my own classification of openers: Slap in the Face, Character, Travel Log, and Puzzler, among others. Here's the short list, honed down from a much, much larger one, that fits perfectly in these categories.

Slap in the Face: PRIMARY JUSTICE, William Bernardt – “'Once again,' the man said, pulling the little girl along by the leash tied to his wrist and hers. 'Tell me your name.'” DEAD BOLT, Jay Brandon – “His child was on the ledge.” And one of my all time favorites, SHOTGUN SATURDAY NIGHT, Bill Crider – “Sheriff Dan Rhodes knew it was going to be a bad day when Bert Ramsey brought in the arm and laid it on the desk.” In all three of these examples, I dare the reader not to read on! These opening lines grab your attention and keep you riveted.

For a really good example of a character opening I go way back to one of my favorite writers, Raymond Chandler, who wrote these opening lines for TROUBLE IS MY BUSINESS: “Anna Halsey was about two hundred and forty pounds of middle-aged putty faced woman in a black tailor-made suit. Her eyes were shiny black shoe buttons, her cheeks were as soft as suet and about the same color. She was sitting behind a black glass desk that looked like Napoleon's tomb and was smoking a cigarette in a black holder that was not quite as long as a rolled umbrella. She said, 'I need a man.'”

Sharyn McCrumb once honored me by using my book, CHASING AWAY THE DEVIL, in a class she was teaching as an example of how to hook the reader. When she told me that, I had to go back to the book and read that opening paragraph to figure out why. I knew I didn't kill anybody in that first paragraph, knew there wasn't any great action. So why did she single out this opening?

The third week in November is Pioneer Week in my home, Prophesy County, Oklahoma. There's nothing in this goddam world I hate more than Pioneer Week. They make us deputies dress up for it. In chaps. And cowboy hats. And boots. And spurs. And real-live six-guns on our hips. It's goddam ridiculous.” I had to read this a couple of times before I realized that this, like Chandler's opening paragraph above (although unfortunately not nearly as classic) is a character opening. Milt Kovak's personality is smeared all over those few sentences. The reader knows, right off the bat, what kind of person he/she's going to be sharing the next several hundred pages with.

Travel Log: THE JUDAS GOAT, Robert B. Parker – “Hugh Dixon's home sat on a hill in Weston and looked out over the low Massachusetts hills as if asphalt had not been invented yet.” Marcia Muller often opens her books with vivid descriptions of northern California. But her opening lines for PENNIES ON A DEAD WOMAN'S EYES – “At first they were going to kill me. Then they changed their minds and only took away thirty-six years of my life” – is a good example of the Puzzler category. Others are Joseph Wambaugh's opening line in the THE ONION FIELD, “The gardener was a thief,” Barbara Michaels' opener for THE DARK ON THE OTHER SIDE,The house talked,” and Jonathan Kellerman's first line of OVER THE EDGE, It was my first middle-of-the-night crisis call in three years.”

A book does not necessarily start at the beginning of the story. A writer can always go back and pick up the chronological beginning of the story – a beginning that may not be overly dramatic. Of course the beginning of the story needs to be there – but not necessarily on page one. Page one should be reserved for the hook.


While writing FAT TUESDAY, Earl Emerson wrote these words on page 127, chapter eight: “I was trapped in a house with a lawyer, a bare-breasted woman, and a dead man. The rattlesnake in the paper sack only complicated matters.” He said it took him weeks to junk the book, re-plot the story,and regain the momentum of the narrative, but he was able to move those lines to page one, chapter one. Now that's a hook.

In journalism they teach that the lead (or hook) must grab a reader by the lapels, must punch him in the nose to make him read the story. Seize his attention and don't let go. The hook in a good mystery should punch the reader in the nose while at the same time seducing him. The hook shouldn't answer any questions, but ask them. A good mystery opener should seduce the reader into believing that the answers to those questions are worth the wait.

26 July 2015

Copyright? Elementary, My Dear Watson.


Arthur Conan Doyle published his first Sherlock Holmes story in 1887 and his last in 1927. There were 56 stories in all, plus 4 novels. The final stories were published between 1923 and 1927. As a result of statutory extensions of copyright protection culminating in the 1988 Copyright Term Extension Act, the American copyrights on those final stories . . . will not expire until 95 years after the date of original publication -- between 2018 and 2022 . . . . The copyright on the 46 stories and the 4 novels, all being works published before 1923, [has] expired.
                                                 Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd.
                                                 755 F. 3d 496, 497 (7th Cir. 2014)
                                                 per Judge Richard Posner
Is there anything left to say about Sherlock Holmes? The fame of Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective has now stretched across three centuries, with no expiration date in sight. . . . Recent books and graphic novels find the detective trading bon mots with Henry James, escaping the island of Doctor Moreau and squaring off against a zombie horde. One can also pick up Sherlock-themed tarot decks, rubber duckies, crew socks and — for undercover work — a “sexy detective” outfit featuring a deerstalker and pipe. And, needless to say, the digital landscape is ablaze with blogs, fanfic, Twitter feeds, podcasts and innumerable tributes to the cheekbones of Benedict Cumberbatch. What’s left? As Professor Moriarty once remarked, “All that I have to say has already crossed your mind.” 
                                                Daniel Stashower
                                                The Washington Post, July 12, 2015
                                                Reviewing The Amazing Rise and Immortal Lives of Sherlock Holmes                                                  by Zach Dundas

Sir Ian McKellen in Mr. Holmes
       This week’s summer movie roll-outs included Mr. Holmes, which features Sir Ian McKellen’s highly anticipated take on Sherlock Holmes at 93 —  battling age and dementia as he tries to unravel one last case. The movie, based on the 2005 Holmes pastiche A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin, actually offers the viewer two takes on Holmes, since the cinema version of the story features a “movie within a movie” in which Nicholas Rowe, who earlier portrayed the detective in Young Sherlock Holmes, once again assumes the role in Watson’s version of the mystery that confounds the elderly Holmes.  (Holmes views the movie version, based on Watson's account, in an attempt to jump start his failing memories of the case.)  The fact that the movie offers a new take on Holmes —  indeed, two new takes, and that the same week yet another Holmes retrospective hit the bookstores —   Zach Dumas' The Amazing Rise and Immortal Lives of Sherlock Holmes — is hardly surprising. For 130 years Sherlock Holmes has been, well, ubiquitous.

       Ellery Queen had this to say in his (err, “their”) introduction to The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes:   "more has been written about Sherlock Holmes than about any other character in fiction. It is further true that more has been written about Holmes by others than by Doyle himself."  We will return to that Ellery Queen anthology, but for now the important point is that no other detective  —  not Miss Marple, nor Hercule Poirot, nor Ellery himself  —  has so tempted other authors to lift their pens in imitation and tribute.  And all of this begs a legal question:  How, pray tell, have these new takes on Sherlock Holmes been reconciled with the copyright protection originally secured for the character by Arthur Conan Doyle?

     A Proviso before going forward here: While I am a lawyer, I am NOT a copyright and intellectual properties lawyer. So, a caveat  when I discuss copyright rules it may be a little like asking your family doctor to perform brain surgery.  But with that in mind, the simple rule is that in the United States under the terms of the 1998 Copyright Terms Extension Act the author has copyright protection for 95 years following the publication of the author’s work. So if you are inclined to dabble in pastiches (and I plead guilty on that one), well, you need to do this only with the permission of the original author (or their estate) if the character you are using was created less than 95 years ago.

       How easy is it to run afoul of copyright rules? Well, as promised above, lets return again to our old friend Ellery Queen for the answer to that question. In 1944 Queen published an anthology collecting most of the Holmes pastiches and parodies then in existence, The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes. Of all Ellery Queen volumes this one is likely the rarest. If you want to secure a copy on Amazon it will probably set you back around $150.00.  Why? Well, the anthology, it turns out, was published without first securing a license from the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle. As a result, it was quickly pulled from publication when the estate threatened to sue, and only a limited number of volumes ever reached book stores.   (As an aside, notwithstanding all of the above, a rough version of The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes is, as of this writing, rather mysteriously available for downloading on the internet!  Just click here.)

       But, in any event, Ellery's stumble over the copyright rules was way back in 1944, right? Back then the first Sherlock Holmes stories were not even 60 years old. What about today? In 2015 almost 130 years separates us from the first Holmes adventure, A Study in Scarlet. So Sherlock should have squared his tweed-draped shoulders and marched into the public domain almost 35 years ago, right?  Well, not so fast. The Doyle estate has historically taken a different (and predictable) approach when it comes to counting those intervening years.

       As the quote at the top of the article points out, the “last bows” of the Sherlock Holmes stories were the ten final mysteries written by Arthur Conan Doyle between 1923 and 1927.  And, counting it up, the 95 year copyright on those stories has yet to expire  and won’t begin to for another three years. The Doyle estate has argued that a “fully rounded” (their words) Holmes and Watson arose only upon completion of the entire Doyle canon.   Thus, the estate argues, copyright protection continues until 2022, i.e., 95 years after the last story was published in 1927.  Pause and think about this:  The Copyright laws speak of a protection period running for 95 years from the first appearance of a character, but the Doyle estate argues that this in fact means 95 years from the last appearance of the character.  The argument sounds more like George Orwell than it does Sherlock Holmes!

       The Doyle estate implemented their concededly expansive view of copyright protection in a rather clever manner. The estate decided to charge $5,000 in licensing fees for every use of Holmes and Watson, reasoning that the amount, while substantial, was far less than the cost of subjecting the “fully rounded” theory to a test in litigation. So their assumption was that those wishing to write about Homes and Watson might grumble, but they would pay.  All went well with this approach until Leslie Klinger came along.

       Klinger co-edited an anthology of Sherlock Holmes pastiches and parodies in 2011 titled A Study in Sherlock: Stories Inspired by the Sherlock Holmes Canon. Klinger dutifully paid the $5,000 demanded by the Doyle estate before publishing that collection. But when he and his co-editors decided to proceed with a sequel, In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, they also decided that enough was enough and refused to pay for a license. The Doyle estate escalated the dispute, threatening to sue if publication occurred without a license. Klinger responded by suing the estate, claiming that Holmes and Watson were in the public domain and had been since 1982, that is, 95 years after A Study in Scarlet was published. As a result, Klinger argued, no license was required.

       A federal district court, and ultimately the Seventh Circuit United States Court of Appeals, eventually settled the matter. In May of 2014 the Seventh Circuit agreed with the district court’s decision and held that the Doyle estate’s argument was wrong. The court instead agreed, as Klinger had argued, that Sherlock Holmes entered the public domain, and became “fair game” for other writers, 95 years following the publication of the first Holmes story.

       But how does one handle the refinements to Holmes and Watson that occurred in those later stories, that is, the “rounding” of the characters on which the estate had relied? Well, the court answered that question by concluding that only Holmes and Watson as portrayed in the original series of stories by Doyle are currently in the public domain; that is, the characters as portrayed prior to 1923. And any subsequent nuances to the character  those “well rounded” attributes on which the estate’s arguments were based  remain protected by the copyright laws.

       How does this work in practice? Well, as Barack Obama, among others, has observed “a good compromise leaves everyone unhappy.” The estate doesn't get its $5,000, but the author of a pastiche nonetheless writes at his or her peril since the use of attributes only arising in the last 10 Holmes mysteries infringes the continuing copyright on those stories.

       The Seventh Circuit’s opinion only identifies a scant few areas in which Doyle’s characters became "more rounded” in the later Holmes stories that are still copyright protected: First, Holmes (apparently) likes dogs; Second, Watson was married twice. (On that latter point, I think W.S. Baring-Gould set the number of marriages at three, but I won’t argue the point  particularly without a license!)  So the “rounding” of Sherlock Holmes and Watson may be limited, but what does this rule mean for other characters who appeared in a series of works over the years?  Let us take, for example, my old friend Ellery Queen.

       Ellery’s earliest appearance was in The Roman Hat Mystery, which was published in 1929. Thus, all of the Queen canon is still copyright protected. But what happens in 2024, when the first appearance of Ellery reaches its 95th birthday and the canon begins its seriatim march into the public domain? Arguably under the Seventh Circuit’s reasoning Ellery can be used freely by other authors as of that date.  But beware:  Ellery better be wearing pince-nez glasses, and he might be advised to only employ a Duesenberg for transportation.  He should also have retired, with a wife and son, to Italy. All of those early aspects of Ellery disappeared by the middle of the Queen canon as Ellery Queen and the Inspector were "rounded" by Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee.  In fact the first evidence of the Ellery of the latter half of the canon did not appear until about 1936, with the publication of Halfway House. So unlike Sherlock, there are unmistakable differences between early and late Ellery!

       And if all of this were not confusing enough, let’s throw into our copyright primer the fact that parodies of copyrighted materials, unlike pastiches, fall completely outside of the protection of copyright without worrying at all about the passage of time.  This exception to copyright protection is established and was famously re-invigorated in 2001 when the Eleventh Circuit held that The Wind Done Gone, a re-telling of Gone With the Wind from the perspective of the enslaved residents of Tara, did not infringe Margaret Mitchell’s copyright of the original story.

       So let us return again to Queen and see how that rule would work.  Well, apparently the great Jon L. Breen could have freely published his humorous short story mystery “The Lithuanian Eraser Mystery,” (EQMM March, 1969), in which “E. Larry Cune” solves a New York City theatre murder.  That story is a parody, no question.  Tongue is firmly planted in cheek.   But, by contrast, Breen needed a license in order to publish “The Gilbert and Sullivan Clue,” (EQMM Sept. 1999) since Ellery himself solves that theatrical-based mystery. And what about Francis Nevins famous pastiche “Open Letter to Survivors” (EQMM May, 1972), a story that, while clearly featuring Ellery, never in fact names him as the young detective? I asked Mike Nevins, a copyright professor himself, whether he secured a license for that story and his reply was that Frederic Dannay, then the editor-in-chief of EQMM, never brought up the matter one way or the other when the story was accepted by EQMM for publication.

       But back to Sherlock  when you see that new movie, Mr. Holmes, you might reflect on all of this, and what it can take to breathe new life into another author's character.   And think about the "rounding" of Holmes that had nothing to do with Arthur Conan Doyle  particularly Sherlock Holmes as portrayed in the movie and in Mitch Cullin's original pastiche.  As Holmes explains in each, part of his task in telling this story on his own, without Watson as narrator, is setting the record straight, removing the "excesses" of the Watson versions of his stories.  As an example, you will note that Sir Ian McKellen’s Holmes prefers cigars to a pipe. That “rounding” of the famous detective’s character has absolutely no precedent in the Arthur Conan Doyle canon, either before or after 1923. So at least when Sherlock enjoys his cigar we needn't go back to the Holmes canon looking for references that might prove significant for those pesky copyright laws.

       Come to think of it, a similar observation might be made concerning the title of this article.  Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes never once used the phrase "elementary my dear Watson!"

25 July 2015

No Sex Please – We’re Crime Writers!


I write short.  This stems from my comedy writing roots, where each word must be carefully chosen for impact.  So my publishers don’t delete a lot of scenes from my books.  In fact, they usually tell me where to add more words.
With one exception.

There seems to be a convention that crime books shouldn’t contain sex.  Oh, they can refer to sex. Sex can be a powerful motivator for all those violent scenes we are allowed to describe in painstaking detail. (Irony alert here.)

So you can refer to sex. But Lord help you if you – ahem – ‘Show-not-Tell.’

Okay, so I show a bit.  But just a little bit.  I don’t write X-rated, honest.  In fact, I write with the sort of silliness that might be associated with old Benny Hill skits.  So we’re not talking Fifty Shades of Naughty here. (otherwise known as Fifty Shades of Boredom.  But I digress…)

Still, my naughty bits get censored. No sex please, we’re crime writers!

It’s a crime <sic>.  Heck, it’s enough to make a poor gal swap genres. Have you read any steamy romance books lately?  Those novels can be practically pornographic.

When did romance books become more adult than crime books?

I explained to one of my publishers why a certain sexy blackmail scene was essential to the story. It provided motivation that was completely necessary.  So here was their admittedly canny solution:
Leave the dialogue in, but take out the other senses – the sounds, the visuals, the - let’s leave it there.

Yes, it still works.  You get what’s going on by what is being said.

Does it lose impact?  Well, yes.  I work hard to include all the senses in my writing.

But does it work for the plot?  Yes, it does.  It might even be funnier without the senses.

You be the judge.

From THE GODDAUGHTER’S REVENGE, winner of the 2014 Derringer and Arthur Ellis awards:

“Now Carmine, move up front here and pay close attention to this video,” I said. “You might know the people.”

Everyone came closer. You could almost hear each individual breath. Except then I turned up the volume and you could only hear the heavy breathing and moans coming from the laptop.

“Oh Carmy! Do it – do it – ahhhhh”

“I’m doin’ it, babe – I’m doin’ it –“

“Faster, Carmy! Faster – don’t stop”

All eyes were glued to the screen.

“Oh, gross,” said Lou.

“Holy shit!” yelled Carmine. “How did you get that?”

“Carm, that ain’t your wife. Tracy’s not a blond.” Bertoni was confused.

“How the heck is she doing that?” Pete stared at the video with far too much interest.

Has your publisher ever dialed back a particularly sexy scene? Give us the dirt <sic> in the comments below.



THE GODDAUGHTER'S REVENGE (from Orca Books)
at Amazon
at Chapters

24 July 2015

Hunting Tips from the Mafia....with running commentary


Yeah folks, I know this is still summer time with 3 or 4 months left before regular hunting season, but if you're like the old Kansas City mafia then you know it's best to put some future planning into your hunting endeavors in order to see what the problems are so you can scheme towards a successful conclusion. Let's take a look at an old FBI Title III transcript to see how mob minds work.
Here's the scenario. An agent has surreptitiously planted a listening device in a north Kansas City building used by the local mafia hierarchy. Tape recorders are running. The time is late 1978, about six months after three mobsters (allegedly Nick Civella's henchmen) burst into the Virginian Tavern and shot the three surviving Spero brothers: Mike, Joe and Carl. Mike promptly expired, Joe got wounded and Carl, who fled through a side door when the shooting began, took a shotgun blast to the back and ultimately ended up in a wheelchair. The fourth brother, Nick Spero, had previously been found after taking up temporary residence in the trunk of his Cadillac convertible.

Nick Civella is the Kansas City godfather at the time of this event and his brother Corky is the family's underboss. These two and Tuffy DeLuca, one of the alleged gunmen at the Virginian Tavern shooting, are in the bugged building having a discussion as to what to do about Carl Spero, since he survived the shooting. Hey, planning is everything, unless of course the resulting actions leave some loose ends. In this case, Joe and Carl Spero are leftover loose ends which now require another round of planning.

In the following transcript, The Civellas are focusing their attention on Carl, whose residence is on a remote lot in Clay County, Missouri, where the brush and trees have been cleared away from the house for some distance.

Nick Civella: "Them guys (referring to some of his henchmen) been out to the house. That house is exposed for a mile. You get a car out there on the road. You start, do you say crawl and walk. The guys ain't in that kind of shape." Sounds like too much pasta and cannoli with not enough gym time. C'mon Nick, you're the boss, shape these guys up.

Corky Civella: "Willie's telling me (an apparent reference to a future KC godfather named Willie 'The Rat' Cammisano) he would go out there and sit and crawl and hit him from a f+++++g mile away. I don't see no sense in why the guy can't even try." Just in case kids are reading this post, I cleaned up some of Corky's language from the original transcript.

Nick: "He'd be moving. He's a moving target." Moving? C'mon Nick, the guy's in a wheelchair. How fast can he be moving?

Cork: "What's the difference, f+++++g deer's moving." Deer? Human? All the same to Cork, he figures you just stalk and shoot them.

Nick: "Oh, no, no, Cork. Deers are standing when they get hit." Huh!

The conversation then closes with the following words.

Nick: "Let me tell you something. We've got the best f+++++g bloodhounds in the United States and always did have." I had no idea the mafia used bloodhounds. But, having already equated human targets to deer, Nick has evidently taken the step of anthropomorphizing the abilities of bloodhounds onto his hitmen.

In the end, having concerns about the physical capabilities of their hitmen, plus their accuracy with a firearm over long distances, the Civellas opt to go with a wider range program where the concept of "close" still counts to get the job done. As mentioned in a previous blog, Joe gets blown away with a booby-trap in his storage shed, while Carl and his speedy wheelchair are subsequently ventilated with a nail-bomb shortly upon arriving at his cousin's car lot. Loose ends are now taken care of.

The hunt's over, the game has been bagged and tagged. And, that's hunting mafia style.