12 November 2015

Torturer-in-Chief


by Brian Thornton

This entry is posting on the Thursday following Veterans' Day, but I am writing and submitting it
Dick Cheney showing his "good side"
on Veterans' Day, and since in my previous blog post I expounded at some length what being a veteran means to me, I thought I'd take a different tack in this week's post. 

For me there can be no greater sin committed by any politician than to recklessly and cavalierly place in harm's way the citizens they serve. I think my previous post reflects that sentiment, and so I'd like to build upon both that, and David Edgerley Gates' post from yesterday, wherein he takes down the recently deceased (and, if there is any justice in the afterlife, Hell-bound) Ahmed Chalabi. 

Well, Chalabi, as David rightly points out, would have been just another conman with a "cause," pretty much harmless, were it not for the fact that he was in cahoots with then-Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who actually served two masters: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz's fellow neo-con then-Vice-President Dick Cheney.

And so I've decided, in honor of the nearly 5,000 U.S. service members who have died in Iraq since 2003, that for today's blog entry I would follow up on David's entry by holding up a magnifying glass up to the actions of Cheney, one of the most dangerous politicians of the last half-century.

Scooter Libby's "Who? Me Guilty" face
Wolfowitz and Cheney were personally connected through mutual, long-term friendship with the vice-president's chief of staff, I. Lewis ("Scooter") Libby. Libby is perhaps best remembered as the sole Bush Administration casualty in what the press came to call "Plamegate"– the investigation into whether CIA operative Valerie Plame had been outed as a covert operative in retaliation against her husband Ambassador Joseph Wilson. Wilson had made public comments critical of the Bush Administration's claims of having proof that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had sought to purchase yellow cake uranium for use in nuclear weapons.

And the dominos just keep falling from there. 

Ambassador Joe Wilson and his wife CIA agent Valerie Plame

I realize that it was Bush's administration, with Cheney serving as vice-president. But Cheney's was hardly typical of a vice-president's tenure, especially in recent memory. Hardly a team player, Cheney insisted on having his own special sphere of influence within the administration, and battled repeated attempts at forcing accountability and oversight on the actions of Libby, Wolfowitz, and others of Cheney's creatures such as David Addington, Libby's successor as Cheney's chief of staff, and the point man both in pressing within the Bush Administration for "enhanced interrogation" (e.g. "torture") of terror suspects, and in attempts late in the administration's second term by the Office of the Vice-President to assert that Cheney, as president of the Senate, actually served in the legislative branch of the federal government, thereby shielding the vice-president from oversight by (among other government entities) the National Archives. (More on that in the entry below.)

Addington: Cheney's "Attack Dog"
This resistance to any form of oversight is nothing new where Cheney is concerned. Notoriously secretive and close-mouthed during most of his political career, Cheney was well-known for making blunt statements that the media quickly converted to soundbytes, especially ones such as “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.”  He even once publicly told Senate Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont to “fuck off” right on the Senate floor.

And all he's done since he left office is call out his boss's successor as a coward and a traitor, over and over and over again. in fact, in wouldn't be a CPAC conference if you didn't have Cheney somewhere calling for Barack Obama's head.

So without further ado here's an overview of Cheney's tenure as vice-president adapted in part from early drafts of my 2010 book The Book of Bastards: 101 Worst Scoundrels and Scandals from the World of Politics and Power: 

Dick Cheney: long-time politician, former Secretary of Defense and White House Chief of Staff, former U.S. Vice-President.  Dick Cheney: draft-dodger, liar, war-monger, and would-be demolisher of the United States Constitution.

To say that the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001 “changed everything” is a gross understatement.  9/11 ushered in a new era of shoeless inspections and pat-down searches at airport checkpoints, and bans on such innocuous items as fingernail clippers and even excessive liquids on flights. 

It also ushered in an era of secret, unaccountable “no-fly lists,” extra-judicial detention and interrogation in secret CIA prisons around the world and at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; “enhanced interrogation methods,” “extraordinary renditions,” U.S. citizens being detained as “unlawful enemy combatants” and held incommunicado on military bases and a host of other atrocities that most Americans would consider anathema to their view of the Constitution.  All of these things have also strained America’s relationships with her allies at a time when she can ill-afford to do so.

And all of them can be laid directly at U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney’s doorstep.

As bad as these things are, however, none of them can compare to the power that Cheney tried to seize for himself.  It is an understatement to merely say that Cheney tried to circumvent the system of checks and balances put into the Constitution by the Founding Fathers.  It is not an exaggeration to say that the Vice President tried to assume for himself the powers of a dictator, a man accountable to no one, subject to no one’s oversight and who could keep whatever secrets he wanted for as long as he damn well pleased.

Beginning in 2003, Cheney began refusing to disclose to the National Archives what secrets his office was keeping.  This was in direct violation of an Executive Order issued by former President Bill Clinton in 1995 and continued by Bush.  It required all offices within the executive (presidential) branch of the federal government to make its documents available to the National Archives. 

Cheney refused to do so on the grounds that the orders did not apply to him because his dual role as president of the Senate placed him outside of the executive branch.  In other words, if Cheney had his way, records of Cheney’s involvement in many Bush administration scandals, from warrantless wiretapping to the administration’s involvement, if any, in the Enron debacle, would never see the light of day.

Thank GOD for THIS federal judge
Ultimately, an “open government” watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, sued in federal court to enjoin Cheney’s office from destroying its records.  U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly granted the group’s motion for an injunction requiring Cheney’s office to preserve its records and to turn them over the National Archives in due course.  There’s no telling how many government records Cheney had already shredded by before Kollar-Kotelly’s ruling.

When John McCain lost the 2008 election, it was seen in part as a public referendum on Cheney’s actions as vice president, his involvement in the Plame/Libby scandal, and his repeated executive branch power grabs.  Since leaving office the once-hard-to-pin-down Cheney has been all over the news, offering harsh criticism of his boss’ successor, Barack Obama.

After being so incredibly WRONG in THIS pronouncement, it takes real chutzpah to criticize the guy cleaning up your mess.

I'll close with a quote from ultraliberal muckraking journalist Glenn Greenwald, who, for my money pretty much sums up Cheney, his crimes, and his legacy. Like his tool Chalabi, Ol' Dick has much to answer for:

“Dick Cheney is one of the most divisive -- and disliked -- political officials in memory…he just presided over the virtual collapse of the American economy and is directly implicated in severe war crimes and other pervasive criminality.”

                                                                                                                                  -- Glenn Greenwald

11 November 2015

Close, But No Cigar


Some of you might remember a column I wrote awhile back about Valerie Plame Wilson, the Iraqi intelligence asset CURVEBALL, and the Nigerian yellowcake controversy, pieces of a larger puzzle, the much-disputed evidence for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Here's something of a postscript.



Any man's death diminishes us, as Donne says, although we all harbor an occasional hidden glee when some particularly pernicious bastard falls off his perch. Are there graves I'd piss on? Without even thinking twice. And as luck would have it, Achmed Chalabi died this past week. I wouldn't call him the blackest of villains. A shameless opportunist, a con man, an embezzler, a fabricator, a scoundrel, even a patriot - all things to all men, it might be said.

This is the guy who sold the Iraq war. CIA didn't trust him worth a hoot, but he had the ear of Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary and Rumsfeld's point man on WMD. Wolfowitz set up a spook shop in the Pentagon basement called the Office of Special Plans, and handed it off to one of his house attack dogs, Doug Feith. OSP's brief was to reassess the raw intelligence product regarding Iraq, since it was obvious to the administration war hawks that CIA and the rest of those goldbricks hadn't gotten the God damn memo. In other words, somebody had to come up with the smoking gun, and in their hour of need, a champion did indeed appear.



Now, as to why you'd buy warmed-over merchandise from a tainted source like Chalabi, this is a naive question. Yes, he'd been convicted of bank fraud in Jordan, and there were later questions about accounting practices at the Iraqi National Congress, an exile group he founded - during one three-year period it was kept afloat with some 30 million bucks of U.S. State Department aid money - but let's not be churlish. Chalabi was preaching to the converted. They'd already seen the light on the road to Damascus. They were hearing what they wanted to hear, the mobile labs for chemical and biological warfare, missile payloads, nuclear research. BND, the West German security service, was raising doubts, but these were dismissed. The story got legs. It's all a twice-told tale.

Chalabi's legend starts to unravel, afterwards. I'm using the term legend advisedly. In the secret world, it means a false biography or back-story, that supports a deception. If we start from the premise that Chalabi wanted to liberate Iraq, well and good, but then we begin to wonder, at what cost, and to whom? Couple of examples. Chalabi encouraged the Kurdish resistance, in the mid-1990's. It was brutally suppressed, he escaped. He was back, with U.S. forces, in 2003. He was unrepentant. Nor was he apologetic for feeding us bogus information. (It's been remarked, however, that intelligence he provided about his personal or political enemies turned out to be entirely accurate.) A more damaging suspicion is that Chalabi sold out early, and the high bidder was Iran. Supposing it to be true, and there's reason to believe it, everything turns inside out. We've got the accepted narrative backwards.



Sake of argument, let's just imagine one of OSP's chief resources was in fact an Iranian agent. How would it affect our Iraq policy - what would the desired result be, from Iran's perspective? A humiliating American failure, sure, but that's collateral damage. The big draw is a weak or compromised Iraq, fractured by tribalism and religious faction, near collapse. Low-hanging fruit. You could make the case that this is exactly what's come to pass, and the long game has worked in Iran's favor. They've got good position. And it shouldn't come as any surprise that they're ready to climb in bed with the Russians, either. The self-cultivated image of the mullahs as fanatics is a lot more bark than bite. They're a pragmatic bunch, by and large, and it may simply be that we've been played like a violin. It wouldn't be the first time we were undone by better technique or tradecraft. 

This is total speculation, of course. I'm not saying any of it's true.


 http://www.davidedgerleygates.com/

10 November 2015

The 11th Hour of the 11th Day of the 11th Month


“The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard."
The Katha-Upanishad and from The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham

On the 11th Hour of the 11th Day of the 11th Month, the Guns of August Fell Silent. November 11th was originally Armistice Day, the day World War I ended. It became Veterans Day in 1954.

Several weeks ago, on September 8th, I did a piece on this blog called Noir and the Returning War Vet Sub-Genre (http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2015/09/noir-and-returning-war-vet-sub-genre.html ). At the time I didn’t know my November post would fall on the day before Veteran’s Day. It would have been a good post for today, but since it’s a done deal, I’ll take a different tack this time.

And on October 29th, Brian Thornton did a post on what it means to be a veteran. I don’t think I could say it any better—I don’t think anyone has. You can find it here: http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2015/10/being-veteran.html .

I thought about making a list of books and movies that deal with veterans and there is a brief list at the end of this piece. But instead, I think I’ll talk a bit about one book that deals with a veteran that’s also been made into a movie twice over: The Razor’s Edge, by Somerset Maugham.

This book is tied for my favorite book of all time with The Count of Monte Cristo. Monte Cristo strikes a chord with me because it’s the ultimate revenge story and revenge is a form of justice (at least in some cases) and I like justice. But we’ll leave the Count aside for now.

The Razor’s Edge is the story of Larry Darrell, a World War I veteran who returns from the war a changed man, as most people do. He no longer accepts the shallow and superficial values of his friends. Instead, he goes on a search for a deeper and more transcendent meaning in life. To that end, he gives up the love of his life when she refuses to change or accept him as he’s become after the war.

I related to this book on many levels and in some senses it changed my life, making me see things differently, though I won’t go into all of that here.

Click on link below to view film clip
The first film version, from 1945, starred Tyrone Power as Larry Darrell, Gene Tierney as Isabel Bradley and the terrific Clifton Webb as Elliot Templeton. The other version, from 1984, starred Bill Murray. Of the two I’d have to say I like the earlier version better. It’s my understanding that Murray wanted to do the part and wouldn’t do Ghostbusters II unless the studio let him do The Razor’s Edge, though I’m not sure if the story is true. But either way, I just don’t think I see Murray in the part, he didn’t have the right demeanor, for me anyway.

And just in writing this article, I realized something I hadn’t realized before. The character of Zach Tanner in my new novella Vortex has a lot in common with Larry Darrell, though Zach doesn’t go on a mission to find transcendent meaning in the world, he does come back from the war in Afghanistan a changed man and this creates the conflict in the book. And the character of Jessie, his girlfriend, has much in common with Isabel; they’re both looking for superficial material happiness. I didn’t do this on purpose, but it shows how much The Razor’s Edge is with me on a subconscious level and how much a book or movie can affect someone, even years and decades after we’ve read or seen it.

And now back to the main issue of this blog post, Veteran’s Day. Here are a handful of movies about veterans that I like. There are others, of course, but here are a few that come to mind:

Films:
Americana
In-Country
The Best Years of Our Lives
The Razor’s Edge
Forrest Gump
Born Losers (introing Viet Nam vet Billy Jack)

Noir films w/ veterans:
Fallen Sparrow
Dead Reckoning
The Blue Dahlia
Somewhere in the Night
In a Lonely Place
***
And here is a salute to the men and women of the armed forces:

Click on link below to view youtube video
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bThVYvaHY2o

And the Marine Corps Silent Drill Team, which always fascinates me:

Click on link below to view youtube video
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h2-BEkqOVUo

And one more thing, a couple of lists of places where Veterans can get discounts on Veterans Day:


http://www.military.com/veterans-day/veterans-day-military-discounts.html

http://themilitarywallet.com/veterans-day-free-meals-and-discounts/

***

Vortex is on sale in e-form at all the usual places.

And there’s Goodreads Giveaway for Coast to Coast: Murder from Sea to Shining Sea running for a few more days. Maybe win a FREE copy. https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/161413-coast-to-coast-murder-from-sea-to-shining-sea






*Marine Corp Silent Drill Team photo by Jackie downloaded from Wikipedia Commons.



09 November 2015

Notes on Writing


I've been reading a couple of books on writing to see if something I read can motivate me. One that honestly touched me is what Stephen King wrote after he was injured so severely when he was hit by a van while he was taking a walk.

Mr. King had undergone surgeries and was still doing rehab and still in a wheelchair when he thought he might get back to writing. He wasn't really able to sit up much more than forty minutes at any one time without hurting. He states that he wasn't exactly raring to get back to writing, due to his pain level and incapacitation but a little voice in the back of his head kept telling him it was time.

Actually, writing had helped him through tough situations in the past. He wife, Tabby, was the deciding vote. She rigged up a writing area for him in the hall outside the pantry. Told him there were several electrical plug ins there, for his printer, MacBook and a fan. Since it was summer, even in Maine there was a need for a fan.

Tabitha rolled him to his little nest, kissed him on the forehead and left him to his work. That first session lasted an hour and forty minutes. The longest he'd been upright since his accident with Mr. Smith's van. Steve said he was sweaty and tired but happy too because he'd been productive. Thank goodness he realized he needed to keep writing to keep sane. Think of all the great books we would have missed if he had given up then.

Another book I read portions of was How To Write A Mystery by Larry Beinhart. I read a chapter on plotting. My books are usually character driven rather than plot driven. Mr. Beinhart did give me a better understanding of a plot. He divided plots into two categories. The first is as "The Contest" and the second as "The Journey." Yet he says that's not entirely true, because variations, exceptions, shadings, etc. can be involved. 

The Journey is simple enough. The hero has a problem and he keeps plugging away until he comes up with a solution. The Contest is between two opponents...good verses evil. A variation can add other people going after the same prize. 

I enjoy reading books about writing. Maybe they fail to motivate me as I hope but I almost always learn something from them. Sometimes reading fiction can help motivate me.

Have to mention reading our own Melissa Yi's upcoming book, Stockholm Syndrome. Melissa is an Emergency Room Physician in Montreal, Canada. The book is a tension filled medical thriller of two doctors, one crazed gunman and one lady in the late stages labor. Ms Yi's description of the background and the action ring true to me. I'm a retired diagnostic and radiation therapy technician and have watched several live births. The book is due out on December 1st and I highly recommend it.

08 November 2015

Sherlock Holmes and the Allegorical Context


James Matthew Barrie
James Matthew Barrie
(Peter Pan)

Arthur Conan Doyle
Arthur Conan Doyle
(Sherlock Holmes)

Did you ever wonder what might happen if Sherlock Holmes met Peter Pan? Wonder no more; it actually happened– sort of.

J. M. Barrie and A. Conan Doyle were fast friends. By 1892, Doyle was well established and Barrie was beginning to make a name for himself. The first glimpse of Peter Pan wouldn’t appear for another decade, and would continue to be revised for another ten years.

Nonetheless, Barrie had developed enough of a reputation to broach the subject of an opera to the masterful head of the Savoy Theatre formerly known for Gilbert & Sullivan operas. Richard D’Oyly Carte approved Barrie’s idea of a comic operetta titled Jane Annie or The Good Conduct Prize. D’Oyly Carte recommended ‘the’ Arthur Sullivan score the music, but Sullivan suggested a former pupil, Ernest Ford.

During his writing, Barrie suffered a breakdown. He turned to his friend, Arthur Conan Doyle.

As collaborators, Doyle and Barrie didn’t quite connect. For months, they batted the plot back and forth. The music hinged upon the libretto, the libretto depended upon the story line, and the story continued to evolve nearly to opening night, 13 May 1893.

The opening tanked. The authors weren’t asked to ascend the stage for a curtain call. In response, Barrie and Doyle churned out changes, but the die was cast. After fifty performances, the play closed 1 July 1893. (Another source claims the play ran March through April of 1893 for a total of fifty performances.)

Jane Annie became the Savoy’s first flop. Most contemporary sources conclude the play was a failure, but that’s not quite accurate. The play had a strong cast and the company went on tour for another two months in Bradford, Newcastle, Manchester, and Birmingham, where it proved to be considerably more popular. Nonetheless, the London response determined the fate of the show.

Fortunately, Barrie’s and Doyle’s friendship remained intact, and they treated their venture on the stage with humour. Barrie even joked about it with a Holmes parody. Inside the flyleaf of Barrie’s short story collection, A Window in Thrums, he wrote “The Adventure of the Two Collaborators” and presented it to his friend, Doyle.

Without allegorical context, this little story appears to be an awful Sherlock Holmes pastiche, but with the background of the play, we can understand this rueful exchange between two professionals who happened to be best of friends. Note that Barrie hints at the demise of Sherlock, which would take place later that year at Reichenbach Falls in The Final Problem.

The public would remain unaware of this small exchange between writers until 1923 when Doyle wrote an essay for Colliers Weekly, “The Truth About Sherlock Holmes.” At its end, Doyle presents J. M. Barrie’s "The Adventure of the Two Collaborators". Doyle published the parody again in his 1924 autobiography Memories and Adventures.


The Adventure of the Two Collaborators

by Sir James Matthew Barrie

In bringing to a close the adventures of my friend Sherlock Holmes, I am perforce reminded that he never, save on the occasion which, as you will now hear, brought his singular career to an end, consented to act in any mystery which was concerned with persons who made a livelihood by their pen. “I am not particular about the people I mix among for business purposes,” he would say, “but at literary characters I draw the line.”

We were in our rooms in Baker Street one evening. I was (I remember) by the centre table writing out “The Adventure of the Man Without a Cork Leg” (which had so puzzled the Royal Society and all the other scientific bodies of Europe), and Holmes was amusing himself with a little revolver practice. It was his custom of a summer evening to fire round my head, just shaving my face, until he had made a photograph of me on the opposite wall, and it is a slight proof of his skill that many of these portraits in pistol shots are considered admirable likenesses.

I happened to look out of the window, and perceiving two gentlemen advancing rapidly along Baker Street asked him who they were. He immediately lit his pipe, and, twisting himself on a chair into the figure 8, replied:

“They are two collaborators in comic opera, and their play has not been a triumph.”

I sprang from my chair to the ceiling in amazement, and he then explained:

“My dear Watson, they are obviously men who follow some low calling. That much even you should be able to read in their faces. Those little pieces of blue paper which they fling angrily from them are Durrant’s Press Notices. Of these they have obviously hundreds about their person (see how their pockets bulge). They would not dance on them if they were pleasant reading.”

I again sprang to the ceiling (which is much dented), and shouted: “Amazing! But they may be mere authors.”

“No,” said Holmes, “for mere authors only get one press notice a week. Only criminals, dramatists and actors get them by the hundred.”

“Then they may be actors.”

“No, actors would come in a carriage.”

“Can you tell me anything else about them?”

“A great deal. From the mud on the boots of the tall one I perceive that he comes from South Norwood. The other is as obviously a Scotch author.”

“How can you tell that?

“He is carrying in his pocket a book called (I clearly see) ‘Auld Licht Something.’ Would any one but the author be likely to carry about a book with such a title?”

I had to confess that this was improbable.

It was now evident that the two men (if such they can be called) were seeking our lodgings. I have said (often) that my friend Holmes seldom gave way to emotion of any kind, buy he now turned livid with passion. Presently this gave place to a strange look of triumph.

“Watson,” he said, “that big fellow has for years taken the credit for my most remarkable doings, but at last I have him - at last!”

Up I went to the ceiling, and when I returned the strangers were in the room.

“I perceive, gentlemen,” said Mr. Sherlock Holmes, “that you are at present afflicted by an extraordinary novelty.”

The handsomer of our visitors asked in amazement how he knew this, but the big one only scowled.

“You forget that you wear a ring on your fourth finger,” replied Mr. Holmes calmly.

I was about to jump to the ceiling when the big brute interposed.

“That Tommy-rot is all very well for the public, Holmes,” said he, “but you can drop it before me. And, Watson, if you go up to the ceiling again I shall make you stay there.”

Here I observed a curious phenomenon. My friend Sherlock Holmes shrank. He became small before my eyes. I looked longingly at the ceiling, but dared not.

“Let us cut the first four pages,” said the big man, “and proceed to business. I want to know why —”

“Allow me,” said Mr. Holmes, with some of his old courage. “You want to know why the public does not go to your opera.”

“Exactly,” said the other ironically, “as you perceive by my shirt stud.” He added more gravely, “And as you can only find out in one way I must insist on your witnessing an entire performance of the piece.”

It was an anxious moment for me. I shuddered, for I knew that if Holmes went I should have to go with him. But my friend had a heart of gold. “Never,” he cried fiercely, “I will do anything for you save that.”

“Your continued existence depends on it,” said the big man menacingly.

“I would rather melt into air,” replied Holmes, proudly taking another chair, “But I can tell you why the public don’t go to your piece without sitting the thing out myself.”

“Why?”

“Because,” replied Holmes calmly, “they prefer to stay away.”

A dead silence followed that extraordinary remark. For a moment the two intruders gazed with awe upon the man who had unravelled their mystery so wonderfully. Then drawing their knives, Holmes grew less and less, until nothing was left save a ring of smoke, which slowly circled to the ceiling.

The last words of great men are often noteworthy. These were the last words of Sherlock Holmes: “Fool, fool! I have kept you in luxury for years. By my help you have ridden extensively in cabs, where no author was ever seen before. Henceforth you will ride in buses!”

The brute sunk into a chair aghast.

The other author did not turn a hair.

To A. Conan Doyle,
from his friend
J. M. Barrie

07 November 2015

A Bunch of Good Mysteries


Almost every year for the past ten or so, I've picked up a copy of Otto Penzler's annual Best American Mystery Stories (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). I of course enjoy short fiction anyhow, and because this series has been around for so long, many of my favorite mystery writers have been included in its pages. I also consider it a good way for me to (1) read new stories by authors whose names I know, (2) discover stories by others I don't know but might like to, and (3) learn about what's being published currently in the leading mystery magazines and anthologies.

On October 6th, when the 2015 edition was released, I had yet another reason to buy the book: I somehow turned out to be one of the writers included. My short story "Molly's Plan," first published last year in The Strand Magazine, is one of the twenty stories chosen by guest editor James Patterson for this year's lineup. On three previous occasions (in the 2000, 2010, and 2012 editions) I was fortunate enough to make the "Other Distinguished Mystery Stories" list in the back of the book, but this is the first time I've made it to the inner sanctum. Whether I belong in such talented company is another matter--but I'm certainly grateful to be there.

My mission today is to say a few things about the BAMS series and about some of the other stories in this year's edition. I sadly admit that I've not yet read all twenty of them, but I have finished a dozen or so, including three written by friends of mine. And every one I've read so far has been outstanding. Kirkus Reviews and Publisher's Weekly seemed (thank goodness) to agree.

Backstory and M.O.

For those of you who aren't aware of this, the Best American Mystery Stories series began in 1997, and has always been edited by Otto Penzler, who owns The Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan and probably knows more about mystery fiction than all the rest of us combined. The names of all nineteen of his "guest editors" so far--among them Robert B. Parker, Sue Grafton, Harlan Coben, Ed McBain, Donald Westlake, Lisa Scottoline, Scott Turow, Laura Lippman, Nelson Demille, and Carl Hiaasen--are immediately recognizable to any mystery reader, and probably to any reader, period.

How does the selection process work? Each year, according to Otto's foreword to the 2015 edition, he and his colleague (partner in crime?) Michele Slung examine between 3000 and 5000 stories, from many sources: popular magazines, short-story collections, literary journals, etc. He also says that "every word of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and The Strand are read."

From these, Otto chooses fifty stories. Those fifty are then turned over to a guest editor (Patterson, this time), who picks twenty to be published in the book. The titles of the remaining thirty stories are listed in a "Distinguished" honor roll. I'm pleased to announce that this year's "Other Distinguished Mystery Stories" list contains (alongside names like Lawrence Block and Charlaine Harris) the names of my fellow SleuthSayers Rob Lopresti, Art Taylor, and David Edgerley Gates.

Otto also mentions in his foreword that the definition of a mystery story for this series is "any work of fiction in which a crime, or the threat of a crime, is central to the theme or the plot." That seems to be a common measuring stick, and it's the reason some of the stories in this year's BAMS edition wound up coming from non-mystery publications like The Georgia Review, Glimmer Train StoriesThe New Yorker, Ploughshares, etc. In case anyone's interested, three of the stories this year came from AHMM, one from EQMM, and one from The Strand.

BAMS 2015

The first story in this year's book, and one of my favorites, is "The Snow Angel," by my friend Doug Allyn. That story was also nominated for an Edgar Award earlier this year, and won the 2015 Derringer Award for best novelette. Yes, novelette--it's a long tale, covering about 33 pages, and well worth the time it takes to read it.

Another favorite of mine is "Red Eye," a collaboration by Michael Connelly
and Dennis Lehane. It features characters made famous by both authors: L.A. cop Harry Bosch travels to Boston on a case, and winds up assisted (in many ways) by P.I. Patrick Kenzie. Having read many of the adventures of both these characters, I think I was able to relate even more closely to them here. "Red Eye," by the way, was another of the stories nominated for an Edgar this year, and deservedly so.

Other excellent entries in this edition are "The Adventure of the Laughing Fisherman," by Jeffery Deaver; "Crush Depth," by Brendan DuBois; "Wet With Rain," by Lee Child; "Harm and Hammer," by Joseph D'Agnese; and "The Home at Craigmillnar," by Joyce Carol Oates. (Ms. Oates's story brought tears to my eyes, which doesn't happen often.) The truth is, I haven't come across a bad story yet, in this anthology, and I don't expect to. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of them.

Observations

One more thing. I had the great pleasure of meeting Otto Penzler in New York earlier this year, and when I saw him again at Bouchercon in Raleigh and we were talking about the size of the conference, I said to him, "You know almost everyone here, don't you." He replied, "No--but I think almost everyone here knows me." I'm sure he was right.

If you happen to pick up a copy of The Best American Mystery Stories 2015--and I hope you will--I hope you'll like my story.

I know you'll like the book.

06 November 2015

Psycho at the Theater


By Dixon Hill

I wonder if you are like I used to be:  I had seen Psycho, as well as many other films by Alfred Hitchcock, while sitting in my living room.

And I liked these films a lot.

The fact that the film was showing on a screen less than three feet across didn't seem to cause any problems.

And, when I watched Psycho on DVD, I didn't even have to worry that anything had been cut out by television executives who might be worried over advertisement space or public decency concerns.

The entire film was there for me to see, just the way Alfred Hitchcock had intended me to see it, and I could enjoy it in its entirety.  True, Psycho seemed to sag a bit in the middle, but a quick trip to the kitchen for more beer and popcorn fixed that problem too.

Boy, Was I WRONG!

In September of 2015, Turner Classic Movie channel teamed with Fandango to present Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho in several movie theaters across the country.  I thought it might be fun to take my kids to watch it, and my two sons were both available (my daughter, Raven, had to work) so I bought the tickets online.

On the appointed date, my sons and I trooped down to the Cinemark theater, which shares a parking lot with a gigantic Bass Fishing Store, near our home.  And that Bass Fishing Store may not have made any impact on the film, but that theater sure did.

Not the fact that we went to the Cinemark -- though it is a very nice theater (with recliner seating, even!) -- it was instead what I have finally decided to call 'the theatricality of the film'.
Glad to say no late arrivals were permitted at my screening either.

In fact, I now have to admit:  I had never really seen Psycho before.  Oh, sure: I saw it on the small screen in my living room probably dozens of times.  But, seeing Psycho on the big screen?

That's when I actually saw Psycho -- the TRUE Psycho, as it was meant to be -- for the first time.

The difference between watching it on the small screen, and seeing it unfold on the big screen astounded me.  That difference was not just surprising.  It was pretty shocking.  And, in one instance, literally moving! (And I do mean literally not figuratively.)

In fact, the effect was so great it had me puzzling about it, and discussing it with my two sons afterward.

I've read quite a bit about Alfred Hitchcock, of course.  Who can write mysteries, hoping to sell them to AHMM, without reading a bit about the guy?  I knew about many of his remarkable cinematic slights of hand, in which he supposedly made audience members feel as if they were watching the film from within -- sitting inside the action as it transpired.  I had noticed faint hints of this on the small screen, too.  So I thought I understood what the writers of those articles were talking about and describing.

But, I was wrong again.

On a DVD of Dial M for Murder, which I got from my local library, I watched a segment, after the film, in which another director (I think it was Martin Scorsese, but I'm not sure.) discussed the film.

He explained that Dial M for Murder had originally been released in 3D, but primarily showed in 2D because 3D was already on the way out when the film was released.  This director, however, had seen the 3D version and been amazed by the manner in which Hitchcock employed the technique, using it to provide added depth to on-screen setting, in order to draw the audience more directly up onto the stage itself.  He added that, in retrospect, he knew he should not have been surprised, given that Hitchcock's filming technique often lent an almost-3D effect to his 2D films.

Watching the film, in the theater, when different people pulled in at the motor court run by Norman Bates (played by Anthony Perkins) I suddenly understood what that man had mean, with all that talk about a 3D effect in 2D films.

Aerial shot of the motor court and house on the studio lot.
Courtesy Time Life
On the small screen, for instance, I was never terribly excited about outside shots of the motor court.  Frankly, I always got the feeling it was clearly shot on a sound stage, even though I had seen the Psycho house on the studio lot as a teenager.  And there was certainly nothing menacing about this motor court -- at least, not to me.

On the large screen, however, that motor court had a definite 3D feel to it.  I felt as if I could have walked past the car that had just stopped in front of me, and strolled up onto the wooden sidewalk in front of the rooms, and that my feet would have kicked through about twenty or thirty feet of dirt parking lot before I reached that walkway.

After the film, I asked my two sons, and both agreed that they had found the motor court surprisingly 3D in feel.  We also agreed that the details within the shots had been nearly overwhelming at times.  We had often felt -- each, singly -- as if we were sitting in the same room that the characters occupied.  Sometimes even near the center of the room.  Dressers, counters, sinks, even stuffed birds looked ... well, I guess I can only call it TANGIBLE.  It felt as if they were really there, right in front of us, and we could reach out and actually touch them if we wanted.

None of us could think of a single instance when we had experienced such a feeling while watching a contemporary film.  Which tells you how much we lost with Hitchcock's passing.

I had watched all this for quite some time, thinking:
 Hmmm.  I always thought the film dragged a bit after the murder scene, but I don't feel as if it's dragging at all this time.  I wonder why. 
                      -- when something occurred that startled me into realizing part of the answer. 

All my life I had heard stories about Hitchcock shooting scenes in a manner that manipulated audience members -- like making everyone in the theater lean to one side in an attempt to see through a crack between a door and the doorjamb, for instance.  But, I had never experienced this for myself.

Now I have!

On the big screen, when Detective Milton Arbogast (played by Martin Balsom) enters the hardware store where Lila Crane (played by Vera Miles) has gone to find her missing sister's boyfriend, a remarkable thing takes place.  And, humorously, when I'd seen the film on television, I'd assumed this odd thing was simply the result of an error by whoever had edited it for the small screen.  After all, they cut off part of the top and bottom of the character's head!

Watching in the theater, as "Arbogast" entered the room, his "cut off" head completely FILLED the screen.  It invaded my space!  And I suddenly moved my head, to give the man room to get into the place.  I was afraid he was going to bump into me and we'd both be embarrassed by the collision!

Arbogast.  He doesn't look so forceful in this shot.
This only took a second.  Maybe not even that long.  But, Arbogast's character, his stubborn bull-
headedness, his willingness to push through any obstacle, not caring about the cost, was instantly communicated to me.  Just through this one, one-second or less, scene.

I was shocked!

After all, I'm a writer.  I work hard to make words count, to make them carry as much load as they can in my stories.

And, here was a director using cinematography to make every second, or half-second, of his film carry as much load as it could.

Sure, there have been scenes in movies that I've seen, in which something is rapidly communicated on-screen with little or no dialogue.  But this communication usually comes as a sort of punch-line, the answer to a question or mystery that's been plaguing the viewer throughout the film.  This scene can carry so much load, because the burden of much of the information it conveys was shouldered earlier, by those scenes that created the question in our minds; the question this scene answered.

But that is NOT what happened here.

In response to the realization: Did I just duck out of that guy's way?  I DID!  And he's a two-dimensional fictional character on a screen at least seventy feet away from me.  How did he manage to invade my space like that? I began thinking about the film, about what I was seeing.

I came to view  the film not only for its inherent entertainment value, but also to look at what was happening in the technique, and what that technique did to me.  I finally realized that the reason I didn't think the film was dragging, was because Hitchcock was forcing every second to carry its own weight -- something that didn't happen when I saw it on the small screen at home.  At home, for instance, Arbogast's entrance had looked like an editing error.  In the theater, this same shot forced me to move my head, to get out of a two-dimensional character's way.

I have to tell you: If you get the chance to watch a Hitchcock film in a theater -- JUMP AT IT!  If your experience with that film is anything like mine at Psycho, you'll be glad you did.

See you in two weeks!
--Dixon










05 November 2015

Halloween Ain't Over By A Long Shot


I know, Halloween is over, but there are some things that just have to be mopped up.
First up, "verd√Ętre". In the King James Version, Revelations 6:8 reads: "And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth." But, believe it or not, it gets creepier in the French SG21 translation, where that pale horse is "verd√Ętre", or "greenish." Just like pus. Or decay. Or the Frankenstein's monster, which only adds to the oomph, don't you think?

Except that the Frankenstein's monster was actually yellow in the original. But then, 60% of all newborns get jaundice.

Secondly, thanks to John Sutherland, who in his collection of literary questions, "Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet?" raises the best question of all, "Why isn't everyone a vampire?" I'm going to quote Mr. Sutherland here (pp. 239-240):
"Let us assume that each vampire infects one victim a year, and that this victim dies during the course of the year to become, in turn, a vampire. Since they are immortal, each vampire will form the centre of an annually expanding circle, each of which will become the centre of his or her own circle. The circle will widen at the rate of 2(n-1). In year one (say, 1500) there is one new vampire, in 1501, two, in 1502, 4; in 1503, 8; and so, by the simple process of exponential increase, there will be 1,204 new vampires in 1510. And, since they never die, the numbers are swollen cumulatively. Within thirty-one years the vampire population will have reached 2 billion. By 1897, the presumable date of Stoker's novel, the numbers are incalculably vast. In fact, so vast that they will probably have collapsed to nil. Long since everyone will have been vampirized; there will be no more food-supply... Dracula and his kind will die out. And with them, the human race."
Going out, we presume, with a whimper of hunger…

BTW, this idea works perfectly with werewolves, too. After all, if you get scratched/bitten by a werewolf, you become a werewolf, so we should all be werewolves by now, right? And, on top of that, the children of werewolves become werewolves, making (as a friend of mine pointed out) werewolves the original anchor babies!

Meanwhile, back in SD, the dog and pony show continues.

Attorney General Marty Jackley (remember him?) held a press conference on Tuesday, November 3, 2015, at 1:00 p.m., at the Community Center adjacent to the Platte City Hall building, Platte, S.D, to discuss the investigation in the deaths of the Westerhuis family.
For the saga to date about the Westerhuises, the federal GEAR UP monies, and a variety of missing funds, see my last SleuthSayers post, "A Little Light Corruption".
I had already told everyone who expected a great deal of detail, substance, even some actual news, that they should meet outside, later, for a special preview of "Bambi Goes Hunting With an Uzi." Jackley did not disappoint. He announced that it was obvious that Mr. Westerhuis - after hearing that the GEAR UP! grant was being cancelled - shot and killed his wife and his four children, poured [unidentified] accelerant all over the house and then shot himself. Period. This all happened some time around 3 A.M. Apparently the Westerhuises had surveillance cameras, but they recorded nothing, and neither of the two (!) security systems were tripped.

Two interesting and very understated points:
  1. Someone called Nicole Westerhuis' cell phone from the Westerhuis landline, leaving a voice message, but the message can't be retrieved because the account was cancelled. (Obvious questions:  When were the accounts cancelled?  Who cancelled them?)
  2. The Westerhuis safe is missing. Mr. Jackley asked that if anyone knew anything about the whereabouts of the safe to please call him.  
Please feel free to comment wildly. I certainly have.

Meanwhile, a new bit of crazy has arrived in time for Halloween. Now, this is a two-parter:

An original, handmade South Dakota flag dating back to Deadwood’s Old West days that went missing from former Secretary of State Jason Gant’s office in January has been returned to its home in the state Capitol. Garrett Devries, former employee of former South Dakota Secretary of State Jason Gant, former intern of our own Senator John Thune, and "Republican operative," picked it up and took it with him to Washington because "it was cool." (I suppose he never heard that theft was wrong...) He's being charged with a misdemeanor, and is working on a plea deal. (Funny how we can spend money and manpower tracking down a flag, but not the $147 million lost to the EB-5 program...)
Jason Gant
Former Secretary of State Jason Gant,
looking a little spooked for Halloween.

Meanwhile, Mr. Gant is accused of being "$43,000 short of what the in-house books said, losing three iPad Minis out of thirty purchased for his over-hyped military voting program, misappropriating tens of thousands of federal Help America Vote Act dollars, failing his statutory duty to print a legislative manual, and letting an employee walk off with a historic state flag." (See above)
(http://dakotafreepress.com/2015/10/30/gant-admits-but-minimizes-mistakes-krebs-needs-democratic-backup-in-pierre/ - once again, thank you to Cory Heidelberger!)
Mr. Gant has admitted that he made "mistakes", but also claims that "his people were just too busy with other projects to get to reconciling the bank accounts... or turn in invoices relating to the federal HAVA money." As for the iPads, well, crap happens.

NOTE:  I love South Dakota: one guy (co-director for Leadership South Dakota) can't remember nine $1000 payments for his consulting services, and another guy (a former Secretary of State) misplaces iPads all over the place and loses an historical, hand-made state flag, not to mention a bunch of bucks...

And did you know it costs $18,518.51 per overseas soldier to get them to vote? To quote from our own Argus Leader:
The Secretary of State's office under former secretary Jason Gant used more than $500,000 in federal grant money to help 27 active military members vote last year... "I know that 27 doesn't sound like a wonderful number, but it was a program that 27 people took advantage of," Gant said.... [And he] spent $79,000 on a public relations and marketing firm to publicize the program on a trip to Germany. "The beauty of the system is that if in a few years there were thousands of South Dakotans overseas, they could be using it," said Gant.
Honey, there's only 853,000 people in the entire state - how many thousands are heading overseas? Is this something we should be worried about? Aware of? Prepared for? Pack our bags?

Here’re a few hints, Mr. Gant:
(1) Start smartening up your explanations/excuses/reasons/justifications.
(2) Watch the Maltese Falcon and think about the character of Wilmer, the fall guy.
(3) Don't go hunting alone.
(4) Keep your doors locked at night.  Maybe get a dog.