19 November 2015

The War on Anarchism

Naturally I have been thinking about the Paris attacks, and my conclusions are that the terrorists' goals were:

(1) to inflict significant random casualties, causing as much terror and disruption as they can (terrorists always like to see people afraid).
(2) subvert the entire refugee process, hopefully ending it, so that all potential refugees will "know" that they can't escape, and will submit to them.
(3) make the name of Islam stink in the nostrils of the West (our own politicians and media are already helping spread the word that 'all Muslims are terrorists'), again to remove hope from all those in the Middle East who want them destroyed.
(4) to financially bankrupt the West as we attempt to destroy an idea militarily.
(5) to morally bankrupt the West as we subvert our own values in the name of freedom and the War On Terrorism.

First reaction: Damn them. Damn all anarchists /terrorists/ bombers/ fanatics, of every religion, of every creed, of every political persuasion, past, present and future, who always prefer to see frightened children, weeping families, and dead bodies than have anyone escape their cultish claws...

Second reaction:  Screw them.  Spit in their eye.  Get out and enjoy life.  "But terrorists may sneak into the United States!"  Sneak in?  We've got them, we've had them, and we can also grow them ourselves.  In 1901, anarchists killed United States President McKinley; there have been lynchings, murders, and church burnings perpetrated against blacks since before the Civil War, and sadly, it's still occurring; in 1995, Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah building; of course 9/11; and just in 2015, here at home, there have been 290 deaths from mass shootings by our own fellow citizens. Seriously, if we weren't afraid a week ago, there's no reason to be afraid now.

The problem with a war on terrorism is, of course, that it's actually a war on an idea, and ideas never die. But, when they become overwhelmingly popular and attractive, they can easily, rapidly lead to mass violence and murder. Now, before you go off and say, "see, I told you!"  The other side of ideas is that people can change their minds, and an idea that seemed absolutely universally true can become relegated to something abhorrent, or quaint, or completely unimportant.
Examples:  the divine right of kings, infant damnation, the geocentric solar system, the subjection of women, the general inferiority of other races (common in Europe, China,
and Japan), the mercantilist theory of economics, and the hugely popular notion that war is the normal condition between any two countries.  
Anarchism was one of those ideas.  The idea really caught on in the late 1700s, during the Enlightenment, when Jean Jacques Rousseau, my least favorite philosopher, wrote a number of works that, among other things, claimed that private property was the root of all evil, and that uncorrupted morals prevailed in the state of nature that [supposedly] existed before government came along. In his work The Social Contract, he said "The larger the state, the less liberty".  (Yes, Thomas Jefferson read Rousseau - EVERYONE read Rousseau, from Robespierre to Bolivar to Ho Chi Minh, which, imho, is part of the problem.) Small, city-states were ideal, in which [only] men exercised their freedom on election day. Now here's where Rousseau put an edge on the blade: he believed that the majority would always be right; and therefore the minority must be "forced to be free", i.e., obey the majority. And if they continue to rebel, kill them.

John D. Rockefeller 1885.jpg
John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937),
the richest man in America.  Ever.  
During the Gilded Age, and slightly after, (1870-early 1900s), anarchists in Europe and the United States took Rousseau and ran with it.  They believed that people were naturally good and virtuous; that government and property were all corrupt and corrupting, and that government and private property should be abolished, violently if necessary.  And there was a lot of private property and government around that certainly wasn't theirs.

The Gilded Age was Grover Nordquist's wet dream: no income tax, no unions, no minimum wage, no regulations on industry, and government's only role was to collect foreign tariffs and defend our borders.  It was a time of huge economic inequality. From 1860 to 1900, the wealthiest 2% of American households owned more than a third of the nation's wealth, and the top 10% owned 75% of it.  There wasn't much left for the rest.  And the most popular philosophies among the upper classes said that was the way it should be:  Herbert Spencer's Social Darwinism applied survival of the fittest to people and nations, making the poor simply lazy and unfit, while William Graham Sumner's push for a totally laissez-faire economy (What Social Classes Owe to Each Other, 1884) assured everyone that assistance to the poor only weakens their ability to survive in society.

Jacob Riis,
Five Cents Lodging, Bayard Street
Meanwhile, it was a bad time to be one of the 90%.  The urban tenements in the north were horrendous (Read Jacob Riis' 1890 How the Other Half Lives:  Studies Among the Tenements of New York) and the mines and sharecropping in the south barely kept the workers alive.  Blacks in the South were stripped of the political power and voting rights they'd [briefly] had during Reconstruction, and were barely able to get any job.  The attempts to form labor unions - which fought for 8 hour days, safety regulations (the United States had one of the highest accident rates in the world, with no compensation for the injured/dead), abolition of child labor, etc. - were fought savagely by the owners of railroads, mines, factories, who hired police and private protection to stop them by any means necessary.  At least twice, under Hayes and Cleveland, the President sent in the U. S. Army to break up strikes.

Now the anarchists weren't the only ones challenging the status quo, but they got the most press because they were the most violent.  They didn't just talk about destroying the state.  Thanks to the invention of dynamite, they worked at physically destroying it.  They bombed public places, killing innocent civilians.  They assassinated some very important figures.  Some of the more notorious examples are:
  • November 8, 1893, the Barcelona Opera House was bombed during a performance of "William Tell", leaving 72 dead or seriously injured.
  • December 9, 1893 - Anarchist Auguste Vaillant bombed the Paris Chamber of Deputies, injuring 20.
  • Februrary 12, 1894 - Emile Henry bombed the Cafe Terminus in Paris, killing one and injurying 20.
  • June 7, 1896 - an unknown anarchist dropped a bomb on the traditional procession of the Sacred Host (it was Corpus Christi) in Barcelona, killing 23 people.  
  • May 31, 1906 - a bomb was set off at the wedding of Spanish King Alfonso XIII and his bride Victoria Eugenie “Ena” of Battenberg.  The royal couple survived, but 25 people were killed and 130 were injured. 
  • April, 1919 - at least 36 booby-trapped, dynamite-filled bombs were mailed to a variety of politicians, appointees, and businessmen, including John D. Rockefeller.  
  • June 2, 1919 - coordinated bombs were set off, almost simultaneously, in New York, Boston, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Patterson, New Jersey, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia. The intended targets included a mayor, a state legislator, three judges, two businessmen, a cop, and a Catholic priest. No intended victim was hurt, but it terrorized the American public.
  • September 16, 1920 - a wagon full of explosives and shrapnel was set off in front of the Wall Street offices of J.P. Morgan & Co., killing 39 and injuring hundreds more.
(There were many more.  Please note that all of these were done before cell phones, twitter, or any other form of social media.)

And then there were the assassinations:
  • June 24, 1894 - French President Sadi Carnot was stabbed to death in Lyon, France.
  • March 13, 1881 - Russian Tsar Alexander II was killed by one of three bombs that were set off, killing him and at least two others, as well as wounding a number of people in the crowd.
  • Assassination of Alexander II
  • July 29, 1900 - King Umberto I of Italy was shot to death.
  • September 6, 1901 - US President William McKinley was shot to death.
  • February 1, 1908 - King Carlos I of Portugal, along with his heir Luis Filipe, were shot to death.
  • September 10, 1908 - Austrian Empress Elizabeth (wife of Emperor Franz Joseph I) was stabbed to death.  
  • And, of course, on June 28, 1914, the Austrian heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, were shot by Gavril Princip, sparking World War I.
So, what was the reaction to these 30 years of terror, bombings, and assassinations?  The following is patched together from Johann Hari's excellent article  "Blood Rage and History" in the September 22, 2011 Independent:   Terror, a crackdown on immigration, a "bonfire of civil liberties" - in 1920, after the Wall Street Bombing, Congress declared anarchism "un-American", and said anybody preaching it would be held responsible for "aiding" the attacks.  (This was the first time that an idea had ever been declared un-American.)  A wave of arrests and convictions of people who actually hadn't done anything but talk quickly followed.  (There were some protests, but not a lot.)  But Spain, Italy, and other countries were worse, "and the countries that had the harshest crackdowns ended up with the largest anarchist movements of all, while those that reacted calmly and kept their freedoms open saw the movements implode much faster."  
"From the 1920s on, the anarchist attacks began to dwindle, and by the late 1930s they were over. Why? What happened? Nobody is entirely sure – but most historians suggest a few factors. After the initial wave of state repression, civil liberties slowly advanced – undermining the anarchist claims. The indiscriminate attacks on ordinary civilians discredited anarchism in the eyes of the wider public: after a young man blew himself up in Greenwich Park in 1892, his coffin was stoned and attacked by working class people in the East End. The anarchists' own cruelty and excess slowly deprived them of recruits. 
"But, just as importantly, many of the anarchist grievances were addressed by steady reforms. Trade unions were finally legalised, and many of their demands were achieved one by one: an eight-hour working day, greater safety protections, compensation for the injured. Work was no longer so barbaric – so the violent rejection of it faded away. The changes were nowhere near as radical as those demanded by the anarchists, but it stripped them of followers step-by-step."  Ibid, Hari.  
Can this be applied today?  The simple answer is, yes.  Changes can be made that would address some of the Islamic extremist grievances - two suggestions Hari gives are to abolish torture (even if everyone else is doing it), get free of our oil addiction so we no longer have to be the hired guns for anyone with oil, starting with the house of Saud, which has been and is supporting, harboring, and financing Wahabism, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other extremist groups for years.  (See Charles Pierce's Esquire piece, There Is Only One Way to Defeat Isis , in which he says "As long as people are dying in Paris, nobody important is dying in Doha or Riyadh.")  

Even more, though, we should address the fact that most jihadists are unemployed young men, both those who are home-grown Arabs and those who are recruited from Western cities around the world. Let's face facts: young men who are not employed and/or married and (for whatever reason) cannot become employed and/or married are dangerous.  They are restless, discontent, and prone to go off after anyone who will promise them what they want.
Two Notes:  (1) this holds true for our own home-grown malcontents, who are responsible for the majority of those 290 deaths in mass shootings and counting in the USA in 2015.  (2) The Middle East, China and India, have the highest levels of men to women sex ratios in the world, due to in utero sex selection, one-child policies, preference for boys, and (in the Middle East) guest workers.  Right now we're worried about Middle East men.  Some day, someone's going to have to deal with the 30 million [each] of Chinese and Indian men who will not only never be married, but never even be able to get a date.  [Yes, there's a reason for the horrific rise of gang-rapes in India.] Unless someone figures out a peaceful solution, we will be dealing with new terrorist groups, under new names, but will be as horrific as the others.  But more on that another time.
Sex ratio by country for total population. Blue represents more women,
more men than the world average of 1.01 males/female.
DBachmann, Wikipedia
These young men have to be given hope, yes, but not just a vision of it (the extremists give them that), but actual practical things, like a job and a home and a family.  Seriously, this is the way terrorism has always been sparked and how it has always been quenched, from Roman times (read up on the Zealots some time) to the Anarchists.
"Instead of spending astronomical sums on arms, let us spend instead on roads, hospitals, schools, houses, businesses, to create jobs and so on. Instead of financing war, let us purchase peace." Girardian Jean Michel-Oughourlian, Psychopolitics, p. 23
Look it up.  And then go have a good dinner.

Image result for stand with paris

18 November 2015

Bouchercon: Vision Revision

First things first: in my last piece in this space I complained about something I thought Sisters In Crime did at Bouchercon.  It turns out it was actually done by SmashWords.  I don't know where I got my misinformation and I apologize to Sisters In Crime and to anyone who read my piece before I corrected it.  Now onto today's fresh blunders…

As I mentioned last month, I am pleased as punch to have a story in Murder Under The Oaks, an anthology published in October to celebrate Bouchercon, the annual mystery convention, held this year in Raleigh, North Carolina.  I am also delighted that the profits go to Wake County, NC libraries.  How can I argue with a cause like that?

This photo shows me at the end of the assembly line, eighteen or so authors signing their stories.  I'm the last guy because my story ends the book.

When I heard about the proposed anthology I went through my old files, searching for an appropriate piece.  I was happy to give a story to charity, but only one that had already been rejected by the major markets.  This doesn't mean there is anything wrong with the tale; most of my stories that have  been nominated for awards were rejected at least once along the way.

I settled on "On The Ramblas,"  which is set in Barcelona.  (Well, I don't have any set in Raleigh... yet.)  I pulled up the file for an edit and decided the plot was fine and the writing was okay, but immediately the question of theme came up.

Eileen Gunn said that "'Theme' is what the critics use to describe what you did."  Someone else said theme is what the story is about other than the plot and the characters.  I prefer the latter definition.

Usually I don't know what the theme of a story is until I am in the final edits.  That's when a sentence in the text will pop up in front of me and I'll think: Oh, THAT'S what it's about.  But in the case of "On The Ramblas" I knew early on that the theme was: What does it take to make you happy?

Happy American tourists on the Ramblas,
with animals.
My story is about two American tourists in Spain. Frank is miserable because he would rather be back home making business deals. His wife, Helen, is unhappy because Frank is making sure she is. My third character, Josep, is a Catalonian pickpocket, and he is brokenhearted because his girlfriend left him, taking his team of thieves with her. He is not only lonely (say that three times fast) but he is trying to do his job without the proper co-workers. What will happen when these freight trains of unhappiness collide on the Ramblas, Barcelona's main tourist shopping street?

So I thought I was all set in the theme department. But as soon as I sat down to revise I realized that there was a second theme, begging to come out and play.  It was right there in the first sentence:  Tourists wandered through the Ramblas like sheep, waiting to be fleeced.  I loved the animal/people metaphor.  I realized I could punch up that connection.

(A little inside baseball here: technically  my metaphor is a motif which I am using to build a theme.  I say that strictly to show off to the English majors.  Back to business.)

Of course , there is a connection  between  happiness and the people/animal thingie.  Back in Philosophy 101  my professor quoted John Stuart Mill to explain the importance of her topic: It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.

There was one more thing I needed to do before sending in the story. It was recommended that the submissions include a reference to oak trees.  (Remember the title of the book?)  So I searched the web to see if there was 

The other end of the line,
with editor Art obscuring Margaret Maron.
any interesting connection between oaks and Spain.  There was!  And here's the beauty part: the connection has to do with animals. This is the sort of thing that happens when a writer is "in the zone." Things fall into place with spooky precision. It is the sort of thing that makes one invoke the muse or other magical explanations. I only wish it happened more often.

So I sent the story in, editor Art Taylor accepted it, and as a reward for his good taste and erudition he was invited to join the ranks of the SleuthSayers.

That last part is a joke: his name was brought up by someone who knew nothing about the anthology.  But I am glad to be in the book and I hope, well, that it makes you happy.

17 November 2015

Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone

I don't like having my picture taken. If you went solely by my family members' photo albums, you'd probably not even know I existed. Until recently, I hid from the camera. I often think I look okay in the mirror, but photos tell the truth--a truth I would prefer to ignore.
But since I've become an author who needs to promote, I've had to get my photo out there. So I've had some pictures taken (like the one above). And I've become more comfortable with having my picture out there, even those taken by other people who aren't trying to showcase me in the best possible light. (Perhaps now that I'm in my forties, I've achieved the mindset of just not caring anymore. I see photos of me. Sometimes I cringe. Sometimes I untag myself on Facebook. And then I try to let things go.)

Me at age 23 in a
photo I don't hate.
It was with this "Frozen" mindset that I approached an opportunity last summer. I was invited to interview to be a narrator of a docudrama on the TV One Network. The show is called "For Her Man." It runs every Monday night at ten p.m. (and again two hours later at midnight, and again two hours later at 2 a.m. for people with insomnia). Each episode is about a woman who has ruined her life for her man. The company that produces the show was looking for local authors who would narrate portions of the show, letting viewers understand what happened to the woman in question. I was invited to be one of the narrators because of my background writing crime stories.

Behind the scenes
at the taping

The idea at first sounded fun. Being on TV--it's the kind of thing you dream of as a kid. And then reality set it. I would be on TV. People would see me. It's like having your picture taken times a thousand. I would be so out of my comfort zone, I wouldn't be able to see the zone anymore. So I nearly let the opportunity pass me by. But thanks to the encouragement of my friend Sherry Harris, I decided to leave my comfort zone behind. I interviewed, was accepted, and the rest is history.

The taping was fun,as expected. The producer and her assistant were nice and funny and patient. The cameraman and the sound man were cool. The show even did my makeup as if I were a real star. Next comes the cringing part, watching the show. I hope I don't talk too quickly. I hope I look okay. And I hope I sound intelligent.

Free food for the stars
My episode airs tonight (well, tonight as I type this blog). Monday, November 16th, at 10 p.m Eastern Time. As I mentioned above, it's also running at 12 and 2 a.m. on Tuesday the 17th, so if you're an early reader of today's (Tuesday's) blog, maybe you can catch it. Not sure if you get the TV One Network? Chances are you do. Look for it in your channel options. It's on DirecTV (channel 328) and Fios and Comcast and others.

And in case you  miss the show, here's a link to the promo for it, so you can get a taste of me, way, way out of my comfort zone.

Have you stepped out of your comfort zone? What did you do and what finally pushed you to do it? I'd love to hear about it in the comments.

16 November 2015


by Susan Rogers Cooper

As Thanksgiving rapidly approaches I thought I'd jot down a few things I'm thankful for: my beautiful daughter and her three wonderful children, the memories of a good marriage that lasted over thirty-four years, old friends and new friends, and, yes, books.

I'm thankful for Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and the Winslow Brothers who enriched my childhood, for Agatha Christie, John Steinbeck and J.D. Salinger who molded my teenage years, and for John D. MacDonald who brought me back to mystery in my early twenties. I'm thankful to Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton, and Sarah Peretsy who taught me that women can write just as hardboiled as any man. And I'll always be grateful to Jan Grape, my mentor, who did more for my career than any agent or editor has ever done. And I'm thankful for those agents and editors who helped mold my work – especially the undisputed queen of mystery editors, the late Ruth Cavin, who once told me – when I complained after she read my fifth book that I hadn't gotten the editing letter from her that I usually got – that I finally sent her one without any big boo-boos.

I'm thankful that I've been blessed with the career of my choice, and that I've had a job that makes me mostly happy – except on those days when all I can do is stare at a blank screen. I'm thankful for the friends I've met since I started this career – Joan Hess, Sharan Newman, the late Barbara Burnett Smith and the late Nancy Bell, Dean James, Charlaine Harris, and so many more who've made me laugh and cry and given me advice that I'll always remember.
This is a good time to remember these things, to count our blessings, and say thank you to those we love. And to stock up on extra books since we'll soon have a day off.

15 November 2015


© MGM and Kotaku
by Leigh Lundin

My friend Geri is a movie fan and yesterday she and I saw Spectre. British reviewers loved it; American critics– not so much. That surprised me because Geri and I found ourselves in the British camp.

Getting the Critics Out of the Way

To be fair, one critic (Bob Grimm, Reno News and Review) writes “I don't need to know everything about James Bond and his upbringing. A little depth is fine, but this one goes too far. Just blow things up.”

Okay, one mindless drivel fan upset by thought processes. But Grimm’s claim is spurious considering Spectre claims the largest screen explosion ever recorded. Maybe he stepped out for popcorn.

But even American critics who liked it were critical. “Entertains even as its fails to reconcile its disparate goals. It just feels like a missed opportunity for something special.” (Greg Maki, Easton Star-Democrat) “What starts as a fast and loose adventure begins to creak and groan as it tries to tie everything together…” (Rob Hunter, Film School Rejects) And one critic called it “the worst 007 movie in 30 years.” (Scott Mendelson, Forbes) Oh, harsh. Ouch! And wrong.

I haven’t forgotten all those middling movies between Sean Connery and Daniel Craig, and Spectre shines against most of those. The main reason is that Bond is a sociopath. Sure, he works for Mother England, dutifully exhibits loyalty and women find him sexy, but he’s an assassin, which takes a sociopathic man or woman. Of the Bond wannabes, only Connery and Craig pull that off successfully. Indeed, even one of the movies critics recognizes this while failing to grasp the essence of thrillers. “Daniel dagger-eyes Craig … seems biologically incompatible with camp entertainment.” (Luke Buckmaster, Crikey) One of Fleming's novels portrays Bond with a masochistic streak that helps 007 survive torture and might fit Craig's image as well.

A heroic character can be no greater than the sum of the bad guys he faces. And here Spectre goes a little soft. The very best of the Bond films drew out the meanest bad guys. In Spectre, the heavy henchman, a brute named Hinx, proves physically imposing but you get the feeling Odd-Job could have eaten his lunch. The major antagonist has psychological problems, but he’s no Dr. No.

Hans and Franz

Did you notice that pussycat-stroking Blofeld has been missing in the Bond series for decades? Four-and-a-half to be precise? There’s a sound reason for that– Blofeld was held hostage by Spectre– and Spectre was controlled by lawyers. Really.

Remember the 1983 Never Say Never Again that brought back Sean Connery? Recall that remake of Thunderball didn’t feel like the other Bond movies but did feature Spectre and James Bond’s persistent nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld? Most viewers shrugged it off to Connery getting too old to play an action figure, but there’s more behind the story.

In high school, I read the 007 books and a short story or two, novels which included Spectre and Blofeld, but until today, I hadn’t realized author Ian Fleming didn’t own the rights to them. A screenwriter named Kevin McClory did.

In mid-1958, Fleming and his friend Ivar Bryce decided to hammer out a film treatment of Fleming’s works. Bryce introduced him to two other men, Ernest L. Cuneo, an American writer, intelligence liaison, and war hero, and Kevin McClory, an Irish screenwriter and director. McClory brought in his friend Jack Whittingham, a British playwright.

The five developed the plot for the movie Thunderball. Meantime, McClory’s own feature film, The Boy and the Bridge, did poorly as the official British entry to the 1959 Venice Film Festival and it tanked at the box office. Right or wrong, Fleming lost confidence in McClory.

Spectre logo
Without consulting anyone, Fleming turned the movie script into his 1961 novel. The author credited Cuneo with much of the plot for Thunderball (and later Goldfinger) but not McClory and Whittingham. They sued.

During the lengthy trial, Fleming suffered a heart attack. He offered a settlement to McClory, which resulted in Fleming keeping the novel and McClory winning film rights for the screenplay as well as screen rights to Spectre and Blofeld. Nine months later Ian Fleming died from another heart attack.

Two years ago today, McClory’s estate finally settled their legal issues and MGM acquired the copyrights to Spectre and Blofeld. For the first time in forty-four years, Bond could battle those nemeses on the silver screen.

In the story line, Spectre gives the Blofeld character a twist. The movie Octopussy bears little relation to Fleming’s short story of the same name, which mentions a character, Hannes Oberhauser. In this reboot, Oberhauser’s envious son, Franz, kills his father and rebrands himself as Ernst Stavro Blofeld, master criminal.

Spectre poster

One of the most interesting aspects of Spectre is that it was made by people who know and love movies, especially the early Bond films. Scenes and sentences reflect references to other films and even my favorite television drama, The Prisoner.

In numerous ways, Spectre harks back to the earliest Bond films including Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, and Thunderball. Notice the Rolls-Royce Phantom at the train station looks a lot like that of Auric Goldfinger's. The MI6 safe house bears the name Hildebrand & Company — Rarities & Antiquities, a reference to Fleming’s short story ‘The Hildebrand Rarity’ in the 1960 For Your Eyes Only. Beyond those canon references, other film nods leaped out at me.

The opening shot in Mexico is evocative of the famous extended opening shot in the 1958 Touch of Evil. (Whereas Orson Welles used a single camera, Spectre cheated a bit with CGI.)

It could be argued that Spectre’s secret meeting place in Rome is reminiscent of the coven’s secret lair in Eyes Wide Shut.

The most obvious film wink hinted at is Casablanca. I need not say more.

Spectre pays its respects to Hitchcock from the romantic ’40s casting of Léa Seydoux to the train scenes found in numerous Hitchcock films (not to mention From Russia with Love) including The Lady Vanishes, Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, Spellbound, North by Northwest, and of course Strangers on a Train.

Similarities to the brilliant series The Prisoner struck me more than once. (“We want information.”) Note the information gatherers in the Moroccan desert, which seem slightly dated compared to Patrick McGoohan’s 1967 television series.

What homages did you catch?

14 November 2015

Watch Your Language: Fighting Words in Young Adult Mysteries

When my first young-adult mystery came out last month, many people asked me how writing mysteries for teenagers is different from writing mysteries for adults. I answered that, as far as I could see, it's not all that different. I didn't dumb down the plot at all--Fighting Chance is a whodunit, and I wanted to make interpreting clues and identifying bad guys just as challenging as it is in the whodunits I write for Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. As for characterization, the central characters in Fighting Chance are younger than the ones in my other mysteries, but I didn't try to make them less complex. I've taught young people long enough to know they're fully capable of following complicated plots and understanding three-dimensional characters. Setting, theme, other elements of fiction--again, I didn't see any need to make adjustments.

Language, though--that one raised some questions.

Fighting ChanceSome of those questions related to craft. Could I create a convincing voice for my protagonist, a seventeen-year-old boy who loves sports but doesn't much care for school? (In fact, his voice seemed to come to me naturally. Maybe I should be concerned.) Could I avoid outdated slang, as well as slang so cutting-edge it might fade from fashion by the time the book made it into print? What about minority characters? I've read a number of YA novels written by other middle-aged white ladies, and their attempts to write dialogue for streetwise African-American teenagers have often made me cringe. Could I have a diverse cast of characters without making similar blunders?

And then there's the issue of profanity.

For some YA authors, apparently, it's not an issue at all. A couple of years ago, when I went to a YA panel at a mystery conference, one author lamented that some middle-school librarians won't carry her novel because its title contains a certain word--I'd rather not say which one. The other panelists sympathized. It's ridiculous, they said, for librarians and teachers to fuss about this word and that word. After all, kids today are smart. They know what all the words mean. And, as writers, we need to keep it real.

The panelists made some legitimate points. Yes, teenagers today are smart. Yes, they know what all the words mean. The thing is, too many decades ago, when I was a teenager myself, we knew what all the words mean, too. I still remember the first time I heard one of my contemporaries use what I'll refer to as the F-word. I was chatting with a group of friends when Joanne casually dropped the word into the conversation. The rest of us reacted with stunned silence--not because we didn't know what the word meant, but because we did. We just chose not to use it, because we thought it was crude.

That opinion seems to have faded. I don't have any supporting data I can cite, but it seems safe to say that most people today use profanity more freely than most people did thirty or forty years ago. I think that's probably true for people of all ages, not only for teenagers.

TeenagersWhy did people change their opinions about which words are too crude to use? Again, I can't cite supporting data, but I suspect books, movies, and other media led the way. That's definitely where I first encountered many of the words that now slip into my speech more easily than they used to, words spoken by clever and likable characters on the page or the screen, words I heard so often that they lost their shock value and began to seem like normal, acceptable things said by perfectly nice people. So when we say the language in YA novels should keep it real, perhaps we should remember that books probably don't just passively reflect reality. Probably, they also help shape it. If today's teenagers use more crude language than the teenagers in my day did, it's probably partly because of the movies they see, the music they listen to, and the books they read. And if that's true, maybe YA authors need to think carefully about the kind of influence they want their books to have.

Or maybe it's no big deal. After all, we're just talking about words. If today's teenagers use language once considered crude, so what? What's wrong with crude language? I won't try to make a full argument here, but I encourage you to read an essay by Barbara Lawrence, "Four-Letter Words Can Hurt You" (http://talkingtok.wikispaces.com/file/view/4+letter+words.pdf). Lawrence argues that many crude words dehumanize people in general, and women in particular, by reducing them to purely physical terms.

I'll provide an example of a crude phrase that does exactly that, an expression Lawrence doesn't discuss. When did it become all right to say "knocked up"? I've heard several television comedians use that expression recently, and this one still shocks me. Two human beings come together to create a new life, in what should be an affirmation of love and commitment and faith in the future. And these comedians reduce this act to "knocked up"? Now it's a violent act, a victory of the strong over the weak, an assertion of a man's power to impose himself on a woman. I'm sorry. I think I've got a pretty good sense of humor, and I know political correctness can go too far. But I don't think "knocked up" is cute or funny. I think it's ugly. And I think that, as a YA author, I have a responsibility to refrain from doing anything that might encourage young people to think this ugly expression, or any other ugly expression, is okay. I think I have a responsibility to make careful choices, in the hope that any influence I might have will encourage my young readers to make careful choices, too.

Caution: TeenagersSo what standards should guide an author making choices about what sort of language to use in a YA mystery? Yes, we want to keep it real. But for any fiction writer--YA or otherwise, mystery or otherwise--realism isn't the only relevant consideration. My YA mystery is set in a small town in Virginia. If I were intent only on making dialogue realistic, my teenaged characters would say "sir" and "ma'am" whenever they address adults. I chose not to let them do that.

When I moved from Ohio to Virginia, I was suspicious when my Lynchburg College students kept addressing me as "ma'am"--"Yes, ma'am," "I'll have that essay done tomorrow for sure, ma'am." At first, I thought they were being sarcastic, implying I was as dictatorial as a drill sergeant--in Cleveland, almost nobody outside the military says "ma'am." Eventually, I realized that these students say "ma'am" because they were raised to say it, that they were being respectful, not sarcastic.I was stunned. I was used to student sarcasm and knew how to handle it, but respect left me blinking in confusion. And when I wrote Fighting Chance, I decided to keep "sir" and "ma'am" to a minimum. I felt that, realistic as these expressions might be in a novel set in Virginia, they might not feel realistic to readers in other parts of the country.

That's the sort of decision fiction writers make about language. After all, if we were aiming only for realism, all the dialogue we write would be studded with "um" and "er" much more often, and our characters would constantly be saying "like" and "you know."" Unless we're trying to create some sort of comic effect, we usually edit such stumbles from the dialogue we write, along with the repetitions and qualifiers that make most real speech far from vivid and entertaining.

I'm reminded of a famous statement from William Wordsworth's "Preface" to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads. (Yes, I know. If you hear reports of earthquakes in Grasmere today, they're undoubtedly caused by Wordsworth spinning in his grave because he never intended his words to be used in this context.) Wordsworth says the language of poetry should be "as far as is possible, a selection of the language really used by men" [and women], and "that this selection, wherever it is made with true taste and feeling, will of itself form a distinction far greater than would at first be imagined, and will entirely separate the composition from the vulgarity and meanness of ordinary life."

How about that as a standard for the language in YA mysteries? We won't make our characters say "golly" and "darn," because that's not language really used by teenagers--not today, and not often even in my day. But we can select some of the language really used by teenagers, and not select other language really used by teenagers, because we don't want to encourage our young readers to think "vulgarity and meanness" are okay. We don't want to use whatever influence we might have to make real-life teenaged speech any meaner and more vulgar than it already is.

Swansea University Karate Club (6)Naturally, I can't resist the temptation to use a passage from my YA mystery to show how this standard can be applied. In the first chapter of Fighting Chance, my protagonist, seventeen-year-old Matt Foley, is at a tae kwon do tournament, sitting on the home team bench as he and his friends watch their coach spar with a mysterious baby-faced stranger named Bobby Davis. Near the end of the first two-minute period, the coach scores a point by using a combination move he's been teaching his students. It's a short-lived victory--a few pages later, Davis kills the coach with a powerful kick to the larynx, and Matt and his friends will spend the rest of the book proving it was murder, not an accident. For now, Matt's impressed not only by his coach's skill but also by his restraint:

It was pretty cool--like Coach had been holding back, passing up chances for easy points, waiting to score with that particular combination so he could show us how effective it is. Now, that's a teacher, I thought. "Great combination, Coach," I called.

Joseph seemed to be having the same thoughts I was. "Most instructive," he said. "Mr. Colson said we should try to score such way--roundhouse kick, right jab, left punch. Now he has performed one, to demonstrate us how to aspire."

Derrick drew his head back. "To demonstrate us how to aspire? What's that--Latin? What the hell are you saying?"

"You know exactly what he's saying," I said. "Don't be a jerk, Derrick." Joseph's from Kenya. His family left five or six years ago, after his father got killed, and moved around until the Episcopal Church found his mother a job in Ridgecrest. In some ways, Joseph's English is probably better than mine. It's definitely better than Derrick's. He's got a formal way of putting things, though, and sometimes his vocabulary's off--natural enough, I guess, if you learn English in a classroom instead of at home. There's no point making a big deal whenever something comes out strange.
First, a few words about Joseph. I'll admit I shied away from the challenge of writing dialogue for a streetwise African-American teenager. I didn't think I could do a convincing job. I did want a diverse cast of characters, though, so I did the best I could. Joseph was born in Africa, and he's now an American. The way he speaks is based on the speech patterns of a number of international students I've had over the years--bright, ambitious students who study the dictionary every night to expand their vocabularies but sometimes have problems with idioms and syntax. I hope Joseph's dialogue sounds real and also subtly encourages young readers to respect the speech of newcomers still in the process of learning English.

As for Derrick, he's a minor character--not a bad guy, really, not at heart, but he thinks too highly of himself and sometimes tends to be a bully. He says "what the hell," not "what the heck," because I can't remember the last time I heard anyone, of any age, say "what the heck." But I often hear teenagers, and others, say "what the hell." I've also heard them say harsher things, but I don't think it's necessary to use anything harsher here. "What the hell" is, to modify Wordsworth's phrase, a selection of the language really used by teenagers. I think it works here.

In response to Derrck, Matt says, "Don't be a jerk, Derrick." (For those familiar with Blake Snyder's Save the Cat, this is Matt's save-the-cat moment, the moment when he proves he's worthy of our respect by standing up to a would-be bully.) He could have said something harsher than "jerk"--we can all think of harsher words he could have used. Lots of teenagers use those words, but lots use "jerk," too. Maybe Fighting Chance would seem edgier and more daring if Matt had used one of those other words. But I think "don't be a jerk" is a legitimate selection of the language really used by teenagers, and I'm willing to live with the consequences of making that selection.

I'm not saying that I've found the ideal solution, only that I think the issue is important. I don't think YA authors should shrug it off with cliches about keeping it real. We make careful, responsible decisions about the way we portray various groups, and the way we present various issues, because we think our books might influence the way young people think and act. If our books might also influence the way they speak and write, shouldn't we make careful, responsible decisions about language, too?
Girl reading

13 November 2015

"Crossing Genres: The Literary Mystery"

By Art Taylor

As you might be able to tell from this post and my previous ones here, my teaching at George Mason University is dominating my mind these days—and lately it's not only the semester I'm enmeshed in but next semester as well that's occupying a lot of my mental energy.

In the spring 2016 semester, I'll be teaching a graduate-level course for the first time: "Crossing Genres: The Literary Mystery." That's not my title, I should stress, and I have some issues with the idea of what's meant by the "the literary mystery"—a phrase that could go in a number of directions: mysteries that have books or bookish folks at the core of them maybe? But as intended primarily for aspiring writers in the MFA program here at Mason, I think the goals of the course are potentially a good one: an exploration of genre fiction, a look at the places where these persistent classifications of genre fiction and literary fiction blur, and a study of what so-called "literary writers" can learn from genre writers. To put all this in context, back when I was in the MFA program at Mason myself, I had a fellow writer tell me he'd finally read a Stephen King book and was surprised that it was actually good!

Stephen King
More context: I remember at panel on genre fiction at an AWP conference several years ago, where a writer/professor in another MFA program talked about the difference between his students interested in writing genre fiction and his students interested in writing literary fiction: If a he told students writing fantasy that they might want to read Gilgamesh or The Aeneid or any of a number of "high literary" works, they'd have it read by the next week, whereas if he suggested to literary-minded students that they should read a thriller or a sci-fi novel, they'd drag their heels.

There's lots of room to learn, clearly, from lots of different writers and lots of different kinds of writing—and I've often been fascinated, often written myself about, these delineations between kinds of books, the prejudices and biases at the core of such attitudes, and the continuing evolution of writers attitudes toward genre, how those writers might be informed by formal traditions on the one hand and how they might challenge them on another.

Much more to say on all this, but I mostly wanted to share some of the books I'm considering teaching—and invite others to chime in with books I might add to the reading list, whether one for the syllabus itself or a supplemental list for students to explore on their own.

The course will start out with a selection of short stories surveying both the foundational history of the genre (Poe and Conan Doyle there, among others) and also various subgenres within the larger world of crime fiction: the traditional mystery, the hard-boiled tale, the noir story, domestic suspense, the police procedural, true crime writing, etc. etc. But once that foundation is laid in the first few weeks, here's the list of full novels—and one feature film!—that have risen to the top so far (in no particular order yet but all, purposefully, pointedly, from 2000 onward):

  • A Rule Against Murder, Louise Penny
  • Little Scarlet, Walter Mosley
  • In the Woods, Tana French
  • No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy
  • The End of Everything, Megan Abbott
  • Country Hardball, Steve Weddle
  • Memento, directed by Christopher Nolan 
  • The City & the City, China Miéville
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Mark Haddon
Thoughts? Additions?

I have a second list of strong contenders too that will be on a growing supplemental list, so.... Thanks in advance for suggestions and additions!

12 November 2015


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.


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:

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

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

Click on link below to view youtube video

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




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.”


“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.


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.