18 March 2016

Pay It Forward

by Fran Rizer
The night was clear
The moon was yellow
And the leaves came tumbling down

I wasn't standing on the corner. Instead, I sat in the back of a Columbia, South Carolina, Barnes & Noble in a writers' group known by the somewhat warped name, Twisted Scribes (which was an accurate description for some of us). Not particularly interested, my mind replayed those opening lines to the old song "Stagger Lee" and wandered to that bright moon outside, the falling leaves, and the crisp premature bite of frost in the air. I glanced toward the front of the building, and my eyes settled on a young woman sitting at a card table near the door, a stack of mass market paperbacks by her side.

Rick, Fran, Adam
Before collaborating, Laudenslager assisted
Fran and her son Adam with signings.
Barnes & Noble was practically empty that night ten years ago. (Gee, I could have opened this with Ten years ago, on a cold, dark night from "Long Black Veil.") Perhaps the sudden autumn cold snap kept people at home, but the Twisted Scribes, B&N employees, and that lady at the signing table were the only ones in the store. When the meeting finally ended, I stopped by and bought a book. I thought I was doing her a favor. After all, the place was virtually empty. Little did I know who would be giving and who would be receiving favors.

The writer was Gwen Hunter, who became my mentor in all things writing. I also learned a lot of other things from her. Examples: Reaching out (verbally, not physically) to passers-by at book signings, presenting a small gift with each book purchased (I've given away hundreds, maybe a thousand, Moon Pies), and sharing information individually as well as in groups. While attending several workshops, long before the expression became popular, I watched Gwen Hunter pay it forward repeatedly.

Skip a few years during which mystery-writer Gwen Hunter became Faith Hunter, New York Times Best-Seller author of urban fantasy including the Jane Yellowrock series. While not climbing anywhere nearly so high on the literary mountain as Hunter has, I signed with an agent, and my tenth book, the eighth Callie Parrish mystery, is scheduled for publication in September, 2016.

(Note to Dixon: In Callie's seventh book, Hickory Dickory Dock, MURDER IS ON THE CLOCK, released in November, 2015 and nominated for the SIBA Pat Conroy Mystery Award for 2016, Callie did exactly what you suggested in a previous review, but she did close the door before doing it.)

Through the years, I've tried to follow Faith Hunter's example by helping other aspiring writers in whatever way possible. Three years ago, Richard D. Laudenslager and I met through a mutual friend while working on a ghost anthology for South Carolina Screams Project. I was immediately struck with Laudenslager's talent, perseverance, and eagerness to learn more about the craft though he had a way with words, a wealth of ideas, and was a great detail man--a first reader who spotted discrepancies with unbelievable accuracy and speed. A mentor/mentee relationship formed and, as had happened with Hunter and me, it developed into friendship as well.

Laudenslager was writing Wounded, a political thriller, and I had completed KUDZU RIVER-A Novel of Abuse, Murder, and Retribution (which is as different from my previously published Callie Parrish mysteries as a shark is from a guppy) and begun True Haunting of Julie Bates. Our weekly lunches became less mentorish and more just two writers discussing current projects, trends in the publishing world, and what we planned to do next. Meanwhile, the editor and publisher of the Screams anthology changed the concept of that book before contracts were issued.

I withdrew from South Carolina Screams Project even though I had been half of the founding partnership. I also notified the writers I had personally invited to submit stories that I was no longer associated with the group or the book. Meanwhile, back at the ranch … (only kidding, it was back at B&N and other signing locations), Laudenslager began assisting me. Somewhere along that road, we tossed around the idea of publishing a collection of ghost stories written by the two of us. We pitched the idea to Darren Foster at Odyssey South Publishing. He jumped on it.

Laudenslager and I had reached approximately two-hundred book pages when he suggested, "What if we include a couple of the stories from writers who withdrew because you resigned from Screams?"

Aeden Rizer, Fran Rizer, Brandy Spears, Nathan Rizer
Aeden Rizer, Fran Rizer, Brandy Spears, Nathan Rizer
Nathan's first published story appears in the ghost collection.
I loved the idea. Foster was agreeable to it so long as we didn't involve anyone who had signed a contract with South Carolina Screams Project or that publisher. Southern Screams and Ruins became an anthology with three parts: one-third is "Into the Swamp" by Richard D. Laudenslager; next third is "Through the Swamp" by Fran Rizer; and the final part is "Out of the Swamp" containing one story each by L. Michelle Cox, Jenifer Boone Lybrand, Nathan R. Rizer, J. Michael Shell, Robert D. Simkins, and Two Ravens. (Yes, Nathan R. Rizer is my older son. Two Ravens is pen name for a husband and wife writing team. The wife is a large part of the inspiration for Jane Baker in the Callie Parrish books.)

I learned to pay it forward from Gwen Hunter/Faith Hunter, mystery/fantasy author. The idea is to assist others with no thought of personal gain, but paying it forward benefited me, leading to a new book and into yet another genre. (What can I say? Just call me Fickle Fran). It also resulted in Laudenslager helping me as much or more than I do him. In addition to keen insight into plotting and discrepancies, he's a whiz with all things electronic while I still treat my computer as a glorified typewriter with an automatic eraser.

And that, my SleuthSayer friends, is how Fran Rizer and Richard D. Laudenslager became collaborators resulting in Southern Swamps and Ruins, which was published by Odyssey South and released March 1, 2016. Please don't think I'm preaching. (My sons are laughing at the very thought of that.) I just want you to know that paying it forward can be more than picking up the tab for the quarter-pounder ordered by the person next in line. Sometimes it boomerangs–leading to good things for everyone.

Faith Hunter, Fran Rizer, Rod Hunter, Richard D. Laudenslager
Faith Hunter, Fran Rizer, Rod Hunter, Richard D. Laudenslager

Special thanks to Art Taylor for allowing me to use his spot today. That's another form of paying it forward.

And until we meet again … please take care of YOU.

17 March 2016

Punching Down

by Eve Fisher

Back on March 3, 2016, Fred Clark posted  "Some People Punch Down When They're Scared" on his blog site, Slacktivist, citing an article on the rise of American authoritarianism.  Mr. Clark's quick summation:
"1. Some people punch down when they are frightened.
"2. The kind of people who punch down when they are frightened are also more likely to be frightened more often.
"In short, they are afraid... The problem with authoritarianism is not that 'fear leads to anger,' but that — for authoritarians — fear leads to misdirected anger. When such people fear being crushed from above, they respond by punching down — lashing out at others who have nothing to do with the causes of their fear."  
Dog is yanked into the air by owner
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/
article-1321461/
Help-catch-dog-baiting-thug.html
My personal experience is that it's not just authoritarians, but people, as a whole, who almost always punch down when scared. That's why we have the proverbial "kicking the dog", or "hitting the kid", or "punching the wife", not to mention "deporting the immigrants", or "lynching the black guy", or "rounding up the Jews". Because it's so much easier to punch down, and/or blame everyone around you, and below you, for your troubles, than to actually work up the guts to deal with the people who are screwing you senseless. Because they might do more than screw you senseless.  They might do worse.  Infinitely worse.  Whereas those who are below you will whimper and whine and slink away and cry... but probably won't hit back, because they're like you, and when the time comes, they'll punch DOWN.

File:A large monkey dressed in rags is about to beat a smaller mo Wellcome V0023060.jpg
http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/67/fd/b76d22ccd12fab39914fed05e264.jpg

Now to me, that last paragraph is the essence of "original sin". The fact that we will hurt someone weaker than ourselves rather than risk challenging the fat bastard above us. That we allow fear - which is a natural, normal emotion / reaction to the apparently endless screwed up things that go on on this planet - to turn into cowardice, rather than courage, and we stay silent, rigid, waiting for it all to go away.  (I know:  I spent a lot of time as a child and even as a teenager silent, rigid, waiting for it all to go away.  And I can tell you that it doesn't.)

And, when we can't stand it any more, too many of us punch down:

Domestic abuse?  Check.

Bullying?  Check.

Rape?  Check.  (For those of you who don't know, rape is never about actually being desirous of making love to someone; it's about fear and power and rage.)

Assault?  Probably more than we think.  Back in May of 2012, in my fourth post for SleuthSayers, I wrote about something that happened to me:  a guy got in a fight with his wife, stormed out, and nearly rammed me, head-on, with his car. When he was arrested (yes, I turned it in), he said he was pissed off at his wife and just wanted to scare me.  He was punching down.

http://www.ksfy.com/home/headlines/
Police-investigating-attempted-
casino-robbery-in-Sioux-Falls-301524151.html
Theft?  Maybe.  At least sometimes.  Because while Robin Hood stole from the rich, most petty criminals steal from the poor:  the corner casino (which is barely one step up from a dive bar, with a cowering night-manager who needs that job to help pay the bills), or the local magic mart (see the cowering night-manager again), or the local whatever. There may indeed be jewel thieves on the level of the Pink Panther out there, but most thefts reported on the TV (like this casino robbery) are poor people holding up other poor people, and that's punching down.

Murder?  Fairly often.  I'd bet that most murderers kill someone less powerful than they are.  Even when they are truly angry at their boss, it's usually someone else who gets killed:  their spouse, their children, co-workers, a delivery guy, etc.  Serial killers always go for the weak and vulnerable.  And mass shooters shoot whoever's there:  schoolmates, students, the occasional teacher, people sitting in theaters, in restaurants, and anyone else in the line of fire.
(Really interesting FBI Chart here:  Homicides by Relationship.  All I can say is that there's a whole lot of arguing going on.  And a lot for which no reason is known.)
(Old Richard Pryor joke:  he did he a gig at the pen, and had lunch with the guys. Asked one guy what he was in for:  "I killed nine people."  "Why did you do that?"  "Because they was home.")
BTW, this, I believe, is the reason why murder mysteries are universally popular: as Dorothy Sayers once said, "they put before the public a world the way it ought to be, and kept alive a dream of justice."  (p. 90, A Presumption of Death by Jill Paton Walsh and Dorothy L. Sayers.)

Anyway, back to reality.  "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things."  Not hardly.  The almost immediate childish response to "Did you do this?" is to blame the dog, the cat, the invisible friend, and, of course, any siblings.  (Punching down.)  It takes a long, long time to learn how to take the consequences of your actions, and some people never do.  There are those who do everything they can to avoid all consequences until their dying day:  blame, lie, deny, hide, run, forget, ignore, and generally wail about the unfairness of the universe, life, and everyone around them.  And that's not just in the pen or in politics, in both of which blame gets passed around like bombs.  The thing is, it changes nothing:  they're still afraid, they're still running away from the truth, and (chances are) they have more enemies (real and imagined) than ever, including themselves.  And they're still punching down, even when all they're hitting is themselves.

But you can also punch up.

Punching up doesn't mean you have to go out and become Batman, or Nelson Mandela, or Dorothy Day.  It doesn't mean you have to take on every fight for the downtrodden (but God bless you if you do).  But there are other ways to punch up:  Eleanor Roosevelt, Lady Gaga, Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell, Beethoven, Pat Conroy, and many others, throughout history, have taken amazing levels of abuse, of all kinds and transformed it and themselves into something enriching, for themselves and others.

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt.png    Portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820    

Here's a little secret:  Fear is normal.  The only people who are never afraid are Vulcans.  Fear is an emotion, and the non-Vulcans among us will experience it regularly until we die, and perhaps beyond that.  It's what we do with fear - and it is our choice - that counts.  What we do with fear becomes the action of cowardice or courage.  Our choice.  That's one of the things we try to teach in Alternatives to Violence Project - because once you know that you can choose how to react, you're free.  That still doesn't mean people will always do the right thing:  that's another choice.  But at least they have it. And maybe, they can start punching up.






PS - Some people have been kind enough to ask about our South Dakota corruption scandals, EB-5 and Gear Up.  Believe me, when I get some news, I'll update everyone.





16 March 2016

That's a long story... or is it?

by Robert Lopresti

Recently I told a friend that I had just finished  a story, and it was 6,500 words.   She replied: how long is that?

I was tempted to say: 6,500 words long.  But I know what she meant.  Why would she know how many words make a short story, a novella, or War and Peace?

And that got me thinking,  with the following result.  I hope it informs or entertains you.  At least it may kill the time while you wait for the barista to finish your double tall skinny caramel cappuccino with shea butter and bacon drippings.

In the box below are the titles of fifty famous short stories by American authors.  I am not saying they are the best stories or best authors (and let's not go down that rabbit hole in the comments) but they are on enough best-of lists for various genres that I assume most literate Americans have read a lot of them.

So here is my challenge.  Check the list below and make note of the stories you think you know well.  At the very least, pick two.  Then ask yourself: Which is longer?  

 Further down the page, where you will find out their actual (approximate) lengths.  I was surprised to find out that one is flash fiction (fewer than 1,000 words).  I was astonished by the Crane and Hammett stories; I would have bet money on the shorter tale being the longer one.  Here you go:


A&P - John Updike
"All You Zombies--" - Robert A. Heinlein
Bartleby the Scrivener - Herman Melville
The Beast in the Jungle -  Henry James
Bernice Bobs her Hair - F. Scott  Fitzgerald
Big Blonde - Dorothy Parker
The Call of Cthulu - H. P. Lovecraft
The Cask of Amontillado - Edgar Allan Poe
The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County -Mark Twain
Chrysanthemums - John Steinbeck
Everyday Use - Alice Walker
Gift of Cochise - Louis L'Amour   
Gift of the Magi - O. Henry
Gimpel the Fool - Isaac Bashevis Singer
A Good Man is Hard to Find - Flannery O'Connor
The Golem  - Avram Davidson
The Gutting of Couffignal - Dashiell Hammett
Haircut - Ring Lardner
Harrison Bergeron - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
I Stand Here Ironing  - Tillie Olsen
I'll Be Waiting - Raymond Chandler
The Jilting of Granny Weatherall - Katherine Anne Porter
A Jury of her Peers - Susan Glaspell
The Killers - Ernest Hemingway
The Lady, or the Tiger - Frank Stockton
Lamb to the Slaughter - Roald Dahl

The Last Question - Isaac Asimov
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow -  Washington Irving
The Lottery - Shirley Jackson
The Luck of Roaring Camp - Bret Harte
An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge - Ambrose Bierce
The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas - Ursula K. LeGuin
The Open Boat - Stephen Crane
Paul's Case - Willa Cather
Pigs is Pigs -  Ellis Parker Butler
Roman Fever - Edith Wharton
A Rose for Emily - William Faulkner
The School - Donald Barthelme
The Secret life of Walter Mitty - James Thurber
The Sound of Thunder - Ray Bradbury
Stage to Lordsburg - Ernest Haycox
The Story of an Hour - Kate Chopin
The Swimmer - John Cheever
Thank You Ma'am - Langston Hughes
They Do Not Always Remember - William S. Burroughs
To Build a Fire - Jack London
The Use of Force - William Carlos Williams
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love - Raymond Carver
Where Are You Going,  Where Have You Been? - Joyce Carol Oates
Young Goodman Brown - Nathaniel Hawthorne

To discourage you from sneaking down the page and checking the answers without deciding which of two stories are longer, I am putting in these lovely crows to block the view.  Sorry, no ravens were available.

Made your decisions about lengths?  Okay, here are the numbers:


Approximately 600 words
They Do Not Always Remember - William S. Burroughs
 
Approximately 1,000 words
The Story of an Hour - Kate Chopin

Approximately 1,200 words
The School - Donald Barthelme

Approximately 1,300 words
Thank You Ma'am - Langston Hughes

Approximately 1,500 words
Gimpel the Fool - Isaac Bashevis Singer

Approximately 1,600 words
The Golem  - Avram Davidson 
The Use of Force - William Carlos Williams

Approximately 2,100 words
Gift of the Magi - O. Henry
The Secret life of Walter Mitty - James Thurber

Approximately 2,200 words
Harrison Bergeron - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Approximately 2,400 words
The Cask of Amontillado - Edgar Allan Poe

Approximately 2,600 words
The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County -  Mark Twain
 
Approximately 2,700 words
The Lady, or the Tiger - Frank Stockton

Approximately 2,800 words
A&P - John Updike
The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas - Ursula K. LeGuin
Approximately 3,000 words
The Killers - Ernest Hemingway

 Approximately 3,400 words
I Stand Here Ironing  - Tillie Olsen
Pigs is Pigs -  Ellis Parker Butler

 Approximately 3,600 words
Everyday Use - Alice Walker

Approximately 3,700 words
A Rose for Emily - William Faulkner

Approximately 3,800 words
The Lottery - Shirley Jackson
An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge - Ambrose Bierce 

Approximately 3,900 words
The Jilting of Granny Weatherall - Katherine Anne Porter
Lamb to the Slaughter - Roald Dahl

Approximately 4,100 words
The Luck of Roaring Camp - Bret Harte

MEDIAN - Half the stories are shorter than this; half are longer.
 
Approximately 4,200 words
Chrysanthemums - John Steinbeck

Approximately 4,400 words
The Last Question - Isaac Asimov
The Sound of Thunder - Ray Bradbury

Approximately 4,800 words
"All You Zombies--" - Robert A. Heinlein 

Approximately 4,900 words
Roman Fever - Edith Wharton

Approximately 5,000 words
Haircut - Ring Lardner
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love - Raymond Carver

Approximately 5,100 words
Gift of Cochise - Louis L'Amour
The Swimmer - John Cheever

Approximately 5,200 words
Young Goodman Brown - Nathaniel Hawthorne

Approximately 5,500 words
I'll Be Waiting - Raymond Chandler

Approximately 6,500 words
A Good Man is Hard to Find - Flannery O'Connor
Stage to Lordsburg - Ernest Haycox

Approximately 7,100 words
To Build A Fire - Jack London
Where Are You Going,  Where Have You Been? - Joyce Carol Oates

Approximately 7,600 words
The Gutting of Couffignal - Dashiell Hammett

Approximately 7,600 words
A Jury of Her Peers - Elizabeth Glaspell

 
Approximately 8,200 words
Paul's Case - Willa Cather

 Approximately 8,600 words
 Big Blonde - Dorothy Parker

Approximately 8,900 words
Bernice Bobs her Hair - F. Scott  Fitzgerald

Approximately 9,400 words
The Open Boat - Stephen Crane 

Approximately 11,800 words
 The Legend of Sleepy Hollow - Washington Irving

Approximately 11,900 words
 The Call of Cthulu - H.P. Lovecraft 
 
Approximately 14,500 words
 Bartleby the Scrivener - Herman Melville

 Approximately 19,000 words
The Beast in the Jungle - Henry James

15 March 2016

Resetting the Clock

Today, on the Ides of March, I’d like to welcome Janice Law, SleuthSayers emerita, mystery writer and painter, to guest blog. Janice was nominated for an Edgar Award in 1977 for The Big Payoff, her first Anna Peters novel. And in 2013, she was nominated for the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Mystery for Fires of London, the first in her Francis Bacon series. She won that award the following year for its sequel, The Prisoner of the Riviera. She writes frequently for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and many others. So, take it away, Janice.

—Paul

*~*~*~*

Resetting the Clock

by Janice Law

(Many thanks to Paul D. Marks for kindly giving me his column space this week.)


My family always insists that I don’t take advice. This is only partially true. I rarely take advice immediately, but that’s not to say that I reject good ideas entirely. Case in point: my new Francis Bacon trilogy, which debuts April 5 with the opening volume, Nights in Berlin.

And what is this good advice that I’ve taken? To revise a character’s age downward. I did not do this with my former detective, Anna Peters, who retired with her bad back in her early 50’s. But I have now reset Francis’ age, from forty-something in Moon over Tangier, back to seventeen.

I had a couple reasons for doing this.

By the time he’d reached his early forties, the historical Bacon was on the verge of being both rich and famous, and some of his less pleasant, and more destructive, habits were going to become prominent. More important, he had lost Jessie Lightfoot (Nan in the books) and she, along with a knowledge of painting, was crucial to my understanding of his personality.

Characters one invents are almost by definition comprehensible. They may or may not be the fascinating, successful creations we all hope for, but the chances are good we’ll feel we understand them. If we don’t, if the character doesn’t in some way “make sense” to us, he or she will surely wind up in the out-take file or scooped up and eliminated by the handy delete button.

Historical figures are another matter. They are known, sometimes to the general public, sometimes only to specialists, but either way there certain irrefutable facts and circumstances about their lives that must be respected. To be honest, some of these facts are awkward. I personally love country living and all animals. Not so Francis. Music is important to me; Francis was tone deaf. And then there is his sexual preference – promiscuous gay sadomasochism – and his affection for the bottle.

Clearly, if one is going to write about a character this far from one’s own tastes, interests, and experience, a character, moreover, whose biography is known and available, one must find a way into his personality. My entrance to Francis’ psyche were via Nan (my mom had emigrated as a nanny and I grew up on a big estate that employed one) and his art (I’m a keen semi-pro painter).

With those two anchors, I’ve been able to navigate my fictional character’s taste for city life and rough trade, not to mention his reckless genius. Still, by the time I finished Moon over Tangier, I felt that the character I had been following for a dozen fictional years was complete, and I was ready to end the series.

But some interesting facets of the man’s life remained, especially his decision to close a reasonably successful design business (one capable of supporting both himself and Nan) and to embark on the precarious path of serious painting. That decision could, I saw, be the finale of a new trilogy.

What about the 600 or so pages needed before I could get to that point? Here, the real Francis’personal history came to my rescue. As a teenager and young adult, he lived in three different cities, each at a crucial and fascinating time: Weimar Berlin, where he was taken by a peculiar uncle – my character Uncle Lastings is, aside from his sexual habits and the circumstances of the German trip, a total invention; Paris at the end of the Roaring Twenties; and London in the Thirties after the party stopped.

Berlin and Paris were extremely important for the real painter’s later development. Bacon never went to art school and what little formal instruction he had in oil painting was picked up from one of his lovers. But in Berlin, he saw the cutting edge European art of the moment, Bauhaus design, Expressionism, Dada, and the New Objectivity as German artists struggled with the machine age and the devastation of the world war. For a young gay man, it also didn’t hurt that Berlin was liberated sexually in ways undreamt of in England.

Paris, like Berlin had galleries and new art, most importantly for Bacon, the works of Picasso, as well as the great public museums. Surrealism was in the air, and writers and artists from around the world had come to work – or to live the artistic life – in the metropolis. As for London, the art scene was tame compared to the excitements of the Continent, but London was, first and foremost, where his heart was. All his artistic life Bacon had trouble working anywhere but in the city along the Thames: he was a London man first and foremost.

Of course, three novels, even short ones, about the making of a painter are not going to set mystery lovers’ hearts a-flutter. Fortunately, history as well as biography now comes to the rescue. Berlin had gangs both fascist and Red; an enormous vice industry, fueled by the collapse of the post-war economy, plus public and private violence and misery of every sort.

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-09249-0013, Berlin, alte Frau sammelt Abfälle
Paris had rich foreigners flinging money around and indulging their whims, while poor foreigners scraped for a living and struggled to recover from wars and revolutions further East. The underside of Parisian artistic creativity was imaginative larceny, including successful attempts to sell the Eiffel Tower. As for London, by the mid-Thirties, the city saw Hunger Marchers, waves of homeless, desperate immigrant Jews, British fascists like the Black Shirts, and ever-increasing fears of yet another war.

Who could let all this go to waste?

I declared Francis seventeen again and started Nights in Berlin.

14 March 2016

The Character of Characters

By Susan Rogers Cooper

As writers we create characters. We create good ones, bad ones, indifferent ones. And I'm not talking about the quality of writing here. I'm talking about the character of a character. Personally, I need someone to root for. Some one I care about. Someone who's outcome means something.

Anybody ever read the book or see the movie of Paddy Chayesky's ALTERED STATES? I admit to only seeing the movie, not reading the book. And if the book was anything like the movie, I doubt I'll ever read it. Why? Because there wasn't a single person in that story I cared about. Weak-kneed, whiny wife and a husband I liked better as the monster than as the man. But that was the 70s and the anti-hero was all the rage.

I don't necessarily want a hero – I just want somebody who's real. A decent person put in an unreasonable situation. Someone who sees a wrong and feels a need to right it. A lot of us write characters whose jobs it is to do these things: police, PI's, lawyers, and others of us write about non-professionals becoming innocently involved in the carnage. I write both. I have one series with a small town sheriff, and one series with an amateur sleuth. The one major problem with writing an amateur sleuth is just how many dead people can she/he find before we begin to suspect a mass murderer? Personally, I always felt Jessica Fletcher was a serial killer.

And I don't think it's unreasonable to want to root for the bad guy. If the bad guy is a full blown person, and not a cartoon cutout of a villain. People kill for a variety of reasons, most of them stupid, but sometimes you can understand that stupidity. I've created bad guys that make you go “ick,” and bad guys that make you go “ah.” But either way they need to be real, and the only flaw should be one of character.

And must the victim be the villain? No. Maybe there was a reason he was killed. Maybe he did do something wrong, something that forced another person to this act of stupidity. But if we can feel for the bad guy, can't we also feel for the dead guy?

Hero, victim, murderer. The holy trinity of what we do. But with all three, above all else, they must be real. And there better be somebody, anybody, to root for.

13 March 2016

The Boorn Brothers

Leigh Lundinby Leigh Lundin

Last month, we brought you stories by Abraham Lincoln and Wilkie Collins about actual cases of wrongful conviction that nearly resulted in hangings. As mentioned in the articles, a few critics assumed the Collins novella, The Dead Alive, might have been based upon Lincoln’s own defense as a young lawyer. However, Collins premised his story on another American murder trial that took place in Vermont, 1819-1820.

The Boorn Brothers
Boorn Brothers
PDF
I stumbled upon the case in an interesting book published in 1932 by Yale University, Convicting the Innocent. Whatever your views regarding capital punishment, the chapters read like fiction and, apart from footnotes, don’t come off the least bit academic.

Here now is the actual case that Wilkie Collins fictionalized into his own story.

Convicting the Innocent
Errors of Criminal Justice
by Edwin M. Borchard

© 1932 Yale University Press

Chapter 3; The Boorn Brothers

Vermont
THE Boorn children did not conduct themselves with the requisite sobriety and dignity to satisfy the standard of propriety firmly established and adhered to in 1812 Manchester, Vermont. They were three— Jesse, Stephen, and Sally— and to the austere Yankee folk of Manchester they were a little wild and somewhat reckless.
Sally married Russel Colvin, and from all accounts it seems that Russel was not distinguished for his intellectual accomplishments; in fact it was said in some quarters that he was slightly feeble-minded. It was generally agreed that he was eccentric, and in this respect he was noted particularly for his habit of suddenly disappearing, to be gone as much as eight or nine months at a time. On several of these periodic excursions he took his favorite infant son, carrying the child on his back.
So when Russel disappeared in May, 1812, no one thought it strange, and practically no one was interested in his peregrinations. Sally was away on a visit when her husband disappeared. When she came home she asked her father and brothers where he had gone. No one could give a satisfactory answer.
It seems that there had been a serious quarrel in the family immediately before Russel disappeared. Lewis, one of Russel’s children, had been present and said later that his Uncle Stephen had threatened to kill him if he should mention the quarrel.
Knowledge of the disagreement came through the statements of Thomas Johnson, who had bought the old Boorn place before Russel disappeared. Johnson said that he had been crossing a field the day Russel vanished and saw Jesse, Stephen, Russel, and young Lewis, Russel’s son, engaged in a heated quarrel. Johnson did not interfere, he said, but went on; and when he returned later the group was still there, but their tempers seemed to have subsided somewhat. That was the last Johnson saw of Russel.
It was known, before this argument, that ill feeling existed between the Boorn boys and Colvin. But no one ever took it seriously, and a possible connection between this enmity and Russel’s disappearance was not suspected. As weeks passed, however, and one aspect after another of the case provided material for town gossip, the villagers began to entertain pointed suspicions. People began to recall certain peculiar remarks they had heard the Boorn boys, or members of the family, make from time to time concerning the missing Colvin. Someone said he had heard one of the boys say that Colvin was dead; another reported that one of the boys stated that they “had put him where potatoes would not freeze.” So the suspicious began to look warily upon Jesse and Stephen.
Finally, Thomas Johnson’s children came home one afternoon with an old dilapidated hat they found in the field near the Boorn place. Johnson recognized it as the hat he had seen on Colvin the day of the argument in the field.
Time was passing. Almost seven years had now elapsed since Colvin had disappeared.
In the spring of 1819 occurred one of the most remarkable incidents in the strange case. Amos Boorn had a dream. Uncle Amos was an old man. He seems to have followed the case with interest, and it had, of course, made a great impression upon his mind. In the dream, Russel Colvin appeared at Uncle Amos’ bedside. He told the old man that he had been murdered and said that if Uncle Amos followed him he would show him where he had been buried. The tomb was described as an old cellar hole, about four feet square, over which a house had stood. Three times the dream was repeated, and Uncle Amos described the visions as they had taken place. Here, then, said the superstitious, was proof incontrovertible that Colvin had been slain. The more practical may have been impressed, but they were not convinced until another coincidence brought them confidently into the camp of the superstitious, certain that murder had been done.
Fire destroyed an old barn on the Boorn place. The embers were hardly cold before it was gossiped that perhaps the barn had been burned to conceal evidence of Colvin’s murder. Then came the third and final incident in the remarkable chain that was growing tighter and tighter about Jesse and Stephen.
A lad and his dog were walking near the Boorn place one day, when the dog stopped and began digging furiously into the earth under an old stump. Bones were unearthed and summarily pronounced human. The patience of the community snapped and action was demanded. Truman Hill, grand juror of Manchester, responded. On April 27, 1819, nearly seven years after Colvin disappeared, Jesse Boorn was arrested and brought before the Justice of the Peace for examination.
The examination lasted from Tuesday until Saturday. During this time the community was searched for evidence. The old cellar hole of which Uncle Amos dreamed was opened and disclosed a large knife, a penknife, and a button. The button was of peculiar style, with a flower design in the center. This and the penknife were identified as Colvin’s. No one knew who owned the big knife. The bones from beneath the stump, when compared with an amputated leg imported from a nearby community, were found not to be human bones. This decision threatened to end the investigation, and it would probably have been dropped but for the fact that on Saturday, Jesse Boorn charged his brother, Stephen, with the murder. Jesse then repeated what he said was the story Stephen had told him.
It was to the effect that Stephen and Russel were working in the “Glazier lot” and got into a quarrel. Stephen struck Colvin with a club and fractured his skull. Jesse said he did not know what had been done with the body, but he mentioned several places where it might possibly be found.
The next day—Sunday—people turned out for miles around in great excitement to search for Colvin’s remains. Cellar holes were opened up, stumps overturned, and the hillsides scrutinized carefully. Nothing was found.
On Monday a warrant was issued for Stephen’s arrest. He had gone to New York some time before this, and Grand Juror Hill, with Samuel Raymond, started for New York to arrest him. He was located easily, and on the way back his captors urged him to confess. He was told that the evidence was strong enough to bring conviction, but he continued to protest his innocence. The examination was continued on May 15, when the three got back from New York. Stephen and Jesse were brought face to face, and still Stephen denied that he was guilty.
In jail with the brothers was one Silas Merrill, a forger. When the Grand Jury met in September, Merrill was presented as the chief witness against the suspects. Merrill told; a colorful story. He said Jesse had confessed to him in jail that Stephen and Colvin had had a fight; that Stephen struck Colvin but the blow did not kill him; that later Jesse and Stephen, assisted by their father, Barney Boorn, carried Colvin, who was still unconscious, to the old cellar, where Barney Boorn cut his throat, after which he was buried there. Merrill said Jesse told him that about eighteen months later he and his brother dug up the remains and took the bones to the old barn which had burned. After the barn was destroyed, some of the bones were again gathered up, pounded into dust, and thrown into the river. Others had been picked up by Barney Boorn and hidden in a hollow stump.
Needless to say the jury was impressed by this gruesome recital. And it did not suffer from attempts of the defense to break it down by showing that Merrill had been promised leniency if he would tell it in court. (After telling the story he was allowed freedom to roam about the town.)
The defense also pointed out that this so-called confession did not corroborate the one made by Jesse after he had been arrested in May.
Still another “confession” was to be made before the case was settled. Before the trial started in November, the town was once more thrown into a furor when it was learned that Stephen admitted his guilt and blamed Colvin for initiating the fatal quarrel. Stephen did not implicate his father or Jesse. He told of the fight with Colvin and how he was killed. He said he hid the body under some bushes in a fence corner and returned after dark to bury the corpse, not in the cellar, but near it. He told how he later removed the bones to the old barn, and how, after the barn burned down, he threw some of them into the river and put others in the old stump. He did not, however, mention powdering them.
The trial was held in the Congregational Church, as the court room was too small to accommodate the great number of people who wanted to attend the proceedings. The full bench of the Supreme Court sat as then required in capital cases.
The court heard most of the story told in the preceding pages, and Stephen’s confession was introduced to discredit Merrill’s story.
Despite the ability of the defense attorneys— Richard Skinner, former Justice of the Supreme Court; Leonard Sargeant, afterward Lieutenant-Governor; and Mr. Wellman— the jury returned a verdict of guilty and the Boorn brothers were sentenced to hang on January 28, 1820.
***
AFTER a petition for pardon had been submitted to the Legislature, Jesse’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Stephen’s plea was denied. It seemed that nothing could be done to save him.
But he was to save himself. In a conversation with Mr. Sargeant one day, he suggested that an advertisement be published in an attempt to locate Colvin. Mr. Sargeant told him that this would do no good if Colvin had been murdered. Stephen protested his innocence and Mr. Sargeant promised to advertise.
A complete description of Colvin was published in the Rutland Herald. The article stated that if Colvin could be located, the lives of innocent men could be saved. The article was republished in the New York Evening Post of November 29, 1819, and started a series of events as strange as those which had led to the convictions.
The day after the article appeared in the Post, it was read aloud in a New York hotel. James Whelpley, a former resident of Manchester, was present. He knew Colvin and told a number of anecdotes about him. Mr. Tabor Chadwick of Shrewsbury, New Jersey, happened to be standing near by, and the story made a deep impression upon him. It finally occurred to him that a man answering Colvin’s description was living with his brother-in-law, William Polhemus, in Dover, New Jersey. Mr. Chadwick wrote the Post, saying that the man who lived with his brother-in-law appeared to have once been a resident of Vermont, for he occasionally spoke of Manchester, mentioned the names Boorn, Jesse, etc., and seemed to have considerable knowledge of the town and its people. Mr. Whelpley saw Mr. Chadwick’s letter in the Post and decided to go to Dover and investigate.
Mr. Polhemus was informed of the mission, and it was agreed that nothing should be said to Colvin until Mr. Whelpley decided whether he recognized him. When Colvin came in from work he looked sharply at Whelpley, but said nothing. Presently Whelpley called him by name. Colvin said there must be some mistake; that Colvin had been his name once, but that he was another man now. By gradually drawing him out, Whelpley became convinced that there was no doubt as to his identity.
Colvin would not consent to go home, however, and only after considerable persuasion would he return to New York with Whelpley. By a ruse Whelpley got him onto a boat bound for Troy. As Troy was not far from Manchester, Colvin finally agreed to return to his old home.
The arrival of Whelpley and Colvin in Manchester was a festive occasion. After Colvin had been greeted by his former friends and neighbors, he and Stephen were brought face to face. Seeing the fetters on his brother-in-law, Colvin asked, “What is that for?”
“Because they say I murdered you,” Stephen replied.
“You never hurt me,” said Colvin. “Jesse struck me with a briar once, but it did not hurt me much.”
When Sally was brought to him, Colvin said merely, “That is all over with,” and would have no more to do with her.
To set the brothers free by due process of law, the case was reopened, they were allowed to plead again, and the state’s attorney entered a nolle prosequi. In 1820 they petitioned the Legislature for compensation and were refused.
***
Aftermath
THE Boorn case is included in this collection because it is a classic in American jurisprudence. It was probably not an appropriate case for state indemnity, because the conviction of the two brothers was to some extent brought about by their spurious confessions. What prompted them to do this– except possibly the hope of escaping execution– is hard to say. Possibly seven years under suspicion and accusation had so preyed upon their minds that they were no longer fully accountable for their thoughts or acts.
Essentially the conviction was induced by public superstition and excitability. Colvin’s long disappearance, associated with the quarrel with the Boorn boys, and general knowledge that the relations between Colvin and the Boorns were not friendly, served to arouse the credulity of the community and to break down what should have been a normal skepticism induced by Colvin’s previous manifestations of Wanderlust. The dream of Amos Boorn served to give exceptional weight to the finding of the bones. When they were proved to be not human, one might have supposed that the suspicion would die. Then Jesse Boorn revived the suspicion by his extraordinary statement that Stephen had confessed murdering Colvin. All the irrelevancies of rumor and fancy were then revived to connect the Boorns with the case; and doubtless to escape execution, Stephen made his confession, though his statements to Jesse differed materially from it, and both contained improbabilities which should have put any court or jury on guard.
It seems curious that a state which was willing to spend considerable sums to try to convict a person for an alleged crime committed years before and which at best was an unsolved mystery, should not have been concerned with the expedient of spending a part of the money to advertise for the missing man. Only the imminent fear of the gallows seems to have stimulated Stephen to think of that measure. Even this simple device, which finally unraveled the mystery, would have failed but for the curious concatenation of circumstances which brought about the reading of the advertisement in a public hotel at which was present a man who had known Colvin, and another who knew where he was employed. The links in the chain which disclosed the truth were as accidental and fortuitous as those which led to the mistaken conviction.



Bibliography
  1. Vermont House Journal (Oct., 1819), Lib. of Cong.
  2. Vermont Gov. and Council Records, Vol. VI, Lib. of Cong.
  3. Trial of Stephen and Jesse Boorn for the Murder of Russel Colvin (Rutland, Vt.: Fay & Burt, 1820).
  4. The Trial, Confessions and Conviction of Jesse and Stephen Boorn for the Murder of Russel Colvin and the Return of the Man Supposed To Have Been Murdered, by Hon. Leonard Sargeant, former Lieutenant-Governor of Vermont (Manchester, Vt.: Journal Book and Job Office, 1873).
  5. Studies in Murder, story entitled “Uncle Amos Dreams a Dream,” by E. L. Pearson (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1924), p. 265.

12 March 2016

Why I Stopped Reading Nancy Drew: The Case of the Perfect Protagonist

by B.K. Stevens

I no longer remember the title of the last Nancy Drew mystery I checked out of the public library in Tonawanda, New York. I no longer remember anything about the case Nancy was working on or the clues she'd uncovered. But I do remember, almost word for word, the last two sentences I read before slamming the book shut and vowing never to read another.

ND1tsotoc.JPGNancy is with her friend Bess, investigating something or other outdoors. When the day begins to get foggy, Bess begins to fuss. She'd spent a long time working on her hair that morning, and now the moisture in the air is making her curls droop and die. Here are the sentences that ended my years as a Nancy Drew fan: "Nancy smiled. The damp air just made her own naturally curly hair even bouncier."

That did it. I'd long ago gotten used to the idea that Nancy is uniquely smart, brave, and pretty, that she's always the one who spots the clues and solves the mysteries. I knew her father is kinder and wiser than anyone else's, her boyfriend better looking than anyone else's, her eyes bluer and her roadster sleeker. I'd stopped being surprised when she keeps displaying new areas of expertise. When some snooty diving champions challenge her to a competition, I took it for granted that Nancy's jackknife would put theirs to shame. I was right.

But naturally curly hair? That was too much. Like poor Bess, I had stick-straight hair. I had to torture it to make it look slightly bent. And now, to learn that Nancy Drew, so clearly superior to me in every other respect, also effortlessly enjoys what I could never achieve--I couldn't stand it. I returned the book to the library and began a quest for a more satisfying teenaged detective. Nancy was probably supposed to be a role model, but she was so far out of my league that I couldn't even fantasize about rising to her level. I yearned for a teenaged detective who had flaws as well as strengths, one I could admire but still feel some kinship with, one who would set an inspiring example without depressing the hell out of me.

My favorite was probably Trixie Belden. When I began to think about writing this post, I decided to reread Trixie's first mystery, The Secret of the Mansion, to refresh decades-old memories. I was reminded that, like Nancy, Trixie is quick-thinking and courageous, with a keen sense of right and wrong. Unlike Nancy, though, she sometimes makes mistakes. She can be impetuous, tactless, even foolish. And she's not always the best at everything. Her closest friend, Honey West, is a far better rider. When Trixie impulsively mounts the most spirited horse in the West family stable, she gets thrown and narrowly escapes being trampled. When she dives into a lake to cool off, she forgets to check the depth, bumps her head on the bottom, and nearly passes out. She adores her sensible, loving parents but sometimes chafes at the chores they assign her, sometimes keeps secrets from them. None of that ever kept me from admiring Trixie, or from wishing her well in each of her adventures.

When I started toying with the idea of writing a young adult mystery of my own, I naturally began by reading some recent examples. A lot has changed since the days when Trixie and Honey bicycled down the tranquil streets of their fictional village of Sleepyside. Today's YA detectives may find themselves in the seedier sections of major cities, dealing with dangers ranging from gang violence to cyber-bullying, from serial killers to designer drugs. (Sometimes they also deal with vampires, shape-shifters, and evil wizards--but we'll set those aside.) At least in the books I've read, they seldom enjoy the guidance and protection of parents comparable to Trixie's, or to Nancy's rock-solid widowed father, prominent attorney Carson Drew. More often, their families are fractured by divorce, abandonment, death. Some have never known their fathers; many have to deal with parents who are abusive, addicted, or psychologically damaged. Perhaps to compensate for the lack of strong parents, these protagonists usually have reliable, fiercely loyal friends. I haven't read widely enough to hazard even a tentative generalization, but it seems to me that in some recent YA mysteries, friends play the roles parents used to play: The protagonist's parents may be inadequate or absent, but friends provide advice, support, and unconditional love.

And the young detectives themselves? In the books I read, I didn't find any Nancy Drew-type paragons who excel at everything, but I did encounter protagonists who might be considered paragons of resilience. Generally, they're tough, brave, and smart. They may be cynical and find it difficult to trust others--after all, they've usually been through a lot, and they've often got big problems at home. Aside from that, most of the YA detectives I met are surprisingly unscathed by their experiences and surroundings. Despite their haphazard upbringings, they're people of utter integrity. No matter how harshly they've been treated, they're sensitive and compassionate. And although their parents may be addicts, they live clean. Offhand, I can't think of a single teenaged detective who sneaks so much as a sip of beer, despite circumstances dismal enough to drive most of us to drink.

Reading these contemporary YA mysteries helped me begin to plan my own. I knew three things for sure. First, my protagonist would be male. At the time, I was teaching English in a Cleveland high school, and I wanted to write a book that would appeal to male students who, bright as they might be, often weren't enthusiastic readers. Second, my protagonist would be athletic. When I recommended outside reading novels to my male students, they often responded with a question straight out of The Princess Bride:"Are there any sports?" I wanted to write a book that would respond to that interest. And third, my protagonist would not have naturally curly hair.

Krav Maga trainingBeyond that, I wasn't sure. I had no interest in writing about a protagonist as flawless as Nancy Drew. I wasn't consciously thinking about Trixie Belden--until I started working on this post, I'd barely thought about her in years--but my protagonist, Matt Foley, has more in common with Trixie than with Nancy. He's a thoroughly nice kid with good instincts and a generous nature--for example, he won't stand idly by if someone else is being bullied--but he makes plenty of mistakes. He's not always a good judge of character: He can be taken in by a pretty face or a smooth talker, he's too quick to believe gossip, and he tends to think the people in his own popular crowd at school are superior to the misfits.

Matt's not as accident prone as Trixie, but he too can be impetuous, rushing into situations without pausing to weigh the dangers. (That's one advantage to having a teenaged male protagonist. If a widowed forty-year-old mother of two goes to a deserted spot late at night to search for evidence, she's being so culpably foolish and irresponsible that readers may well be incredulous, unsympathetic, or both. If a seventeen-year-old boy does the same thing--well, what else would you expect from a seventeen-year-old boy? He's young. He'll learn.) Matt treasures his friends, but he doesn't always get along with them smoothly. He clashes with his long-time best friend, Berk, when they both get interested in the same girl, and he jeopardizes his relationship with a new friend, Graciana, by making immature comments. When I think back to my own high-school days, that rings true. Friendships are vitally important, yes, but they can also be delicate, and they don't always last forever.

Then I thought about Matt's family. I ought to have some conflict there, I decided. Maybe his parents should be divorced. Maybe one or both should be abusive, or addicted to something. Maybe the family has been torn apart by some horrible experience, such as the violent death of an older sibling. After all, today's young adult novels are supposed to deal honestly with the problems real families face.

In the end, I decided to pass on divorce, abuse, addiction, and horrible experiences. I'm glad many mysteries for young people deal with such problems. That's important. But I think it's also important for some YA mysteries to acknowledge that even when families are intact, even when loving parents work hard to do their best, young people can still feel alienated and isolated. Even when problems aren't dramatic, they can still be real, still be frustrating--and sometimes, they can have a lighter side. Those are the sorts of family problems Matt faces in Fighting Chance.

Image result for Stevens fighting chance Matt's a good person, his parents are good people, and they all love each other. But they have different interests and different perspectives. Sometimes, those differences lead to relatively minor problems. Matt's resentful because his parents don't pay more attention to his athletic achievements, he doesn't understand how they can be so perpetually perky and upbeat, and he's appalled when his mother serves him tofu stir-fry and quinoa patties instead of the cheeseburgers he craves. Sometimes, the differences have more serious consequences. Determined to provide Matt with a sense of security, his parents don't talk about the problems they're facing. As a result, Matt feels there must be something wrong with him, since he's apparently the only one whose life isn't perfect. Because he assumes his parents won't be able to understand, he often keeps things from them, sometimes flat-out lies to them. He feels guilty about it, but he can't bring himself to open up to them until events in the novel face him to risk it. I like to think Fighting Chance is a coming-of-age novel as well as a whodunit. Reaching a better understanding of his parents is a major element in Matt's transition from childhood to adulthood.

There's no need for Nancy Drew to come of age, of course. In every important respect, she's already an adult on the first page of her first mystery. But she's been part of the coming-of-age process for countless young readers. For a while, at least, she sets an example for them, gets them excited about reading, and makes them love mysteries. Are there any adult female mystery readers or writers who didn't read Nancy Drew novels when they were young? Maybe, but I've never talked to even one who's admitted to such a shocking gap in her literary education. And I'd guess there are few, if any, adult male mystery readers or writers who didn't start out with the Hardy Boys. If we eventually get impatient with Nancy Drew, if we start yearning for mystery protagonists who are more like us and share more of our problems and shortcomings--well, that's probably part of the coming-of-age process, too. The young adult mystery is a genre within a genre, but it's neither narrow nor rigid. It's capacious enough, and flexible enough, to meet the needs of many different sorts of young readers in many different generations, at many stages in their progress toward adulthood. I slammed my last Nancy Drew novel shut many decades ago, but I'll always look back at Nancy with affection, and with gratitude.

Image result for nancy drew silhouette