19 July 2016

A Noir Summer

Since Turner Classics doesn’t appear to be doing a noir Summer of Darkness like they did last summer, I thought I’d mention some film noirs to turn those bright sunny days into days of shadows, dread and despair. Hey, I’m just a happy-go-lucky guy.
And while Turner and other stations do run noirs at various times, they often seem to stick with the classics and well-known films. Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, Postman Always Rings Twice (some of my favorites). But they sometimes overlook the lesser-known noirs. And while noir fans might know these, people looking to expand their horizons into the dark side might not. So I thought I’d mention a few here that are available for purchase and/or rent, as I said, to darken those too cheery, happy days of summer.

One of my favorites is Too Late for Tears (aka Killer Bait) – 1949 – with Lizabeth Scott and Dan Duryea. She’s so evil in this one that even Duryea, who’s pretty good at being rotten himself, can’t take her. A husband and wife (Scott) are driving their convertible when someone in another car throws a suitcase full of cash into their car. She wants to keep it, he not so much. Noir ensues. Good, low budget noir. I like this one a lot. Some nice shots/scenes at Westlake Park in LA and other LA locations. It was written by Roy Huggins, who later created The Rockford Files and The Fugitive (TV series), though David Goodis might dispute that, among other things. And it’s just recently come out in a new, fancy-dancy restored Blu-ray/DVD edition.

Fear in the Night – 1947 – stars Paul Kelly, DeForest Kelley and Ann Doran. And yeah, it’s that DeForest Kelly, before he ran around saying stuff like “Dammit, Jim, I’m a doctor not a mechanic.” A man dreams he murdered someone in a weird-shaped mirrored room. Then slowly comes to believe it wasn’t a dream. It was remade in 1956 as Nightmare, with Edward G. Robinson and Kevin McCarthy and relocated to New Orleans. Both versions are good, though if I had to pick one I’d probably say I like Fear in the Night better. Both are based on a story by Cornell Woolrich (William Irish).

What do you do when your days as the boy ingĂ©nue are over and Judy Garland doesn’t go to CC Brown’s for a hot fudge sundae with you anymore – and you’re down on your luck? You gotta find something to do. You turn to noir. And Mickey Rooney did. After the War, in the 1950s, he made a series of low budget film noirs. I couldn’t decide if I should go with The Strip – 1951 – or Quicksand – 1950 – so what the hell, check ’em both out. In The Strip Rooney plays a drummer who loses his girl to a gangster buddy. In Quicksand he’s a mechanic who “borrows” 20 bucks from his boss to take a girl on a hot date. When he can’t pay up, he slips deeper and deeper into……quicksand. The Strip has the added attraction of Louis Armstrong and his band and seeing Louis do A Kiss to Build a Dream On, which was nominated for an Oscar. Interesting background on the song since it was written in 1935 but nominated for an Academy Award in the 50s. Normally a song would have to be new to be considered for an Oscar for best original song, but Oscar Hammerstein II completed the unfinished lyrics of the older song for the 1951 movie and I guess the Academy decided to fudge it. – You might have to wait till The Strip plays on one channel or another. I’m not sure it’s available for purchase or streaming.

Dick Powell wasn’t on the skids, but he did want to change his image from the juvenile lead in backstage musicals to something more adult. Going from lines like “Hey, I've been for you ever since you walked in on me in my BVD's” to “I caught the blackjack right behind my ear. A black pool opened up at my feet. I dived in. It had no bottom. I felt pretty good – like an amputated leg.” And, “She was a gal who'd take a drink, if she had to knock you down to get the bottle.” So, he jumped on the Raymond Chandler bandwagon, playing Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet, two years before Bogie played Marlowe in The Big Sleep, and did a fine job of it. MMS is based on Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. One of Powell’s lesser known noirs is Cry Danger, with Rhonda Fleming and Raymond Burr, which is what I really wanted to point out here. Powell’s a mug sent to prison for something he didn’t do. He gets out, wants to set things right, and returns to LA. What I really like about this one are the great LA locations, especially of Bunker Hill and surrounds, an area that was totally flattened and redeveloped in the Sixties. Many film noirs were filmed at Bunker Hill, including Kiss Me, Deadly, Criss Cross and Backfire. So if you want to see LA’s real noir hood, check out these movies and Cry Danger. And as a side note, I have a couple of new stories coming out in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in the future that are set in modern day Bunker Hill (what’s left of it), but inspired by Bunker Hill before it bit the dust.

And to top the list off, a couple of Barbara Stanwyck noirs. She, of course, plays the ultimate femme fatale in the ultimate film noir, Double Indemnity. In The Strange Love of Martha Ivers – 1946 – she co-stars with Van Heflin, Lizabeth Scott and Kirk Douglas in his film debut. The File on Thelma Jordon – 1950 – is a companion to piece to that, at least in my mind. Something about Stanwyck’s aunts getting mysteriously dead in both movies. I like them both.

So, if you want to see dead aunts, LA’s infamous Bunker Hill, as opposed to that other one in Massachusetts, a hardboiled Mickey Rooney sans Judy and Lizabeth Scott at her most corrupt, check these out. This list barely scratches the surface but should give you start on making those hot, bright summer days just a little less bright.


18 July 2016

Rediscovered Favorites

By Susan Rogers Cooper

For the past few months my mind has been wandering back to a couple of mysteries I read back in the 80s. They were my second introduction to the mystery genre after I'd read everything John D. MacDonald had ever written. Of course I'd gone through Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys as a child, and Agatha Christie as a teenager, but it wasn't until my early thirties that I got back to the mystery genre. But, alas, those mysteries I'd read after Mr. MacDonald alluded me. I didn't remember the authors' names, the book titles, or even the characters' names. Which began to gnaw at me. But far be it from me to let a little thing like lack of knowledge stop me. I have access to the internet! Voila! And, after several aborted attempts, a lot of swearing, and a couple of phone calls to my eleven year old grandson, I was able to find what I was looking for. And was delighted to find out things about two of my early influences that I never knew.

The first author I found again was Dimitri Gat, author of the Yuri Nevsky series. These were written and were read (by me) before the fall of the Soviet Union, so “white” Russians in America were still the good guys, as opposed to the way they are portrayed these days. There were three Nevsky novels, NEVSKY'S DEMON, NEVSKY'S RETURN, and THE ROMANOV CACHE. I truly loved these books. Great characters and vivid descriptions. I was delighted to see that Mr. Gat is still writing, both under his own name and under pseudonyms. But then I found out something I never saw coming. Like I said earlier, I was a great reader of John D. MacDonald. But in Googling Mr. Gat, I discovered that NEVSY'S DEMON was admittedly a direct “homage” to Mr. MacDonald's THE DREADFUL LEMON SKY. Having read both within probably a year or two of each other, I was shocked I hadn't seen it. But it was such a direct “homage” that the publishing house had to recall the book and Mr. Gat was asked to apologize to Mr. MacDonald, which he did.

The second rediscovered author is Lucille Kallen who passed away in 1999. She was the creator of four C.B. Greenfield mysteries, INTRODUCING C.B. GREENFIELD, THE TANGLEWOOD MURDER (one of my favorite all-time reads), NO LADY IN THE HOUSE, and A LITTLE MADNESS. These were definitely cozier than the Nevsky books, which were rather dark, but an enjoyable read. Personally I can travel between cozy and hard-boiled without suffering any kind of whiplash. But in Googling Ms. Kallen, I discovered something I didn't know: She was the lone woman writer on Sid Ceaser's “Your Show of Shows,” and the prototype for such TV characters as Sally Rogers from “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”

In reading about Ms. Kallen and her books, it has dawned on me that perhaps I never read A LITTLE MADNESS. It appears that Amazon will be hearing from me shortly. But, in reality, I can't remember that much about the other books in the Greenfield series, or, to be honest, in the Nevsky series. So maybe I'll be adding a little to my Amazon cart. Oh, and I really should get another copy of THE FEARFUL YELLOW EYE, just for comparison's sake. But if I do that, I should probably restock my Travis McGee selection. Does anyone know if Amazon does lay-a-way?

I hope that someday, thirty or forty years from now, some other writer will re-discover my work and think as highly of me then as I do of these two now.

17 July 2016

Albert 2: A Gator's Grand Adventures

Pogo and Albert
Pogo and Albert
Last week, I introduced Albert, the family pet alligator. People often ask if he ever bit anyone– just my youngest brother and he deserved it. It’s not nice for strangers (which my brother was then) to tease a baby dinosaur, especially constructed of armor and weaponry. Initially we treated his jaws and tail– part whip, part club– with respect, but gradually Albert grew used to us. He actually liked to cuddle with the alpha male of the house, but more on that in a minute.

Reptiles can go days, even weeks without eating, but when hungry, it’s not wise to stand between them and the drive-thru window. He wanted burgers and beer, but hamburger is too fatty and no one under 18 was allowed beer. On professional advice, we fed him ground horse meat supplemented with baby mice we occasionally discovered in the barns. His favorite treat was June bugs, which he ate like popcorn. We discovered he also liked cheese cubes, which we offered sparingly.

Dad obtained an industrial-strength plastic pan that he set behind the living room stove with an inch or so of water. The gator liked the living room. He’d doze in the sun behind my mother’s chair and, when he wanted food or to dump, he’d visit the pan. He became, you might say, litter box trained.

Albert Wins a Speech Competition

My freshman year of high school, I took part in a state speech competition. The contest was judged upon the number and variety of talks before local groups and television and radio.

I was a young mad scientist and I thought some topics were pretty boring, so I incorporated a robot I’d built into presentations. After the arrival of the alligator and, considering his surprisingly good behavior, I brought Albert along.

As it turned out, Albert won the boy’s division pretty much on his own. I went along for the ride, but I didn’t complain– lots of cute girls came up to visit with him and his brave, brave homie sidekick.

Albert Stars in a Play

Occasionally Albert visited school. During Show-and-Tell, he’d sit on the desk, one leg crossed over the other, and discuss logic and rhetoric. He won over faculty and students with smooth manners and sonnet readings.

Then came time for the school play. It was a dramatic comedy set in a spooky mansion. Miss Buchanan, recognizing fine talent when she saw it, invited Albert to star in the production and gave him credit in the school playbill. Because of Actors Equity rules, he didn’t get his share of lines but he garnered the longest laughs of any of us as he stalked my dramatic classmate Karen around the stage. Quite the applause hog he was.

Albert Adopts a Father Figure

Our reptilian lodger developed an attachment for my father. No, not the teeth-in-the-ankle kind of attachment, but a genuine liking. In his tiny brain, he adored my dad. Hey, I hear your eyeballs rolling from here, but Albert enjoyed being around my father.

When Dad came into the living room to read, Albert noticed. Once Dad settled on the sofa or in the easy chair, Albert crawled over to Dad and rested his chin on the toe of Dad’s shoe.

Dad ignored him.

He’d slide his chin up Dad’s ankle.

Dad ignored him.

Then up his shin until he rested his muzzle on Dad’s knee.

Dad paid no attention.

Albert would keep sliding up until he pressed his nose against Dad’s book or magazine. Finally he pushed so far up, Dad could no longer read. He would haul Albert onto his lap, roll him over and scratch his stomach, which was what the alligator wanted all along.

Albert and the Salesmen

My parents taught the alligator to come to their whistle. Really, truly. If Lauren Bacall wanted Albert, she could just put her lips together and blow. And Albert would arrive.

My mother posted a placard on the door that said ‘Beware of Alligator.’ From time to time a door-to-door salesman would arrive and remark how hilarious that was.

“Ha-ha, very droll,” they’d say. Okay, salesmen never said droll, but we hoped one might.

“Really?” said Mom. “You think that’s comical? Do I have to call the gator to get the message across?”

“Sure, sure, lady. That’s funny stuff. Listen, I’m here to tell you about new Amazo-Perq, the fabulous, fashionable, tasty tonic, scalp treatment, all-purpose cleaner, and gardening aid that comes with a free necktie and Fuller brush if you purchase tod— Jesus! What the hell’s that!”

“Mr salesman? Oh, Mr salesman! Yoo-hoo! You dropped your sample case. Mr salesman, come back.”

Next week: Albert Takes a Vacation

16 July 2016

I Like Short Shorts

Two weeks ago, I was sitting in a rocker on the back porch of a beach house on Perdido Key, with sand in my shoes and "Margaritaville" on my mind. In fact I was half-dozing to the soothing sound of the incoming waves when I also heard the DING of an incoming text message. This was the sixth day of our annual family getaway, but since we never completely get away from technology I dutifully dug my cell phone out of my pocket, checked the message (from one of our kids, a hundred yards up the beach), and replied to it. I also decided to check my emails, which I hadn't done in a while. I was glad I did. At the top of the list was a note that had only just arrived, informing me of the acceptance of my 80th story in Woman's World magazine. Not a particularly round number or notable milestone, I guess, but I'll tell you, it made my day. It also reminded me how fortunate I am--a southern guy raised on cop shows and Westerns, who in school liked math and science far better than English--to have sold that many stories to, of all places, a weekly women's magazine based in New Jersey.

WW, as some of you know, has been around a long time. What makes it appealing to writers of short stories is that it features a mystery and a romance in every issue, it pays well, and it has a circulation of 8.5 million. Since I'm obviously more at ease with mysteries than romances, most of my stories for that publication have been in the mystery genre. I've managed to sell them a couple of romances too, but the truth is, I'm the great pretender: my romance stories were actually little twisty adventures that involved more deception than anything else.

Figures and statistics

Although I've been writing stories for Woman's World for seventeen years now, 50 of those 80 sales have happened since 2010, and I think that's because I have gradually become more comfortable with the task of telling a complete story in less than a thousand words--what some refer to as a short short. (At WW, the max wordcount for mysteries is 700, and mine usually come in at around 685.)

Many writers have told me they find it difficult to write stories that short. My response is that it's just a different process. I think some of the things you can do to make those little mini-mysteries easier to write are: (1) use a lot of dialogue, (2) cut way back on description and exposition, and (3) consider creating series characters that allow you to get right into the plot without a need for backstory. My latest and 79th story to appear in WW (it's in the current, July 25 issue) is one of a series I've been writing for them since 2001.

Remember too that stories that short are rarely profound, meaning-of-life tales. There's simply not enough space for deep characterization or complex plotting or life-changing messages. They seem to work best when the goal is a quick dose of entertainment and humor.

I should mention that writing very short fiction doesn't mean you can't keep writing longer stories also. To be honest, most of my stories lately fall into the 4K-to-10K range. My story in this year's Bouchercon anthology is 5000 words, the one in an upcoming Coast to Coast P.I. anthology is about 6500, and my story in Mississippi Noir (from Akashic Books, to be released in August 2016) clocks in at 10,000. Magazinewise, I've had recent stories in EQMM and Strand Magazine of 7500 and 8000 words, respectively, and my story in the current issue of the Strand (June-September 2016, shown here) is around 4500. (NOTE: As we are all aware, publication is an iffy thing at best, and I'm not implying that everything I write, short or long, makes it into print. It doesn't. But I'm a firm believer that the practice you get writing short shorts can help improve your longer tales as well. It certainly teaches you not to waste words. Besides, it's all fiction; some stories just take longer to tell.)

Current Events

As for Woman's World, there have been a couple of significant changes at the magazine that, if you decide to send them a story, you should know about.

First, longtime fiction editor Johnene Granger retired this past January. That's the bad news, because Johnene was wonderful, in every way. The good news is, I also like the new editor, Patricia Gaddis. She's smart, professional, and a pleasure to work with.

Second, WW recently changed over to an electronic submission system. As we've already seen at AHMM and EQMM, this makes it far easier for writers to send in their work. I'm not at all sure it makes it easier for editors--emailed submissions always means more submissions, which means more manuscripts to read--but that's another matter, for another coiumn.


To those of you who write short fiction: Do you find that you gravitate toward a certain length or a certain range? Are you more comfortable with a long wordcount that leaves you room to move around in, or do you like writing shorter, punchier stories? Does the genre matter, in terms of length? Do you already have certain markets in mind when you write a story, or do you prefer to write the piece regardless of length and genre and only then focus on finding a place to which you might submit it? Do those of you who are novelists find a certain pleasure in occasionally creating short stories? When you do, how short are they? Have any of you tried writing "short shorts"? Has anyone sent a story (mystery or romance) to Woman's World?

Final question: In the Not-So-Current Events department, are any of you old enough to remember that "I like short shorts" was a line from Sheb Wooley's "Flying Purple People Eater"?

Unfortunately, I am …

15 July 2016


By Dixon Hill

There are a lot of upsetting things in the news these days, so I decided to focus on one item that might be considered newsworthy (at least in some quarters) that also strikes me as a bit whimsical.  And, I'll begin by asking a question.

Which plot line would you be more likely to believe, or to find more realistic:

A.  A sort of secret agent-like guy tries to save the world from bad guys by using no weapons but his brain, often figuring out how to escape the place they've got him locked into, each episode.


B.  An alien. who looks human, tries to save the world, or universe, from bad guys (guys, creatures, other aliens -- take your pick), by using no weapons, and primarily by figuring out some technical puzzle.  He often uses a sonic screwdriver to escape some place they've locked him into, each episode.

To me, the television show MacGyver is largely described by (A) above, while the BBC series Dr. Who comes in under (B).  Recently, I realized they bear a remarkable resemblance (imho)--except that everyone in MacGyver is supposed to be human (I think), and Dr. Who tends to travel through both time and space.

I would never have considered this idea were it not for an ad I recently saw, which indicated a new MacGyver series is soon coming out.  My first response was laughter.  Why, I asked myself, would they resurrect MacGyver?   Turning to my wife, I quipped, "I always thought the difference between MacGyver and Dr. Who was that Dr. Who was more believable.  After all, he's a Time Lord!"

It was only after I said this, that I realized what me think it was sort of true:  MacGyver and Dr. Who do have enough in common, the former might almost be considered a reworking of the latter.

Hot on the heels of this realization, came the question: How would I write a new version of the MacGyver plot line if I wanted to lend added verisimilitude?  Particularly in this day of technological wonder.  I mean, I always found it hard to believe that any human could be so intimately steeped in such disparate knowledge as MacGyver was.  The guy seemed to have a PhD in physics, chemistry, electronics, mechanical engineering, hydraulic engineering, etc.

Why is this hard for me to buy?

Well, my dad had a PhD and taught Civil Engineering at ASU when I was a kid (later becoming Chairman of the department there, before moving on to become Dean of Engineering at the U of Akron, finishing as Provost and V.P. of the University there), while my sister earned a PhD in Vertebrate Paleontology at Berkeley, so I have some inkling of the long years required to add a PhD to your belt.  Meanwhile, my brother (whom my dad taught to program computers when he was only 7 years old -- decades before personal computers ever came out), and whom his friends claim reminds them of the character "Sheldon" on the Big Bang Theory, feels quite comfortable discussing theoretical physics, string theory or the mathematics behind quantum mechanics, but is more lost than I am when looking at a car engine.  And I'm VERY lost when looking at an engine.  I run rings around him, when it comes to construction work.  And, anyone who hired either of us to make even slight repairs to the simplest farm machinery needs his/her head examined.

In short, it seems to me that it takes years to gather a very focused technical or scientific knowledge, and that those who can explain electronic theory on the quantum level are seldom those who can hook up a home entertainment system, let alone rewire or reconfigure some electronic/mechanical contraption invented by a bad guy.  So, how to make a person who CAN do such things believable?

After long thought, I decided the answer would have to lie in the inherent intelligence of this person, and his/her early childhood learning, coupled with intensive collegiate experience.  The person in question would not only have to be brilliant, s/he would have to feel a deep, driving need to learn not just why some things worked, but why and how EACH and EVERY thing worked -- not just on the physical level, but also on the theoretical level.

I finally decided I'd set the child's birth around 1990, making him/her in their late twenties -- a good age for catching young viewers, as well as placing the character in a generation that would slip almost naturally into our current computerized society.  To appeal to young males, I'd want an attractive female on the show, and to appeal to young females I'd want that female character to be in a lead position.  So, why not turn the previously male MacGyver into a late-twenties woman?

A good looking woman at that.  Brunettes seem to be in vogue in Hollywood, so -- being the contrarian that I am -- I decided I'd make her a blonde.  A brilliant blond haired woman.  (No comma on purpose; read it either way you want, or just pick the way you like it best.)

But, wait.  Let's back up.  Let's start her off where she can gain those early childhood experiences she needs.  How about making her an Iowa farm girl, a little blonde tomboy who runs with the pack of boys at school, usually beating them in foot races, often isolated by her peers for so easily acing her exams?  At home, she tags along with her father in the fields, particularly relishing those long hours spent tearing down and rebuilding older farm machinery and vehicles in the barn-cum-garage.  Her mother, a woman who bakes cookies for the PTA, but is enough of a feminist to support the idea that her daughter can become anything she wants, still can't help lamenting that the only times the girl plays with her barbies, is to remove their limbs, trading them for her brother's muscular GI Joe limbs, while keeping Barbie's thin torso and blonde head.  The mother is at first horrified to discover that her daughter made alterations to her sewing machine, in order to sew custom clothing designed to fit Barbie's new physique.  Later, mom decides this may provide an opening for mother-daughter bonding at the sewing machine, or when examining the chemistry-side of successful cooking.

Now, we've got a good beginning.  She's getting a hands-on education in the intricacies of machinery, while picking up theory along the way, constructing a foundation for further scientific study through her math and science classes in high school.

From there, we can move her on to the study of Physics and Mathematics at a major university.  While physics isn't the be-all end-all of the knowledge she'd need as a new MacGyver, a deep knowledge of physics and advanced math would provide a firm understanding of the underpinnings of molecular chemistry, as well as the forces at work in engineering.

But, she's only about 26 years old.  How can we provide her with that added wealth of scientific knowledge she needs?

My idea?  Let's give it to her in high school.

Imagine our young genius, stuck in an Iowa public high school.  She's not a people person; she's a person focused on THINGS: how and why things work -- down to the sub-atomic level, because she can't understand why atoms and molecules don't just fall apart.  What holds them together?

Shunned by many boys because of her physical abilities, she also lacks popularity among girls due to her focus on things instead of people or style.  She wants to know why her clothing stays together, for instance, not why or how to make it look better.  She doesn't care if her socks match; she wants to know what elastic properties keep those socks up, and why those properties work -- what makes them tick.  These thoughts won't let her sleep.  She gets little rest at night, staying up late doing ... WHAT?

Well, here comes the mechanism for her broad knowledge base.  She gets a part-time job, after school, working in a mechanic's shop.  There she excels, while learning even more about a wider range of vehicles and farm machinery.  At night, she spends this money by enrolling (under false identities -- she's learned to hack, but never steals money, only the information she needs to enroll) in university courses.  Thus, by the time she earns her PhD in Physics, she's also earned masters and bachelors degrees in many other fields.

Could a person actually do this online?  I suspect not.  But, one thing I've come to realize over the past few years is that presenting a reader with a truly possible scenario is sometimes less important to a story than presenting a reader with an excuse to accept the verisimilitude of such a scenario.  In other words, readers sometimes just need an excuse to suspend their disbelief one step further, when reading a fiction story.  My idea is that Miss MacGyver's nocturnal online education provides that excuse, helping to make the entire idea more plausible.  Or, at least encouraging the reader to agree that, "Okay, I'll buy into this idea.  She learned all that extra stuff online, as a genius, because her over-active inquisitive brain wouldn't let her sleep.  And, she paid for it by working as a mechanic, since she's worked on complex engines since she was knee-high to a grasshopper."

Does this idea make sense?  You tell me.  Would you be willing to buy it in a fiction story?

So, in my imagination, this is how we wind up with our new Miss MacGyver.

Just one more thing -- as Columbo might say.

In our current earth-conscience society (particularly among today's youth -- our primary TV target audience), how can we "green-up" Miss MacGyver.  I have an idea.

Why don't we rechristen her: Miss MacGaia?

Well, I hope you've enjoyed this post, maybe gotten a few morning chuckles.  Or, maybe it made you consider how you'd recast something, adding an excuse to help readers make that leap of faith that might lend added verisimilitude in their minds.

See you in two weeks!

14 July 2016

Let's Talk, About, the CommaSplice!

by   Brian Thornton

Remember the old Sesame Street game/song: "Three of These Things"? It went like this:

"Three of these things belong together
Three of these things are kind of the same
Can you guess which one of these doesn't belong here?
Now it's time to play our game (time to play our game)."

The Inimitable Bob McGrath: "Now it's time to play our game!"

Let's play a literary version of it, shall we?

Well, then, read on!

Here's our first exhibit:

 It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way--in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

                                                     – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

And our second:

I remember the whole beginning as a succession of flights and drops, a little seesaw of the right
throbs and the wrong. After rising, in town, to meet his appeal, I had at all events a couple of very bad days--found myself doubtful again, felt indeed sure I had made a mistake. In this state of mind I spent the long hours of bumping, swinging coach that carried me to the stopping place at which I was to be met by a vehicle from the house. This convenience, I was told, had been ordered, and I found, toward the close of the June afternoon, a commodious fly in waiting for me. Driving at that hour, on a lovely day, through a country to which the summer sweetness seemed to offer me a friendly welcome, my fortitude mounted afresh and, as we turned into the avenue, encountered a reprieve that was probably but a proof of the point to which it had sunk. I suppose I had expected, or had dreaded, something so melancholy that what greeted me was a good surprise. I remember as a most pleasant impression the broad, clear front, its open windows and fresh curtains and the pair of maids looking out; I remember the lawn and the bright flowers and the crunch of my wheels on the gravel and the clustered treetops over which the rooks circled and cawed in the golden sky. The scene had a greatness that made it a different affair from my own scant home, and there immediately appeared at the door, with a little girl in her hand, a civil person who dropped me as decent a curtsy as if I had been the mistress or a distinguished visitor. I had received in Harley Street a narrower notion of the place, and that, as I recalled it, made me think the proprietor still more of a gentleman, suggested that what I was to enjoy might be something beyond his promise.

                                                                                                –Henry James, The Turn of the Screw

And number three:

What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, “Musing among the vegetables?”— was that it? —“I prefer men to cauliflowers”— was that it? He must have said it at breakfast one morning when she had gone out on to the terrace — Peter Walsh. He would be back from India one of these days, June or July, she forgot which, for his letters were awfully dull; it was his sayings one remembered; his eyes, his pocket-knife, his smile, his grumpiness and, when millions of things had utterly vanished — how strange it was! — a few sayings like this about cabbages.

                                                                                                               –Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn. He cared nothing for boxing, in fact he disliked it, but he learned it painfully and thoroughly to counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness he had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton. There was a certain inner comfort in knowing he could knock down anybody who was snooty to him, although, being very shy and a thoroughly nice boy, he never fought except in the gym. He was Spider Kelly's star pupil. Spider Kelly taught all his young gentlemen to box like featherweights, no matter whether they weighed one hundred and five or two hundred and five pounds. But it seemed to fit Cohn. He was really very fast. He was so good that Spider promptly overmatched him and got his nose permanently flattened. This increased Cohn's distaste for boxing, but it gave him a certain satisfaction of some strange sort, and it certainly improved his nose. In his last year at Princeton he read too much and took to wearing spectacles. I never met any one of his class who remembered him. They did not even remember that he was middleweight boxing champion.

                                                                                             –Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

 Okay, I admit it: I skimmed Henry James' entry, and part of Virginia Woolf's, too.

First off, let me concede the fact that all four of these writers were both more talented and more successful than I will ever be. They were all titans of the industry–skilled and influential trailblazers, forging ever more creative ways of bringing their rich interior lives to life via the written word.

With that said, I find the experience of reading three of the four them about as comfortable as a trip to  the DMV or finishing an itemized tax return. Why?

Comma splices.

Now, I realize that some of you will hasten to point out that my examples are "presentist." Or that, as a "modern" reader, I am conditioned by my environment to prefer the more modern writers. You know, eroded attention span, and all that. And you might even play the "Dickens was paid a penny-a-word" card.
A writer whose work rewards effort.


I read Shakespeare.

On purpose!

And not as an obligation/homework/paying up on a wager!

What's more, I earned my M.A. in History, with 19th century America as one of my fields of specialization. Guess who wrote a lot of history in the 19th century–politicians! And if one thing hasn't changed much over time, it's the tendency for the political class to fall in love with their own voice, between in spoken or written form. So trust me, I am inured to windy writing with a pre-20th century beat.

In other words, I can slog through anything if it rewards the effort.

For me, Dickens, James and Woolf do not fit the bill. And while I am not much of a fan of most of Hemingway's characters (especially the female ones in anything other than his short fiction, where he seems to have been capable of something approaching empathy toward the fairer sex), I cannot deny being a fan of his style: crisp, sharp, declarative sentences tending to run on the short side.

James Joyce, looking for the end of one of his sentences.
And let's face it: the guy helped give birth to a whole school of literary realism, following in the steps of the likes of Stephen Crane and Jack London. Hemingway is a natural artistic descendant of the Realists, and all he did was become the most influential stylist since, well, Charles Dickens.

I have a further confession to make. As a writer I bear a much stronger resemblance to the first three of these writers than I do to the succinct Hemingway and his legion of imitators. It's only in the rewriting that my work begins to resemble his in any meaningful way.

For me it's natural to run on, and comma splices are tailor-made to help a writer just get it all out on the page. That doesn't mean that prose written in this manner is either easy or fun to read.

And unless you're James Joyce, there's probably nothing either artistic or especially brilliant about
your run-on sentences. It comes across as lazy writing, no matter how little "lazy" might have entered into the experience on your end of the whole creative process thing.

And that's fair to neither writer, nor reader.

13 July 2016

The Other Side of the Coin

I published a story in the December 2015 issue of HITCHCOCK called "The Sleep of Death," and it's been nominated for the Shamus this year. Back in 1999, a story of mine called
Illustration Copyright 2015 Andrew Wright
"Sidewinder," which also came out in HITCHCOCK, was a Shamus nominee, too. Lest you think this is merely Blatant Self-Promotion, there's something further. What the two stories have in common is that both of them are Placido Geist bounty hunter stories, but more than that, they in fact mirror each other. "Sleep of Death" is the obverse of "Sidewinder," the other side of the coin.

I don't know that I've often refashioned a narrative to examine it from a different angle, and I can't even say I recognize consistent themes in my own work, but with these two stories, written fifteen years apart, I see a lot of similarities, and familiar tropes. They address the same moral questions, the absolutes and the ambiguities, and both of them turn on the hinges of Fate.

In the older story, a kid born to be bad drinks from the Devil's cup and meets an appropriate end. In the later story, a kid who gets off to a bad start foresees an unhappy outcome for himself, and tries to shed his skin. We say that Character is Destiny, if by character we mean a man's basic nature. The bounty hunter is someone of obdurate character, certainly, and not easily deflected from his purpose, but neither is he written in stone. And in "The Sleep of Death," perhaps uncharacteristically, he gives the younger man the benefit of the doubt, although he knows (as we know, it's not kept secret from us) that the guy is guilty of a past crime. Can he have changed? It isn't in the bounty hunter's job description to forgive or offer absolution. He has the reputation, well-deserved, of a stone killer. He trusts to instinct, a native skill in reading sign - and men. It's served him well. In this case, he puts his faith in the man he's bringing in to face a rope, although it might turn out to be rescue instead.

The obduracy of man's nature figures in many if not most of the bounty hunter stories, whether the men and women are good or bad. The capacity for change is less in evidence. I don't really think I consciously chose to revisit the issues in "Sidewinder," it's not as if I thought I got it wrong the first time, but maybe there was the nagging sense it could have gone another way.

Narratives, it seems to me, have a kind of inflexibility. Once a story's told, it feels inevitable. Which of course isn't how it is when you begin. The possibilities seem limitless. But as you move forward, you have fewer turns you can take, until pretty soon you've closed off the exits. A lot of competing resolutions clamor for your attention, and then fall by the wayside. The story picks up its own logic and momentum. The outcome of "Sidewinder" is foreordained. The die is cast when the old man shakes the rattlesnake out of his boot. "The Sleep of Death," however, plays out in chance encounters, any one of which could have taken the story in a different direction. Only at the end does it seem we've been anticipating the curtain closer, that we could predict the one last, doomed choice.

In this sense, the two stories counterpoint each other not so much in the material, the basic plot elements they share, but in their method. In the earlier story, Fate is inexorable. In the other, Fate is accident, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. What happens isn't foretold. It doesn't happen because it must, it happens because it does. Concho Jimmy Pringle in "Sidewinder" can't believe his bad luck has finally caught up with him, while Jack Dodds (or Chaffee) in "The Sleep of Death" is actually relieved. It happens to be Jack's good luck that Placido Geist finds him first, before the sleepy-eyed Ozzie Abeyta shows up. Which is another way of saying the first story winds in on itself, tightening the screws, and the later story is more centrifugal, spinning outward. The more recent story has a more relaxed manner, at least in the telling. What does this say about me, the writer? Maybe it reminds me that I don't always have to keep such a fierce grip on the reins. Let the story take its head.

Elfego in fiction - Robert Loggia
And also, if I hadn't been open to accident, I wouldn't have been to slip in a cameo by the famous New Mexico lawman and later attorney Elfego Baca, el Gato. His philosophy as a lawyer is as follows. A client in El Paso was charged with murder and had no alibi. He wired Baca, then practicing in Albuquerque. Baca telegraphed him back. "Leaving immediately, bringing three eyewitnesses."

Elfego in life - around the time of this story

12 July 2016

Black in America

by Irette Y. Patterson

This is about Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and being Black in America. Look away if you can't handle this right now because I barely can myself. And it may be preaching to the choir but I just have to say something.

After one of the deaths last year (sad that I don't recount which one), my 20-something-year-old nephew called me in Philadelphia asking me how to stay alive.
I couldn't give him an answer.

I remember Charleston. 9 people gunned down in a church. In a Bible study on Wednesday night.
You would not find me in a Wednesday night Bible study. Honestly? I'm just not that good of a person. But my parents the Deacon and Deaconness could have been there. My aunts and my uncles were the type, the respectable type, the good type that would have been there.
And the alleged murderer who confessed to the crime was given a ride to Burger King.
And I waited. I watched my facebook feed and my twitter feed to see what would happen. And it was like no one cared.
I was broken, do you hear me? Broken. If the best of the Black Community could get gunned down and no one cared, what hope did I have?

On Being Black in America - Back when I was living in my house in Georgia, one Saturday night I noticed that there was a police car slowing driving back and forth down my street.
Now. My street is not a main road. The only people who drive down it are the folks who live there. So. I call the hot line aka the stay-at-home mom two doors down. Stay-at-home moms are like a neighborhood surveillance system. They know everything. I ask her if she knows a reason why a cop is cruising the street. She says no.
I'm looking out the front curtains and the police car stops in front of my house. The officer gets out. It's late Saturday night. I lived alone. I did not call the cops. Why the heck is Officer Friendly coming up my front steps?
I look at my fireplace and confirm that my parent's picture is on the mantle. I sort of look like them to prove residency. I also have my driver's license in my purse and could pull out the documentation for when I purchased the house.
My neighbor is still on the phone. As the officer walks up my 17 steps, I ask her if she will hold on the phone while I'm talking to the officer. The officer is extremely courteous and remains a few feet away from the door which I appreciate. He stated that someone called in a break in and he couldn't find the house number which didn't exist on my street. I told him that I didn't call it in and it was my house. I moved a little to the side so that he can see my parents' picture on the mantle. He said good-bye and left. I got back on the phone with my neighbor to assure her that I was OK.
Now. Depending on who you are, you might think that I was being ridiculous. Do you know who didn't think I was being ridiculous? My neighbor who immigrated from Trinidad whose family originally immigrated from India. She knew EXACTLY why I had her and, by extension, her former Marine husband on the line.
Let me repeat, the officer was nothing but respectful and professional. But I didn't call him. It was late at night. I lived alone. And I was scared.

I can usually tell when a non-Black author writes a Black character. I don't have to look at the cover. It's because the author does not have the basic respect for Black people to actually conduct research. Other cultures are researched to make sure that certain things are right. The science in a hard sf story has to be right. Black people? Everyone knows about Black people, right?
So. here are the top things that I know when I'm reading that a non-Black person wrote a Black character. Here are the things that are missed—

1. Family. Where are these people's people? My mom is still mad I left Atlanta a couple of years ago. Oh yeah, and family reunions.

2. Respect. I read these characters and wonder how they can get away with what they are saying to their parents. When my parents were staying with me at my house my mom actually asked me if I thought that I was grown in the middle of "heated fellowship". Yes. She was staying with me. In my house. That I was paying the mortgage on. What did I do? I walked away because I have sense, people. I am not crazy.

3. Education. Education is stressed because it was seen as a way out, as being respectable. It's a way to compete. Black women are the most highly educated group in America. That's not by accident. And code-switching is real. I wrote down one time how I talk with family and friends versus when I'm out and out. On the page it looks like two different characters.
I'm not saying that non-black authors can't write black characters. Kristine Kathryn Rusch nails it. In fact, I get a perverse pleasure in recommending non-black authors writing black characters to my black friends when it's done well. I wait until they finish the story and then spring the ethnicity of the author on them.
What I am saying is to respect the culture enough to do your research. I mean, if someone has to translate Beyonce's Lemonade album for you, maybe you need to do some more research before writing contemporary black characters.

Ezekiel James Boston Right on point.
One of my indicators is a lack of shared accomplishment. A character is the first to do something positive (go to college, open their own business, etc.) that hadn't been done by either one or both sides of their family and it's not a big deal to said family...

Irette Patterson Yep. I could never identify with black kids in children's literature growing up. It seems like it was all about growing up poor in the inner city. I grew up middle class in the suburbs. My dad was the first in his family to go to college and it was a big deal. Especially as a dark skinned black man in a time where the paper bag test was real. My parents' church has a ceremony for all the graduates each year.

Note by Melissa Yi: Irette and Sean gave me permission to share their stories from Facebook. I have edited them slightly, but their words are their own. I also highly recommend this article with concrete steps to take for a more just society. The first is to educate yourself about your city’s police conduct review process: http://www.ravishly.com/2015/04/10/what-you-can-do-right-now-about-police-brutality

Irette Y. Patterson (http://www.iretteypatterson.com/) writes uplifting, feel-good stories, like “Worth,” published in the Saturday Evening Post (http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2014/12/19/post-fiction/contemporary-fiction-art-entertainment/worth.html).

Ezekiel James Boston favors fantasy, science fiction, and paranormal occult. http://ezekieljamesboston.com/

11 July 2016

Who Matters

To say I'm upset and sickened by all the tragic news this week is an understatement. I'm angry. I'm sad. I'm discouraged. I'm afraid. All of those words apply. Yet I'm basically a positive person so a part of me still feels hopeful. I have to feel that way because otherwise is to get caught in the grip of despondency and negativity. I'm just not ready to do that.

First, I'm upset and sick over the two black men who were killed by police officers. Alton Sterling, age 37, in Baton Rouge, La and Philando Castile, age 32, in Falcon Heights, Mn. From watching the videos it looked as if these men were shot for almost no reason. But I will give the police officers the benefit of the doubt since we don't have any recordings of what happened prior to the fatal shots.

Second, I'm upset and sick over the five police officers killed and the other seven officers injured by the sniper in Dallas. One officer killed worked for the Dallas Area Rapid Transit. The other four fatally wounded were Dallas Police Officers. At this point in time, Dallas officials still think the slain sniper was a lone gunman. (I refuse to name him and give him any publicity.)

Our whole country is in a state of shock and awe and unrest from all that has happened. Dallas has worked hard to make their police force better and had attained the highest standard. Actually Dallas had become a model for the whole country for a city of its size and the community policing policies set forth by Police Chief Brown and Mayor Rawlings. Dallas has had a bad reputation since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy along withTexas Republican politicians with some of their pro-gun open carry laws and wild statements by these politicians haven't helped one iota.

In fact, a number of the peaceful protesters carried guns which hindered the police in spotting the good guys from the bad guys. One young man's picture on social media, wearing a cammo T-shirt with a lethal looking weapon slung over his shoulder was thought to be a "bad" guy. Someone the police wanted to question. Turns out his older brother, one of the protesters organizers cautioned the younger man against carrying his weapon. The young man stated he wanted to exercise his second amendment rights to carry a weapon. The young man words are not exactly in the second amendment statement. No part of the SECOND amendment states that you have a right to walk around in public with a rifle or automatic gun slung over your shoulder. For that matter it also doesn't say that you may go out armed. Even in an open-carry state.

This is a bastardization of rights as defined by the Supreme Court combined with the ignorance of GOP Texas law-makers. The open-carry law was heavily opposed by all Texas Law Enforcement for good reasons. We've all heard the NRAs big talking point: and good guys with guns can take care of all the bad guys with guns. There are twelve GOOD GUYS in Dallas who can attest to the stupidity of that statement, proving it WRONG.

I'm all for people having guns in their homes for protection of their home and family if that's what they want. I'm all for people having hunting rifles and shotguns to go hunting. Especially people who actually supplement their food supplies. I've had family and friends all my life who enjoyed hunting and I've eaten many a bird, rabbit, squirrel or deer meal and enjoyed it. I will say that my late husband, Elmer Grape, reached a point in his life where he said he thought he had no desire to hunt deer any more. That maybe he was too old. That looking a the beauty of a buck or doe seemed a little too cruel to him.

My whole point of this essay is to express my horror at what happened in La, in Mn and in Tx. And to worry and wonder if we as a civilized nation in 2016 can bring about more unity between all races? To be united by love and not hate. To ask for solidarity from our police officers and the black and brown communities in our country. To ask for solidarity in our politicians both state and national. The fear and hate and decisiveness need to stop NOW.

To keep saying and actually meaning that you can believe BLACK LIVES MATTER and you can believe  BLUE LIVES MATTER. You don't have to believe that one is right or one is wrong because ALL LIVES MATTER.

The best thing we can do today is to emphasize courtesy and respect for each other. It may seem like elementary school stuff. And it is. Yet if your past experiences with law enforcement may have been bad and you were treated like a criminal, you can change. Or maybe your past experience with a person of color makes your look on that darker skin as a bad person.  It's just that change HAS TO HAPPEN. Why not today and why not time? Your being disrespected before should be in the past. This is today and now.

This is not meant to be preaching, it's just common sense. Treat all people the way you want to be treated. I want our country to be united. I want my children and grandchildren and great grandchildren to live in a better USA than it is today .I want to live in a better USA. Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter. Most importantly ALL LIVES MATTER.

10 July 2016

Albert 1: Granny and the Gator

Albert and Pogo
Albert and Pogo © Walt Kelly
Those who frequented the Alfred Hitchcock / Ellery Queen original forum might remember an appearance of Albert the Alligator, a family pet for 25 years. Recently friends asked about Albert and, since the Dell Forum is no longer available, I’ll recount the life and times of the riparian reptile.

A farmhouse is headquarters of a working farm and its kitchen is its nerve center.  A farm’s kitchen serves as boardroom, family conference center, planning office, homework study hall, lab, small parts repair shop, hospital, and oh yes, cookery, cannery, bakery, and breakfast room.

For my family, our farm’s ‘new’ house was built during the Civil War,– not the structure before that or the original log cabin built by my mother’s distant ancestors. Antique houses don’t have central heat, which meant two things: (1) the main kitchen (as opposed to a scullery or summer kitchen) provided the main source of heat during winter, and (2) peripheral rooms might or might not have stoves. Bedrooms weren’t heated at all. You’re a wuss if you haven’t slept where hot-water bottles freeze overnight.

Granny and the Gator

My sophomore year of high school, a local college student brought home an alligator from his university lab. It was a little less than two feet long. After showing it off during his autumn break, he realized his mother wasn’t going to give it pet treats or, for that matter, treat it to small pets. The student didn’t know what to do with it. I volunteered to take it off his hands.

I rose early, met him and picked up the gator. Carefully. Anything that isn’t armored on an alligator is a weapon… teeth, tail, and talons. I drove back humming to myself. The gator, tossed in the trunk like a common mafioso, was not amused.

Back at the ranch, I pulled into the farmyard and opened the trunk. One of the barn cats sauntered up… you know that saying about curiosity and the cat. I deposited the alligator on the ground and learned– along with a surprised feline– an important factoid about certain reptiles. When their elbows are bent, they drag along slowly, but when they straighten those legs and rise off the ground, they can run.

As the rubber met the road, the cat levitated off the ground, its wheels spinning like a cartoon character. It screamed something about “holey sheet” and took off like it had a rocket in its bum. The gator, in an immense show of self-satisfaction, buffed his nails and said, “That’s all you got? This joint maybe got a beer?”

I escorted him indoors. The bathroom was the only place that could at present accommodate him. I ran an inch or two of water for him to soak in.

Instead of appreciation, he complained. “You station me next to a toilet? Where people do their business? Oh please, gouge out my eyes now.”

My father typically slept only two hours; my mother could sleep ten or twelve. Unfortunately, I inherited her sleep genes. When she got up later that morning, I gave her a word of warning as she blindly stumbled toward the bathroom.

“Mom, er, there’s something in the bathtub.”

“What, an alligator?” I swear, she actually said that and to this day I can’t imagine how she guessed.

Thing is, I knew my mom pretty well. She and my father accepted the latest addition to the household. (You can’t imagine the range of creatures over the years.) Dad named the beast Albert after the friend of the cartoon character Pogo. The Indianapolis Zoo shared dietary information with us. Hamburger contained too much fat, so they recommended ground horse-meat. I insist that any missing ponies were not the fault of my dark-green-and-yellow friend.

Things went swimmingly until my grandmother arrived for her seasonal Christmas visit. She feared only two things, God and reptiles and possibly not in that order. We hadn’t yet figured out hotel accommodations for Albert, so he continued to doze in the bathtub between baths.

Granny sat in the living room, endlessly crossing her legs until she’d finally ask, “Will one of you boys pleeeease remove that… that creature out of the bathroom so I can go?”

“Aw, granny. It can jump only three feet.”

But we loved our granny so while she was untangling her mistreated bowels, Albert grew used to the living room. Poor granny didn’t get her share of baths. The idea of her tender parts sharing the same tub as a hardened, cold-blooded beast didn’t sit right with her.

Just before New Year’s, disaster struck.

My dad woke me about six; he’d risen a couple of hours earlier. He said, “Son, I’ve got bad news. A power glitch last night caused the stoves to go out and the alligator froze. I pulled him out of the ice and have been thawing him, but I’m afraid he’s gone.”

He’d ignited the burners and, to speed warming the kitchen, he’d turned on the kitchen's gas range. Albert lay lifeless on a tray, a trace of water drooling from his mouth. Rural folks test for signs of life by touching an animal’s eyeball. Albert never flinched.

I picked him up awkwardly, kind of upside-down. As I did so, a trickle of water dribbled from his muzzle. I squeezed his abdomen and again water seeped out. Compressing his chest like a pump, more water drained. Suddenly, his little abdomen moved once on its own.

Dad and I stared… 10 seconds, 20… 30… then a faint tremor. I squeezed again and once more. Slow and laborious, the billowing of his lungs took agonizing ages. We waited on edge, not sure if the next breath would come, but he began to breathe on his own, one or two ragged breaths a minute, then three, then four.

But Albert was clearly not conscious. We hoped his primitive medulla and the severe cold might save him, but brain damage was not only possible, but highly likely.

Other household members rose and made their way to the kitchen wrapped in blankets and robes. Granny was conflicted. She didn’t like the idea of living in a house with a cold-blooded carnivore, but she also felt badly because her grandchildren’s pet lingered on the verge of death.

During that day, Mom marvelled that Grandmother sat holding a heat lamp over the comatose critter. By evening, it began showing further signs of life and its eyes flickered open. Like many birds, some reptiles have two eyelids, a protective outer one and a transparent lid. Within a couple of days, Albert was ambulatory and Granny went back to tucking her feet up in her chair.

Next week: Scratch my tummy… Oh yes, right there

09 July 2016

Sayers vs. Aristotle: What's So Funny?

Poor Aristotle. According to Dorothy L Sayers, he was born at the wrong time, forced to make do with the likes of Sophocles and Euripides while truly craving, as she puts it, "a Good Detective Story." In "Aristotle on Detective Fiction," a 1935 Oxford lecture, Sayers takes a look at the philosopher's definition of tragedy in the Poetics and decides it fits the modern detective story nicely. If Aristotle had been able to get a copy of Trent's Last Case, maybe he would have skipped all those performances of Oedipus Tyrannus and The Trojan Women.

It doesn't do, of course, to challenge Dorothy Sayers on the nature of the detective story. But her lecture seems more than a little tongue in cheek, and her attempt to equate the detective story with tragedy falls short. At its heart, the detective story is more comic than tragic. And I'm willing to bet Sayers knew it.

She begins her lecture by identifying similarities between detective stories and tragedies. Aristotle says action is primary in tragedies, and that's true of detective stories, too. Keeping a straight face, not acknowledging she's made a tiny change in the original, Sayers quotes the Poetics: "The first essential, the life and soul, so to speak, of the detective story, is the Plot." Aristotle says tragic plots must center on "serious" actions. That's another easy matchup, for "murder," as Sayers observes, "is an action of a tolerably serious nature." According to Aristotle, the action of a tragedy must be "complete in itself," it must avoid the improbable and the coincidental, and its "necessary parts" consist of Reversal of Fortune, Discovery, and Suffering. Sayers has no trouble proving good detective stories adhere to all these principles.

When she comes to Aristotle's discussion of Character, however, Sayers has to stretch things a bit. Referring to perhaps the most familiar passage in the Poetics, Sayers cites Aristotle's contention that the central figure in a tragedy should be, as she puts it, "an intermediate kind of person--a decent man with a bad kink in him." Writers of detective stories, Sayers says, agree: "For the more the villain resembles an ordinary man, the more shall we feel pity and horror at his crime and the greater will be our surprise at his detection."

True enough. The problem is that when Aristotle calls for a character brought low not by "vice or depravity" but by "some error or frailty," he's not describing the villain. To use phrases most of us probably learned in high school, he's describing the "tragic hero" who has a "tragic flaw." So the hero of a tragedy is like the villain of a mystery--hardly proof that tragedy and mystery are essentially the same.

This discrepancy points to the central problem with Sayers's argument, a problem of which she was undoubtedly aware. The principal Reversal of Fortune in a tragedy is from prosperity to adversity--but that's just the first half of a detective story. To find a complete model for the plot of the detective story, we must look not to tragedy but to comedy. (Please note, by the way, that Sayers was talking specifically about detective stories, not about mysteries in general. So am I. Thrillers, noir stories, and other varieties of mysteries may not be comic in the least--including some literary mysteries that borrow a few elements of the detective story but really focus on proving life is wretched and pointless, not on solving a crime.)

Unfortunately, Aristotle doesn't provide a full definition of comedy. Scholars say he did write a treatise on comedy, but it was lost over the centuries. The everyday definition of comedy as "something funny" won't cut it. The Divine Comedy isn't a lot of laughs, but who would dare to say Dante mistitled his masterpiece? Turning again to high-school formulas, we can say the essential characteristic of comedy is the happy ending. As the standard shorthand definition has it, tragedies end with funerals, comedies with weddings.

For a more extended definition of comedy, we can look to Northrup Frye's now-classic Anatomy of Criticism (1957). Comedy, Frye says, typically has a three-part structure: It begins with order, dissolves into disorder, and ends with order restored, often at a higher level. Simultaneously, comedy moves "from illusion to reality." Using a comparison that seems especially apt for detective stories, Frye says the action in comedy "is not unlike the action of a lawsuit, in which plaintiff and defendant construct different versions of the same situation, one finally being judged as real and the other as illusory." Along the way, complications arise, but they get resolved through "scenes of discovery and reconciliation." Often, toward the end, comedies include what Frye terms a "point of ritual death," a moment when the protagonist faces terrible danger. But then, "by a twist in the plot," the comic spirit triumphs. Following a "ritual of expulsion which gets rid of some irreconcilable character," things get better for everyone else.

How well does the detective story fit this comic pattern? Pretty darn well. (Frye himself mentions "the amateur detective of modern fiction" as one variation of a classic comic character.) The detective story usually starts with order, or apparent order--the deceptively harmonious English village, the superficially happy family, the workplace where everyone seems to get along. Then a crime--usually murder--plunges everything into disorder. Complications ensue, conflicts escalate, the wrong people get suspected, dangers threaten to engulf the innocent, the guilty evade punishment, and illusion eclipses reality. But the detective starts to set things right during "scenes of discovery and reconciliation." Often after surviving a "point of ritual death" (which he or she may shrug off as a "close call"), the detective identifies the guilty and clears the innocent. The villain is rendered powerless through a "ritual of expulsion"--arrest, violent death, suicide, or, sometimes, escape. Order is restored, and a happy ending is achieved "by a twist in the plot."

To find a specific example, we can turn to Sayers's own detective stories. Gaudy Night makes an especially tempting choice. In the opening chapters, order prevails at quiet Shrewsbury College, and also in the lives of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. He proposes at set intervals, and she finds tactful ways to say no. The serenity on campus, however, is more apparent than real. Beneath the surface, tensions and secrets churn.

Then a series of mysterious events shatters the tranquility, and Harriet and Lord Peter get drawn into the chaos. Incidents become increasingly frightening, tensions soar as suspicion shifts from don to don and from student to student, and truth seems hopelessly elusive. Harriet undergoes a "point of ritual death" when she encounters the malefactor in a dark passageway. But "scenes of discovery and reconciliation" follow as Lord Peter unveils the truth, as relationships strained by suspicion heal. Illusions are dispelled, realities recognized. A "ritual of expulsion"--a gentle one this time--removes the person who caused the disorder. And, in the true, full spirit of comedy, the detective story ends with order restored at a higher level, with the promise of a wedding.

How many detective stories end with weddings, or with promises of weddings, as lovers kept apart by danger and suspicion unite in the final chapter? A number of Agatha Christie's works come to mind, along with legions of recent ones that bring together a police officer (usually male) and an amateur sleuth (usually female). Of course, if the author is writing a series and wants to stretch out the sexual tension, the wedding may be delayed--Sayers herself pioneered this technique. Still, the wedding beckons from novel to novel, enticing us with the prospect of an even happier ending after a dozen or so murders have been solved. Romance isn't a necessary element, either in comedies or in detective stories. But it crops up frequently, for it's compatible with the fundamentally optimistic spirit of both.

Humor, too, is compatible with an optimistic spirit, and it's nearly as common in detective stories as in comedies, from Sherlock Holmes's droll asides straight through to Stephanie Plum's one-liners. To some, it may seem tasteless to crack jokes while there's a corpse in the room. On the whole, though, humor seems consistent with the tough-minded attitude of both comedies and detective stories. Neither hides from life's problems--there could be no story without them--but neither responds with weeping or wringing hands. In both genres, protagonists respond to problems by looking for solutions, sustained by their conviction that problems can in fact be solved. The humor reminds both protagonists and readers that, even in the wake of deaths and other disasters, life isn't utterly bleak. Things can still turn out well.

Some might say the comparison with comedy works only if we stick to what is sometimes called the traditional detective story. Yes, Dupin restores order and preserves the reputation of an exalted personage by finding the purloined letter, and Holmes saves an innocent bride-to-be by solving the mystery of the speckled band. But what of darker detective stories? If we stray too far from the English countryside and venture down the mean streets of the hard-boiled P.I. or big-city cop, what traces of comedy will we find? We'll find wisecracks, sure--but they'll be bitter wisecracks, reflecting the world-weary attitudes of the protagonists. In these stories, little order seems to exist in the first place. So how can it be restored? How can an optimistic view of life be affirmed?

The Maltese Falcon looks like a detective story that could hardly be less comic. The mysterious black figurine turns out to be a fake, Sam Spade hands the woman he might love over to the police, and he doesn't even get to keep the lousy thousand bucks he's extracted as his fee. It's not a jolly way to end.

Even so, in some sense, order is restored. Spade has uncovered the truth. He's made sure the innocent remain free and the guilty get punished. He has acted. As he says, "When a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it." Spade has done something.

Maybe, ultimately, that's the defining characteristic of comedy, and of the detective story. Protagonists do something, and endings are happier as a result--maybe not blissfully happy, but more just, more truthful, better. In detective stories, and in comedies, protagonists don't feel so overwhelmed by the unfairness of the universe that they sink into passivity and despair.

Maybe that's the real thesis of  "Aristotle on Detective Fiction." In some ways, Sayers's playful comparison of tragedies and detective stories seems unconvincing. Probably, though, her real purpose isn't to argue that the detective story is tragedy rather than comedy. Probably, her purpose is to enlist Aristotle as an ally against what she describes as "that school of thought for which the best kind of play or story is that in which nothing particular happens from beginning to end." That school of thought remains powerful today, praising literary fiction in which helpless, hopeless characters meander morosely through a miserable, meaningless morass, unable to act decisively. Sayers takes a stand for action, for saying the things human beings do make a difference, for saying we are not just victims. Both comedy and the detective story could not agree more.