08 August 2016

You'll Wonder Where The Murder Went

If you drive NM Hwy 68 from Sante Fe north towards Taos, there is a small community known as Pilar. There is also a National Recreation Area known as Orilla Verde. The land is owned by the US government and managed by the Bureau of Land Management or BLM as it is usually called. If you make the turn northwest on county rd 570 to enter the recreation area and continue the six and a half mile drive you will soon be in the very bottom of the Rio Grande Gorge and alongside the Rio Grande River. The elevation is 6,100 feet and the canyon rim reaches 800 feet above that.
There are small campgrounds along that route. Three are primitive with no hook-ups for water or electricity and the remainder have RV hook-ups with water and electricity. No sewer. The river launchings offers river rafting through companies who rent the rafts and you can hire a river ranger to guide you. There is a nominal fee for day-camping and overnight camping. For the RV hook-ups its around $15 per night with a 14 day limit. There are also two large group shelters that can be rented for $30 per day and $40 per night: one at Taos Junction and one called Rio Bravo.  There are hike and bike trails along the way. This area has been used for centuries by Ancient Peoples and you can find petroglyphs  on some rocks and sometimes find fossils but it is against  the law to damage or remove any of those. There is trout fishing and if all else failed you could watch beavers swim and build a dam. Of course the BLM Rangers probably have to tear those out.

Because of the diverse geology the wildlife and plant life is most interesting, Raptors and ground squirrels and deer. And the sweeping views offer photographic or painting opportunities all along the way. In fact, Pilar is an art colony and they have an annual show and event. Many artists come out especially to paint canvases of the ever-changing scenery.

The last campground which is at the deepest part of the Gorge is named Taos Junction and that's where my late husband Elmer and I spent 3 summers as camp hosts. Years ago a bridge had been built over the Rio Grande and a hotel built on the northern side, The hotel was later bulldozed but you can explore the ruins. The camp ground is on the south side. A serious gambler, entrepreneur named Long John Dunn had a vision and a dream for years using the bridge as a good way of making money He finally was able to buy the bridge.  People would ride the train up from Sante Fe, and catch a stagecoach from the rail line then cross the river, spend the night in the Taos Junction Hotel and ride the stage on into Taos the next day. Long John charged a toll bridge fee, a hotel overnight fee and a fee to be taken  driven into Taos. Dunn did more to promote the town of Taos than almost anyone. Nowadays there is a steel bridge built in the 50s that has the steel framework up and over the roadway. This steel bridge is still there and the campground's name of Taos Junction is obvious.  And this is the setting for murder and mystery.

Elmer had taken on the overseeing of our little campground and I worked four hours a day, for four days a week at the nice modern Visitor's Center at the highway intersection of HWY 68 and 570 It was a wonderful summer job and I met people from all over the world. You could cross the bridge to our side (camp ground location) and drive up the other side of the gorge rim to hot springs spa area known as Ojo Calente or another route south to Sante Fe or roads west and north.

We were sitting at our table having lunch one day and we noticed there was an ambulance, a police car, a state highway patrol vehicle, a fire and rescue vehicle and also a helicopter flying low along the river bank. The river was about 200 yards away from our RV and there was also an embankment that added another 20 to 30 feet. Elmer said, guess I'd better go see what is going on out there. He came back in a few minutes and said the Incident Captain in charge told him they were looking for a body. Wanted to know if the group shelter could be used for family members. Of course, Elmer said, yes.

Turns out two guys, one a brother-in-law of the other, had been drinking, using drugs and arguing and one pulled out a gun and shot and killed the other. The killer called his brother who came over and they continued with drugs and alcohol trying to decide what to do with the body. One of them remembered there was a bridge at Taos Junction and told lawmen they threw the body off this steel bridge and into the river. They searched for two days but never found a body.

Finally, the killer admitted they had thrown the body into a dump site in Los Alamos. The story went that these guys thought if no body was found, then they couldn't be charged. They didn't know the law very well. I never heard about a trial or exactly what happened to the killer. I assume his brother was only charged with disposal of a body.

I kept saying for two or three years that I wanted to write a story about this murder mystery but never did. Maybe this little blog will inspire me to eventually come up with a good story.

One other little tale of mystery at Taos Junction. On morning, Elmer came inside and his face was white and he looked just about ready to barf. When I asked what was wrong he said, "I think someone was murdered out in the group shelter last night. There is blood everywhere. It looks really bad". I went outside with him and it did look bad. But after searching around we couldn't find any other evidence. I called up to the RGGVC and who and got one of the Rangers to come down and look at our group shelter. By the time our Ranger got to Taos Junction, Elmer and a couple of men who were Game Wardens had been after some poachers who were killing and skinning deer. It was out of season. The three of them had found animal remains close to the river edge. That murder was solved.

Elmer and I were quite relieved. However, you can see why being married to a mystery writer often makes you suspect the worst when you see blood all over a concrete floor. I would love to spend a summer at Taos Junction again. Unfortunately, I sold my RV five years ago.

07 August 2016

The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train
In a matter of weeks, Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train comes to a theatre near you. The novel comprises a compendium of sorts, a compilation of first person accounts by three women. It is, you might correctly infer, an offshoot of chicklit and contains enough internal dialogue to fill two Dr. Phil shows and most of an Oprah season. It’s most definitely not intended or promoted as a manbook.
But, for a guy fascinated by women, this one enjoyed it.

From time to time, I’ve had to make an unlikeable character likeable, but Paula Hawkins has honed that technique to a science. She accomplishes this through the devices mentioned above: internal thoughts and first person narrative.

The author nails showing-not-telling. She doesn’t tell the reader a character is an alcoholic, she lets you see it. But she takes the show-not-tell to another level of abstraction when the main character, Rachel, looks in on lives from a distance, making guesses and assumptions that naturally might or might not be true.

Even if the characters aren’t immediately likeable, we feel varying degrees of sympathy for most, especially the landlady, Cathy, who gets short shrift. We quietly urge Rachel to get her act together and groan at her many slips. The author could have titled the novel Train Wreck and been right on the mark.

Green Garden

I haven’t thought of Hannah Green’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden since required reading in high school, but a few unreliable brain cells brought that novel to mind. Maybe the only comparison is of a troubled young woman and her inner battle, but perhaps distant memory is suggesting something more. Probably it’s the battle with alcoholism and this book is a veritable textbook on the subject. More than most writings on the topic, the reader will feel empathy in the ‘there but for the grace of God’ moments.

The Girl on the Train has been compared with another popular novel, Gone Girl, but except for the word ‘girl’ in the title and the disappearance of one, I don’t see much similarity. I found Gone Girl more unputdownable, but only for a matter of degree and for different reasons. TGOTT isn’t a thriller like Gone Girl; it’s more gothic and personal. I closed the book reluctantly each evening, wondering how Rachel would get out of the mess she found herself in.

Off the Rails

Railways run as a motif throughout the novel; literally the last word in the book is ‘train’. Cleverly or at least amusingly, Amtrak has been offering on-line excerpts through on-board wifi for passengers travelling through America.

The story uses the device of an unreliable narrator, in this case a woman who suffers from alcoholic blackouts. She may have seen something, but if she did, she can’t remember. The author also employs misdirection; one part in particular navigates a minefield of tricky pronouns. The plot strays from that of a traditional mystery; the protagonist has to figure out what’s in her head and the reader must merely observe rather than solve.

The American MPAA rates the upcoming film R for violence, sexual content, language and nudity, most which appear in minute fragments in the novel if at all. Producers sadly decided to stage the story in New York instead of the UK, so anything’s possible.

And Finally…

One last point: Despite the small measure of action in the novel, the third paragraph from the end is one of the most chilling in fiction.

Read it and creep.

06 August 2016

Southern Mysteries

This past week, Akashic Books released another anthology in their award-winning series that began in 2004 with Brooklyn Noir and that has since included Boston Noir, Miami Noir, New Orleans Noir, and many others. According to the publisher, "Each book comprises all new stories, each one set in a distinct location within the region of the book." This one, Mississippi Noir, contains (insert drumroll, here) one of my stories.

Tom Franklin, the editor of this anthology, did an outstanding job of putting the book together. For those of you who don't know him, Tom--who was a Guest of Honor at last year's Bouchercon--is a great guy, an excellent writer, and a teacher in the MFA program at the University of Mississippi. I first heard of him when his short story "Poachers" won an Edgar Award in 1999 and then appeared in that year's Best American Mystery Stories. Since that time, he's had five books published: Poachers (a collection containing the title story); Smonk; Hell at the Breech; Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter; and The Tilted World. He and his wife Beth Ann Fennelly, also an author and also an MFA teacher at Ole Miss, co-wrote the latest novel.

The anthology, which had its launch signing this past Thursday at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, features stories by sixteen writers, including Ace Atkins, Megan Abbott, William Boyle, Michael Kardos, Mary Miller, and Michael Farris Smith. Here's a link to it on Amazon.

NOTE: Also released this week was St. Louis Noir, which contains a story ("Deserted Cities of the Heart") by my friend and fellow SleuthSayer Paul D. Marks.

A pit stop in kudzu country

My story in Mississippi Noir is a bit different from the others. For one thing, it's the longest story in the book--10,000 words and 33 pages; also, it's a little more . . . optimistic, let's say, than some of the other stories. Kirkus Reviews, which spent awhile discussing the despair and poverty and heartache that accompany most of these tales, said, "And every now and again, there's a lucky soul who does manage to triumph over the trouble she gets herself into, like Anna in John M. Floyd's 'Pit Stop.'" Whether that's a good thing, in a book of noir fiction, is another matter--I'll leave that to the reader to decide. But I liked the story, and had great fun writing it. (Not that it matters, I guess, but I liked all the other stories too--and as always, it was fun to meet the other authors, at the launch on Thursday.)

A quick word about my story: Its original title was "Route 25," because the entire piece is set in a section of that highway, between Jackson and the town of Starkville, some 120 miles to the northeast. Later, though, after it was accepted for inclusion in the book, I was told that since each story would reflect a different region, and since State Highway 25 would be listed in the Table of Contents as the area where my story takes place, I was asked if I could come up with another title for the story itself. I decided on "Pit Stop" because it has a double meaning: most of the action takes place near a gas-station/convenience-store on the road trip that the main characters take, and the plot also involves an abandoned well. And yes, somebody winds up in the well. I don't think that's revealing too much; according to Anton Chekhov, "If you show the reader a gun in Act 1, it better go off in Act 3."

A good story is hard to find

My inspiration for this tale, by the way, came from the opening paragraph of one of my favorite shorts, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," by Flannery O'Connor. That opening features a man from Atlanta proposing a family road trip to his mother, who tells him they shouldn't be traveling in that direction (Florida) because of a killer that the newspaper says is on the loose there. Immediately after finishing that paragraph, any savvy reader knows that before the end of the story those poor vacationers will almost certainly meet up with the killer. I think it's a great example of the art of foreshadowing. Or maybe of setting expectations.

I try to do the same kind of thing in this story. Here's the situation, in "Pit Stop": a young lady and her date are headed out on a two-hour drive to a college football game, after which they plan to stop and hike awhile in the autumn countryside. They already know that the section of highway they'll be traveling is the site of several recent killings, and that whoever committed the murders is still at large--but they're young and they're invincible, right? Well, as you might imagine, they meet some unexpected folks along the way, and things quickly grow complicated.

The book's first review on Amazon, received a week ago, says "Pit Stop" is a fun and satisfying read, and "is a story that likely would have warmed the heart of Alfred Hitchcock." That extremely kind statement warms my heart as well.

Neither south noir north

I recently spoke with a fellow writer who said one of the items on her Bucket List was to someday appear in Akashic's noir series. I had hoped that one day I would also, and I'm truly grateful for this opportunity.

Strangely enough, I had already sampled a few of the books in the series, including New Jersey Noir and Los Angeles Noir, and I enjoyed them. (Have any of you read some of these?) This one, like the others, seems to have a little something for every taste. Greg Iles, author of The Bone Tree and a native of Natchez, says, in a cover blurb, "So kick back, pour yourself a drink, and find out whether Mississippi Noir may be the darkest of them all."

I hope it's also the most fun to read.

BY THE WAY, two weeks from today, on Saturday, August 20, my old friend and former SleuthSayer Elizabeth Zelvin will post a guest column in this time slot. I assure you that her post will be both shorter and better than this one, and I hope you'll join me in welcoming Liz that day. Meanwhile, best to all of you, in your writing AND your reading.

05 August 2016

Immersion and Interaction, (Non)Choice and Consequence

On Wednesday of this week, my wife and I had the privilege of experiencing Learning Curve, a "theatrical journey within the walls of a Chicago Public School," created by Chicago's Albany Park Theater Project in conjunction with Third Rail Projects.
From the APTP production Learning Curve

Albany Park Theater Project is run by my old college roommate David Feiner and his wife Maggie Popadiak, and we've seen previous productions by them, all conceived, designed, and performed by local high school students and regularly drawing on those students' own stories; the last show we saw, Aqui Estoy, dealt with the struggles of undocumented workers and children of undocumented immigrants struggling to find their way through the system.

We've also seen an earlier production by Third Rail Projects: Then She Fell, which reimagined Alice in Wonderland within the walls of a mental institution. While that's already a provocative concept, the most exciting aspects of the show were the intimacy of it (only 15 audience members) and the immersiveness and individuality of the experience. As the play began, audience members were led solo or in very small groups into other rooms of the institution to begin a curated journey through the story—ultimately with no two people having the same adventure. Along the way, Then She Fell also frequently became interactive, with cast members asking questions of audience members, having them join in the action to some small degree, even offering food and drink (the tea party a particular highlight, as in Carroll's book, of course).

I give this background to set the stage (excuse the pun) for Learning Curve, which roamed throughout the classrooms of the Ellen Gates Starr High School and into other corners of the institution: a library, a storage room, bathrooms, more. As the experience unfolded, we learned with startling immediacy about some of the struggles and the triumphs of today's high school students: the many challenges of standardized testing, the pressures to fit in or to try to figure out where you fit, the anxieties of young love, the difficulties for English as a Second Language students, the boredom and tedium alongside ambition and aspiration. It was startling to learn that only half of the students entering Chicago high schools actually graduate from those schools. It was startling to learn how quickly teachers can burn out or be fired, how frequent the turnover in those roles. But even in talking about those last couple of points, I need to stress that Learning Curve is less informational than experiential. We weren't simply learning about Chicago high school students; we audience members became students ourselves—complete with IDs, as you can see below.

What had the most lasting effect on me, however, was a pair of scenes that challenged me more personally—and that speak directly to what's unique about this approach to theater and the new territories audiences are drawn into by a production like this.

After a homeroom scene shared by all audience members, my wife and I were quickly brought into our first individual scene—part of which was witnessing a young boy being bullied by two other boys in a bathroom. I knew that this scene was in the show, having read about it briefly in the opening paragraph to the very positive Chicago Tribune review. (I didn't read all of that review, dodging spoilers, and advise others who might see the show to stop reading my blog post now as well.) But while I was prepared for what I was about to witness, I wasn't ready to deal with my role in the scene—by which I don't mean an actual role because, after all, I was of course just an audience member.

Or was I?

Just prior to the bathroom bullying scene, we'd already had both two of the characters/actors talk with us, engaging us directly in conversation. In those exchanges, we weren't merely immersed in the action; we were interacting as well—participants. Then we found ourselves urged into the bathroom where the bullying took place: two bullies, as I said, one of them in an ROTC uniform, victimizing a third.

Without offering too many details: Somewhere in the middle of the scene, I wondered whether I should intervene. If you see something, say something—do something. Right? But we were audience members, trained as theater-goers to be watchers, so....

But then, on the other hand, we were just interacting with these kids a few moments before, so....

But the play's instructions (delivered via morning announcements over the PA) had cautioned us to speak only when spoken to, so....

But really the scene wanted me to ask myself what I would have done if I were a real high school student, so....

But wait, it was just a play, so....

But.... So.... 

The bullying escalated, then ended. On the way out, the first of the bullies gave me a quick "thank you"—amping up the volume of those questions already echoing in my head.

We interacted briefly with the bullied boy afterwards—again I hope to avoid spoilers, but suffice it to say that I myself felt inept. Then we moved into the next scene, which turned out to be a Junior ROTC classroom. And there in the middle of it stood the second of those bullies, the one in the ROTC uniform, who made eye contact immediately, gave me a little smirk and an uplift of his chin, a recognition of kinship, it seemed, and another expression of gratitude for my complicity.

Quickly, the class was brought into formation, went through inspection, lined up beside our desks, the bully standing directly in front of me, his posture perfect. Soon, the instructor has us recite the ROTC pledge, repeating the words after him—about conducting ourselves in ways to bring credit to our families and schools and fellow cadets and country, about practicing good citizenship, about being accountable for our actions and deeds, about being the future of the United States of America.

In front of me, the bully repeated each of the instructor's phrases with vigor and enthusiasm. At first, I followed too, but quickly—watching the boy, this bully, hearing him, hearing myself.... I do not know quite how to explain this adequately, but I found I could not continue to repeat the words of the code, physically could not. My mouth trembled. My words faltered. My forehead tightened, and there was a tightening too behind my eyes. I could feel tears building there, hot and angry and shameful.

Frankly, never had I had so visceral and really so vicious a reaction to a theatrical experience in my life.

There is more to be said here about the play, and about those characters in particular—those and others and the actors and actresses behind those roles. But I don't want to reveal too much about the storyline for anyone who might be fortunate to have tickets to the sold-out run of the show. Instead, I wanted to mention my reactions as a testament to the power of Learning Curve and to the skills of the actors here and throughout the production—their shared abilities to bring us into this world so vividly and viscerally.

Once, many years ago, I saw a production of Death of a Salesman at the Kennedy Center, with Dustin Hoffman in the role of Willy Loman—a heart-breaking performance. Around the time I attended the show, the Washington Post review included the story of a woman in the audience and her reactions to a small but significant turning point in the play, a small gesture Hoffman made to indicate that Loman was, finally, lost. The woman, somewhere in the audience, stood up and shouted "Oh, no! Don't!"

Reading that experience, I thought, "How odd. How embarrassing. How silly."

My personal experiences in Learning Curve couldn't help but remind me of that story—and to help me revise my opinion of her reaction, which clearly wasn't odd or embarrassing or silly at all.

Instead, that story and my own reaction to Learning Curve reveal how easily we can get lost inside a bit of storytelling—lost in such a way that maybe we find something important and meaningful at the same time.

04 August 2016

Why I Hate Serial Killers

I don't like serial killers.  I know, you're thinking, who does?  Well, a hell of a lot of people, apparently.  Not only do they like stories / movies / TV shows about serial killers, they even like them when the serial killer is the hero.  I don't.  One of my few lines in the sand (along with torture porn and child porn) is this:  if the serial killer is the hero, I won't watch it or support it with my dollars.  I don't want people to think it's "okay", or "justifiable", or "entertaining", because, to me it isn't.  For a number of reasons.  Among them is the fact that I've seen a serial killer and all his fall-out at close hand, and it's probably the most horrific thing I can imagine.

Here in South Dakota, back in the 1990's, Robert Leroy Anderson was tried and convicted for kidnapping, raping, torturing, and killing two women.  I was Circuit Administrator at the time, and he was tried in my circuit.  Twice.

Though no one knew it at the time, it all began when Larisa Dumansky disappeared on August 27, 1994, after working the night shift at John Morrell & Co. meat packing plant in Sioux Falls, SD.  As so often happens, her husband, Bill, was briefly under suspicion, perhaps of an argument, perhaps of more.  The idea was also floated that she might have taken off.  The Dumanskys were both Ukrainian immigrants - maybe she'd gone home? Maybe she'd only come with him to get American citizenship? Maybe...  But her husband denied all of it, and said she'd never have run off, they were perfectly happy, and even more so, because she was pregnant.  But nothing was heard of her for years.

On July 29, 1996, Piper Streyle was getting her children (2 year old son, 3 year old daughter) ready to go to their daycare center.  They lived in Canistota, and she worked at Southeastern Children's Center in Sioux Falls. Her husband Vance, had already gone to work. Piper never made it to work; the children never made it to daycare.  Instead, one of Piper's co-workers called that afternoon, and was stunned when the daughter answered, weeping, saying that she and her little brother were alone in the house and that her parents were dead.

The daycare worker got on the phone to Vance and the Sheriff.  They found the children alone in a trashed living room, with Piper's purse emptied on the floor.  The sheriff asked what had happened, and the daughter told him, "Mommy's going to die."  A"mean man" had come into the trailer, argued with their mother, and taken her away at gunpoint.  Vance Streyle remembered a balding man, in his twenties, named Rob Anderson who'd come to their trailer 3 days before, at 7:30 a.m., to ask about enrolling his kids in the Streyle's bible camp for children.  Piper told Anderson the camp was over for the year, but to sign up for next year.  Anderson left his name and telephone number.

Robert Leroy Anderson was 26 years old, and had already been married twice, with 4 children.  He was a maintenance man at John Morrell & Co. meat packing plant.  Witnesses remembered seeing his truck parked up the way from Streyle's on the 26th and the 29th.

The police searched his truck, and found (among other things) receipts for duct tape, and a wooden platform with holes drilled into it with Piper's hairs on it, a dirty shovel, furniture moving straps, weeds, a toolbox and other evidence.  At his home, the police found a pain of jeans stained with blood and semen.  Also, handcuff keys.

Two days later, the little daughter ID'd Anderson's photo as the man who took her mother. He was arrested on two counts of kidnapping, but not murder, because there was no body. In fact, they never found a body, despite a massive search that went on for days all around the Big Sioux River.  They eventually found half of her shirt; later a farmer picked up the other half on the side of the road.  They also found a roll of duct tape with human hairs attached to it that matched Piper's DNA, as well as rope and chains, eyebolts, a vibrator and a half- burned candle.

In May 1997, Anderson was tried and found guilty of kidnapping Piper, and sentenced to life imprisonment in the South Dakota State Penitentiary.

Well, after that, a buddy of Anderson, Jamie Hammer, said that Anderson had been obsessed with torturing and murdering women ever since high school.  Hammer was kind of into it himself.  They used to sit around and plan the perfect crime.  In 1994 they tried it.  They got "wheel poppers" and put them on the road and were almost successful, except the poor woman whose wheel got flatted managed to break free.  She was one of those who testified against Anderson.

There was another friend who was in on that attempted kidnapping:  Glen Walker.  In 1997, after Anderson's conviction of kidnapping Piper Streyle, Walker confessed to participating in the kidnapping (at knifepoint) of Larisa Dumansky, as she left work on August 26th, 1994.  The two men drove her out to Lake Vermillion, where Anderson raped, tortured, and killed her.  (If you want the details, look them up yourself - they are horrific.)  Walker always claimed that he just watched.  That was how he knew that she pleaded desperately for her life (remember, she was pregnant).

Walker was the one who showed them where Larisa was buried, under a chokecherry bush.  Only part of her skeleton was still there, but they found enough to identify her.

Meanwhile, Anderson was in prison, and his one-time cellmate, Jeremy Brunner, contacted the attorney general's office in August 1997. He told them that Anderson bragged in great detail about the murders of Piper Streyle and Larisa Dumansky.  That Anderson admitted he was a serial killer; that he kept souvenirs or trophies of his victims at his grandmother's house. That he had moved Larisa's skull to prevent them from IDing the body.  And he asked Brunner to kill Walker, his old friend, because he knew Walker would turn him in.  Anderson drew up maps for him, and told him where he had a gun stashed - again, in his grandmother's house.

The police searched his grandmother's house and found jewelry belonging to Piper Streyle and Larisa Dumansky, as well as Anderson's gun, all exactly where Brunner had said they would be.

September 4, 1997, Anderson was finally charged with murdering Larisa Dumansky, and with the rape and murder of Piper Streyle (remember, he'd just been convicted of kidnapping her before).  The trial began in March, 1999, and he was convicted on April 6th on all counts.  Three days later, he was sentenced to death.  Walker was tried in March, 2000 and pled guilty to attempted kidnapping, and accessory to kidnapping and first-degree murder and conspiracy to kidnap Larisa Dumansky.  He received a total of 30 consecutive years.  He just got out on parole this year... (believe me, I feel your horror.)

Anderson appealed his death sentence in 2002 - which here in South Dakota was a non-starter - but on March 30th, he was found dead by hanging. The interesting part of this was that he was in a segregation cell, not his death-row cell, because he'd been found in possession of a razor blade. (There's been some unofficial debate about that...)

Reactions were universally, grimly positive:
Robert Leroy Anderson
Prosecutor:  "There's a lot of women who will sleep better knowing that this guy is deceased."
Vance Streyle:  "This is what we were after anyway. It just saved some time and effort."

I remember going to the last day of Anderson's trial - Anderson sat like a big fat white slug and smirked through the whole thing.

Did I mention that, back at Morrell's, a lot of coworkers admitted that they'd heard Anderson talk about kidnapping, raping, torturing, killing women, but couldn't believe that he meant it?  That he was serious?  So they never said a word to anyone, because they didn't want to look ridiculous...  Two women dead, another woman terrorized, and hints, rumors, of other women who might have disappeared, back where he used to live...

As I used to tell my classes, if anyone starts talking about how much fun it would be to do the things that Robert Leroy Anderson did, the hell with ridicule, I'm going to turn them in.

A serial killer as the hero?  Not in my fictional universe.  Not now, not ever.

03 August 2016

Writing to Remember

This one is going to ramble a bit, so I will let you know in advance what themes are going to keep coming up: Orkney and the human fight against oblivion.  How's that for a pair?
As I mentioned before, in June my wife and I traveled to Scotland.  I was particularly knocked out by the Orkney Islands, off the northeast coast.  We arrived via a six-hour ferry ride from Aberdeen. 

And that route is not recommended.  By the end of the trip I would estimate that at least a quarter of the travelers were sitting still (or just lying on the floor), afraid to move for fear of losing whatever might remain in their tummies.

So, if you go, take the other, shorter ferry ride, from Scrabster.  Longer road trip to get there but roads aren't as  bouncy as the North Sea.

Relief carving, Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney.

Orkney is a county, made up of about seventy islands, twentyish of which are inhabited.  The main island is called The Mainland, and that's where we spent most of our time. 

And speaking of time, the place is full of it.  We visited four prehistoric sites, where the past just leaps out at you.

You may wonder why these way-the-hell-and-gone isles attracted neolithic peoples.  One tour guide explained it this way: If the sea is a barrier then Orkney is at the far end of nowhere.  But if the sea is a road, then Orkney is a main highway stop.  The Vikings certainly took the latter view.  Maybe the new-stone-age (neolithic) people felt the same way.

But we can only guess about that  because they were, well, prehistoric.  Which by definition means they left no history, no writing.

And writing (this blog is about writing.  Remember?)  is a great tool against oblivion.  But not the only one.

Take a look at the Stones of Stenness, an ancient henge, or ring of standing stones.  Whoever dragged these monuments into a circle and stood them on end was certainly trying to us - or somebody - something.  And most of them survived for 5,000 years until 1814 when a farmer named Mackay got tired of visitors trespassing and decided to doom them to oblivion.  He destroyed two of them before he was stopped - on Christmas - with a court order.

About a mile away you will find Maeshowe, which is a chambered cairn.  That is, a hill tomb with rooms in it.   It's a few hundred years younger than Stennes.  The long tunnel entrance (you have to bend over practically double) is aligned with the sun at the solstice.  (And there is a new theory, by the way, that such entrances served as astronomical devices, blocking out excess light to reveal more stars.)

We don't know much about the people who spent 30 to 100,000 person-hours building it, or what they thought it meant, but we do know it was visited by Vikings (remember them?) about a thousand years ago.  We know that because they told us so by writing on the inner walls.  It is the largest collection of runes ever found.  The writers explain that 100 of them broke in through the ceiling to spend three days out of a snow storm.

Ring of Brodgar, more standing stones.
Well, first of all, there is no way 100 people could have gotten into that space, much less all their weapons and supplies, so I guess that was just a round number.  But what fascinates me is that these travelers must have been new to the art of writing and terribly excited about it.  Because some of the runes translate something like this:

I carved this with an axe.

I carved this up high.

Carved by the best rune-carver west of the ocean.

They were not all so tautological.  The guide told us one of the carvings could be loosely translated:  

For a good time, call Ingehelda.

Right.  It seems odd that these ancient wanderers didn't use the opportunity to tell posterity more about themselves.  Like names and home towns.  But apparently that was not the sort of immortality that interested them.

Skara Brae
And speaking of immortality and the fight against oblivion, in the early twentieth century the land was owned by a man named Balfour.  He noticed that the roof was leaking (where the Vikings had burst in) and, blessed be his memory, he got it patched up.    Even better, he made sure the builders left a clear distinction between the old and the modern.  If he hadn't made those repairs, the place would probably be a mudpie today.

By the way, those original dry stone walls, built almost five thousand years ago?  Except where the Vikings bashed them, they still don't need repair.  Talk about fighting oblivion.

Standing stones in an Orkadian cafe.  Another shop had a dish called Skara Brie.
And then there's Skara Brae,  an entire neolithic village uncovered by a violent storm a century ago.  These are the oldest houses in the world with their original furniture - stone beds and "dressers" on which prized possessions were probably displayed.

If you made it through all of my prattle then you deserve a treat.  So here is Saltfishforty, an Orkadian band we saw performing in Stromness.  Enjoy.

02 August 2016

Harry Potter and the Love of Reading

I love Harry Potter.
When we moved to Montreal for my residency in family medicine, I was too cheap to buy the next two Harry Potter books, so I read at least one book in French, for free, from the library. To my surprise, it wasn't as funny. The jokes didn't translate. The funniest part was me figuring out that bouledogue meant bulldog. So I broke down and bought the books in English, which turned out to be a great investment, because after I caught gastroenteritis from one of my little patients on paediatrics, I ended up reading the first four books over and over again.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was my hands-down favourite. The Quiddich! The tournament! Ron and Hermione! The agony of Cho! Dragons! Merpeople! The heartbreaking but necessary ending. Oy oy oy oy oy oy oy, to quote another one of my patients.

The magic wavered during Order of the Phoenix. Harry was so angry, Umbridge so unbearable, that I finished it and all the other books, but I closed my heart. I read the battle scenes quickly, bracing myself for the deaths of people I loved. I never re-opened books 5 to 7 again.

It's only in the past few months, starting the series with my ten-year-old son, Max, that the magic has not only returned, but doubled, tripled, and had quintuplets. I had re-read the first four books, of course. But it took me until a good halfway through OOP (Order of the Phoenix) with Max before I finally pushed everything aside and said, "Nobody bother me until I finish this book." Then I re-read the last two books and found them much better than I'd remembered. Yes, even the epilogue.

I dragged my children on a two-hour drive to their first-ever Harry Potter unveiling. I was working the next day, and they fell asleep on the way there and back, so we only stayed for about half an hour, but I'm glad I did it. I wished I could've made it to the parties in Winnipeg (thousands gathered in Assinboine Park) and Calgary (transformed into Diagon Alley!).

So, on July 31st, Harry Potter and JK Rowling's birthday, I had to work in the emergency department from 0800 to 1800. I wore a white shirt, a tie, and a velvet jacket in their honour. But I hadn't stayed past midnight the night before to buy a copy of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, so I'd either have to buy an e-copy after work, make a special drive in for a paper copy on my day off, make my husband pick one up, or do without until they shipped a copy to my rural house.

Enter Tiff, a fellow HP mega-fan and unit coordinator. On her break, she headed to the bookstore and picked up a copy for her and a copy for me. Mischief managed!

I finished reading Harry Potter and the Cursed Child this morning. It wasn't as complex and finely-wrought as the novels, but it still made me think about good and evil, and I teared up more than once.

I don't want to imagine a world without Harry Potter. Not only do I love the stories, the author, and the fact that JK Rowling supports charities, but there are studies on how Harry Potter and other fiction can create empathy, especially in young readers. Plus other fantasy authors, like Linda DeMeulemeester, have benefited from the rising demand for new worlds.

Is it any wonder that our baby was born with a lightning scar? ;)

Dear Jo,
Thank you for all you've done.

01 August 2016

The Four Seasons

Okay, so the title is a misnomer. Since I live in Central Texas, we only have two seasons: summer and winter. Winter is generally mid-December to mid-February. Everything else is summer. We consider our winters to be cold, which, of course, is a relative term. Sixty degrees is cool, fifty-four degrees is cold, and anything lower than that is, excuse the expression, freezing your butt off. I know, I know, those of you who live above the Mason-Dixon line are sneering as you read this. Fine. But before you become too snarky, come spend an August with me, then we'll talk.

The point of this is that this whole two-season thing can reek havoc on the creative process, especially when one is writing about something that happens in January while writing in July. It's sorta cold in January in Austin, which one can easily forget while sweating away in July. Which is why, two hundred and some odd pages into the newest E.J. Pugh mystery, I've had to remind myself that, oops, where are the jackets?

The story takes place at the University of Texas when E.J.'s son, Graham Pugh, comes back to school after the winter break. Yes, that would be January. Then he's accused of the murder of his obnoxious roommate. Just because he'd been thinking about doing it, doesn't mean he actually did it. So of course E.J. has to come to Austin to ferret out the true culprit and free her eldest child. And she should probably bring a coat. Just saying. And just because I'm writing in July when it's quiet plausible to forget about that wet stuff that falls from the sky, doesn't mean it's not available in, excuse the expression, winter. So maybe a raincoat. Okay, just an umbrella. Never rain boots. No one over the age of six does rain boots here. Maybe some ice? We had ice in 2006. It was scary. But I just had an ice storm in my last Milt Kovak book (which was more believable because he lives way up north in Oklahoma).

As I sit here writing this and staring out my window at the relentlessly perky sun, I'm reminded of something my late friend, the writer Nancy Bell, once said to me in a depressed voice: “It's another goddammed beautiful day in Austin.”

So, it's off to the writing mines for me to add the winter stuff: jackets, coats, a nice scarf, a little rain, you know, weather. We don't have weather in the summer months. Just that relentlessly perky sun. I need to go turn the air conditioning down.

31 July 2016

History behind the Story

(NOTE: this blog article is a re-post originally written for AHMM and posted at Trace Evidence on 07/12/2016.)

Out of history comes a story: "The Great Aul," AHMM July/August 2016 issue

The tomes of history are rich with strong characters whose actions influenced the future of nations, entire civilizations and even the course of world events. Much of known history is written by the winners, some accounts are retold by survivors of that same happening and some events are documented by independent observers who have no axe to grind concerning the facts or truth of those events. Often the perspective or alleged truth depends upon the teller of that history and many times there are gaps in what gets told. These gaps are fertile grounds for an author of fiction to create his own version of the story.

The Known History:

Imam Shamyl
For centuries, the Tsars of Russia had pushed their border southward into the Turkic lands. Their invasion vanguard usually consisted of freebooting Cossaks who lived in stockade villages along the frontier and raided their Muslim neighbors by horseback or by sea. Eventually, after many rebellions by the freedom loving Cossacks against their own Tsars, the Russian army quartered soldiers in each frontier village, made these Cossacks into subordinate military units and launched their own massive spring campaigns into Chechnya to subjugate the various hill tribes.

One of the opposition leaders was an Imam named Shamyl who led a group of religious Chechens and Daghestans known as Murids in the northern Caucasus. At one point, the Russians offered to broker a peace treaty with the Murids. In order to guarantee the safety of the Russian negotiators, Shamyl was forced to give up one of his sons as a temporary hostage. The Russians, acting in bad faith, promptly whisked the young boy off to Moscow, Russianized him over the years and made him a cavalry officer in one of their units.

During the summer of 1854, Shamyl put a plan in motion to recover his now grown son. On the morning of July 4th, a detachment of Murid horsemen clattered into the Tsinandali palace courtyard of King George XII, the last king of Georgia and an ally of the Tsar. They seized the two princesses, their children and their governesses. The women were tied to the horsemen's saddle frames and the small children were stuffed into large saddlebags. In short time, the entire group rode into the mountains headed for the Great Aul, a mountain fortress in the heart of Daghestan. Imam Shamyl had plans to trade the hostages for his son Jamal al-Din (various spellings depending upon the source). As a matter of history, the trade did take place, but there is a gap in the details..

Murid followers
Filling the Gap:

Constantly researching for more Russian history on their invasion of the Caucusus to use as story background, this event is a great find for me. I already have two story characters, the Armenian and his helper the Little Nogai Boy, trading goods with the Cossacks on the Terek River and with the Chechens south into the Wild Country. Since the Armenian is already trusted by people on both sides of the river (as shown in previous stories), who better to act as intermediary for the exchange of the hostages? These two fictional characters can fill the existing gap and write their own story as to their part in what happened.

It's now time to invoke the writer's famous What if...clause. What if the Armenian and the Little Nogai Boy are crossing a shallow river deep in the Wild Country when the raiders fleeing with their prisoners happen upon them?

The Story is Born:

     The young orphan boy, from the Nogai split out of the Great Mongol Horde after the death of Genghis Khan, tells "The Great Aul" story as he sees these hostage events through his own eyes. Using the young boy as the Point of View also allows for a more emotional impact upon the reader at the end. So let's get down to the bare bones.

Our two protagonists, all their trade goods, plus their string of pack animals are taken by the Murids and are forced to travel along with the hostages to The Great Aul high up on a mountain top. Here, the Armenian is offered freedom for himself and his helper if the Armenian takes a letter from the Imam to the Tsar, offering the Georgian hostages in exchange for his son Jamal. However, the Nogai boy must stay behind to ensure the Armenian's return.

It's a long trip to Moscow and back. Many things can happen to the Armenian along the route and the boy doesn't know if his master will even return to get him out of the aul. To pass time, the boy starts selling their trade goods in the local market and making his own plans for escape just in case things don't work out according to the plans of others. But, he has to be careful in his actions because he is closely watched by one of the Murids assigned to guard him, a Murid who has lost his entire family to earlier Russian incursions. Plus, it seems not all Murids are happy to have outsiders on the inside of their fortress.

Sorry, but that's all you get here. To find out what becomes of our young orphan after the Imam's son is returned, you'll have to read the story yourself. If you are female, you might want to have a tissue handy. It allegedly made the editor cry.

30 July 2016

Rising Stars

by John M. Floyd

A few weeks ago, I did a SleuthSayers column called "Crime (and Other) Scenes," in which I listed some of my favorite movie moments. In the readers' comments that followed that piece, my friend Mary Ann Joyce mentioned the fact that I should do a piece on famous actors' early appearances, sort of an answer to the question "When did you first realize the person on the screen was going to be a star?"

Never let it be said that I cannot take advice given by the readers of our blog--especially when it sounds like fun. And though I've never known that anyone "was going to be a star," I have put together a list of some of the actors/actresses I've seen in movies that were made before their names and faces became immediately recognizable. These aren't necessarily debut performances; they're just roles that I happened to notice during the re-watching (I do a lot of re-watching) of movies I first saw long ago. Even now, I turn to my wife occasionally and point and say, "Look! You know who that IS?"--after which she usually gives me an eye-roll and goes back to doing something productive.

Some of the roles I've listed below are no more than bit parts that you'd miss if you blinked (they'd be called "cameos" if the actors were well-known), and some are too familiar even to include in the list, like Ron Howard in The Music Man or Natalie Wood in Miracle on 34th Street. Long or short, though, and memorable or not, I think those appearances are fun to watch.

Here are a few of the sightings I remember most:

Tommy Lee Jones as a college student in Love Story (1970). It's been said that author Erich Segal based Ryan O'Neal's character on two roommates he knew while attending Harvard: Jones and Al Gore. Is that true? Who knows--but it sounds good.

Viggo Mortensen as one of the Amish farmers in Witness (1985). In one of my re-viewings of this movie I saw him in several of the crowd scenes and realized that his was a familiar face, but it took an IMDB search to turn the lights on.

James Gandolfini as one of Christopher Walken's henchmen in True Romance (1993). He looked suitably Sopranoish even back then.

Kirstie Alley as a skinny and gorgeous rookie crew member on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). I remember Shatner telling her wisely, "You have to learn WHY things work, on a starship." So she could tend bar at Cheers, I guess, a few years later.

Jeff Goldblum and Denzel Washington as thugs in Death Wish (1974). They were onscreen at different times, and not for long. The thug mortality rate was unusually high in this film.

Harrison Ford as one of the drivers cruising the strip in American Graffiti (1973). Get in, but don't sit on the Wookiee.

Bryan Cranston as a paramedic in Amazon Women on the Moon (1987). Yes, I watch movies like Amazon Women on the Moon. What can I say?

Ray Liotta as Melanie Griffith's creepy ex-boyfriend in Something Wild (1986). Jeff Daniels was the current boyfriend.

Anthony Edwards as Tom Cruise's best bud in Top Gun (1986).  This was before Goose went to medical school and became Mark Greene on ER. Meg Ryan was even on hand, as his wife.

Frances McDormand as a young wife doing battle with a hired killer in Blood Simple (1984).

Leonardo DiCaprio as a disabled teen in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (1983).

James Earl Jones as Lt. Zogg, the bombardier, in Dr. Strangelove (1964).

Ethan Hawke as one of Robin Williams's devoted students in Dead Peets' Society (1989).

Clint Eastwood as a lab technician in Revenge of the Creature (1955). This was even before Rawhide went ahead and made his day.

Keifer Sutherland as the two-bit hood in Stand by Me (1986). Backstory, maybe, for Jack Bauer?

Robert Duvall as a cab driver in Bullitt (1968) (and of course as Boo Radley in TKaM).

Kevin Bacon as an ROTC cadet in Animal House (1978).

Jake Gyllenhaal as Billy Crystal's ten-year-old son in City Slickers (1991).

Tom Cruise as the hero's friend in an endless movie called Endless Love (1981).

Matt Damon as a teenager in Mystic Pizza (1988). I think he had one line of dialogue.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as a prep-school student in Scent of a Woman (1992). He also looked really young in Twister, four years later.

Bill Paxton as one of several punks who pester (and wish they hadn't) Ahhnold in The Terminator (1984).

Johnny Depp as the ill-fated translator, Lerner, in Platoon (1986).

Scarlett Johansson as a disabled thirteen-year-old in The Horse Whisperer (1998).

Amy Adams as Leo DiCaprio's love interest in Catch Me If You Can (2002). Elizabeth Banks was in there, too.

Daniel Craig as Kate Winslet's love interest in A Kid in King Arthur's Court (1995). His name in the movie was Kane, Master Kane.

Tom Hardy as a soldier in Blackhawk Down (2001). His combat training would pay off later, on Fury Road.

Elijah Wood as an eight-year-old playing a game in a video arcade in Back to the Future II (1989). Probably looking for Gandalf.

Steve Buscemi as a waiter in Pulp Fiction (1994). 

Hugh Bonneville as a bumbling stockbroker in Notting Hill (1999). What's Lord Grantham doing in a Julia Roberts comedy . . . ?

Season Hubley as the girl her then-husband Kurt Russell runs into in Chock Full o' Nuts, in Escape from New York (1981). 

Vince Vaughn as a football player in Rudy (1993).

Ryan Gosling as a football player in Remember the Titans (2000). I do, but only barely.

Josh Brolin as one of the Goonies (1985).

Helen Hunt as Kathleen Turner's and Nick Cage's daughter in Peggy Sue Got Married (1986).

Jack Lord as Bond's pal Felix Leiter in Dr. No (1962). Jack later went to Hawaii to chase other villains with funny names, like Wo Fat.

Raymond Burr as the spied-upon murderer in Rear Window (1954). This wasn't really an early role--it was just surprising to see Perry Mason as a bad guy.

Kevin Costner as the dead friend whose funeral brought the old gang back together in The Big Chill (1983). Reportedly, his flashback scenes were all cut, so he appeared onscreen for only a few seconds, as a corpse.

Robert Redford as a prison escapee being chased in The Chase (1966). Butch, who are those guys?

Brad Pitt as the hitchhiking cowboy in Thelma and Louise (1991). Thanks, Earl Staggs, for reminding me of this one.

James Coburn and George Kennedy, as low-level criminals in Charade (1963).

And my all-time favorite long-ago celebrity appearance:

My friend and fellow Criminal Briefer Melodie Johnson Howe, as the lady in the bathroom love scene with Clint Eastwood in Coogan's Bluff (1968). 

Okay, faithful movie addicts, who are some actors and actresses you've spotted in the early days, before they attained fame and fortune? How many did I miss? Are there any you remember seeing and didn't recognize? Did you think, at the time, that they were destined for greater things? Do you ever find yourself watching for appearances like this, especially in the really old movies? Do you have more important things to do? (I'm a lost cause, but there might be hope for the rest of you.)

Something else I like, although this is a bit off topic, is that actors are sometimes cast in parts far different from their usual roles. Such surprises were: Gene Hackman, Young Frankenstein; John Travolta, Pulp Fiction; Robin Williams, One-Hour Photo; Henry Fonda, Once Upon a Time in the West; Charlize Theron, Monster; Harrison Ford, Cowboys and Aliens; Liam Neeson, Love Actually; Paul Newman, Nobody's Fool; Jack Palance, City Slickers; John Lithgow, The World According to Garp; Sean Connery, The Untouchables; Glenn Close, Fatal Attraction; Nicolas Cage, Raising Arizona; Lee Marvin, Cat Ballou; Steve Martin, The Spanish Prisoner; Robert DeNiro, Meet the Parents; Jack Nicholson, Batman; Kirk Douglas, The Man From Snowy River; Al Pacino, Dick Tracy; Denzel Washington, Training Day; Jeff Bridges, True Grit (2010 version); Ted Danson, Body Heat; and Burl Ives, The Big Country. I love to discover performances like those.

Back to the subject: As Mary Ann suggested in that SS comment, I've put All About Eve into my Netflx queue so I can check out a younger Marilyn Monroe. Ah, the sacrifices I make.

One last thing: I've heard that George Clooney played a slasher victim in Return to Horror High, that Joseph Gordon-Levitt was an eleven-year-old kid in A River Runs Through It, that Jack Black was Sean Penn's brother in Dead Man Walking, and that Robert DeNiro showed up as an uncredited diner in a restaurant in Three Rooms in Manhattan--but I think I might pass on those. Besides, I saw River and DMW in theatres before I even knew who Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Jack Black were, and watching them again doesn't sound all that thrilling.

Maybe there's hope for me yet.

29 July 2016

The Joy of Writing

By Dixon Hill

I don't know if you enjoy watching the late Bob Ross on his PBS show The Joy of Painting.
 However, I really do.

I find it relaxing.  Which is sort of funny, if you consider that I probably couldn't even paint a realistic looking stick figure.

I'm also moderately capable in basic construction, and I understand the theoretical methods of joining wood via dove tails, biscuits, etc.  Yet, I stick to screws and nails, sometimes even screwing things together with metal plates or carriage bolts.  I've never built any fine furniture that actually LOOKED "fine."  In fact, I'm not sure I used the right "biscuit" word in the sentence above.  Which doesn't keep me from watching videos about fine furniture construction, or even tools for said work.  Because, these videos also relax me.  My wife laughed that a video I watched about the different types of planes, and how to use them, "relaxed me" right to sleep a week or two ago.

A short while back, however, while watching Bob Ross painting green trees against a violet background, I suddenly snapped upright, ears pricked.  I grabbed the PS3 controller and rewound the NetFlix video a few minutes back, to hear him again.

What he said was that he'd "agonized over paintings" many times in the past.  But, he no longer agonizes over them.  He just paints what he enjoys.

I've often stressed to my kids that we make decisions and choices in life -- even if we try to avoid making those decisions.  Part of my mantra was always, "Maybe I could have made more money doing something else, not focusing on my writing while working only part-time jobs and taking care of you guys.  But, this is what makes me happy.  Though we can't buy you every toy, or take you to the Taj Majal, I get my happiness from spending time with you, and by writing."

But, Bob Ross seemed to be saying more.  What I heard wasn't "I chose to become a painter because I liked it, or because it was easy."  Instead, the message I heard was, "My painting works best when I enjoy the work."

If you've read some of my past posts here, you may recall my mentioning the idea that I know I'm "in the groove" and writing well when the story picks up a force of its own and starts driving itself across the pages.  I liken this to a train having picked up speed and suddenly barreling down the tracks.  I just do my best to grab hold and hang on tight, hoping I won't get bounced off up ahead.

Bob Ross's words made me realize that this "train" begins to roar when I find my Joy of Writing.

Now, don't get me wrong.  Just because something brings you joy, doesn't mean it isn't hard work.  If you don't believe me, ask a mountain climber.

Writing isn't easy.  Just as I'm sure painting isn't easy.  Or furniture making.  Certainly, neither one comes easily to ME!

Sometimes, at certain places in writing a story -- particularly a long one -- the road ahead can loom like the Matterhorn.  Even if my writing "train" is roaring down the tracks, if I spend too much time concentrating on that steep grade I have to climb ahead, my writing can just run out of steam.  Maybe this has something to do with why I don't like to outline extensively.  I'm sort of an "Well I'll cross that bridge or climb that mountain when I get there" kind of guy, anyway.  So, it makes sense I might not want to dwell on too many details, for fear I'll build a mountainous mental ziggurat that will knock out my will to put the story on paper -- flesh the thing out.

I also realized that The Joy of Writing is why -- though I hold a journalism degree -- I write fiction.  Fiction provides much greater joy, at least for me.  I'm not bound by strict facts.  I can write the ending the way I want it to end, not the way it really just seems to be struggling along.  Which is largely why I never felt satisfaction writing eight column inches about a story with roots twenty to forty years old and no end in sight.  No wonder so many reporters drink!

And, I don't think this means I can't write stories aimed at certain publications or editors.  I find joy there, too.

Where do you find YOUR joy of writing?  Or do you?


28 July 2016

The Seven Deadly Sins

by Janice Law

They are known by a variety of names, elegant like ‘evergreen’ or downmarket like ‘filler’ and ‘plugger’. However they are dubbed, these are useful columns and articles that have   long shelf lives. Good today, good tomorrow, good enough a year from now.

Sleuthsayer’s emergency columns are an example of the genre, and in an attempt to write something that will have a long literary shelf life, I recently thought of the Seven Deadly Sins. Sure, their heyday was probably six or seven hundred years ago, but look at it the other way, they were on the cutting edge of entertainment, morals, and religious thought for probably a millennia. And to be fair, what would mystery writers be without them?

Of course times and fashions change. Our Victorian and Edwardian predecessors in the scribbling trades leaned heavily on greed. Heiresses were married for their money; wards were cheated out of their inheritances, and last wills and testaments attracted skullduggery of all kinds. The modern writer, by contrast, favors wrath, all the better to dispatch multiple victims, and lust, a super reliable motive. If they are not enough, greed is certainly good, although gluttony has gone quite out of fashion.

This is not to say that writers do not have a personal acquaintance with the deadly sins, but their general poverty probably keeps most of us from greed and gluttony, while pride, although a temptation, gets its regular comeuppance from editors’ rejections, readers’ resistance, and critics’ complaints. I think the  scribbling tribe must make do most times with envy – self explanatory – and sloth, ditto.

For a different view, go back six hundred years and check out the medieval literary landscape. There were different ideas and different concerns, but then as now, popular writers tried to produce the stories that their readers or listeners wanted and needed. To us, a procession of the Seven Deadly Sins – even accompanied by Despair, the worst of all – or a battle of vices and virtues like the ancient Castle of Perseverance sounds like a dull afternoon. Where are the gun battles, the car chases, the seduction scenes, and the moments of terror?

Nowhere in sight! A superman – or superwoman – saving the world or a persistent detective bringing a felon to justice would have seemed to the medieval audience an irrelevant distraction. Secular justice was not their concern – wise enough since it was often in short supply. What they wanted was to avoid hell, about which they had an all too clear notion, and reach heaven, which they figured had to be better than much of medieval life. They understood that their souls were the battleground between angels and devils, and the plays they watched and the stories they heard pointed the road to salvation.

Which did not mean that their stories and plays were sermons with costumes. The people who built the great cathedrals, illuminated the great manuscripts, designed the wonderful stained glass windows, and, incidentally, created fashions to die for whenever they had money, certainly knew how to put on a show. When you read that a favorite feature was fireworks-farting devils, I think you can see that spectacle, as well as salvation, was a necessity.

 Looking back at plays and pageants featuring Pride, snooty and elaborately dressed; Wrath, red faced, bearing a club and no doubt mugging for the audience; Gluttony, fat and overfed and probably gnawing on a chicken leg, and the rest of the wicked crew, we see how a whole set of stories and characters flourished and then all but died. The battle between spiritual forces for the individual soul was replaced by struggles in the secular realm. The heroes of the old plays, Virtues like Fidelity, Chastity, and Mercy gave way to real men and women of less elevated character but more concern with righting wrongs within everyday society.

But, sad to say, Despair, that companion of the Seven Deadly Sins, suddenly seems more relevant than ever. In medieval theology, Despair, with its implied limitation of God’s grace, was the worst of sins. I used to think that curious and retrograde and psychologically unsound. No more. We don’t have to accept any theology at all to see that radical despair is a bad thing. What is it that drives people toward fanaticism, toward hatred, toward radical programs of destruction but despair? Not necessarily theological despair, but despair of society, of civilization, of humanity, itself.

I think no one can predict where literature will go next or what stories people will demand, but I am afraid that, just as the Seven Deadly Sins show up in contemporary disguises, Despair is going to feature prominently in our future.

27 July 2016

Giving Up The Ghost

I happened on a thriller writer named Chris Morgan Jones, who has three books under his belt, all of them about a private security outfit that takes on corporate espionage - which generally means Follow The Money. I liked what I read, and checked out his website, where he lists a few of his influences, along with how and why. This then prompted me to send him a letter, as follows:

Dear Chris,

   I'm very much in agreement with your listed influences - although I might have chosen OUR MUTUAL FRIEND over BLEAK HOUSE - but I was brought up a little short by HARLOT'S GHOST. I have to say, with all due respect, that I think the novel strikes a false note from beginning to end.  It's only fair that I explain.

   This is awhile back, mind, but I lived in Provincetown at the same time as Norman Mailer, and we knew each other very slightly, friends of friends. The guy I knew better was Peter Manso, who was working on a Mailer biography, and had Mailer's confidence. (They had a bitter falling-out later on, but this was then.) Mailer asked Peter if he knew anybody who could recommend some reliable source material on CIA, and Peter said he did, meaning me. I suggested Thomas Powers' THE MAN WHO KEPT THE SECRETS, which is still the best go-to, and somewhat mischievously, Edward Jay Epstein's LEGEND, a speculation about whether Lee Oswald was ever under KGB discipline. As it happens, the Epstein book is fascinating, but you have to be pretty drenched in the literature to benefit, and it ain't for the fevered brow.

   The eventual result was HARLOT'S GHOST. There was a later Oswald book, but the point here is that Mailer simply didn't absorb the basics of what Powers and Epstein had to say, particularly about the character of the intelligence community. Mailer went off on his usual belligerent conceits, the voices in his head drowning out anything he might have learned from listening to someone else. I'm not pissed off that he didn't take my advice - strictly speaking, I didn't give him any - but it's aggravating that he paid no attention at all. His notions were too firmly fixed. CIA people, the received wisdom has it, can only be hollow men, without inner gravity. Spare me.

All the best,


A few years ago (and a few years later than the events above), I went to a reunion in San Antonio. It was personnel who'd been stationed in Berlin at the 6912th, my former outfit, but not necessarily all at the same time, so it was a grab-bag. Different ages, although mostly in their fifties and sixties. Probably a hundred or so people. By and large, they'd gone career military, a twenty-year hitch, and then quite a few of them had transitioned over to NSA, as intelligence analysts or instructors, for another twenty, so we're talking about a lifetime in the spook trade. Which got me thinking. Why a book about the morally exhausted, cynical and world-weary? Done to death. Why not a story about commitment, a duty to something larger than ourselves, pride of ownership?

During the reunion, we took a field trip out to Lackland AFB to watch a graduation ceremony, new recruits trooping the colors after completing Basic, and then we went to a less publicly-traveled part of the base, where ISR is housed - Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, which is what they call the USAF Security Service nowadays. The event was a memorial. The commanding officer read a list of names - going back to the beginning, in 1948 - the officers and enlisted killed in the line of duty. There are more than you might think, but most of them flight status, killed in aircraft shoot-downs, the Baltic, the Black Sea, the Sea of Japan, off Vladivostok or Sakhalin Island, the coast of Viet Nam. Their families wouldn't have been told about the classified missions they were flying, or that they'd come under attack by Russian pilots. Too sensitive, at the time.

It was sunny and hot, noonish, but early October, so it isn't stifling. The air was still. Quiet corner of the base, not a lot of ambient noise. You can hear a couple of jets taking off from Kelly, the runways a mile or so away. The names are read, we have a moment of silence. The bagpipes start up, "Amazing Grace." And then, right overhead and coming in low, a formation of four fighters in a diamond pattern, the same planes we'd heard taking off. Just as they go over, the plane in the tail position does a flip-up, pulling sudden G's, out of the formation. This maneuver is called The Missing Man, signifying a flyer lost in action, and I'm not the only one starting to get weepy.

The experience reinforced something I already knew, which is that choosing to go career military is like it or not about duty, pride in the mission, accepting a larger responsibility. It's a concept that may have fallen out of fashion in some quarters, and of course it always smacked of self-aggrandizement or suspect sentimentality, if you happened to voice it aloud. I've never know a single lifer who'd own up to this, at least not without a knowing half-smile, and a degree of irony. That said, when I wrote THE BONE HARVEST, it turned out to be very much about the lifer community. Not in the same way as a novel like Sarah Bird's YOKOTA OFFICERS CLUB, but maybe its second cousin.

THE BONE HARVEST takes place in the early months of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, beginning on Christmas Day 1979, and the book is about mounting an intelligence operation in hostile territory. It's an educated guess that such an operation was in fact mounted on the ground in Pakistan, but I'd be very surprised if I'd guessed wrong. more than this, the book might be considered kind of a course correction to all the egregious eyewash that gets written about the spy biz. Not the James Bond stuff - there's nothing wrong with derring-do, even if it borders on the fantastical, and Bond after all isn't a spy, he's a hit man - but the tired drivel that keeps being trotted out as received wisdom, the opportunistic cubicle rats with no moral compass, or misguided zealots bent on jihad, field agents burned or corrupted or gone rogue, assets abandoned, the whole a Darwinian lottery, predator and prey.

It makes for good theater, no argument, but it's lazy. I wanted to come up with something more original, or maybe more retro - John Buchan, say - but with contemporary hardware, state-of-the-art for that period in the Cold War. On the other hand, you can't be a total gear freak. How much is enough, giving it the right feel, and how much is too much, when people's eyes start to glaze over? That one telling detail is often all you need.

I've quoted le CarrĂ© before, to the effect that it doesn'd have to be authentic, it has to be convincing. My point here isn't to disrespect anybody, my point is that far too often I'm left unconvinced. For me that's the kiss of death, getting something wrong that's easy to get right, or simply being wrong-headed. I could care less about your politics, or whether you set the table with the salad fork on the outside, but there's one inflexible rule. Don't play fast and loose with the reader's confidence. Once you lose it, you'll never win it back.

I began with Chris Morgan Jones, and took the long way around to get where I was going, so let me wrap this up by saying I enjoyed THE SEARCHER enormously, and have now gone back to read the first of his three novels, THE SILENT OLIGARCH, which came out in 2012. It's always a pleasure to happen on a new writer - or at least somebody new to us. This guy delivers.