16 June 2016

The Mysterious Sources of Ideas


by Janice Law


I guess that the most frequent question writers get, along with recommendations for agents or publishers, is “Where do your ideas come from?”

In response, one waggish author is supposed to have replied that he ordered them wholesale.
Would that were true! A few lucky souls seem to produce an unending stream of good and marketable ideas. Consider the great 19th century great galley slaves of literature like George Sand, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope or Honore de Balzac. Nearer to hand, there’s our own Joyce Carol Oates or any of the thriller writers who, with a stable of helpers, adorn the best seller lists month after month. Clearly they rarely have to beg the Muse for ideas, and they write The End only to start afresh at Chapter One.

But I suspect that most writers are beset sooner or later with fears that another story, novel, article, or blog will not be forthcoming. Then it’s the writer’s turn to ask where ideas come from and how they can be persuaded to appear regularly.

 After forty years, I still have no definitive answer, but I do know some of the conditions that encourage inspiration. First, ideas in writing or painting, and I would guess the other arts as well, come from work. The genesis of art (or even pulp fiction) is the ultimate chicken and egg conundrum. Amateurs who say, I’d love to write but I don’t have any ideas, have it backwards. Writing produces ideas, which, in turn, produces writing.

Perhaps the writing that primes the pump, so to speak, need not be the final product. I’m always surprised at the massive volumes of famous writers’ correspondence. When did they have time to write those hundreds, sometimes thousands, of letters? And we’re not talking emails, either, but long screeds – and in pen and ink, too. Others wrote not just letters but kept journals or wrote reviews and columns and left memoirs. I suspect such productivity fed the novels, plays and stories, even as it took time from the main work.

Though crucial, writing itself is not enough. Books, the daily papers, and certain true crime TV shows have been useful for me. My newest novel, Homeward Dove, grew from a couple inches of print years ago in the London Telegraph. The Countess came from a couple pages in a children’s book about spies, while The Night Bus owed its inspiration to an episode of Unsolved Mysteries.

But while the public works overtime for the crime writer, material and the practice of writing have to be combined with a certain sort of observational alertness. An example from my own career: at one point, I was doing features of a vaguely business nature for a local paper, things like  considering the then new proliferation of office greenery or explaining where stale bread went. I did this for a while and never had a problem with seeing publishable angles. Then the gig stopped. I don’t think I’ve had a single idea for a similar story since.

The reason, I suspect, is that composition requires another ingredient, and that is the enlistment of the subconscious, both in daylight hours to notice things and after working hours, to bring the unexpected together. Maybe clever people who can plot out a whole novel do not need this assistance, but I do, and I often find myself on the verge of sleep giving orders to whatever neurons are in charge: finish the scene at the bridge; resolve the conflict between Fletcher and the Leader, or simply, next five pages, please. Works for me.

After many years of writing, I have clearly semi-trained my subconscious. This is not to say all its ideas are brilliant or that the solution is always waiting for me the next morning. But the mysterious appearance of solutions does emphasize inspiration’s dependence on habit, on observation, and on work. The Muse, it turns out, has to be courted. Writing, writing, writing turns out to be the required offering for this capricious deity.






15 June 2016

The Scientist and the Man in Black


Call this the third in my extremely occasional series of reviews of non-fiction books.  As before I am including two at no extra cost.
Forensics by Val McDermid, is a terrific guide to the science of crime-solving.  McDermid was a reporter before she became a best-selling crime writer and it shows. She gives you just enough of the technology, while focusing on the people, and often on the history.

For example, the chapter on entomology begins with the earliest recorded case of insects being used in the investigation of a crime.  In China in 1247 a man was found murdered with, it was determined, a sickle.  The coroner ordered all 70 men in the area to stand together with their sickles.  Flies immediately detected what the eyes couldn't, identifying the guilty man by landing on his weapon to feast on traces of blood.

There are chapters on fire scene investigation, pathology, toxicology, digital forensics, and much more.  McDermid tells of heroic scientists, and others who botched their work, usually out of over-confidence.  Sometimes their mistakes ruin, or even end, the lives of suspects.

One horror story is that of Colin Stagg, an Englishman who seemed a perfect match for a forensic profiler's description of the man who killed a woman in a London park in 1992.  The cops tried hard to prove he was the man, even introducing him to a policewoman who claimed to be attracted to him and into rough sex.  Astonishingly, this guy who had apparently never had a successful relationship with a woman, offered to give her what she said she wanted.  Clearly proof of guilt!


The judge politely called the prosecution's theory of the case "highly disingenuous" and dismissed it.  The policewoman took early retirement for PTSD, and Stagg was awarded a ton of money because his name was so ruined he couldn't find work.  In 2008 another man was convicted of the murder, based on DNA evidence.

The last chapter is about giving courtroom evidence, which most of the scientists appear to hate.  I suppose if an attorney was going to try to make me seem incompetent and dishonest I wouldn't like it either.

But I do like Forensics, and highly recommend it.

Unlike all the other books I have reviewed in this series, As You Wish by Cary Elwes has nothing to do with crime.  But it certainly has something to do with writing, specifically one of the best-written movies of all time. If you aren't a fan of The Princess Bride you may stop reading right now (and never darken my towels again, as Groucho Marx said).

Cary Elwes, of course, played Westley in that movie and, to celebrate its 25th anniversary he has published his memoir of the filming of the show.  If you love this flick you will relish his stories.  For example:

*William Goldman, who wrote the novel and the script (which for many years was considered by Hollywood one of the best unfilmable scripts around) was terrified that director Rob Reiner would butcher his darling work.  On the first day of filming the sound man picked up a strange noise.  It was Goldman, at the other end of the set, praying.



*Remember the sword fight between Inigo Montoya and the Man in Black?  Except for the swing on the horizontal bar, there were no stunt doubles (well, I have my doubts about Patinkin's flying somersault).  You are seeing four months of daily training with Olympic fencers and a solid week of filming.

*Wallace Shawn, who  played Vizzini, was terrified that Reiner was going to replace him.  Making things worse, the vagaries of film scheduling meant that his first scene was his most complicated: the Battle of Wits.

* Remember the scene where the six-fingered man strikes Westley with the butt of his sword and he falls down unconscious?  That wasn't acting.  He woke up in the hospital.

*When Andre the Giant (who played Fezzik, of course) was a child in rural France he outgrew the school bus, so every day he was driven to school by the only man in town who owned a convertible: the playwright Samuel Beckett.

So, if you love this movie, read this book.  To do otherwise would be... (say it with me) inconceivable.

14 June 2016

Warning! There's a Storm Coming!


We've all heard the famous advice--never start your story with the weather. Horrors! The weather! Run for your lives!
Actually, if a story began with a storm brewing so horrifically that people were actually running for their lives, that would be a good start. It would have action. Drama. It would draw the reader in.

But then there's the other way to start with weather, and it's the reason for the weather taboo: the dreaded story that begins with tons and tons of description, including about the weather, but no action. Imagine: Jane Doe awoke. She stretched her shoulders, looked out the window, and relished the bright rays of sunshine streaming down from the cloudless blue sky. It would be a lovely day, Jane knew. The high should be about seventy-five degrees, breezy. No chance of showers. Maybe she would barbecue tonight. It shouldn't be humid out there. It should just be delightful.

By this point, your eyes are probably glazing over. Or you want to strangle Jane for being so boring. When you use the weather this way, setting your scene yet having nothing happening, you are basically asking your reader to find something else to read. Anything else. Cereal box, anyone?

Yet imagine another opening to Jane's day: Thunder clapped, rattling the windows and scaring Jane Doe awake. Holy hell. Thunder in January? She trudged to the window. It was snowing like crazy out there. They hadn't predicted snow, but there had to be more than two feet on the ground. Jane's stomach sunk. She was alone and really low on food. Meals for Wheels would never be able to make it in this weather. Not for days, probably. Maybe a week. Or
more. She should have known something like this might happen again after the blizzard of 2010. She should have prepared. What would she do when the food ran out? What? Just then, her bird started chirping. Arthur. Sweet, friendly, beautiful Arthur. She loved him, just as she had loved Squeaky back in 2010. He had tasted unexpectedly good.

Now you may be grossed out, but you certainly shouldn't be bored. And that's the point: if you use the weather in order to propel the story forward, then it's a good use. With this idea in mind, two years ago, Donna Andrews, Marcia Talley, and I put out a call for stories for Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning. We told the members of the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime to come up with crime short stories that put the weather front and center. And, boy, did they come through.

Stories were chosen by a team of seasoned authors (former SleuthSayer David Dean, current SleuthSayer B.K. Stevens, and Sujata Massey). The choices were made blindly, meaning the story pickers didn't know who had written each submission. Donna, Marcia, and I then began our editing process (we take a long time with the stories--they all go through multiple drafts).

Finally, the book came out in the last week of April. It has fifteen stories featuring crime mixed in with rain storms, blizzards, hurricanes, sleet, and even a shamal. You want a murder during a white-out at a ski resort. We have that. How about a locked-room murder mystery at a zoo's snake house, where people are stuck inside while a storm rages outside? We've got that too. We have stories of revenge and stories of guilt. Stories featuring characters on the fringes of society and stories featuring well-off expats. And in all the stories, the weather sets the mood and propels the action in ways you won't expect. That's the way to use the weather, as a vehicle to move the plot forward and set the mood.

I use the weather both ways in my story in the book, "Stepmonster," in which a heartbroken, enraged daughter seeks revenge long after her father's death while a storm rages on. The pouring rain sets a dark atmosphere, as the object of revenge cowers in fear, and the thunder offers a nice cover for certain ... sounds.

I'd love to hear about your favorite books or stories that put the weather to good use. Please share in the comments. And Storm Warning authors, please drop in to let the readers know about your stories.

And, finally, I'd like to give a shout-out to fellow SleuthSayers who were nominated for the Macavity Award on Saturday: Art Taylor for best first mystery for On the Road with Del and Louise, and B.K. Stevens for best short story for "A Joy Forever" from the March 2015 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. (I'm also up for best short story--yay!--for my story "A Year Without Santa Claus?" from the January/February 2015 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.) You can read B.K.'s story here. And you can read my story by clicking here. I'm trying to get links for all the stories together for Janet Rudolph, the woman behind the Macavity Award. I'll let you all know if and when that happens.




13 June 2016

Pardon Me Boys


Okay. Don't any of you guys get upset with me, but WOO-HOO. We finally have a woman candidate running for President of these United States for the Democratic Party. Yes, I'm with her: Hillary Rodham Clinton. I'm not going to politic here except to say, It's about danged time. So forgive me Bernie Sanders supporters and that other guy that's running on the GOP ticket. Woo-Hoo it's about danged time.
Around thirty years ago there were a little group of women mystery writers, led by Best Selling author, Sara Paretsky who formed a group known as Sisters-in-Crime. Women were being portrayed in violent and sadistic ways in a number of men's books. Women were getting the short end of the stick on money, reviews, accolades, awards and the goal was to try to change that. It went over fairly well. I remember one woman writer I knew from Houston who said, Mystery writers both male and female get shafted as far as reviews and money goes. In a way she was right. But reviewers mainly  by-passed mystery novels written by women. And not just because there were the traditional or cozy, not because there were Romantic Suspense. Women mystery writers were just ignored for the most part. it was as if no one thought a woman could write a mystery/suspense/thriller as good as a man. Or that women's mystery novels were as important as a man's.

Taking an approach that monitored book reviews. Most newspapers were quick to push reviews that were more fair to women. You sort of got the idea, that it had never occurred to them. Maybe that's how many things in our patriarcial society got so heavily slanted to the male of the species. Yeah, right. We just never thought women might have a need to borrow money to buy a house or start a business or buy a car or just needed a personal loan. The world began to change during World War II.
Women went to work in jobs that traditionally were given to men. But the men were overseas fighting. As soon as the war was over and the men came home, women were laid off. Many women were not happy about it.

Women had been enjoying their new-found freedom of making enough money to support themselves and their children. Many of these women were now widowed. Or their husbands came home with injuries both physical and mental. Divorces happened. Women needed to go back to work. However they discovered a large disparity in wages. No matter how hard they tried to make things more equal in pay, nothing much was happening. Guess what? That's still how it is. Women still are fighting for equal pay for equal work. It was hugely noticeable in writers. Even though Sisters-in-Crime has made progress, it still is a man's world in publishing. Mainly because women do not have the power positions in publishing houses.

Just to mention one other tidbit. Many male mystery writers have joined Sisters-in-Crime because unless you last name is King, or Connelley or Child (not to take anything away from those guys) you're not being offered as much money as you deserve. Our Brothers-in-Crime found we were not about replacing men mystery authors and we had some good marketing ideas.  Besides Sisters have done pretty well. I don't know the membership numbers but it's in the thousands. There are local chapters all over the US and there are even many International Chapters. It's been good, but we're not finished by a long hot. This is our thirtieth year Anniversary.

Two final notes before I close. Just recently we've all seen how even some lawyers and judges feel about women and rape. As a woman, I'm sickened by the non-sentence the Stanford Swimmer, Brock Turner received by the Stanford Alum Judge for sexual assault and rape. I worry about my daughter,, granddaughters, nieces, great nieces and great grandnieces. My cousins, any female of any age in my family. Rape isn't about the twenty minutes of action that young man got. Rape isn't about sex. It's about POWER. Male dominance over female. We must fight against the rape culture of this country.

After what happened in that Orlando club last night, we must continue fighting against hate in whatever shape or form it takes. We must ban these assault weapons. I don't want to take away anyone's guns but those high magazine weapons are only made for wars and for the military to carry. Not the person trying to protect his home and family or the person who wants to hunt. The Congress of these United States need to get untangled from the Gun Manufacturers who pour money into the politicians pockets and do what is right for us.

Pardon me boys. I love you, but  WHOO-HOO. It's about danged time we have a strong female candidate for President.

12 June 2016

Muhammad Ali and (not) Me


by Leigh Lundin

When I was a kid, Cassius Clay defined hero to my friend Rawhide and me. Our little town may have been rural and 99.99% white, but we admired his exuberance, perseverance, and his modesty. You know what I’m talking about: “I’m the greatest, I’m the best.” And he really was.

In the days before multi-thousand-dollar self-improvement seminars, we recognized self-talk. If he could envision it, he could make it so, and so could we. Those lessons became diluted in adulthood, but they still hold true: imagine and make it happen.

Sting Like a Butterfly

Today’s article isn’t about me and it’s barely about Muhammad Ali. It’s really about a friend I’ll call Carla, and yes, she’s blonde, very, very blonde.

Don’t be misled, she’s smart, too, and one of the most charismatic people I’ve ever known. Among other talents, she gave seminars and for years she worked for Disney. Another characteristic was she knew virtually nothing about sports, music and movie stars. Oddly enough, those two traits, charm and lack of knowledge about the rich and famous actually qualified her for a plum job… working with celebrities.

So, by day, she ran– in fact reinvented– Disney’s Research & Documentation Department (named by yours truly in a consulting moment), the how-things-work people. But when Disney hosted ‘special visitors’ or what they call ‘celebrity events’, she’d find herself plucked off the job and assigned to a star of stage, screen, or sports, initially as a chauffeur and later as an attendant.

Disney’s maintains a ‘secure floor’ for VIPs in the Contemporary Hotel. Its attendants are selected because they, like Carla, neither fawn nor fuss. Celebrities are sort of like pets–they have to be fed and watered, played with and exercised without destroying the furniture. It’s a no-nonsense job, but done right, it earns respect. Michael Jackson used to ask for one particular manager simply because that man didn’t know who MJ was.

A Certain State of Being

Two or three times a year, Carla would pack a bag and disappear a week for a ‘celebrity event’. After her first event, we attended a small party with friends who asked who she’d been assigned to. Carla thought back and said, “It was a football guy… Joe… Joe… Oh, yes! Joe Wyoming!”

The only sound was incredulous jaws dropping. Finally one guy said, “You mean Joe Montana? Only the greatest quarterback ever?”

Did I mention Carla’s a natural blonde? She’s very smart and well educated, but she has more than her share of patented blonde ditziness, which she freely admits.

So she served as a driver or guide for the likes of Gladys Knight (“Loved her brother and Cousin Willie”), Dolly Parton (“She’s tiny except where she’s not”), and my favorite, John Lee Hooker.

Although she had to be schooled about George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, she knew who John Ritter was and found herself disappointed. (“He was mean to his wife.”) Here the adage about how one treats lesser mortals comes to the fore. Carla found Katharine Hepburn kind and considerate, but not Lauren Bacall. (“Maybe she was having a bad week.”)

A Real Disney Princess

Carla’s office was above the jewelry store and bakery on Main Street. The upper storeys of buildings are constructed with false fronts: a fa├žade and outer wall, then a narrow passage, and an inner wall that encloses modern offices.

One day the Magic Kingdom grew extremely quiet, not a visitor in sight. Carla dropped downstairs almost into the arms of a special visitor she did recognize: a mother, her two boys, and a friend. Princess Diana and her companion were browsing the shopping counters in an empty park– Disney had closed the entire Magic Kingdom for four visitors.

An Idol Moment

Carla’s regular duties required her to travel around property, Disney’s term for the entire Walt Disney World complex (roughly 30 000 acres, 12 000 hectares), to carefully document how to operate rides, resorts, and hotels. Disney uses a fleet of anonymous white vans and she phoned for one to pick her up at the Contemporary. Dispatch promised to bring a van around within a minute or two.

Carla took a moment to powder her nose. When she stepped outside, she found a Disney van idling, its door open and waiting. She climbed into the van and sat… and found herself staring at a pair of cowboy boots. When she looked up, she found a guy with spiky blond hair staring at her.

“Who are you?” he said.

“Who are you?” she asked in return.

He said, “You may know me as Billy Idol.”

“Sorry I don’t, but I’m Carla.”

As I mentioned, she’s extremely charismatic and within moments he’d opened to her, saying he was waiting for his children so they could visit Space Mountain in the Magic Kingdom. (Disney spirits celebrities into back entrances so they don’t have to wait in queues with hoi polloi.) They chatted like old friends until a second van pulled up, Bill Broad’s family came out, and security figured out there’d been a mix-up.

Knockout

So we come to Muhammad Ali and by now, you know what to expect. Disney was opening their Sports Complex and invited a number of stars for the– repeat after me– celebrity event. Afterwards, Carla endured our interrogation.

“Who’d you get?”

“They told me he’s a boxer plus a sportscaster’s family, Howard something. The boxer trembled a lot. He was a big black guy.”

“You’e kidding. Do you mean Howard Cosell? And Muhammad Ali? Only the greatest ever?”

Even to a white kid from a rural school.



Items in quotation mark indicate Disney terminology.

11 June 2016

One More Thing: Is Columbo America's Sherlock?


by B.K. Stevens

If we were asked to name the quintessential fictional detective, most of us would probably reply, "Sherlock Holmes." Poe's Dupin came before him, and some fictional detectives who came after him may have greater psychological depth. Even so, Holmes' dazzling deductions and indelibly distinctive personality have given him enduring worldwide appeal. He's the icon who set the standard for the Golden Age, the epitome of the cerebral detective. And, as I'm about to argue, he's very, very English.


Does America have its own Sherlock? We definitely have iconic fictional detectives. The first names to come to mind might be Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, Kinsey Millhone or V.I. Warshawski--tough-talking, life-hardened private investigators who walk the mean streets with both guns and cynical quips at the ready. They're smart, no doubt about it. But their appeal may be based on their attitudes, as much as on their intellects. And their success at solving crimes may depend on their ability to intimidate witnesses and outfight bad guys as much as on their deductive powers. America does have some memorable cerebral detectives--Nero Wolfe, for example, and Ellery Queen. Much as their fans might disagree, though, I'd hesitate to call them distinctively American. In some ways, they're almost too much like Sherlock Holmes--arrogant manners, aristocratic tastes. For me, at least, an American Sherlock ought to embody more democratic traits and attitudes.

Let me propose another candidate. Like Holmes, Lieutenant Columbo relies on his wits to solve cases, not on a gun or his fists. (In fact, while Holmes often carries a gun and sometimes throws a punch, I can't think of a single time when Columbo does either.) Both detectives are incredibly observant, and both excel at sizing up suspects. But there are significant differences, too, and I'd say these differences stem from the fact that Holmes is English and Columbo American.

Let's start with names. A name can't get much more thoroughly English than Sherlock Holmes--unless it's Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Even most of the actors who have played Holmes have had distinctively English names, from Basil Rathbone to Benedict Cumberbatch. (And all right, once in a while a Robert Downey, Jr., will sneak in, or even--good grief!--an Igor Petrenko, in a Russian television series. The general point still holds.)

America's Sherlock, by contrast, has an Italian last name. Was it inspired by the explorer credited with discovering the new world? When asked in 1986, one of the writers who created the character said he couldn't remember how they came up with the name--maybe they were thinking of Columbus, or maybe they were thinking of a restaurant called Palumbo's. Those writers, by the way, were Richard Levinson (Jewish) and William Link (mixed German Hugenot and Jewish descent). The actor who portrayed Columbo was Peter Falk (also Jewish, from families that immigrated from Eastern Europe). So Columbo emerged from a hodgepodge of nationalities and ethnicities, from the descendants of a bunch of immigrants. What could be more American?

The fact that so many people contributed to the creation of Columbo also seems appropriately American. Sherlock Holmes was the brainchild of one writer and made his debut, of course, in print, in the pages of a series of short stories and novels. Columbo emerged from what might be considered the more democratic medium of television. Whatever its shortcomings, television depends upon a group of people working together--writers, actors, directors, producers, musicians, technicians, and so on and so on--and it aims for a wide audience. At its best, television also offers opportunities to talented newcomers--such as a twenty-one-year-old kid named Steven Spielberg, who got one of his first big breaks when he directed "Murder by the Book," which many people consider one of the stand-out episodes of Columbo's first season, perhaps of the series as a whole. Whether you love television or hate it, it seems hard to deny that it embodies central democratic ideals--many people from diverse backgrounds working together toward a common goal, encouraging those just starting out to fulfill their dreams by going as far as their abilities will take them.

What about Columbo himself? He's definitely not an aristocrat. The way he talks, the way he carries himself, the car he drives, the chili he eats--everything tells us he's from a middle-class or working-class background. His appearance confirms it. Like Sherlock Holmes, he has a distinctive style of dress. But Sherlock's clothes set him apart--the deerstalker hat, the caped coat. Columbo wears a rumpled suit and a shabby raincoat (almost always the same ones, from Falk's own closet). If his clothes set him apart, it's because he looks less imposing than other people, certainly far less imposing than the high-class types involved in the cases he investigates. In an interview with David Fantle and Tom Johnson, Peter Falk commented on the contrast: "Columbo is an ass-backwards Sherlock Holmes. Holmes had a long neck, Columbo has no neck; Holmes smoked a pipe, Columbo chews up six cigars a day."

In an interview with Mark Dawidziak, Falk made another comment about the contrast between Holmes and Columbo, this one focusing on the way others perceive the two detectives. He's talking about the second episode in the series, which centers on a faked kidnapping: "I'm not a mystery fan, but as a kid I read Sherlock Holmes. I remember being very impressed by Sherlock Holmes. He'd show up, and everybody would turn to him for the answer. I thought it was important in the opening of Ransom for a Dead Man that no one turn to me for anything. I was just a local. All these FBI agents had their job to do. I couldn't know anything except maybe he name of a certain street. I wanted to be ignored. . . . . Nobody wanted to know this guy's opinion, There's a lack of pretension. You expect something quite different from a great detective."

We definitely get something quite different from most great fictional detectives, definitely including Holmes. I don't know if it's accurate to call Holmes pretentious: He is, in fact, superior to everyone else, so there's no pretension involved. But he certainly doesn't try to hide his superiority. Apparently, in Conan Doyle's stories and novels, Holmes never actually says, "Elementary, my dear Watson." He does, however, sometimes say "elementary"--or something along the same lines, such as "it is simplicity itself"--to make it clear he can easily figure out something that baffles others. Some might call his manner arrogant; others might say he treats most of the people he encounters with disdain; still others might protest that he's simply being straightforward. But I don't think words such as "humble" or "self-effacing" come readily to mind when we think of Sherlock Holmes.

Columbo, on the other hand, is extremely humble and self-effacing. He constantly expresses admiration for other people's expertise and accomplishments, constantly acts as if he thinks they're much sharper than he is, constantly seems awed thy their jobs, their houses, their cars, their shoes. Part of it, of course, is shtick: Columbo throws suspects off guard by pretending to be dumb, so they'll relax too much and tumble into the traps he sets for them. But part of it, I think, is sincere. Even when he suspects people of murder, I think he's often genuinely impressed by their knowledge and talents.

Clearly, he doesn't mind letting people underestimate him, doesn't mind letting them think they're more important than he is. Even his trademark "one more thing" seems like an acknowledgment of his inferior status: The people he's pestering are so superior that he hates to take up their valuable time. The most he can hope for is that they'll indulge him for just a few moments more. Would Holmes be so comfortable about letting others regard him as inferior? I don't think so. I think it would drive him crazy. But Columbo has more democratic attitudes. He doesn't need to have everybody see him as the smartest person in the room. If they see him as no more than a regular guy, or even as less than that, that's fine with him.

What's more, I think Columbo honestly sees himself as a regular guy. When he describes his approach to detection, he doesn't talk about his brilliance. He's not so taken with his deductive powers that he thinks he can rely on those alone. No, he attributes his success to things Americans traditionally value, such as hard work. In "The Bye-Bye Sky High I.Q. Murder Case," Columbo talks to a man (the murderer, as Columbo already suspects) who belongs to a Mensa-type organization:

You know, sir, it's a funny thing, All my life I kept running into smart people. I don't just mean smart like you and the people in this house. You know what I mean. In school, there were lots of smarter kids. And when I first joined the force, sir, they had some very clever people there. And I could tell right away that it wasn't gonna be easy making detective as long as they were around. But I figured, if I worked harder than they did, put in more time, read the books, kept my eyes open, maybe I could make it happen. And I did. And I really love my work, sir.

I may be wrong, but I don't think Columbo is being falsely modest here, and I don't think he's just trying to throw the murderer off guard. In fact, I think he may be giving the murderer a kind of warning: Even if the murderer is smarter, Columbo may still catch him, because Columbo works harder. And hard work is a distinguishing feature of Columbo's approach. Even after the other police personnel are packing up and getting ready to leave a crime scene, Columbo is still crawling around on the floor, pawing through the carpet, searching for any shred of evidence that might help him understand what happened. Like Holmes, he's observant--he keeps his eyes open, as he says--but that's partly because he keeps looking after others have decided there's nothing more to see. Suspects complain about how often he keeps showing up, how long he hangs around. And he reads the books, learning whatever he can about the suspects and their areas of expertise. If he suspects a winemaker killed his brother, Columbo studies up on wine. If he thinks an expert on subliminal suggestion committed murder, Columbo reads the books the expert wrote and uses subliminal suggestions to lure him into incriminating himself. So Columbo embodies a fundamental American belief. You don't have to be born rich and powerful to succeed. You don't even have to be extraordinarily talented. As long as you're willing to work hard and never give up, you can get ahead.

Columbo also talks about his approach to detection in one of the more recent episodes, "Columbo Goes to College." He's a guest lecturer in a criminology class, and a student asks what advice he'd give a young detective. Columbo's advice is simple: "Don't talk too much." When the student is surprised, Columbo explains:
Well, sometimes, when you know something, it's better to keep it to yourself. You don't have to blab everything right away. Wait. Who knows what will happen? Timing. That's important, And lucky. You got to be lucky.
 This statement definitely isn't just shtick. The murder hasn't been committed yet--Columbo has no reason to suspect these students of anything. I think he's being completely open, genuinely modest. Don't show off by broadcasting everything you know, he says. Wait, even if it means people don't realize how smart you are. That's something anyone can do, regardless of wealth or power or anything else. Waiting may help you succeed--but if you do succeed, remember that it's partly because of luck, not because of any merit you can claim. How much more democratic can a statement about detection get?

It's also worth noting that when Columbo gives the class this advice, two of the students--smart students from wealthy, prominent families, students who are about to murder a professor by using a remarkably clever method that requires both technical know-how and a fair amount of money--don't pay attention. Instead, one turns to the other and whispers, "I wonder who his tailor is." These smug, aristocratic students underestimate Columbo because he looks so low class. They should have listened. After they commit their clever murder, Columbo suspects them almost immediately.

Columbo tends to suspect smug, aristocratic types. In "Columbo Goes to College," the upper-class students try to frame a heavy-drinking ex-con, but Columbo doesn't fall for it. Instead, he keeps zeroing in on the students. Jeff Greenfield comments on that feature of the series in a 1973 article called "Columbo Knows the Butler Didn't Do It." (It's available online--you have to squint to read the tiny print in the PDF, but it's worth it.) As Greenfield notes, "The one constant in Columbo is that, with every episode, a working-class hero brings to justice a member of America's social and economic elite." By doing so, Columbo proves that his opponents often don't deserve the privileges they enjoy, that he can best them by being more diligent, more determined. And with every victory, he affirms our faith in democratic ideals.

If we share those ideals, should we embrace Columbo and reject Sherlock Holmes? Of course not. America, at its best, also values diversity. There's room for everyone, even for a moody loner who thinks he's better than the rest of us. If Holmes and Columbo met, I think they'd get along fine. Holmes might look down on Columbo at first, but he's smart enough to learn to respect him. Columbo might be amused by Holmes's haughty ways, but I think he'd also admire him. Unlike some of the snooty types Columbo encounters, Holmes works hard, and he's earned the distinction he enjoys. And both Holmes and Columbo are devoted to justice, to seeing that the truth is ferreted out, to making sure the guilty are punished and the innocent exonerated. Those are qualities all of our great fictional detectives share, regardless of nationality, manner, or attitude. Once Holmes and Columbo got past any initial disdain or distrust, I think they'd like each other. I think they'd enjoy sitting down to compare their investigative techniques and discuss their greatest successes, perhaps over a lovely cup of tea and a savory bowl of chili.












One More Thing

Wildside Press has released a collection of my short stories. Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime includes eleven stories of various lengths, types, and tones, from humorous novella-length whodunits to a dark flash fiction suspense story. Most were first published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Some of the women featured in these stories are detectives, and some are victims; some inspire crimes, and some commit them. After over twenty-five years of writing mystery stories, I'm delighted to see these stories get out in the world for a second time.
Available at: Amazon Wildside Press

"What a great collection of mysteries! B.K. Stevens does everything right in this book of stories: plot, characters, setting, dialogue--it all rings true. It's easy to see why she's considered one of the best writers in the genre."--John Floyd, Edgar-nominated author of Clockwork and Deception

"These finely crafted stories have it all--psychological heft, suspense, subtle humor--and the author's notes on each story are especially illuminating. A treat for lovers of the short story form and students of the craft of writing."--Linda Landrigan, Editor, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine

"Stevens' irresistible sparkling wit and style start on the first page and never let up."--Kaye George, national bestselling mystery author 


10 June 2016

The Complete Continental Op: An Interview with Dashiell Hammett's Granddaughter, Julie M. Rivett


Dashiell Hammett created several of the best-known, most iconic characters in crime fiction: Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, Ned Beaumont in The Glass Key, and Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man. But many of his short stories (mostly published in Black Mask) and his first two novels—Red Harvest and The Dain Curse—focused on another character: the Continental Op, an unnamed detective with the Continental Detective Agency. The character and the agency were both drawn from Hammett’s own career with the Pinkerton’s, and Nathan Ward’s recent book The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett has successfully argued that Hammett’s Pinkerton training informed not only the character and conflicts of these stories but also the style: “His Continental Op stories clearly evolved from the form of these Pinkerton reports,” Ward writes, citing those reports particularly for their “habits of observation, the light touch and nonjudgement while writing studiously about lowlifes.”

On Tuesday, June 14, Open Road Media and MysteriousPress.com will release eight e-books toward what will eventually become the complete Collected Case Files of the Continental Op, edited and presented by Hammett’s biographer Richard Layman and his granddaughter Julie M. Rivett. As Rivett notes in her foreword, the series marks “the first electronic publication of Dashiell Hammett’s collected Continental Op stories to be licensed either by Hammett or his estate—and the first English-language collection of any kind to include all twenty-eight of the Op’s standalone stories.” Additionally, the complete series will include the never-before-published “Three Dimes,” a fragment of an Op story from the Hammett archive.

Rivett and Layman have worked together on many projects, including The Hunter and Other Stories, Return of the Thin Man, The Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett: 1921-1960, and Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers. Rivett speaks widely about her grandfather’s work and legacy, and I’m honored to welcome her to SleuthSayers to discuss this landmark project.

ART TAYLOR: Hammett’s characters Sam Spade and Nick and Nora Charles have surely entered the wider cultural consciousness more completely, but the Continental Op might arguably be the more seminal character in terms of the development of the genre. What do the Op and his stories offer crime fiction readers that The Maltese Falcon, for example, doesn’t?  

JULIE M. RIVETT: The Op is important and, yes, seminal.  Ellery Queen said he could have been Sam Spade’s older brother, equally hardbitten, but with perhaps less spectacular presentation. The Op’s narratives are workmanlike, realistic, and procedurally detailed. His plainspoken wit is at least as dry as Spade’s. It’s a shame he’s not memorialized in film the way that Sam and Nick and Nora are. I think that’s the main reason the Op is less well known to contemporary readers.

One of other the big differences between the Op and Spade, Nick, and Ned Beaumont is that he’s a company man, on the payroll for the Continental Detective Agency, modeled on Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, where my grandfather worked for some five years, off and on. Spade and Nick Charles are independent sleuths. Ned Beaumont functions as a detective, but in fact he’s a political operator inadvertently entangled in a murder. Professional standpoint makes a difference in how each one perceives his professional obligations. The Op is the only one who has to answer to a boss, the Old Man.  He fudges his reports at times to cover up some less than conventional tactics, but, still, he’s loyal to the Agency and he loves his job. Or he is his job. That idea of profession as identity runs all through my grandfather’s work. The Op tales offer an extended narration of workaday professionalism in action.

Several collections in recent years have featured Continental Op stories, notably 1999’s Nightmare Town and then more extensively the Library of America’s Crime Stories & Other Writings in 2001, but this is the first time all of the standalone Op stories have been gathered together in series form. What might readers learn about the Op or about Hammett—and what did you yourself take away—from reading these complete case files, finally gathered in chronological order?

Any careful reader will see the progression in Hammett’s work. The stories grow longer and more fluid, the Op more emotionally vulnerable, the resolutions keyed more to justice than law. There’s evidence of both character and story development. Rick does a good job in his introductions of describing shifts in the degrees of violence that take place under Hammett’s three editors at Black Mask—very little under George W. Sutton, with scanty gunplay; much more under Philip C. Cody, the Op tempted to go blood simple; and ample well-developed action under Joseph Thompson Shaw, purposeful as well as thrilling.  

I’m drawn to that biographical potential of the collection, of course. The complete run of stories offers a fascinating opportunity to contextualize the Op’s narratives within Hammett’s real life story. My grandfather starts with a novice’s attention his editors’ demands—thrilled to be published, but also intent on keeping food on the family table. He hits his stride with some great stories, but then there’s a break, when he walks away in anger, deciding to give up on fiction. Then he’s back, with stories more confident, complicated, and ambitious. He’d realized his talents and was ready (with Joseph Shaw’s support) to challenge pulp- and crime-fiction norms. And then the sea change in February of 1930—the final Op story published in Black Mask, the same month that The Maltese Falcon was released by in hardback by Knopf. With that, my grandfather was done with the Op and off to explore other possibilities.


A few of the Op stories have been elusive except in much older editions—“It” and “Death and Company,” specifically. Why have those not been republished more recently, and do you anticipate they will be among the standout gems here for readers who are already fans?

The Op’s publishing history is complex—even frustrating. I don’t know why those two stories have been overlooked for so long. There is a gruesome tinge to each, but nothing sufficient to repel Hammett readers. I certainly can’t explain Lillian Hellman’s choices while she controlled the estate or the decisions made by her former trustees after her death.  I do know that contracts let under their tenure made the publication of Complete Case Files extraordinarily difficult. It seemed ridiculous to me that the Op’s tales couldn’t be collected altogether! Rick and I are both current trustees for Hammett’s literary property trust (under Hellman’s will, no less) and even with that, it was a struggle to assemble all the pieces. We’re hugely pleased and proud of that we were, finally, able to bring together the Op’s complete short-story canon.

“It” and “Death and Company” were last available, alongside many other Op stories, in paperbacks edited by Ellery Queen between the early 1940s and early ’50s [the cover to one of those paperbacks can be seen at left]—but you note that the stories in those editions were presented in  “sometimes liberally re-edited form.” [Editorial note: Don Herron at “Up and Down These Mean Streets” has been less diplomatic, using the word “butchered,” and Terry Zobeck has meticulously charted the editorial changes to “Death and Company” here.] In the newly collected case files, do you and Layman restore these and other stories to their original form?

Yes, absolutely! Rick and I worked from copies of the original publications for each story—26 in Black Mask, and one each in True Detective Stories and Mystery Stories magazines. Our only changes are corrections to obvious typos—which were more common than you might imagine, especially in the earlier editions of Black Mask. The proofreading was grueling. But we wanted to stick as close to Hammett’s originals as possible and when in doubt, we left questionable text unaltered. Unlike Ellery Queen, our first principle was “do no harm.”

Does each of the eight volumes feature its own individual introductions by you and Richard Layman?

Here’s how the organization works. Two or three stories are clustered into each volume. Then the volumes are collected into three sections: the Early, Middle, and Later Years.  Rick wrote introductions for each of the three sections based on Hammett’s experiences under his three editors at Black Mask, George W. Sutton, Philip Cody, and Joseph Thompson Shaw. A Sutton, Cody, or Shaw introduction opens each volume, as appropriate. My foreword traces the publishing and cultural history of the Op from creation through this most recent publication.  Every volume opens with the same foreword. A separate headnote introduces the never-before-published Op fragment, “Three Dimes.”

Rick and I have worked together since 1999 and this is our fifth published collaboration. We’ve learned to divvy up the editorial tasks. Each book has had its own rewards and challenges. In this case, in addition to constraints imposed by previous contracts, we’re negotiating the relatively new world of e-publication.  It’s complicated. For now, we’re releasing eight volumes, which include 23 stories. We hope to release the remaining handful and the fragment later this year.

“Three Dimes” promised to be a real highlight of the collection here. What more can you tell us about it?

The fragment comes from Hammett’s archive at the University of Texas at Austin. It is unique—a 1,367-word partial draft, in the classic Op style, that leaves us wondering what would have happened next and why the story was set aside unfinished. My grandfather, who saved very little, saved this, along with chapter and character notes, which will be included. I think that rare glimpse of Hammett’s process is going to be a real thrill for fans. Watch for it! 

09 June 2016

It's a Hard Road Home


by Eve Fisher

In case you're wondering, my husband and I went on vacation - a Mediterranean cruise, from Venice to Barcelona.  It was wonderful, wonderful, wonderful...

And then we tried to come home.

Carbinieri on parade -
Wikipedia 
Now, I know security is tight everywhere.  The carbinieri were all over Venice, Naples, etc., and they walk around everywhere with light machine guns.  (Just have another glass of wine and don't think about it...)  And I expect to go through security checks and customs and all the rest.  But this trip... was something else.

We got up in Barcelona at 6:30 a.m., which is the equivalent of 12:30 a.m. in the US.  A last great breakfast on the ship, and then off to the airport.  First we had to find the American Airlines desk, which was tricky, because you're supposed to check the screens to find out what aisle, etc., your check-in desk is at, and the screens go by flights, and our flight wasn't up on any screen yet.  Eventually we found it - on the other side of the airport, of course - and checked in.  Answered questions galore, about our cabin number, our address, who we were, etc.  Checked our bags, got our boarding passes, and headed off for security and then Gate 62A.

Got through security.

Walked about a mile to Gate 62A, where the gate was blocked off and there was an endless equivalent of a cattle chute.  Two carbinieri stood there, blocking any entrance.  30 seats for 200 people; no snacks, no vending machines, no water fountains, and no toilets.  We all creaked down to the floor and waited for an hour until finally someone came and eventually we were put through the lines and questioning again.

A nine hour flight to Philadelphia.  Coach, of course (writers are rarely millionaires...).  I had a happy chuckle over the in-flight magazine that reminded me to "drink plenty of fluids" and "walk around the cabin whenever the seatbelt sign was off."  Sure, in an alternate universe.  First, of course, I'd have to climb over all the bodies to the right and left of me to even get to the aisle.  (The lady next to me, with her mother, had not flown in 20 years, and was practically in tears...)

We landed, and hiked the traditional mile to baggage claim, got our stuff, and then went through customs:  2 hours (endless cattle chutes...), again, no snacks, vending machines, water fountains, toilets, or seats of ANY kind.  Plus a brand new kiosk to manage so that we could take our own photos and get a receipt to match our passport.  After being up for some 24 hours, this was an excruciatingly slow part of the process.  Throughout, various airport employees tried to hurry us up by yelling at us (to be fair, if they hadn't yelled, we'd never have heard them), which only made some people lose track of where they were on the kiosk and start over.

After we got our receipt, we then go through another line to hand all this to a customs agent.
Then we went (because we had a connecting flight), BACK to baggage check, and through security again.
Then we hiked to our next gate.
Another 2 hour flight, and we arrived in Chicago.  Back to baggage claim, and arrived at our hotel looking like zombies on a bad day.

Basically, we were up for over 24 hours, and during this were repeatedly put through situations where we were not allowed to fulfill any of the most basic human needs (water, toilets, food, rest), other than breathing.  Why there are not more outright riots at airports I do not know, other than sheer exhaustion.

And I was exhausted.  I was also severely dehydrated by that 24+ hours.  I didn't realize that at the time, but five days later, I collapsed, sweating profusely, nauseous, dizzy, and Allan took me to the emergency room, where they ran tests, pumped me full of fluids, and sent me home feeling much better and even angrier at the system that had done this to me.

Chicago as seen from a commercial flight 14.JPG
Chicago O'Hare International Airport from the sky -
Wikipedia
I know that we need security, I know that the TSA is understaffed, and I know that this is going to continue, because there isn't the money and fixing it is not a priority.  (I am a realist.)  But I also know other things:

(1) Airports are not designed for actual human beings, especially the rapidly aging.  There are (usually) no carts to move you across these huge spaces from one terminal to another, from one gate to another.  And there is an ever-decreasing number of seats where you can actually sit.  The last flight we had, the Chicago gate had perhaps 50 seats for a plane that held 100.

(2) The screening process itself is not designed for actual human beings. The constant lack - for hours - of toilets, water (fountains or vending machines), and seats is crippling.  And dehumanizing.  And wrong.  There has got to be a better way...  but I don't think anyone's looking for it.

Meanwhile, I'm staying home for a while.

08 June 2016

The Weight of Silence


An obituary for an Englishwoman named Jane Fawcett, who died recently at 95. She was a codebreaker at Bletchley Park during the war, and deciphered the message that led to the sinking of the Bismarck. I've talked about Bletchley before, and Alan Turing, and breaking the Enigma, but I bring it up in this context to note that a lot of our witnesses to history are taking their curtain calls. This is the natural order, and marks the passage of time. It also means that we're losing an immediate living connection to a common, remembered past.

Yesterday (as I write this) was June 6th, the anniversary of the Normandy landings. D-Day was a big deal. The largest air-sea amphibious combat operation ever mounted, I think I'm safe in saying, it cracked open Festung Europa and marked the beginning of the end for Hitler and the Third Reich. Every year, there are fewer surviving vets who visit the battlefields and the cemeteries. The event itself recedes, and pretty soon there won't be anybody left that was actually there.

On a more domestic scale, my cousin Jono has a fairly exhaustive collection of his parents' personal effects. They've been dead more than a few years, and he's in effect the keeper of the flame. My sister and I have run a similar course, with our own parents' stuff, but we've divested ourselves of an enormous amount. The lesson here is that simply because an object or an artifact meant something to them doesn't require us to be their proxies. You can make a counter-argument here, though, and I think Jono's entitled to make it. Whether our own families were walk-ons or center stage, they were part of collective memory. They may have been present at historically significant turning points. Or not. But if they're not in the record books,. then as each of us in our own generation die off, our memories of that previous generation disappear with us, and those people disappear.

History is surprisingly empty, in this sense. Kings and generals crowd the canvas, but the background, the foot soldiers and camp followers, don't leave much more than a shadow. We intuit or interpolate, but the raw detail isn't always that sharp. A lot of them couldn't read or write anyway, and for a long time they just got squeezed out of the story, except as spear-carriers, literally. So losing our first-hand storytellers drops a stitch in the fabric. And all too often, these people will say, Jeez, kid, what I did wasn't all that interesting or important.

Well, yes and no. One of the more fascinating histories I've ever read was based on the accounts of a merchant family, trading out of Brest or the Hague or someplace - I've forgotten - and it was so many bolts of cloth or barrels of salt, but it was an amazingly vivid picture of daily life, in the commonplace. We forget that it isn't necessarily the sword fights, much of the time it's just making the car payments or shoeing the horse. 

So, here's to Jane Fawcett - or Miss Jane Hughes, her maiden name in 1940 - who may have fallen off the radar in the meanwhile, but I'm glad she was manning her desk at the time. And here's to all those guys who struggled ashore, or who didn't, or who never made it off the beaches, I wish I could hear your stories. We bear witness to the times we live in. We don't always sort the wheat from the chaff, or spin gold out of straw. The silence, though, is heavy.

07 June 2016

Hope There’s No Shortage of Tinfoil


It’s June. So I thought I’d write about conspiracy theories. What it has to do with June, I don’t know. But why not? Maybe it’s a conspiracy.
So, to start off, here’s a list of conspiracy theories from Time Magazine (http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/completelist/0,29569,1860871,00.html). The commentary is mine and not meant to be offensive. We can agree to disagree, but hopefully have some fun doing so.

The JFK Assassination: Okay, we all know about this one. The CIA or Lyndon Johnson or the Mafia or Castro had Kennedy killed. Nobody can believe that a dipwad like Oswald could have done it alone. And despite Oliver Stone’s fiction called JFK, and having read Jim Garrison’s book, Heritage of Stone, which challenged the truth of the Warren Commission’s investigation about JFK’s assassination, I still believe Oswald acted alone. So put me down on the side of Vincent Bugliosi, who pretty much debunked the conspiracies. The real conspiracy here is the size of his book, but you know what they say, big book, big… Just ask Mr. Trump. He has big books.

9/11 Cover-Up: In this one it’s our own government (again) who planned and done it. I hate to blow anyone’s tinfoil helmet off their head, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes it’s the simplest theory that explains something. There have been investigations, both government (I know, can’t trust ’em) and by private groups, including Popular Mechanics and The National Institute of Standards and Technology, and there’s just no real evidence of a government conspiracy.

Area 51 and the Aliens: Aliens crash landed in the Southwest desert and are being refrigerated at Area 51, a top secret base. Now, I know this one’s true ’cause I saw Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith in Independence Day and that was a documentary, wasn’t it? Kind of like Stone’s JFK was a documentary. Okay, the government has secrets. Okay, people have seen weird flying machines over the desert, most likely from the Lockheed’s Skunk Works in Lancaster, CA, if not from there from their own psilocybin addled brains. – Okay, for real: for this one you need more of a colander on the head. Tin foil just won’t do.

A magazine about the Paul is dead rumor
Paul Is Dead: Well, I know this one’s not true. Because I’m not dead…yet. But I have come close a few times. Once, when a producer threatened to send his pals in the Israeli Mossad after me after we got into an argument. But I digress. This one’s about all the clues in Beatle songs and on their album covers pointing to the “fact” that Paul McCartney was killed and replaced by a look-alike, sound-alike double. After all, we all know the Walrus was Paul, Paul was barefoot on the cover of Abbey Road, which also had the words 28 IF on a car license and John sings “I buried Paul” at the end of Strawberry Fields. All I know is that if Paul is dead, the FNG did a pretty good job at songwriting and singing and coming up with some inventive bass parts. So maybe it was a good thing the real one got offed. And perhaps he is dead or at least ran away with Elvis and Jim Morrison, who are really not dead either, and are living the life of Riley on some fabulous bikini atoll somewhere.

Secret Societies Control the World: The Illuminati, the Masons, the Bilderbergers, the CFR, rule the world behind the scenes for their own nefarious ends. But unless their nefarious ends are total stupidity and chaos, they’re not doing a very good job. Now, if I could write a great conspiracy yarn and make Dan Brown money off this I’d become a true believer. And you know what they say about converts…

A Scene from the movie Capricorn One
The Moon Landings Were Faked: Hey, I know this is true. I saw Capricorn One, with James Brolin, Elliot Gould and O.J. Simpson, before he learned how to swing a knife. In this documentary something goes wrong and instead of looking like morons and upsetting the American people, the Powers That Be decide to create the whole moon landing experience on a movie soundstage. Lotta people believe it went down this way. I wonder how Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin felt/feels about that.

Another scene from Capricorn One

Jesus and Mary Magdalene: This is an alt rock band from Scotland. Formed in 1983… Oh, wait, that’s the Jesus and Mary Chain. Take 2: In this one Jesus and Mary are married. People want to believe what they want to believe. See Dan Brown comment above.

Holocaust Revisionism: This one says the Holocaust never happened. And I know it didn’t. I cite an impeccable source, quoting from the Time piece: “Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for one, has called the Holocaust a ‘myth’.” We know there’s no agenda there and such an upstanding citizen of the world would never lie. Hence it never happened.

The CIA and AIDS: This time we learn that AIDS was created by the CIA to wipe out homosexuals and African Americans. Let’s not forget Ebola and now Zika. I’m sure they were also created by the CIA. I’m not saying nobody in our government – or other governments ever do anything wrong. But as my mom would say, some people just want to believe the worst. I know we’ve done some bad things, I just don’t think, from what I’ve been able to find via people who don’t wear tinfoil helmets, that this is true.

The Reptilian Elite: Okay, I have to admit I didn’t really know what this one was. So here’s part of the Time piece in case you’re as ignorant as me: “They are among us. Blood-drinking, flesh-eating, shape-shifting extraterrestrial reptilian humanoids with only one objective in their cold-blooded little heads: to enslave the human race. They are our leaders, our corporate executives, our beloved Oscar-winning actors and Grammy-winning singers, and they're responsible for the Holocaust, the Oklahoma City bombings and the 9/11 attacks ... at least according to former BBC sports reporter David Icke, who became the poster human for the theory in 1998 after publishing his first book, The Biggest Secret, which contained interviews with two Brits who claimed members of the royal family are nothing more than reptiles with crowns.” Now, I don’t know about the royal family, but I’m pretty sure Kanye West might be one. And all of our prez candidates and everyone in DC. So this one might be true.

This list barely taps the source, it’s proverbial tip of the iceberg of conspiracy theories. But in an effort to keep it manageable I went with Time’s list.

There might be some great story ideas here – reference Dan Brown and Dan Brown above. And they can be fun and entertaining. But they can also be scary when people believe them and reject common sense. And if they’re proven true you can tell me how wrong I was and let one of the Reptilian Elite perform a Vulcan mind meld on me.

Sorry if you’re a true believer and don’t think I’ve taken these theories seriously enough. I will probably be locked up when the New World Order takes over.

So if I’ve offended your paranoid fantasy, put on your tinfoil helmet, plug yourself into the wall and blast off. And for the real stories check out the Time link above.

***
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06 June 2016

Blood On The Bayou


by Susan Rogers Cooper

Anybody going to Bouchercon? I am, and I'm excited! It's been years since I've been and it's always a great party. For those of you who aren't aware, this year's B'Con is going to be in NOLa – New Orleans, Louisiana, and who can resist that? It will begin on Thursday, September 15 and end on Sunday, September 18. But it's NOLa, so go early and stay late!

Bouchercon is named in honor of Anthony Boucher, who wrote under the pen name William Anthony Parker White, and the writing awards given out at the B'Con banquet are the Anthonys. Anthony Boucher helped found Mystery Writers of America, and co-founded The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. He also reviewed mysteries in the Sunday Book Review for the New York Times. He wrote several mystery novels and short stories and also scripts for The Adventures of Ellery Queen and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes radio dramas.

Bouchercon is touted as the World Mystery Convention and is the largest annual meeting in the world for mystery lovers. There are panels on every aspect of mystery fiction, thrillers, etc., and it's held every year in a city in either the U.S. or Canada, or, as has happened twice, in England.

I've met some of my best friends at B'Cons over the years, and have had the honor of listening to – and meeting -- some of my favorite writers. If it's your first time, be sure to go to the bar and hang out. You'll see just about everyone there at one time or another. And this year, with it being in New Orleans, there will be a lot of things to do outside the hotel as well.

Personally, I can't wait to find out what panel I'm going to be on, and who's going to be on it with me. Being on a panel is always a fun experience – and sometimes even a learning one.

If you've never been to B'Con, I highly recommend that you do. It's not just fun – which it definitely is – but it's a good place to network and interact with agents, editors, and other writers. Hope to see y'all you there!

05 June 2016

It’s the Little Things


by Leigh Lundin

Getting inside a woman’s head is tricky; some say it's nigh impossible. I like trying though… not to mess with her but to write about her. I know what guys think, at least this one, so how can I resist exploring the world inside my favorite subject… women? Brave and foolish, huh, but I don’t entirely botch it. In my earliest days of writing, I wrote a story of a woman with low self-esteem. A professor singled it out as an example of writing from the viewpoint of the opposite sex. I like the discovery. When in doubt, I'm not afraid to ask.

Last month, Eve Fisher reviewed Janice Law’s Homeward Dove. The article was so good, I bought the book. I can’t compete with Eve’s excellent report, but I want to address the book’s characterization– Consider me gobsmacked.

A lot of women write from a male’s point of view. Many are terrific at it, others– meh. Don’t think this hyperbole, but I’ve never seen anyone pull it off like Janice Law.

To be sure, she’s received excellent reviews and awards for her Francis Bacon series. I would find it tricky to get into the head of a gay artist, but Janice pulled it off with aplomb.

In Homeward Dove, she slips into the skin of her main character, Jeff Woodbine. He’s a blue collar 20-something initially drifting and grifting in a big-box electronics store and working in the building trades. Jeff says ‘should of’ instead of ‘should have’ and is better with tools than he is people. He likes beer, sex, sports, and fishing.

At first blush, that doesn’t seem like much characterization but that’s not what we're talking about. A Very Famous Mystery Thriller Author started a series writing from a woman’s viewpoint. For characterization, he stopped the story in places to discuss fashion and to badmouth men. It wasn’t characterization and it wasn’t authentic.

The thing with Janice, her Jeff is so authentic, I can’t see the hand behind the curtain. He’s real. He grows introspective. He matures. She uses setting to her advantage. He lives in New England, so he watches the Red Sox, drinks Rolling Rock, and he doesn’t eat a hoagie, a hero, or a sub– he wolfs down a grinder.

These are minor points, but our boy Jeff knows the intricacies of rebuilding a roof and rebuilding a carburetor better than rebuilding a relationship. He knows his tools and his lumber. More to the point, we feel his fear of heights and fear of relationships.

I can’t discuss a couple of traits without introducing spoilers, but in a way I’m not sure how she pulls off Jeff’s character. Sure, he knows the difference between a rotary and a reciprocating saw and minutiae women aren’t likely to know, but these are like tiles in a floor. We see and admire the tile, but we don't notice the unappreciated grout that supports and enhances the tiles.

Janice understands the need in a male to protect and the craving to be heroic. She also brings out men’s insecurities, not those that women giggle about, but the deeper, little-boy-lost syndromes no man will admit to. In the case of Jeff, he’s the victim of his own quiet desperation.

The novel would make an interesting subject for literary analysis, deconstructing it to see how it works, much like Jeff and the little boy take apart engines to study them.

That brings me to a final point. When Eve summarized the plot, I could not imagine how a little boy might communicate his, well, accusation for lack of a better term. But again, Janice pulls it off.

Who are your favorite cross-boundary authors? What suggestions for writers do you have?