11 July 2016

Who Matters


by Jan Grape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 July 2016

Albert 1: Granny and the Gator


Albert and Pogo
Albert and Pogo © Walt Kelly
by Leigh Lundin

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

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

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

Granny and the Gator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just before New Year’s, disaster struck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

09 July 2016

Sayers vs. Aristotle: What's So Funny?


by B.K. Stevens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




08 July 2016

I'm Thinking of Endings


By Art Taylor

A few weeks back on his BOLO Books blog, my friend Kristopher Zgorski reviewed Iain Reid's debut novel, I'm Thinking of Ending Things, and I found myself drawn in immediately both by Kristopher's description of the book and by his own enthusiasm for it. As his review noted, the book is highly original, tough to classify cleanly with its mix of genre elements and literariness, and though little seems to happen in terms of how you might summarize the action here—a young couple talking during a car ride, a meet-the-parents family dinner, a visit to a Dairy Queen and then a stop by a local high school on the way out of town—the novel bristles start to finish with tension. As that tension picks up even more momentum, I found myself barreling through the pages, but Kristopher is spot-on too when he says the book deserves to be read more slowly; much of the conversation between that young couple centers on questions about relationships and identity with a mix of sharp insight and provocative questions that shouldn't be rushed past.

I'll admit that part of my continuing interest in the novel, at least while reading the first half of it, became loosely self-referential. Like my own book On the Road with Del & Louisethough with an entirely different tone—I'm Thinking of Ending Things is partly structured around two people on a journey and talking/reflecting about the state of their relationship, their past, their future. This novel had enough small echoes with my own that I enjoyed seeing where some artistic choices resonated, where others went in a different direction, the flexibility of storytelling in terms of style, structure, and more.

But I was also fascinated by other craft questions too—specifically one that Kristopher zeroed in on himself in his review:

When readers begin I’m Thinking of Ending Things it only take a few pages before a feeling of unease settles over the proceedings. Crime fiction fans are used to this, but typically it is possible to point to the reason for the disquieting feeling. With I’m Thinking of Ending Things, readers will have a harder time pinpointing the reason they feel that danger looms, but the impression is real and unstoppable. This sense of menace only increases as the pages are turned.

Late in the book, Reid himself inserts a bit of commentary about this very topic. The narrator—the unnamed girlfriend traveling with her new boyfriend Jake—occasionally offers small glimpses into her life before meeting Jake, and at one point she relates "the scariest thing that ever happened to me." I won't give away what that thing is—it's surprising in about equal measure to any conventional scariness—but I do want to quote the narrator's preface to the story:

Most people I tell don't find this story scary. They seem bored, almost disappointed when I get to the end. My story is not like a movie, I'll say. It's not heart-stopping or intense of blood-curdling or graphic or violent. No jump scares. To me these qualities aren't usually scary. Something that disorients, the unsettles what's taken for granted, something that disturbs and disrupts reality—that's scary.

This passage begins to describe what makes I'm Thinking of Ending Things so effective in creating unease and discomfort. While many of the reflections and conversations along the couple's road trip might seem perfectly normal—assessments about the state of the relationship, questions about meeting the parents ahead—abrupt deviations from what's expected, those disturbances or disruptions of reality, ripple with a sense of menace. (In many ways, I'm reminded here of some of the cocktail conversation in the early sections of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley Under Water, where sudden sharp turns in the conversation, ominous turns, are met so calmly by others—an underwhelmed response that ratchets up the sense that everything has suddenly shifted off-center here, everything is perilously close to toppling over completely, everyone is in danger.)

The beauty of I'm Thinking of Ending Things lies in that brilliant balance of the mundane and the menacing—and then by the questions that are raised every step of the way: What is really going on here? What are we glimpsing right there beneath the surface and when is it all going to come fully into focus? And then as the oddities begin to mount: Is the author really going to be able to pull this together? pull it off? Can he explain what seems increasingly inexplicable?

Reid seems aware of this too in that quote above, comments that resonate on the larger story being told: "Most people...seem bored, almost disappointed when I get to the end." (And maybe there's something prescient in that comment? There are nearly as many 1-star reviews as 5-star reviews for the book on Amazon, with the detractors almost uniformly focusing on the novel's payoff—or lack thereof.)

Endings are difficult, of course—as both readers and writers know. Several times lately, my wife has found herself engrossed in and amazed by books and then utterly let-down by the ending: Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, Marisha Pessl's Night Film, Christopher J. Yates' Black Chalk. Some responsibility for that may rest on faults in the author's performance, but I think there's also something about the interplay between anticipation and resolution that gives priority to the former; maybe all endings, explaining things, closing things down, inherently risk greater disappointment. (At a fireworks display earlier in the week, our four-year-old son was nearly giddy asking about the "grand finale" we'd mentioned, that final bursting bursting bursting of so many fireworks at the end of the performance, but when it actually happened, his response was like, "That's it?")

I'm still not sure how I feel about the ending of I'm Thinking of Ending Things. Half of me immediately dismissed it as gimmicky—OK, more than half—especially with the author's own not-so-subtle nudge that we readers go back and reread the book again. And yet sitting here writing this, I find myself revisiting some of those earlier scenes with the knowledge of the trick here—and admiring anew those scenes through the lens of that knowledge.

Suffice it to say that the novel is 75% terrific in my estimation—heck, maybe 90%—with the balance let's-talk-about-it-when-you're-done-reading-it.

Even there, however, the fact that there's so much to talk about may provide testament to another aspect of the book's success.

I'm passing my copy along to my wife now—nudging her ahead, looking forward to her response.


07 July 2016

Two Can Keep A Secret...


by Eve Fisher

"Two can keep a secret, if one of them is dead." - proverb
Fireworks by Samericnick on Wikipedia
But don't count on it.  Even if one of them is dead, then the living person is STILL going to have to go blab to somebody.  A rock, if nothing else.  And sometimes a secret is just too darned hard to keep. For example, for the last month, I've been keeping the great deep dark secret of a surprise 70th birthday party for my husband, Allan, which was pulled off by Michael and Reina (bless you, guys!).  During this month, I have almost blown the whole damn secret at least five times, because someone unexpected said yes! or because the whole place is being cleaned up (!) or because Allan was wondering what we ought to do for his birthday.  Or the Fourth.  Which is the same thing.  Given more time, I would have cracked. Someone would have cracked.  Whew.  Thank God we made it...

This is why I don't believe in conspiracy theories that require absolute total silence on the part of everyone involved.  At least not without death threats that will actually be carried out.  (I understand the Mafia has managed to pull this off at times.)  This means that anything involving aliens, fake moon landings, "false flag" shootings/bombings/etc., Batboy, the Illuminati, UN internment camps, Jesus as a psychedelic mushroom, and any end of the world scenarios involving secret knowledge passed down ancient astronauts / gods (especially aquatic aliens who teach humanity how to grow land crops) are all off the table, at least as far as I'm concerned.

And especially in this day and age.  I grew up in a world where we all knew that J. Edgar Hoover KNEW ALL, Nixon had an enemies list (Hunter S. Thompson, upon finding out that he wasn't on it, said, "Next time, I'll BE there."), and the FBI was everywhere.  And that was before the Patriot Act and the NSA.  (BTW, if you're Instagramming your food in between selfie-ing your every breath, and letting everyone know your constant whereabouts on Facebook, don't tell me you're worried about your privacy.)  Privacy?  Secrets? Don't make me laugh.

On the other hand, the ancient world was pretty good at it.

Back in the ancient world, the Eleusinian Mysteries were initiation and religious rites that lasted over two thousand years - from at least 1500 BCE to 396 CE. And no one still knows exactly what happened at them. The initiates were sworn to secrecy, and they apparently kept it.  (For one thing - I told you! - the penalty for revealing the mysteries was death, and people really were executed:  In the 5th century BCE a man named Diagoras "the atheist" had to flee for his life for revealing too much of the mysteries.)  Little hints got out here and there, but not a lot.  Not the big stuff.

Ninnion Tablet, Wikipedia,
copyright by Marsyas
We have no idea how many people were initiates, but everyone who was anyone was, including Socrates, Plato, Xenophon, Pisistratus, etc.  We also know that the mysteries centered around the worship of Demeter, the Goddess of Harvest and Agriculture, and Persephone, Demeter's daughter by Zeus, who was stolen by the Hades, the God of Death.  In Greek mythology, that theft/rape brought winter and death to the world as a whole:  but the Eleusinian Mysteries defied death and brought new life to the world.  According to Joshua K. Mark (Eleusinian Mysteries) "The mysteries celebrated the story of Demeter and Persephone but, as the initiated were sworn to secrecy on pain of death as to the details of the ritual, we do not know what form this celebration took. We do know, though, that those who participated in the mysteries were forever changed for the better and that they no longer feared death."

Plato (4th century BCE) wrote, "our mysteries had a very real meaning: he that has been purified and initiated shall dwell with the gods" (69:d, F.J. Church trans).
BTW, Plato was the first who argued that everyone had an immortal soul.  In case no one ever told you, a great deal of Christian theology about the soul and the afterlife is actually based on Plato, especially Phaedo.  In the same way, many of our ideas about true love are based on Plato's Symposium.  If you haven't read either before, check them out sometime.  
Cicero the Roman wrote around the mid-1st century BCE, "Nothing is higher than these mysteries...they have not only shown us how to live joyfully but they have taught us how to die with a better hope."

And Plutarch, writing around 100 CE, said "because of those sacred and faithful promises given in the mysteries...we hold it firmly for an undoubted truth that our soul is incorruptible and immortal. Let us behave ourselves accordingly... When a man dies he is like those who are initiated into the mysteries. Our whole life is a journey by tortuous ways without outlet. At the moment of qutting it come terrors, shuddering fear, amazement. Then a light that moves to meet you, pure meadows that receive you, songs and dances and holy apparitions" (Hamilton, 179).

Demeter receiving an offering from
Metanira, Queen of Eleusis
So what did they actually do in these mysteries?  Well, we really don't know.  Do not be fooled by websites who claim to have the truth:  THEY DON'T.

What we do know is that there were the Lesser Mysteries and the Greater Mysteries.  The Lesser Mysteries took place around the January or February full moon and involved purification and sacrifice.

After that, the initiate was deemed worthy to attend the Greater Mysteries in September/ October (again, depending on the moon).  The ten days of ritual began publicly:  a procession from the Athenian cemetery (no symbology there...) to Eleusis, complete with branches, chanting, and, at one point, ritual dirty jokes because (according to the original myth) an old woman named Baubo [or Iambe, and don't ask me why] cracked jokes and made Demeter smile even with her daughter in Hades.

Then came an all-night vigil, where everyone drank a certain potion - kykeon - that may or may not have contained psychotropic herbs.  Then into the Great Hall, where the Mysteries were unfolded. After that, we don't know.  There were dromena ("things done"), deiknumena ("things shown"), and legomena ("things said").  But what were those things?  There was a sacred casket.  There was a "triune" wheat sheaf.  There was a presentation.  Everything revolved around the Demeter/ Persephone/ Hades myth, which basically revolved around the changing seasons. But that's really all we know.  The secrets were kept.  Seriously.

Afterwards - one hell of an all-night feast, with dancing, merriment, undoubtedly more alcohol, perhaps more potions, a bull sacrifice, and some time the next day an exhausted, satisfied, perhaps hung-over but happy crew, revitalized and resworn, went home.

For two thousand years, this ritual was reenacted and the secret was kept.  We could probably learn something from that.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, Allan was totally surprised at his birthday party, and a great time was had by all!  Whew.

06 July 2016

Topping Up and Ticking Off in Scotland


Fairy Glen, Isle of Skye (also in the new movie The BFG)
by Robert Lopresti

My wife and I just got back from a lovely trip to Scotland.  In future pieces I will probably write more about that but right now I want to concentrate on something that has nothing to do with crime fiction, unless you stretch that to communication issues and petty theft.  Bear with me.  I will include some lovely pictures of our trip to ease the way, okay?

Terri and I are not big cell phone users but we knew we wanted to be able to call home, especially to check our messages.  We went to our Verizon dealer who assured us our phone was unlocked and we could buy the necessary sim card in Scotland.  He recommended a company called EE.

Glasgow Dunce Cap
So when we landed in Glasgow we found an EE store and told a salesman named Scott exactly what we needed.  But he couldn't figure out how to open our phone.  I don't mean he couldn't unlock the electronic system; I mean he couldn't figure out how to physically open it and get at the sim card.

So we talked about buying a cheap phone.  All we need is to be able to call the U.S., we explained.  Don't care about local calls; don't care about texting.

The Kelpies, near Falkirk
No problem, he said.  For ten pounds he sold us a cheapie phone.  A five pound "topping up" fee gave us 250 minutes of US phone calls.  Excellent!

That night I called and checked messages.  Took almost ten minutes.

Next day I tried again and was told we had no money left on the phone.  Problem.

We were heading off to Edinburgh, so we found an EE shop on Princes Street, the main shopping drag in the capital city, where mobile phone shops seemed as thick as plague fleas on a medieval rat.

Edinburgh Castle, seen from Princes Street
The saleswoman told us that  Scott in Glasgow had sold us the wrong plan and there was nothing she could do for us except sell us a different one.  So you won't fix your company's mistake?  No.  You won't give back our money?  There's nothing we can do.  No, I said, there is obviously something you can do.  Your company just chooses not to.

So we went next door to a Three Mobile Phone store (like I said, thick as fleas).  We told the whole sad story to the man there.  "Why didn't the man in Glasgow check Google to see how to open your phone?"  Good question.  It hadn't occurred to Scott, or to us.

Plockton Harbor
Three Man did so and quickly learned how to remove the sim card from our phone.  He put in his sim and found that it was useless.  In spite of what Verizon had promised us, our phone was apparently locked.  We discussed what Three could do for us but their plans were not a match for our needs.  So we thanked them and marched on.

Soon we came to a second EE store (we eventually passed three on Princes Street).  The salesman there contradicted the saleswoman at his neighboring shop.  There was nothing wrong with the plan; the topping up had somehow failed to register.  He spent ten minutes in the back, calling someone for help twice.  Eventually he came back and told us the topping up was now properly set up and he had added 15 pounds in time for our trouble.  It would take an hour to register and then everything would be fine.  I shook his hand and we went back to the hotel, happy.

Stirling Castle
But the phone still didn't work.

For the next few days we traveled through Orkney, the Isle of Skye, and Stirling.  All wonderful places, but not crammed with EE shops.  On the last day we returned to Glasgow and made our way back to the scene of the crime and, believe it or not, the original salesman, Scott.  He confirmed what the last man in Edinburgh had told us: the topping up had not registered.

So what could he do for us now?  Nothing.  He won't give us our money back?  No; we had received a working phone; it was fine for texting and making local calls.

Satan's willing handmaids
I replied that it didn't matter whether  the phone could text, make local calls, or swim across the river Clyde whistling "Will Ye No Come Back Again?"  He knew when he sold it to us that the only thing we wanted it for was overseas calls, and for that it was as useful as a paperweight.

But EE apparently doesn't stand behind its products, promises, staff, or services.  We were out fifteen pounds.  So my goal in writing this is to do them much more than fifteen pounds worth of damage.  If you are in Britain and need a phone, try Three or one of the other companies.

Enough of that nonsense.  Let's move on to bigger topics.  We were in Scotland during the Brexit vote and you may want to hear my observations about that important event.  Happy to oblige.

I predict that Brexit will drive EE into bankruptcy and the CEO will be reduced to living under the Forth Bridge on cheap blended whisky and spoiled haggis.  But if you want a somewhat more informative opinion, try this one by Luke Bailey and Tom Phillips.  It's hilarious and you will learn something.  "By this point, actual British political news was basically indistinguishable from a random word generator..."

05 July 2016

Writing What You Know -- the Hard Way


by Barb Goffman

We've all heard this advice: write what you know. I've had editing clients take this advice the wrong way, thinking if they haven't experienced something themselves, they shouldn't write about it. In actuality, if you want to write about something and don't have enough information to get the details right, then do research. Learn all about it. Then you'll be able to write about what you know.

I got some firsthand experience Friday night about kidney stones. I'd never had one before, and I hope I never go through this process again. It started as a slight nagging pain, as if I'd slept wrong and a small area of my lower back had a knot in it. Within just two or three minutes, the nagging had become throbbing, and I swallowed an Advil. Not ten minutes later, the pain had become so acute that I thought I had really injured my back from briefly (thirty seconds, tops) carrying something heavy earlier in the day. (Last autumn, I aggravated some back muscles carrying home my escaped dog--I had no leash with me when I found him. A diagonal area across my back suddenly began throbbing hours later. This pain was similar.) I found the leftover pain medicine from the autumn injury and downed a muscle relaxer. Ten minutes after that, the pain was still increasing, and with tears in my eyes, I headed to the emergency room.

The pain came and went over the next few hours in waves. Sometimes I had no pain whatsoever. Three minutes later, I was crying for help, my pain a ten on the 1 - 10 pain scale. That is the way with a kidney stone, I've learned, which is what they diagnosed me with. My friend Becky Muth told me that she had kidney stone once. The pain of passing it was worse than when she had a baby, she said, so much so that she said she'd "rather go through childbirth again than pass another kidney stone." Mine hasn't passed yet (I don't think). I'm afraid of what's to come.

I don't know if I'll ever have the opportunity to use this firsthand knowledge in my writing, but I began thinking that perhaps I know people with firsthand knowledge that might be helpful to me and other authors. So I asked friends to share their stories. Here goes.

Having Nearly a Fifth of Your Teeth Pulled at Once

This tooth looks too happy.
I had my impacted wisdom teeth out long ago, and it wasn't fun. But it was nothing like what Becky (yes, same Becky from above) went through when she had six molars removed at once. Her words:

"I had six teeth extracted--all molars in the back. It felt like someone smacked me in the face with a baseball bat. The dentist's office miscalculated when I'd need [[to start]] my prescription, and the anesthesia started to wear off on the way home (about a thirty-five minute drive). I have an okay tolerance for pain as long as I have an outlet for general complaining, but this pain was so intense I couldn't speak. It hurt to nod my head when my husband asked me something. It was the first time I ever used painkillers around the clock. Two more dental visits are required to finish the work, and I'm dreading them. I'd probably choose the kidney stone. At least the medication for that caused me to sleep through a lot of the discomfort."


Experiencing Mysterious Back Pain

My friend author Meriah Crawford had terrible undiagnosed back pain. Turns out it was (is) a herniated disc in her lower back, but she didn't know that at the time. Her words:

"I have a herniated disc right now. It's given me my first real taste of what disability/chronic pain can be. Not sure I could handle it. What has struck me, though, is that it's less painful than the cramps I get (SO HORRIBLE), but I know cramps will pass and won't kill me. The fear (terror, at times) of the back pain gives it a whole other quality, though. I was genuinely afraid of becoming severely disabled or paralyzed through all this. When you don't know what it is, or you know enough to know it can be BAD, that's so much worse, at least for me."


Getting Pinned in a Car Wreck

My friend Diane Hale shares this harrowing tale:

"I was sixteen when it happened. One of those bizarre things; we had a sharp curve in the road, and the rear axle had crystallized, so when Dad thought it was a flat and tried to steer into the desert, it turned out the wheel was bent under the truck. He thought he was steering straight, but the front wheels were turned to compensate. When they hit a build-up of sand, it flipped us. [[The pickup]] flew forty feet before landing on the cab. I was stunned, blacked out when I thought I was pinned, then crawled out. My dad and I walked half a mile before a car came. I still wasn't feeling any pain, but turned out I had a broken pelvis. Perhaps I'm just one who's stunned first, doesn't feel pain until the adrenaline wears off. By the time help arrived (very rural area, a neighbor put a mattress in the back of his station wagon), I was beginning to hurt. I couldn't bend, so they had to pick me up and ease me onto the mattress for the hour-long ride to the hospital. [[It]] was so scary when I first woke up because I'm claustrophobic. Turned out I was sort-of pinned--between my dad and the back of the seat. I still vividly remember crawling out of the truck--both doors popped open--and seeing blood trickling down Dad's forehead. I was more worried about him than about me."

Having Undiagnosed Meningitis

A friend who wishes to remain anonymous tells this story:

"I had meningitis about seventeen years ago this summer. Through a series of horrible bouts of bad luck, I wasn't properly diagnosed and treated for a week. (A small-town doctor diagnosed it as a migraine and gave me pills for nausea and pain, which helped a little). By the time the worst came (I passed out and was sent to the ER), the pain was so intense that ending everything seemed like a wonderful relief. I was young, newly married, and had a six-month-old baby, but I was perfectly happy to accept death if it meant I could escape the pain. I want to stress that that all changed as soon as a neurologist got a hold of me and admitted me into the hospital--within days I felt like a new person who would never trade her life for anything. I've never thought it was a scary or unusual part of my personality, but when I hear of people in intense pain saying they prayed for death, I give a proverbial shrug and say 'yeah, I can see that'." 

Getting Your Nose Broken 

My friend author Alice Loweecey shares this story:

"I got my nose fractured at a karate self-defense class. The brown belt teacher was showing me how to break someone's nose. She made her hand into a stiff chopping weapon and promised to stop short every time. Once--fine. Twice--fine. Three times--WHAM! I literally saw stars and blood GUSHED out of my nose. It started to throb a minute later, and I got a wicked headache shortly after. It took forever to stop the bleeding and the next day my face swelled up and my got a very colorful bruise. To this day that side of my nose crackles a little and I can't rest sunglasses on it."

Being Stabbed

I'll wrap this up with a harrowing story from my friend author CiCi Coughlin, who has been shot and stabbed. Here she focuses on the stabbing, though she mentions the shooting too:

"The thing about an experience like [[being stabbed]] is it's rarely an accident. So, on top of the physical pain and trauma, you generally have a rash of emotions happening: panic, fear, a little bit of anger. There's also a sense of unreality, like it's such an extreme thing to be happening that you almost can't process that it's happening to you. In my case, it was a very unexpected attack when I was 18 and it was a fight for my life situation, so it wasn't just one stab, the end. By the time he stabbed me, I was already pretty banged up and had a concussion, so adrenaline was really high but I was also kinda wonky from the head damage. In some ways, I felt like I was both in the fight and outside watching, wondering who was going to win. 


"Physically, being stabbed was two things. First, it was like a major impact, like getting punched in the shoulder, but with the added issue of a blade. I was stabbed with a very thin, long blade, so that part was more almost a burning sensation, I suspect because the blade was so fine. The other thing is, with a stab wound, there's an in and an out and they are two very distinct sensations. In my case, there was about a five-second delay in between, so it was even more so. Plus, I was stabbed in a joint. The blade nicked the bone, and I had some ligament damage, though not a lot. But I also knew, sort of somewhere in the back of my mind, that it wasn't a potentially fatal blow, and I didn't lose blood as fast as I would have with a torso wound, so I wasn't as woozy as I might have been. Oddly, I'd already been shot in the same shoulder a year or so prior, so I can kind of 'compare.' At least in a shoulder like that, I'd far rather be shot. Might have been different if the shot hadn't gone all the way through, though. The knife actually did, too, so I had a skin puncture front and back. The difference with the knife, again, though, is it doesn't just go in, it goes in and comes out. So it's kind of a double trauma. Also, the bullet was a stray; no one was trying to shoot me, so there wasn't the kind of personal malice to deal with. Even if they had been specifically after me, it still would have been at something of a distance. Someone has to be really in your personal space to stab you, especially from the front. It's very personal and one-on-one -- kind of a twisted intimacy, if that makes sense."

I hope this information is helpful to my author friends. If you have any additional personal experiences you think might help other writers, feel free to share. And they don't have to be bad things. I've never jumped from a plane, for instance, and I never would, but I'd be interested in what that really feels like to do it. And I'd be interested in whether the perspective changes depending on whether the diver was eager or scared before the jump. Readers, please share your experiences, good and bad!

04 July 2016

An Independence Day Conspiracy Theory


by Susan Rogers Cooper

As today is the Fourth of July, I felt it only fitting that I do something patriotic, and what's more patriotic than a good conspiracy theory? Nothing notable has happened in our country that hasn't been clouded (or, to some, sprinkled with sunshine) by a good conspiracy theory. Was there someone on that grassy knoll? Did John Wilkes Both really act alone? Did FDR really know about Pearl Harbor before it happened? Did the FBI have forewarning of 9/11? Who knows? Well, somebody surely does, but maybe not the ones who purport the juicy theories.

I decided (mainly because I'm not beneath loving a good theory or two myself) to research rumors that might have been running a muck during those latter years of the 18th century. And I came across a doozy: Massachusetts writer J.L. Bell, a leading historian on the Revolutionary War (author of, among others, THE ROAD TO CONCORD), revealed some interesting tidbits in an article entitled, “History, analysis, and unabashed gossip about the start of the American Revolution in Massachusetts.”

In an article written on July 19, 1775, The Reverend Ezra Stiles of Newport reported that on a trip to Paris, British Captain Jno. Hansen, due to irrelevant (in my view) circumstances, became intimately acquainted with the French Pretender's secretary. During a meeting with this unnamed secretary, he – the secretary – left Capt. Hansen alone in his office. On the secretary's desk was an unsealed packet. Capt. Hansen read the contents of this packet, which stated that Lord North and the Earl of Bute (present and past First Ministers of Britain) said the “plan” was almost finished, that the “draught of troops for America would soon leave England so defenseless that the Pretender with 20,000 troops might land and march all over England.”

Hansen fled with the packet to England and informed Lord North of the contends of the packet. Lord North then paid off Capt. Hansen. But by spring of that year, America was “deluged” in war and Hansen felt guilty about his part in this. He went to New York where he told the Congress, which credited the information and sent Capt. Hansen to show it to the Continental Congress.

Rev. Stiles concluded in this article that Lord North had regained the packet from Capt. Hansen. Stiles felt that if Capt. Hansen had retained custody of the packet he could have convinced the King and the Nation and “restore tranquility between Britain and America.” Rev. Stiles went on to surmise that perhaps the top ministers of the British government had started the trouble in America just to tie up the British army, letting the Pretender sail from France and seize power.

Rev. Stiles wasn't the only one to think along the lines of a conspiracy theory. Roger Lamb, a sergeant in the British army, wrote in an article that, in essence, the French supported America in the Revolution so as to separate Great Britain from the colonies and help France regain their former station in Europe. He went so far as to claim France sent “secret emissaries” to the colonies to “spread dissatisfaction.” The colonists began to gradually change from the “warmth of attachment to the mother country, which had so particularly characterized them,” to, well, pissed off. As J.L. Bell concluded, Sergeant Lamb, writing for a British audience, could not concede that the American colonists might have felt dissatisfaction all on their own.

On reading this, my take is we must thank the French for more than just the Statue of Liberty. Whatever their reasons for supporting the colonies in their bid for independence, we appreciate the help. So this fourth of July, tilt back a Coors Lite with a Perrier chaser, and grill yourself a cheese burger with a side of escargot. Just a thought.

03 July 2016

Hats off to Larry


by Leigh Lundin

Larry Jonas
Larry Jonas, man with a noteworthy superpower
We occasionally touch upon real-life events that would never work in fiction because they beggar belief. Thanks to friends and classmates Kristi and Larry Jonas, we bring you such a tale, the true story of a man with his very own superpower, one he used to detect and defeat a small but ongoing crime.

Larry’s married to Kristi. For many reasons, he’s her superhero. Larry is also the president of the town council (i.e, mayor) of the pretty little town of New Palestine, Indiana, where Kristi keeps a beautiful house and a lovely garden.

Sitting around their kitchen table, they shared this story, one that lends a bright glow to those small injustices all of us experience from time to time.

The Fast-Fingered Filcher

In a fast food restaurant, Larry placed an order. He handed the girl behind the counter a $20 bill. She rang it up and gave him back change.
Larry said, “Excuse me, miss, I gave you a twenty. You returned change for a ten.”
“No, you handed me only a ten.”
“Not a ten, a twenty. You placed it under the drawer.”
“It was only a ten.”
“A twenty.”
“A ten. Next customer, please.”
“I’m not leaving until I receive the correct change.”
She jutted out her chin. “If you don’t leave, I’ll call the manager.”
The manager came out, wiping his hands on a towel. He inquired what the problem was.
The clerk snapped her gum and said in a disparaging tone, “He gave me a ten but demands change for a twenty.”
The manager looked at Larry. “Sir?”
Larry said, “Under the drawer you’ll find the twenty-dollar bill I gave her.”
The girl rolled her eyes. “Duh. That’s where we keep bigger bills.”
“But if you look at that one, you’ll find the series date is 2006 and the serial number is IK-6952317-E.”
The manager pulled the top bill from under the drawer. He stared at it in disbelief.
“What was that number again?”
“IK-6952317-E. Kind of a knack, see, I remember numbers. Also, someone scratched a pencil mark on the back.”
The manager gazed at Larry in awe, then handed him the twenty. “Thank you for bringing this to our attention, sir. I’m giving your money back and your meal is on us. As for you, young lady…” He fired the petty purloining perp on the spot.

Ah, Karma! Don’t you love a story that turns out right?

02 July 2016

Edit As You Go?



by John M. Floyd



As I mentioned in my column on defining mysteries a couple of weeks ago, there are a lot of questions that always come up when writers get together--and some of the answers depend not so much on knowledge or experience but on the individual quirks of individual writers. Some of our methods and practices seem to be done or not done simply because that's the way our brains are wired, like whether to squeeze the toothpaste from the end of the tube or the middle, or whether we're always early to appointments or always late, or whether we prefer to unroll the T.P. from the front of the roll or from the back. For writers, one of those questions is do you edit as you go. or do you edit only after the first draft?

Some authors feel it's necessary to make each page (or each paragraph) as perfect as it can possibly be before proceeding to the next; others don't worry much about rewriting or refining until the entire piece is complete, whether it's a poem, a short story, or a novel. (NOTE: I'll concentrate mostly on shorts here because that's mostly what I write, but the process can apply to longer works as well.)


For the record, I fall into the second group. My first drafts of a project are not only first drafts, they're rough drafts. And I mean really rough. In my first drafts, I don't worry about style (grammar, sentence structure, paragraph structure, spelling, capitalization, word choice, word usage) at all. I just write down a stream-of-consciousness summary of the story, sometimes plugging in place-holders like D for detective, K for killer, V1 for first victim, LND for lady next door, etc., and laying out the plot from start to finish. Then I go back and start rewriting and polishing and assigning names and personalities. I've often said that if I'm run over by a truck, anybody who later finds one of my first drafts would think I'd lost my mind, because those yet-to-be-edited works-in-process are truly unreadable to anyone but me.

Again, though, many writers I know choose not to postpone the task of editing. They go ahead and edit their current output, whether it's a hundred words or five thousand, in order to be ready for the next day's work. Some even edit their sentences and paragraphs as they create them. One writer friend of mine is so efficient at doing that, she says that when she's completed editing the final page of her book, she's done. There's no need to do any more editing on anything. I can only imagine that, and in fact I'm in awe of those who can do it. And--for most of us at least--I'm not sure that's the best approach.

My reason is simple. If I did that, if I studied and corrected the words or pages I've completed today
and kept on editing until they're as perfect as I can make them before proceeding, and if I continued to do that day after day . . . what would happen if I suddenly decided, later on in the project, that I need to add something to the plotline, or take something out, or otherwise change the flow of the narrative? I'll tell you what would happen: I'd have to go back and rewrite what I've already rewritten. And I'd wind up wasting a great deal of time. (I should mention here that I use the same edit-only-after-the-first-draft process for nonfiction pieces as well; in fact that's the way I wrote this column. I typed some overall points I wanted to make, all the way to the end, and when all that was finished I went back and tried to fine-tune everything until (hopefully) it made sense.

Okay, I know what you're thinking. I know because if you were telling me this, it's what I would be thinking. I would be thinking, If you find you're having to go back into the story and correct so many things, structurewise, maybe you should plan a little more carefully before you start, and then you wouldn't have to backtrack and change things so much. And that'd be good advice, if it worked. For me it doesn't always work. I do plan, and pretty carefully, before I start. Matter of fact, as I've said before at this blog, I'm an outliner rather than a seat-of-the-pantser. I try to map things out all the way from the opening to the ending, at least in my head, before I begin writing. But (which might mean I'm not very good at it) I do often find, during the heat of battle, that I want to improve something or introduce another character, or maybe even change the POV--and when that happens I go back into the story and insert, remove, or rearrange words, phrases, paragraphs, or pages. And when I do that, I don't want to have already edited that part of the story to the degree that I'm satisfied with it. I want instead to plug in the new material and/or remove the old and only then do my final editing. But that's just me.

My edit-as-you-go pals tell me there are several advantages to their way of doing things. One is the fact that (as I've already mentioned) when you're done, you're done. If you're finished, and you've competently edited your work after each page all along the way, let's say, then your story is now complete--no extensive rewriting is required. Another advantage is that you might feel a little more enthused about starting the next day's writing if the previous day's is already edited and near-perfect. And a third reason, I guess, is that if you are constantly editing, improving, and correcting, nonstop, then maybe you're staying sharp(er) and consistently doing what will turn out to be a better job in the end.

I can see that. I can understand those reasons. But I still can't, and won't, do it that way. To me, the advantage of first putting the entire rough story down on paper (or onto your hard drive) is that when that's been accomplished, the hard, creative, most important work is already done. All that's left is the playing around and the polishing, and I'm one of those weird purple who actually likes to rewrite. I like to adjust and refine and tweak a story and try to make it shine--and I'm not at all put off or bored by that process, or by doing it all at one swoop. But I can see that some writers are. To each his own.

A couple more opinions. In a review published in The Writer several years ago, Chuck Leddy wrote: "Irish novelist Anne Enright says, 'I work the sentences and the rhythms all the time. I can't move on from a bad sentence; it gets more and more painful, like leaving a child behind you on the road.' Curtis Sittenfield, however, completely disagrees: 'I strongly feel that trying, in a first draft, to make every sentence shine and be perfect before moving on to the next one is a recipe for never finishing a novel.'"

Which brings up the inevitable questions: Do you prefer to edit your manuscripts as you go? Or do you like to write it all down first, warts and all, and then do the editing? Does it depend on the category (or the length) of the manuscript--short/long, fiction/non? Do you see a distinct advantage to either approach? Do you think the preference is by choice, or that it's already ingrained in our DNA?

And the best question of all: If the final product is good . . . does it really matter?






01 July 2016

Zombie Hunter ... or ... Serial Killer?


Police say he was BOTH!

By Dixon Hill


67-year-old retired police detective Leo Speliopoulos was called to a crime scene in 2015.  Cold case investigators had cracked a case that had baffled and frustrated Speliopoulos for over two decades, -- a case that had alarmed Phoenix residents, afraid that a serial killer was stalking and stabbing women around the Arizona Canal, which winds like a spangled snake throughout the Valley of the Sun.



In 1992, 22-year-old Angela Brosso (left) had graduated from college in Los Angeles.  She took a job with Phoenix electronics firm Syntellect and moved in with her boyfriend.  In an interview, later, her mother, Linda, described Angela as "A force," adding, "...her father said she changed the nature of a room when she entered it.  And it's true, you know? She really did."

Sadly, one November evening, that year, not long after moving to Phoenix, miss Brosso went for a bike ride.  Her decapitated body was found near 25th avenue and Cactus road in Phoenix a short time later.


Eleven days after that, somebody spotted her head, stuck in a grate, in the Arizona Canal.



About ten months later, in September of 1993, Melanie Bernas, a 17-year-old Arcadia High School student, disappeared on a bike ride along the Arizona Canal.  (There are some very nice bike paths along the top of the bank.)

Her corpse was found, bobbing, near where the canal passes beneath I-17 a little north of Dunlap Avenue.  She had been stabbed and sexually assaulted.

Friends described her as a high-achiever who planned to become a doctor. Her death prevented her from completing slated visits to both Berkley and Pepperdine.

Six months after her body was found, using forensic evidence, police connected her murder to Brosso's.  They also noted that both Brosso's purple 21-speed Diamnondback mountain bike and Bernas' green SPC Hardrock Sport mountain bike remained missing.

They would remain missing for years afterward.  The night Leo Speliopoulos received that call, police carried rusted bikes from the suspect's backyard storage shed.

Police are pretty cagey about the forensic evidence in the case, worried they might taint a future jury pool, but it's a pretty good bet that DNA, reportedly found on both bodies, was what originally tied the two murders together.  And, there is no doubt it's the smoking gun that led to an arrest in 2015.

In the early 90's, the level of science used to work with DNA had not been developed enough to help in the right way. Police interviewed hundreds of potential suspects, and possible witnesses, but drew a blank when it came to the killer's identity.

Back in 1993, Bryan Patrick Miller was just one name among hundreds, which police received in tips.  The Phoenix PD Cold Case Homicide Unit didn't sit around eating doughnuts for twenty years, however.  They revisited the case hundreds of times, amassing so much evidence that an entire file cabinet was turned over to that case alone.  They even enlisted the aid of an organization of forensics experts called the Vidocq Society.

The Zombie Hunter in earlier days, his car in background.
Vidocq gave investigators a probable profile of the perpetrator, suggesting a man who still lived in the area and had probably been involved in precursor crimes, possibly even setting fires.

Vidocq suggested he would be a man who acted out his fantasies.  And, a man who had probably crossed paths with investigators before.



From among the list of hundreds of names, Phoenix Police tagged 42-year-old Bryan Patrick Miller, who often went by the name "Zombie Hunter."

Miller had been arrested in 1990 for stabbing a woman in Paradise Valley Mall.  The then-juvenile Miller had said the woman reminded him of his mother.

Miller had also been tried and acquitted of stabbing a woman in Washington state in 2002. He evidently moved there, not long after the murder of Melanie Burnas.

Melissa Ruiz-Ramirez says she was walking in Everett Washington when Miller offered her a ride. Later, he took her to work so she could use his phone, according to Ruiz-Ramirez, and he stabbed her. Miller beat the rap by claiming she had asked him for money, then tried to stab him when he refused. He claimed he had wrestled the knife away from her and turned the tables on his assailant.  The jury believed him.  Consequently, his DNA was not entered into CODIS, a national databank of DNA from convicted felons.

Now, however, he was back in Phoenix, driving around in a decommissioned police car that he festooned with yellow caution lights and painted "Zombie Hunter" on.  He reportedly called himself "The Arizona Zombie Killer," and offered the car and himself for hire to those planning Zombie themed activities.  He was also a regular at Comicon and Zombie Walks.

Police won't disclose how they obtained his DNA, but they arrested Miller because his DNA was on both bodies, and they can't figure out any other way it could have gotten there.  They also refuse to disclose many of the items removed from his property when they served the search warrant, fearing they may taint witnesses or jurors.  When local media tried to gain access to the warrant report, Superior Court Judge Michael W. Kemp shot them down, writing:  "Some of the items seized would be perceived as extremely alarming and evidence of guilt."
His true face.

Meanwhile, police are investigating Miller's possible involvement in the killing of two more young women in The Valley, including one who was selling Girl Scout cookies at the time of her death.

His trial is set for April 2017.