19 October 2016

The Night the Old Nostalgia Burned Down


by Robert Lopresti

While working on my recent column on alternate history I was looking at my collection of science fiction and noticed a book that took me back through the decades.  Out of this World, edited by Julius Fast, was published in 1944 which means that, even as old as I am, it was a used book when I got my hands on it, in my father's personal collection.  I was probably around ten and it was already an antique.  The copy I have now is not the one I had then, by the way.  I found it in a used book store a few years ago.  (By the way, Fast edited the book while serving during World War II, using material he found in army base libraries.  He also won the very first Edgar Award for Best First Mystery Novel.)

I have fond memories of this collection of fantasy stories.   There are stories by Saki, Robert Arthur, H.G. Wells, Lord Dunsany, and Jack London to name a few.  But what really knocked me out was my first encounters with the late great John Collier.  Collier was one of the great short story authors, a master of a certain kind of fantasy and mystery. His story "Witch's Money" (not in this collection) is on my list of top fifty crime stories of all time.  There are no witches in it: it's about the disaster that hits an Italian village when a comparatively wealthy American artist moves in.

Running across that book a few days ago inspired me to go looking for another one I found in my Dad's collection when I was at that same impressionable age.  I bought a copy over the web, and the shipping cost more than the book. 

The Pocket Mystery Reader was also published during the war, and in fact, this copy was owned by Sergeant Lawrence E. Hough of the U.S. Army in 1943.  (And I can tell you Sergeant Hough took much better care of his paperbacks than I  do.)

I remember reading my father's copy mostly because I recall Rex Stout's parody of Sherlockian scholarship, his famous speech to the Baker Street Irregulars entitled "Watson Was A Woman."  It's still funny.  So are the essays by P.G. Wodehouse and Stephen Leacock.

This book was my first exposure to Dashiell Hammett and his Continental Op.  ("The Farewell Murder," not one of his masterpieces.)  In fact, while there are tales by Gardner, Sayers, and Woolrich, the only one I remembered from fifty years ago was "The Price of the Head,"by John Russell, which I recalled as being brilliant.  However, I experienced one of the downsides of revisitng a favorite old book: On rereading I discovered it was racist trash.  Apparently my memory wrote a completely different story and attached it to Russell's brilliant ending.

There is a ton of casual racism in this book which reminds me that it was published around the time Rex Stout produced a one-night extravaganza on Broadway just for writers, directors and producers, with the theme "We can't fight racism in Europe and appease it at home."

I was even younger when I ran across the Arrow Book of Ghost Stories.  I thought I read the copy belonging to my sister Diane Chamberlain but she swears she never heard of it.  What I can't forget is "The Wonderful Cat of Cobbie Bean," a lovely tale by Barbee Oliver Carleton.  Cobbie gets a talking cat, which might not be so disastrous except Cobbie lives in Salem at the time of the witch trials...

Another book I dug up because of childhood memories was The Bulls and the Bees, by Roger Eddy.  It's a novel (memoir?) in a series of short stories, narrated by the astonishingly solemn voice of a child growing up in the twenties.  His father is a stockbroker and the boy's hobby is buying a single share of stock from different companies.  He has no idea he is "investing."  He thinks he's just buying interestingly engraved paper.  This leads to a crisis after the Crash in 1929.

This has gone on too long.  Maybe next time I will talk about childhood favorites I bought my daughter when she was a kid.

But what books call to you from your childhood?  And if you reread them was it a joy or a disappointment?

18 October 2016

Not Just Words

by Barb Goffman

The now infamous tape of Donald Trump bragging about how, as a celebrity, he can get away with anything in regard to women has resulted in thousands of articles and social media posts about sexual assault and sexual harassment. One article I read recently has stuck with me. It addressed how men often think sexual harassment isn't such a big deal because they don't realize how often it happens, and that's at least partly because, from a young age, girls are taught to de-escalate situations. Downplay things. Laugh them off. Ignore them. Harassment is so common, we don't talk about it until things get really bad. Until we are physically assaulted. Until we are raped.

The article suggested that women should talk about the harassment that happens to them regularly so it won't be hidden in the shadows and good men will see what we put up with. That is what I'm going to do now. This is a list of every incident of sexual harassment (or worse) I can remember in my life, and my memory isn't that good. You may think that everything on this list isn't sexual harassment, that's it's minor stuff, no big deal. At the time of some of these incidents, I would have agreed with you. But now, looking back, I think they are. They all add up to rape culture.
  • At age 6, a boy offered me twenty-five cents to look up my skirt. 
  • At age 9, my sister's boyfriend exposed himself to me. (Me and a bunch of other people. This happened at camp, and my sister wasn't there). The guy was 18 or so, and the rest of the group members were around his age. I don't know if he was thinking about me when he did it, but I was there, and I did see his penis, and I was nine years old.
  • In the fourth grade (age 9 or 10), the boys in my class regularly rated the girls on a 1-10 scale. The day I was listed as a zero, I wanted to crawl through the floor and die, though I pretended I didn't care.
  • Also in the fourth grade, I'd just rode my bike home from a friend's house and was on the driveway, walking toward our garage. A man drove up to the edge of our driveway and called out the window to me. He'd found a puppy and was looking for the owner. Did I know anyone who had lost a puppy? I said no, sorry, and walked inside the house. When I told my mom about the lost puppy, she ran outside, but the predator was gone. I didn't believe her back then when she said the man had been hoping I'd come to his car window to see the puppy so he could snatch me. I believe her now.
  • In my first year of junior high (age 12), we girls learned to always wear shorts under our skirts because you couldn't walk down a hallway at school without a boy lifting up your skirt.
  • When I was 14, I was traveling alone on a plane. A man sat next to me and said, "So, you're my sex buddy for the trip." His wildly inappropriate talk continued throughout the flight. I tried my best to ignore him. I wanted to tell the flight attendant, to make him go away, to change seats myself, to simply make it stop, but I didn't because I feared I wouldn't be believed. He was a grown-up, and I was just a kid.
  • When I was 16, I participated in debate club activities. One weekend at an event at another school, my boyfriend showed up for the Saturday night activities. He got angry with me when I wanted to spend time with him because he wanted to flirt with other girls. But then when I cried (literally) on another boy's shoulder, someone saw, and for days (weeks?) thereafter his friends taunted me at school, accusing me of being a slut.  
  • When I was 16, I went on a double date. My boyfriend and I split off from the other couple (one of his friends and one of mine), and we ended up in the backseat of the car. Things got a little steamy, but no clothing below the waist was removed. Yet his friend proceeded to lie and tell everyone at school that the car was literally rocking and I was a whore. I protested the lie, but I figure people believed what they wanted to believe. My boyfriend was no help with this matter.
  • When I was 16, my boyfriend's friends bet him that they could all get me to have sex with them. Instead of standing up for me with them, he got angry with me, beginning one of several periods where he put distance between us, making me feel as if I'd done something wrong, even though I'd done nothing.
  • When I was 17, my boyfriend said I looked like a slut every time I wore a particular sweater (and it wasn't even revealing). I never understood why he hated that top, but he got upset each time I wore it. Eventually I put the sweater away. (And yes, it was the same guy in all these incidents. Why I put up with all that crap is an entirely different column.)
  • When I was 18, I worked as a proofreader at a local newspaper. It was summertime and hot, and I was young and naive. I wore shorts to work one day, and I had to walk through the press room to get to my desk. So many men ogled me that I stayed at my desk the rest of the day so I wouldn't have to pass them again. I had learned my dress-code lesson.
  • The summer I was 19, a house down the street was being renovated. I had to walk past the construction crew multiple times. The foreman paid me compliments. The first time it felt nice, but each time thereafter it felt creepy. One day after the renovation was over, I spotted the foreman sitting in his van outside my house, staring at the front door. I hid inside, waiting for him to leave. After a while, I called a male friend, told him my situation, and asked if he'd come over, thinking it would make the guy in the van leave. But my friend refused, telling me I was being a drama queen. But in my gut I knew if I went outside, I'd be in danger. The construction guy sat in his van outside my house for hours.
  • When I was 22, I walked past four clearly drunk guys. They called rude comments after me. I was afraid and humiliated. I didn't turn around. Didn't say anything. I just walked faster and faster until I got home and locked the door and ran to my room and closed that door and closed the curtains. Then I curled in a fetal position on my bed.
  • When I was 27, a man in an outdoor coffee shop exposed himself to me. I gave him a dirty look, and he left. I wish I'd screamed or made a snide remark or something, but there was a little part of me that was afraid he might hit me or something. I also feared that I wouldn't be believed. (There have been several other stranger-exposure incidents over the years, but I'm blanking on the details right now.)
  • That same year a guy in my law school class told me I had "the biggest breasts he'd ever seen." I felt so conspicuous and self-conscious and humiliated. I told a good male friend about it. He said I was getting upset over nothing.
  • When I was in my early 30s, a cable-repair guy groped me in my apartment. I had an issue with the small TV sitting on top of a dresser. He told me he needed me to hold the TV while he stood behind me, adjusting ... something ... to ensure the TV wouldn't fall. As I was doing that, he felt me up and ground his pelvis into my backside. It happened so fast. I was so surprised and humiliated that I jumped away but let him finish the work. I'm still not sure why. I guess I was in shock and didn't quite believe what had happened. A couple of years later, the cable company called me to see if I'd ever experienced any issues with this particular guy. They must have received many complaints from many different women. Probably a lawsuit. I told the caller that nothing had ever happened. She told me it was okay, that I could tell her if something had happened, but I lied and said it hadn't. I was an attorney. I was a grown woman. I knew I'd done nothing wrong and should have told the truth. But I was humiliated that it had happened and that I hadn't reported it immediately, so I pretended I hadn't been groped.
  • When I was 40 or so, while walking outside my local supermarket, a car drove past and a teenage boy leaned out the window and called me a whore. 

These are the major incidents I recall. This list doesn't include any of the demeaning and humiliating things people have said in my earshot and directly to me all my life about my weight, including a mean comment from an adult man--a stranger--straight to my face when I was 11 years old. This list also doesn't include things that have happened in business settings (condescending interruptions and things of that nature). And the list excludes an uncomfortable incident that happened at a mystery convention a few years back--something that wasn't sexual or violent, but it was physical in nature. I don't want to go into the details of that incident except to say I don't think it would have happened to me if I were a man. I would guess my female friends all have had many experiences like mine. I would bet my male friends largely have not.

I know that many people have experienced far worse things than I have. Rape. Beatings. Other forms of violence. I'm grateful I haven't experienced direct harassment at work as so many women have, being asked to expose themselves in job interviews or being told that sleeping with the interviewer or boss was required to get or keep the job.

In a way I'm quite fortunate that my list is short and tame. It makes me uncomfortable to even mention some of these things because they probably sound like no big deal. But that would be de-escalation, which is what I'm trying not to do here. (To read the article that sparked this column, click here.)

This is the world we live in as women. This is why it's disheartening and degrading to hear anyone characterize Donald Trump's remarks on that bus as "just words." Those words are a part of a culture in which some men feel entitled to grope women, to expose themselves, and to do far worse things. It's a culture in which women often feel scared and humiliated and violated.

It's a world that needs to change for all our sakes.




17 October 2016

The Big Shift

by Janice Law

I recently finished reading Jo Baker’s excellent Longbourn, a novel that focuses on the downstairs folk of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In the Baker novel, the great events of Pride and Prejudice, a crucial ball, the arrival of the oh-so-eligible Mr. Bingley, Mr. Collins’ visit, and Lydia’s elopement are but incidentals to the unseen workers of the Austen novel.

The Hills, Sarah and Polly and the soon-to-be added footman, James, have their own dramas and their own concerns, not to mention an enormous amount of work – pumping and carrying water, doing laundry, emptying chamber pots, building fires, making bread and soap, not to mention preparing and serving the daily meals and generally waiting attendance on their “betters”.

This is a novel long overdue and really enjoyable. Very nice, you say, but what does that have to do with mysteries? On reflection, a fair bit, because published exactly 200 years apart (1813, 2013) the novels neatly illustrate the evolution of story telling from a moral to a psychological focus, as well as a shift in focus from the gentry class to the world’s workers.

The downstairs characters in Longbourn are fully drawn in the modern sense with an emphasis on their psychological states and on their responses to a rigid social system. We get glimpses of their youth and childhood, and instances when sick or injured, their minds reach altered states. There is nothing comparable in Pride and Prejudice, where many of the same human passions are filtered through the author’s rational and satiric mind and served up in the most elegant terms for the dual purpose of comic effect and moral lesson.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Longbourn which does a fine job with the workers of the household, is much less successful with their employers. Mrs. Bennet is probably the most convincing. Her backstory of painful pregnancies and deliveries fits better with the grueling realities of domestic service before mod cons. Elizabeth Bennet, by contrast, is almost unrecognizable, most of her rebellion and spark having been gifted to the novel’s heroine, the overworked but indomitable Sarah.

Given the difficulties of merging the two worlds, Austen may have been clever to leave the domestics of the Bennet household well off stage. Events that could be treated as comedy– or retrieved with a good deal of money like Lydia’s elopement – would certainly end in tragedy down in the kitchen.
After many semesters of teaching Austen, much of this did not surprise me. What I did find unexpected was, that despite the modern style of Longbourn, the characters of the newer novel were ultimately no more complex than Austen’s. Yes, we get more of their emotions, we get their sexual lives, and a broader canvas altogether, but they are not necessarily more complete and multisided for all that.

This is particularly true of the male characters. James and Tol, Sarah’s two suitors, are both too good to be true, while Wickham, charming but dishonest and corrupt in Pride and Prejudice, is a potential child molester in Longbourn. The greater depth of characterization in this case has led to characters who are less morally complicated.

Characters, it turns out, can be complex and fascinating in ways quite different from our current style, and there is no better example than that the chief of all detectives, Sherlock Holmes, who is much closer to an Austen character than to a modern detective. He has a brother with whom he is not close. He is prone to depression and overly fond of the 7% solution of cocaine. He is rude to everyone but not without sympathies up and down the social scale, and he is obsessive about all manner of abstruse topics.

What he dreams, fears, desires, remembers – these are absent, along with any personal entanglements such as bedevil every proper modern sleuth. And yet, he is by far the most famous of fictional detectives, cited and quoted and imitated and parodied. One of his cases gave a title to the best selling – and theatrically successful, The Incident of the Dog in the Night, and one of his comments heads a chapter in The Emperor of All Maladies, a biography of cancer of all things. He shows no signs of going away, nor do Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple, who share some of his characteristics.

Will any of our many fine detective and mystery protagonists rise to a similar iconic status? Are there simply too many of them? Or is psychological completeness and complicated personal life somehow against them? Perhaps Sherlock was successful because he was like a great theatrical role, waiting to be inhabited by our imaginations, a child not of psychology and melodrama, but like the best of Austen’s young women, of the robust rationality of the Enlightenment.

16 October 2016

The Girl on the Train

by Leigh Lundin

When weighing novels versus the movies made from them, books almost alway win. This wasn’t the case with Paula Hawkins’ recent The Girl on the Train. In an exceedingly rare decision, I liked the film slightly better than the book. Depending upon which reviews you read, I may be in the minority. IMDB gave the film 6.7 out of 10 whereas Rotten Tomatoes gave it a splattering 44/56 out of 100. Notice I didn’t say the movie was better, only that I liked it slightly more. I may have responded to the broader target audience of the movie– the original chicklit was unapologetically geared toward women.

Coming out of the theatre, I felt unusually conscious that the novel shaped my perception of the film. Knowing I couldn’t ‘unread’ the book, I wondered how newcomers to the story might view the film. A top review on the Internet Movie Database surprised me:
“… it seemed like an interesting mystery compounded by the black-out memories of the main character and I was anxious to solve it. As it progressed it became apparent that she was truly off kilter due to mainly drinking so it was very confusing. Without revealing the end, it should be noted that this is truly a sicko story filled with dysfunctional people all selfishly pursuing their libidinous desires. Each one cares not for the rights or feelings of others so multiple people get irrevocably hurt. I don't comprehend how anyone can come up with a story like this or would want to. … I remained till the end in the hopes of some redeeming quality…”
Yikes! Was this really how others saw it?

Flicklit v Chicklit

The Girl on the Train
My opinion derives from a masculine standpoint. As I remarked in my earlier commentary about the book, it contained enough internal dialogue to fill two Dr. Phil shows and most of an Oprah season. By omitting much of the introspection, the celluloid artists created a tighter, faster paced plot.

But don’t skip Paula Hawkins’s book; Rachel’s aching situation will break your heart, not to mention you’ll miss a virtual treatise on alcoholism. The final pages of the novel contain a shocking moment the film failed to pull off.

I had grumbled about the director resetting the story in New York for American audiences. An article in The Guardian complained a bit too, but not vociferously. Setting aside that quibble, the casting was well done– the women, their men, and even Detective Riley. She’s terrifying in a nun-with-a-ruler way, but someone you’d want on your side.

Taking Advantage

Movie makers enjoy advantages novelists can’t employ and you see some of that art in the film such as the jiggling, slightly out-of-focus camera when poor Rachel is inebriated. Like the book, the movie kept the train theme seen often in the background.

But theatres can have disadvantages too. Two biddies behind me (biddies in my mind– I didn’t turn around to strangle them) maintained a whispering commentary for those who might not know where the plot was heading. “She’s a blackout drunk, see, and that bitch, she’s actually having an affair, and oh my, that one had an affair too…”

This Film is Rated Я

Not only am I baffled by comparisons to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, I'm also flummoxed by the R rating. To be sure, there was a tiny bit of skin at one point, far less than anything seen in a Kardashian photo spread. It's possible the R was handed out for the modicum of blood-letting.

Frankly, it's pretty tame stuff and I hazard the average high school student could handle both the book and the film without fainting.

Improper Prop

A fragment of one scene jolted me and in discussing it, I'll avoid giving away a plot element. The novel mentions a wine bottle opener. In my mind, I pictured a combination knife/corkscrew sometimes called a waiter’s opener, fashioned like a pocketknife with a helical screw and a blade for cutting the seal.

That’s not what the prop department decided upon when they came up with the simpler and much less efficient corkscrew. I found the result jarringly awkward and not as realistic as it could have been.

Have you seen the film? Have you read the book? What is your take?

15 October 2016

Anthopology


by John M. Floyd



An-tho-pol-o-gy: The study of various aspects of writing stories for books that include the work of several different authors.

Okay, I made that up. There's no such word. But maybe there should be.

I like to tell my students that there are two primary markets for the short stories they write: magazines and anthologies. Personally, I tend to explore magazine markets first, because some anthologies are receptive to reprints, and I like to get double duty out of my creations--but anthos can be profitable also, in both payment and exposure. And recently I've found myself sending a fair number of my stories, original and reprints, to anthologies. (There are actually four markets out there for short stories: (1) mags, (2) anthos, (3) self-publishing, and (4) collections of your own stories. I've not yet self-pubbed anything, but I have had five collections published, plus a sixth that was released this past week.)

Besides the fact that there are anthos that take reprints and those that don't, there's another distinction that should be made. (1) Some anthologies send out "calls for submission," where writers can submit stories for consideration in much the same way they would to a magazine market, and (2) some anthologies hand-pick and invite certain authors to contribute stories. A few anthos do a little of both: they invite a few specific authors and they also put out a call for unsolicited work.

As a writer, I've recently placed stories in anthologies that I "auditioned" for after being told they were seeking submissions (examples: the Blood on the Bayou Bouchercon antho, We've Been Trumped by Darkhouse Books, etc.) and I have other stories uncoming in books that I was asked to contribute to (examples: a Private Eye anthology by Down & Out Books and a horror antho by a Bram Stoker-winning editor I've worked with before). And sometimes even that can be a combination of processes. I submitted an unsolicited story to editor Tom Franklin for Mississippi Noir (Akashic Books) that didn't fit his guidelines (it was a reprint, which was stupid of me), so he asked me to send him an original story instead, which he accepted and included in the book. Writing and publishing, as I've said before, is a strange business.

NOTE 1: One advantage of anthologies that issue "calls for submission" is that there's always a deadline. The stories have to be sent in by such-and-such a date because the antho needs to be published by such-and-such a date. And that sometimes-narrow window of time automatically cuts out part of the competition, and ups the odds for acceptance/inclusion. Some writers won't even be aware that there is a call for submission until it's too late to send a story in, and even those who do see it and are interested might not have a story available (or enough time to be able to produce one) that fits the guidelines.

NOTE 2: I'm not talking here about annual "best-of" anthologies like Otto Penzler's Best American Mystery Stories. When your already-published story winds up being selected for and reprinted in one of those, that's great, but that's also pretty much out of your control. I'm talking more about anthologies that either request stories from certain writers or choose from the unsolicited submissions of others.

The best situation, obviously, is for the editor to contact you and ask you to submit a story. It's flattering, it involves no marketing effort, and when it happens you can be fairly certain that your "solicited" story will be included. But the funny thing is, even though I'm always honored to be asked to contribute to an anthology (who wouldn't be?), I'm also one of those odd folks who find it harder to conform to someone else's idea for a story than to dream up an idea of my own. So when the theme/mood/genre of an anthology is very (sometimes too) specific, I often find it more difficult to write a story that I'm satisfied with. Don't get me wrong: I do it. And I work on it until I am satisfied. But I still think it's easier to come up with my own ideas, make up stories from those ideas, then search for matching markets than to create stories with the pre-set themes and ideas of others.

What are some of your experiences and opinions on all this? Do you actively seek publication in anthologies? If so, how do you find them? Have you always been able to squeeze through the submission window in terms of time and story-theme? Are you often asked by an editor to contribute to an antho? Have you ever turned down such a request? Do you find it easy to write a story-on-demand? Have your published stories ever been selected for some of the "best-of's"?

On the subject of Best American Mystery Stories, let me again congratulate my SleuthSayers colleagues Rob Lopresti and Art Taylor on making the newly-released 2016 edition of B.A.M.S.--Good work, guys! (And I noticed that R.T. Lawton, David Edgerley Gates, and I managed to make the "close-but-no-cigar" list in the back of the book, this time. It's not the Top 20 of the year, but it's the Top 50; when I saw my story in the list, my head swelled until I had to adjust the strap on my baseball cap.)

Since I seem to be wallowing in self-congratulatory mode, I have another announcement: my latest collection of short mystery fiction was released on October 10, with a launch at Lemuria Books here in Jackson, Mississippi. It's hardcover, thirty stories, 352 pages, 90,000 words, and titled (appropriately) Dreamland.


And yes, a few of the included stories previously appeared in . . . anthologies.

I'm not an anthopologist for nothing.








14 October 2016

Reading Here, There, and Everywhere

By Art Taylor

Earlier this week, Cynthia Kuhn wrote a fun post at the Henery Press blog: "Professor X, In the Conservatory, With a Book," which looked at many different ways to read, places and times to read, and even types of books to read, or maybe the better word there would be editions or conditions, since she talked about the differences between brand new books versus used ones. I was struck particularly by Cynthia's observation that "many people are fond of reading in bed, snuggled under a cozy blanket with a book to send you gently off to dreamland. (Or, if you’re like me—routinely jarred awake when the book falls onto your face—not so gently.)"

I read each night before going to bed—and yes, more than once, I've had the book fall on my face, waking me up. (And then, instead of putting the book down like a sensible person might do, I just shuffle myself up a little higher against the pillow and settle in for a few more pages...until it happens again.)

I often find myself wishing I had more time to read—and while that was one of my first reactions to Cynthia's post, my second thought was sharper and maybe more in tune with what she was saying: I am always reading. Not only is it the last thing I do at night, it's also the first thing I do in the morning—scanning the top news stories from Washington Post on my iPhone there in the darkness, and then later reading the paper itself, and sometimes sneaking in a few pages of whatever else I'm reading in between parts of the morning routine. One of my New Year's Resolutions this year has been a chapter a day of War & Peace, as I've mentioned before, and I'll sometimes knock that out first thing, then throughout the day, it's reading at every turn—though not always traditional kinds of reading, I guess: emails,  Facebook status updates, stories linked to those FB updates, blog posts here and there; then the stories and essays and books I'm reading as part of lesson prep for class, and the student essays and exercises that I'm grading, of course; and somewhere in there, some reading for myself, dabbling in any number of stories and essays and books I have in various corners of my life.

I read in in bed, at the breakfast table or standing in the kitchen, in my office, and (yes) in the bathroom. I have read in the spare moments while waiting to meet someone or waiting at other appointments (haircut recently, for example). I've even read while waiting at stoplights—pulling out my iPhone and opening the Kindle app to sneak in a few pages; we're in Northern Virginia, after all, and that's a lot of time that could be, should be, used well! (No reading while the car is actually in motion, of course, at least not while I'm behind the wheel—though you won't catch me in the passenger seat or on public transportation without a book nearby.)

While I could go back through that list and those moments above and qualify that much of it isn't what I want to read, reading solely for pleasure—and isn't that at the core of the wish for "more time to read"?—I realized looking around today that I've actually surrounded myself with reading that's not assigned and not part of daily chores and routines (not part of staying plugged into email and the web), reading that is, in fact, just for me.

Maybe it's the distracted nature of our lives these days, but I'm usually juggling several books at one time—even not counting those I'm pacing out on my syllabi for class. I've got bookmarks in several titles I'm working through, reading a bit at a time depending on what calls to me most at a given moment, and I often read aloud to my wife Tara in the evenings, so we're frequently in the middle of a story from one anthology or another—and all these books stay within easy reach. 

For example, here's what you'll find on my nightstand right now (and a hat tip to Patricia Abbott, whose semi-regular feature on this also inspired me here):
  • Ian McEwan's Nutshell
  • Sarah L. Kaufman's The Art of Grace
  • Tolstoy's War and Peace—both a big hardcover copy of the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation and then the Maude translation on my Kindle
  • The Kindle itself—and tops on recently accessed titles, both War & Peace and Anna Katherine Green's The Golden Slipper (I taught one of the Violet Strange stories in class and I'm now reading/rereading others for fun)
  • Several single-author short story collections, including Ann Beattie's The New Yorker Stories, Ellen Gilchrist's Acts of Gods, and B.K. Stevens' Her Infinite Variety (hi, Bonnie!) 
  • Several anthologies, including The Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries, In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, In Sunlight or In Shadow, and The Folio Book of Ghost Stories 
  • The new Best American Mystery Stories anthology and the November issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, since I have stories in each myself and want to read the stories by the other contributors (hi, Rob Lopresti!)
  • Another EQMM, from December 2015, that I've already read and should put away somewhere
  • Sophie Hannah's Closed Casket that Tara passed my way with some enthusiasm, even though I still haven't read the first of Hannah's mysteries with Christie's Hercule Poirot (I'm behind)
  • Lisa Lutz's The Spellman Files, which I pulled out because I was considering teaching it and need to revisit again anyway, even though I didn't add it to the syllabus

And as you can see, the list quickly gets qualified and commented on and... and why don't I have more time to read?

Just to round out the listing of books close at hand, here are the ones physically on my desk from my office on campus—not counting the ones I'm reading for class:
  • The first volume of the new seven-volume Collected Millar: The Master at Her Zenith, and those first pages of Beast In View really draw you right in, don't they? 
  • 100 Dastardly Little Detective Stories, which a friend dropped off to me and which I've already dived into
  • The July 2016 and September/October 2016 issues of EQMM (hello sometimes-SleuthSayer David Dean in each of those!)
  • The July/August 2016 issue of AHMM (hello to SleuthSayers Terence Faherty, Eve Fisher, Janice Law, and R.T. Lawton!)
  • Karen Huston Karydes' Hard-Boiled Anxiety: The Freudian Desires of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald and Their Detectives, which I've read and still need to review
  • The Describer's Dictionary: A Treasury of Terms & Literary Quotations... which reminds me, I'm supposed to be writing too in the middle of all this reading. (Where's the time for that, huh?)
Whew!

What are you reading? And when, where, how do you read?

Top of my reading list next (I promise!): any comment you leave here. :-)

13 October 2016

More Updates From South Dakota

by Eve Fisher

One of the fun things about having moved around a lot is that you learn that most places look a whole lot alike any more, from the strip malls to gas stations, from fast-food chains to housing developments.  And don't even get me started on the "industrial parks", where large metal sheds are the new factories (no windows, two doors, completely anonymous).  Even Josiah Bounderby would think they were a little too utilitarian.

On the other hand, the other fun thing you learn is that, underneath all that sameness, there are real differences.

Image result for dry corn in fields south dakotaOne thing that puzzled me when I first moved up here, was why there were so many cornfields standing, unharvested, well into November, December, January, February...  I mean, there's brown corn, with cobs, with snow.  So I asked about that:  "Was there some sort of blight?" And was told that the corn was freeze-drying in the fields, to save the cost of corn dryers.  Who knew?  I'd been living in the South for the last 17 years, where they harvest at harvest time, i.e., the fall, because if they leave the corn in the field, it'll rot with all the rain.  Up here...  well, we're colder than that.

Here's another puzzler:

Image result for signs limousin service

There's lots of signs here in South Dakota for "Limousin Service". As a newcomer, I had two questions:

(1) why were there so many limousine services in rural South Dakota?
(2) why didn't they spell it right?

Later I learned that a Limousin (outside of Sioux Falls) is a cow. French origin, from the Limousin, but all over the place up here, along with Angus, Shorthorn, Simmenthal, etc.   And, of course, Limousin Service is about breeding.  (Which sometimes happens in limousines, too, but we won't get into that.)

BTW, this is NOT a misspelling, but deliberate:

Image result for toe service

There are more than one of these signs along I-29 between Sioux Falls and Mitchell.  Dick knows how to make you look.  Betcha he gets a lot of calls, too.
BTW, this is why I regularly put characters asking stupid questions into my stories.  God knows I've done it often enough.
Thankfully, there are other ways to find out what's going on in a new area than running around asking crazy questions.  For one thing, find out who's the biggest gossip in town and park yourself next to him at the Norseman's Bar or her down at the Laskin Cafe.

Another way is to read the local paper.  And not just the local daily paper, but the local weekly paper, which services the whole county.  We have one, called "The Peach".  If you need field irrigation wells, farm & home wells, high capacity pumps; if you want to buy a limousin 2 year old bull or an Angus yearling; if you need retrenching or a ride to Branson to see Daniel O'Donnell; or any sort of job in the healthcare, farming, or hog confinement industry, the Peach is the place to go.

Did I mention barn straightening?  Seed cleaning?  Bean stubble baling?

Also pork loin feeds, and church suppers, all of which are other places where you can go and get fed while catching up on the news/gossip/weather report.

And then there are the Locals, where we find out what to do with our spare time:
  • Dist. 8 Conservatives Luncheon
  • Laskin Duplicate Bridge
  • Arts Council
  • Alcoholics Anonymous 
  • Sr. Citizens Dance (hugely popular; if you're a guy who loves to dance, you will not sit down for longer than it takes to have a cup of coffee or a highball to pep you up for the next dance.)
  • Christian Motorcyclists Association
  • VFW Auxiliary Sunday Brunch - every Sunday, great pancakes, come on down!
  • The Country Swingers (more dancing; get your mind out of the gutter) 
Now granted, it's not the Agony Column that Sherlock Holmes read every day, but things slip in.

Like what happened to the person who posted "Acres of good used hog equipment for sale"?  What happened to THAT hog containment operation?  And why does s/he say, "Save this ad"?

Or why is someone "looking for used mobile homes, 1995 or older, will pay CASH."  Do they breed? Are they refurbished and sold as new?  Or are they being shipped up to the Bakken for the man-camps?

Or the sale of "Positive Rain Gutters".  (Watch out for negative rain gutters, they will leak and you.)

And there are auctions galore, of course.  These are important, not only because you can bid on everything from TOOLS OF ALL KINDS (and they ain't kidding!) to Antiques, Trucks, Household Goods, Implements, Stationary Engines, Parts & Pieces, and the land itself.  Auctions are where people gather.  They last all day; food (or at least coffee) is often served; and people stand around and catch up on everything, from who's there and who isn't.

And speaking of auctions, we had a humdinger back in September.  You remember the Gear Up! scandal, where, early in the morning of September 17, 2015, a fire destroyed the home of Scott and Nicole Westerhuis and their four children in Platte, South Dakota.  Our Attorney General Marty Jackley determined that Scott Westerhuis shot his entire family, torched the house, and then shot himself, all because he was about to be caught for embezzling enough funds - and no one still knows how much - to build a $1.3 million rural home, a $900,000 gym complete with basketball court, etc., etc., etc., on a combined salary of $130,000.

Well, look to your right, folks.  Yes, they auctioned off what stuff survived the fire that night.  For a detailed look at what was on auction, read Cory Heidelberger's blog HERE.

As you might expect, the auction was a major topic of discussion around town.  Many of us agreed that we would not be anxious to have any item from that property because we are almost all superstitious, and feel like the TVs might go on and off by themselves, or perhaps the desk roller chairs might start swiveling around in the middle of the night, like at, say 2:57 AM when someone used the Westerhuis landline to call Nicole Westerhuis' cell phone...

The land itself was sold at auction to the Platte Area Ministerial Association, who plan to open an interdenominational Christian camp there.  Unfortunately, they only had the $37,000 down payment and are trying to raise the rest of the $370,000 bid.  They've set up a GoFundMe page, which hopefully will work.  (Although I can't but wonder if an exorcism might also help...)

And where did the funds that were raised go?  To pay for the funerals; compensation for estate representatives and attorneys; a dozen credit card companies, banks, and workers.  Meanwhile, Gear Up! will not be reimbursed nor, apparently, the State of South Dakota.

And speaking of Gear Up - Mid Central Educational Co-op Director Dan Guericke is accused of backdating contracts to avoid a government audit, plus sighing at least 17 illegally secret contracts on behalf of Mid Central worth $3.8 million. Where, oh, where did the money go? (see all of Angela Kennecke's report HERE.

Speaking of Guericke and Westerhuis, "Guericke spent more than an hour on the phone with Scott Westerhuis the evening before the tragedy and when the board questioned him about what was said, sources tell me that Guericke told them the two really didn't talk about much at all."  Mm-hmm.

Did I mention that they STILL haven't found Scott Westerhuis safe?

Ah, South Dakota, where we talk like Mayberry, act like Goodfellas, and the crazy just keeps on coming.

 

12 October 2016

The Devil in the Details

David Edgerley Gates


On the heels of my last post, about the movie JUGGERNAUT and the physicality of detail, I had an exchange with Leigh Lundin about how much is too much.  

Leigh and I agree that there's a wicked temptation in arcane vocabulary. I used S-18's as an example some few weeks back. He mentions chatter between pilots and Air Traffic Control. Professionals talk in jargon. It's the Capt. Midnight secret decoder ring culture. You get to be the guy behind the curtain. The anointed, the brotherhood of furtive handshakes and rope-soled sneakers.

For writers, there's an obvious snare we've all fallen into. You know something intimately, or if you don't, you do the homework. And of course you don't want all that effort to go to waste, so you shovel it on, because nobody stays your hand. But it's an undigested lump, that sinks to the pit of your stomach. This is also where the expression's likely to come in, that it smells of the lamp. You had to look it up, and it shows.

Supposing, though, for the sake of argument, that the special skill or knowledge we want to use in our story is something we're actually hands-on with. We've got every confidence, we're not going to drop a stitch, we've got ownership. You can still bog yourself down. Witness my story "Cover of Darkness," which was also referenced in the JUGGERNAUT post.

A word of explanation. "Cover of Darkness" is about a clandestine mission. A covert ops team is flown into West Berlin to recover a Russian fighter plane that's crashed in the British sector, in sixty feet of water. The team has to make the dive at night, and before the Russians get wise to what they're doing.

Okay. Underwater salvage work, which is already dangerous enough. Then you got the clock ticking, and the Russians breathing down their necks, and everybody in the competing spy hierarchies looking to take credit. But wait one. What really interested me about the story was how they knew what they had. What made this particular aircraft such a prize? So in the original draft, I had fifteen or eighteen seriously dense pages of explanation, the decrypts, the radar signatures and ELINT profile, performance data, Pilot Billet Suffixes - it all fed the mix. And my then-editor Cathleen Jordan said to me, Ahem. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the story actually starts when these guys go in the river. This is all deeply fascinating stuff, but it just goes on forever, and my eyes doth glaze over. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but it's gotta go.

I was heartbroken. Not least because I knew she was right. It was deeply fascinating stuff to me, but it was dead weight on the story. It was cement shoes. Of course, it was good. Don't get me wrong. It was assured, it was authentic, it was solid, it was sexy, even. It was a great intelligence briefing. And it was irrelevant.


So. The trick is to strike a balance. Enough to catch a scent, but don't overstay your welcome. Which isn't always easy. And sometimes, if it's one of your enthusiasms, there's no such thing as too much. There's never enough. You have to trust to instinct. Learn by doing. Just don't take all the air out of the room.

Because there's always the chance that you're right, and the conventional wisdom is mistaken. Tony Hillerman tells a story. When he finished the first of the Navajo books, THE BLESSING WAY, he was shopping it around, and a name agent (who shall remain nameless) wrote him a note. She thought there was a lot to like, but she had a question for him. Couldn't he get rid of all that Indian crap?

11 October 2016

Killing Me Softly With Your Song…or Anything Else You Have Handy

by Paul D. Marks

As mystery/thriller writers, we know there are certainly a lot of ways to kill someone. As Kid Shelleen (Lee Marvin), says in “Cat Ballou”: “Guns, bottles, fists, knives, clubs - all the same to me. All the same to you?”

But let’s face it – been there, done that – and these are pretty mundane and ordinary ways to off someone. If you want to kill someone in an interesting and unique way, especially if you’re a character in a movie or book, you have to let the creative juices flow, like Herb Hawkins (Hume Cronyn) and Joseph Newton (Henry Travers) do in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (even if not in script format or what ended up in the film):   

     
Herb (Cronyn): You folks are getting pretty stylish. Having dinner later every evening.
Joe (Travers): Ha ha!
Herb:  l-l picked some mushrooms.
Joe: You don't say?
Herb: Mushrooms mean anything to you, Joe?
Joe: I eat 'em on my steak when I'm out and the meat's not good enough as it is.
Herb: If I brought you some mushrooms, would you eat 'em?
Joe: Suppose I would. Why?
Herb: Then I've got it. The worst I'd be accused of would be manslaughter. Doubt if I'd get that.   Accidental death, pure and simple. A basket of good mushrooms and...two or three poisonous              ones.
     Joe: No, no. Innocent party might get the poisonous ones. I thought of something better 
     when I was shaving. A bath tub. Pull the legs out from under you, hold you down. 
     Young Charlie (Teresa Wright): Oh, what's the matter with you two? Do you always have to 
     talk about killing people?
     Joe: We're not talking about killing people. Herb's talking about killing me, 
     and I'm talking about killing him.
     Mrs. Newton/Emmy (Patricia Collinge): Charlie, it's your father's way of relaxing.
     Young Charlie: Can't he find some other way to relax? Can't we have a little peace and quiet 
     without dragging in poisons all the time? 
     Mrs. Newton: Charlie! She doesn’t ' t make sense talking like that. I'm worried about her.

***

Of course, there’s always poison. Sure it’s been done before, but what hasn’t. So maybe get creative with it like this bit from The Court Jester:

    Hawkins (Danny Kaye): I've got it! I've got it! The pellet with the poison's in the vessel with the             pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true! Right?
    Griselda (Mildred Natwick): Right. But there's been a change: they broke the chalice from the                 palace!
    Hawkins: They *broke* the chalice from the palace?
    Griselda: And replaced it with a flagon.
    Hawkins: A flagon...?
    Griselda: With the figure of a dragon.
    Hawkins: Flagon with a dragon.
    Griselda: Right.
    Hawkins: But did you put the pellet with the poison in the vessel with the pestle?
    Griselda: No! The pellet with the poison's in the flagon with the dragon! The vessel with the pestle        has the brew that is true!
    Hawkins: The pellet with the poison's in the flagon with the dragon; the vessel with the pestle has          the brew that is true.
    Griselda: Just remember that.

Uh, okay.

***

So let’s talk about some creative ways to kill someone, though this list will hardly be complete.
And here’s a starter list of many fun, fab and creative ways to die as found in movies:

Poison string – James Bond
Light Saber – Star Wars
Captive Bolt Pistol – No Country for Old Men
Painted to death (gold, of course) – Goldfinger
Odd Job’s Hat – Goldfinger / James Bond
Chain Saw – American Psycho and, of course, The Texas Chainsaw Murders
Infection – Night of the Living Dead, V for Vendetta
Getting stomped to death by Ryan Gosling – Drive
Getting shower rodded to death by Ryan Gosling – Drive
(I could just list all the killings in Drive here and have a pretty good list…)
Getting stabbed to death by an ear of corn – Sleepwalkers
Wood chippered – Fargo
Getting raked to death - Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers
Getting skulled by a Louisville Slugger – the Untouchables
Getting blasted from a cancer gun – Videodrome
Getting run over by Bozo – Toxic Avenger
Sliced and diced and decapitated by flying glass – The Omen
Getting impaled by a stalactite – Cliffhanger
Luca Brasi getting garroted in The Godfather
Steak-boned to death – Law Abiding Citizen

And let’s not forget the multitude of “fun” deaths in the Saw movie series with its mélange of creative and grisly deaths: http://sawfilms.wikia.com/wiki/List_of_deaths

This list of creative mayhem is by no means exhaustive nor complete. It’s barely the tip of the iceberg – in fact, I’m sure someone was iceberged to death in the movies…like in Titanic.

             
Oscar Wilde puts it pretty well in The Ballad Of Reading Gaol:

Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword.

So what are some your favorite ways to off someone that you’ve read about or seen in a movie? Hmm…

***

Please check out my story Deserted Cities of the Heart in Akashic’s recently released St. Louis Noir.




###

10 October 2016

Dream A Little Scene

DREAM A LITTLE SCENE

by Jan Grape


The other night I had an awesome dream. Bill Crider was in it with me. Yes, the Dad of the three VBKs (very bad kittens) if you don't follow Bill, then why not? Anyway, this dream involved Bill and me and this blonde lady. So in the dream Bill and I were touring the US together with our Edgar-winning best-selling Books. (Okay, if you are going to dream, dream big, right?) In this dream we were going from East Coast to West Coast with stops in Houston TX at Murder By The Book and including The Poisoned Pen in Scotsdale AZ for book signing events.

This blonde would show up at every bookstore where we were signing. She bought Bill's book and mine, too in TX. Then she showed up in Austin when we signed at Book People. She wanted our signatures only; not personalized. The blonde wouldn't speak other than to say, "Signature only please." She wouldn't talk to either of us, although both Bill and I tried to engage her in conversation.

The blonde showed up in Dallas and in Scotsdale AZ and in LA and then San Francisco. She wouldn't get into our signing line but waited until we had signed books for the store's stock, she'd make her purchase. It began to get a bit creepy. Was she stalking Bill or me? What on earth did she want? Did she have murder on her mind and not the kind you read about but the kind a person actually did.  We talked to police who called in the FBI. Our publisher even discussed hiring a body-guard. We did another couple of signings and she was there each time. But she'd leave before the FBI agent or our body-guard could talk to her. When we walked into the bookstore in Portland OR we gave a huge sigh of relief because we didn't see her. But that was short lived because she came out from one of the back corners of the store just as we were signing the last books for the store's stock.

Our body guard was right behind her. This time he had her by the arm. He spoke to her for about 10 minutes. After that she left. Bill and I finished signing and the guy came up with a silly smile on his face. "The blonde wasn't stalking you. She just wanted to by an autographed book in each store where you had personally appeared."

That's when I woke up. Okay it was a silly little dream but it did stay with me and I soon found myself thinking of different story lines and in what way could I built up suspense? What if I did this ? And what about this after that? Could I come up with enough of a plot to make a short story out of the dream? Doubtful.

Which gave me the idea to write this blog. Have any of you ever written a story or a book based on a dream? I don't think I have but I am sure that I have gone to bed thinking about a scene I was having a problen with and dreamed up a solution to the problem. Years ago I asked Joe Landsdale how he came up with one of his book's strange characters. He said, my wife makes some really greasy popcorn for me. I eat that, go to bed and dream strange
books. Works for Joe.

Have any of you done that? I really would like to read your comments.




09 October 2016

The Fantôme

Hurricane Matthew
Hurricane Matthew
by Leigh Lundin

My SleuthSayers colleagues became a personal comforting presence as Florida braced for a hurricane that had already killed 800 people in Haiti. Fortunately my area was spared with little more damage than downed limbs and a 13-hour loss of power.

Fixed in my mind was 2004 when four major hurricanes attacked Florida. Three of them impacted me personally but I came out of them with the most important thing, bodily intact.

One other positive grew out of the devastation. Enduring endless hours without electricity, with canyons lined with debris and so many fallen trees that roads remained blocked for days and weeks, I began to write.

For this Hurricane Matthew, preparations included food, water, batteries, and propane for cooking on the grill with my friend Thrush. About the time SleuthSayers started, fellow mystery author Susan Slater moved from New Mexico to St. Augustine two miles from the ocean, well within reach of the winds and surge zone. She retreated to stay with friends on higher ground. Another friend and writer, Claire Poulsen, abandoned Amelia Island for the safety of a cabin in North Carolina.

But when I think of hurricanes, I don’t think of my own experiences, fortunately dreadfully dull. Instead, other efforts come to mind.

Labor Day Hurricane

The building of the Florida East Coast Railway makes a fascinating tale involving ingenious engineers, incredibly brave laborers, and an indomitable entrepreneurial spirit.

During construction, hurricanes struck in the late 1800s, then again in 1906 and 1909. I have been unable to identify the date, but one of the stories involved a rescue train chased by a ’cane that didn’t take the time to turn around. The train raced up the coast backwards to avoid the deadly winds.

In testament to the careful planning and design, the current US 1 Overseas Highway is partly built on footings constructed more than a century ago. The FECR sold the right-of-way to the State of Florida for pennies on the dollar following the deadly Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, the one described by Lionel Barrymore in Key Largo.

Castaway Cay
Hurricane Floyd

The incredible engineering of a century ago was brought home in a personally observed way. Disney Cruise Line leases Castaway Cay (formerly Gordo Cay) from the Bahamian government. In taking over the private island, Disney built a pier its ships can sidle against so that passengers can come and go using gangways rather than tenders.

In 1999, Hurricane Floyd swept through the Bahamas. Disney evacuated the island of the few dozen resident cast members (employees). It was with trepidation a team returned to the island where they found two surprises.

Voices in the Dark
In my teens, it was ‘a thing’ to visit the airport at night where we could stand out on a deck with our dates, cuddling and watching flights coming and going. Well, mostly cuddling but we could tune in speakers to listen to air traffic controllers in flat, unemotional voices direct planes amid hand-offs with ground control.

NASA flight controllers use similar restrained, equable commands and commentary during launches and landings. Those passionless voices sends chills when listening to the unforgettable recordings from the takeoff of the Space Shuttle Challenger and the fiery disintegration of Columbia over Texas.
The buildings remained largely intact and most of the wind destruction involved little more than shingles and lounge chairs. The real surprise was the pier. That massive hunk of concrete and steel twisted up out of the seabed like a bitter joke. The storm surge made a mockery of our so-called ‘modern’ construction. Whereas hundreds of Flagler’s railroad foundations remain intact today, this present-day foundation ended up junk.

Hurricane Mitch

On 26 October 1998, I joined a consulting project with shore-based operations of Disney Cruise Line. The people I worked with were experienced ship’s officers, mostly captains extensively recruited from Europe and the US Coast Guard, plus a couple of South Africans and Australians. Unlike me, the other members were professional seamen.

The same day I started my job, Tropical Storm Mitch became Category 5 Hurricane Mitch heading toward Honduras. Unleashing twenty days of hell, it would become one of the most unpredictable of cyclonic storms, wreaking devastation through Central America, slugging Florida, then sailing across the Atlantic where it slapped the British Isles and Iceland. It would take 9000 lives, mostly in Central America. Thirty-one of those lives became of special interest.

Fantôme
The Fantôme (The Phantom)

The four-masted, steel-hulled Fantôme was a beautiful ship with a fascinating history. Purchased in 1927 by the Duke of Westminster, it was later acquired by the Guinness family. At the outbreak of WW-II, Ernest Guinness docked her in Seattle. There it remained until 1953 because of unpaid fees and taxes.

Aristotle Onassis, who would later marry Jackie Kennedy, purchased the yacht, renovated it, intending it as a wedding gift for Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco. Gossip says the couple omitted Onassis from their guest list, forfeiting the lovely present. In 1969, the owner of Windjammer Cruises swapped a freighter for the schooner and spent another fortune, reportedly $6-million, refurbishing it as the Windjammer flagship.

The Wait

On 25 October, TS Mitch, a thousand miles distant, grew in strength and changed course toward Jamaica. As a precaution, Captain Guyan March dropped off the one-hundred passengers and ten non-essential crew at Belize City.

Based upon the latest models and frankly unpredictable storm path estimates, March headed north. The hurricane stopped dead. Then it turned. The Fantôme reversed south in efforts to dodge the onrushing storm apparently driving toward the Yucatán. The captain intended to shelter in the lee of Roatan, but Category 5 Mitch with winds of 300kmph (185mph, 162 knots) veered magnetically toward the ship. A desperate Fantôme turned eastward toward the open sea.

31 Souls

In the Disney Cruise Line offices in Celebration, Florida, the European staff had set up an espresso machine with a number of flavored syrups to supplement the coffee maker. The coffee station contained one other instrument, a shortwave radio.

Upon arrival, I found the professionals gathered around coffee and charts. While tracking the hurricane and the Fantôme, they listened in on the cat-and-mouse playing out in the wavebands of the radio, the coast guards in the flat tones of men aware lives were at stake.

The hurricane picked up her skirts, exchanging eye-wall speeds of 250kmph (155mph, 135 knots) for forward motion. About 16:30 on the 27th, the Fantôme relayed her position. As the storm center approached the vessel, the Fantôme radioed she was fighting winds of 100 knots and four-storey high seas. Five o’clock approached. Few standing around the radio moved to go home.

And then…

And then nothing. Silence. Not silence, but a repeating call into the abyss.

“Fantôme… S/V Fantôme… Fantôme…”

Through the next day. And the next.

“Fantôme… S/V Fantôme… Fantôme…”

Men wore hollow looks. Women blinked away tears.

“Fantôme… S/V Fantôme… Fantôme…”

Days passed. The hurricane swung north.

On 2 November as Mitch took aim at Florida, the British destroyer HMS Sheffield found life-preservers and rafts bearing the stamp S/V Fantôme floating off the coast of Guanaja.

The beautiful Phantom had vanished.

08 October 2016

Mrs. Malaprop Lives!

by B.K. Stevens

Affectation, Henry Fielding declares in the preface to Joseph Andrews, is "the only source of the true Ridiculous." I think that principle holds true for language. We may get irritated with people who confuse "your" and "you're" or "accept" and "except." Usually, though, we're not tempted to ridicule them--certainly not if they're very young or haven't had many educational opportunities, probably not even if they're well-educated adults who ought to know better. After all, everyone makes mistakes. Unless something is so riddled with errors that it's obvious the writer didn't even try to proofread, most of us are more inclined to forgive than to ridicule. (I certainly hope you'll forgive me for any mistakes I've made in this post. It's terrifying to write on this sort of subject, knowing I could slip up at any time.)

But when writers are guilty of affectation--and especially when affectation is compounded by ignorance--ridicule begins to seem like an appropriate response. Some literary characters have become famous for sounding foolish when they try to impress others with inflated language. In Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing, Dogberry announces that he and his men have "comprehended two aspicious persons" and later declares a prisoner will be "condemned into everlasting redemption" for his misdeeds. (I checked several copies of Much Ado, by the way, and they all said "aspicious," not "auspicious." So you don't have to forgive me for that one.) In Sheridan's The Rivals, Mrs. Malaprop complains she has little "affluence" on her niece, who is "as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile." When these characters make us laugh, I think we're laughing at their affectation, not their ignorance: They become ridiculous not because they have limited vocabularies but because they're trying to show off.

And Dogberry and Mrs. Malaprop have plenty of modern descendants. "My new thriller is the penultimate in suspense!" a novelist proclaims. The poor thing probably thinks "penultimate" means "more than ultimate." But since it actually means "second to last," "the penultimate in suspense" isn't much of a boast. "If you're searching for the meaning of life," a motivational speaker says, "I can offer you a simplistic answer." The speaker could have said "simple" but probably thought it sounded too--well, simple. Instead, the speaker opted for the extra syllable, unintentionally admitting the answer he or she is about to give can't adequately explain life's complexities. "If you follow my advice," the astrologer promises a potential client, "you will always be fortuitous." The astrologer may think "fortuitous" is a more elegant way of saying "fortunate." But to the extent his or her promise means anything, it means the potential client will always be ruled by chance. In all of these examples, the real problem is affectation, not ignorance. (True, we sometimes laugh at the things people say even when there's no affectation involved. For example, it was hard not to chuckle when Yogi Berra said, "You can observe a lot by just watching" or "Half the lies they tell about me aren't true." But an affectionate chuckle isn't the same as ridicule. Yogi wasn't putting on airs, just scrambling things up a bit--that makes a big difference.)


People who dress up their sentences with foreign words or phrases may also be suffering from affectation affliction. I love HGTV--like Food Network, it's one of my default channels--but the constant use of en suite grates on my nerves. "Here's your magnificent master bedroom," a star of Love It or List It or some such show will say, "and here's your spa-like en suite." Then he or she throws open the door to what used to be called a master bathroom.

Has en suite become fashionable because "master bathroom" sounds politically incorrect? I don't think so. After all, the same people who use en suite still say "master bedroom"--once, I heard an HGTV host refer to a "master en suite." And if the connotations of "master bathroom" make us uncomfortable, we can always say "owner's bathroom." No, I think en suite is appealing because it has that special air of sophistication, that added note of elegance, that je ne sais quoi. In short, it's appealing because it sounds so darn French. Unfortunately, to anyone who knows even a little French, it also sounds silly. "En suite" is a phrase, not a noun; it means "in a suite," not "bathroom." Two or more rooms that form a unit might be described as rooms en suite, but referring to a single room as "an en suite" doesn't make sense.

It also doesn't make sense for invitations to ask people to "please RSVP," or for menus to say a roast beef sandwich is served with "a cup of au jus." And if the menu also lists a "soup du jour of the day"--sacre bleu! The point isn't that we all need to know French--certainly not--but that we shouldn't try to sound impressive by using words or phrases we don't really understand. The advice George Orwell offers in "Politics and the English Language" can save us from a lot of embarrassing mistakes: "Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent."

Linguistic affectation can take other forms, too. Malapropisms are silly but relatively innocent. Driven by a desire to impress, people abuse the language without realizing it. But sometimes, I think, people are so driven that they push ahead even when they're fully aware of what they're doing.

That brings us to the world of politics, and to the world of television journalism. Like many others during this election year, I've been watching far too much cable news lately. And I've heard far too many reports that go more or less like this:
Top Democratic advisors meeting today to discuss strategies for the next phase of the campaign. On the other side of the aisle, Republican spokespeople responding to the latest controversies and countering with charges of their own. And both candidates issuing statements predicting victory. In Florida, officials warning of worsening conditions. In international news, NATO leaders calling for more joint action against terrorism, North Korea announcing more missile tests, and Vladimir Putin posing shirtless for more photographs.
Here we have five so-called sentences but not a single complete verb, just a plethora of present participles. As a result, we don't really know when things are happening. Have top Democratic advisors already met today? Are they meeting now? Will they meet later this afternoon? We can't be sure. We might think the present participle at least rules out the possibility that the meeting already happened, but that's not a safe assumption. I've often heard news anchors use the present participle, without any auxiliary verbs, to refer to past events.

I don't know when this preference for verbs without tense began. Maybe it's a recent development, or maybe it's been around for a long time, and I just haven't noticed it until now because I don't usually watch so much news. It does seem to be widespread. I sampled three cable news networks to make sure, and I never had to wait long to hear an ing string. I also don't know why the trend developed. It could be that news writers are so determined to use only "strong" verbs that they avoid all forms of to be and other auxiliaries. My best guess is that news writers (or, more likely, producers or executives) decided that unadorned present participles are more dramatic than regular old verbs, that they're sexier, more immediate, more exciting. "FBI investigators revealing startling new facts"--if we don't know exactly when something is happening, we might think it's happening right now. Better stay tuned. If that's why news networks are dangling all these enticing participles in front of us, I'd say it's another form of affectation. And it's a particularly calculating form, a deliberate misuse of language to mislead and manipulate. I don't want to overstate the problem, or to suggest news networks have evil intentions. At worst, they're guilty of trying to drive up ratings, and I suppose that's natural enough. But I don't like it when people twist the language to try to limit my understanding or control my reactions. And as a long-time English professor, I know that plenty of students already have a hard time understanding what a sentence is. If the news networks are muddying the waters still further, that's a shame.

We probably can't do much to reform the language of cable news, and malapropisms of one sort or another will probably always be with us. Affectation has deep roots in the human soul. But we can at least try to keep our own use of language as free of affectation as possible. To the extent that our writing has any influence on others, we can try to make sure our influence is positive. How can we do that? I've always found some advice E.B. White offers in The Elements of Style helpful, even inspirational. "The approach to style," White says, "is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity."

That about sums it up.

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Do you have favorite examples of malapropisms, or of other forms of inflated language? I'd love to hear them.