07 September 2016

Enter the Villain

by Robert Lopresti

I'm not going to tell you the author or title of the book I am discussing today, but I will say that it was not written by any past or present SleuthSayer.

The book is a first novel, much anticipated, and written in a particular style.  It is a style I like and I was much looking forward to it.  And everything was going well for the first third of the book.  Then a new character walked in wearing a black top hat covered with neon letters spelling out I'M THE KILLER.

Okay, I am exaggerating.  No hat.  No neon letters.  But as soon as this guy walked in I said: that's the killer.

I am not a reader who feels a need to guess the murderer or feels disappointed if it's too easy or it's too hard.  Most crime novels I read are not even whodunits. But this rankled.

It got worse.  A hundred pages later the heroes received the benefit of what I call an unearned clue.  They visited a place for reasons unconnected to crime, and chatted with a stranger.  When the stranger found out they were cops it was "Oh, by the way..." and out came a big hint that pointed straight to top-hat-man.  They didn't recognize it.

By J.J. at the English language Wikipedia
At this point I kept reading for only one reason: Either this is the best red herring in the history of crime fiction or it is a disaster.

Well, it was a disaster.

The editor - a well-known one in the mystery field - should be embaressed. He or she (I'm not telling) should have spotted the first-time author's mistakes and  insisted that they be fixed, which would not have been that hard.  Instead we have what looks like contempt for the reader, which is never good for future sales.

I checked the blurbs on the cover of the paperback edition.  Only one was from a review.  The rest, and they were plentiful, were from well-known mystery writers.  Perhaps they liked the book, but I suspect they liked the author more.

Enough whining.  Perhaps I can provide a useful writing tip.  Why did I suspect the killer was the killer as soon as he walked in?

Because he had no other plot-related reason for being there at all.  He strolled into his boss' office while the cops were interviewing him, got a detailed description from the author, and was introduced.  No immediate explanation for why he belonged in the story.  And so, my alarm went off.

My penance for that author?  Read five Agatha Christie's.  She had her limits, but nobody could hide a killer or a clue in plain sight with her skill.

So what disappoints you in a mystery?

06 September 2016

The Atlanta Child Murders and My First Mystery

I've been reading mystery fiction since I was a kid. I remember reading Nancy Drew at night with a flashlight the summer I was ten years old.  I started writing mystery fiction in 2001, first with a novel I didn't finish, then with a novel I did finish, and then with short stories, where I've had a nice amount of success.
But my first foray into the mystery writing world came long before that. When I was a kid, my mom and I always watched Good Morning America during breakfast. And in 1980 and 1981, we saw a lot of reports on the Atlanta Child Murders.

If you don't remember or know about this tragic story, here's the nutshell: Between 1979 and 1981, more than two dozen black children and teens, as well as six adults, were found slain in Atlanta. The killer was eventually caught, tried, and convicted, but before that, Good Morning America was all over that story. Each time another child was found dead, it surprised me, because with each death came more media coverage. Surely, I thought, the kids down there know to be on alert. They wouldn't go off with a stranger, especially now, given that a murderer was on the loose.

With hindsight, I realize that not everyone--particularly kids--watched the news as I did. But back then, as an eleven or twelve year old, I didn't realize that kids in the danger zone might be ignorant of that danger. So I tried to figure out how the victims could know of the danger and still end up in the clutches of the murderer. And I came up with a solution.

I blamed it on the mayoral candidates.

Around that same time, Atlanta was in the middle of a mayoral election campaign. This news was also reported on Good Morning America. And I thought, the murdered kids would know not to go off with a stranger, so the person abducting and killing them must be someone known to them, someone trustworthy. But who could be known to all of them? Being a kid who watched a lot of news, I figured it must be one of the candidates running for mayor. (Yes, I know, those poor children in Atlanta were probably not following the local mayoral race as avidly as I was--if at all--but back then, that idea hadn't occurred to me.)

I wrote an essay laying out my theory, and I showed it to my sister (who was then in college). She thought my idea was ridiculous. And in retrospect, it certainly had flaws. Indeed the man ultimately caught and convicted of killing two of the adults (and to whom many of the other murders were attributed) was not one of the mayoral candidates. But as a kid, I really thought I had something there.

If I were an adult when this was going on, I might have turned my idea into a novel. Doesn't the idea simply scream Thriller? (Indeed, several books and movies resulted from the Atlanta Child Murders.) But back then, I just had my essay. And I'm still proud of it. It was an interesting take on a horrific situation, as well as a hint of my future career writing about murder and mysteries.

So, writers, what was the first thing that prompted you to start thinking about mysteries and murders--solving them or writing about them? And did you write the first story that came to you?

05 September 2016

Lies, Lies, Lies

     Did I write about this last year or year before last? Actually, I think I wrote about Telling Lies For Fun and Profit. It's just that telling lies constantly from news media and from politicians is driving me nuts. I know I don't honestly want to write about political stuff but, I'm going to try to just write about lying.

     When we write our stories, we are writing fiction. Stuff we make up in our heads. Yes, it's lying in a sense. However, we're lying to entertain ourselves and our readers or fans. Story tellers have been around for centuries. Anyone who could tell a good story was invited by kings and rulers to attend court and tell a good story. Those who did tell a good story were rewarded and those whose stories fell flat sometimes were imprisoned or even lost their head.

     Thank goodness things aren't quite that bad for we lying fiction writers. If people don't care for our lies, I mean our stories, people won't buy our books and next thing you know publishers won't publish our books. We are predisposed to tell intriguing, believable lies. Stories that entertain. Stories that have characters that our readers can like and root for or maybe even root for a character to be caught and punished.

     What's with all the lies we hear on the news every hour of every day? Television has reached a point where the news anchors repeat lies or they interview people from campaigns or people in Congress who just out and out lie. Supposedly it's to keep higher ratings for the TV network and their advertisers. And I suppose for the newspaper's advertisers. The huge companies can't have a two-cent drop in revenue because their competition might make three cents more.

     A few years ago, we had a political candidate who was a member of the Mormon church. I have nothing against that religion.  I have nothing against any religion or the lack there of. Whatever a person believes is certainly between them and their supreme being. In doing a little research on the Mormon church, I discovered that their attitude was if you were lying for the Lord, it was okay to do so. If we have any Mormon readers and this isn't true, please let me know. What constitutes a lie for the Lord, I wonder?

     I was just taught that lying was about the worst thing you could do. If I had committed some infraction of our house rules, I would get in worst trouble if I lied about it. I might get punished for breaking a house rule but then if I lied about what I had done I was in deep trouble. I tried to bring my own children up with the same lesson.

   You could rightly guess that I really hate liars. I'm not talking little white lies that we have to tell or at least think we have to tell.  Like when a wife ask her hubby if these slacks make her butt look too big. Not when we know we'll hurt some one's feelings way more than necessary if we told the truth.  Not we crazy folks who tell lies for fun and profit. But plain old everyday liars. We've all known people who are pathological liars. They tell lies when telling the truth doesn't matter at all.

     I'm talking about the big whoppers the new media allow politicians to tell on air and the TV talking head doesn't call them out on it. Or the news media that keeps a reporter and allows that person to stay on the air when that person not just lies, but make up facts.

     I think it's setting a horrible example for our children. You listen to television and you hear the lie and you say out loud. "That's a lie. I know because I fact-checked it." Your child hears this and that little brain absorbs that fact. The children don't need the hate and bullying being screamed at them daily from their televisions either. Again, the children thinks it's okay to act that way. It's already showing up in schools all over the country and it's going to only get worse.

     Lies, lies, lies where does it lead us? Into a bad situation, is my sad guess. Can we stop it? Does anyone want to stop it?

     Thanks all, for letting me get this out. It's been bothering me. Let's all get back to telling lies for fun and profit.

04 September 2016

Dystopia Revisited

by Leigh Lundin

By definition, prisons stay out of view of the public eye, and, as Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo taught us, citizens are all too happy to ignore the abuses carried on behind locked bars. Fast forward a century or so where sci-fi acts as a literary bellwether: The golden age of science fiction introduced the concept of corporations taking over a number of government functions often beginning with prison systems. Back then, company prisons were considered too fantastical to appear outside dark imaginations.

Until commercialized incarceration arrived with a vengeance.

Corporation Glossary
BOP • Federal Bureau of Prisons
CCA • Corrections Corporation of America
GEO • formerly Wackenhut formerly G4S
MTC • Management and Training Corp
CCS • Correct Care Solutions (medical)
Bad Tidings

As both Eve and I have written, corporations have found numerous ways to profit from prisoners and take every opportunity to capitalize upon the misery of others. Practices include charging extravagant court and jailhouse fees, usurious interest rates, and for food and ‘accommodations’ in state and federal prisons. These fees make it impossible for many prisoners to ever get out of debt. Although the US has banned debtors’ prisons, courts in the pockets of prison corporations continue to incarcerate those who cannot pay. Indeed, it’s possible for a poor person to be adjudged not guilty and still end up imprisoned for failure to pay jail costs and legal fees. Lobbyists see to it that more and more citizens receive ever longer sentences. It’s good for business and best of all, nobody cares.

It’s come to light that corporate prisons have been ignoring constitutional rights. True, county jails and state prisons have abused prisoners and even served rotting food, but corporations made the assumption they’re not responsible for upholding Amendments to the Constitution. Companies have been caught recording attorney-client sessions… then sharing them. Prison apologists say private enterprise shouldn’t be forced to obey BoP rules because it reduces profits.

But there’s worse. Corporations have implemented a form of slavery right here in the US. If a man or boy refuses to work, he can be punished severely, tasered, thrown in solitary confinement, and even killed. In recent years, Florida’s corporate prisons have become so unsafe, that an inmate per day dies, often murdered by guards or other prisoners. In case you question the term ‘murder’, read the reports. Guards even steamed one prisoner alive, reportedly leaving pieces of his body in the shower.

Within the special federal immigrant contract prisons, the numbers are also appalling regarding so-called ‘medical care’, occasionally provided by CCS. In cases where records were available, medical and mortality reviews determined the quality of medical service was inadequate and in more than a third of cases, directly contributed to prisoners’ deaths. Private companies understaff with LPNs/LVNs, which require no more than a year of study beyond a GED, and permit them to diagnose and prescribe. Rather than sending out lab work, evidence suggest LPNs tended to ‘eyeball’ samples and and simply (and wrongly) guess.

Sad Tidings

Corrections Corporation of America
Geo Group
Management and Training Corporation
Correct Care Solutions
I very much believe in free enterprise, an almost magical engine that works automatically… under the right circumstances. When it comes to economics, I’m also a pragmatician if not a pragmatist. If an industry isn’t regulated, i.e, policed, it will devolve into exploitation and even criminality. We’ve learned time and again that industries cannot police themselves.

By definition, free enterprise also implies that a percentage of people will be unemployed at any given time. If you want 100% employment, turn to socialism, but don’t expect dynamics or efficiency in managed production and consumption. An economy sails best that steers itself.

But economics can resemble religion: capitalists versus communists, free trade versus tariffs. Religionists are convinced they’re right and everyone else is wrong. Both extremes don’t take into account human factors and that’s what prisons are about… assuming you’re among the percentage who still believe the incarcerated are human too. Esquire Magazine used the term ‘faceless bureaucratic indifference to human suffering’ in a different context, but it definitely applies here.

Then we learned the much touted cost-savings to taxpayers turned out moot.

Glad Tidings

As safety, rehabilitation programs, food quality and medical care plummeted, mayhem, injuries and deaths shot up. Protests and property damage increased as well. Our own Eve Fisher touched on mental health and prison terror here and here and here and here.

Mother Jones journalist Shane Bauer went undercover as a prison guard and is being sued by CCA for his trouble. CCA would very much like their policy to remain “What happens here, stays here.” You know, where the bodies are buried.

But the news is promising. Despite furious lobbying and campaign donations, the Justice Department has ordered private contracts with prison corporations not be renewed, concluding corporate administration is less effective and safe. This decision does not apply to the appalling immigration prisons mentioned above nor to the far larger population in state prisons.

Our beloved Florida governor has been the states’ own best lobbyist for corporate prisons with disastrous results. It remains to be seen whether situations will change at the state level. But at least we can give thanks that for federal relief and corporate karma.

03 September 2016

A Literary Lawn Party

Two weeks ago today, while my friend Elizabeth Zelvin was entertaining our loyal SleuthSayers readers far better in this timeslot than I could've, I was in the middle of another kind of literary endeavor. From 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on August 20, at the height of our summertime heat and humidity, I participated in what was billed as the state's biggest lawn party: the second annual Mississippi Book Festival, held on and around the grounds of the State Capitol Building in downtown Jackson. Also known as the state's Largest Gathering of Sweaty Writers and Readers.

A quick word of background. As some of you might know, Mississippi has more published writers per capita than any other state. In other words, you can't open your car door around here without bumping into another writer. (A lesser-known fact is that the Delta town of Greenville, Mississippi, has more published writers per capita than any other city in the nation--past and present examples include Walker Percy, Shelby Foote, Ellen Douglas, Hodding Carter, Beverly Lowry, William Alexander Percy, Jim Henson, and so on.) We might spit tobacco juice and talk like Forrest Gump and dodge alligators when we mow the back yard, but the ghosts of Faulkner and Welty will forever live in our libraries and bookstores.

My point is, there are a lot of writers here, and I think most of them--at least most of those who are alive and still pushing keys or pencils--came to the recent Book Fest. In fact we had plenty of authors from elsewhere as well. The number of attendees expected last year, at the first annual festival, was 1,000; more than 3,000 showed up, including John Grisham. This year, according to the official figures, some 6,200 people attended the many panels throughout the day, and several hundred more were outside and around the grounds. And, like last year, several attendees DFOed (in medical terms, they succumbed to the heat; in Southern terms, they "done fell out").

This time, more than 120 authors served on 30 different panels held in and around the Capitol Building (I was on the panel for the recently-released Mississippi Noir), and about 70 more were featured in an "Authors' Alley" venue, an area where self-published writers could display and sell their wares. Also on the grounds were tents for different publishers and bookstores here in the state--I was part of Dogwood Press's tent, along with our head honcho Joe Lee and fellow authors Randy Pierce and Valerie Winn. There were also additional activities for panelists, including a cocktail party at the Old Capitol Museum the night before, an authors' breakfast the morning of the festival, and an after-event celebration at a nearby restaurant/bar.

It was a long day, and as hot as Satan's pitchfork, but that surprised no one--this was, after all, mid-August in the Deep South. And I think everybody had a good time. I met a great many interesting people, renewed old friendships, sold and signed some books, guzzled a dozen bottles of water, and gave and received a lot of damp hugs. At the signing tent after my panel, I was fortunate enough to sit beside one of my longtime heroes, John Hart, who's written some of my favorite mystery/crime novels.

Now for my question. I've heard that a number of states have annual literary festivals like this--last year at Bouchercon I visited with a lady who was in the process of organizing a debut bookfest for Virginia. Have any of you gone to and/or participated in one of these, or something similar? Was it state-sponsored? Was it well attended? Did you find it worthwhile?

With this year's Bouchercon drawing ever nearer, our event the other day reminded me how much I enjoy this kind of gathering--being in the company of fellow writers and readers, and spending hours on end talking about nothing but stories and books and writing and the magic of fiction. And the great thing about B'con is that the focus is on mystery writing. What could be more fun than that?

I hope you'll be in New Orleans, I hope we'll be hurricane-free, and I hope it'll be drier and cooler than usual. And if it's not, I hope you won't DFO on Canal Street.

Either way, I'll see you there.

02 September 2016

Teaching Moments

Two weeks ago, the date my last column appeared here, our four-year-old son Dash was on break from pre-school, and he and I took the afternoon train into DC to meet my wife for the National Gallery of Art's Jazz in the Garden series. (We gave Dash other options—a minor-league baseball game or seeing dinosaurs at the Smithsonian—but he loves music and being outdoors, and the choice was his.)

In addition to the train into the city, we traveled one Metro stop, and then had about a 15-minute walk to the Sculpture Garden. The Metro nearest the concert was Judiciary Square, and as we came up the escalator, I saw that we were at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial and that we could walk through the space en route to the concert. As with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, this one features the names of men and women killed in the line of duty—more than 20,000 officers, in fact, with more names added each year. As we turned along one of the paths through the memorial, Dash spotted a man kneeling by the wall, paper and pencil in hand, and asked what he was doing. I explained that he was making a rubbing of one of the names, which prompted Dash to ask why. Since we were by then close enough that I thought the man may have heard him, I told Dash that we could ask him —encouraging Dash's curiosity, thinking of this as a teaching moment.

It was only immediately after I said this that I recognized we might be intruding, and in fact, when Dash asked the man what he was doing, there was a brief hesitation, and I was afraid I'd made a unfortunate mistake. But then the man showed the pieces of paper, several of them, where he'd rubbed a single name, and explained that name belonged to a friend of his, his partner in fact, and that he'd died. He took out his phone and pulled up photos of his friend, sharing them with Dash, pointing to other officers and their spouses and children. He explained that the rubbings were a way of remembering his partner, and he was planned to take the extra papers back to other people who'd known and loved him.

Dash was mostly attentive to the story, asked about people in the pictures. In what seemed to be a single motion, the man we were speaking with—I don't remember his name—pulled something from his pocket to give to Dash and asked me if we'd traveled here for a special visit to the memorial. I felt a moment of embarrassment then, since we were, as I said, simply passing through, all of this a chance encounter. Meanwhile, Dash—unembarrassed—eagerly started talking about the train ride and the jazz concert and Mama meeting us for a picnic and.... A teaching moment lost, clearly, that's what I thought, with my own self-consciousness further compounded by the item the man was handing to Dash: a challenge coin from the Las Vegas Police Department, the one pictured here in Dash's hand.

Dash was, as you might imagine, eager to have this coin—even as I was protesting that the gift wasn't necessary. But the man insisted, explaining how a challenge coin worked, how it was proof that you were a member of an organization, all of it a point of pride in so many ways. Dash, for his part, was proud too, proud to have the coin even if he clearly didn't entirely understand it.

I mentioned before that I don't remember the name of the man who spoke with us, but I do remember the name on the wall and on the rubbings: Alyn Beck. I looked him up later, looking for his story, thinking briefly that I might try to resurrect that teaching moment and tell Dash more about him, and was surprised—and saddened—to find that there's actually a Wikipedia article that discusses his death. On June 8, 2014, Beck and another officer, Igor Soldo, were having lunch at a CiCi's Pizza in Las Vegas when they were ambushed and killed by a married couple espousing anti-government views; after shooting the officers, the couple covered Beck's body in a "Don't Tread on Me" flag and a swastika and pinned a note to Soldo's body saying, "This is the beginning of the revolution." The shooting spree continued to Wal-Mart, where a third man was murdered before the couple themselves were killed—the man by police, the woman by her own hand. The links at the bottom of the Wikipedia article provide further and more extensive information about the killings, the couple, and their history of anti-government views and actions; for the story of the officers' murders in particular, here's this article from the Las Vegas Sun the day after the shooting. The officers are picture below in photos I borrowed from CNN. (Needless to say, I have not shared the rest of this story with Dash.)

Alyn Beck, left, and Igor Soldo

As we left the memorial, Dash thanked the man for the coin and then insisted on holding it for the rest of our walk, despite my asking several times to carry it for him so he wouldn't drop it. Truth be told, he did drop it once as we were halfway across Pennsylvania Avenue, and he threw off my hand to duck back and grab it from the street, which prompted another teachable moment: Don't let go of Daddy's hand when you're crossing a busy street! (Exclamation mark then as well as now.)

Dash still didn't pay much attention to holding my hand, but he did hold onto the coin tighter after that—a new toy he didn't want to let go of, a prize of some kind that he was excited to show to Mama. I was already prepping to tell Tara the story here, what I knew of it then, and how the man's sharing his own story at the memorial had been cut short by Dash's enthusiasm about the train and the jazz concert and the picnic. But at the Sculpture Garden, Dash beat me to it—showing her the coin while I'd stepped away briefly to the concession stand.

"It was supposed to be a teaching moment," I started to explain when I got back, "but I think it all got lost."

"No it didn't," Tara said. "Dash told me all about it. The coin is from a man whose friend died and he misses him a lot and the coin is a way to remember him and to tell other people about him."

Some lesson learned for each of us, and now passed along.

Bouchercon Bound

In other news, we're now less than two weeks from Bouchercon—the biggest mystery event of the year and, as Judy Bobalik said, kind of a family reunion for us mystery readers and writers.

I'm looking forward to seeing so many people there and to seeing again and in other cases meeting for the first time some of my fellow SleuthSayers here.

My own schedule formally includes the following events—and between times hope to see others in all those in-between spaces: bars, and hallways, and breakfast lines and....
  • Opening Ceremonies, with Macavity Awards Presentation • Thursday, September 15, 6:30 p.m. [Note: My book On the Road with Del & Louise is a finalist for the Macavity for Best First Novel, and Sleuthsayers Barb Goffman and B.K. Stevens are also up for Macavity Awards in the short story category.]
  • “Me and My Friends,” panel on writing groups, with Donna Andrews, Ellen Crosby, John Gilstrap, and Alan Orloff, moderated by Eleanor Cawood Jones • Friday, September 16, 9:30 a.m.
  • Anthony Awards Presentation • Friday, September 16, 8 p.m. [Note: On the Road with Del & Louise is also a finalist for the Anthony for Best First Novel; the anthology I edited, Murder Under the Oaks, is a finalist for Best Anthology or Collection; and B.K. Stevens is up for the Anthony for Best YA Novel for her book Fighting Chance.]
  • Sisters in Crime Breakfast • Saturday, September 17, 7:30 a.m.
  • “Step in Time,” panel on pacing (as moderator), with Sara BlaedelSuzanne Chazin, Elizabeth Heiter, Reece Hirsch, and Cate Holahan • Saturday, September 17, 4:30 p.m.

Author Newsletter & Giveaway

Before Bouchercon, however, another quick deadline. I'm debuting an author newsletter over the next week or so, and I'm hosting a giveaway of three volumes of Chesapeake Crime anthologies: This Job Is Murder, Homicidal Holidays, and Storm Warning, each featuring one of my stories. Subscribe to the newsletter before end of day on Sunday, Sept. 4, and you'll be entered for the book bundle—and for other giveaways ahead as well! You can subscribe here.

01 September 2016

The Mass Murderer or the Holy Man?

The name of Harney Peak in the Black Hills National
Black Elk Peak
In case you hadn't heard, we had a name change here in South Dakota:  the former Harney Peak, the highest natural site in South Dakota, in the Black Hills, officially had its name changed on August 11, 2016 by the US Board on Geographic Names to Black Elk Peak.  You might ask why the name change?  Because, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.'

A Civil War-era portrait of Gen. William S. Harney,
Gen. William S. Harney,
a/k/a "Woman Killer"
William S. Harney (1800-1889) was a cavalry officer in the Mexican American War, the Indian Wars, and a general during the Civil War.  He was not a nice man.  His infamy began back in June of 1834 when, while serving as a Major in the Paymaster Corps, Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis, Mo., Harney whipped a female slave named Hannah to death over the misplacement of keys.  When word got out, the Cincinnati Journal reported Harney as "A MONSTER!" and he actually had to flee to Wheeling, Virginia to avoid a mob.  (He was eventually acquitted, but remember the times.  Whites were never actually convicted of killing blacks; in many ways it shows how horrific Hannah's death was that a mob came after him.)

"Here's what the Nebraska State Historical Society has to say about Harney's actions (known as the "Harney Massacre") at an Indian village in 1855 at Blue Water Creek, south of the Black Hills: "While engaged in a delaying parley with Chief Little Thunder" Harney's troops "circled undetected" toward the village, "where the infantry opened fire and forced the Indians toward mounted soldiers, who inflicted terrible casualties. 86 Indians were killed, 70 women and children were captured, and their tipis were looted and burned.""  (See Constant Commoner blog for 8/14/16.)

After that, Harney was known among the Sioux as "Woman Killer."  This is who the mountain was named after in 1855 by American Lieutenant Gouverneur K. Warren, who served under General Harney and apparently loved it.  

Black Elk and Elk of the Oglala Lakota -1887.jpg
Black Elk (l) 
Meanwhile, there's Black Elk (1863-1950).  Lakota Sioux, medicine man, visionary, and author of "Black Elk Speaks", who knew that his visions were given him to help heal his people:
"And while I stood there [on Black Elk Peak] I saw more than I can tell and understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy."
Black Elk is very important to the Lakota, as well as other Native Americans:  In fact, the suggestion of Black Elk Peak came from Basil Brave Heart, a Lakota elder born on Pine Ridge, which, like it or not, is part of South Dakota.  Here's part of an interview with him on the subject:

"About two years ago, I had a very deep, intuitive feeling that Harney Peak represented a very deep atrocity that was committed against the Little Thunder Tiyospaye at Blue Water Creek in 1855. There were women and children massacred. The way this whole thing was conducted by General Harney, to me, was despicable. As a military man, a combat veteran of Korea, I think he violated the deepest, most honorable military code of conduct, which relates to treating the enemy. First, there was a white flag that was lifted by Chief Little Thunder. Harney disregarded that, and he went in. His whole intention was to annihilate. This was to send a message. Soldiers don’t do that. They conduct themselves in a way that is ultimately humane.
Basil Brave Heart
"So, you took the first step?

"It weighed on my heart. You know, we Oglalas still live near this sacred peak. We see it all the time. Knowing as we do General Harney’s history with our people, it has always bothered me. Then a young man came to visit me (Myron Wayne Pourier); he is a direct descendant of Black Elk, and he said he wanted to see the name changed. I said: I don’t want to do it unless I have the Black Elk family’s full support. He said: You have it.

"That must have really raised the stakes?

"It really did. He said: In fact, I have Grandpa Black Elk’s pipe. I said: Well, let’s smoke it. Let’s say a prayer and ask Tunkasila, the Great Spirit, and all the Christology that I embrace, and then will come the effort that we’re going to put into it – but the outcome is up to Tunkasila, the Great Spirit.

"So prayer was there at the beginning?

"Definitely, at the beginning. We filled the pipe and we smoked it."
You'd think this would be a no-brainer, right?  Woman Killer v. the Holy Man? What's to argue with?  Ask our politicians:
Senator John Thune: I’m surprised and upset by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names’ unilateral decision to rename Harney Peak, one of South Dakota’s most well-known landmarks…. The national board’s choice to reject the state’s recommendation to leave the name as-is defies logic, since it was state officials who so carefully solicited public feedback and ultimately came to their decision. I’m also disappointed the board grossly misled my office with respect to the timeline of its decision, which wasn’t expected until next year” [Senator John Thune, press release, 2016.08.11].
NOTE: Lou Yost, the executive secretary for the board, said he was unaware of who in the four-person office told Thune's office that the issue would wait until next year.  "Who told him that it wasn't going to be addressed until next year? As far as I know, we haven't had any correspondence, and we're a pretty small office," he said.  (see USA Today)
Governor Dennis Daugaard: I am surprised by this decision, as I have heard very little support in South Dakota for renaming Harney Peak. This federal decision will cause unnecessary expense and confusion. I suspect very few people know the history of either Harney or Black Elk [Governor Dennis Daugaard, press release, 2016.08.11].  

(All I can say is that most Lakota know a great deal about Black Elk, and they know that Harney was a butcher, so to them it's sort of like if Israel changed the name of a mountain from Mendele Peak to Moshe Peak.  Great rejoicing.)  
“I truly believe that (Daugaard) wants to improve race relations in South Dakota, but comments like that don’t help matters,” said Sen. Troy Heinert, D-Mission, a Rosebud Sioux member who chairs the state tribal relations committee. “Black Elk is still very significant to our culture. So is Harney.... My suggestion would be to have a press release explaining that Black Elk was a spiritual man of peace and welcoming the opportunity for our citizens and the visitors of our great State to learn about the true history, majesty, and importance of the He Sapa (Black Hills).”   (See Argus Leader)

Maybe we should all send Governor Daugaard and Senator Thune a copy of Black Elk Speaks.  Or a history book.    

31 August 2016

Bound for Valparaiso in a Rowboat

It's the end of the summer and I don't feel like tackling anything too heavy. So let's talk about smuggling illegal substances.  Better yet, let's sing about it.

I am sure you have heard of narcocorridos, the Mexican song genre that celebrates and heroizes people who smuggle drugs north across the U.S. border.  Well, that is not our subject for the day.

Instead we have a song from my friend Zeke Hoskin, discussing the true story of some earlier smugglers heading in a different direction.  You may remember Zeke from his occasional words of wisdom in our comment section.  He wanted you to know that he wrote most of the song on Canada Day, 1992, while waiting to cross the border.

That's his wife Flip Breskin on guitar, by the way.


30 August 2016

Lizabeth Scott: Queen of Noir

Recently at SleuthSayers I did a post ( http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2016/07/a-noir-summer.html ) suggesting some lesser-known movies for a noir summer. Two of those movies, Too Late for Tears and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers starred Emma Matzo… better known as smoky-voiced Lizabeth Scott. Doing that post made me think I should do a post on Scott. And even though she only has about 30 film and TV credits, she is one of the Queens of noir. 

Her noir canon consists mainly of these movies:
  • Dead Reckoning
  • Pitfall
  • Too Late for Tears
  • The Racket
  • I Walk Alone
  • Dark City
  • Two of a Kind
  • The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
Mostly they’re pretty good and mostly they’re actually noir.  My faves are:

Dead Reckoning: one of my favorite noirs. In fact, several of her noirs fall on my fave list. Along with Dead Reckoning are Pitfall, Too Late for Tears, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. All good. Some people find Dead Reckoning a rather pedestrian noir, but for me it’s got everything a noir needs. Humphrey Bogart and his buddy are soldiers heading to DC so his buddy can be awarded the Medal of Honor. For some reason, the buddy doesn’t want to be the center of attention and takes a powder, leaving Bogart to try to figure out what happened. He ends up in Gulf City. Enter femme fatale Coral Chandler (Scott): noir ensues.

Pitfall: Dick Powell continues his escape from juvenile leads (actually he’s long away by now) as an insurance exec and family man married to Jane Wyatt (Margaret Anderson on Father Knows Best, so you know she’s a wholesome wife and mom, even though the movie came first). Checking out a case and working with slimy P.I. Raymond Burr, Powell meets femme fatale Scott. Noir ensues.

Too Late for Tears: As I’ve said, this is one of my favorite noirs, period. Scott’s so evil in this one that even Dan Duryea, who’s pretty good at being rotten himself, can’t take her. A husband (Arthur Kennedy) and wife (Scott) are driving their convertible when someone in another car throws a suitcase full of cash into their car. She wants to keep it, he not so much. Noir ensues.

Good, low budget noir. I like this one a lot. Some nice LA locations. It was written by Roy Huggins, who later created The Rockford Files and The Fugitive (TV series), though David Goodis might dispute that. And it’s just recently come out in a new, fancy-dancy restored Blu-ray/DVD edition.

Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The: Scott’s first noir and only her second movie. In this one she’s not the femme fatale, but she’s getting her noir footing down. Van Heflin winds up in his hometown, now run by his childhood sweetheart, Barbara Stanwyck, and her D.A. husband (Kirk Douglas in his first movie). Scott and Heflin have a thing for each other, but Stanwyck has other ideas. You know what happens next: noir ensues.

I Walk Alone: Frankie (Burt Lancaster) gets out of prison, expecting to go back to his old life of crime and high times with Kirk Douglas and Wendell Corey. But Kirk has other plans for his old pal. Things just ain’t the same for Frankie after fourteen years in prison, even if he did take the rap for Kirk. Enter Kay Lawrence (Scott) who’s been told by Douglas to find out what it is Frankie really wants. Guess what: noir ensues.

Becoming a Queen of Noir is a long way from Scott’s seminary upbringing in Scranton, PA. And her life wasn’t without controversy. She had an on again off again relationship with her boss and mentor Hal Wallis, one of the major producers of all time. It was rumored in a 1954 Confidential Magazine article that she was a lesbian and that her name was found in the Rolodex of a notorious Los Angeles madam. Some claim her career was ended by the scandal. 

According to the New York Times: “Ms. Scott sued for $2.5 million, contending that the magazine had portrayed her in a “vicious, slanderous and indecent” manner. The outcome was never made public, but the suit, filed in 1955, was believed to have been settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. The scandal, however, was nearly ruinous.” You can find the full article here:   http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/07/movies/lizabeth-scott-film-noir-siren-dies-at-92.html?_r=0

I don’t think it was ever really proven one way or another, and it certainly doesn’t matter to us today, but at that time it was a big deal and probably one of the reasons her career slowed down. Whatever the truth was, she was an independent woman who didn’t give in to the pressures to put on an act or be something that Hollywood wanted her to be. 

She never married and lived alone in the Hollywood Hills until her death on January 31, 2015 at the age of 92. Lizabeth Scott left a legacy of several great noir films and is definitely one of the Queens of Noir.


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


29 August 2016

HELP! (I'm told it's called crowd-sourcing)

by Susan Rogers Cooper

I'm knee-deep in the newest E.J. Pugh novel. Unfortunately, I should be at least hip deep, if not tickling-my-tummy deep. Why is it that, now that I'm retired from everything but writing (outside jobs, motherhood and wifedom) that it's taking longer and longer to write a book? Well, there's always the “hey, I'm retired, I can do it tomorrow” syndrome, wherein tomorrow keeps getting further and further away. And there's also the “I don't have to write X number of pages today. I can catch up tomorrow.” See above about tomorrow. And this summer it's been “the grand kids are coming by in four hours. I really need to rest up” excuse. But with E.J., I'm getting there. Slowly, but I'll make it. I always – okay, usually – do. But then there's the big problem, the one where I'm going to need some help. I'm told this is call crowd sourcing.


If I give you a quick synopsis with pertinent points can you make a suggestion? Here's the deal. It's taking place on the University of Texas campus. E.J.'s twenty-year-old son finds his obnoxious, much-despised (by everyone) roommate dead in the room – stabbed to death while Graham (E.J.'s son) slept. Guess who becomes the chief suspect? We have other wanna-be suspects, too, of course. The roommate's less than loving mother; his ex-girlfriend who keyed his car twice and sent him Ex-Lax brownies; his BFF whom he belittled in front of the friend's parents; and the roommate's student adviser whose wife the roommate came on to rather aggressively at a party.

Are ideas flooding in? I usually don't have trouble with titles, but this one is giving me a run for my money. Do I want to name it something to do with UT? Campus life? Or just murder in general?


As incentive for your cooperation the winner (or the one person who actually gives me a title, any title) gets a copy of the book when it comes out. I'm thrilled, are you? Is my sarcasm showing?

A woman in my apartment complex was recently told by another woman that I had thirty-some-odd (some very odd) books published. The woman looked at me and said, “Then why are you living here?”

Yes, it was a very rude question, but I only laughed it off. I didn't explain that there are only four people who actually become millionaires writing books, and only eight who actually make a livable wage doing it. I didn't explain the “claw” theory – the one that writing success is based on the machine you see in restaurant lobbies full of stuffed animals and you have to get that big old claw to grab on to the one you want – or any one for that matter – and it never does. Success is that claw, and somebody gets pulled up every million or so tries.

So the rest of us just keep writing. Why? Well, I don't know about you, but I do it because if I didn't there would be something very big missing in my life. I once said that if I didn't do this for a living, I'd probably write really great grocery lists. Well, I don't want to write really great grocery lists. I want to write stories. I want to make people ask questions, get anxious, and, sometimes, laugh their butts off. But still and all, I need a title.

Any title will do. Really.

28 August 2016

Ending the Story

In Rob Lopresti's 08/17/16 blog, "The Whole Truth," he wrote about doing the setup for a story, in this case, a novel. Rob's premise was to drop the protagonist in a hole, and if the author writing the novel so desired, then throw rocks at that particular character. Essentially, it was how to setup the beginning of an author's story and then move on into the action of the plot. I liked the concept.
So today, to go with Rob's blog, here's two possible story endings as taken from the book, Story, by Robert McKee. These two endings are general category endings within which all other specific endings, such as happy endings, sad endings, ironic endings, etc., will fit.

The Closed Ending: The closed ending is mainly used with the traditional or classical designed story, the type of story written throughout the ages since Gilgamesh was first transcribed onto clay tablets. The fictional reality in this type of story is consistent and the conflict is mainly focused on the external causes, even though the protagonist may have an inner conflict to go with all the outside problems. In the story climax for the closed ending, the change is irreversible, there is no going back for the hero. As for the reader,, all questions raised in the story should be answered and all emotions satisfied.
(Some movie examples of closed ending from McKee's book are The Seven Samurai, The Hustler, A Fish Called Wanda and Thelma and Louise.)

The Open Ending: The open ending is generally used in a story focused on internal conflicts which is often prodded by external events. Here, the story climax leaves some questions unresolved for the reader, and thus some emotions may be left unsatisfied. The reader is then allowed (or left) to form his or her own conclusion as to what happened to the characters after the last word printed on the last page of the story. Different readers may come to different conclusions on the ending of the same story. For instance, one reader may believe the protagonist has now become mentally strong enough to overcome his situation and go on to a happy life. Another reader may have perceived an undercurrent of weakness and feels that the protagonist would fall back into old bad habits, thereby failing to succeed in the future. Same story; one reader an optimist, the other reader a pessimist; different conclusions on story ending.
(Some movie examples of open endings from McKee's book are Five Easy Pieces, Tender Mercies and A River Runs Through It.)

McKee's book Story is actually a screenwriting book by a screenwriting teacher, therefore it is written from a movie perspective, but to me, a story is a story regardless of the medium used to tell it. I believe it is wise to learn from other storytelling mediums to see what I can apply to my short story writing.

Most of my short stories use a closed ending. Much of that influence comes from the type of stories I've read over the decades since childhood. And, at this point, I will admit that the first few times I ran across an open ending story, I was prone to wonder where the heck the story ending was.

However, in the last couple of years, I've caught myself writing an open ending for one of the stories in my Shan Army series with the two half-brothers contending to see which one will become the heir to their warlord father's opium empire in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia, and in one story of my 1660's Paris Underworld series with the orphan, incompetent pickpocket trying to survive in a community of criminals. The open ending just seemed right for these two stories.

So, how about you as a writer? Which endings do you use? And as a reader, which type of endings do you prefer?

27 August 2016

Hey Teach! Why do you do it? (aka Vegetables for Authors)

It all started in 1992.  I’d won a couple of crime fiction awards, and the local college came calling.
Did I want to come on faculty, and teach in the writing program?  Hell, yes!  (Pass the scotch.)

Over the years, I continued to teach fiction writing, but also picked up English Lit, Marketing (my degree) and a few odd ones, like Animation and Theatre.  Such is the life of an itinerant college prof.  (Pass the scotch.)

Twenty-four years later, I’m a full-time author.  Except for Wednesday nights, when I put on my mask, don a cape, and turn into SUPER TEACH!  (Okay, ‘Crazy Author Prof.’ Too much time alone at a keyboard can be scary.  Pass the scotch.)

Why do I do it?   As September lurks ever nearer, I decided to ask myself that question.  And give a completely honest answer.  Here goes:

1.  It’s not the Money
Hey buddy, can you spare a dime?  Part time profs in Canada are poorly paid.  I’m top rate, at $45 an hour.  I’m only paid for my time in the classroom (3 hours a week).  For every hour in the classroom, I spend at least two hours prepping and marking.  We don’t get paid for that.  At end of term, I spend several days evaluating manuscripts.  We don’t get paid for that either.  This means I am getting paid less than minimum wage.  So I’m not doing it for the money.

2.  It’s not all those Book Sales.
Years ago, an author gal more published than I was at the time said a peculiar thing to me:   “Aspiring writers don’t buy books.”

I found this alarming, but other authors since then have said the same.  They teach a workshop, and students beg for feedback on their manuscripts.  But they don’t buy the teacher’s books.  Not even one.  I find this bizarre, because I would want to see how the instructor practices what she preaches. 
Bemusement aside, I’m careful in my classes not to pressure students to buy my books.  They’ve paid money for the course, and that’s enough.

My point is:  if you think by teaching a course, you are going to get an avalanche of book sales, think again.

So why the heck do you do it, Mel?  That’s time you could invest in writing your own books…

3.  It takes me back to first principles
I teach all three terms.  Every four months, I am reminded about goal/motivation/conflict.  Three act structure.  Viewpoint rules.  Creating compelling characters.  Teaching Crafting a Novel forces me to constantly evaluate my own work, as I do my students’.  It’s like ‘vegetables for authors.’  In other words, good for me.

4.  It’s the People 
By far, the most valuable thing about teaching a night course year after year is it allows me to mix with people who would not normally be part of my crowd.  Adult students of all ages and backgrounds meet up in my classrooms, and many are delightful.  I’ve treasured the varied people I’ve met through the years, and keep in touch with many of them.

Getting to know people other than your own crowd (in my case, other writers) is extremely valuable for an author.  You’re not merely guessing how others different from you may think…you actually *know* people who are different.  This helps you create diverse characters in your fiction who come alive.

As well, you meet people from different professions…doctors, lawyers, salesmen and women, bank officers, government workers, labourers, grad students, Starbucks baristas, roofers, police, firefighters, chefs, paramedics.  I have my own list of people to call on, when I need to do research.

5.  It’s good for my Soul

I'm paying it forward.  Believe it or not, I didn't become an author in a vacuum.  I had two mentors along the way who believed in me.  Michael Crawley and Lou Allin - I hope you are having a fab time in the afterlife.  Hugs all around, when I get there.

Students take writing courses for all sorts of reasons.  Some take it for college course credit.  Some take it for interest, as they might take photography or cooking classes.  Some need an escape from dreary jobs, and a writing class can provide that, if only temporarily.  But many actually do hope to become authors like I am.  And when I connect with one of them, and can help them on their way, it is magic.  There is no greater high.

No question, my life is richer through teaching fiction writing, even if my bank account is not.

You can help Melodie’s bank account by buying her humorous books, like The Goddaughter Caper.  This will keep her from writing dreary novels that will depress us all.  Pass the scotch.


26 August 2016

Phoenix Serial Street Shooter

by Dixon Hill

Not long ago, I posted a story about a fellow who dressed as a "Zombie Killer" and was later arrested for raping and murdering several women here in the Valley of the Sun.

Today's post concerns an on-going serial killer's actions: those of the person dubbed "The Serial Street Shooter," or in some media, "The Monster of Maryvale."  (Maryvale is an "urban village" on the west side of Phoenix.

Early shootings were largely believed to have been centered around poorer Hispanic neighborhoods there.  The investigation would later indicate the shooter ranged more widely.)

Unfortunately, this person remains at large as of this writing.

The first victim was a teenage boy, but police didn't realize what was going on for some time. And, because the investigation is still going on, they haven't released many names, or most other details, but the AZ Republic listed this timeline about the victims:

  • On March 17, about 11:30 p.m., a 16-year-old boy suffered non-life-threatening injuries after being shot while walking in the 1100 block of East Moreland Street.
  • On March 18, about 11:30 p.m., a 21-year-old man suffered non-life-threatening injuries after being shot while standing outside of his vehicle in the 4300 block of North 73rd Avenue.
  • On April 1, about 9 p.m., 21-year-old Diego Verdugo-Sanchez was shot and killed outside a home near the 5500 block of West Turney Avenue.
  • On April 19 about 4:30 a.m., the body of 55-year-old Krystal Annette White was discovered near the 500 block of North 32nd Street. She died of apparent gunshot wounds.
  • On June 3, about 9:50 p.m., 32-year-old Horacio De Jesus Pena was fatally shot while outside a home in the 6700 block of West Flower Street.
  • On June 10, about 9:30 p.m., 19-year-old Manuel Castro Garcia was fatally shot outside a home near the 6500 block of West Coronado Road.   
  • On June 12, about 2:35 a.m., an unoccupied vehicle was discovered shot in the 6200 block of West Mariposa Drive. 
  • On June 12, about 3 a.m., a gunman opened fire on two women and one girl seated in a parked car outside a home near the 6300 block of West Berkeley Road. Angela Linner, 31, and Maleah Ellis, 12, died almost immediately. Maleah's mother, Stefanie Ellis, died three weeks later.
  • On July 11, during evening hours, a gunman shot at a vehicle in a residential neighborhood in the 3200 block of East Oak Street. A 21-year-old man and 4-year-old boy were in the vehicle, but neither was injured.

Initially, police connected four shootings, with six victims, to the same perpetrator – all the victims having been shot during the hours of darkness, on weekends and within a four mile radius. By mid-July, however, forensic evidence connected four other shootings, taking place as early as March; one more than ten miles away from the Maryvale epicenter of the other attacks. Nor did that victim, Krystal Annette White, seem to have any connections to the city.


Witness reports have varied, naturally.  The gunman is reported to be a light skinned Hispanic or white male in his early to mid-twenties. Unofficially, he is rumored to have a thin build, but Phoenix Police homicide Lt. Ed DeCastro cautions that the police department is actually uncertain about his height and build at this time.

Until July 11th, only a side-view composite was made available by police, because no one reported having seen him face-on.  The 21-year-old who was shot at on that date, however, assisted police in generating a frontal composite.

The victim says the shooter stopped his "black BMW" so that its driver door window and the victim's were facing each other, then stuck his head and a sidearm out of the window, giving the victim an angry look before opening fire.

The gunman was reportedly alone in most cases, though in one case he was supposedly in a car with two or three others.  Sometimes he exited his car before firing, while on other occasions he remained in the driver's seat.  Descriptions of the car varied widely, but had enough cohesion that police now suggest he has used at least two cars: a boxy, late-90's or early 2000.s BMW 5-series; or a white Cadillac/Lincoln type of sedan.  There has even been speculation that he may have access to a car lot or automobile dealership, perhaps working as a valet or lot person.

Police say the shooter appears to target his victims largely at random.  And, while most of his victims have been Hispanic or black, anyone foolishly jumping to stereotypical conclusions should be warned that there appear to be absolutely no ties to drugs, gangs or other illegal activity.  Most victims appear to have been good citizens.  In fact, nothing seems to connect these victims, except the fact that they were shot at by the same weapon, the lateness of the hour when they were available as targets, and the general lack of witnesses when they were shot at.

Police are asking for help, saying somebody out there must know who this person is.  The reward for information leading to his arrest has now be raised to $75,000 and police are hoping someone will come forward.

I'll let you know if this happens.

See you in two weeks,

— Dixon

25 August 2016

The Coming Party Crack-Up

by Brian Thornton

(Disclaimer– this is a political post. Not one advocating any one candidate, or point of view. It's more a prediction–based a look into America's past–of what may happen in the not too distant future.)

It's a wacky campaign season, full of surprises. The candidacy of Donald Trump has set one of our political parties in danger of cracking up. And it's not the one you think.

Yep. I'm talking about the Democrats.

How can I say that? After all, the Republican party is reeling, whereas the Democrats, the Liberal wing (recently revived from a long slumber by the insurgent candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders) notwithstanding, seem relatively united.

I didn't say that I thought the Republicans would escape the current crisis unscathed. Merely that they wouldn't split.

Then again, it's tough for a rump party aging itself out of relevance to split, since it's already shrinking.

Why do I think this?

Because it's happened before.


And while the tale of the demise of the Whig Party, shattered on the shoals of the issue of slavery in the 1850s is the story you're likely more familiar with, I think the parallels between the crisis of the 1850s and our current chaotic campaign season are less exact than the crack-up that preceded it by three decades: just under two hundred years ago.

I'm speaking, of course, about the split of the Democratic Republicans into two factions: The National Republicans (later "Whigs") and the Democratic Party (yes, the one we know today).

Here's the background:

Alexander Hamilton
At the beginning of the 19th century America's first two embryonic political parties coalesced around
the national figures of Thomas Jefferson (the "Republicans") and Alexander Hamilton (the "Federalists"). Jefferson's Republicans favored strong states and limited national government. Hamilton's Federalists favored a national government strong enough to regulate trade (including by levying protective tariffs intended to protect America's budding industrial sector against cheap foreign competition), make internal improvements and other business-friendly notions.

Hamilton soon died, killed in his famous duel with Jefferson's vice-president, Aaron Burr, but his followers continued on, becoming even less of a national presence with each passing election. By 1808 they found themselves reduced to carrying only New England, and frozen out of the presidency by the electoral popularity of Jefferson, and then of his hand-picked successor James Madison.

Even Madison's move to involve the nation in the disastrous War of 1812 did nothing to slow down the Jeffersonian electoral machine. It did, however, seal the fate of the "loyal opposition": the Federalist Party.
James Madison

The Federalists opposed war with Great Britain largely because of the harm it would do to trade with the British (America conducted far more trade with Great Britain at the time than any other nation, including Napoleonic France). And the war was catastrophic for a New England economy that relied as heavily on trans-oceanic trade at the time as Seattle did Boeing in the 1970s.

So the Federalists did a very foolish thing. They gathered together at Hartford, Connecticut in late
1814 and had a convention, in which they adopted a position exploring seeking a "separate peace"with the British. The "convention" never took any action after the adoption of this resolution, because by January of 1815 news of the signing of a peace treaty (in Ghent in December of 1814) rendered their position moot.

But when word got out of Federalist intentions, they were tarred as traitors and any pretensions of being a national party were snuffed out.

A Federalist Broadside Opposing France
Which left the Jeffersonian Republicans, or the National Republicans, or the Democratic Republicans, as they were alternately known, as the only political party in the country capable of carrying congressional majorities, and, of course, of electing a president.

When Madison's second term of office ended in 1816, his chosen successor James Monroe ran for office virtually unopposed. And he ran for reelection in 1820 literally unopposed. The "Republicans" had triumphed.

The problem, of course, is that single-party rule in a republic is a dicey thing. It is human nature to abhor a lack of liberty and to crave alternatives to even the most sensible of choices. A two party system, for all of its flaws, suits this impulse among the electorate far better than even the most efficient single ruling party.

And the Republicans of Monroe's era were hardly that.

In addition the first true economic depression in the nation's history (the "Panic of 1819") and
James Monroe
differences of opinion on matters such as the admission of new states into the union (which was really a shadow argument for and against the expansion of slavery) and other sectional concerns raised their troublesome heads. So the Republicans found themselves riven by dissension. Not surprisingly they broke up into two groups: one more liberal (at least where white males were concerned), the "Democrats" and the other more conservative, backed by the bankers and the monied/middle classes: calling themselves "National Republicans," they were soon better known as "Whigs."

Henry Clay of Kentucky: the Great Soul of the Whig Party
The resulting split during the electoral year of 1824 into two opposing factions provides a cautionary tale for our own time. After all, the Republican Party in its current incarnation has experienced an astonishing number of defections by people who are saying in so doing, "I haven't left the Republican Party. The Republican Party has left me."

And while the party's agonies might stoke a certain amount of schadenfreude among Democrats, I don't know anyone who is actively rooting for the demise of the Republican Party. And I say, "Good." And furthermore I fervently hope for the rebound of the Republican Party, the party of Reagan, as a principled repository for conservative political thought and action.

Because if the Republicans don't bounce back, it's highly likely that we will witness a split of the Democratic Party, with the "conservative" (moderate) wing of the party coalescing around so-called "Wall Street Democrats" and the "liberal" wing around the likes of Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

After all, "ex" Republicans have to go somewhere. If history is an indicator, they're likely to gravitate to the existing opposition party and help by sheer numbers make its "moderate" wing more conservative.

Only time will tell. Either way it promises to continue to be an interesting election (in a Chinese curse kind of way).

24 August 2016

Back in the USSR

In the latest news from Lake Woebegone, we have a reshuffle at the top of the ticket - no, not the Trump campaign, but the inner circle of the Kremlin. Sergei Ivanov, the president's chief of staff, one of Putin's senior guys and one of the last holdovers from the good old days in Leningrad, where the two of them made their bones with KGB, just got thrown under the train by his boss.

This didn't use to be that odd an occurrence, of course, usually followed by a trip to the basement of the Lubyanka and a bullet in the back of your head. I think people were actually surprised when Nikita Khrushchev was allowed to retire to his dacha, instead of being disappeared. Milan Kundera has a wonderful aside in LAUGHTER AND FORGETTING (or maybe it's UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS, sorry about that) about a Czech political figure from the Soviet era who gets erased from the history books and from collective memory. He's in a group photograph with some other party hacks, reviewing a parade or whatever, and he's cosmetically removed from the picture, but whoever retouches it leaves the guy's hat visible. So our guy's weightless, not even a shadow, while his orphaned hat floats in the empty air. For the luckless Ivanov, we ain't talking metaphorical, and the job market's tight for his particular skill set. He serviced one client and one client only. Maybe he got too big for his boots, or maybe he kept faith, but whichever it was, he outlived his usefulness.

Back in the day, a cottage industry sprang up in both media and intelligence circles. Kremlin-watching, reading the tea leaves - whose star was rising, whose sinking? This is a science still being practiced with regimes like China's and Iran's, where the workings of government are utterly opaque to outsiders, but Russia these days seems almost transparent by comparison. (Does anybody under the age of sixty remember Malenkov and Bulganin? Does anybody over the age of sixty remember them?) It seems like a throwback to the Cold War to wonder what Sergei Ivanov's political disgrace signifies. I venture there'd be more speculation if it happened on a slow news day, but it seems like a tree falling in the woods with nobody to hear it.

An informed guess? Putin has achieved escape velocity. He doesn't need his old gang, or their street smarts. He's shaking off the past and gathering new recruits. Medvedev is just about the Last Man Standing. He's a year younger than Putin. Ivanov is a dozen years older. Ivanov's successor, his former deputy, is twenty years younger than Putin. Putin has effectively been holding the reins for the past seventeen years, since he took over from Yeltsin - and if not without dissenting voices at the time, those voices have been silenced since. It's all about the chronology. These guys Putin is sidelining, pushed into retirement or promoted to some meaningless sinecure, aren't geriatrics. They're the Establishment, ready for prime time, with every expectation of putting both feet in the trough. All of a sudden their golden parachute has turned into a box of rocks. They've been traded to the minors.

The new kids, like Ivanov's replacement, Anton Vaino, have no power base independent of Putin. And more than that, they've risen in the apparat while Putin's held office. In other words, they have no basis for comparison. So far as they're concerned, Putin is the state. Fairly obviously, this isn't a view Putin discourages. It's also been remarked that some Russians in the older generation are nostalgic for Stalin, or at least for an iron hand, and Putin doesn't discourage this sentiment, either.

I don't think we're talking about a culture of Yes Men, or not entirely. Putin isn't delusional, and his policies - Ukraine and Crimea, in Syria and the Caucasus - aren't being questioned. What's happening is simply that he's eliminating possible challengers. Having secured his position, Putin is now making himself irreplaceable. Nobody's waiting in the wings. It's only policy. When a new king takes the throne, he smothers his close relatives, thinning the herd.

For some reason, I've been slow on the uptake, along with quite a few other people, but I don't know why this should come as any surprise. Everything in Putin's methodology has always been about turning back the clock. He once said that allowing the dissolution of the Soviet Union was one of the great political mistakes of the twentieth century - I think he called it 'historic,' meaning a wrong turn, historically - and his attitude toward the Near Abroad, the former Soviet republics, bears this out. But has he actually decided to raid Stalin's closet and try on some of his old clothes? If the shoe fits, well and good.

The thing is, you're not going to get too many people who don't think Stalin was a psychopath. Vladimir Putin has his fair share of vanity, I'm sure, and he may have an inflated idea of his self-importance, or his place in history, but nobody's suggested he's a fruit loop. Not yet. Calculating, manipulative, and ruthless. Let's face it, those aren't disqualifications. Blood on his hands? Sure. Not to plead any kind of moral equivalency, but he's not the only one.

It's an inexact science, reading the leaves. Probably best left to those of us who don't have a dog in the fight. We could go back and forth about this, and never settle our differences. Let's put it this way. When you eat with the Devil, use a long spoon.