06 October 2016

Send in the Clowns....


by Brian Thornton
Not THIS type of clown (Arlechhino)...

I don't think this is exactly what Sondheim had in mind.

So I don't talk much about my day gig here, because, hey, this is a "crime fiction blog," not a "teach-history-at-the-secondary-level" blog. But sometimes it's both appropriate and timely for me to trot the day job out, and this is one of those times.

You see, as a school district employee, I'm on my employer's robo-call list in case of a public emergency, and in the age of Columbine and Sandy Hook, of a public threat. These calls don't come often, but when they do, I try to be a professional and take it seriously, no matter how unlikely the threat.

And then I get a call like the one I got last Monday night.

More like THIS type of clown...
The automated system apprised me that my school district had intentions to keep schools open and run classes as normal the following day, but wanted students, parents and staff to be aware that the district had received threats involving (and I quote) "clowns."

"Clown T'reats? Dat's a t'ing."
Apparently, in the words of The Big Bang Theory's Raj Koothrapali, "Dat's a t'ing."

And who or what is at the bottom of it, you ask? Why, social media, and the trolls who manipulate it, naturally.

To be clear, the "evil clown" mania currently sweeping the nation like a dance craze on "American Bandstand" back in the day can be traced back to an apparent hoax perpetrated in a South Carolina apartment complex, where there were alleged reports of menacing clowns wandering the neighboring woods and attempting to lure unsuspecting children into them. Since then there have been clown "sightings" in states from Illinois to Oregon. The phenomenon was even brought up by a reporter at a recent White House press conference.

It was only a matter of time before idiots on social media began masquerading as malevolent clowns bent on invading public schools and snatching innocent children. School districts in Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio all dealt with treats to their students made via social media.

Which brings us back to Monday night, here in Washington state.

I replayed the message for my wife, and her face registered concern for the first part of the message, but once it got to the word "clowns," she burst out laughing. Which is as it should be, don't you think? I mean, after all, "clowns."

Of course anyone with access to the internet and a bit of curiosity
can figure out that clowns have a mixed place in human culture. There's even a word for the concept of the fear of clowns (It's "coulrophobia."). And in this post-Stephen-King's-"It" and post-Heath-Ledger's-Joker world, a fear of clowns is all too understandable.

So on one hand it's sort of understandable how "disturbing" some people find clowns without any help from either popular culture or social media. And while many people trace the turn in popular culture's relationship with clowns back to the 1986 publication of King's masterwork It, in which Pennywise the terrifying clown of a thousand adolescent nightmares was born, honestly, society's uncomfortable relationship with clowns goes back much further than the middle of the Reagan administration. In fact, it antedates America itself.

I mean, come ON....
 I'm speaking of course, of the comedia del arte tradition in Renaissance Italian drama (although the archetype of the scary clown can be traced back even further), and the recurring character of the buffoon Pulcinella (In English "Punchinello"), a clown who was both vicious and sly, often outwitting his antagonists in comic manner by pretending to be far more stupid than he actually was, thereby getting his opponents to underestimate him.

And this, of course, bleeds into such pop culture stuff as Ruggero Leoncalvo's late 19th century tragic opera Paggliacci, in which the title character is a comedia del arte performer whose real-life cuckolding echoes the tropes of the play in which he performs night after night, resulting in a murderous rampage on-stage in which he kills his wife and her lover, then sings the final, devastating line:

La commedia è finita!  ("The comedy is finished!")

The celebrated Italian tenor Enrico Caruso made the role his own in the 1890s. (To hear his rendition of the famous aria "Vesti la Giubba," ("Put on the Costume.) click here. American Mario Lanza also famously sang the part for his final film For the First Time, which performance can be found here. And of course there's Luciano Pavarotti's earth-shaking rendition, which you can watch here.)

And don't even get me started on this guy.

So yeah, it's well-documented that clowns can be scary. In fact the notion is so embedded in popular culture these days that it's subject of any number of lampoons. 1988's Killer Klowns from Outer Space is just one example of this (If you really think you must, you can watch the trailer here.) , as is the subplot in hit ABC sitcom Modern Family where Phil Dunphy (played by Ty Burrell) is secretly terrified of clowns, which makes things awkward when his brother-in-law Cameron Tucker (played by Eric Stonestreet) shows up at a family birthday party dressed as "Fizbo," an "Auguste clown."

Fear is hilarious....
All that said, and current trends notwithstanding, I have to agree with author Stephen King's recent statement made in an attempt deescalate clown-related hysteria. King took to Twitter, and said: "Hey, guys, time to cool the clown hysteria  — most of em are good, cheer up the kiddies, make people laugh."

You see, I come from the Pacific Northwest, home of many great things-including a truly awesome clown known as J.P. Patches. Portrayed by TV station executive Chris Wedes, Patches hosted a local children's show in the Seattle area for over thirty years and was a frequent in-costume visitor to places like Children's Hospital. He never asked for a dime in return for those thousands of personal appearances, by the way, and continued to appear in public at events supporting worthy causes right up until his death in 2012 at age 84.

To say the guy was beloved would be an understatement. In the tradition of the national syndicated Bozo and other clowns intended to entertain and educate little kids, Patches was a great entertainer and deserving of the high esteem in which so many of us who grew up in his orbit continue to hold him.

Who could be afraid of someone like that?

R.I.P. Chris, and may God bless you...

05 October 2016

The Way It Wasn't


A month ago I noticed that my wife was reading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.  What made that particularly interesting was that I was reading Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters.

Both of them fall into the genre of Alternative History (AH), which is usually considered part of science fiction.  Science fiction, more than most forms of fiction, is all about "What if?" and AH  asks "What if events didn't turn out as they did?"

The oldest example of AH we know of is about 2100 years old.  The Roman author  Livy pondered the question: What if Alexander the Great had gone west (toward the still developing city of Rome) instead of east?

Let's jump ahead past a few medieval examples and land in 1931 when John Squires published  If It Had Happened Otherwise, a collection of essays by different authors, speculating on how various turning points of history could have turned out differently.  One of them, "If Lee Had Not Won At Gettysburg," is a double twist (as you can probably tell), being written from the point of view of a historian in a world in which the South did win the Civil War.  He tries to speculate how things would have turned out if the North had conquered.

You may have heard of the author of that clever essay.  He later won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but Winston Churchill was better known for other accomplishments.

You may be surprised that an Englishman like Churchill should have chosen the American Civil War as his subject but that event seems to have an obsessive interest for alternative historians.  Remember those books my wife and I were reading?  Even The New Yorker  recently took note of our country's obsession with the Underground Railroad.

My favorite AH writer is Harry Turtledove and he was inspired to get a PhD in Byzantine History by an AH novel by L. Sprague De Camp called Lest Darkness Fall.  Turtledove's masterpiece is The Guns of the South  (Yup, that War Between the States again).  It starts with a real event: Robert E. Lee writing to Jefferson Davis in 1864 to say the Confederacy could not win.  Except in Turtledove's book the letter is interrupted by some strangers with funny accents who want to sell the South some new weapons called AK-47s.  You see, some Afrikaaners got their hands on a time machine and decided to nip Black aspirations in the bud by saving slavery.

You can argue that that is not pure alternative history since it involves a science fiction concept like time travel.  In that case you might prefer another  Turtledove novel - and it's a mystery! -  The Two Georges, co-written with, of all people, the actor Richard Dreyfuss.  The heroes are cops in the 1960s, but in this world King George III never went mad and when his colonies started protesting his policies he invited the leaders to England to discuss it.  The result is that George Washington became the first Governor-General of British North America.

Some of you may have seen the recent TV series, The Man in the High Castle, which is based (loosely, I hear) on a classic AH novel by Philip K. Dick.  It explores a world in which the Axis beat the Allies.

To my mind, there are two essential elements to an AH fiction: How did things turn out this way (as opposed to the way we know they did)?  And what would happen if they had?  At its best, AH becomes a thought experiment: If Nixon beat Kennedy, how would the sixties have changed?  What if the Spanish Armada had won?

I have had three fantasy stories published and while none of them are pure AH they all, shall we say, partake of its nature.

After George W. Bush became president, Edward J. McFadden III and E. Sedia proposed Jigsaw Nation, a book of stories that asked: What if the blue states seceded from the nation?  My story, "Down in the Corridor," takes place in the  narrow strip of land between Mexico and the Pacific States of America, connecting the USA with the Pacific.   Yes, it's a crime story, but it's not true AH because it was imaging an alternative near future, not a past.  (Recently Andrew MacRae came up with a similar idea for an anthology about post-current events.)

"Letters to the Journal of Experimental History" appeared in a short-lived humor webzine called The Town Drunk.  It's based on the multi-verse theory of time travel; that is, if you go back in time and, say, kill Hitler, it doesn't change our universe, it merely kickstarts a new one.  You can read it here.

And then there is "Street of the Dead House," which appeared in nEvermore! (and has been reprinted in Best American Mystery Stories 2016 and Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2016, he said modestly.)  This one is Alternative Literature, reinterpreting (without changing) a classic Edgar Allan Poe story.

Anyone out there like this genre?  If so, tell me your favorites.

04 October 2016

How to Kick @ss: Tami Hoag Edition


I'm fascinated by successful writers. I've decided to launch a new series where I examine authors I admire and try to unlock their secrets to success.

I met Tami Hoag at Writers Police Academy in August. Yes, that Tami Hoag. The one who's hit the New York Times bestseller list thirteen consecutive times, including five separate books within 20 months. #livingthedream

I happened to sit with Tami on the bus, chat with her over lunch, and listen to her speak at the banquet. Here are five pearls from Tami Hoag.

1. “People say I look like a nice woman. And I am. But I am a competitor.”
I love this. All of us, especially women, are socialized to be nice and kind and “After you” and “Don’t mind if I do.” That makes for a smooth society. But if you want to be a #1 international bestseller, you will have to throw down like Tami Hoag.

Well, maybe not exactly like her. In an interview with myPalmBeachPost, she said, "I could knock [you] out with a single punch and can talk about serial killers all day long.” She got into mixed martial arts for stress relief, and rode horses competitively, although she had to heal up five fractured verebrae after a dressage accident in 2003.

The killer instinct doesn’t mean you have to assassinate your competitors. Just get ready to put your shoulder in it, because…

2. “Writing is a mental full-contact sport.”
This may be my absolute favourite line. That was when I realized I have to read more of Tami's books. She is so passionate, so committed to writing, her body reverberates when she talks about it. There are famous authors who want to sit back and enjoy the money and adulation, and I don't blame them, but Tami is still throwing herself into the ring with everything she's got.
Just bought it.


3. “Commitment is a four letter word to me. I am a total pantser. In all other areas of my life, I am highly organized."
The sweet, sweet sound of someone who writes my way, which is to say, flying through the darkness, making it up en route. As Tami put it, "I know what the central crime is. A third of the way through, I say, ‘I don't think he did it.’ I call the editor and say, 'That's not who did it. Do you want to know who did it?’”

4. “You can't please everyone. It dilutes the quality.”
She does get people contacting her to complain that her characters are swearing, but she said she writes exactly how she sees real police officers talking. "I use the vernacular." When readers complain, it "makes me want to go around my office and say #@#%^@# @#^ )()&.@#@"
That made me laugh. Of course, I also like to swear.

5. “Somehow it's all there. Somehow it's all good.”
In other words, trust the process. In the end, even if she has to get her editors to tell her whodunit, or she has to take back a book to rewrite it to her satisfaction, at the end of six or nine months, she's once again created a brand new, character-driven thriller that has a bajillion readers clamouring for more.

Do any of these pearls speak to you? Are you a competitor? Is writing or reading your mental full-contact sport? Sound off in the comments. And if you'd like to hear more about Writers Police Academy, I'll be blogging about it at my own personal website. Cheers!

03 October 2016

Blood and Gore


by Janice Law

Some time ago, our SleuthSayers colleague Eve Fisher wrote a good piece on why she hated (fictional) serial killers. I had to agree that too often the serial killer is a convenient, if callous, way to hype up the tension and excitement of a book and not always just in horror fiction or low level pulp. There are some really good writers like Jo Nesbo and Jussi Adler-Olsen, whose style and characterizations I otherwise admire, whose fondness for killers commiting ingenious and torturous murders strikes me as dubious both ethically and aesthetically.

Recently, a couple of writers new to me have got me thinking about serial killers again and even more, about the strain of ingenious sadism which so often accompanies their fictional arrival. John Hart’s The Last Child and Zygmunt Miloszewski’s Rage, one tangentially about a serial killer, the other, about a sadistic serial avenger, take radically different approaches.

Hart’s The Last Child throws a whole lot into the hopper: a young girl’s disappearance, a heroic boy out to find her, possible police corruption, a big helping of dismal history, and a touch of supernatural Southern Gothic. A synopsis of the plot practically screams exploitive melodrama, but the skeleton of the story proves deceptive because Hart is a careful and sensitive writer.

Yes, there is something bad happening out in the North Carolina backcountry, but The Last Child focuses always on the people affected by the disappearance of Alyssa Merrimon and the catastrophic effect of her loss on her twin, Johnny, on her distraught mother, and on the weary Clyde Hunt, the detective in charge of the initial investigation.

The portrait of brave, troubled Johnny is particularly well done, as is the companion portrait of his unhappy friend, Jack, but even minor characters like Mrs. Merrimon’s dangerous lover and the mysterious giant Levi Freemantle are well handled. Evil is present, but it’s not around for cheap thrills. Indeed, the book ends in a sadder, more plausible, way that one is likely to anticipate.

Miloszewski’s Rage is another matter altogether. I like mysteries set in foreign countries, and Olsztyn, a Polish resort town with a multitude of lakes and seemingly wretched weather, is a locale ripe for mystery and mayhem. The investigator, Prosecutor Teodor Szacki, is cranky and over worked. He is often difficult with both his lover and his teen-aged daughter and inclined to be abrupt with innocent members of the public.

Harried by the investigation of an exceptionally cruel, if equally exceptionally creative, murder, he fails to pick up hints of serious domestic abuse and finds himself not only in bureaucratic hot water but in true physical danger. This interest in domestic violence apparently represents something new in Polish crime fiction, but that alone probably does not account for the inventively gruesome revenge plot.

The lack of nuance in Rage is too bad, because both the settling and admittedly crusty but not entirely close-minded Prosecutor Szacki are intriguing. But a strain of zestful cruelty runs throughout the novel, and to my mind, at least, too much of the momentum and impact of Rage relies on gruesome ingenuity as opposed to intelligent characterization or to a real exploration of the ethical and social issues raised by the plot.

Oddly enough, in this case, The Last Child, a novel with a bona fide serial killer, if one kept mostly off stage, turns out to be a moving and subtle character study. Rage, with a much lower body count, sadly relies more on gore and sadism than on its distinctive investigator.

I wonder if I am alone in this sort of reaction or if there are other folk out there who find madly inventive and sadistic murders a dubious literary resource?

02 October 2016

Gender Blender


by Leigh Lundin

An over-hyped Business Insider headline caught my eye:
A major newspaper is doing something that could change the English language forever.
If you guessed this has something to do with political correctness, two points for you. That newspaper’s new policy I’ll explain below, but first some background.

Two Bits

Working as a software designer, I specialized in operating systems bits & bytes stuff. Most programmers worked on applications– invoicing, payroll, perhaps tracking the speed of an electron. Some records such as personnel files might require a designation of gender. In computer languages that could address the bit level, that assignment required only one ‘bit’, one binary digit.

See, a binary digit represents either of two mutually exclusive states decided by the developer: 1 or 0, on or off, true or false, yes or no, black or white, yin and yang, day or night, male or female. What could be simpler?

bin dec sym
00 0
01 1
10 2
11 3
A long-ago story in the industry press brought to light a programmer in Asia who didn’t quite understand the concept of binary and assigned two binary digits, one for male and the other for female. Observers realized two additional possibilities could some day be programmed, hermaphrodite (all bits on) and morphodite (all bits off).

Ranching and farming communities use ‘morphodite’ or its older form ‘morphrodite’ to refer to livestock born without either sexual characteristic, the opposite of hermaphrodite, in which both male and female characteristics appear. One of the cruelest bullying insults is to call someone a ‘morph’, i.e, sexless.

Historically, a sense of sexuality is more deeply important to people than its seeming superficiality suggests. Most given names not merely denote masculinity and femininity, an actual meaning may further signify manly and womanly. Two such examples are Charles and Carla.

The importance of sexual awareness naturally provides a rich vocabulary of ridicule and rejection. We apply the term ‘limp-wristed’ only to a small number of males. We’re not complimentary when we call someone a swish or a dyke, and people have been known to use worse, far worse.

Changing Room

You no doubt heard a hysterical North Carolina put a statute on the books requiring people to use the loo associated with their birth gender. I’m hard pressed to think of a more useless law.

☞ When I was a toddler, my mother took us children into the ladies locker room of the local pool house. A woman fled the scene, aghast to have three- and four-year-olds within view. But other ladies didn’t flee in terror and outrage and back then, it was perfectly legal. Tally: One woman verklempt.

☞ In the 1960s, women attending concerts in Central Park often used men’s rooms when their own became overwhelmed. They needed them. No need to get verklempt.

☞ In the 1970s, feminists took over a few men’s rooms in Manhattan just because they could. To their disappointed, no one got all verklempt.

☞ In the 1980s, I consulted in Europe. Outside the WCs, the janitorial staff didn’t bother with those yellow plastic ‘Piso Mojado’ signs (that don’t mean Mojo peed here), the attendants– male and female– went about their business. Thus in an airport pissoir when a lady swabbed the urinal next to me, I summoned available savoir faire, outwardly blithe to the situation, one that would occur from time to time. There were places we’d both rather visit. No need to get verklempt.

O de Toilette


So to North Carolina that wrote the peculiar legislation: My experience with the Carolina legal system has already made it my least favorite for multiple reasons, but what were you thinking? Who the hell cares?

Apparently a couple of cops (male and female) did: They dragged a woman from a ladies room because she didn’t look feminine enough. Put another way, the cops wanted to force the woman to use the men’s room. (According to Snopes, at least one supposed case was bogus.)

Note that the officers demanded ID, but one of the few civil liberties remaining after the US PATRIOT Acts, except for probable cause, is we don’t have to produce identity papers on demand.

How to Put the Rest in Restroom

female, male
I’m as ham-handed and foot-in-mouth as most guys. When it comes to transgender issues vis-à-vis public toilets, I don’t know if I’m insensitive or not when I say “I… don’t… care.” It’s your business, not mine. Each of us carries our own burden without adding to the woes of others. Come in peace, go in peace, what else matters? Unless you're thinking a ‘family values’ senator in a Minneapolis airport futilely cottaging young men.

On the other side of the argument, a guy standing in line at my local WaWa gas station loudly pontificated, “What if some queer goes into the bathroom with your daughter?” He completely missed the irony of his supposition. (And I'm sure he meant restroom instead of bathroom).

Gender Mender

As mentioned in the opening, Business Insider wrote:
A major newspaper is doing something that could change the English language forever.
The story behind the overheated lede is that The San Francisco Examiner (limited to the American language) has adopted a policy that reporters must ask interviewees their ‘preferred pronoun’: he, she, or they.

boy, girl
My ego is sometimes so large that it could be referred to as ‘they’, but sexually, no question. Surely a sensitive interviewer could figure out a non-offensive term on his/her/their own. Embodying this in official policy makes it difficult to deny accusations of overwrought political correctness.

As children, we were taught to say “Yes, ma’am” and “No, sir.” The US military created their own rule: Personnel are addressed as “sir” unless an officer requests the use of “ma’am”.

Since childhood, my brother Glen cultivated waggish weirdness into a modest industry. The smartass may have come up with a solution in grade school. Back then he addressed his teachers: “Yes ma’am, sir.” God love ’im.

Opinions, yes, opinions please.

01 October 2016

Boucherconfessions, 2016


As pretty much everyone knows by now, the annual Bouchercon world mystery conference was held in New Orleans a couple of weeks ago. I attended, and my wife Carolyn went along also (many spouses did, I'm told--probably because of the location). We had a great time.

Thankfully, many current and former SleuthSayers and Criminal Briefers were in attendance as well, and although I didn't connect with every single one, I found most of them, and thoroughly enjoyed the chance to visit and catch up a bit. Among them were R.T. Lawton, Bonnie (B.K.) Stevens, Art Taylor, Deborah Elliott-Upton, James Lincoln Warren, Steve Steinbock, Melodie Johnson Howe, O'Neil De Noux, and Terry Faherty. Somehow I missed running into Jan Grape and Susan Cooper, but I'm hoping our paths will cross soon.

Highlights

There were too many different experiences to go into here--certainly too many to hold even the most patient reader's interest--but one that I must mention was the opening ceremonies, on Thursday night. All I can say is, my hat's off to the people who planned this event. They know how to put on a show. All the dignitaries, dressed in suitably flamboyant outfits, rode in on floats that deposited them on the stage amid strobing lights and blaring music. Afterward came several hours of awards, presentations, and speeches, but the hosts somehow managed to keep things entertaining. One of them was O'Neil De Noux, who did a great job.


I also want to point out three other events that were fun, for me. One was the signing of the annual Bouchercon anthology, Blood on the Bayou, edited by Greg Herren and produced by Down & Out Books. Some of the folks whose stories were included in the antho are friends of mine, so we had a good time there, and the process was a bit different from previous years: each of us was given a separate table in one of the ballrooms, and the purchasers of the book filed past and stopped at each table to get our signatures (some on the story page, some on the title page in the front, some on both). It not only made the lines seem shorter, it gave the writers a chance to talk with each reader for a moment more than we might've, in a more crowded setup.


Another delight for me was the annual get-together of members of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. With the guidance of O'Neil De Noux (he was everywhere, at this conference), we were herded up the street to the Napoleon House for lunch one day, and I was able to see a lot of old buddies and meet some new ones. I didn't take a headcount, but I figure there were around two dozen of us present, for a good meal and good conversation. Writers of short stories sometimes feel like the Rodney Dangerfields of the fiction world, and it was great to get together with a group that loves that form of storytelling.

The fourth thing I'll always remember was a panel called "Murder by Numbers: Ellery Queen, Their Words, and the Magazine." My old friend and hero James Lincoln Warren was the moderator, and the panelists were a stellar group of EQMM experts: Janet Hutchings, Otto Penzler, Steve Steinbock, Ted Hertel, Shelly Dickson Carr, and Brendan DuBois. I had to sneak out a few minutes early to go to the aforementioned lunch meeting, but it was both entertaining and informative to hear this discussion of the history of one of our leading mystery magazines. Well done, you guys!

Chance observations

One thing that surprised me was that there was such good attendance at most of the panels I went to. Don't get me wrong--the panels were excellent; they always are--but we were, after all, in NOLA, with all the wonders of the city beckoning to us just outside the hotel doors. I can easily recall the conferences and conventions I attended with IBM, and when they happened to be held in places like San Francisco or Miami Beach or New Orleans or Anchorage or Honolulu there were always a lot of empty seats at those indoor concurrent sessions (the equivalent of our "panels"). I specialized in Finance, and during the banking conferences there was a standing joke: anytime someone discovered a colleague was absent from one of the business or technical sessions and inquired about his whereabouts, the answer was "He's studying float management." Which of course meant that he/she/I had opted to go out to the hotel pool instead of in to the meeting.

I wound up with only two complaints, about the four days and nights we spent at Bouchercon 2016. One was the sky-high parking fees at the Marriott--I mean, jeez Louise!--and the other was the unique smell of the French Quarter streets on Sunday morning. The first was unexpected; the second was not--I've spent a lot of time wandering the Quarter, over the years, and occasionally not at the best times of day/night. The good thing is, the positives outweigh the negatives, and New Orleans will always be close to my heart.

A final point. As always, one perk of attending Bouchercon is the chance to meet with your publishers, editors, etc. One morning Carolyn and I had breakfast with Janet Hutchings, Linda Landrigan, and several fellow writers for EQMM and AHMM; that night we shared a meal with Strand editor Andrew Gulli at Cafe Beignet; and the following morning we had Eggs Benedict with Linda Landrigan at Brennan's. Where else can you have the opportunity to spend time in a casual, non-business setting with the folks who are kind enough to publish your creations? B'con is also a good place to meet authors you've always admired and loved to read: in my case,  Joe Lansdale, Harlan Coben, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Lee Child, Harley Jane Kozak, Ace Atkins, Lawrence Block, and Michael Connelly. And I'll always treasure the long visits I had with friends Michael Bracken and Deborah Elliott-Upton (shown at left), Vy Cava, R.T. Lawton, Melodie J. Howe, O'Neil De Noux and Debb, Bob Mangeot, James Lincoln Warren, and others.

Wrapup

I realize all this is old news. Because of the timing of this column--my previous piece was posted during the conference itself--several of my fellow SleuthSayers have already shared their New Orleans memories and experiences. But I must ask: For the rest of you who attended Bouchercon, what were the events, interviews, panels, sights, restaurants, off-campus meetings, etc., that you enjoyed the most? How would you compare this B'con with those in the past? Were you able to track down everyone you wanted to see? Did you play hooky from the panels often enough to get out and explore the area? Did you wind up in any unfortunate late-night Facebook photos? Did you survive the heat and humidity? Are you going to Toronto next year? (If you are, and plan to park at the event hotel, you might want to start saving now.)

If you've never attended a Bouchercon at all, I do hope you'll find time for one in the future. Other, smaller conferences are good as well--I've heard many writers say they're even better--but the special thing about B'con is that (1) it IS so big (you can be sure there'll be a lot of A-list authors there and a lot of your old writer friends) and (2) it's a fan conference, which means it includes readers as well as writers. That affects the topics of many of the panels, yes, but that's not always a bad thing.

Go, and you'll see what I mean. You'll be poorer financially but richer professionally.

Excuse me now, while I go treat my severe credit-card burns . . .

30 September 2016

Anthologies Everywhere


Today is the last day of the week-long Fall for the Book festival, based at George Mason University with events in Northern Virginia, DC, and Maryland. I've worked with Fall for the Book for many years in various positions, and my contributions this year were primarily focused on a few of the mystery and suspense programs throughout the week. Thursday night, for example, I moderated a panel of writers from the local Mid-Atlantic Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, including Maya Corrigan, Dan Fesperman, Shawn Reilly Simmons, and David Swinson—part of an evening that also included a talk by Lyndsay Faye, author of Jane Steele.
Earlier in the week, on the festival's official opening day, I moderated another panel with members of three regional chapters of Sisters in Crime: Donna Andrews, Diane Davidson (half of the team co-writing as Maddi Davidson), Maria Hudgins, and Heather Weidner. Our topic there was anthologies, since these three chapters are now behind two series of anthologies: the Chesapeake Crimes books, including most recently Storm Warning, from the Chesapeake Chapter, and two volumes of Virginia is for Mysteries from the Central Virginia Chapter and from Mystery by the Sea, the Southeastern Virginia Chapter.

That chat was terrific, I thought, and emphasized both the benefits of anthologies from various perspectives and the responsibilities inherent in producing those anthologies.

On the first point, maybe the benefits are obvious. From the reader perspective, anthologies offer the chance to sample a variety of authors in a single book—find which you like and pursue their works further. From a writer perspective, anthologies offer the reverse—the chance for exposure to more readers—but also the opportunity to work as part of a larger community of writers, often a wide-ranging community, from veterans to first-timers; and on that latter point, beginning authors get the chance to experience in microcosm the entire process of publication, from editorial feedback and revision, to the book launch, to the marketing beyond.

The behind-the-scenes on that process is where the responsibilities come in: from ensuring an objective and professional selection process (perhaps relying, as the Chesapeake Crimes series does, on different judges each book to select stories) to maintaining a solid editorial review of each entry (both at the global level and in terms of copy-editing) and then to overseeing the publication itself—and making sure the publisher stays properly on top of things.

Much of this is often on a volunteer basis, of course—with the Chesapeake Crimes series, neither the authors nor the editors receive monetary compensation, and proceeds benefit the chapter itself. But the other benefits maybe far outweigh the questions of royalties: in terms of a nice publication credit, good exposure, and a renewed sense of literary citizenship.

Thinking about the panel, I realized that over the last few weeks, I've been in the midst of a good bit of anthology news—and grateful for it.

Back at Bouchercon in mid-September, I was thrilled to accept the Anthony Award for Best Anthology on behalf of the contributors to Murder Under the Oaks: Bouchercon Anthology 2015, including my fellow SleuthSayers Robert Lopresti and B.K. Stevens as well as 19 other contributors: J.L. Abramo, J.D. Allen, Lori Armstrong, Rob Brunet, P.A. De Voe, Sean Doolittle, Tom Franklin, Toni Goodyear, Kristin Kisska, Robert Mangeot, Margaret Maron, Kathleen Mix, Britni Patterson, Karen Pullen, Ron Rash, Karen E. Salyer, Sarah Shaber, Zoë Sharp, and Graham Wynd. (A good cause here too, with proceeds benefiting the Wake County Public Libraries in North Carolina, host of last year's Bouchercon.)

Then just this week, Malice Domestic announced the stories accepted for the upcoming anthology Murder Most Historical, and I was proud to have been a member of the selection committee there, along with Martin Edwards and Kathy Lynn Emerson. Contributors there include: John Betancourt, Susanna Calkins, Carla Coupe, Susan Daly, P.A. De Voe, Michael Dell, Carole Nelson Douglas, Martin Edwards, Kathy Lynn Emerson, Peter Hayes, Nancy Herriman, KB Inglee, Su Kopil, Vivian Lawry, Edith Maxwell, Catriona McPherson, Liz Milliron, Kathryn O'Sullivan, K.B. Owen, Valerie O Patterson, Keenan Powell, Mindy Quigley, Verena Rose, Shawn Reilly Simmons, Marcia Talley, Mark Thielman, Victoria Thompson, Charles Todd, Elaine Viets, and Georgia Wilson.

And early next week brings the publication of this year's Best American Mystery Stories anthology—a dream come true for me, since editors Elizabeth George and Otto Penzler have included in this latest edition my story "Rearview Mirror," the opening section of my book On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories. Fellow SleuthSayer Robert Lopresti also has a story there—"Street of the Dead House"—and we're both in find company, alongside the likes of Megan Abbott, Stephen King, and Elmore Leonard, among many others. Can't wait to see the book myself!

And all this doesn't even begin to mention the anthologies that I picked up and perused at Bouchercon itself, including the new Bouchercon anthology Blood on the Bayou, the ultra-lush collection In Sunlight or in Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper, and the just-released Sunshine Noir, in which "seventeen writers from around the globe tell of dark doings in sunny places."

Plenty to celebrate here, and plenty of good reading ahead too.



29 September 2016

Treason's True Bed


I don't know how many of you have heard of Marissa Alexander, of Florida. She was sentenced to 20 years in 2012 after firing a single gunshot at the ceiling of her home in an attempt to scare her estranged husband, Rico Gray.  Right before she did this, Alexander had locked herself in the bathroom; Gray broke through, grabbed her by the neck, and shoved her into the broken door.  She tried to escape through the garage, but the garage door wouldn't open.  She grabbed her gun from the car and went back in the house.  When Gray saw Alexander with a gun, he “charged her ‘in a rage,’ saying, ‘Bitch, I'll kill you.’”  She shot the gun at the ceiling, he backed off, no one was harmed.

"Safe enough for babies" - I know, irrelevant,
but I couldn't resist.  
Now before this incident, Gray had previously tried to choke her, strangle her, regularly threatened to kill her, shoved her around, and hospitalized her.  She'd gotten a restraining order against him.  She was charged with 3 counts of aggravated assault, and claimed immunity under Florida's "Stand Your Ground" (SYG) law.  But judge denied her immunity, and a jury sentenced her to TWENTY YEARS IN PRISON.  She appealed and was granted a new trial due to erroneous jury instructions; she is currently freed; but throughout, the court reaffirmed that she couldn't claim SYG as a defense.

You may be wondering, what the hell????

Back in 2005, Florida became the first state to adopt a SYG law.  Based on British common law on self-defense, SYG eliminates the duty to retreat when using self-defense and expands the “Castle Doctrine.”  BUT SYG specifically denies people prosecutorial immunity under SYG if “[t]he person against whom the defensive force is used or threatened has the right to be in or is a lawful resident of the dwelling, [or] residence . . . such as an owner, lessee, or titleholder, and there is not an injunction for protection from domestic violence or a written pretrial supervision of no contact order against that person.”   (Much of this comes from the American Criminal Review.)

In case you're wondering, the NRA helped write Florida’s SYG law; and most SYG laws are based on Florida's.  (See - We Helped Draft It" here)  Now the NRA will tell you that SYG allows women to protect themselves from rapists, etc.  But that's only from rapists who are strangers.  If you know them - well, you're gonna have to figure something else out.  
NERD NOTE:  82% of women who have been raped were raped by someone they knew; only 18% by a stranger.  (See Rape Statistics here)
So, despite the fact that women are more likely to be victims of domestic violence than of stranger-danger, 82% v. 18%, those violent partners are the specific people women are not allowed to defend themselves against under SYG.  BTW, the NRA specifically helped write it this way.  

So, okay, you might say, all they have to do is get a protective order.  Yeah, well, only 28% of female victims get one.  Most victims of domestic violence are afraid, desperately afraid.  And rightly so. I've seen cases where the man waited until the woman came out of the courthouse and either killed her in the parking lot and/or followed her to her next destination and beat the crap out of her and/or killed her.  (Marissa Alexander HAD a protective order, and was STILL denied SYG.)

And it's not just Marissa Alexander.  Take a gander at this blog from Patheos listing dozens of horrendous but true examples of women trying to defend themselves and/or their families, and ending up in prison:  http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism/2016/08/why-is-the-nra-ignoring-this-14-year-old-girl-jailed-for-shooting-her-abusive-father.html

What in the holy hell is going on?  Well, for one thing, the NRA has consistently opposed revoking a person's 2nd Amendment Rights (i.e., the right to own a gun) just because they have been convicted of domestic violence, no matter how heinous and disturbing.  And most people who have been convicted of domestic violence and/or have protection orders against them are, sadly, male.  
Clarence Thomas official SCOTUS portrait.jpg
SCJ Clarence Thomas
NOTE 1:  To be fair, the NRA is beginning to walk back a tiny, tiny, tiny bit on the issue of convicted domestic abusers, mostly because (1) Women have been raising holy hell about it; and   (2) women vote; and (3) a high-profile executive of the NRA was in a high-profile domestic abuse case, and the publicity fall-out was bad.  BUT - it's still only a little walking back - the NRA still opposes expanded background checks, opposes including things like stalking under "domestic abuse", and opposes giving abused women SYG rights.  (It also depends on the state) 
NOTE 2: It also depends on the judge:  In February, 2016, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas spoke for the first time in 10 years from the bench - to protest against making a “misdemeanor violation of domestic conduct... result in a lifetime ban on possession of a gun, which, at least as of now, is still a constitutional right.”  (See here)  
So what is going on?  Why don't women have the same rights to SYG when their lives are threatened, even if it is a domestic partner?  

I think it all goes back to the olden days, when British common law said that acts of petty treason were: 
  • a wife killing her husband, (no matter what the reason)
  • a clergyman killing his prelate (i.e., superior)
  • a servant killing his master or mistress, or his master's wife
And notice this little detail:

A man (clergyman/servant) convicted of petty treason was punished with hanging.
A woman convicted of petty treason was punished by being burned at the stake.

A significant difference in punishment level even back then, wouldn't you agree?

This significant difference in punishment level still holds true:

"The average prison sentence for men who kill their intimate partners is 2 to 6 years. Women who kill their partners are sentenced, on average, to 15 years." (University of Michigan study here)  

Stand your ground?  If only they could...  





28 September 2016

JUGGERNAUT - the Physical Effect


I think it was the screenwriter William Goldman who said people love seeing how things are done. He meant in particular, how to pull off some dangerous and possibly illegal maneuver. The classic example is RIFIFI, the heist sequence - 30 minutes without dialogue.

JUGGERNAUT is about defusing a set of booby-trapped bombs aboard a cruise ship at sea, and it manages to ratchet the tension up nicely, thank you. Released in 1974, and directed by Richard Lester, the picture headlined Richard Harris and Omar Sharif. It was shot on board an actual ship, in the North Sea, and in bad weather. They used FX for explosions and stuff, but this is before CGI, so the pyrotechnics are happening during the shoot, not after the fact. The first big set piece is the bomb disposal crew, Brit Special Services, parachuting out of an orbiting C-130 Hercules into the open ocean and scrambling up the side of the ship on rope ladders. They lose a guy in the drink. Then our sodden heroes go belowdecks, to try and figure out how not to blow themselves out of the water.

One of the main reasons I like this movie so much is that I tried to do something similar in a story called "Cover of Darkness," which was likewise about saddling up for a dangerous job, but more to the point, the story was about the nuts and bolts. It was carried by physical action, not dialogue, and it was very hard to pull off. A lot of it took place underwater, in scuba gear, so there wasn't any talking. This is the kind of thing movies can do really well, but it's nowhere near as easy to do in narrative prose. You're using the equivalent of movie vocabulary, without anything to break up those long descriptive paragraphs. Somebody hits their thumb with a hammer, you don't even get to hear them curse about it. Trust me, this is work. Rolling the stone away from the door.



Those physical details in JUGGERNAUT, though, are seamless. Close watertight doors. Check. The gears engage, the tumblers lock. Go to infrared. Check. The visible light spectrum shuts down. Isolate the power source. Check. Richard Harris threads an alligator clip carefully past a trembling switch and shorts out the electrical contacts. His team listens in on headsets, and follows the route he maps out, step by step. There are half a dozen devices to disarm, and Harris is breaking trail for the others. If he puts a foot wrong, it's his last mistake.

Now, you had me at cut the red wire. I'm a sucker for all the generic tropes of demolition stories, going back to THE WAGES OF FEAR. But for reasons I don't understand, this picture was a dud at the box office. Maybe it was too cerebral, the suspense generated by things not going off, when any minute they could. And it seems so economical, no wasted motion, no down time, all meat and potatoes.


Then, besides, Richard Harris and Omar Sharif, you've got Anthony Hopkins and David Hemmings, Shirley Knight, Ian Holm, cameos by Freddie Jones and Roshan Seth and Jack Watson, Cyril Cusack and Michael Hordern. And to top it off, two enormously affecting performances by Roy Kinnear and Clifton James, who all too often play caricature. It baffles me, I kid you not. Richard Lester didn't always bring home the bacon, though. HARD DAY'S NIGHT, and HELP, A FUNNY THING and THE THREE MUSKETEERS, and then a truly astonishing, transcendent picture like ROBIN AND MARIAN goes straight in the toilet. You can't account for it, the intangibles.

Dick Lester shooting JUGGERNAUT

This doesn't change the essential thing, which was my starting point. JUGGERNAUT is about the accumulation of small incident, the trembling switch, the red wire, the single detail. Skip one little piece of the puzzle, and you're a smear of atomized remains on the bulkhead. That's existential, all right. No room for conversation.

I admire how coherent JUGGERNAUT is. It takes a technical problem, and lays out its component parts. Whether it's in fact
Clifton James
presenting an accurate picture is beside the point. You buy into it completely, at least for the duration. I understand that there are always going to be hardware guys, like me, who look for solution to target. And then there are people who look through or beyond the schematic, to the emotional context. As it happens, I think JUGGERNAUT has that, too. Clifton James, confessing his infidelity to his wife. Shirley Knight, after Omar Sharif throws her under the bus. And again, Roy Kinnear, who shows such grace, and a touching largeness of heart.



But let's be honest. Even though the characters are terrific, the picture isn't character-driven. It's compelling because it takes you through a process, and it's all of a piece. The clock just keeps ticking.

27 September 2016

A Convention for the Rest of Us


There's a famous Seinfeld episode set during the December holiday season in which we learn that George's father, Frank, doesn't celebrate Christmas. It's too commercial for him. Wanting a different kind of holiday for his family, he came up with his own and named it Festivus. And Frank didn't just name this holiday. He gave it teeth. Instead of a tree, there's a plain aluminum pole. Instead of presents, Festivus has the feats of strength, in which someone at dinner must wrestle and pin Frank. And instead of singing carols, Festivus requires the airing of grievances. "I've got a lot of problems with you people," Frank said during that episode, and my heart swelled. But the best part of Festivus is its inclusive nature. As Frank described the holiday, set on December 23rd of each year, it's a Festivus for the Rest of Us.

I wasn't thinking about Festivus when I came up with my own mystery convention two weeks ago. I was sitting on my couch with my dog, Jingle, reading Facebook posts from friends who had already headed down to New Orleans for Bouchercon--the world's largest annual mystery convention. Determined not to feel left out, even though I couldn't attend Bouchercon this year, I decided that Jingle and I would convene at home, and I would share our activities on Facebook. And Jinglecon was born.

With a focus on animal mysteries, Jinglecon had book bags, a book room, the New Dogs Breakfast, an interview of convention namesake Jingle by Scooby Doo, an animal fashion parade, Jingle Go Round (in which mystery/crime authors posted about their books, some offering giveaways), and panels. Many, many panels, including Fifty Shades of Bay(ing): Racy Animal Mysteries; Squirrels and Foxes and Cats, Oh My: All About Antagonists; Dogs Gone By: Historical Animal Mysteries; Dogbumps: Spooky Animal Mysteries for Kids; and my personal favorite, The Bitch is Back, about female dogs who return to their hometowns to take over the family business and become amateur sleuths on the side.



I hadn't planned on Jinglecon becoming so involved. I had originally thought it would involve one or two funny posts each day with some photos. But then I started hearing from friends, readers and writers who couldn't go to Bouchercon, who were checking into Facebook repeatedly each day, looking for new posts. They were thrilled that this year they didn't have to feel left out because now there was a convention for them. Jinglecon had become the equivalent of the Festivus for the Rest of Us.

Social media is wonderful because it can allow the world to feel smaller. It can allow readers and writers to connect through things like Facebook and Twitter and this very blog. But it can also result in people feeling left out. Before social media, non-attendees might have heard some talk about how Bouchercon was after it ended, but they didn't have access to hundreds of posts as the convention went on, talking about all the great panels, the parades, the fun at the bar. Now we have that access. And it's wonderful, but it can also make people who can't attend feel left out.

(c) Becky Muth.
So I was so pleased that my stay-at-home virtual convention enabled people who couldn't travel to New Orleans to feel that they, too, were participating in something fun. We talked about books we love. We gave books away. We had a lot of laughs. As a convention goes, I'd call it a success. Others clearly felt that way too because I had people ask me to open early registration for next year. So Jinglecon 2 will happen next fall. I'm planning to attend Bouchercon myself in 2017, but I also plan to run Jinglecon at the same time.  I loved enabling people who couldn't attend the in-person convention this year to feel that they were part of the fun, too. And with a year to plan, next year's virtual convention should be even better.

So look for #Jinglecon posts on Facebook next fall while Bouchercon is running in Toronto. Jinglecon is open to anyone who loves mysteries, no matter where they are. (Indeed, this year we had a bunch of people attending Bouchercon checking in on the posts.) But Jinglecon is especially aimed at those readers and writers who want to connect but aren't able to get to Bouchercon. Jinglecon--it's the Festivus for the Rest of Us.
(c) Becky Muth. Thanks, Becky.













26 September 2016

Bouchercon 47 Blood on the Bayou



Down in New Orleans

by Jan Grape

    If you have never attended a Bouchercon before,please listen to me and plan to attend one in the next few years. The one in New Orleans was number 47, Number 48 will be in Toronto, Canada, Number 49 will be in St Petersburg, FL and Number 50 will be in Dallas, TX. Just remember all of these events are run totally by Volunteers.

   If you want to register for Toronto, the cost is $175, cost will go up on Jan 1st. Dates are October 12-15. At Sheraton Center Toronto Hotel. PASSPORT  TO MURDER Guests of Honor: Canadian: Louise Penny, American: Megan Abbott, International: Christopher Brookmyre, BCon for Kids: Chris Grabenstein, Fan: Margaret Cannon, Ghost of Honor: John Buchanan, Toastmasters: Twist Phelan & Gary Phillips.

     If you want to register for Dallas, Bouchercon 2019, DENIM, DIAMONDS, DEATH. 50th year anniversary. From now through Dec. 2016, $135: From Jan 2017-Dec 2018: $150, Jan 1, 2019 (till What are you waiting for?)  $175 at the Hyatt Regency-Dallas.

   If you've never heard of Bouchercon until recently, it is a World Mystery convention in honor of Anthony Boucher, the distinguished mystery fiction critic, editor, and author whose real name was William Anthony Parker White. It brings together all parts of the mystery and crime fiction community attended by Authors, editors, agents, publishers, booksellers and fans. There are about 2000-2200 attendees. I know in the past 2500 have attended and yet in the early days there were 100-150 attendees.

   I hate to tell you who the Guests of Honor in New Orleans were because it's over and I'm sorry you missed it, however just want you to know you missed. That way you will see all the wonderful people you didn't get to see and perhaps entice you to sign up for one of the upcoming BCons. This year: American Guest of Honor: Harlan Coben, Lifetime Achievement: David Morrell, BCon 4 Kids Guest of Honor: R.L. Stine, International Rising Star Guest of Honor: Craig Robertson, Local Legend: Julie Smith, Toastmasters: Harley Jane Kozak & Alexandra Sokoloff, Fan Guests of Honor: Ron & Ruth Jordan.

    One of the major happenings is panels every day pretty much every day. Mostly authors are on these panels but there are special panels with editors and booksellers, etc. There is even a special event for first time authors and there were 25 new authors listed in my pocket program. After each panel and there are 5 or 6 people on each panel, there is a mass book signing for each panel member. And there are 5 or 6 tracks of panels going on at the same time. Which gets to be frustrating because almost every time the panel you really want to hear is running at the same time of that other panel you want to hear. Soon it comes down to you will sit in the bar area, hoping to meet an author you really wanted to meet. You don't have to drink alcohol to sit in the bar, you can drink tea or soda. Usually you can even order food, Most of the guests of honor will come into the bar once or twice a day to meet people. Of course you can always meet them at their signing time.

    The Anthony Awards are given out and other awards are also presented like the Mccavity, the Barry, the Derringer and probably others I have not mentioned. The Shamus award given by the Private Eye Writers of America at the PWA Banquet. There is a charge to attend this and it usually is at a different location from the host hotel.

    There is a hospitality suite where you can go and get a snack and a drink often at no cost. Often sponsored by publishers or a group like Sisters in Crime. There are also parties hosted by publishers in the evening that attendees are invited to attend. There are a few events that are by invitation only but those are listed.

    There are also free books....FREE BOOKS. Donated by publishers hoping to gain readers of their authors. The attendees of Bouchercon this year were each able to pick up 6 free books each. They gave out 6 raffle like tickets with your registration goodies which also this year included a free book bag, a T-shirt, your big program book and a pocket program booklet, your name that is placed in a nice little lanyard pocket holder.

   One important event is a silent auction that benefits things like adult literacy and children's programs. Each host Bouchercon will have their charity partner listed.

    The most fun thing to me is to stroll down the street and find little nooks or diners or hole in the wall cafes that serve the most amazing food, And naturally great sight seeing in whatever city you are spending time in. I used to always try to go a day or two early in order to see the city. New Orleans was great for that and there are also tours to special places in each city. I personally had a bit of trouble walking the first day in New Orleans due to my old bones but by the second day was better. Next time I will do some walking at home first to get my hiking legs up to speed.

    Okay, I hope this gets you in the mood to attend a Bouchercon in the next three years. I am already signed up for Dallas in 2019. Hope to see you there.

By the way on August 31 in a general note to everyone replying to Leigh's Calendar and SS list I wrote a note correcting Leigh that Susan and I were attending BCon in New Orleans not Toronto and suggesting that all SS members who were going to be in NOLA plan a little get together while there so we could meet fave to face. In that note I said we were staying at Courtyard by Marriott but at the last day...actually after I arrived in NOLA I was able to book us in at the BIG Marriot where the convention was being held.

It didn't matter because I NEVER heard from anyone. No one let me know anything. I just assumed you didn't want to get together or maybe you just didn't want to meet me.  But it seems like no one happened to read that note. In fact, John Floyd wrote me that he was really sorry not to have met Susan or I. I told him about my invitation and he said he never got a note. I suppose my mistake was in just adding it on the note about the SS calendar. But I didn't think that far ahead. At any rate I'm sorry we didn't get to have a little meet and greet while in NOLA. I doubt that I will go to BCon again until Dallas.

I did see and talk with Deborah Elliott-Upton. She found me and came over and said, "hello." I had only met her once years ago but since I always wear "GRAPE" earrings that's probably how she found me.  

DON'T FORGET EVERYONE INVOLVED IN BCON ARE VOLUNTEERS. NO ONE IS PAID.






25 September 2016

There's Always Hope


Nine or ten years ago when I was a member of the board of directors for the Mystery Writers of America, I was in Manhattan for the annual Edgars Awards Banquet. At the time, all board members in attendance were supposed to show up at the Nominees' Champagne Reception and be wearing their name tag. The idea was to greet the nominees, engage them in small talk and make them feel comfortable before the banquet and the awards ceremony.
The Mysterious Bookshop
As I was standing in the Nominees Room with a glass of champagne in hand, an attractive, young lady walked up to me and said, "You're R.T. Lawton." I thought nothing of it because clearly, I was wearing a name tag that displayed that information on the face of the tag. She then went on to puff  my ego by telling me that she was a reader for Otto Penzler and that my stories had come close to making it into his (annual) Best American Mystery Stories anthology.That little tidbit of conversation kept me motivated for the next year with hope, and well, a lot more hope. I didn't know how close I'd come to getting a story into his anthology, but I did know none of my stories had made it into any of Otto's anthologies so far, plus I had never found my name listed in the Honorable Mention column of any of Otto's books.Verbally close, but no cigar. None the less, hope sprang anew, year after year.

In 2013, I was in lower Manhattan at The Mysterious Bookshop for a signing of The Mystery Box, MWA's anthology for that year. Since the third time's the charm, I'd finally gotten a short story into one of MWA's annual anthologies, and this was the one. Also, since Otto Penzler owns The Mysterious Bookshop where the book signing was, I got to meet the man, shake his hand and exchange a few quick words. Figured that just might be as close as I ever got to having any business dealings with the man.

Then in June of this year, an unexpected e-mail slipped out of the ether and landed on my computer. My wife read it first (she generally gets up earlier in the summer) and called it to my attention. In short, Otto had sent an e-contract and was asking permission to include "Boudin Noir," one of the stories in my 1660's Paris Underworld series in his The Big Book of Rogues and Villains anthology scheduled for publication in 2017. Several years earlier, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine had paid me $480 to publish "Boudin Noir" in their December 2009 issue, and now here was Otto sending me a check in the amount of $250 for reprint rights. That made a total of $730 for just that one story. Amazing. Call it manna from heaven, found money, secondary market, or call it what you will, it was another ego booster.

Two items of business soon came to mind. One, how could I take advantage of this type of secondary market for other stories? Since the author has very little, if any, control over this type of market, I couldn't figure an angle. If you've got one, be sure to let me know. I'll buy you a drink at the next writers conference. And two, one of these years, I still might get a short story into Otto's annual Best American Mystery Stories anthology.

There's always hope.

24 September 2016

Things that drive Crime Writers CRAAAZY


I’m a crime writer. Hell, I’ll put on my other hat (the one with the pointy top) and say it. I’m even a fantasy writer (my corvette reminds me every day, as those are the books that bought it.)


So I know about suspension of disbelief. I’m willing to admit that as an audience, we might agree to ‘suspend belief’ for a little while.

But enough is enough. Television, you go too far. CSI Hoboken, or wherever you are, take note. Here are some things that drive otherwise fairly normal crime writers (oxymoron alert) crazy:


1. Crime scene people in high heels and raw cleavage.

Of all the !@#$%^&* things that television distorts, this is the one that bugs us the most. Ever been on a crime scene? Ever been in a LAB?

For six years, I was Director of Marketing for the Canadian Society of Medical Laboratory Science. I’ve been in a friggin’ lab or two. Take it from me: it ain’t a place for fuck-me shoes and long loose hair. You want my DNA messing with your crime results?

Network producers, stop treating us like ignorant adolescents who need to be sexually charged every single moment. Stop. Just stop. It’s insulting.

2. Gunshot victims who give their last speech and then die, Kerplunk.

Full disclosure: I was also a hospital director. People who get hit with a bullet to the heart die, kerplunk. They aren’t hanging around to give their last words. People who get hit in the gut may take many hours to die. It’s not a pretty sight. Take it from me. They usually aren’t thinking sentimental thoughts.

3. Where’s the blood spatter?

If you stab someone while they are still living and breathing, there is going to be blood spatter. Usually, that spatter will go all over the stabber. So sorry, producers: your bad guy is not going to walk away immaculate from a crime scene in which he just offed somebody with a stiletto. You won’t need Lassie to find him in a crowd, believe me.

4. Villains who do their ‘Fat Lady Sings’ pontification.

Why does every villain in boob-tube-town delay killing the good guy so he can tell the soon-to-be-dead schmuck his life story? I mean, the schmuck is going to be offed in two minutes, right? You’re going to plug him. So why is it important that he know why you hate your mother and the universe in general?

Someday, I am going to write a book/script where one guy gets cornered and before he can say a word, this happens:

<INT. A dark warehouse or some other cliché. >

BLAM.

The smoking gun fell to my side as Snidely dropped to the floor.

“Dudley!” gasped Nell. “You didn’t give him a chance to explain!”

I yawned. “Bor-ing. All these villains go to the same school. You heard one, you’ve heard them all.”

“Isn’t that against the law?” said Nell, stomping her little foot. “Don’t you have to let the bad guy have his final scene?”

BLAM.

The smoking gun fell to my side as Nell dropped to the floor.

Melodie Campbell writes silly stuff for newspapers and comedians, and usually they even pay her. You can catch more of her comedy on www.melodiecampbell.com, or better still, buy her books.